Pat Parker 1929 - 2015 pictured here with her Connemara stallion, AJ.

Letter of Gratitude from Artists for Children program

Pat Parker

Pat Parker

1929 – 2015

Pat slipped from the world as she would have wished to do, her heart simply stopping, without warning, while she was sitting in her kitchen reading the Horse and Hound. It would have been, the coroner said, like a light going out at the flick of a switch. Pat's light burned long and strong in so many areas: not just for her family and friends, but in the many groups and organisations in which she was involved for so many years. She was so much part of this community here in Herefordshire, and so much the countrywoman, that it is easy to forget that she was born a Londoner, the third daughter of a doctor who practised in Willesden. Unlike her older sisters, Sylvia and Ann, Pat felt that she had missed out on a proper London childhood because much of it took place during the war, when many of the theatres, cinemas, concert halls and other places of entertainment that she so loved were closed. In any case, her London boarding school was soon evacuated to Buckinghamshire, while school holidays were spent on the Yorkshire farm of her Walker cousins, and it as here that she fell in love with country life. The school relocated in Taplow Court was she met the person who would become her closest friend, Anne Druce, later Anne Reid, who was born almost exactly a month after her and died a mere nine days before her. Theirs truly was a lifelong friendship, one partly based on a shared a passion for horses and riding, and after school they both gained professional qualifications, becoming very accomplished and successful riders. Pat did her training with Eileen Thomas in the New Forest, which is where she first encountered Connemara ponies.

It was when her father, Dr Sturridge, bought the G.P.'s practice in Pembridge in 1947 and settled into the Old Oak House that Pat's life in the countryside really began, and six years later she married Teddy Parker and went to live on the farm at Weston House, where there was plenty of land on which to keep ponies. For anyone who knew Pat and Teddy, it will seem extraordinary that some people thought them ill-matched and predicted that marriage would not last. It might well have got off to bumpy start because Pat chose the date, 2 May 1953, not realising that it was Cup Final Day. Teddy was very keen on football, but far too gentlemanly to mention this unfortunate clash of dates until years later - after which, Pat said, she was never allowed to forget it. Her defence was that if she wanted a honeymoon, she knew she would have to get married between lambing and haymaking. Affectionate teasing was absolutely characteristic of their marriage, and when Teddy died Pat said she had not only lost her husband and soulmate, but also her best friend.

While on their honeymoon in Cornwall, Pat and Teddy drew up plans for a new house for themselves in the sand on the beach at Newquay. Back at Weston, they lived in a caravan and then a tumbledown farmworker's cottage, while a professional architect used their plans to design and build Curlew Cottage. The new house was soon filled with whippets, a grey cat called Tiddles, and two children, Peter and Sue, who were often left in the charge of the long-serving and long-suffering Carol Duggan while Pat attended to her ponies. This was perhaps as well, since Pat's belief that after life's little upsets you simply picked yourself up and dusted yourself down extended to her children. On one occasion Peter somehow managed to overturn the pram in which he had been parked. When her father happened to drop in that evening, Pat said: 'I don't know what's the matter with your grandson, but he seems to be grizzling rather a lot.' Dr Sturridge took one look at the squalling infant and said: 'That may be because he has a fractured collar-bone'. Pat rightly believed that children should learn self-reliance, something for which both Peter and Sue remain enormously grateful.

It was when Teddy's mother died in 1962 that the family moved into Weston House, which is where they would remain for the next forty years, welcoming guests from far and wide – friends of their children (who very often became their friends) or students who came to work with the horses or on the farm. The demands of the farming year meant that Pat and Teddy did not travel abroad very often, but the world came to them. Among those who stayed at Weston, often repeatedly and for long periods, were people from Sweden, Finland, Norway, France, Germany, America and India. There were plenty of bedroom in which to accommodate these guests, but the kitchen at Weston House was always devoted more to the comfort of cats, dogs and newborn lambs than to haute cuisine. Pat's finest achievements in cookery were the Sunday roast, accompanied by perfect Yorkshire pudding, and superb meringues and profiteroles. As she would be the first to admit, however, cooking did not really interest her any more than housework did: there were always far more important and rewarding things to be doing outside. Visitors were expected to - and this probably is the right phrase - muck in. 'Would you like a hand with the drying up?' someone might ask after lunch. 'Yes please,' Pat would reply: 'just turf that cat off the tea-towel.'

