THE LATEST DISPATCH
A TRADITION OF URBAN HORSES
Much of what we do with our horses, particularly in carriage driving, tends to be done against the ‘green’ backdrop of the countryside. Yet it wasn’t so long ago that horses were a major part of inner-city life, seen working against a backdrop of buildings and busy streets. Although nowadays it is a relative rarity to see horses in a British, urban surrounding, there are still pockets where they co-exist with other road users and residents. Sarah takes an overview – January 2021
When one spends time in central London, or any other major city, for us carriage drivers it’s an easy daydream to imagine what scenes we might have been privy to in the era of horse-drawn transport. For once upon a time our cities and towns were packed with working horses of all shapes and sizes, pulling the widest range of carriages and loads. Romantic though the notion may be, the reality is that it would have been considerably more smelly, probably even more noisy and at times quite hazardous as accidents, tip ups and crushes were commonplace.
Certainly the scene in a metropolis like London would have been a kaleidoscopic one, with black Hansom Cabs snaking round the towering, colourful Omnibuses which spilled over with passengers; the road would have to clear to allow the Fire Engine to race through, picking it’s route amongst a plethora of delivery vans, trolleys and floats. King of the road was the Stage Coach, taking off at dawn with many miles ahead or returning at dusk after a long day, juxtaposed against the more muted but smart privately owned vehicles with their liveried drivers and grooms, conveying their wealthy charges. The commercial mingled with the private, the mass produced with the one-offs, and they all vied for hard won space on the streets. And to service this vast industry and way of life were the horses themselves who were as much a part of the fabric of urban life as the people who lived and worked there. They were kept in stables and stalls behind townhouses, in cramped ostler’s or dealer’s yards, at the back of business premises, wherever they could be fitted in – underground, overground, down tunnels or up ramps to second and third stories of buildings.
If reading about the late Victorian and early Edwardian coaching history and where the great and the good, the likes of Sylvia Brocklebank, Judge Moore and Alfred G. Vanderbilt, either stabled their horses or hired them from when attending London Meets or shows, it’s fascinating to remember that what is now some of the most expensive real estate in the world was once given over to housing the humble horse. If walking along, glimpses down alleyways, under arches or around corners will often betray where a stable yard once was or the carriages were kept. And if you sit sipping a drink at the famous former coaching inn, The George on Borough High Street, it takes only the smallest of leaps to imagine the coach pulling in, while you look up to the tiers of rooms surrounding the courtyard where guests would have raced down to take their seats for departure.
It is within living memory that some draft horses were still at work on London’s streets. Start with the brewery heavies, from the godfather of British driving, Sanders Watney and his heavy horses – once driven by John Peacock – who were based at the Mann Watney Brewery in Mortlake, plus Youngs of Wandsworth and Fullers of Chiswick. Fortnum & Mason’s and the Rothman’s Delivery Broughams were also familiar sights in the latter part of the 20th-century. And probably the most famous of the working light horses were the Harrods Friesians who were kept in underground stables, across the road from the shop in Knightsbridge.
They were only a stone’s throw away from the Household Cavalry’s barracks which follows the long tradition of military horses being in the city. The site has been used as a mounted regiment’s base since the 18th-century when the Horse Guards were stationed there. Rebuilt in the 1970s to house approximately 270 horses and 500 personnel, it was described as one of London’s ugliest buildings. In 2012 the King’s Troop, Royal Horse Artillery had to relocate from their prime spot in St. John’s Wood to the Woolwich Barracks, the property having been bought by an Asian businessman. Yet probably the most famous inner-city stables remains as active today as it ever was and is sure not to be sold – the Royal Mews behind Buckingham Palace. Standing in the centre of the quad, one is aware of the ordered activity, and the equine and human life behind the walls, but it provides a peaceful solace amidst the hectic streets of SW1.
Like the homes of the mounted regiments, there is an indoor arena at The Mews, although it is famously narrow (as any of us who took our BDS Scholarships back in the day were forewarned). But to have an arena in a built-up area was once not an anomaly, as there was a tradition of city-based riding schools. Some doubled up as breaking, hiring and dealing yards, and some used the parks and green spaces near to them to ride out, such as Bert Barley’s famous establishment near Hyde Park which has been written about in Sallie Walrond’s recollections of riding and driving in central London in the 1940s and 50s. Although the majority of these businesses have long since gone, often because the value of the land on which they stood was simply too great to warrant anything other than being sold on for development, there are still some that operate in seemingly unlikely places.
Nowadays, these urban riding schools do not necessarily prioritise stabling and providing horses and lessons for the wealthy, but are often run along charitable lines, offering a service to some of the more disadvantaged members of society. The Ebony Horse Club in Brixton, founded in 2011, is perhaps now London’s best known riding centre and has just been recognised by the FEI for it’s tremendous work. Winning the 2020 Solidarity Award, it was one of 55 nominations from 19 countries. They state that, ‘Our mission is to use horses to raise the education, life skills, wellbeing and aspirations of young people from disadvantaged communities within Lambeth.’
Another establishment which has been receiving a publicity of late, but for rather different reasons, is the Park Lane Stables Centre in Teddington near Richmond in south west London. There have been horses on the site since 1830, which was once the home of a horse-drawn fire station then a dairy. More recently the business was taken over by Natalie O’Rouke who runs it as riding school and livery yard. She and her team also run a Riding for the Disabled group and provide a facility for disabled, disadvantaged or rehabilitating individuals. The area around Park Lane once green, but over time it has been built up so that the ponies’ heads incongruously look out over their stable doors onto a street, towards the houses on the other side.
But the value of a patch of land in desirable Teddington and its development potential means that the landlord has decided not to renew the lease has put the premises up for sale. With six employees, 23 ponies who are mainly cobs or Connemaras, an army of volunteers and many children or adults with specialist needs, for whom the riding school is a lifeline, the future of the business has been put in jeopardy. The pandemic means that for nearly a year the doors have been closed more than open to the usual clientele. After an appeal to anyone who might be able to help, some of the ponies have had to be ‘furloughed’ and been put out to graze. But for those ponies who remain at the centre, Natalie and her team have diversified what activities the ponies can be used for. For example a pony will be taken to a window to visit and cheer up dementia suffers or those who are living alone. And due to the drop in volume and throughput of people, Natalie is able to devote more of her time to well-publicised campaign to raise money via crowdfunding to try and purchase the premises in order to secure the future of the centre.
Another important development of the work at Park Lane has been the addition of Sam the Cob who goes out with a bespoke Fenix carriage which was donated to the centre by a local motor business. Sam was found for the group in Wales by BDS Sanders Watney Trust stalwart Judi Ralls, who was instrumental in helping set up the driving activities. Sam has been ‘a saint’ and as well as being used in nearby Bushy Park for drives, he has taken drivers to Royal Windsor and the Chertsey Show.
Naturally Natalie is concerned that all this may have to come to an end if she can’t secure the future of the centre by the end of May. She is grateful to those individuals or families who have taken on the care of some of her ponies, and to others who have donated feed to see the others through the winter. Fuelled by a passion for what she does and a sense of responsibility to those who are disadvantaged in her immediate community, Natalie is devoting her considerable energy to the cause and galvanising enthusiasm in those around her. It is her hope, and the hope of those for whom the centre is a way of life, that it does not go the generic way of others before it; flattened for smart houses, executive flats or an office block.
For details about Park Lane Stables and the crowdfunding project, please visit www.parklanestables.co.uk