David Stapleford feeds a red squirrel in his back garden at Hempton
As many of you will know, he was the former head of Fakenham Junior school in the 1980s and passionate about the preservation of our native squirrels.
Our paths crossed when eldest son moved up from the Infant school and I subsequently visited the caged menagerie of reds housed in his back garden. His devotion to these sprightly and charming animals was intense. They were once a common sight here but numbers were severely depleted following the introduction of the grey squirrel from North America.
When Pensthorpe introduced its own breeding programme, David joined the team as an advisor to monitor day-by-day progress. Such was his devotion to this role that in the last year of his life he was presented with the Red Squirrel Survival Trust’s lifetime achievement award. To his great pride he also received a framed letter from Prince Charles, patron of the Trust.
David fell victim to leukaemia which latterly required regular visits to Lynn Hospital for blood transfusions. His stoic acceptance of his fate was such that when his achievement award was presented at Pensthorpe he was happy to read out a poem he’d written poking fun at this almost daily burden. He died in 2012.
I did once catch sight of a red squirrel whilst walking in the lowlands of Scotland but their habitats are confined to just a handful of locations in the UK. There’s a significant captive breeding programme in Norfolk overseen by the East Anglian Red Squirrel Group with Pensthorpe a key component. Latest recruits to the outside world are a couple of kittens called Fire and Flame. Along with a number of others, they will be finding a home in the Ogwen Valley near Bangor in Wales. David would have been delighted.
The return of jump racing was always bound to lift my spirits. Surely the best part of five months is far too long for us enthusiasts to be denied this local treat.
The sun may not have turned up on the day but a big October crowd reminded me that our track draws support from far and wide whatever the weather. Maybe the prize money was also a factor in the appeal with top trainers Paul Nichols, Nicky Henderson and Dan Skelton sending out nine runners between them for the six-race card. It was hardly a massive surprise that Nichols and Skelton scooped five winners at the meeting.
As I wandered from my post high up in the stand to check the dozen or so bookies boards, the horses circling the parade ring, the bars crammed with drinkers and the stalls selling hot food and drinks, I thought how different the scene had become since I first stepped this way some 25 years ago. It is now such a popular sporting venue with such a vibrant atmosphere that any thoughts of its demise – which were certainly in the air all those years back – have long since been laid to rest.
Significant investment has seen vast improvements in facilities for the professionals at the sharp end and also the paying public. There’s more to do, of course, but Fakenham has every reason to be proud of the race track on its southern outskirts.
And whilst we’re on the subject, the next meeting is tomorrow[Oct 26] with the first race due off at 1.30pm.