Pat's first Connemara pony, Carina of Calla, was bought at Christmas 1947, and so was always known as Crackers. 'She cost fifty guineas,' Pat remembered, 'had feet like bedroom slippers, a kick like a mule, and was quite un-catchable'. Pat nevertheless trained her, and when she decided to put her in foal to a stallion belonging to the Meade family in Chepstow, where Anne Reid was working, she harnessed Crackers to a pony-trap and drove there, returning a few days later by the same method: a round journey of some 102 miles. She would recall that on the return trip Crackers trotted along briskly, 'looking very smug', and eleven month later she produced a filly foal. This was the start of the Arrow Connemara Stud, which eventually included several generations of Crackers's progeny and two award-winning stallions. Pat celebrated fifty years of breeding Connemaras in 1997 with the birth of fifth-generation Arrow Golden Crisp, who is a favourite of many of Sue's students at her Arrow Equestrian Centre. Pat had always wanted to breed a dun stallion, and eventually got one with Arrow Javelin (always know as AJ), whom she rode until he died less than a year ago. Her friend Jane Powell competed all over the country on AJ, and they and Pat became familiar faces on the Connemara competition circuit. Pat had joined the English Connemara Pony Society in 1947, almost at its inception, put in long service on its council, and hosted its riding shows at Weston- 'an inspiration to everyone who knew her,' as one member put it, 'such energy and enthusiasm'.

This was not the only group or organization that benefitted from Pat's involvement. Her love of music led her to join the Pembridge Church Choir, and she and her sister Ann performed in many concerts with the Vale of Arrow Choir. She also spent a substantial number of years as a magistrate in Kington, only standing down when the court moved to Leominster. She had a very long and happy association with the Radnor & West Herefordshire Pony Club, both as Secretary and District Commissioner, and she and Teddy hosted the annual summer camp at the farm. For as long as anyone could remember Pat seemed to have run the horse events at Pembridge Show, roping in Teddy to judge the gymkhana with Evan Evans, and Peter to do the commentating. She regularly stewarded at Kington Agricultural Show, and agreed one year to be President, even though this meant having to wear a smart hat, something she always hated. She was a long-standing and active member of both the Radnor & West Herefordshire Hunt and the Vale of Arrow Riding Club, and put in long hours with Riding for the Disabled. When the RDA's patron, Princess Anne, came to see the work they were doing in Herefordshire, one of the horses Pat had provided snatched a mouthful of the bouquet that the Princess was holding.

Pat not only rode, but continued to work in the stables, mucking out and filling buckets and hay-nets - well into her eighties. If asked for a single word to describe her, perhaps 'indomitable' would be the one that many people would come up with. Though small in stature, she was always physically courageous, not to say reckless, and this may have been a by-product of riding in point-to-points when she was young. She was a fearless horsewoman to the end, facing in her sixties competition jumps that would have daunted riders forty years her junior. She had what is known in the business as a very good seat and was rarely dislodged from her mount: once, while out with the Radnor hounds, she managed not only to stay on a bucking horse but, holding the reins in one hand, shot out the other to catch her hard-hat in mid air after it had flown off. She did, of course, have falls, but always waved away the concerned enquiries of alarmed spectators, insisting that she was fine – even on the occasion she had almost certainly cracked her pelvis. Her excellent seat was much admired when she and Sue went to Portugal to have classical dressage lessons. Even the famous Luis Valenca stopped what he was doing to applaud her classically correct passage. Her long-term dressage trainer, Erik Herbermann, would have been proud of his pupil, who only started lessons with him in her fifties.

It was perhaps her early years point-to-pointing that gave Pat a lifelong taste for speed, something that characterised not only her riding - much younger people often had difficulty keeping up with her while out on hacks - but also her driving. Always busy, with somewhere to get to, she did not believe in hanging around. Her nephew David remembered Pat driving him back to Cambridge University from his home in London in the white Jaguar XK 140 she and Teddy had at the time. The newly opened Stevenage by-pass provided an opportunity to put the car through its paces, 'clocking well over 130 miles per hour'. 'The side-thrust at that speed was awesome,' David recalled. On another occasion, a rather more nervous passenger, mistaking the rev counter for the speedometer, said: 'Pat, we're surely doing more than 60 miles an hour?' These were the days before speed limits were introduced, but even in later years Pat's driving could be impressively fast: one of Peter's friends suggested that on country lanes the hedges appeared to lean backwards at her approach. Only last summer she insisted on driving Peter from Weston back to London. He agreed on the understanding that she was not to drive at a speed greater than her age: although she drove immaculately, he had to keep a close watch on the speedometer's needle, which on the motorway frequently nudged 84.

