In the relatively short space of time since Chestertons Polo in the Park was first held at the Hurlingham Club in 2009, it has managed to earn its place alongside Wimbledon, the Boat Race and the London Marathon as one of the capital's most popular sporting events.
Today, Chestertons Polo in the Park is the biggest three-day polo event in the world, and it showcases some of the best players from across the globe. Thanks to some slightly adapted rules, the event treats spectators to a much more engaging game of polo while successfully reviving the old traditions of a sport that was first played well over 2,000 years ago.
The sport itself may be the most important aspect of the event, but the venue plays a lead role in proceedings during Chestertons Polo in the Park too.
The Hurlingham Club in Fulham, south-west London, has a rich history dating back to the 18th century – a history peppered with high-society gatherings, wartime destruction and, of course, plenty of polo.
British polo was first established here at Hurlingham over 140 years ago, and its modern day success is down, in no small part, to this estate and its history.
Dark beginnings and a fresh start
First a place of quarantine then of escape, the portion of Fulham's riverside known as Hurlingham Field has appeared in many guises over the years. Due to its secluded position, it was used as an isolation hospital for plague sufferers in the 17th century, and even had its own plague pit near the shore of the lake.
But even while that was going on, the wealthy citizens of London began to flock to the region – their hearts set on escaping the filth and pollution of the capital city. Large country houses sprang up and eventually John Ellis of Hurlingham (1757-1832) employed the architect George Byfield to transform what was a modest house in Hurlingham Field into today's grand neo-classical mansion – a building that, in 1869, became home to the Hurlingham Club.
From sport to high society
Beginning life as an "agreeable country resort" where high-profile individuals could come to enjoy a day of pigeon shooting, it wasn't too long before the manager of the Hurlingham Club introduced polo to the organisation's 800 members in 1874.
Polo became a huge success, and the Club earned its status as the historic home of the sport - a status that was later strengthened by the Hurlingham Club Committee when it formalised and drew up the rules of the game in 1875. As an indicator of the importance of the venue's role in polo's history, James Gordon Bennett Jr introduced the sport to America after seeing a game of polo at Hurlingham. Today, the Hurlingham Polo Association remains the controlling body for the sport.
While tennis, croquet, archery, fencing, skittles and even baseball helped to draw crowds of London's elite to the Club in its early years, polo was one of the most popular spectator sports. Yet when it came to non-sporting attractions, Hurlingham also had plenty to offer.
The Club became one of London's premier social clubs, and Edward VII became a regular patron. As a result, high-ranking military men, foreign dignitaries and the upper-class elite of the time filled Hurlingham, and prestigious social events began to happen here. The annual Eton and Harrow Ball became the Hurlingham Ball, and extravagant parties were held at the venue to mark Queen Victoria's Gold and Diamond Jubilee years in style.
Yet the festivities were to be interrupted: during the Blitz of World War II, a bomb exploding over Wandsworth saw all the river-facing windows blasted to pieces, but this didn't make Hurlingham close its doors. The Club continued to provide a welcome respite for servicemen and women stationed in the area, also offering discounted membership rates to the staff of foreign embassies in London and to officers of the armed forces who were nearby.
It was a separate setback that proved to have a greater impact as far as Hurlingham's polo legacy was concerned, when in 1946 the London County Council sought a compulsory purchase of some of the Club's grounds. The loss of the polo fields put a stop to the sport, and it wasn't until 2009 that polo returned to Hurlingham Park. But when it did – in the form of Chestertons Polo in the Park – it was with a fresh lease of life, a revitalised set of game guidelines, and a whole new generation of fans.