Last weekend at Wiston Park in Steyning thousands of people gathered together to celebrate the age of steam and it was wonderful to see young and old joining together to be part of a community event. The Wiston Steam Fair is volunteer-led, no big corporations, just charitable organisations and local businesses keen to commemorate the development of the commercial steam engine and show-off their steam-related contraptions. It’s a far cry from the digital world we live in now and it’s a reminder of life before automation when people lived and worked in the country, handcrafting goods in workshops and not washing their hands. Then steam power replaced wind and water power as a means to drive machinery during the industrial revolution in the late 19th century and humanity plunged down a new trajectory that would change the face of the world in many ways.
Thankfully the mid-morning sun was a pleasant 19c as opposed to the crazy 26c the south coast had endured over the previous few days, so the grass felt cool under my paws and John didn’t have to pack my frozen water bottle which I lick when I get too hot. As we wandered along the rows of exhibits, my senses were stirred by bizarre sounds and smells like the pungent whiff of hot-dogs and chips and the discordant mix of tunes from the carnival rides and the fairground organ. I stood mesmerised by the carousel going round and round with the porcelain ponies going up and down and I had to fight the urge the jump up for a ride. I thought it would be fun and I was sure an attractive black feline would get a discount on the admission price so I hopped on, picturing myself sitting debonair atop a haughty horse. Sadly the reality was quite different and the undulating flow of movement gave me motion sickness. I stepped carefully towards the edge of the merry-go-round swaying back and forth when my John appeared from nowhere and scooped me into his arms. Well that was fine, there was no time for frivolity anyway as John was keen to ditch the digital for the day and start using his old-fashioned second-hand film camera.
There were hundreds of exhibits as well as displays of more than 50 different steam machines from rollers to locomotives, lorries and traction engines. Some of them were rusty and dirty straight from the farm, while others looked pristine coated in shiny paints of burgundy or British racing green. Whatever the condition of the engine, each one was tended to with pride by people tinkering with mechanical parts or polishing brass-work and wooden panels. A little girl waved at me as she drove her miniature plough past me and the cheeky miniature train driver tooted his klaxon which made my jump. John and I caught the trailer ride up the hill and I’ve never seen so many buses in one place before. Yellow, green and red double-deckers as far as my eyes could see, along with old military vehicles, bicycles and motorcycles. We followed the vintage vehicle parade down to the next field while I scanned the spectacle for a yellow Robin Reliant van labelled Trotters Independent Traders. Although I didn’t see any faces I recognised from Only Fools and Horses, there were plenty of Del Boys around, like this guy eating an ice-cream with his rusty brown dog who was wagging his tail furiously while he licked his vanilla cone.
I like horses and I know they like me because I was once kissed by a horse on a fence. I was on the fence, not the horse, and it was moist and bristly but nonetheless enjoyable. The beautiful white lippizan horses you see in these pictures live at the Stanglwirt Riding School in Kitzbuhel, Austria and they did not seem like the type of horse to go around kissing unknown cats on fences. As John and I arrived by car to the Riding School as part of our Austria weekend, the lippizan horses pranced and skipped in perfect motion from their warm dry stables out on to the snow covered field before them. I watched their tails swish charmingly from side to side and their manes flow almost magically as they broke into a canter in front of us.
I decided there and then that they weren’t the only ones who could waltz around looking all willowy and elegant. So when John opened the car door I lifted my nose high into the air and puffed out my chest just as one of the horses looked towards me. Perfect timing! With one nimble action I leapt from the seat but unfortunately landed awkwardly on a patch of ice resulting in a minor skid and slight stumble. Thankfully I recovered my poise quickly at which point I swiftly turned around to hop straight back in the car. Boy that snow was cold and my knees were wet where I’d hit the deck!
After a marathon licking session my fur was back in place and I was a snug as a bug in a rug, having wrapped myself up in my favourite blanket on the back seat. I looked through the window and couldn’t help feel a sense of admiration at the stunning lippizaners so impressive with their smooth tresses of hair and muscular frames. This noble breed is renowned for graceful movements and magnificent physiques, as well as liveliness and good natures. They are born dark brown, black or grey until the white coat appears between the ages of 6 and 10. Apparently there are less than 3000 in the whole world so they are highly prized in equine circles. The horses at the Stanglwirt Riding School were clearly cherished by the humans who cared for them and I could tell by their well-groomed coats, clean hooves and happy temperaments that all their needs were met. After performing some of their stylish dressage moves, they played in the snow, flicking it around with their powerful legs and chasing after each other. They reminded me of the lambs I’ve seen frolicking around in the fields at home and I smiled to myself as it occurred to me that I’m not the only dignified animal who likes to fool around for amusement. I miss teddy!
