Five Minutes With... World Famous Course Designer Bob Ellis

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Daisy Bunn is back in the interviewer's chair this week with Hickstead's very own Bob The Buider, world renowned, Olympic course builder Bob Ellis...

What is your role at Hickstead?I first visited Hickstead when I was jumping back in 1969, in its very first decade of business, and first came as a course builder in the outer rings in about 1990. I eventually moved to the main ring as a builder under John Doney.

All these years later I am now the Senior International Course Designer, which broadly means I am responsible for all the courses that take place in the international arena and also for the course designers in the 4 national rings. Not to forget of course my very demanding role as Entertainments Manager in the course builders' and arena party's famous marquee in Dingly Dell (interviewer's note: a wooded encampment next to the main ring, of top of the range - and not so top of the range - caravans, which like a well-oiled travelling circus, travel from show to show practically in convoy throughout the long summer season.)
What is the best / funniest bit about the role?The other course builders think I'm the funniest bit!

The best bit is of course having the best seat in the house, close to all of the action (interviewers' note: during competitions Bob can be found in the centre of the main ring in the Judges' Pen, fondly renamed now as the play pen!) and the privilege of being intrinsically involved in creating the sport at one of the premier shows in the world.
What is the worst bit about the role?Hands down, the hours! We have very early mornings, and very late nights, and in all weathers (!) - we just begin our build for the following day as everyone else goes home! This result in eating and drinking very late at night, and somehow the morning comes very quickly!
What is your best Hickstead memory?My best personal memory of Hickstead would have to be winning the now defunct Hickstead Team Chase in 1972 - a nail-biting race over the enormous hedges and ditches across the estate.

My other best memory would have to be Vital winning the Derby with the late Joe Turi in 1990 - I had bought him as a young horse in Holland, broken him, and started him off and Michael Bullman spotted him at a small show back home and bought him off me immediately - the rest is of course history! (Interviewer's note: Vital and Joe went on to compete at the Olympics and won a European Championship Team Gold medal, but Joe always described his Derby win as the favourite of his illustrious career).

A great friend of mine, I shall always remember fondly being under the watchful eye of the Master of Hickstead, Douglas Bunn. Each time the phone rang in the International Arena we would look up to his box balcony to see if he was there, as if he was we knew it would be him calling with some more orders: "where are the gates? Where are the walls? Where are the triple bars?" Later on, as his eyesight began to worsen, I would have to pick him up in my buggy and drive him around the ring and show him the course - some very happy memories.
What would you do if you didn't work at Hickstead as a course builder?My life's great ambition is to be the Wolverhampton Wanderers coach driver. (Interviewer's note: Bob is as famous for his fanatical love for the Wolves as he is for his world famous course designing!)
What are you doing now, 6 weeks out from the first show?I am in fact currently doing course plans for other shows - they come in turn, and Hickstead is my next but one to sit down and concentrate on. A prerequisite of this job is a lot of time spent away at shows internationally and I have to juggle actually building at the shows, with creating and submitting the designs for upcoming shows.

I never look at last year's course plans when beginning to design for a show as it gives me too many ideas of what we did last year and it can be distracting. I tend to sit down with a blank piece of paper, draw some lines that I want to use and make that into the main course, and then put the three or four other courses for that day in around it.

The materials have changed an awful lot over the years, from very heavy materials in deep cups, to the lighter material we use now in very shallow cups. Another element that didn't use to exist but is very much a part of the job now is incorporating sponsors' branded fences into the courses, and I am always involved in the design of these fences with the shows and sponsors from the beginning, to ensure that they are as versatile as possible, with as much material as possible, to help aid, rather than limit our job.