Brian Viner: Country Life

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The Independent Online

Ludlow, a 20-minute drive up the A49 unless you get stuck behind a potato lorry, in which case it can take anything up to a month, means different things to different people.

Ludlow, a 20-minute drive up the A49 unless you get stuck behind a potato lorry, in which case it can take anything up to a month, means different things to different people. Folk increasingly associate it with good food, and it remains a gastro-destination despite the closure of The Merchant House, Shaun Hill's restaurant, which has robbed Ludlow-philes of their favourite statistic, that the place has more Michelin-starred establishments than anywhere outside London.

But for Sir Peter O'Sullevan, doyen of horse-racing commentators until his retirement seven years ago and at 87 still the grand old man of the turf, Ludlow means only one thing.

I recently spent a captivating morning with him in his flat near Sloane Square. We talked mainly about his Grand National memories, but when I was finally about to leave he asked whereabouts I lived. When I told him that we are about equidistant between the racecourses of Ludlow and Hereford, he complimented me for having the good sense to live in such a splendid part of the world, and invited me to listen to his favourite Ludlow anecdote. So very happily I sat down again for a further dose of that marvellous voice.

In 1941 - having been refused by the armed forces for medical reasons, "and even by the Merchant Navy, which I found very embarrassing" - O'Sullevan received a telephone call from a jockey friend of his, a Belgian called Nobby Sawers. Later that week, said Sawers, he would be riding a horse called Niersteiner in the two o'clock at Ludlow. It would be an outsider, yet stood a good chance of winning.

On the strength of this information, O'Sullevan drove to a garage he knew on the road to Cheltenham, and there sold his car, a Flying Standard, for £60.

With this considerable sum of money in his pocket he then set about hitch-hiking to Ludlow racecourse. "I was first picked up by a commercial traveller and his girlfriend, who drove me into the middle of Cheltenham," he recalled. He then took a bus to Gloucester, but was advised not to try hitch-hiking in the city centre, on the basis that nobody would pick up a man out of uniform. "So I walked out of Gloucester, and after about an hour picked up a short ride with a farmer and six pigs. When we started drifting off any semblance of a main thoroughfare, the odds of making Ludlow in time for the two o'clock race were about 50-1 against."

Instead, he decided to place the bet over the phone with William Hill, so went back to the farmer's house to use the phone. Unfortunately, it was out of order, so "fortified by a pint of home-made cider" which he remembers having the strength of Calvados, he persevered with the journey, and three rides later found himself just outside Hereford, by which time the race was over, the result still unknown. He consoled himself with a 2/6 cream tea in a nearby farmhouse. "Cream was unheard of in London, and jam was rationed, so it was an unbelievable treat," he said.

He then began the long hitch back to London, eventually steaming into Hammersmith Broadway the following morning in a huge truck, having offered to stand the driver the finest breakfast money could buy. "So while he tucked into toast, dripping, spam and egg powder, I went to buy a morning paper, and found the racing results." Which is why the very word Ludlow transports him 64 years back to a London pavement, where he read: "First in the two o'clock, Niersteiner, trained by Percy Arm, ridden by N Sawers, 20/1."

* When we moved to the sticks, we treated ourselves to membership of the Chocolate Tasting Club, which once a month sends us a box of chocolates and its publication The Chocolate News. I revel in how seriously they take it, although I confess to slight irritation when a woman called up and asked for Mrs Viner. I identified myself as Mr Viner. "I'm afraid I can only talk to the account-holder," she said, gravely. I thought it was a credit card company, but in fact it was the woman from the Chocolate Tasting Club, wanting to talk Easter eggs.

Brian Viner's Tales of the Country is now on sale nationwide (£12.99)

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