Hardy riderstands Tess of time in Lowestoft

WHEN Tess Hardy set up her riding school, Clement Attlee was prime minister, Lowestoft's fishing industry was still thriving and Bing Crosby and Perry Como were topping the charts.

But 65 years on, the business is still going strong – and so too is its redoubtable owner.

Tess established the Pakefield Riding School in 1946 while the Lowestoft area was, like the rest of the country, coming to terms with the harsh realities of life in the aftermath of the second world war.

Over the past six-and-a-half decades, she has become well-known in the community for her charity work and as a respected figure in local equestrian circles – earning her an MBE for services to the disabled. And this year the school won an Active Waveney Sport Award for Most Valuable Contribution to Disabled Sport.

Two weeks ago, Tess was joined by friends, family and other guests as the riding school hosted a celebration that marked her 65th year in business and honoured her achievements. A number of show and competition horses were on display, and there was a special performance by riders with Downs Syndrome.

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Tess, now 79, said: 'It was just lovely. My manageress Teresa and all my staff put on a wonderful display. It was a complete surprise, because they had been telling me to go home when they were rehearsing.'

The celebration was also attended by former and current members of the school, staff and acquaintances from the equine world. Tess was presented with gifts including a bronze horse sculpture, champagne and a photo album.

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Reflecting on the huge changes she has witnessed, she said things were a lot different when she started out: 'I always used to ride everywhere in a headscarf and bare back, you couldn't do that anymore,' she said.

With a touch of irony, she added: 'When I see all the health and safety regulations that are around nowadays I wonder how I've survived all this time!'

Tess brought her first horse, Bonny Lass, from Beccles Market when she was just 14, using money saved up through selling her dolls' house, a small inheritance from an aunt and doing gardening work or former Norwich City FC chairman Geoffrey Watling.

Bonny Lass was getting on in years and she was advised no to buy her, but despite this she loved her and rode her bare back for a whole year because she could not afford a saddle.

She began charging people a few pennies to ride Bonny Lass – and soon found she had enough to buy another.

Tess said: 'It all started when I was 14. I hated school, so as soon as I hit 14 I left. When I started, the war had just finished, things were so different then. Once I had more than one horse, I got a contract at Pontins,

'I used to give rides on the beach along the dunes, dodging holes where mines had been exploded after the war.'

Having secured that contract with Pontins at the age of 16, Tess and her helpers would collect customers from the camp at Pakefield and lead them on horseback down the roads to the beach on her bicycle.

'When I started the horses were a real attraction, now they (Pontins) have different attractions like arcade machines, so they don't use us anymore. They like their customers to stay in the camp, so I just leave my brochures there and people come to us if they are interested,' she said.

Tess initially called her venture Castleton Riding School after her father, Stewart Castleton Cooper who, she says, was always a great support to her. By 1948 she had acquired a few more horses and moved to the school's current 'yard'.

Tess also did a spot of costume modelling in her early adulthood, and ran a gymkhana at Nicholas Everitt Park, where once she rode piggy-back on a French tight rope walker while he walked across the tightrope!

Eventually, though, she had enough money saved up to buy land on which to build an indoor riding school.

'I got my first horse, then another and another... it gradually progressed from there,' she said.

'And then I bought the land. It's a long story really! It's been quite an adventure.'

The school began offering riding sessions for the disabled, leading to Tess being made an MBE in the 1970s. Now more than 100 disabled children and adults ride at the school, in Carlton Road, every week.

'It's not just about what they (disabled riders) get physically,' she said. 'I mean it does help them, but it has benefits other than the physical. For example, there was one little boy who never spoke, but once, when I'd ask the kids at the end 'what do you put your feet into when you get on a horse?', he put his hand up, and after what seemed like ages, and he had gone red in the face, he eventually blurted out 'stirrups!', and he began to speak and open up from that time on. It's what riding can do – it's really a very stimulating thing.'

Away from the riding school, Tess has managed to find time to bring up her family; she and her husband John have a son, James and a daughter, Arabella and also one grand-daughter, Harriett.

But with 65 years in business now behind her, Tess shows no signs of stopping – she's been to Portugal to view horses four times already this year. But when she does call it a day, she'll have plenty of fond memories.

'The highlights for me are seeing the benefits to the disabled riders and teaching the children,' she said.

'I've seen three generations grow up, and people still come up to me and say 'you taught my grandmother' and so on, which I will always cherish.'

? For more on Pakefield Riding School, visit: www.pakefieldridingschool.co.uk

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