Anne Mitchell explores the history of Barrow Farm RDA, remembering some old friends along the way…
2006 to 2016
1976-2016: How did it all start?
People often ask, how did Barrow Farm start? Well, in a very small way is the answer. In April 1976 a leaflet about RDA was put through our door. It suggested ways to help or maybe start a group. I had just left my job as a riding instructor in Middlesex and was at a loose end. We had ponies and fields. So we thought, we could start a group, mum would be group organiser and I could teach one morning a week, do my bit for charity. I often wonder who put that leaflet through our letterbox.
Like everything in life, the RDA of 40 years ago was very different from that of today. Health and safety as an industry hadn’t been invented and common sense still ruled. Seriously though, looking back it was ridiculously easy. We were visited by the RDA regional and county representatives. They were enthusiastic and supportive and gave us lots of help and advice. They put us in touch with the late Mrs Carey MBE from Woodlands School (now Columbus School and College) in Chelmsford. Woodlands had been wanting the opportunity to ride and couldn’t wait to get going.
The first ride was on a Monday in May 1976, twelve children arrived in the minibus and as they tumbled out I did wonder how we were going to manage. I had never seen children like them. Although we had visited the school and been shown round it was very different seeing the children out of the classroom, near my ponies. But with the confidence of youth I just got on with it. My mother had put together an excellent team of helpers and with advice and help from Mrs Carey and Mrs Best from Woodlands the first session was a success. I remember one girl was very frightened and spent six weeks leading Fern round the paddock. But once she plucked up the courage to get on she loved it and made speedy progress. We were all hooked, the smiles on the children’s faces, the pride of the parents at our first open day made us all feel that we were really making a difference. It was a far cry from my previous teaching experience and a thousand times more rewarding.
Most importantly we must remember the first ponies; Minnie, Thistle and Fern, joined in August 1976 by Sandy who was given to me by the late Pam Taylor. Four small Exmoor ponies, a native breed renowned for its stamina and strength but also often thought too strong and wilful. They proved themselves to be ideal RDA ponies, coping with children and small adults with ease. They helped make Barrow Farm the success it quickly became. In fact I would go so far as to say ‘Barrow Farm was built on the back of an Exmoor Pony’. And very broad backs they were too, they coped with the wobbly, unbalanced riders easily and took the noisy ones in their stride. And of course we took them for granted. It was only years later when trying to replace them that I realized how luck I had been to have them.
They went everywhere. In those days the question – will we be insured? – was not even thought about. We took part in carnivals, displays, gave pony rides, took riders to fancy dress competitions, in fact anywhere we could promote ourselves and raise money. Joined by Thistle and Minnie’s daughter Honey, and Moonwind they walked around Essex in 1977, raising money to build the indoor school.
I was often asked why did you use Exmoors? And the answer is very simple, because I had them, had grown up with them and trusted them. They did me proud, and gave us a unique identity, we were the group that used Exmoor ponies. It made for talking point, always good when you are new and need to raise huge amounts of cash!
The first ten years: 1976-1986
Word got around that a new RDA group was up and running and by the autumn of 1976 we had been approached by the Endeavor School in Brentwood and Great Stoney School at Ongar. We were doing three sessions a week. We charged riders 25p and everyone involved gave their time. We also had some weekend riders, two of whom rode with us for over 30 years. Soon riders from Bridge Hospital School joined us and their headmaster was so enthusiastic that he wanted them to ride all year round. So for a winter we loaded the ponies into a horsebox and took them to Norton Heath to use the indoor school.
It soon became apparent that there was huge demand for riding but also that many of the riders could not cope with the winter weather. We could not take them all to Norton Heath. We started talking about an indoor riding school. When all you have is a muddy field and no money an indoor school seems like an impossible dream. But my mother was equal to the challenge and, supported by my father, gathered a team of fundraisers who over the next five years set about turning the dream into reality.
The ponies were again put in training for a second sponsored ride, this time to go to Norfolk. Why Norfolk you may ask, well it was the home of our indoor school builders and certainly posed a challenge. I became very handy with an OS map. This time Sabre, Mischief, Honey and Moonwind did the walking.
The first planning application was turned down, we knew we were in Green Belt but learnt that we were also in an ‘area of outstanding natural beauty’. We had naively thought we are a charity, doing a good job, we’ll get planning permission. We soon learnt better. Not only did we face the challenge of raising money, we also had to win over the borough and county councils. We regrouped, rekindled enthusiasm, sought planning advice and resubmitted the plans and eventually permission was granted.
