‘Whatever you do hang on to the reins!’ Carriage driver Phil Worley wasn’t daft enough to let me anywhere near the horses, he was simply relating the first rule of driving – a lesson that stood him in great stead at the Onion Jack Festival in 2015.
To celebrate the tradition of the Onion Johnnies who brought strings of French onions, shallots and garlic to our shores, the idea was to load up a carriage and join a cortege of cycling onion sellers from West Bay, stopping at Grove Nurseries, Palmers Brewery and Bucky Doo Square en route to the shop at Washingpool Farm. Phil and his partner, retired Bridport vet Helen Minter, harnessed their Percheron colt Jack to a borrowed carriage and were all set to depart when the carriage collapsed and snapped in half, throwing Helen from the seat and disgorging its cargo. Phil also fell but managed to hold on to the reins.
‘Jack was remarkably untroubled and I had a good hold of him,’ says Phil. ‘Helen was quite bruised, but people sprang to our aid and picked up the pieces as it were. The most frustrating thing about it was that I had to return the carriage to our friend before I’d had chance to repair it.’
It’s a single cautionary tale in an entirely positive introduction to this most mannerly of equestrian pursuits that is widely enjoyed – perhaps most famously by Prince Philip – well into later life.
Like the Duke of Edinburgh, Helen has a background in competition driving – dressage, marathon (cross-country) and cone driving, the equivalent of show jumping – whereas Phil used to breed, show and train heavy horses and for many years ran the Shire horses at Abbotsbury Swannery.
As well as Jack, who forms a driving pair with Sally, they share their farm at West Milton with a colt called Woody and the equine matriarch, Ruth, an impressive if shy 19-hand Shire who has a knack of calming unruly young horses. Then there are the 17 sheep, a couple of inquisitive canines and various cats, not to mention the partridge and pheasants that avail themselves of the bird table.
‘There aren’t many places you can wake up and not see another house, we love it here, but carriage driving is our fun,’ says Phil.
‘The drives are organised by the British Driving Society’s area commissioner, often for charity on private estates. The owners are generally very accommodating provided you’re respectful of it being private property and stump up a bit for charity. For us it means we’re able to spend time with like-minded people, doing something we love and taking in some incredible views in parts of the country most people don’t even know exist.’
Whether it’s a single day’s drive in Windsor Great Park, or a weekend on the Gloucestershire estate of HM The Queen’s Master of the Horses Lord Vestey, it takes several days’ work to prepare the horses and their tack, as well as the carriages and pack it all in the lorry.
‘This makes you very good at packing,’ says Helen. ‘Everything has its place with the carriage and harnesses and the things we need like food and our bits and pieces in the front, the horses in behind and then we tow the caravan on the back if we’re going to be away for a few days. Good planning is the key.’
In the coach house is a beautifully restored, lovingly detailed 1930s London costermonger’s carriage that is reserved for high days and holidays. Either side stand of it stand two modern four-wheeled exercise carriages. Robustly engineered for safety and stability both can be run with traditional solid rubber tyres or the more forgiving pneumatic tyres. The most frequently used model also has disc brakes and gas suspension.
‘Phil has had a few problems with his back so the pneumatic tyres and padded driving seat make an enormous difference,’ says Helen.
‘We go all over with the exercise carriages – off-road and on-road, across fields, through woodland. The brakes make it a bit easier on the horses especially downhill as they don’t have to do all the slowing work.’
The exercise carriages can also be harnessed to a single horse, or a pair.
‘It doesn’t so much double the horse power as give you a bit more in the tank when you need it so you can go further,’ explains Phil. ‘My background is in heavy horses, but in recent years it’s more Percherons rather than Shires. I’ve downsized – they’ve still got furry feet but they’re more manageable.
‘Recently, for the first time we had some help prepping the horses and one of the girls from the village came up to lend a hand. She really enjoyed it but she let it slip a while later that the day after she ached all over – that made me feel better that we’ve managed on our own for as long as we have.’
Phil and Helen are a regular sight exercising their horses in the lanes and fields around West Milton, but most of Dorset’s carriage drivers are in the east of the county closer to the New Forest which is blessed with some terrific drives, as is Wareham Forest.
‘If people are interested in taking up carriage driving we’re happy to give them all the help we can – the more the merrier,’ says Phil. ‘It all takes time though and we’re fortunate in that we’re retired and can put in the daylight hours during the week, but youngsters at work are a bit more limited although there are indoor events. Basically you have to have the right horse, the right equipment and, perhaps most importantly, the right advice.
‘I was taught to drive by two of the best draymen in London. They’d worked with mules in Borneo and each of them has forgotten more about driving than I’ll ever know. The horses would rather be out working than stood around doing nothing although we only do it for fun now; we don’t do competitions. We’re probably too old and infirm for a lot of this really, but I don’t know what else we’d do so we’re not going to stop.’
• First published by Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine