For the rest of the year, Cheltenham is the most English of English towns. Home to the super-posh Cheltenham ladies college and the British Government’s GCHQ spy centre, it’s as establishment as you get.
Cheltenham came to prominence as a Regency spa town, where the dyspeptic upper classes came to take the waters. When I first visited, about 20 years ago, it was all privet hedges, paper doilies and little fingers in the air, don’t you know.
But for this one week of the year, the good china is put away and the airs and graces are dispensed with. One of my first memories on approaching the racecourse is of a bunch of Irish builders taking a shortcut through one of said privet hedges, trampling a bed of daffodils en route. The owner of the house laughed it off.
The festival is an occasion when Irish and English of all classes and income brackets get along. Eight hundred years of conflict is forgotten as the love of horseflesh and the thrill of a gamble take over.
My next visit to Cheltenham was business, not pleasure. I was sent over as what we used to call a cub reporter to write the social diary for the Evening Herald. I was not a success.
When it came to press accreditation, diary-writers were rated somewhere between stable lads and horse fleas. I had hoped to get a pass for the parade ring, but was lucky in the end to be admitted to the course at all.
I spent most of my days scanning the winners’ enclosure through a pair of borrowed field glasses. I was trying to spot owners and trainers and other racing celebrities and would then attempt to intercept them as they headed back to their boxes and interview them.
When it came to press accreditation, diary-writers were rated somewhere between stable lads and horse fleas.
Yes, tactics were never my strong point.
Even when the day’s scanning and intercepting was done, I couldn’t relax. My then girlfriend’s father was to the festival too, and I kept expecting him to tap me on the shoulder at some bar or other and say something like: “What are your intentions towards my daughter?”
Also, I was sharing a room with a real racing journalist. This was good, in that he marked my card each day and told me about the connections of each Irish runner. But it was bad because he was a serious punter. And he was having a serious run of bad luck.
One the first day of the meeting, he got out of the right side of his bed and insisted that we walk up to the course on the right side of the road. “For good luck,” he said. I knew by his face that evening that the whole right-side approach hadn’t worked.
Next morning, he exited his bed on the port side and we walked up the road to the racecourse on the left-hand pavement. Again, nada. Six losers plus a fair whack on the jackpot down the Swanee.
Day three, and our friend crawls out of the scratcher at the bottom of the bed. He was all for walking to the course in the middle of the road too, until health and safety concerns persuaded him otherwise.
My store of Cheltenham woe was increased one evening when I returned to our B&B early to file my stories for the paper. Our rather camp landlord – Nigel, if memory serves – was surprised to see me at that hour. “Where’s your friend,” asks Nigel, with heavy emphasis on “friend”. “Had a little tiff, have we?”
Right. I’m filing rubbish to the paper, I’m losing a fortune to the bookies, my prospective father-in-law thinks I’m an alcoholic, and Nigel reckons I’m on a gay weekend with a bed gymnast.
How he managed to get into the royal entourage, when I, a gentleman of the Press, could hardly get into the course, I am still at a loss to explain
Things got worse when I read in the local paper that a part of the stand had collapsed the previous day and 10 people were injured. For a journalist to be reading this in another paper is bad. I had been practically standing beside a big story and didn’t know a thing about it.
The last day of the festival redeemed us. I finally managed to intercept someone who would talk to me, and got a couple of good stories for the social diary. And my friend backed the winner of the last race.
I also spotted my girlfriend’s father. He had somehow managed to join a group of photographers who were taking shots of the late Queen Mother as she unveiled a statue of Dawn Run. How he managed to get into the royal entourage, when I, a gentleman of the Press, could hardly get into the course, I am still at a loss to explain.
But there he was, the pride of Mayo, with his little instamatic, among the long lenses and tripods of the paparazzi. I swear I heard him shout: “Smile, Ma’am!”
So there you have it. Cheltenham and me. And no, I never saw Nigel again.