Rodney Masters takes a ramble on the famous Manton estate
First published on Thursday, January 26, 2012
On this walk across the roof of the Marlborough Downs on the Sangster family's impeccably maintained Manton estate, where Brian Meehan trains, there is an exhilarating atmosphere of exposure to 150 years of racing history.
While absorbing the striking scenery there is also time to ponder what might have been the present-day scene. Had a plan come to fruition 22 years ago this would by now be a mini-training centre with Barry Hills, Nicky Henderson and Richard Hannon its three predominant inhabitants. Such is the magnitude of Manton, the trio's strings would never have tripped over each other. But the share idea failed to materialise.
Within a furlong or two of leaving the car park it takes little imagination to become cocooned by the colourful past of a training establishment that has captivated public interest almost since Gang Forward, Manton's first Classic winner, was prepared by Alec Taylor on these gallops for the 2,000 Guineas of 1873. More recently, so many top-class horses have stepped this way, including Rodrigo De Triano, Dr Devious, Oasis Dream, Red Rocks and David Junior.
The track from the car park (1 on the map and directions) splits a variety of grass gallops on the left and a mix of all-weathers to the right. Further along this track, there is a Polytrack gallop on the right with grass gallops, known as Clatford Gallops, again to the left. Mantraps once set near here to discourage touts from watching horses work have long since been dismantled, be assured.
When Taylor died, his son Alec jnr took command and Manton was to enter a sinister, yet lucrative, period with 21 Classic winners that saw the 'Wizard of Manton', as Taylor was known, champion trainer on a dozen occasions. Taylor was authoritarian beyond any modern-day comparison. The estate became a Colditz-style fortress. Secrecy was paramount to Taylor and it was he who ordered the mantraps. His staff had their mail censored. They were sacked if they broke a strict curfew or were overheard discussing the horses with strangers in Marlborough.
In 1918 a Leeds businessman, Joseph Watson, bought the estate with a stipulation that Taylor continued to train there. Watson substantially expanded the farming acreage and developed an extensive model farm that became one of the first mechanised arable downland farms in Britain. Watson was made a peer and became Lord Manton but died two years later after a fall while hunting. The estate was purchased by Tattersalls who, on Taylor's retirement, promoted his assistant Joseph Lawson.
One of Manton's finest, Lawson was to train ten Classic winners over 20 years. In 1931 he headed the trainers' championship with £93,899 in prize-money without winning a Classic – a record that stood for 26 years.
In 1947 Tattersalls sold the estate to George Todd, who was to be the trainer for the next 26 years. He won the St Leger and Irish Derby with Sodium but was best known for his stayers, as illustrated by Trelawny, who won the Ascot Stakes and Queen Alexandra Stakes at the same royal meeting and the Goodwood Cup in 1963. When Todd retired in 1973 Manton slipped into its quietest phase, with George Peter-Hoblyn and Robert Baker training just a few horses. It was all but forgotten.
The track from the car park arrives at another track (2), which is part of the Old Coach Road from London to Bath. Nearby is the 'Derby gallop' which, like Epsom, rises 150 feet in seven furlongs. A slight detour and you can read the board detailing the area's history and containing information on Fyfield Down; this comes highly recommended.
After returning to the gate to Rockley (3), you find yourself at a point where the Marlborough Downs are 810ft above sea level. The track to the right of the woods (4) meanders through gorse and sarsen stones, the latter used by prehistoric man in the building of Avebury and Stonehenge.
Immediately before the gate, to your left, there is a vast carpet of rocks created by the action of silica filtering through sand 20-50 million years ago, creating an incredibly hard stone. Erosion has exposed them at the surface here. They were once so numerous it was said it was possible to walk across the Downs stepping from stone to stone, but having been exploited by prehistoric man, the Romans and locals, English Heritage and the National Trust stepped in during the 1950s to protect those that remained. Much of this area is a nature reserve and farming is carried out sensitively by the Manton estate.
After crossing the stone track (5) the woodland to the left is The Beeches; this area was a haunt of highwaymen in times past. One gang was infamous for attacking in the nude, the thinking being that no victim would remember their faces. Rejoin the Old Coach Road (6), with the mile-long Barton grass gallop emerging on the right. It is said that a traveller lost on the Downs in bad weather was saved by hearing the bells of St Mary's in nearby Marlborough and left money to pay for a bell to be rung at 9pm every night to guide other lost souls to a warm bed in the town. The custom terminated soon after the outbreak of the first world war.
When the time comes to branch out across the gallop (7) the clock tower of Manton House and the air strip windsock can be seen. Beyond is the stable block known as the Astor Yard.
