Forget the Olympics - this has to be The Greatest…
Mary King’s many equestrian achievements are well documented including representing Great Britain in five Olympics between 1992 to 2008. During this time, Mary won one silver medal and one bronze. Now, she has her eye on the next Olympics and says, “ I am aiming to get to the London Olympics, but time will tell. Two reasons why I want to ride there are 1) No British rider has competed at six Olympics, I have done five so London would make a record! 2) I have been lucky enough to have won an Olympic silver and a bronze medal . . . but there is one missing, it would be fab to complete the set!!!”
This is the highly focused and competitive Mary that everyone knows and admires but who is the person behind the achievements? Mary Elizabeth King nee Thomson grew up in Salcombe Regis the daughter of retired Lieutenant-Commander M.D.H. Thomson (RN) and his wife Gill. An otherwise idyllic childhood was, perhaps, somewhat marred by her father’s handicap which was the result of a serious motorcycle accident before Mary was born. However, Mr. Thomson became the verger of Salcombe Regis Parish Church. A post which was taken on by his wife following his death in 2000.
Mary says that her mother has always maintained a consistent and calm temperament. She has been a tower of strength and remains a great support to this very day. Mary’s childhood memories include Donald Peyton-Jones, the Rector of Salcombe Regis Parish Church. She says, “His house would be full of waifs and strays and sometimes resembled a hippy commune! He would hold Evensong on horseback and allowed dogs and children free run of the church services. He was a character.” The church was very much the centre of village life and its influence on Mary remains. She says, “I am religious in a personal and private way. I go to church sometimes, but horse trials take preference during the season. I am sure God understands!” In fact, religion plays a big part in Mary’s life. She adds, “It is like an inner strength I have which I rely on especially when times are tough.”
Other memories of early life in the village are of cows being driven past the house each day and the village shop which has long since gone.
Mary didn’t come from a horsy family. It was the vicar’s pony that first captured the six year old’s attention. The Vicar allowed her mother to lead Mary around the lanes on the pony. Following this, she rode as often as possible even riding a donkey. At the age of eleven, she went with the Axe Vale Pony Club to the Badminton Horse Trials. It was then Mary decided to become a professional three day event rider.
She attended Manor House Independent School in Honiton then Kings Grammar School in Ottery St. Mary finishing at Evendine Court School of Domestic Economy (Cordon Bleu). After school, she worked for Sheila Willcox, a former European Champion. Here she was taught everything from breaking in and producing young horses to the management of top class stables.
However, following her school days, Mary wanted to travel. She went to Zermatt and worked as a chalet girl. “Great fun and a doddle after working in the yard.” Later, she joined the tall ship, Sir Winston Churchill as a trainee. Finally she was promoted to Watch Leader. In the fullness of time, Mary returned to her love of horses and set up her own stables; a couple of cow sheds in a disused farmyard near her home in Salcombe Regis. Here she looked after other people’s horses and gave riding lessons. Also, she bought and sold horses. To earn extra money, Mary cleaned houses, cooked, did gardening for people and even delivered meat for the local butcher.
Finances became even tighter in 1988 when Mary started competing professionally. She had to sell horses which had been successful. However, this altered when she turned down an offer for a horse called Divers Rock on which she had achieved 7th. place at Badminton. She commented, “I’d rather be famous than rich.” It turned out to be a fortuitous decision as Mary secured her first sponsorship deal on the back of her success.
She met her farmer husband, Alan (known as ‘David’), at Coombe House Hotel where they were introduced by a mutual friend. The couple were friends for twelve years before they married. They have now been happily married for fifteen years and have two children Emily 14 and Freddie 11. Mary is a devoted mother and wife. When the children were toddlers, before they started school, she took them everywhere with her. Emily is now at Queens School, Taunton and Freddie is at St. Johns in Sidmouth. Mary says that she encourages the children to be self-motivated.
Three things that she doesn’t like are: laziness, people who don’t keep their promises and the rough handling of horses. Four things that make her happy are: people around her being happy, success, a horse doing its best and her children being successful. Over all, Mary says that she is happy. Her sense of achievement and fulfilment both on the career and domestic fronts, must be a big part of that happiness. However, a recent fall from a horse which broke her neck nearly changed the picture. It was a whole week after the fall that a broken neck was diagnosed. In the meantime, Mary continued riding! “My head felt kind of loose” she said. After the delicate operation, she was told by the consultant, “Don’t ride for eight weeks and don’t fall off for ten weeks.”
For many years, Mary commuted from her husband’s farm near Exeter to her stables in Salcombe Regis. However, she always felt the Sid Valley was her true home. Eventually, David and she decided to convert the stables into a home. Planning permission was achieved and work began. However, as they removed the corrugated iron roof, walls began to collapse! Then they found that there weren’t any foundations to the stone buildings. The upshot of all this was that the whole place was declared derilect by the EDDC Planning Dept. and had to be raised to the ground. Then, fresh planning permission had to be gained for a new building using the old Beer stone from the stables. Emmlec of Branscombe, has spent four years on the construction and, finally, in June of this year, Mary’s family were able to move in. The building is her ‘grand design’ with the help of a friend and a good architect. It’s about space and light, stone, wood and glass. The detail is well thought out with plenty of guest accommodation and ingenious storage space. It’s both modern and traditional combining the best of both worlds. But, most of all, it’s her family home surrounded by beautiful horses in her beloved Sid Valley.