In pursuit of polo
A prestigious academy in Britain lets you experience the sport of kings. Lara Brunt takes the reins
HORSEMEN THUNDER PAST in a blur of brilliant white breeches and polished riding boots. With an arching swing, the front runner brings his mallet down hard, and with a crack of wood sends the ball soaring through the goalposts.
For those seeking a quintessential English experience, the spectacle of a polo match played out on the verdant fields of Guards Polo Club near Ascot – a favourite with the Royal family – is difficult to beat.
Steeped in history, the aristocratic sport is not for the faint hearted. “It’s like rugby on horseback,” says professional polo player James White. “But when played well, polo is incredibly elegant and fluid.”
Now, guests staying at a nearby luxury country house hotel can experience the sport of kings thanks to the creation of the Guards Polo Academy.
The academy is a joint venture between Coworth Park, part of the Dorchester Collection of hotels, and the venerable polo club founded by the Duke of Edinburgh in 1955 that leases the hotel’s world-class polo fields. Nestled in 97 hectares of beautiful Berkshire countryside bordering Windsor Great Park, the hotel is a sumptuous rural retreat, yet only 45 minutes from central London.
Guards Polo Academy is lead by one of England’s most experienced professional players, Andrew Hine, a former captain and now manager of the national team. “Polo is an addictive cocktail of adrenaline, speed and competition,” says Hine. “The sport draws together individuals who are absorbed by their love of horses, the ball sport, the contact sport and the team sport.” The academy, however, caters for all levels, from non-riders to experienced players looking to improve their skills.
Private or small group lessons are led by Hine or one of his coaches, all professional players, like 23-year-old White. For beginners, the lesson begins with feet firmly on the ground using a short-handled mallet, as White teaches the basic techniques of the four main polo shots. “All players must hold the mallet in their right hand, as left-handed play is banned for safety reasons,” he explains.
Students soon progress to a longhandled mallet and wooden horse, roughly the same height as a real polo pony (a misnomer if ever there was one, for these are highly trained thoroughbreds). Being able to master the different swings, and more importantly strike the ball, while perched atop an inanimate A-frame is surprisingly thrilling.
A groom then leads over a glossy steed and it is time to get in the saddle. White is unfailingly patient and encouraging, as he leads the pony in a walk or canter, depending on your skill as a rider, while you attempt to make contact between mallet and ball.
Whatever the outcome, you’re guaranteed to come away with a newfound appreciation of the sport. “Even if you’re just going to watch polo, I think you should have a lesson beforehand, as it will really change your view of the game,” says White.
Each summer, a few miles from Coworth Park, the world’s best players and their grooms flock to Ascot and neighbouring Windsor for the English season, from April to September. “Within five minutes drive you can watch polo in The Queen’s Ground, or one of six or seven other polo fields,” says White. Highlights of the season are the Cartier Queen’s Cup in June, traditionally attended by the Queen and held at Guards Polo Club, and the Veuve Clicquot Gold Cup in July.
While Coworth Park prides itself on its equestrian centre and being the only hotel in Britain to have its own polo fields, it is not just for horse lovers. It is set in beautiful grounds with fields of wild flowers, manicured gardens filled with roses and lavender, and a croquet lawn.
The 70 bedrooms and suites, located in the Mansion House and the nearby converted stables and cottages, feature elegant interiors with smoked oak flooring and earthy-hued décor, some with a four-poster bed and all with a free-standing copper bath to soak away saddle sores.
The award-winning eco-spa features an impressive indoor pool, eight treatment rooms flooded with natural light and a spatisserie serving light meals and chilled Champagne to prolong that post-facial glow.
Two more restaurants feature fresh British ingredients, with fine-dining in Restaurant Coworth Park and more relaxed fare in the Barn with its outdoor terrace overlooking the polo fields. Breakfast is served in the conservatory in the main house, often accompanied by the gentle thwack of a tennis ball from the nearby grass court.
Service is warm and attentive, and there appears to be many contented regulars among the guests. Gerald, the doorman, resplendent in tweed despite the summer sunshine, remarks; “One guest said that when he dies, he wants to be at Coworth Park,” he says. A sentiment surely shared by many of its visitors.
Rooms are from £215 (HK$2,600) per night including breakfast; suites available from £375. Hour-long private polo lesson from £160. Coworth Park is a 20-minute drive from Heathrow Airport. It also has a helicopter pad. www.coworthpark.com
The attractions in this beautiful pocket of Britain are not limited to Coworth Park estate. A short distance away is Ascot Racecourse, which celebrated its 300th anniversary last year. The national institution is home of the country's premier horse-racing fixture, Royal Ascot. Held in June, the five-day event is a centrepiece of the British social calendar, as famous for its fashion as for its top-class racing. Down the road, golfers can tee-off at renowned Wentworth Golf Club, on one of its three 18-hole championship courses. The hotel can arrange tee-times from £110. Sunningdale Golf Club, Britain's closest in style to America's Augusta National, is also nearby. So too is Windsor. With its magnificent castle and 1,942-hectare Great Park, it makes a delightful day trip. A short stroll across the Thames is the village of Eton, its pretty streets dotted with antique shops and tailcoated boys from the illustrious school that has educated kings and statesmen for centuries.
"Polo is the oldest team sport in the world," says Andrew Hine from Guards Polo Academy. While the British are credited with spreading the game worldwide in the late 19th century after witnessing it played in India, polo is thought to have originated in Persia more than 2,500 years ago. The ancient game first arrived in China in the third century AD. Polo, or "jiju" as it was called, flourished during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and was frequently depicted in paintings and statues. "The sport is returning to its roots in China with several clubs opening and playing competitive polo," says Hine.
One of those clubs attracting China's new nobility is Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club in Tianjin, 115 kilometres southeast of Beijing, which this month hosts the Super Nations Cup featuring England, Argentina, America, and a team from Hong Kong. The exclusive club also features a luxury hotel, restaurant and spa complex, with membership starting at 380,000 yuan and rising to 10 million yuan. "We plan to build similar polo clubs in other cities in China, and maybe Hong Kong," says the club's vice-chairman Harvey Lee.