Gentle giants from the age of horse power take to the road once again
There’s a new ride clip-clopping around our streets: stick out your arm and hail the shire-drawn omnibus. Gillian Molesworth hears the story of the courage and dedication behind the Lizard Stallion Carriage Company.
Any historic relics, from old machines to animal breeds no longer relevant to modern life, are only saved from extinction by one thing: the dedication of people who care about them.
Without these money-where-your-mouth-is champions, they would go the way of the dodo. That would be a shame for the rest of us. Two such champions are 48-year-old Pete Woodford and his partner Nicky Mendham, 39. They have sunk thousands of pounds and man-hours restoring to relevance two giants of history: the Victorian omnibus and the Shire horse. The Lizard Stallions Carriage Company in Wendron near Helston offers both stud services from its pedigree stallions, and carriage-drawn trips around Falmouth, Truro, and the Heartlands Project near Camborne.
For Pete, a builder, this is the long-awaited culmination of a love affair he has had with the breed for half his life. "I was doing a building job in Buckinghamshire, and it backed on to this big field that had this shire horse in it. I just fell in love.
"Shires are gentle giants – they're a proper working man's horse," he said with respect in his voice. Pete's neighbour turned out to be Blackden Charlie, a top-rate stud in the shire world, owned by breeder Chad Slade. Pete sought him out, and Chad welcomed the new amateur into the inner Shire circle.
"What I wanted to do is to show their diversity, and bring them back into the public eye," said Pete. "They are a rare breed now, because with farming now being done by machines, they don't have a job any more. They need to find other ways to work.
"I speak to older people who remember them so well in farms – riding two or three on their backs as they got led out to the field. But we've got to get the younger generations interested. Sometimes people are frightened by them because they're so big – they need to meet them to know their gentle temperament."
But big horses need capital, and it wasn't until Pete sold his house that he had the readies to move his business forward.
His first move was to use his contacts to buy two magnificent shire stallions, one of them a descendant of his old mate Blackden Charlie: Tree House Prince George and Hillmoor Ringmaster out of Walton Supreme – that's George and Ringo to you and me. He also bought the Clydesdale Aird Alexander, known as Eddy, and Wizzle, a thoroughbred cross shire.
The next step was the carriage, and again he was thinking big. Pete drove to Oakfield Farm in the New Forest to see a 12-seater wagonette, all dressed and ready. But it was the omnibus, looking ramshackle in a corner of the shed, that really caught his eye.
"It was in a bit of a mess," admitted Pete. "It had been restored once, but badly, then it had been left outside and had rotted out. I asked if they could do a deal on the two, and I had them brought down to Cornwall."
The omnibus had originally pulled a tram in Southampton Docks around 1860, and after the trams were made electric in 1886, it was converted to a bus. After the Second World War, it did tourism service in Dudley and the New Forest before time took its toll.
Then came the hard graft: Pete estimated he spent 1,500 hours restoring the omnibus, from dissembling the ironwork and replacing the rotten floor with marine ply, to sanding it down and prepping it. "At one point I really didn't think I'd get it done", he admitted.
But it all came together in the end – and in true Victorian fashion, Pete and Nicky are advertising local businesses. Traditional signwriter Andrew Grund of Signature Signs in St Breward applied his artistry to Pete's first advertising customers: Flambards, Heartlands, farrier Tom James, Signature Signs and Cornish Tin and Gold.
"It's got to pay its way," he said. "We've probably spent £120,000 starting up the business, and our monthly outlay is big. Insurance is the biggest cost. It is a lot of work each time we turn out. For a four-hour event it's a 12 or 13-hour day.
"We're all set up – now we just need more appointments."
The company also owns a petite two-seater phaeton, and any are for hire at events such as weddings.
Nicky, with a background in marketing to complement her horse know-how, has been working on the website and marketing as well as acting as the horses' groom. A lot of her time, however, is spent cleaning the harnesses.
"It takes about eight hours to do the harnesses and brasses, which has to be done twice a week if they're working," she said. "What I love the most is the public reaction when we're out. We see so many happy smiling faces. We did a school exhibit where we transported 90 children around a car park as part of their Victorian history topic. The kids just lapped it up. It is such a different experience from looking at a museum or a history book."
Thank goodness for people like Nicky and Pete – who have breathed new life into a wonderful British tradition.
You can see more about the Lizard Stallions Carriage Company on www.thelizardstallions.com, and check their facebook page for a regularly updated events calendar, www.facebook.com/thelizardstallion. Or, you can call 07971 531 214.