As the rounds of evening stables draw to a close stable staff up and down the country retire to their homes. Their journeys are short but they emphasise the demarcation between work and home life.
That doesn’t happen at Park House Stables. The vast majority of staff employed by Andrew Balding at his training base at Kingsclere, near Newbury, will make their way to the series of cottages and flats that pepper the family estate. Park House is one of the last self-contained training set-ups in Britain.
It is more like a community, although there is regular interplay between the 66 permanent staff on Balding’s books and Kingsclere’s inhabitants. Yet while Balding’s staff dwell in an environment largely unaffected by time’s passage, Kingsclere has been obliged to adapt to contemporary life.
It has done so to pleasing effect. Old-timers may beg to differ, but passing through the village leaves the impression that it has coped effortlessly with the trend towards urbanisation. It sits equidistant from Basingstoke and Newbury, whose supermarkets and high-street chains are six miles away, yet much of the mechanics of an old rural village are in place.
Park House has changed even less. It remains much as it ever was. It places a significant obligation on Andrew and his wife Anna Lisa, who are tirelessly assisted by Andrew’s parents, former trainer Ian and his wife Emma.
“We all feel a responsibility, especially towards the younger staff,” Andrew says. “Overall we want everyone to be as content as they possibly can be without compromising the business.”
In return, the benefits are manifest. For instance, there is little of the frenzied weekend drinking you will encounter in numerous pubs along Newmarket High Street.
“By and large they are a clean-living lot,” says Anna Lisa, whose responsibility for her three young children is but the tip of the pastoral iceberg. “There are families who have lived here all their lives, older lads whose children don’t work in the yard but live on the property.”
Equally, the chance to live in well-tended accommodation is highly prized by stable staff. As with any small community, a hierarchy has developed. Young staff who start life in the hostel have one eye on moving into one of the flats, and beyond that into a staff cottage as and when they might marry and have children.
But that’s not all. When retirement beckons many move into Fielden Court, a retirement complex administered by Racing Welfare which was built when Ian Balding gave over land from the estate for that purpose. By this progression, some of the staff dwell on the estate for their whole lives.
Tragedy touches all
This propagates the concept of an extended family, yet while Andrew and Anna Lisa were aware of this when they succeeded Ian and Emma in 2003, the extent of it was brought home by a tragedy last year that saw Gary Rigby, the son of a long-standing lad at Park House, killed in a road accident outside the front gates.
“It was very tough emotionally for everyone here,” Andrew reflects. “Gary’s parents were absolutely shot to pieces for a while. The whole place felt it. Gary didn’t work here but he lived here all his life, he was friendly with all the lads in the yard, played cricket and football with us every night, and came to all the staff parties.
“Gary was part of the team. His father (Geoff) looked after Mrs Penny (winner of the Cheveley Park Stakes, Prix de Diane and Prix Vermeille) and his mother worked in the local chemist.”
Park House may be largely self-contained but Gary Rigby’s death united its community with that of the village beneath it.
“Everybody at Kingsclere was brilliant,” Anna Lisa recalls. “The vicar, the doctor, the funeral directors, the local coach company – they all helped us. It meant so much.”
Park House is the single largest employer in the village. Many who live there have developed friendships with locals, although the relationship between the two communities is not as intertwined as might be imagined.
That is partly because Kingsclere is deceptively large. Its diverse range of shops suggest to the first-time visitor that there must be more to the place than meets the eye.
Indeed there is. It takes only a couple of minutes to drive from one side to the other, so it is surprising to learn 3,500 people live there.
“It is more like a small town really,” Anna Lisa says. “People come from far and wide to use the local butcher and hairdresser, and there’s a smart coffee shop which is incredibly popular.”
That’s not all. In addition to the obligatory Post Office, Kingsclere boasts three pubs/hotels (The Crown, a popular destination for Park House staff at weekends, is presently closed). There is also a florist, a pair of restaurants, a veterinary practice, two grocer stores, a fine art shop, an estate agent’s and a newsagent, in addition to the chemist and funeral directors.
The range of retailers is too broad for any of them – with the possible exception of the grocer’s, Swan Stores – to thrive on Park House patronage alone. This is confirmed by Alistair McClaren, who does a deal of his business at The Swan with passing trade.
“Watership Down is nearby and people still come to follow the rabbit trail,” McClaren says. “And business has trebled since they started filming [the popular television series] Downton Abbey at Highclere Castle.
“Some of the stable lads will come in for the odd night of celebrating if they have had a big winner but it’s mostly the older ones,” McLaren continues. “The younger lads prefer to go clubbing in Newbury or Basingstoke.”
McClaren has been at The Swan for 20 years, during which time Andrew Balding has pulled his fair share of pints. When assisting his father Andrew needed to supplement his weekly wage, although he remembers the financial equation somewhat differently.
“I always ended up owing the landlord money at the end of the week because I spent more on beer than I earned behind the bar,” he maintains.
Park House’s population does not make an indispensable contribution to the Kingsclere economy. Many of its regular outgoings are spent beyond what the village has to offer.
