Farewell to East of England showground

  • Emotions ran high as the iconic East of England showground hosted Equifest 2022 last week (17 to 20 August), the final equestrian event to be held at the Peterborough venue. The gates have now been closed for good to make way for a new housing development.

    Memories flooded back last week, taking in the glory days of the ground-breaking Ponies of Britain, Ponies (UK) and British Show Pony Society (BSPS) championships held here, as well as the once-mighty East of England show — for many years one of the premier events in the country, which moved to this permanent site in the mid-1960s.

    Equifest was first staged in 2008 by the East of England Agricultural Society and run largely by the indefatigable Betsy Branyan and her team. The new unaffiliated annual spectacular quickly cemented its place in the calendar, bucking the national trend by mushrooming in popularity each year.

    Last week, a supercharged atmosphere reigned for the grand finale, and a heartfelt, torchlit rendition of Sweet Caroline in and around the grandstand reduced many officials — as well as spectators and competitors — to tears.

    Equifest supreme judge Katy Carter, who remembers competing at the Ponies (UK) summer championships at the East of England showground on a first ridden pony in 1979, was equally emotional.

    “It really is the end of an era,” she said. “I also remember being supreme here at both Ponies (UK) and British Show Pony Society (BSPS) championships in 1989 on a pony called Courtland Cottage Fair, and it was just magical.

    “Things that also stick out in my memory are the main ring with the water jump and the flags, and the big grandstand, which gives an echo. I used to get goosebumps just driving on to the showground.”

    Betsy’s own links with the showground date back to the late 1990s when she worked with Ponies (UK) and its supremo, the legendary, much-missed Davina Whiteman, whose ashes were scattered on the site of the original tower commentary box from which she ruled the summer championships for so many years. As a final farewell on Saturday night, a toast to her innovative ideas and inspired leadership was raised on that very spot.

    “It’s been a sad and emotional day,” said Betsy.

    Commentator Carey Knox, whose association with Ponies UK and the showground spans almost 30 years, was another who admitted to welling up.

    “I’ve met so many fantastic people over the years — some of whom are sadly no longer with us,” she said. “I had a very heartfelt sadness when driving away from there knowing I will never visit or see it again; however my memories will live on.”

    The all-pervading spirit of the moment was summed up by regular competitor Georgie Roberts, who said: “This was the best Equifest I’ve ever been to, because everyone was enjoying every moment and not taking the experience for granted. The showing camaraderie and friendship was there in force — it was what showing is supposed to be about.”

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