Fundraising was non stop, who can remember the pony badges, the discos in the barn, the dinner dances, the horse shows and fetes in the front field? We produced Christmas cards and greetings cards, held raffles and sold anything we could get our hands on. A brave committee took the difficult decision to take out a loan and build. RDA gave us a grant and a loan, half of which was later converted to a grant. I think they got fed up with waiting for us to repay. I don’t think that would happen now!
So many people were involved it would be impossible to mention them all, but special thanks are due to our chairman during the ‘indoor school years’ – Mr Geoff Banham. There was a man who was an expert at ‘networking’ long before the term was widely used. Our secretary Jean Gascoigne whose organising skill was evident in the smooth running of our Royal Opening. And our treasurers during the ‘overdraft years’, firstly Mr Ken Dixon followed by Mr Bob Skingsley, both of whom kept a cool head despite a bank balance permanently in the red.
In August 1981 the shell of our indoor school was built. Flooring, lights and kickboards followed as grants were secured and money raised. The area where the amenity rooms are now remained an empty shell for another 3 years while we raised more money. Finally everything was finished and October 1984 saw us the proud hosts to The Princess Royal when she visited to officially open the indoor school.
Rides had continued to increase. Elmbrook School from Basildon, Haywards School from Chelmsford, Little Highwood Occupational Centre and Chelmsford Training Centre had all joined us. More riders came with their parents after school and at weekends.
More ponies came into work, I wonder how many of you reading this remember Huckleberry Pied Piper (HP for short), Pipkin, Flame, Tango and Sabre. They all started their RDA careers in those first 10 years. HP came on loan from the local riding school, Flame was given to the group. The others were already here and like the ponies already mentioned belonged to the Mitchell family.
So the first 10 years had passed, the group had grown beyond any expectations we might have had. 1986 saw us celebrating our tenth anniversary, feeling proud of our achievements, and looking forward to the next 10 years.
The Next Ten Years – 1986-1996
Barrow Farm continued to be very busy with rides and fundraising. There was a large overdraft to pay off and we were very unlucky to be owing money at a time of sky high interest rates. One of our biggest fundraisers was the Craft Fair, organized by my late father Mr. Peter Mitchell. For a few years it was so popular we held two a year. Stall holders and customers came from far and wide, the wine tasting was always particularly popular as I remember.
The Barrow Farm stall sold goods featuring paintings of the ponies. They were done by local artist Mary Turner who was our chairman for several years and donated several paintings to the group. You may have seen them on the walls in the amenity block. Christmas cards were a very good fund raiser and people looked forward to seeing the new card each year. My mother and father took the Barrow Farm stall to events, selling goods and promoting the group.
In spring 1989 we received a surprise phone call from the chairman of RDA asking if we would like to have Jet, the second Blue Peter Pony. Lots of excitement followed, we were going to be on the telly. Jets arrival was a super, if very hectic day. He was already an experienced television star, and took meeting all our ponies and riders in his stride. Our riders turned out in force to welcome him and the sun shone.
He stayed with us for all his working career, thanks to RDA for choosing us as his home. For many years he remained an RDA owned pony on loan to Barrow Farm. Then in 2004 when it became necessary to get him a passport RDA gave him to us, so we were then the proud owners of ‘Jet The Blue Peter Pony’. Many people think Blue Peter or the RDA paid for his keep and care. That was never the case, Blue Peter paid for him and his training then handed him over to RDA and when he was placed at Barrow Farm we became wholly responsible for all the costs of keeping him.
The storms of the late 80’s gave our stables a battering and during the winter of 90/91 we replaced some old stables and added some new ones. At the request of the council a tree screen was planted and if you look across when driving down the lane you will see that the trees have matured nicely.
In 1994 we had the idea of teaching Jet to pull a carriage so we could do Driving for the Disabled. This involved a huge amount of work as not only did Jet have to learn, I did as well. We learnt together, not the ideal way, but thanks to expert help from many people and Jet’s natural talent, we were successful. He took to pulling a carriage like a duck to water. In October 1995 we passed our RDA driving assessment and started teaching carriage driving.
Other riders joined us, a group from Loughton Adult Training Centre on Friday afternoons, and many more riders started coming at the weekends or after school. During this time Saturdays became very busy, many of our riders were integrated into mainstream education and could only attend on Saturdays.
