Douglas Bunn: Founder of Hickstead and a leading figure in British show jumping

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Douglas Bunn must have been one of the few who foresaw the impact that his All England Jumping Course, created in the grounds of his Sussex home at Hickstead, would have on British show jumping. Having competed abroad, he was well aware that British riders would benefit from a permanent show ground where they could gain experience over Continental-type courses. Fortunately he had the vision and the wherewithal to do something about it.

Widely known as Duggie – and also, to use hunting parlance, as the Master of Hickstead – Bunn had ridden from an early age, initially galloping along the beach at Selsey where he grew up. He was 10 years old when his father's friend, Bill Gardner, offered him a ride on a fabulous show-jumping pony called Joby, who was to carry the Selsey boy to around 50 victories in their first season together. Bunn was to look back on those early days with gratitude. Not only did he have a brilliant pony to ride, he also had the benefit of instruction from Joby's owner. "Bill Gardner was one of the top people of his day," Bunn said. "There wasn't a better man in England."

His show-jumping plans were to be restricted, however, first by the Second World War and then by his studies at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read law. He also played Varsity rugby, but much to his regret never attained a Blue. After being called to the Bar, he somehow managed to combine practising as a barrister, competing in top-level show jumping and managing a thriving business in the shape of a rapidly expanding caravan park at Selsey. The first two occupations meant that he quite often went to court wearing white riding breeches under his striped trousers and gown. Eventually, he acknowledged that he had set himself an impossible schedule, so he gave up the legal work to concentrate on his lucrative business and the horses.

The All England Jumping Course began life comparatively modestly in 1960, with a roped-off arena that enclosed most of the permanent obstacles, a barn containing a single telephone and a few tents. But Bunn had big ideas. One of these came to fruition the following year when the first British Jumping Derby was staged. It was a bold concept that had originated from a few minutes of flickering black-and-white film showing the Hamburg Derby in Germany. Bunn needed to build a Derby Bank so, in order to ensure that his version was the biggest and the best, he travelled to Hamburg to take some measurements. He added nine inches to the height, but since the Hamburg bank was lying beneath a thick blanket of snow, the difference could have been a few inches more.

The precipitous cliff edge of the 10ft 6in Hickstead bank was regarded with horror by most of the riders. Ireland's Seamus Hayes, who jumped a clear round on Goodbye to win the marathton contest, was one of the few exceptions. What did he think of the Derby Bank? "Nothing to it," he said after his victory, giving his horse's neck a cheerful slap.

That same year, Bunn travelled to Jack Bamber's yard in Northern Ireland, where he bought an unbroken three-year-old called Beethoven, who was to be the most talented horse he ever rode. A year later the black gelding won the supreme award for novice horses, the Foxhunter Championship. In 1965 Bunn came close to capturing the long-established men's classic, the King George V Gold Cup, in which he and Beethoven finished a whisker behind Germany's Han Gunter Winkler on Fortun. David Broome was later given the ride on Beethoven, who was his mount when winning the Men's World Championship in 1970.

Meanwhile, the Hickstead showground had grown in size and stature. There were now stands, permanent office buildings and a club house above which was Bunn's private suite (known as the Bunnery) where he gained a well-earned reputation as a lively and generous host. The Junior European Championships of 1961 were to be the first of many titles decided there. Others included the Ladies' world and European championships, the two men's equivalents and, after they became open to both sexes, two European championships that carried team as well as individual titles. The Royal International Horse Show, incorporating Britain's only Nations Cup contest, had also made its home at Hickstead.

The occasion that attracted most publicity, however, came in 1971 with a gesture that was to become part of the English language. Harvey Smith had been berated by Bunn for failing to bring back the trophy that he had received for winning the previous year's Derby. "No need, I'm going to win it again," Smith said. Having done just that, the Yorkshireman made his two-fingured gesture towards Bunn on his balcony. Smith called it a victory sign. Bunn (among others) had a different interpretation. It was to lead to Smith's disqualification and subsequent reinstatement. Columnists and cartoonists had a field day.

The column inches were far more sombre following the announcement, in December 1996, that Silk Cut was to end its sponsorship of the Derby meeting. It was not so much a surprise as a bombshell. "I've been paying money out of my own pocket for years, now I have to think of my nine children and my grandchildren," Bunn said, leaving the show-jumping world to contemplate the appalling thought that Hickstead might be lost to the sport for good. But money was raised by various means and the All England Jumping Course soldiered on.

Each of Bunn's three wives gave birth to three children. To save confusion, the offspring decided to be distinguished by numbers as well as names. Hence Edward Bunn (the son of Bunn's second wife and her first child) was known as 2:1. Most of the family – notably Edward as the meticulous groundsman and his sister, Lizzie, as the highly efficient organising secretary – are involved in running Hickstead. Douglas Bunn has left his brain- child in quite a few safe pairs of hands.

Genevieve Murphy

Douglas Bunn, barrister, and founder and owner of the All England Jumping Course at Hickstead: born Selsey Bill, West Sussex 29 February 1928; chairman, British Show Jumping Association, 1969, 1993-1996, president, 2001-2005; married 1952 Rosemary Pares-Wilson (marriage dissolved, three daughters), 1960 Sue Dennis-Smith (marriage dissolved, two sons, one daughter); 1979 Lorna Kirk (deceased, one son, two daughters); died Hickstead 16 June 2009.