Thursday, 9 October 2008

horse stories : orchard portman

A meeting with Tom Mayberry, from the Somerset County Records Office, famous for his knowledge of the Portman family. Tom has written a book, "Orchard and the Portmans" about this very significant family, whose Manor house was at the edge of the Neroche land near Taunton.

I wasn't so interested in the general history of the family - my focus was on two things:
firstly - how had Orchard Portman Manor, such a distinguished and architecturally defining house, come to have been so completely erased from the landscape - nothing remains of it - a tremendous 'passing through'. And secondly - how horses had fundamentally participated in the history, culture and geography of the family.

I am continually struck in Neroche - in fact all across England - by how defining the horse has been as a companion, worker, traveller, helper, competitor, vehicle and accomplice. Perhaps because of my own pony -club-pony-obsessive background, I ally horse culture with land and farming, with countryside and rural communities far more than with hunting and class structures, but of course, I acknowledge my personal history is influential here, and horse breeding, hunting and racing are all defined by wealth and land ownership.

(In a recent conversation with my friend Dan discussing hunting as a right wing class-driven activity, I questioned why it was that hunting had been banned, when to my mind all sorts of much more complicated and painful human-animal relations (shipping of live animals, vivisection for example) seemed to be equally important. He said he understood it as Labour's pay back for Thatcher taking apart the miners and the unions. And suddenly it all made sense...)

So, Tom tells a fascinating history of the Portmans, and I tell him of an earlier walk I had done to look at the site of Orchard Portman. The absence was nothing but striking - was it typhoid in the water system that they couldn't banish that precipitated such erasure? a crumbling unkempt mansion destroyed by lack of investment? an over eager estate manager bent on stone recycling? No matter - it is extraordinary that simply nothing remains. He showed me a map, I take a photograph and compare it with google earth images.

I recalled my walk there, and the bizarre conjunction between the church and the back of the racecourse that i couldn't forget - the hundred or so metres between the ancientness of the church and the presentness of the racing stables are palpable. If you're interested in gaps, in tears in the fabric of time, this is a good one.

And I also recalled something I'd heard - that at one time, you could travel the whole way between Neroche and London on Portman land.

Then some connections made between my own research and Tom's oral Portman history through the horse:

- Taunton Racecourse overlaying the site of the Orchard Portman Estate
- the Portman Hunt at Blandford Forum: Brynaston in Dorset was the other 'family seat'
- the local myth-story of the ghost of Rachel Portman galloping on a white horse on the 'old road' by Bickenhall
- and The Jockey Club was, until recently, based in Portman Square in London.

The horse is written in, inscribed into the family, into the land all the way from Neroche to London.

A link here for a general history of the Portmans (scroll down to Orchard Portman). Here for the Portman Estate in London, and here for an outline of their heritage.
Here for Taunton Racecourse. Here for the Portman Hunt.
And here for 'who owns London' - scroll down to the Portman section.

I am sure there are further connections to be eked out ... the Portman estate having to give land to the Crown for death duties - even now much of Neroche is owned by the Crown ... the galloping hooves of the Monmouth Rebellion passing through from Ilminster to the Portman estate, the pony-club-horse-culture of Neroche ... my residing memory of the Blackdown Hills Pony Club as the most courageous, the fastest in the west, their ponies were the fleetest ...

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