August 19-21, 2022, was the Weekend of Coaching in Newport R I. This is a spectacular event, resplendent and memorable to anyone who has seen it. Like a major production of an opera or stage play, there are elaborate backdrops and paraphernalia. When the photos began to show up on Instagram and Facebook, they brought back memories from my time on the box seat of our road coach, The Viking. For many years, we participated in these weekends in Newport.
This is how it started; a small beginning, which gave birth to a whole lifestyle and generated great fun and adventure. It was such an honest way to work our way into a world we admired. We took slow, sure steps to achieve our goal without breaking the bank or coming in under false pretenses. We earned it.
It began in 1968 when my parents witnessed a weekend of “coaching in Newport.” It was the first of its kind in decades. It was organized by the few coaching people who were enjoying this sport. Chauncy Stillman, Jack Seabrook, the Robinsons, Jack Pemberton. The next time the event came around three years later (I think), we were in Newport to watch it. We fell in love with the sport. Frolic Weymouth, who was young then and relatively new to the sport, encouraged us. I remember him saying, “You two are just perfect!” but I did not know what he meant at the time.
We were a foxhunting family already. We loved horses. We had space, and we had some income to get started with. We had no idea what we were getting involved in. We were innocent but thrilled to be beginning a journey. We were another ‘damn fool’ couple wanting to own a road coach. What fun!
We started with one horse and a small cart with shafts for driving a single. We discovered that Charley’s hunter Easy Rider was broken to harness and so we borrowed a cart and borrowed harness and began driving just the one horse. The pace of a horse and cart is magic. Slower by far than a car but faster than a slow walk, you can enjoy nature and not tire your body out. The horse can walk for hours without stopping or tiring, or you can jog along at a little faster pace, and still, the views are remarkable. Living in Fauquier County, Virginia, was one of the things that made us “Perfect” in Frolic’s eyes. We had the best venue possible. Hundreds of miles of dirt roads to explore and countryside where people expected to see horses and riders. Most people slowed down, naturally, for horse traffic. And the seasons are mild, enough to drive pretty much year-round. We loved it. We were “hooked.”
The first time we drove in an event, everything was borrowed. The carriage, the horse, the harness, and I even borrowed a hat from my mother-in-law. The drive from Woodlawn Plantation to Mount Vernon was a great success. All those fancy coaching people were encouraging. We liked them all. We began to sink deeper into the driving world, knowing it was going to cost us a lot of time and money. However, the rewards were countless. The pleasure we took in it was so abundant it spilled out into every facet of our lives. We discovered that when you are driving a vehicle with room for passengers, you can take friends and family who do not know a thing about horses or riding. These people were often so thrilled to see the countryside at a horse’s pace they had their eyes opened. City people, in particular, were amazed and began to understand why we loved living in the country.
Even before we acquired our first four in hand, Charley had the honor of driving down Bellevue Avenue on the box seat of Doug Nicoll’s coach. Successfully driving those four horses was one of his proudest moments. Luckily there is a photograph to prove it. When he did that, I knew it would not be too long before he would be driving our own.
We drove all the time and entered a few small driving events. Driving for pleasure was indeed a pleasure. We wanted more. We tried several ways of getting new horses, but not very successfully. Finally, we bought a pair of bay mares who were mother and daughter. We named them Ruth and Emma, after our respective mothers. For some reason, our mothers did not find this particularly flattering. But we drove that pair and acquired a couple of vehicles for pair driving. We had harness made, and we practiced almost daily. Our children loved it, and it was fun to take them and our friends for carriage rides.
Over time my husband began to drive a Tandem, which is what they call driving one horse in front of another. This is a crazy way to drive, but Charley found it satisfying and challenging both. Later he graduated to driving a Unicorn which is one horse as a leader and two behind as “wheelers.” In both cases, the reins are the same as they are for a four in hand. It is a tricky thing to learn to hold those reins in your left hand all at once. The right hand held the whip. That was also the hand used to take some slack or loop the reins when making complicated turns. Our ultimate goal was to drive a coach with four horses and drive it well. This was Charley’s ambition, and It took us many years to gather everything together.
Eventually, we had a road coach named the Viking, restored to Charley’s liking. We bought harness at an auction of Ambrose Clarke’s belongings and had other harness made new. We bought a coaching horn which Charley practiced “sounding” with some success. We bought all sorts of other fun things like a wicker basket for holding umbrellas and “sticks” on the side of the coach, lap robes with a proper monogram to match the colors for our livery, and top hats for our grooms. The driver of a vehicle is called a “Whip,” male or female. The Whips do not wear costumes, and neither do the ladies. But top hats on a coach are a must for men, and well-fitted wide-brimmed hats for the ladies. A fashion accessory, yes, but definitely a part of coaching. Ladies’ hats were secured by hatpins or a ribbon or by being very well fitting. Losing a hat while driving was considered very bad form. This was partly because it was necessary to stop the coach or carriage, and someone must jump off and run back to retrieve the offending item and bring it back. We learned quickly how to secure a hat.
Jack Seabrook, Tom Rider, Dr. Doug Nicoll, Frolic Weymouth, Dr Bud Addis, Lou Pianncone, Chauncy Stillman, the Robinsons, Cecil Ferguson, Jack Pemberton, and Tucker Johnston all stand out in my memory. There are so many names I have missed in this quick article. There were wonderful grooms who often knew more than the whips for whom they worked. These people had such a massive influence on our lives at that time. It is important to remember them because most of them are gone now.
Driving for pleasure in Newport R. I. was the culmination in our eyes of all our efforts. Lucky for us, my parents had a gorgeous house on Bellevue Avenue overlooking the ocean. My father was the one who made sure we were in Newport for one of the early drives there. He encouraged us to drive. Unfortunately, his Alzheimers Disease put a stop to his enjoyment before we ever got our own coach. But my father was able to see us beginning, and he was welcomed by the coaching families as one of their own as a result. He would have been so pleased if he could have seen how well we did later on. I believe he was watching over us from above after he died.
Beaulieu sits on 8 acres of land. It had room for all the coaches to park in the backyard facing the house with the water to the back of the carriages. Such a marvelous place to drive up to when turning off of the Avenue. Drinks and hors d’oeuvres were served to the whips and their guests. We usually stopped there in the evening on the way to the Breakers Ball. It was like a dream sitting up on the box seat among all those shining coaches with their lamps lit. Driving down Bellevue Avenue as the streetlights came on at dusk was like being in a movie. But it was real. The sound of the horses’ hooves clattering against the street, and the sounds of the wheels rolling along the surface of the road, is something I remember as if it was yesterday. And then the soulful call of the coach horn sounding “drive on.” Not many people are lucky enough to have experienced this.
We had a grand time coaching for decades. Occasionally we drove our coach on long drives over 100 miles, where we switched horses every ten or twelve miles with other four-in-hand owners. Whoever had their horses hitched to the coach would be the “whip” for that segment. We drove at “driving for pleasure” events. We drove from our farm in The Plains, VA, to Middleburg, VA, for dinner at a restaurant and drove home by moonlight along the dirt roads. We even went to drive in England. We rented horses, staff, and a coach to drive at the coaching club event that year in London. Sometimes we had accidents, horses down, poles broken, or we got drenched by rain, burned by the sun, and overtaken by darkness. We had good luck and bad luck and tons of fun. The memories are marvelous, with so many splendid adventures and a few terrifying moments. Overall, it was magnificent.
Copyright©. 2022 Bonnie B. Matheson