The home of British polo

 

A family

 

affair

 

 

For the Pearsons, polo is a family tradition and has been so, long before Viscount Cowdray revived the sport after the war and launched the Gold Cup –  polo’s most prestigious trophy.

 

Text and photos Camilla Alfthan

 

The Gold Cup was launched in 1956 by the third Viscount Cowdray also known as the “Father of British polo”. Set in an area of lush forests and rolling hills  within the Viscount’s 16,500 acre estate, polo has been played here for over a century as the first competitive tournaments were recorded in 1910.

A lot has happened since the Viscount revived the sport and started to build England’s leading arsenal of ponies – he even captained his home team despite having lost his left arm during the battle in Dunkirk.

The sport has become professional with an increasing number of sponsors from the luxury world. On the Viscount’s home turf, several members of his family have played the galloping game, including his 18-year old grandson, George Pearson, who is one of Britain’s most promising young talents.

 

Four generations of polo

 

If the blond teenager has a Nordic allure about him it is not coincidential.

His mother is the Danish polo player, Lila Pearson.  His older sister, Carinthia, is also infected with the polo bug, just as their father, Charles, who played 16 high goal seasons and just as many Gold Cups before hanging up his boots.

As the third generation in a sport which was first played by his grandfather Charles Pearson is a walking polo dictionary.

 

”My father was always very enthusiastic and he always encouraged people to play. It was his passion.

He  was very keen on horses and he did everything. He even stayed an extra year at Oxford to win the Christ Church Steeplechase three times in order to match his own father’s record,” he tells.

 

“My father stayed an extra year at Oxford to win the Christ Church Steeplechase three times to match his own father’s record.”

 

In 1939 the Viscount took a year off in the States where he played in Oakbrook, Chicago, with players such as Winston Guest and Robert Skeene. When he came back just before the beginning of the war he sent his ponies off to Scotland to keep them safe.

 

Despite having to play with an artificial arm, polo remained his biggest passion. In 1949 he played on the English team in the Argentine Open.

Several years later, he took a squad to Argentina at a time when you could only bring out 50 pounds out of the country.

 

”In 1938 he was a 4-goaler but after the war, he went down to one and he felt that he was rather a hindrance to his team. So he gave up in 1962 and after that he umpired until the 1970s.”

 

When Charles Pearson took over from his father it was with great success. With his Cowdray Park team he entered three Gold Cup finals and won the Queen’s Cup twice; the first time in 1985.

 

”I was a 3-goaler but George will be a lot better than I – the standard has gone up since then. It was always very competitive but people’s approach today is very different.

 

The style has evolved a lot, in part, as there’s been several changes in the rules. In the fifties and sixties, the games were very open and very fast like a horse race. Then, in the 1990s there was a lot of tapping of the ball due to the imbalance of the teams.”

 

The biggest change in British polo happened during the Falkland’s war when the Argentine professionals were banned from playing on British soil during seven years from 1982 -1989.

 

”The rules were very strict. If you had an Argentine on your team you were banned from the HPA.

Most people thought the sport would suffer but in reality it had the opposite effect. It opened the door to many new British players. When the ban was lifted the amount of teams exploded.  In 1990 there were 22 teams in the Gold Cup – the highest number ever. The Argentines came back on reasonable terms.”

 

The Ladies’ turn

 

The amount of women players also increased. In the Pearson family it all began when Charles’ wife, Lila, one day asked if she could keep two ponies that he was going to sell as they weren’t good enough for high goal. When a professional from Cowdray Park heard of it he invited Lila to come and play.

 

”I became obsessed with the game. The following year I became a chucker member. And then it went on from there. I played until the eighth month of both my pregnancies as it was the only time I did not feel nauseated.”

 

Her first competition was at Cirencester where Mark Vestey was celebrating the club’s 100th anniversary. To do so, he’d arranged an exhibition match with his eldest daughter, Tamara. As he knew Lila had started playing he asked her to participate with Cowdray Park.

 

”Charles was against it but his father thought it was a good idea. So that settled it. I played my very first match – quite a baptism of fire!” she laughs.

 

When her husband retired from the sport, Lila took over as the captain of their home team. In 2001, she even entered the semis of the Gold Cup as the first woman ever, captaining a 22-goal team with none other than Carlos Gracida, Gabriel Donoso and Charles Beresford.

 

“I played until the eighth month of both my pregnancies – it was the only time of the day I did not feel nauseated.”

 

Eight years later she founded Cowdray Vikings where the Danish flag is emblazoned in the historic Cowdray crest.

 

As a modern image of the fearless vikings, Lila grew up at the historic Broholm Estate on the island of Fuen where her cousin, Anne Lütken, has hosted the national dressage championships.

Her own dressage background has also influenced her polo as she carefully schools her younger horses to make them as handy as possible before they start to play.

 

40 chuckers in five days

 

She doesn’t just compete with the boys. Two summers in a row she has won the British Ladies Open Championship with the Argentine professional, Lia Salvo on her team.

 

”It’s a completely different game when we’re all at the same level. It’s great fun,” says Lila, who also managed to make a family team with George and Carinthia.

When both were at school during the start of the season she had to train the horses all alone, at one point playing 40 chuckers in five days.

 

”One of our best memories was when we played in Barbados and made it to the final. The horses that the organisers had given us were terrible, and on the day of the final they mysteriously disappeared. But it was good fun. Today, my only regret is that my father-in-law never lived to see us all play. I’m sure he would have been very proud and happy.

 

Time for some Polo mints – Lila Pearson and her two sister ponies from New Zealand.

A fight for the Polo mints

Like father like son

Father and son – Charles and George Pearson, a fourth generation polo player.

 

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