Steeplechase is a popular sport in the prime horse country of the Cotswolds. // © 2013 Bob Demyan
I got a glimpse of traditional English sporting life on a recent visit to the Cotswolds in the U.K. With adventure travel claiming an ever-bigger slice of the travel industry pie, many in the business are finding new ways to spin traditional destinations, including this classic English spot.
Travelers have long swooned over the Cotswolds’ charming stone buildings and rolling green countryside. Today’s Cotswolds, however, offer more than just scenery and quaint villages. They are also one of the best places in the U.K. to try your hand at classic British sporting activities such as shooting, polo and all things horse related.
The Ellenborough Park hotel at Cheltenham is a terrific base for exploring the Cotswolds sporting life. This beautifully restored grand manor estate, dating back to the 15th century, is adjacent to the world-famous Cheltenham Race Course. The Ellenborough staff is very knowledgeable about all things Cotswolds and is highly attentive to guests’ needs. They can arrange all activities and provide proper sporting attire, such as riding boots and shooting jackets. After a couple of days of exceptional dining and Tudor comfort, you will be ready for action.
A Good Shot
First, try shooting lessons. It’s important to note that, in the U.K., “hunting” and “shooting” are two different sports. Hunting is that business with the fox and hounds, and shooting is what you do with a shotgun at a clay pigeon range.
Don’t worry if you’ve never shot a gun before. Master instructor Jim Lynch, at Ian Coley Shooting Sports, will have anyone blasting clay pigeons on the first round. The first time that clay pigeon shatters in the air is a moment of pure child-like glee.
On the Polo Field
Next, it’s time for some polo lessons at the Longdole Polo Club. Once the sport of kings, polo is now played all across the U.K. The object of the game is simple enough: imagine field hockey on horseback. But the practice of hitting a ball into a net from on top of a horse is a bit trickier.
While some riding experience is helpful, it is not a prerequisite. The horses at Longdole are well-trained and know what to do. Still, steering a 1,000-pound thoroughbred close enough to a ball to lean over and whack it with an oversized croquet mallet is hardly a common skill set. Within thirty minutes, though, four inexperienced Americans (myself included) were trotting around the field and occasionally hitting a ball into the goal. It may not have been pretty, but for a bunch of first-timers, it was great deal of fun.
A Day at The Races
The Cotswolds are the U.K.’s premier horse country, and spending a day at Cheltenham Race Course is essential. Each year, almost 80,000 people pack into this quiet corner of the Cotswolds for the U.K.’s equivalent of the Kentucky Derby: The Cheltenham Gold Cup. The season runs from October through April with world-class steeplechase, or “jump racing.” Think American thoroughbred horse racing combined with hurdle jumping.
The “sport” for spectators here is learning to be a “punter” — placing bets on the races with bookies competing to offer the best odds. At first it might seem a bit like the trading pit on Wall Street but, soon enough, you’ll be betting like the locals. And you might even win a few pounds.
At the end of a full day of shooting, riding or punting, it’s nice to know that Ellenborough Park has a warm fire and a cup of tea waiting for you. It’s the perfect cap to an exciting day in the Cotswolds.