Vintage Riding Schools – Heather Hall

This blog initially appeared on my old website, which is gradually being transferred.

If you took Pony Magazine in the 1970s and before, you might remember an occasional feature it did called Round the Riding Schools. The sort of riding school that got itself featured here taught you to ride the right way, with instructors who were the backbone of the British equestrian establishment. Some of the schools featured in the article were very large indeed; others were minute. What many of them have in common, despite their size, is that they no longer exist.

As for the esteemed establishment that taught me to ride, I always hoped that it would feature, but it never did. It wasn’t on quite the same level that Pony Magazine establishments were. The instruction was variable to say the least. There was an ex-Army instructor called Ben, who didn’t last long after he made pupils stand on the ponies’ rumps and ride round facing backwards. Even in an earlier, less health and safety conscious age, this was a bit much for some parents and Ben soon left. My own parents were sublimely unbothered by this. As long as we arrived home in one bit, they did not care what we had got up to in the interim.

Heather Hall Riding School

But questionable though my riding school was, it was all that was available, and so I stuck with it, uneasily aware that there was another, and a better, way. It was that better way that was on offer at the first riding school I’m featuring, Heather Hall Riding School, in Ibstock, Leicestershire.

Some of the riding schools in the Pony article had distinctly glamorous surroundings, and Heather Hall is right up there. It is a large, redbrick Grade II listed house, with a stable block so splendid that it is listed in its own right. The Hall was probably originally built as a farmhouse towards the end of the 18th century, together with the stable block, and it was enlarged at various points.

For most of its history it was owned by the Goode family, and after a spell in the ownership of a clergyman and then an engineer at the beginning of the 20th century, it began its career as a riding stable.

Mrs Kew

Mrs MSM Kew, IIH (IIH stands for Instructor of the Institute of the Horse) set up her first riding school in Bristol. Cribbs Corner began life in 1939, a challenging time to start a riding school. The war saw restrictions on fodder and a falling off in clientele for many schools (Pamela MacGregor Morris’ hero in Blue Rosette finds the advent of war too much for his riding school).

Mrs Kew survived, and when her husband, a lecturer in aircraft propulsion, moved to Loughborough University in 1948, she set up Heather Hall as a riding school. In its earliest years, Heather Hall was also run as a girls’ day and boarding school. Mrs Kew taught both riding and art, having studied art herself at the Slade. St Francis School catered for girls from the age of five, and promised:

…a sound intellectual training together with an appreciation of both town and country pursuits. A qualified staff prepares pupils for Common Entrance and General Certificate examinations. Classes are small. Each child receives individual attention both in the classroom and out of school hours. Special facilities for Riding and Hunting and for students for the examination of the British Horse Society. Inclusive fees:- 45-58 gns per term (boarders) 15-25 gns per term (day pupils).

Schools Handbook, 1955

It strikes me that the promised chance to experience town pursuits was somewhat limited in rural Leicestershire, but that in itself was not reason enough for St Francis to close. It was the introduction of the eleven plus exam, and increasing bureaucracy that saw the school’s closure.

The riding school, however, continued. In 1974, when the Pony article appeared, the school had expanded and now had four qualified instructors, including Nick Creaton, BHSI, now a chief examiner for the BHS, and a saddler. He was associated with Heather Hall from 1973 to 1989, and was chief instructor for much of that time.

Heather Hall
Di Lampard

The school had an excellent reputation, and has some famous alumni, including eventer Ronnie Durrand, and Di Lampard, now Performance Manger for Jumping for the senior British showjumping team.  Di’s earliest riding experiences were of the alarming sort, featuring a Shetland pony called Oscar, who enjoyed scraping his young rider off under trees.

Di’s father decided that riding lessons would be safer, and at the age of six, Di started at Heather Hall. She was taught by Mrs Kew, who she described as “a stickler for the basics”. Di spent most of her early lessons on the lunge, helping Heather Hall maintain its emphasis on discipline and good position in the rider. It obviously worked: by the time she was 10, Di was competing, and she did a one-day event on one of the riding school ponies.