It employs an in-house farrier and retains a vet who comes in three mornings a week. The feed is shipped in from Spillers in Milton Keynes, the paper bedding from a firm in Beverley. It also makes its own haylage on the adjacent 650-acre farm, which belongs to Andrew’s uncle, Lord Huntingdon.
“We’d like to order all we need from local firms,” Anna Lisa says, “but in this business you have to have the best.”
They do when they can. The waterworks around the stable complex, which dates back to the Victorian era, is due to be replaced later this year by Greenham Construction, which is based just outside Kingsclere.
“Something unpleasant like that usually crops up once a year,” Andrew says. “This particular job will probably end up costing us around £50,000, but that’s in the nature of the place.”
Greenham Construction is also where a pair of troubled brothers were originally employed. The story of how Titch and Eddie – “I don’t even know their surnames,” says Anna Lisa – came to work at Park House is one that perfectly illustrates the community spirit.
The brothers were embraced after they’d spent the previous five years living in a car in a local public car park. “They were kicked out of their council house and had nowhere to go,” Andrew says. “When they lived in their car people used to drive past and throw stones at it. They were badly treated.”
Having showed their handymen’s dexterity by patching up the caravan they were given at Park House, the non-conformist pair now work on a series of projects around the estate. Anna Lisa visits them every Monday to discuss what needs doing. They are paid on an hourly basis.
“If it’s raining they might not turn up for work,” Andrew says, “but they always get the job done on time. They are very, very quiet people who like to keep themselves to themselves, but they have made friends here.”
Most other residents “on campus” are happy to take part in the myriad of social activities organised for them. There are trips to go-karting, bingo and paint-balling. In winter-time vets come in to further educate the staff by lectures or dissections.
Keenly-contested quiz nights and rounders matches see teams from Park House pitted against neighbouring studs at Watership Down and Highclere. Tennis is played on the estate every evening in summer, while a Park House posse are part-time members of the local golf club. And, of course, there’s the more conventional recreational diet of football and cricket.
Despite their interaction, the respective communities within Park House and Kingsclere remain distinctly separate entities. Logistics play their part: the stable requires a regular supply of light, young people who aspire to ride horses.
They come from far and wide through the invaluable channel of the British Racing School, which Andrew’s father, Ian, strongly supported when it was in its infancy. The vast majority who arrive at Park House are indigenously British. Once there, they tend to stay.
“A lot of it is down to the accommodation we can offer,” Anna Lisa says, “and also because there are good schools in the area. Eight of our lads presently have children at school.”
The sort of life available to the staff at Park House is increasingly rare in Britain. It’s little wonder those to whom it is offered it are happy to embrace it. Year after year after year.
Hard to leave
Dwayne Pettit, 33, exemplifies the spirit at Park House Stables. Twice he has tried to leave; twice he has returned to a place that has been his only regular home.
“My father was in the Army so we travelled around a lot,” he says. “The second time I left it was to become a plumber, but I ended up coming back here every weekend. The work can be hard but it is good fun. I am part of the groundstaff team and I also organise the football side of things.”
Indeed, the Park House football team cut such a swathe through the local league that opponents resorted to clattering into players who were inevitably a good deal smaller than their opponents. “We were top of our league at the time,” Pettit laments.
For his entertainment, Pettit prefers the Newbury clubs to the local pubs. “The older lads tend to go to The Swan and even though I’m somewhere in between now, I consider myself to be one of the younger lads,” says Pettit. “I still think, and behave like, I’m about 20.”
Leanne Masterson, also 33, has been at Park House for more than half her life. She started at 16 and rode as an apprentice, when she partnered Manicani, Ian Balding’s last winner as a trainer, to victory at Lingfield in 2002. She is also the regular rider of recently gelded Bonfire and is the stable’s travelling head girl.
“I came here straight from school and have never worked anywhere else,” Masterson says. “The morale is good here; it is a happy place to work.” Nor is she daunted by the demands of being on the road.
“I’m really happy doing that at the moment and you need a fair bit of money to buy your own place,” she says. “Perhaps one day I might try and work with yearlings but until I settle down and decide to have children I’ll keep doing it. The trips abroad make all the travelling more than worthwhile.”
Dan Muscutt, 17, is the stable apprentice and a good deal taller than most. Born in South Africa to a father who trained horses successfully at home and in Singapore, he moved to Britain when he was five and has only ever wanted to ride.
He forsakes local pubs and clubs and is rarely able to feast on the full English breakfast served up every morning in the lads’ hostel, which accommodates nine.
“This is a good place with a reputation for starting off apprentices [William Buick and David Probert included], so I’m lucky to be here,” Muscutt says. “I spent two summers here before I joined full-time last year.”
Muscutt, who came through the pony racing ranks, is part of the 35-strong team of riders at Park House. He is excused mucking-out chores in the mornings but “does” his horses at evening stables.
“In five years’ time I very much hope to have ridden out my claim and be part of the riding arrangements here,” he says. “Everyone gets on. It’s a great place to work.”