I’ve never been good at parting with books, but on the rare occasions I do steel myself to sort my home library, there’s one shelf that always goes untouched – my complete collection of thrillers by former National Hunt Jockey Dick Francis.
I’ve been addicted to his fast-moving horseracing novels since my teens and was lucky enough to interview him on several occasions. So a brand-new tour from Discover Newmarket had my name written all over it. I’ve enjoyed previous visits with their expert guides, ranging from the National Stud to Tattersalls bloodstock sales, morning gallops to the legendary Jockey Club, but as their first literary offering, the two-hour Dick Francis tour promised to be unique.
I meet Sandie, my Discover Newmarket guide, at the elegant Bedford Lodge Hotel surrounded by imposing properties and training yards on the Bury Road. Dick stayed at the hotel on several occasions whilst visiting Newmarket from his home in Berkshire and would have known many of these yards intimately, featuring them anonymously in his novels.
The Dick Francis tour is a combination of gentle walking and local travel by minibus, so there’s no great level of fitness required. We start with a short walk to The Severals, an exercise area on the edge of the town where horses warm up quietly before crossing the road for an early morning training gallop up Warren Hill.
As we walk, Sandie shares her in-depth knowledge of both Dick’s novels and the racing world. We learn that Newmarket has 35 miles of horse walks around the town; that it’s the only town where horses have right of way; and that no planes are allowed to fly over until after 1 pm when the horses are safely back in their boxes.
And Sandie points out various places that can be identified in Dick’s novels. He wrote his first, Dead Cert, in 1962, and produced another one most years before co-authoring Dead Heat, the first of four with son Felix, in 2007. The first copy of each new book was always delivered to The Queen Mother, on whose horse Dick almost won the 1956 Grand National, Devon Loch inexplicably falling on the home straight.
“When I began racing, my two ambitions were to become Champion Jockey and to win the Grand National”, he once told me in an interview. “I managed the first in 1954, and I almost managed the second, but I console myself now with the thought that I’m probably better known as the jockey who didn’t win the National than half the jockeys who have won it!”
His books are renowned for the authenticity of their equestrian settings, but also for their insight into other businesses and professions. Dick’s wife Mary, a former publisher’s reader, enthusiastically undertook all kinds of research to help with her husband’s plots. Painting for In the Frame, photography for Reflex, and computer programming for Twice Shy, to name but three.
“Changes in technology and, in particular, racehorse security mean that some of his plots couldn’t happen now”, explains Sandie. “You wouldn’t be able to secretly substitute another horse nowadays, for instance. But they are still a jolly good read and Dick has fans all over the world.”
As a steeplechase jockey, Dick rarely rode competitively at Newmarket. But many of the town’s equestrian institutions feature in his novels, as well as racing lawyers, veterinary surgeons, and providers of racing silks. And Sandie’s tour touches on them all.
We take a short walk to the head of the gallops at Warren Hill whilst she explains how Dick used his own experiences in his novels. The injuries he suffered, for instance, affect some of his leading characters, and his heroes always know when they have met the woman they will marry. Just as he did with Mary.
We drive down the High Street, past the bay windows of the Jockey Club that feature in Wild Horses, past the cemetery that plays a key role in Dead Heat, and down the drive to the Rowley Mile grandstand, devoid today of race day crowds. The RAF were based here in World War II and Sandie reveals how they wanted to tarmac the famous grass straight, but were forbidden by racing fan Winston Churchill!
So do you need to be an avid Dick Francis fan to enjoy this tour? Not at all. I only reread his novels occasionally, and I certainly don’t remember plots. But this tour brings the heady world of horseracing zinging vividly to life, contrasting the contemporary bloodstock scene with the decades when Dick was writing. It’s a must for history lovers too. Newmarket is a unique town that revolves around horses and a second new tour from Discover Newmarket focuses on the town’s close connections with the monarchy from the Stuarts to the present day.
The final stop on the tour will please everyone – a delicious cream tea back at Bedford Lodge Hotel. Not something Dick could have indulged in during his racing career, but I’d like to bet he popped one or two scones as he sat in the press box during 16 years as racing correspondent for the Sunday Express, or whilst he worked at home on his latest thriller.
Dick lived the latter years of his life first in Florida and then Grand Cayman, where the climate suited Mary’s health following an attack of polio in the 1950s. They had been married 53 years when she died suddenly in 2000, the year that Dick was honoured with a CBE.
I last met him in 2006 on the publication of Under Orders, his fourth to feature Sid Halley, a jockey turned private detective.
“I’m satisfied with this one, and I think Mary would have been too”, he admitted. “When I was working on it, I would write a sentence and then stop to wonder what Mary would think, almost as if she was at my shoulder helping me. Perhaps she was!”
Dick Francis died in 2010 at the age of 89. He had written more than 40 novels in his own name, and a further four with Felix, plus short stories, an autobiography, and a biography of Lester Piggott. And whether you are an ardent fan; a racing enthusiast; or simply love a fascinating day out, On the Trail of Dick Francis should be high on your staycation To Do list.
On the Trail of Dick Francis costs £25 per person to include a cream tea. Dates subject to availability and a minimum of two people. Call 01638 501122 or visit www.discovernewmarket.co.uk