Heather Hall did not just teach children. It was well-known for preparing students for the BHS examinations, including the more advanced teaching qualification, the BHSI. The well-rounded education its students received was helped by visiting instructors like Lisa Shedden, FIH, FBHS, Col AEG Stuart, Jean Mackeness, BHSI, and Jane Turner, BHSI.

Closure

Nick Creaton left Heather Hall in September 1989, when he went freelance, and the school closed in October 1989. Mrs Kew died in January 1995, and Heather Hall was sold. The family who bought Heather Hall had a few liveries, but the riding school was not resurrected.

Heather Hall fell victim to a pattern that seems common in riding schools: a simple lack of someone to take the school on. The Kews had no children, and not many people can provide the huge capital investment necessary to take on and maintain a set of historic buildings, let alone run a business which makes incredible demands on time and energy.

Restoration

Heather Hall, its stables and land were sold in 2014, and planning has now been granted to return Heather Hall to a single house. The historical assessment of the buildings created as part of the planning application makes fascinating reading.

Some of the elements of the riding school are still there; there’s still an indoor school, and the timber stables. There’s still a mounting block made out of millstones. The listed stables retain some of their 19th century fittings, with stall partitions, feeding troughs and hayracks, but the building is, sadly, in an extremely poor state of repair, and in obvious need of much love, attention and money. The new owners have a considerable task on their hands, and they are to be commended for taking it on.

As at 2023, the restoration of the Hall is ongoing, and here are some pictures of how it’s going. It is the most beautiful house.

and some more recent photos (June 2023)

***

Thank you very much to Joshua McLean for sending over pictures of Heather Hall and its refurbishment programme.  All photographs are his copyright.


Sources

Very many thanks to Nick Creaton, formerly chief instructor at Heather Hall, who was an absolutely invaluable source of help. Nick still teaches, as well as acting as a chief examiner for the BHS. He designs saddles and saddlery, and you can find his website here.

Historic Building Assessment of Heather Hall, Trigpoint. North West Leicestershire Planning Department.

The Schools Handbook, 1955

Di Lampard on her first pony, OscarEQ Life, September 7, 2012, retrieved 12 March 2016.

Di Lampard and Heather Hall. Leicester Mercury, May 18, 2015, retrieved 13 March 2016.

Comments

19 responses to “Vintage Riding Schools – Heather Hall”

  1. Jackie Richichi avatar
    Jackie Richichi

    Hi I’ve just been reading your blog. I bought Heather Hall in 1995 along with my late husband, and sold it in 2014 following his death. I like you learnt to ride there, starting in 1966, and never expected to own it later in life. I spent most of my early years there. Alan, Old Nick (Creaton), and Young Nick along with Cindy taught me in the early days.
    The Hall was gutted after I sold it, removing all the features, including the Aga, absolutely nothing left inside, very upsetting. It’s now standing as a shell following the new owner taking his own life in 2018, after he also bought the Lodge House. They are now up for sale again, but will need someone with a very deep purse to reinstate the listed features that have all been removed. It’s very upsetting as I spent 19 years there.

    1. Jane Badger avatar
      Jane Badger

      Dear Jackie – I’m so sorry to hear that the Hall’s former owner took his own life, which must have been devastating for his family. And sad to to hear that the Hall itself is now a shell. As you say, it will need someone with a very deep purse to reinstate it and turn it back into a house. It is upsetting when you see your old house change so drastically, and particularly when it’s now in the state it’s in.

    2. Julie Ikin-Dean avatar
      Julie Ikin-Dean

      Wow.Heather hall is now being beautifully and sympathetically restored by the same family who bought the house from you, all the original features are being tastefully returned following restoration. I do not think an Aga is an original feature or am i mistaken.

      1. Jane Badger avatar
        Jane Badger

        Original features is a bit of a moveable feast. What has to be preserved depends on what was present when the house was actually listed, which can lead to some things you wouldn’t expect having to be kept! Great to hear the new owners are doing such a good job.

  2. Michelle avatar
    Michelle

    Hello, I loved finding this blog as I learnt to ride at the hall riding school when I was 6 from 86 -89. I loved it and when it closed I was super upset! I never found anywhere as friendly as there. I’m now 40 and have just bought my own ( horse) , we live in Sheffield and have a fantastic teacher called Kay – and guess where she started off as a working pupil – good old Heather Hall! So surprised and happy to find out we both had it in common and find out some History.
    Very sorry to hear about the recent owner taking his own life.

