Nina Clarkin: UK's Top Woman Polo Player
PUBLISHED: 14:34 31 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:08 20 February 2013
Sausage and mash; racing, hunting and shooting; and of course, the noble sport of polo. Katie Jarvis finds out what makes Nina Clarkin tick. Photography by Mark Fairhurst.
NINA Clarkin is the UK's top woman polo player, with a string of accolades to her name.
She was the first female player ever to win the famous Veuve Clicquot Gold Cup at Cowdray Park, and last year she was part of the winning team in the European Championships in Spain.
Nina, whose father Mark is the younger brother of beef baron Sam Vestey, grew up on her family's estate at Foxcote, outside Cheltenham, where she still keeps her horses.
She is married to John-Paul Clarkin, captain of the New Zealand polo team.
Where do you live and why?
In Ampney Crucis, near Cirencester. My husband's polo yard is in Windsor so he wanted to live somewhere from which he could easily access the M4; and I needed to be not too far from my horses, which I keep at my parents' in Foxcote. I got a much better deal!
Ours is an old semi-detached Cotswold stone cottage, which is just gorgeous-looking. It's not big and it doesn't have land, but it's ours and I love it. Growing up where I did in Foxcote was unbelievable; I'd have found it very hard to leave for good. But I go back every day to look after my horses, and I still spend a lot of time there.
How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?
More or less all my life. We did live for a while in London - my first school was there - but then we moved here for good and I went to Cheltenham Ladies' College. The Cotswolds are part of me; I love the people and it's a great place to live. I think the area has also given me my values, being an outdoor and - I hate to say it! - country girl. When I travel to places such as New Zealand, people do know about the Cotswolds, but they don't really have any idea where they are. They're a concept rather than a geographical area.
What's your idea of a perfect weekend in the Cotswolds?
If I could merge winter and summer activities, I would definitely have a day's hunting on the Saturday. When I was at school and university, I was slightly more cautious about expressing my support but, at home, everyone is more involved in hunting as an industry rather than the stereotypical image it often gets lumbered with.
On the Saturday night, I'd go out to the local pub with friends; the Kilkeney (at Andoversford) has been a firm favourite for a long time.
Then the Sunday would have to be a game of polo or a team chase. I don't team chase any more but I love to watch my family who do. I've played polo since I was six, though my father tells me I didn't hit the ball until I was about 11 - I just cantered round having a lot of fun! In those days, it was more about doing something with my friends, which is partly why I love it so much.
If money were no object, where would you live in the Cotswolds?
At the moment, I'm happy where I am; but I'm sure as I get older I would like somewhere bigger.
Where are you least likely to live in the Cotswolds?
Somewhere near where a river would flood because that would drive me bananas. I feel so sorry for all those people who've lost their belongings to flood.
Where's the best pub in the area?
It's got to be the Kilkeney. Apart from the fact that it's close enough for me to stumble back to my parents', I love the people who run it - Nigel and Jean. I also think it's very important to support the local area.
And the best place to eat?
If we go out as a family, we always go to Tatyan's in Cirencester. I love Chinese food, and Mr Tatyan is a super guy who looks after us very well.
Have you a favourite tearoom?
In the summer, Cirencester Polo Club has a cute old tearoom where they do a great tea with scones and jam, cakes and sandwiches.
What would you do for a special occasion?
My husband is a keen barbecuer so we'd probably have a barbecue in the garden, which means I wouldn't have to cook too much!
What's the best thing about the Cotswolds?
The people: they're straightforward, honest, great fun and hard workers.
I also enjoy the polo crowd, who are of a much wider range than you might expect. I'd say 90 percent of professional polo players are really hard-working, driven people who have made a lot of themselves through sheer graft; it's not easy to get to where they've got and achieve what they've achieved. Because polo incites in you such a passion and drive, you'll pretty much do anything to keep going.
... and the worst?
I hate it when people throw rubbish at the side of the road. I was driving along yesterday and someone threw out a sandwich box in front of me. I can't imagine what would possess anyone to do that.
Which shop could you not live without?
My mother buys everything she possibly can from Dales shop in Andoversford, which is owned by a wonderful guy called Brian. He still wears a white jacket and keeps penny sweets behind the counter.
For me, it would probably be JS Equine in Birdlip. Keeping horses is fairly expensive, though luckily I was able to steal most of the tack from my father! There are still constant monthly supplies to buy. As the ponies start doing more in the season, the feed gets more specialized. The horses expend a tremendous amount of energy in a game - they can get up to speeds of 30 miles per hour. They work incredibly hard, but I've had one of mine for nine years now - she's 14 and still going strong. It depends on how you play them and how you look after them.
What's the most underrated thing about the Cotswolds?
Polo is still underrated, although it is becoming more popular, especially with the special days the Beaufort Polo Club puts on. They hold country fairs as well as the polo and attract a huge number of people. A lot of the time, the polo is not the main reason why people are there, but I think that will change in time. The game can be hard to watch if you don't know the rules; but if you're into horses, you can appreciate their agility during a match, as well as the skills of the people on top! It's exciting, and it can be dangerous, though that doesn't bother me. As soon as you start worrying about it, you lose an edge.
What is a person from the Cotswolds called?
I wouldn't have a clue!
What would be a three course Cotswold meal?
