My Jilly Cooper moment

Ascot Park Polo Club wants to persuade us you don't have to be posh to play the sport of kings. Novice rider Jo Ellison saddled up for a trial chukka
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It's an English summer's day in June. The landscape is a kaleidoscope of tourist-board green and, in the distance, I can hear the whirring of an unidentifiable piece of farm machinery. In front of me, a young man called Joe is demonstrating the finer rules of the game of polo using miniature plastic horses, and their mounted accomplices, on a piece of green baize.

It's an English summer's day in June. The landscape is a kaleidoscope of tourist-board green and, in the distance, I can hear the whirring of an unidentifiable piece of farm machinery. In front of me, a young man called Joe is demonstrating the finer rules of the game of polo using miniature plastic horses, and their mounted accomplices, on a piece of green baize.

This being my inaugural lesson in the sport of kings, I'd do well to pay attention. Not only have I never played a game in my life, but my sole experience of the equestrian world has been gleaned from Jilly Cooper.

Nevertheless, the Ascot Park Polo Club has opened its doors to those not fortunate enough to have been presented with a pony at birth as part of an ongoing initiative to introduce newcomers to the game. And despite my protestations that I have neither millions in the bank, nor any discernible sporting talent, nor any particular affection for pearls, the organisers have insisted that it is exactly plebeian types like myself that they are hoping to lure to the field. So keen are they to rid polo of its elitist associations that, next month, they are taking the event to The Royal Show, where they are inviting members of the public to participate in a similar session.

To be honest, the prospect of hitting a tiny white ball towards a goal on horseback doesn't fill me with anticipation. I am more than enthused, however, about spending a day in the company of those "brave men" once described in Jilly Cooper's bonkbuster as "beautiful, lean, powerful", "sensitive", "virile" - and, usually, bastards.

Sadly, I suspect that Joe, one of the two instructors in whom I have placed my life's safety, is anything but a bastard. I find myself spending the majority of the lecture trying to place his quietly spoken American accent - a hybrid of Tobey Maguire and Kermit the frog. The twin distractions of this, and the fact that one of the figurines on the table is a tiny realisation of Napoleon Bonaparte, mean that I catch very little useful information about the game. Fortunately, a sensible blonde woman sitting on my right writes copious notes. She also adopts the required lexicon of the game - words like "hooking", "blocking" and a lot of business about "crossing the line". I hope she's on my team.

We leave the table and make our way over to a row of precarious-looking crates, upon which we are expected to stand in order to perfect our polo swings. Here, we are instructed by James, a dark-haired young man sporting buckskinned riding boots and white trousers who certainly has something of Ricky France-Lynch, the player with a "nine-goal handicap" in Cooper's Polo, about him. The impression is only flawed by the fact that he is Australian and, therefore, not posh at all, and that his physique is slightly less Russian dancer than belly dancer.

As with tennis, we know when the stick has made the right contact with the ball because it issues a pleasing little plonky noise as it scuds across the field. Sadly, most of my attempts only issue clods of earth from the area around the ball, and, occasionally, from areas that are nowhere near the ball at all. Beside me, a sporty chap wearing mirrored wraparound sunglasses, a polo shirt and what appear to be blond highlights, effortlessly bashes his balls across the field to rapturous encouragement.

As we stop to refresh ourselves, I reiterate my concerns about never having sat on a horse. I am gratified to discover that, of the 2,500 people who pass through Ascot Park's training centre each year, about 85 per cent have never ridden before. Furthermore, I will be riding a particularly docile horse. We turn to watch the dozen or so thoroughbreds being led towards us. The Formula 1 beasts of the horse-racing world, they are the sleekest, most elegantly maintained animals I have ever seen.

We get dressed, donning regulation helmets and a pair of leather chaps, which, I like to think, add a little Christina Aguilera-like sex appeal to the whole ensemble. I'm ready to meet my horse, whereupon Joe talks me through the basics of riding. True to his word, they are stunningly straightforward: reins up, stop; reins down, go; pull reins left, go left; pull reins right, go right. In fact, my horse is so compliant to instruction that I start to forget that, in his spare time, he might enjoy trotting freely with his pony pals and start to think of him as a robot. He rewards my complacency by stopping suddenly in order to urinate copiously in full view of the assembled company.

At this point, it is decreed that we should get ready for our first match, or chukka as it is known in polo parlance. We are joined by Peter Grace, the founder of the training centre. His gait has that bow-legged look, characteristic of men who have spent their lives in the saddle, his skin looks like chamois leather and he shouts instructions from the sidelines in such a plummy-toned voice I fear he might choke. He does, however, bring a certain gravitas to the situation that I fear might previously have been missing.

I am given the number one shirt, a position usually ascribed to the goal score, and held by none other than the Prince of Wales himself. Tactically, I think this is probably misguided, given my woeful unfamiliarity with the equine world. Like a sporting sort, I manfully gird my loins in preparation for my designated role, but, despite my best efforts, I seem to spend the entire game at the wrong end of the pitch, watching my team-mates excel themselves against the opposition and listening to Mr Grace shout, "Hook it. HOOK IT," at anyone who cares to pay him the attention.

Glory momentarily beckons when, towards the end of the game, the opposition foul one of our team and we are offered a free penalty 10 yards in front of the goal. I ready myself to execute the perfect polo swing. The stick swoops through the air and I gently clip the ball forward. It rolls a few yards before coming to a complete standstill about 3cm from the goal. I recall the wisdom of my favourite polo-loving pin-up, Hugh Grant. "Bugger," I mutter, as the other team gallop off with the spoils.

Game over, we make our way back to the clubhouse for lunch, during which I am reminded of the sport's attempt to broaden its appeal. It occurs to me, however, that if such an egalitarian ethos really exists within the sport, someone ought to pass the message on. Stopping off briefly that afternoon to watch a quick chukka as played by real players, one of my team-mates engages in a casual conversation with a spectator about her hobby. "Of course, anyone can play," she says, while surveying the field before her. "It's not that expensive, really. I suppose, for a season, I probably have to spend about £15,000. But I'm lucky, because I don't have to work, so I can come down here every day."

Which underlines, I think, just how different a planet polo players tend to inhabit. As long as people believe £15,000 to be an acceptable sum to shell out for recreational purposes, polo is unlikely to provide a legitimate alternative to more normal national sports. Fear not, Jilly fans: the quaintly adulterous world of Rutshire and Ricky France-Lynch is in safe hands.

Ascot Park Polo Club: 01276 858545;