    1. Jane Badger avatar
      Jane Badger

      Thank you so much for sharing your memories – it’s lovely to hear that you’ve found a teacher who was at Heather Hall too.

  3. Fergus Moloney avatar

    Hi Jane, I accidently found your log while researching for something else.
    I was chief instructor at Heather Hall for a year or two, before Nick Creaton returned to it in the last years before it closed down. Mrs Kew (+ dogs -Heath & Tweed) and the visiting Nick Creaton created many happy memories. I remember, as a young newly qualified BHS Intermediate Instructor, going into her in the sitting for the daily debriefing chat and being plied with two large whiskys! Also Nick Creaton visited every few weeks to give me coaching and lessons. He helped tremendously with my own riding advancement.
    Sorry to hear of it’s demise, but glad to reminisce.
    PS I spent years previously Under Molly Sivewright at Talland House, Cirencester

    1. Jane Badger avatar
      Jane Badger

      Thank you very much for your comment. Some excellent memories there. It’s good that Talland House, at least, is still going.

  4. Josh McLean avatar
    Josh McLean

    Hi Jane, loved reading your report on the hall as I am, as was my father, largely fascinated with the history of the house and it’s ‘quirky’ beauty with the various turrets and buildings

    Although he passed away back in 2018, we have since taken over the project and can assure that the details inside have not only been restored (as planned), but glorified since the originals were in such awful condition as the hall was largely empty after Mrs Kew passed and no attempts afterwards were made to restore the property

    If you are interested I’d be more than happy to send across some photos of the beauty inside (and out!) after our careful renovation

    Must note though that the aga didn’t last because it was a health hazard !!

    1. Jane Badger avatar
      Jane Badger

      Thank you – it would be wonderful to see some photos! I think you should be able to access my details via the contact element in the main menu, but if not leave a message here.

  5. Catherine Fox avatar
    Catherine Fox

    Hello, I came across your blog and was interested to read the comments. I grew up in Heather , rode there as a child from 1963 to 1974 on leaving school, took our ponies for lessons as we progressed and I was a working pupil and member of staff until its sad demise in 1989. I have a lot of old photos from as far back as Cribbs Corner (Mrs Kew’s family gave them to me to find owners for etc) and I would be happy to share the ones left with anyone interested. The memories of my years at the Hall are ones of hard work, friendships that have lasted a lifetime and horses and ponies that taught me so much and gave me lots of fun!

    1. Wendy Milne (nee Rae) avatar
      Wendy Milne (nee Rae)

      If you have any photos from 1964 to 1966 I would love to see them! Happy days…

    2. admin avatar

      Hello Catherine – it would be lovely to see some photos! The current owners of the hall would also love to see them. You can get in touch via my contact form if you like.

