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Hickstead founder Douglas Bunn dies at 81

June 18, 2009

Douglas Bunn

The creator of the famous Hickstead jumping course, Douglas Bunn, has died at the age of 81.

Bunn, founder and owner of The All England Jumping Course, at Hickstead, died peacefully in his sleep at home on Tuesday night, surrounded by his family. He had been ill for only a short time.

He was born on Leap Year Day, February 29 1928, so he only had a birthday every four years. Some records showed his date of birth as March 1 1928.

He was born and spent his early and formative years as one of three brothers at Selsey Bill, where the huge caravan park, Bunn Leisure, is still the main Bunn family business. Horses were his life from the time he left the cradle, the passion inherited from his father, who always saw that he had ponies to grow up with and the right ones to further his showjumping ambitions.

The big owner at the time was Bill Gardner, and Douglas began riding for him in 1938, winning many important competitions through to 1939, when the beginning of World War II curtailed everyone's activities.

Fortunately, Mr Bunn senior and Bill Gardner's love of horses and showjumping survived the war, and Douglas's professional life in law and ultimately as a Barrister progressed alongside his role as one of the country's leading showjumpers. It was not unusual for him to go into court with his white riding breeches beneath striped trousers and gown and later to leave his wig behind and go off to compete at a show or home to exercise horses until it was dark.

It was his forays abroad to compete that made him realise British showjumping lacked something and which led to him searching for, building and then opening the All England Jumping Course at Hickstead in May 1960. He always insisted that his first and only mistake with the show ground which was to become his life was that he scheduled his first meeting for the day on which Princess Margaret married Anthony Armstrong Jones and the second day to clash with the FA cup final at Wembley.

Douglas first clashed with his fellow riders when he introduced his British Jumping Derby the following year. Cornerstone of the course - which was designed to provide the ultimate test of horse and rider - was the 10ft 6ins high Derby Bank. But many of the riders disliked it and refused to jump it - all except the Irishman Seamus Hayes, who, with his great horse Goodbye, not only negotiated it but won the first Derby competition with a clear round.

From then onward, Hickstead became an integral part of the British showjumping scene. It allowed Douglas to explore and expand many ideas close to his heart - the design of courses, presenting the sport to the public and the developing role television was able to play.

There are many in the sport who view Hickstead as the home of British showjumping, and credit Douglas Bunn with a major role in the sport's development. Michael Clayton, past editor of Horse and Hound and a personal friend, said: "Douglas Bunn was undoubtedly the greatest innovator in British showjumping in the post-war years. He succeeded in creating his personal vision virtually on his doorstep at Hickstead - and he made the horse world come to him in his native Sussex.

"As well as giving Britain its most successful permanent showjumping course, which helped shape the future of the sport, he invented the entirely different sport of team 'chasing, which survives today, and produced many more new ideas, such as the Hickstead Eventing Grand Prix, the only contest in which top level showjumpers and eventers compete together.

"Douglas had flair as well as originality in making horse sports fun for the spectator as well as offering a new challenge to the competitor. He relished controversy, and was never afraid to break new ground. His contribution was unique, and he will be much missed by his many friends to whom he was unfailingly generous. Above all he was a true horseman, and loved the challenge of cross-country riding in the hunting field as much as the disciplines of showjumping."

Peter Jeffery, press officer at Hickstead for 23 years, said: "Douglas was a gem of a man to work for. The media loved him because, as long as he was talking about showjumping or his beloved Hickstead, he was never afraid to face up to a question or problem. But like many great men, I think it is only now that he has gone that people will truly realise what he has done for the sport".

The show ground celebrate its 50th anniversary next year, and there have been some great equestrian moments at the ground, including the 1961 and 1971 Junior European Championships, the 1963 Ladies Europeans and 1965 Ladies World Championships, the Men's Europeans in 1969 and 1973, the Men's World Championships in 1974, the European Team and Individual Championships in 1983, the European Showjumping Championships in 1999, the 2003 European Dressage Championship, and six seasons - 2003-2008 - of the Samsung Super League.

Bunn was also the man who stepped in when the Royal International Horse Show's future was in doubt after being forced to leave the British Exhibition Centre at Birmingham. He gave it a home at Hickstead in 1992.

Douglas was always the master of innovation - and that is how he came to "invent" team chasing. The BBC invited him to lunch to discuss new ideas for Hickstead, and with no preparation, he came up with a team chase of five riders over the natural, formidable fences of the Hickstead estate. Rules were written on the back of a menu.

That was in 1974. The first chase was 1.5 miles long over 30 fences. It was televised on Good Friday, with teams from the three Olympic disciplines plus others including jockeys, trainers, journalists and The Household Cavalry.

Douglas was vice president of the British Show Jumping Association at the time of his death, having been chairman in 1969 and from 1993 to 1996. He was also president from 2001 to 2005.

Douglas Bunn ©: Kit Houghton/FEI
Hunting was always an important part of his riding life - it earned him the informal title Master of Hickstead - and he was Joint Master of the Mid Surrey Farmers Drag Hounds from 1976 to 2000, when he became vice chairman.

Douglas was married three times, to Rosemary Pares-Wilson in 1952, with whom he had Claudia, Lavinia and Theresa; to Sue Dennis-Smith in 1960, and had Edward, Lizzie and John; and in 1979 to Lorna Kirk, mother to Chloe, Daisy and Charlie. The last six children all help with the day-to-day running of the showground. A fourth child, Douglas, died from sudden infant death syndrome. Lorna pre-deceased Douglas in 1995.

Says John Roche, FEI Director of Jumping, "The equestrian world has lost not only a tremendous supporter but also a close friend. We have much to be grateful for to Douglas. His presence will be greatly missed by all of us. "



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