As well as a love of fast cars, Pat and Teddy shared an expert knowledge of birdlife, and were able to identify all kinds of species by a distant outline glimpsed through binoculars or a faint call from the woods. Weston was always what they called 'sniving' with birds, largely because under the Farm Stewardship Scheme that they both found so rewarding, they replanted hedges and orchards, created new spinneys, and installed conservation headlands round the fields. Pat was particularly proud when a representative of the RSPB came to survey birdlife on the farm but returned after a short while to say that the standard map with which he had been supplied simply wasn't of a large enough scale to record the variety and number of birds he was finding. In 2000 the farm won the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group's Award for Conservation in the County of Herefordshire, a tribute to Pat and Teddy's vision. Pat was always much more of a farmer than a farmer's wife, lugging bales at harvest time as well as providing flasks of tea and sandwiches, on shift duty during lambing, helping get cattle into the crush. Although the livestock was sold after Teddy's death, Pat continued to be a fierce guardian of the land. She particularly loved the farm's wild-flower meadow and, well into her seventies, assisted by Peter and Percy Layton, planted a new mixed hedge across the whole of one field, a stretch of some 330 yards. When someone asked if there was some kind of agricultural contraption for planting hedges, Pat replied: 'Yes. A spade.'

Teddy's sudden and unexpected death was a terrible blow, but it was one which Pat faced with characteristic resilience. She decided to move out of Weston House, which was far too big for one person, and take up residence in a converted Granary across the yard. Here she set about creating a whole new garden from scratch in the neighbouring field. Although smaller than the one at Weston House, the scale of this new garden seemed to take little account of the fact that Pat was by now in her mid-seventies. Gardening was the great enthusiasm she shared with Peter, just as horses were the one she shared with Sue, and trips to flower-shows and distant gardens became a regular part of the calendar. The Kington Gardening Club provided Pat with new friends and further trips, some of them abroad and usually in the company of Anne Reid, since gardening was an other passion they shared. Pat and Anne were always inspecting each other's gardens and swapping stories and plants. One of the last things they did together was to select some of Anne's chrysanthemums from which Pat could take cuttings.

After Teddy's death, Pat decided to see more of the world, with trips to Paris, Venice and Lisbon, and an ambitious Mediterranean cruise with Sue, her partner Ron and his mother Connie. She proved indefatigable only last year with Peter on a trip to Malta, where her parents had met, taking long bus trips round the island and walking great distances. She also took a keen interest in her children's own travels: Sue in Africa, North and South America, Alaska and the Galapagos Islands, and Peter on his frequent trips to India and his yearly stint in Bulgaria at a theatrical summer school for orphans, the charity which will be the recipient of all donations given today in Pat's memory.

It is often said when people die that what they have left behind them is laughter. In Pat's case this really is true. In the many letters people have written, her laughter has frequently been invoked. 'Her laugh,' one friend recalled, 'was more than mere sound but somehow involved her whole body, her whole being.' Sue tells of a visit to a beach in Portugal a few years ago, when both she and Pat, fully dressed, were knocked off their feet by an unexpectedly large wave. Flat on her back, her legs in the air, Pat appeared to be in danger of being carried out to sea by the backwash. Having staggered back to shore, soaked through, they became, Sue recalled, 'helpless with laughter'. This laughter was perhaps the result of Pat's no-nonsense approach to life, a tendency to take things as they came, though not always without grumbling. 'She was always so reliably full of good humour and optimism,' a friend wrote. A frequent and much younger visitor said simply: 'She did me good just by being who she was.' That is surely as good an epitaph as anyone could hope for.

Written by Pat's children, Peter and Sue.

And this poem was read out by her son, Peter, at Pat's funeral:

 

EPITAPH

Horses she loved, and laughter, and the sun,

A song, wide spaces and the open air;

The trust of all dumb things she won,

And never knew the luck too good to share:

Now though she will not ride with us again,

Her merry spirit seems our comrade yet,

Freed from the power of weariness and pain,

Forbidding us to mourn or to forget.

anonymous, 1916