More ponies joined us. Schnapps, Diamond, Polly, Maggie and Mouse all came and took their place in our equine team. And sadly we lost some of the older ones. Founder ponies Minnie and Fern, and little Pipkin. I still miss them, Minnie and Fern were part of my teenage years.
Who can remember Pipkin’s strange habit of trying to walk over the cones, I used to make riders laugh by saying he was going mountain climbing. He was also a dab hand at tripping people up, whilst nonchalantly looking the other way with an innocent expression. Before you start worrying about us using this naughty sounding pony I should point out that he was only about 10.2 hh.
In 1995 we had another big project and we were very lucky to be chosen by M&G staff as their charity. Thanks to them and to Mr. Doug Denman who publicized the project needing funding in the Gallops newsletter at the time. We would never have raised the £20,000 it cost without them. This project was to build an outdoor riding area, a manege. This would enable us to ride in a safe environment outside. Our riding school is very hot in warm weather, and although we had fields health and safety was starting to make its presence felt and riding in a big field was thought to be risky. The manege is bigger then the school, so gives riders a feeling of space. For those riding off lead it is a real step up to ride by themselves outside.
And so our next ten years passed, the group had continued to expand. Many people, far too many to mention them all, helped to make Barrow Farm successful. But I must mention and thank our secretary for fifteen years, Jean Gascoigne, who emigrated to Canada in 1991.
Barrow Farm had now been in operation for 20 years, and the next ten years were to see huge changes in the equine workforce. More of our ponies reached the end of their lives and we said sad goodbyes to, Flame, Thistle, Tango, Polly, Schnapps, Sabre, Moonwind, Honey, Sandy and Diamond. We welcomed new horses and ponies, Paddy, Molly, Billy, Starra, Tawny, Macie , Fergus and Jack, not forgetting short term visitors, Murphy, Saladin and Troy.
Changes also in the human workforce, instructor Fiona left and Sally W returned having trained here earlier in her career. It was lovely to have her back and also new instructor Sally D joined us and has proved a real asset.
We had to say goodbye to our popular Craft Fair, we couldn’t compete with the two day events and didn’t want our fair to go downhill.Sally D had the idea of a barn dance and has been very successfully running it ever since. If you haven’t been yet you are missing a great evening’s entertainment and exercise.
We competed successfully at the RDA regional competitions and at the National Championships, giving many riders an unforgettable experience.
In 1999 Mary Mitchell retired from the committee after 24 years service. We had a surprise party for her and Peter Mitchell and it was great to see so many people from the past gathered together to pay tribute to mum and dad. Thistle attended too, he was 34 and although we couldn’t know it at the time, he was in the last year of his life. It was lovely to see Mum, Dad and Thistle together, they were the backbone of Barrow Farm.
Of course mum never really retired, after a few years recharging she took on the organising of the community card scheme launched by The Chelmsford Star Co-Op in 2000, if you want to know more about this, ask Mary. 2000 also saw a new floor put down in the riding school, a modern waxed surface that didn’t need watering. Dust became a thing of the past and the school stayed much cleaner. Thanks to The Currie Trust to thank for making it possible.
Our old tractor was in need of replacement and thanks to money from Writtle Rag and local golf clubs we were able to afford a new and more powerful tractor. This was needed to maintain the new floor and the fields, and to dispose of manure. It is still going strong, and has been joined by more field maintenance equipment.
During this time the issue of health and safety loomed ever larger in all our lives. We decided to make major improvement in our riding school for the safety of riders and spectators. We also wanted to install automatic doors and a hoist and give the place a facelift. We applied to Chelmsford Jubilee Fund in 2003 for half the costs and were lucky enough to be granted the money. Match funding the other half was harder but we got there in the end and the new work was done in January 2004. Thanks to “Awards for All” lottery fund, The Peter Harrison Foundation and an anonymous donation of £10,000. That donation really tipped things in our favour and made the whole project happen. Whoever gave it has our lasting gratitude.
In 2005 we received a very generous legacy from Mrs Margaret Carey M.B.E. Margaret had been head teacher at Woodlands school when we started in 1976 and brought the first group of riders to Barrow Farm. She was a staunch supporter of Barrow Farm from then on. Her legacy made it possible for us to do some essential maintenance work. You may have noticed new fencing and new felt roofs on the stables.
2006 when we were celebrating our 30th year was a sad one for the Mitchell family as Peter Mitchell died in May after a short stay in Broomfield hospital. He just missed the 30th year Open day, but would have been proud of the way staff and volunteers rallied round in support of Mary, Anne and Michael.