If they made wellies for cats, I would have worn them. Unfortunately a soft knitted sock from your auntie might be a kind thought but is not going to keep your paws warm on the cold hard ground of an Austrian winter wonderland! As you can see from the photos, the vista was like a scene from a Christmas card, with piles of snow balancing on the top of fences, bending the branches of thick evergreens and glistening in the distance. This was the sight that greeted John and I as we headed out from the hotel in Kitzbuhel to watch the snow polo world cup. Who knew there was a snow polo world cup?!
John wanted to take me with him on his trip to Austria for a winter weekend break while he flexed his photography muscles at the 2016 snow polo championships and I enjoyed a rest from the photography business. Ok let’s be realistic, it’s hard enough to operate the focus mode switch on my equipment with my thumb and dewclaw, but I cannot seriously be expected to do it in 2°c with 5 cm of snow on the ground. So we both decided it would be sensible for me to stay on my blanket in the car while John stood at the edge of the pitch to capture the action.
The objective of polo is to score points against the opposing team by driving a ball into the opponents’ goal using a long-handled mallet. It sounds simple but there are a multitude of complex rules to follow such as tapping the ball on the correct side in the correct way or ensuring that the player in the line of the ball or at the smallest angle to the ball has the right of way. You would have thought that the horses end up crashing into each other or someone gets walloped in the eye with that big stick, but the rules are designed to promote the safety of the ponies and their riders and it seemed to work.
There were 3 players per team and it was all quite civilised as the players pushed the surprisingly large ball around the surprisingly small pitch. I suppose the pitch can’t be too big or they’d be worn out very quickly and the ball needs to be reasonably sized (it was about the size of a cantaloupe melon) and brightly coloured red so it can be seen. The ball is very light so the players need to strike it carefully so keep it on the ground. The horses have special shoes so they don’t slip and there are about 5 horses per player, so one horse plays for a few minutes before being taken to a warm dry box while the next horse makes an appearance. I was impressed at the agility of the horses as they were able to leap forward, stop and turn in an instant, and they seemed to anticipate where the ball was going and how the rider needed to play. John got some great shots and my favourites show the glistening snow being scattered into the air under the hooves of the horses. I’m amazed that John managed to operate the focus mode switch on his equipment considering the number of layers he had on! But he’s not the type to let thermal gloves, a cotton layer, a fleece layer, a waterproof layer and an insulated beanie get in the way of a good photo opportunity!
John went up to Felbridge Showground in East Grinstead the other day for a commercial shoot of some brand new Equihunter horse boxes. Look how shiny! These luxury horseboxes are nothing short of the best in the field of horseboxes, and I should know having been to Felbridge to test them out. This involved some strenuous activities such as sitting and laying for prolonged periods in different positions in the splendid lounge/kitchenette area behind the driving cabin, as well as interviewing the horses for their opinions on comfort and safety levels. I was tempted to go back to Felbridge to see my horsey friend who nudged me with his soft bristly nose on my last visit, but I had other plans.
While John was in Felbridge earning his pennies, I went to a music shop to spend them! I’ve always had a musical ear which I’m sure John will confirm as he has heard me meow many a song while listening to the Saga-louts perform their rockin’ tunes. So he offered to buy me a special item for my new hobby, a keyboard which I can learn to play and hopefully one day entertain him with in appreciation of the gift. I came home with a great Roland V-Combo which has more buttons on it than the Kennedy Space Centre! So watch this space because all I need is a few weeks to practice my arpeggios and then I’ll learn to play a proper song. It will be so much fun. I remember playing as a little kitten, leaping across the keys from middle C, hitting a G major scale and finishing with a basic blues. So I’m hoping that this practice in my early years will help me have another go this time round. Wish me luck! I’ll keep you posted.
This is a moment for celebration and I wanted to take the opportunity to thank you lovely readers for your commitment and interest in Shad the Cat’s blog. The reason for celebration is that I’ve had 10,000 views. I love sharing my escapades and reflections with you and I sincerely hope you enjoy reading about them. I do have a tendency to contemplate life and sometimes it’s hard for me as a cat to live in a world I don’t always understand. But I try not to grumble too much despite all the crazy and often unkind things that go on in this beautiful world. I hope to continue spreading a little smile across all your faces in the months to come and give you a few insights into the unique requirements of the feline variety, as well as some other of my other furry, scaly and prickly friends from the animal kingdom.