Gloucester Old Spot sausages from Jesse Smith - sausages and mash is pretty much my favourite meal. For a starter I'd have asparagus and for pudding a good sticky toffee pudding. I'd be happy to cook it, if it were for friends. They're the kind of people who are happy to eat beans on toast if a meal goes wrong! But my sister's a caterer and I can't think of anything worse than doing that.
What's your favourite view in the Cotswolds?
There's a trig point at the top of the farm, which looks out over pretty much the whole of Gloucestershire: it's the second highest point in the county.
What's your quintessential Cotswolds village and why?
Foxcote. We don't have anything here other than a postbox and a pub at the top of the road, but I quite like that. There are only about 60 houses and, although we've seen a few changes, everyone mostly knows everyone else. Ampney Crucis used to have everything - a bakery, little shop, village hall and a church, and they're trying to bring back a village shop, but it's very hard for those things to work, especially when you're in such close proximity to Cirencester. It's difficult to sustain village life in the same way it used to be.
Name three basic elements of the Cotswolds...
Racing, shooting and hunting.
Do I feel resentment over the hunting ban? It's certainly pretty hard to take when MPs who have no idea as to how our communities function come in with blas solutions. As far as I'm aware, they don't even talk to the local people who could give them a broader view of things, yet they're taking away my identity as a country person. Part of it is prejudice, but I also think it's a lack of basic knowledge and understanding of how the countryside works and runs.
What's your favourite Cotswolds building and why?
There are a lot of very beautiful, historic buildings at Cheltenham Ladies' College. I was there for seven years: I loved school, and they were really good to me. As I got older, they used to let me out on a Thursday evening to play a match, if I had one.
What would you never do in the Cotswolds?
I think you can pretty much do anything you like here. The only thing I ever miss about abroad is the weather.
Starter homes or executive properties?
It is difficult to find somewhere reasonably priced. In villages like Foxcote, people don't change that much - they've been in their houses for ever; but that can't last and I think we'll start seeing a change soon. Would I object if fields round here were given over to starter homes? Probably. That's the thing: government-funded affordable homes are essential to get people on to the property ladder; but I also think if you live in the country you're not that open-minded about having one next door to you. Most people have to move away, earn their money, and then come back when they can afford to.
What are the four corners of the Cotswolds?
I know it's the Cotswold hills that define it but, other than that, I wouldn't have a clue. My geography is hopeless.
If you lived abroad, what would you take to remind you of the Cotswolds?
If I could, I'd take my gorgeous little Bedlington whippet, Thistle. I got her for my 21st birthday so she's just turning five. I pretty much spend the whole winter away every year - we're in Argentina for a couple of months and then New Zealand - and it's hard to leave her behind; but when I'm away, she stays here at Foxcote where she grew up, and she loves it.
What would you change about the Cotswolds or banish from the area?
Litter, and ignorance about country pursuits.
What's the first piece of advice you'd give to somebody new to the Cotswolds?
Go to the Williams de Broe polo match at Beaufort Polo Club (on Saturday, June 21) - one of the most popular polo matches up this neck of the woods. It's a very high standard, and there's a lot of entertainment and interest there as well. What's particularly good about it is that, during lunch, they do a polo demonstration. Someone gets on a horse and explains the rules and concepts of the game. Then everybody goes out and watches the real thing, and the commentator will say, "Do you remember: this was a forehand shot!' Or whatever. It's a great introduction to polo.
And which book should they read?
I'm a huge reader. I've just started reading Bertie, May and Mrs Fish (by Xandra Bingley), which is about Pegglesworth, the next-door farm. It's gorgeous, and quite amazing to hear the war-time stories of how she ran the farm while her husband was away.
Have you a favourite Cotswolds walk?
On the estate, with the dogs. It can take you a good hour to go round.
Which event, or activity, best sums up the Cotswolds?
Cheltenham Festival - it's such a fun week. I'm not a big better - I'm a 2.50 each-way kind of girl - and I pretty much come out even!
If you were invisible for a day, where would you go and what would you do?
I'd like to go into the jockeys' room at Cheltenham and listen to their post-race discussions and banter.
To whom or what should there be a Cotswolds memorial?
Horses. I know there's a memorial to Best Mate at the racecourse; horses like that have brought a lot of revenue and interest into the races. They each have distinct personalities and have to be treated slightly differently. They've got to brave and they have to trust you that you're not going to harm them or make a mistake.
The Cotswolds - aspic or asphalt?
I would say neither or both. With the farming community the way it is, you've got to modernise to keep going, but it's important to preserve some of the old ways of life.
What attitude best sums up the Cotswolds?
Get on with it!
With whom would you most like to have a cider?
That's easy - I'd have a cider with Rosie, my mum!
The Williams de Broe Test Match, on Saturday, June 21, is part of the Country Fair weekend at Beaufort Polo Club at Down Farm, Westonbirt, Tetbury. The match will be between England and the New Zealand team, which is captained by John-Paul Clarkin. Nina Clarkin will also be playing on the Saturday when England Ladies take on the 'Rest of the World'. On the Sunday, there will be a charity polo match in aid of The Countryside Foundation for Education, and Tusk. For more information, visit www.beaufortpoloclub.co.uk or phone 01666 880510.
The polo season begins in May, with matches every weekend until September.