Cowdray Park Polo Club
Cowdray Park Polo Club, recognised worldwide as the home of British Polo is now serving the English sparkling wine brand Nyetimber to its members and visitors. The below interview is with the Chairman of Cowdray Park polo Club, Roderick Vere Nicholl, on the Polo club's history and new venture with English sparkling wine. All images credit Mark Beaumont.
Roderick, could you start by providing some background on yourself and your role at Cowdray Park Polo Club. What led you to where you are today at Cowdray?
I was elected Chairman of Cowdray Park Polo Club in 2018, which was a great honour as I have been a playing member of the club since 1992. I started to play polo as a boy with my father and brothers in Charlottesville, Virginia. I have lived in England since 1991. For me Cowdray is one of the best polo clubs in the world. It is home to the Gold Cup for the British Open which is one of the top three polo tournaments worldwide.
Polo is an ancient game, one of the world's oldest team sports, where and why did it all start?
Polo is actually the oldest team game in history - the first matches being recorded in Persia in 500 BC. It is thought the word ‘polo’ comes from ‘pulu’, Tibetan for willow, from which the original balls were made. The game is thought to have been created by one of the competing tribes of Central Asia and was quickly taken up as a training method for the King’s elite cavalry. So, as mounted armies swept back and forth conquering this part of the world, polo was adopted as the most noble of pastimes by the Kings, Emperors, and Sultans across ancient Asia. It was for this reason it became known as "the game of kings".
British army officers saw the game while they were stationed in the town of Silchar in Manipur, India, and in 1859 Captain Robert Stewart and Lieutenant Joe Sherer inaugurated the very first polo club, the Silchar. Officers returning to the UK introduced the game in England and the first official match was played on Hounslow Heath in 1869 with the 10th Hussars meeting the 9th Lancers.
Cowdray Park Polo Club has itself been around for 100 years or so on Viscount Cowdray's estate - how did it come to be established there?
The club celebrated its centenary in 2010 and has a long and prestigious history. The club originated with The Hon. Harold Pearson, eldest son of the 1st Viscount Cowdray who had become fascinated by the game when a student at Oxford. Originally teams were made up of family members and friends. The first trophy, The Cowdray Park Challenge Cup, was presented in 1911 – it is still played for today. The 3rd Viscount, the late John Cowdray, almost single-handedly re-introduced polo into the UK following its demise during World War II. He loaned ponies to family and friends to get the sport started again and set about importing 50 polo ponies from Argentina to augment the meagre strings of ponies that had survived the war years. By 1947 he had a few tournaments running again and in 1953 he achieved what seemed almost impossible – the staging of the Coronation Cup at Cowdray Park, with international teams taking part and thousands of spectators flocking to watch the games. The club now plays in excess of 400 matches in a season spread over 30 tournaments.
You're a pretty mean polo player yourself I believe, what led to your interest in the game?
My father was an Orthopaedic surgeon who emigrated from England in 1951 to teach and practice medicine at the University of Virginia. We lived on a small farm, he fox hunted, drove a four in hand and played polo to relax. Thus I was exposed to the game at a young age!
I have played all levels of polo at Cowdray and have many good memories but the ones which stand out the most were winning the Jersey Lilies and 1921 Cups with my son Elias.
It's called the "Sport of Kings" and certainly we know HRH Prince Charles and HRH's Prince William and Prince Harry play – have they seen much play at Cowdray?
It’s more accurately referred to as the ‘game of kings and the king of games’. HRH the Prince of Wales played regularly at Cowdray Park through the 1980s. His last match here was a charity match for The Prince’s Trust in 2004 when Prince Harry also took part. Prince Charles retired from polo soon after because of ongoing back problems.
Do you have a particular story or memorable moment from being at Cowdray Park Polo Club that you would like to share with us?
The final of the King Power Gold Cup this year was a great day. The weather was perfect, we had a record crowd of 12,000 and the game was won in overtime by two young brothers aged 16 and 18, Camilo and Bartolomé Castagnola of the Dubai team whose father I watched playing many times for the same team.
What is it about the game that players and spectators particularly enjoy?
The speed of the game, the athleticism of the ponies and the extraordinary talent of the players – particularly at the ‘high goal’ end of the game. To travel at speeds of 30 miles an hour while hitting a ball not much larger than a tennis ball, with a slim mallet, is quite remarkable. Spectators get caught up by the breath-taking speed and sheer skill involved.
It's great to hear about your partnership with Nyetimber - how did the relationship come about?
Nyetimber is a delicious refined English sparkling wine which we are pleased to offer in our clubhouse bars and at our bigger matches when the Nyetimber bus is brought on site. It is a local brand and it is good to support the development of English wines, which the country now seems to be so adept at producing. The partnership runs across the Cowdray estate to include the estate’s luxury event business centred on Cowdray House and also Cowdray Golf.
Cowdray Park has been named "Best Visitor Attraction" at the 2018 Celebration of Sussex awards. What can people enjoy when they come there?
The accolade of Best Visitor Attraction was specifically for the King Power Gold Cup for the British Open Polo Championship. Within the month long tournament for the British Open, there are around 40 matches, all very well attended by our keen and appreciative membership as well as local, national and international enthusiasts. On each weekend of the tournament there are various Cups to play for, with presentations to Best Playing Ponies and Most Valuable Player awards. We put on several gala days too, for example the Midhurst Town Cup which is very much a family day out aimed at a local audience with a funfair, stalls, bars, a number of food options, gun dog demonstrations and all kinds of family fun. We also have the Argentine Ambassadors Cup, the Hungarian Ambassadors Cup and the Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha Memorial trophy. The Semi Finals are an even bigger day with two crunch matches taking place to decide who will go through to the Final four days later. It is a great day for corporate hospitality and picnics – again with bars, food, a retail village and entertainment. The Final is the highest attended polo match in Europe with around 12,000 spectators. This year’s Final took place on 21st July and visitors streamed in early to grab the best picnic spots and enjoy the pre-match musical entertainment from the band stand, visit the beautiful retail village full of tempting shopping, bars – including the Nyetimber bus – delicious food outlets, traditional fairground rides and much more. Just before the match started the RAF Parachute Display team dropped onto the pitch as the excitement began to mount in anticipation of the high octane Final – won this year by the Dubai team who beat VS King Power 13-12 in extra time. A truly thrilling contest.
Something else you are involved with is the Hurlingham Polo Association - is that connected to the Hurlingham Club in London?
I am a Steward of the HPA which is the governing body of the sport here in the UK. The first rules of the game were written at the Hurlingham Club in Fulham in 1875. Before the Second World War there were two polo fields at the club, one of which is now a park and hosts a weekend of polo each year.
In what ways do you think it is important for British brands to work together?
We can all play our part in showcasing the food, drinks, manufacturing and heritage that epitomises this country. Sport is a great means by which to do this.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
Polo is a great family day out. The regular price of admission, outside of the Semi Finals and Final of the Gold Cup, is £5 per adult, under 12s free, and you can watch some of the best players in the world all in a spectacular setting. We would welcome all of your readers at Cowdray Park Polo Club!