      Best wishes, Jane

  6. Anita Latham avatar
    Anita Latham

    Hi Jane, I stumbled across your blog by accident and what a lovely surprise it was! I was a working pupil at Heather in 1981 and 1982. Nick C was just leaving at that point to run Markfield and was being replaced with the very lovely and talented Jenny Ward, who went on to work at Brampton Stables, where she had much dressage success. Jenny was a fabulous instructor and her lessons were the absolute highlight of a WP’s life and she made the incredibly hard yard work much more fun than it actually was!
    As working pupils we lived in the Hall and were allowed home 1 weekend each month from Saturday morning until Sunday tea time. The ethos was ridgidly Victorian and Mrs Kee took her responsibility for us all very seriously so we never left the grounds between those trips home. We were not allowed out, under any circumstances and it didn’t occur to us to ask. Mrs Kew would have been utterly perplexed had we done so and the request would definitely have been refused!
    We had our own sitting room with a TV and we all slept in the girls bedroom, The Blue Room, which contained 5 beds. It was, without doubt, the coldest place I have ever lived as I was there through the never ending winter of 1981/2, which was the coldest December ever recorded in the UK. The water froze in the glasses by our beds, we all had chilblains and we had to put clothes on to try to get to sleep There was often a line of snow on the old blue carpet each morning due to the rather questionable fit of the sash windows!
    The very lovely Madge was our mother replacement and she ran a warm and inviting kitchen, actually it was the only warm place in the whole house as it housed the gorgeous aga! Madge made sure we didn’t starve and was always ready with a cuddle for a homesick working pupil.
    Jenny managed the impossible and persuaded Mrs Kew that some of the young horses should be competed occasionally, away from the Hall, which was a rare and special treat. I accompanied Jenny with Heather Glen, a homebred mare, for a dressage day out and Mrs Kew packed us off with cheese sandwiches, complete with Mrs Kew’s blood after she must have cut her finger making them! I’m fairly sure we ate them though!!
    Jenny was later succeeded by Peter and Brian, both ex Blues and Royals, with Peter being the CCI. They lived in the Lodge at the bottom of the drive and were great fun. Peter’s lessons were a mixture of wonder and torture and you could find yourself in turn on a beautifully bred youngster with amazing potential, or one of the stalwarts of the riding school, the behemoth that was the gorgeous grey Irish Times who at nearly 18hh was very definitely NOT off the leg, or Martha who would plod along until she decided she had had enough and it was time to bronk around the indoor until her WP was deposited in the sand! When Peter was feeling particularly challenging the stirrups would disappear from the saddles and could stay that way for a good week, but my goodness we learned to ride and loved every single moment! Peter managed to persuade Mrs Kew that hunting with the Atherstone was just the thing for some of the less forward and possibly bored riding school horses and I will never forget being carted across the Leceistershire countryside as a very small girl on a very large Irish Times following the Atherstone hounds and Huntsman over some rather enormous hedges!
    Those of us who came to Heather with a decent amount of riding experience were allowed to school each morning before the WP’s lesson and being lucky enough to be put down on the list to ride the amazing Heathcliffe, Mrs Kews wonderful dressage star was the stuff of dreams. I believe he was later very sadly lost after a kick in the field caused a broken leg.
    Mrs Kew was the tiniest lady but ruled her establishment like someone 3 times the size. We were all slightly terrified of her but she was always held in huge respect and affection. She was never without her very naughty labradors and Heath ate my gorgeous bright red Benetton scarf that my somewhat optimistic mother had bought me for Christmas hoping it would keep me warm! Heather was a challenge, a pleasure and above all a privilege. I always remember her telling my Father, as he left me in her hallway for the first time, “If your daughter can manage to stay a whole year at Heather she will have horses in her life forever”. She was right.

    1. Jane Badger avatar
      Jane Badger

      Thank you so much for your memories. It’s an amazing picture of your time there.

  7. Wendy Milne (nee Rae) avatar
    Wendy Milne (nee Rae)

    How wonderful to read Anita Latham’s post! I was feeling nostalgic so Googled Heather Hall and found this site. I rode at Heather Hall from only 1964 to 1966 when we moved from Leicestershire and it was such a special time in a magical place. I rode a little grey pony called Feather who would jump anything! Mrs Kew was this tiny, formidable figure who we would see riding in the distance followed by her dogs. I don’t remember the name of her horse at that time but he was magnificent. I look back on that brief time with such fond memories.

  8. John marshall avatar
    John marshall

    Great reading all about Heather Hall and all the happy memories would be nice for more history on other riding schools so many now in history books Allerton Equitation School at Alconbury Hill wad very popular and now had a gacebook group for fans also Mill Lodge memories and BSJA memories are on facebook .What other schools did Pony Magazine cover?..🐴🐎

    1. admin avatar

      Oh lots – it was a regular feature. When pressure of work abates a bit I will add more. Thanks for the heads up on the ones you know about. It’s a great help.

  9. Helen Wilkie avatar
    Helen Wilkie

    Hi Wendy, I LOVED Feather, a little grey pony with such a great character, kept in the stables near the feeding station? I was privileged enough to ride a pony called Philbert, and a dainty classy pony called Cocoanut. Mrs Kew was great to me. The Head Girl was Carol (Simmons?) when I was there. I remember having some of Mrs Kews soup with “fag ash” in. Oh dear hey? I left my dressing gown on the top of my bed and the buttons or certainly a button was chewed off, by a mouse?!

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