2017 AGM Weekend, Newmarket

by Barbara Adams

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The Annual General Meeting in the last weekend of October has changed enormously since the early days of our membership in 1986. In those far off days certainly it would be held in an hotel but staying overnight? gala dinner? My goodness, we were lucky if we got a cup of tea and a digestive!

How things have changed - and so much for the better. Every October we have the splendid opportunity to spend a weekend getting to see a different part of the UK, meet friends old and new and catch up with the latest Hamp news with everything beautifully organised for us.

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And this year was no exception.  Newmarket in Suffolk was our destination, a place that I, for one, and I suspect quite a few others, knew little of apart from its association with the racing world, in a county that I have rarely visited. So, on a beautiful autumn day Mike and I, with Kay and Rob Vincent, set off from the West Country with the privilege of plenty of time to drive East and, for once, avoid all motorways. Yes, it took time but it was a glorious journey and when comparing notes after we arrived, hearing horror stories of traffic jams and accidents on various motorways, we felt very fortunate.

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Checking in to our hotel, The Rutland Arms, we were quickly greeting familiar faces though after the quirky twists and turns of corridors and stairs wondered if we would ever see them again. Then, for most, off to The Jockey Club for the business part of the weekend - the Annual General Meeting.  As the weekend has got longer, so the AGM has got shorter.  I can’t tell you about the meeting since, dear reader, I did not go. I used to, but now I don’t - a privilege of old age. Well, there needs to be some perks. The business side of things will be reported separately when the Minutes of the meeting are published.  

The Jockey club, where we all met for an informal dinner, unsurprisingly, has pictures of horses covering every wall, a collection we learned, worth £90 million which, as they have to stay on the walls, may be more of a liability than an asset. Interesting, though, to see some of the artists names, including probably the most famous of all horse painters, George Stubbs. After a convivial evening most, though not all, retired for an earlyish night before the rigours of the Saturday visits.

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Saturday morning was bright, fresh and promising and the whole day did not disappoint. Everyone heeded their instructions and were well in time to board, or follow, a very smart double decker bus to our first destination. Dalham Hall Stud, part of the Darley Stud is owned by Sheik Mohammed Bin Al-Maktoum (the 7th richest man in the world, vice President and PM of the UAE and ruler of the Emirate of Dubai) and is utterly awesome - not a word I use lightly. We were made very welcome by head shepherd Dan Phipps, who, before taking us to see the flock of two thousand mules and mainly Texel tups, took us on a tour of the most immaculate stables I think I’m pretty sure in saying, most of us will ever see in our lives. Together with two lively chaps, all in their blue waistcoats and caps, they explained in fascinating and jaw dropping detail how the stud works.  Most of us were bemused trying to get to grips with the whole breeding scene there, where service by their top stallion Dubawi will set you back £250,000 a time.  And he works four times a day in the breeding season after which he’s packed off to Australia to ‘work’ there. 

I could write another page on our time there but must press on to our next visit. Hole Farm is home to the the St Paul Flock and the Middleditch family who welcomed us with a hot lunch and a tipple followed by the most important part of the day - seeing Hampshire Downs. Tractors and trailers were on hand to take the group to see the Poll Dorsets, their commercial flock, then back to the farmstead to inspect the Hamps and take part in the stock judging competition. A lot of interest there, probably because of the prizes on offer - several boxes of Maltesers.

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The countryside, still bathed in autumn sunshine highlighting the changing colours of the trees, is truly beautiful and the architecture so distinctive that most people kept awake for the lovely drive back. Then into the gladrags for the Gala dinner back at the Club, with our new president, Roy McFarlane, in post. I don’t think I have ever seen roast beef and Yorkshire pudding presented and served so beautifully - and it tasted exquisite too. Our after dinner speaker was Charles Howard, general manager of the Jockey Club who in between giving us some background of the club told a scurrilous story or two. This was followed by the presentation of prizes for the flock competition and an auction of donated items, ably conducted by Tim Hunter, proceeds of which went to our Society apart from that from a ewe lamb, donated by the Middleditch family, which went to the Alzheimer’s Society.

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After a thoroughly good day we retired to our hotel rooms knowing that we had an extra hour in bed - or in my case, an extra hour in my Sunday.  Mike and I had the intention of being out early to see the horses being  exercised out on the gallops. We had heard that on Saturday morning there had been over three hundred.  We saw one. What a disappointment - they don’t often go out on a Sunday we were told too late. We hope one day to return but will choose a Wednesday or a Saturday to do so.

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And so to the last visit - Harry Elsden’s Hertford Flock 40 minutes away at Tewin Bury Farm Hotel, a Country House Hotel where Harry keeps his flock which not only supplies 5 lambs a week to the hotel restaurant but also acts as a visitor attraction. A tractor and trailer tour around the hotel farm took in the opportunity to see Harry’s Hamps together with his commercial flock.  Using Beltex and continental rams to complement the earlier finishing Hamp cross lambs, Harry is able to extend the season of home grown lamb for the menu. Almost half of the AGM attendees stayed on for this extra visit and yet more hospitality before making their way home to the corners of the country and continent.

So, another interesting and enjoyable AGM weekend (though surely it was only about six months since the last one?). The Middleditch family pulled out all the stops and put together one of the most memorable AGM weekends, and for this, enormous thanks and gratitude are due. We were delighted to see how many young and enthusiastic members we have these days and hope as many as possible will make it to Newquay in 2018.