What happened was that an American magazine asked me to do articles on two spa towns in Ireland and England. The Irish one was Lisdoonvarna, which was no trouble at all, even if it was off-season. The English one was Cheltenham! I’m not a horsie man at all. It’s a sport that leaves me as cold as the Cotswolds in March. I knew there was a big jumping festival there around Saint Patrick’s Day alright and I knew about Arkle of the previous generations. But that was about it. It was totally by accident that the very serious American photographer and I found ourselves in that chilly town for one day of the festival. It was a dreadful experience.
We did our business and got out of there as quick as we could at the end of the day. I have never been in Cheltenham since. I never will be either. I don’t give a fiddler’s curse who wins the Gold Cup or any other race either. This week brings back unsavoury memories of Cotswold country.
There is a common perception that all Irishmen are interested in horses and betting and racing. It’s just not true. Ask any travel agent in Galway, for example, and they will confirm that masses of Galway City’s citizenry book holidays abroad so that they can escape the craziness of the Galway Races. I’m quite certain that the dour but cute Cheltonians who are not involved in commerce do exactly the same thing during their festival when the Irish arrive in their tens of thousands to buoy up the hopes of their fancies at the meeting and to drown the shamrock on Saint Patrick’s Day. I thank God we were gone before that. I don’t know would I have survived the experience.
We saw a very different Cheltenham to the punters for the morning and afternoon we were doing the spa water story.
It seems Cheltenham became a very fashionable spa resort about three centuries before horses took over. The punters were all at the races when we visited a huge old Pump Room called The Pitville, as far as I remember.
It was populated by ladies and gentlemen, respectable and genteel, with all the mien and appearance of being the high Tory variety. There were lots of spigots and taps serving mineral waters and everybody I spoke to sang their praises. In fairness the water was the only thing in Cheltenham reasonably cheap and, in further fairness, it was easier to drink than that sulphurous stuff in Lisdoonvarna.
It was on the edge of the town, that Pump House, the track was on the other side of Cheltenham, you would not think there was a race meeting within 500 miles. The old ladies all had elegant hairstyles and held their glasses exactly so. The old men wore tweeds and had silvery moustaches and I’m certain many of them had been mentioned in dispatches. It was quite impressive and the serious photographer was happy with his shots.
He took a long time to shoot the exteriors though and I remember he was looking for certain church spires bearing very famous sets of bells which took up hours of our time. When we were finished the racing had ended for the day and Cheltenham was flooded with racegoers, a high percentage of them being Irish.
We went into a distinguished old hotel for a snack. It was very busy serving the racegoers. We found a table and managed to order a pot of tea and four meat sandwiches. They came eventually and they were excellent but that snack cost nearly the price of a foal. It is clear that the cute Cheltonians ratchet up all their prices when Paddy comes to town. There were no rooms available all through town, we were told, and even if they were you’d have to pay the price of a young mare for one. As we ate the action hotted up at the bar, at least half the drinkers were demonstrably Irish and for sure — though there had only been one Irish winner that day — they were going to let John Bull know that when Paddy is in town, Paddy knows how to go on the town.
It was about as total an exhibition of Paddywhackery as I’ve ever seen. One group of five or six who clearly had won a few bob were making more noise than all the rest combined. It was no time before I heard them sail into Sean South of Garryowen (though they did not know the words) and The Fields of Athenry and similar ditties. There was whiskey and brandy and gin flying in all directions, spilt pints of beer and Guinness, dreadful embarrassing buffoonery all round. It was harmless and good-humoured sure and you’d see the same in Lisdoonvarna in September. But it was real Paddywhackery all the same, the kind that has given us all a certain international reputation that I certainly don’t like.
There were punters along that bar hitting the hard stuff hard. There were men that looked like trainers. They were too-sharply dressed, for the most part, wearing the kind of faces from which you’d not buy a box of matches, never mind a secondhand car.
There were a number of starved-looking quick little men that surely must have been jockeys or stable lads. There were big soft men in suits that looked like owners. Everybody knew everybody else by their first name and there was a lot of backslapping. We were there in the corner for about an hour, including the waiting time, and in that hour two poor divils had exceeded their quotas and had to be carried away. The barmen’s faces showed they had seen it all before. The price of the booze was horrific. One man eventually bumped against our table, spilt the last of our tea, and very loudly insisted on ordering another pot of “tay” for the boys. That kind of messiness.
We could not get out of Cheltenham quick enough. I’m sure, despite the recession, there will be much more of the same in Cheltenham this week. No matter who wins what race Paddy will show John Bull that Paddy knows how to enjoy himself when he comes to town, win, lose or draw. There’s nothing at all wrong with that but, in all fairness, its not that pleasant to view if you are not involved in it and only in town to drink glasses of water. From that viewpoint its Paddywhackery.
And the great Arkle, it occurs to me, was the cause of the biggest Cheltenham celebrations of all time. He caused more shamrock to be drowned than any other lepper. And he was owned, not by the Irish at all, but by Anne, Duchess of Westminster...