The Astor Yard is a reminder of the period when public focus on Manton intensified like never before. It followed the successful offer made by Robert Sangster's company Swettenham Stud for Manton in 1984. Sangster appointed Michael Dickinson, the Paul Nicholls of his generation, as private trainer. Dickinson, a genius in many respects but an intense character and a stickler for detail, strived to modernise. He spent his first 18 months on restoration, including the building of the Astor and Barton yards, both of which can be seen here and also towards your right soon after you walk away from the car park. Dickinson must be credited for the splendid vista of today - he planted 30,000 trees and ordered the removal of 25 miles of barbed wire. This was a paradise for thoroughbreds; ungratefully, they failed to respond.
At the midway point of his four-year contract he was sacked by Sangster, who said: "We do have fundamental differences of opinion which have made things very hard for both of us."
More recently, Manton trainers with Classic winners include Barry Hills, Peter Chapple-Hyam, John Gosden and, for Meehan, there have been notable wins in some of the world's richest races in the US and Dubai.
Hills so adored training from Manton that when Sangster briefly struck a rocky financial period he offered it to the trainer for £15 million. Hills attempted to put together the consortium of trainers, including Henderson and Hannon, but he fell £3m short. As a result, he returned to Lambourn, succeeded at Manton by his assistant Peter Chapple-Hyam. It proved an inspired appointment, the youngster taking up the challenge with relish. Apart from Rodrigo De Triano and Dr Devious, his stars included Turtle Island, Spectrum and White Muzzle.
When that association ended after eight years, John Gosden moved in 2000 and hit the place running with Lahan's win in the 1,000 Guineas. When six years later he returned to Newmarket, Meehan was headhunted; he now has 140 horses.
After crossing the track to Manton House (8) and finally crossing the Polytrack all-weather seen earlier in the walk (9), rejoining the track takes you back to the car park. There are expansive views across the Downs with another chance to see the gallops on both sides and the hills beyond.
In the biography Frankincense and More by Robin Oakley, Hills said of Manton: "It was a romantic place. It was the best place in the country to train horses. It had everything. It is so lovely there is no need to go anywhere else."
But he added a note of caution. "The gardener said to me once: 'Mr Hills, if you don't beat this place it will beat you'. And I think he was right. It's the sort of place you've got to get up every morning and hit with a stick - you've got to make it work."
This walk will give an inkling of what he meant.
How to get there Take the A4 from Marlborough towards Calne. On leaving Marlborough take the first turning right after reaching the unrestricted speed zone (Downs Lane), signposted Manton House and Hollow. This is a single track road with passing places. Follow this lane for 1.2 miles
Parking Just before a sign saying Private Road, turn into the public car park on your left
Walk distance Approx 4.5 miles
Difficulty 2 out of 5. Stone tracks and grassy paths. One slope up and down across gallops. No stiles
Refreshments The Outside Chance, 71 High Street, Manton, Marlborough, Wiltshire, SN8 4HW. Tel: 01672 512 352 theoutsidechance.co.uk (located in Manton village, signposted left on leaving Marlborough on the A4 to Calne). In addition, there is a wide variety of pubs, restaurants and cafes in Marlborough. Have a look at marlboroughwiltshire.co.uk/ marlborough-restaurants.html
Points of interest Gallops and downland, an old Coach road, a haunt of prehistoric man and highwaymen
Ordnance Survey Map OS Explorer 157 Marlborough & Savernake Forest
1. Walk out of the car park away from the entrance and turn right along a track, signposted Avebury and Hackpen.
2. After about 1.4 miles at the end of the track there is an enclosed reservoir.
Turn left, signposted Avebury.
3. The route takes the next grass track right through a gate just a short distance away, signposted Hackpen.
However, a slight detour to read the information board ahead is recommended. After making the detour, return to the Hackpen signpost and go through the gate.
Follow the grass track towards the woods in the distance, approx a third of a mile.
4. Just before the woods, the grass track is crossed by another grass track.
Turn right here and continue along this track as it winds its way through gorse and sarsen stones.
5. The track comes to a metal gate.
Go through this gate, cross a stone track and continue ahead on the track opposite, shortly reaching woodland on the left.
Stay on this track.
6. At a junction bear left back on to the stone track of the Old Coach Road.
7. After about a third of a mile, look carefully for a gap in the gallops fence on your right, where there is a waymark sign for a footpath across the gallops.
Go right, through the gap and downhill, crossing further gallops to an area of hedged woodland, where another waymark post directs you uphill, with the woodland to the left.
Here a sign requests walkers to keep any dogs under control to protect wildlife.
8. Cross a track leading to Manton House and continue ahead uphill until you cross the Polytrack allweather you passed earlier.
9. Turn left to rejoin the track from the car park and retrace your steps back to your car.