AIAT AGM - United Kingdom report
A weekend of Coaching, discovering the international camaraderie of AIAT
Equestrians are well versed with dealing with the art of unpredictability in a calm, relaxed manner, and Richard James, Chair of AIAT GB proved his credentials when organising the annual general meeting of the AIAT in Somerset to great critical acclaim. The Annual AGM is held in a different international location each year, and this year’s host was the UK. The purpose is for the various international affiliates to the AIAT programme to meet up, review the CIAT Attelage de Tradition competitions, consolidate knowledge and educate judges in traditional turnouts ensuring a consistency of standards throughout the nations.
This years event was organised by Richard with efficient precision and a team of eager volunteer helpers. The bar of expectation was raised high to hold the event in the UK as standards around Europe are so impressive. The difference with the event in the UK is that much of driving history is borne in the UK and consequently, our European and American guests were intrigued to visit the birthplace of carriage driving. With 85 guests from 14 different nations, the response was overwhelming and proved the importance of the heritage of our traditions.
A full weekend of educational visits, judges clinics, presentations and dining was planned with participants arranged to travel from all corners of the UK with their driven turnouts, all selected for their individuality, panache and uniqueness that would offer the full spectrum of carriage driving. Arenas and stabling was booked, but sadly due to last minute changes thanks to Storm Dennis, gale force winds, torrential rain and risk of flooding, the sensible decision was made to cancel the driven section for safety reasons.
Guests were collected by shuttle buses from Bristol Airport and settled into the grandeur of Dillington Hall Hotel in the heart of Somerset, a traditional English Stately home with formal parkland and impressive former stable blocks. With an opening meet and greet Friday night reception, guests prepared themselves for the first short journey on Saturday morning to Fenix Carriages and a warm but blustery welcome from Mark and Joanna Broadbent. Their impressive coach house acted as our conference theatre for much of the day, surrounded by glorious collection of carriages and coaches. Formal translation facilities were laid on for our guests not familiar in English, we all understood the language of driving!
Mark opened the presentations with his impassioned story of the king of coaches, Vidlers Quick silver Mail Coach, one of the last surviving original coaches which he has painstakingly restored to its former glory. He explained in detail the evolution of the Royal mail postal service from the original post boy service to the introduction of mail coaches by Theatre impresario John Palmer in the late 18th Century. The relevance of coaching From there, he explained the restoration process of the Quicksilver and the thorough investigation he undertook to ensure total authenticity.
Following on the heels of Mark was the inimitable Colin Pawson who was dressed resplendent in Mail Guard attire who delivered the most entertaining and illustrative story of the role of the guard, his duties and a musical rendition of the various tunes the guard would use on a journey. He also demonstrated the various Coach horns used including their development. His presentation was mesmerising to say the least.
After Colin’s presentation, Sarah Dance, doyen of the rostrum and Carriage Driving aficionado took the stand with a fascinating quiz for the audience. This was to test the delegates knowledge of carriages, what their age, purpose, title and size of horses they were intended for. This was a fascinating challenge for all, a perfect ice breaker and knowledge tester. One of the issues was to identify the difference between an original carriage and a modern reproduction. With Mark’s exceptional Fenix build quality and authenticity, many had a challenge to identify a modern vehicle! We are minded that some of Poland’s finest carriage builders are able to reproduce exceptional standards too, but the essence of the competition is to promote the use of original vehicles that would otherwise be consigned to history or destruction.
After Sarah’s incredible revelations of the quiz, Colin Henderson presented a fascinating talk on the work of the Carriage Foundation and an illustration of the ancillary artefacts associated with carriage driving including an example of a twin dial 16 hour coaching clock sourced from the Port of Milford Haven for conveyance of mail from Ireland to London. A short visit to the workshops of Fenix Carriages followed including seeing a number of restoration projects nearing completion. With a well illustrated history of the origins of coaching and the progression of carriage driving, the visit to one of England’s finest carriage builders was well received by our international delegates.
On return to Dillington Hall, the guests prepared themselves for the gala banquet where much socialising was entertained. With tables festooned with international flags, the London Banqueting Ensemble delivered a background medley of traditional chamber music. Continuing the coaching theme, the ensemble delivered an astonishing and authentic whimsical performance of the famous ‘post horn gallop’ with coach horns prancing between the tables. This brought alive Colin’s earlier documentary of the history of coach horns.
With worsening weather conditions, Sunday Morning’s schedule had to be completely rearranged. It was decided to visit the National Trust’s collection of carriages at Arlington Court near Barnstable which housed their national collection of carriages that once belonged to their various properties. With many guests planning to leave from Bristol Airport later that day, we were mindful of our schedule, so we embarked on another coach journey to Arlington. Arlington was kept open for our visitors despite a close eye on their closing policy for inclement weather, and didn’t disappoint. Their collection is one of the finest in the land with a delightful range of vehicles from governess carts to travelling chariots and gilded state coaches. Our European visitors were in awe of the vehicles, including some of the more peculiar carriages such as the rearward facing Doctors Carriage and sideways facing double hooded landaus. This collection and information consolidated the heritage of the British Carriage industry.
With a tight schedule to meet, guests were ushered back onto the coach for the return journey from one of England’s finest houses to the hotel, only to hear those immortal words from anyone familiar with driving horseboxes, “I think we may have a problem!” Sadly the coach developed a fault which resulted in us limping on to safe ground. After a few frantic phonecalls, a bit of a wait, a replacement coach was sourced and guests transferred for their onward journey to another coach for transfer back to the hotel. Some guests had to be ferried by taxi direct to the airport, but thanks to modern technology and Facetime, they were able to identify their luggage from the hotel and have it shipped to the airport.
The moral of the tale here is despite the interruptions from the weather and transport, how we as equestrians were able to quickly and effortlessly adapt to the situations. The conclusion was a wonderful immersed weekend of ‘coaching’ knowledge in the truest sense, from Vidler’s original Quicksilver to the living experience of changing stage coaches. Thanks to Richard James incredible organising skills, exhaustingly hard work and calm demeanour, the British hosting of the AIAT AGM was a resounding success.