The early morning spring light was veiled by the heavy mist that lingered across the green gallops forming the backdrop for a location photography shoot John and I attended a few days ago. Regular readers will know how much I love being in the countryside spending time with nature, so you can imagine how excited I was to get up close and personal with some of the fastest and highest prized horses in the world. We were attending a course that took place in Newmarket (apparently the ‘headquarters’ of horse racing) with dinner and an overnight hotel stay included.
The food was delicious and the other photographers were friendly, although there’s always one who thinks he knows it all and kept flashing his equipment at the table. I managed to exchange a couple of surreptitious eyebrow raises with the silver-haired guy opposite me and remembered an old Chinese proverb which, in my words, goes something like this – “he who brags loudest, shoots daftest”! I noticed a man with thinning light brown hair and a quiff look sternly at me. Apparently he didn’t think a cat should be at the dinner table. But I soon impressed him with my impeccable manners, being sure not to slouch, put my paws on the table or lick anything below the waist!
Now I do like my peace and quiet at night and that’s exactly what I got when I went to sleep on a soft pillow at the bottom of the bed John slept in. I woke to the joyful sound of birdsong while it was still dark. I do like the birds and being a domesticated and sophisticated feline photographer, my instincts to chase them are well controlled thanks to my keen cognitive abilities, pursuit of photography and John’s exemplary care (he makes sure I have plenty of games to keep my mind occupied). When we went down to breakfast, the staff remembered me from the night before and gave me some extra salmon and scrambled eggs to keep my fur silky and prepare me for the busy day ahead.
Nothing had prepared me for strolling across the gallops just after dawn with hundreds of racehorses gathering around to do their morning workouts. They were so tall and muscular, their short shining coats glistening with sweat and hot air blasting out of their nostrils as they snorted and whinnied their way past me. I must admit I was slightly nervous when one of them stopped directly in front of me and lowered his head, but he gently pushed his big soft nose against my cheek as though he knew I needed some encouragement and from that moment on, I was well away!
He introduced me to the stable cat – a striped tabby boy who sat proudly on the ground watching the riders and trainers head out with the horses while the staff and grooms stayed behind to work in the yard. And did they work! Heavy wheelbarrows and water buckets were used to clear up the copious amounts of dust, dirt and manure that get caught in the most unattractive of places. The bedding is changed in the barns every day, the tack must be cleaned down and the horses feet must be picked to remove all the muck I presume. Apparently I’m not the only animal that needs to clean the toe jam from between my tootsies. But unlike some animals, I don’t do it in public! After a day at the stables I didn’t exactly smell delicious, so I packed up early to begin my washing routine and let John mingle with the rest of the photographers, smiling at the ladies and admiring the gee-gees
Here are some rather stylish images (though I say so myself!) John and I captured when we took another jaunt to the Felbridge Showground. This horsebox is for sale and is 3½ tonne as opposed to the 7½ tonne vehicle I told you about a few months ago. John’s friend took the horsebox in to the jumping ring and we were lucky enough to find a nice rider willing to pose for us in one of the photos. Horse and rider appeared so dignified that I couldn’t resist a closer look, so I hopped up on to a fence where I was level with the horse’s face.
Soon all dignity had gone out the window as we were nuzzling and shnozzling unashamedly. I’m not normally given to swooning, but I am a cat after all, and when I find something I like, I have to rub myself against it!! He had a lovely big nose with soft lips and short thick whiskers, and every time he huffed and whinnied, hot air blew out of his large round nostrils. I like horses, they’re loyal and work hard, and I’ve seen some horses happily let a cat have a snooze on their back too.
It was raining on the day so I spent most of the time lounging around inside the horsebox, enjoying a nap on the cream leather seats of the cabin, checking out my reflection in the mirror and watching John contort himself into all sorts of weird and wonderful positions to get some good shots. He had wet knees and frizzy hair by the time we left. On the way home, he made a remark about my apparent lack of exertion during the day, but I explained that I was conducting research in the vehicle, serious corporate quality assurance work, all part of the business. He rolled his eyeballs and smiled while I shut my eyes for a late afternoon siesta. It’s a cats life!