Xandra Bingley's Cheltenham Memories

PUBLISHED: 10:55 05 January 2011 | UPDATED: 14:52 20 February 2013

Riders and helpers return from a morning ride.

Riders and helpers return from a morning ride.

In her wartime memoir, Xandra Bingley captures a country childhood that is both idyllic and terrifying. by June Lewis

Bertie, May and Mrs Fish are names that roll off the tongue like characters from a game of Happy Families - in fact, they form the title of Xandra Bingley's country memories of wartime down on the farm at Pegglesworth that spread its two thousand acres close to Seven Springs, some six miles on the hills above Cheltenham.

Bertie is the author's father, who, in 1940, the year of the Blitz, was training 'his Inns of Court lawyer soldiers - the Devil's Own - to fight like hell when their time comes. In summer 1945 he comes homes on leave and for the rest of his life he shouts in his dreams at night'. It was while Bertie Bingley was on a training session on the Cotswold hills early in the war that he spots Homefield, the Elizabethan farmhouse in its deserted farm of Pegglesworth that was to become home to him and his wife, May, and their daughter, Xandra.

May is elegant and wealthy, a sparkling debutante and a brilliant horsewoman of whom it was said ... If you put May Lenox-Conyngham up on a horse its value doubles before it leaves the stable yard. As May Bingley, she is a remarkably able lady, resilient against overwhelming odds of farming what Bertie described as a 'heavenly place' - a somewhat different picture than that drawn up by his daughter.

'White stones scatter the hilly land. Fences are broken walls or cut and laid hedges grown wild into tall bullfinch thorns. Gaps in walls are wide enough to drive a tank through. Gates and stable doors hang off hinges. Water is pumped by a windmill reservoir two miles away at Needlehole at the far end of the farm. Purple thistles and yellow poisonous charlock flower on grassland. Nettles spread inside barn doorways. Wild cats stare from stable drains. Rats run along house walls. In the drawing room a soldiers' campfire has burnt a hole in the ceiling.'

Mrs Fish appears as a Hogarthian character in the everyday life of the country folks down at Pegglesworth Farm as she 'does' for the Bingleys, walking two miles over the fields from Needlehole twice a week to wash and iron bedsheets and clothes, observed with a terrified fascination by the young Xandra through the larder door hinges.

'Her orange ringlets bounce under a bright-green crocheted beret she keeps on indoors ... her splashed crossover cotton apron has flower faces and the black plimsoles she keeps in the coal shed and changes into from white rubber boots have no laces. I stand beside Mrs Fish and she hisses ... Get me a gin then ... go on. She grins and the Woodbine sticks to a lip and her teeth close on the little cigarette.'

After swigging three fingers of gin and refilling the decanter with water, Mrs Fish has to be taken home on the back of little Xandra's pony: Mrs Fish breaks into song and Xandra groans.

Horses generally, and ponies in particular, punctuate this moving memoir of growing up in the war years at Pegglesworth, farmed by the redoubtable May with three labourers too old for call-up, landgirls seconded from Wills tobacco factory and a lorry load of Italian prisoners of war, who were forbidden to speak by a dark-blue uniformed man in charge with a gun in his holster. It is the names of the ponies at Pegglesworth that Xandra recites to her mother in her final days ... Darkie and Twinkle and Teddums, Merrylegs and Kiss-Me-Quick ... Nugget and Barney and Crinkle and the Lion of Judah ... remember the horses in the valley, Glory Boy and Pesky and Marmaduke and Pasha and Paddy and Persian Night. An earlier letter from May Bingley to her daughter spoke of her dedication to the world of horses.

'Shall be glad when you come down and give a hand leading the riders round at Oriel School. Am asked to instruct at Pony Club Camp and to run local Girl Guides. Riding for Disabled is well under way'.

Riding for the Disabled is still well under way, and has come a long way over the last thirty years. Established as a registered charity in 1969, its history dates back to the early Sixties when independent groups were already offering riding as a form of therapy. There are currently more than 500 RDA groups across the UK with over 16,000 volunteers helping to make a positive and lasting difference to the lives of some 24,000 riders and carriage drivers aged between 8 and 80.

May Bingley was instrumental in getting Riding for the Disabled founded in the Cotswolds and her name and aim are perpetuated in the May Bingley Trust which supports riding holidays for disabled riders and drivers. In Gloucestershire, fourteen riding groups and two driving groups are under the auspices of the Cotswold National Association; all are fully subscribed and most have waiting lists. The benefits to the health and well being of both the physically handicapped and those with learning difficulties have been recognised and encouraged by educationalists for the positive role riding, and its attendant multi-sensory skills development, contribute in the National Curriculum.

RDA receives no government funding and the whole organisation depends entirely on the dedication and commitment of the volunteers who contribute so much from essential fund-raising to secretarial jobs, mucking out and DIY jobs at stables and yards and making pots of tea as well as the practical assistance with the riding and driving. Most disabled riders need two side walkers and a leader, and all riders are encouraged to ride to the best of their ability with the opportunity to take part in social activities, shows and competitions. The Cotswolds was host to the World Paradressage Championships in July of this year when the superb equestrian facilities at Hartpury College were the centre stage for disabled riders from over 35 nations, many of whom were competing for a qualifying place in the Beijing Paralympic Games next year.

Away from the international spotlight, but recognised for their outstanding contribution to the whole concept and aim of the RDA is the Watershed Group, based at Coates Rectory, named as community project of the year by Cirencester Rotarians. Sue Bowden has been working with riding for the disabled for 30 years and started the centre at Coates in 1993 for the more able riders to develop their riding skills - more physically handicapped riders are catered for at the Talland Group at Cirencester as the facilities there include such aids as hoists to assist mounting the horses. The Watershed Group is different from many of the others in the county as it is not attached to a riding school and it owns its own horses. At present there are six ponies in regular use but occasionally more are brought along when needed. All have to have been well trained and experienced in carrying riders, and may have been polo ponies or show ground horses before reaching semi-retirement as a valuable asset to the RDA who need slower mounts, but obviously they have to be sound - it is not a charity that can afford to be a rescue centre or able to meet heavy veterinary bills. As a small centre, too, without the staff attached to a riding school the Watershed family, as the members consider their group, have to do everything themselves further cementing the bonds between the riders and helpers and animals - and what a happy family it is, too, down on the Cotswold farm where learning and therapy go hand in hand with hard work and fun when two-legged and four-legged members care and help each other - surely, one of the greatest treasures in our human heritage.

Bertie, May and Mrs Fish by Xandra Bingley is published by Harper Perennial.

Latest from the Cotswold Life