Torch relay, evening

Thursday 24th May 2012

ZARA Phillips – to whom I feel loosely connected, having once had a brief conversation with her mother, whose birth was so close to mine my own Mum would have won a substantial prize, had I not been a boy – is clearly a fine horsewoman.

Toytown, a chestnut gelding of seventeen hands, is, like his owner, completely at ease in the presence of cheering crowds. Having a noisy, gas-burning torch waved in front of him, however…

I’m high up in the grandstand on Cheltenham racecourse: to my left, long-standing friend Steve Knibbs, of BBC Points West, who has long been standing there, intending to broadcast all this live, had the torch not been late; behind me, David Hemery, born in Cirencester and an Olympic gold medallist, whom I saw run in a 1960s athletics event where my sister also competed; to my right, photographer friend Ben, who blagged us media passes for the gig.

“I think that’s Anne, on the bridle,” he observes, through a long lens.

We’re working for the Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum, documenting the day prior to putting together a commemorative booklet.

This is a carnival, with dancers, bands, chatterbox children, beer in plastic cups, the whiff of fried onions, elderly stewards in smart livery.

Earlier, before the gates opened, the stands empty, I wandered alone on to the finishing straight, lay a while in the middle of that long run up the hill, smelling the coarse grass, daydreaming, seeing myself as a deserted orchid.

I have made but few notes, having bumped into too many old friends and acquaintances. You can’t help but reflect upon thirty-odd years in the county when looking towards the limestone escarpment of Cleeve Hill, softened in the evening haze, like a faithful old retainer who’s seen it all before.

Toytown backs away from the burner. Zara steadies him. The lanthorn is lit some paces away and handed to her.

As she rides slowly through the crowd, the striking chords of Chariots of Fire bring me close to tears at the close of a long, memorable day.






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