John Sandilands



Date published: 0

A horse-caravan may appear an ideal holiday alternative to a car. But a weekend showed John Sandilands that the Romanys have their problems too.

A list of instructions came with the horse, how to adjust his dress, hook him on to the caravan and so forth, and this was very comforting until you realised that the horse, of course, wouldn’t, have read them, thus halving their value in times of stress. Some simple manoeuvre, described reassuringly in a short paragraph, became immensely complicated when the horse took part. Backing him into the shafts, for example, was like trying to push a large dining-room table single-handed through a narrow aperture. There were legs at all four corners, seemingly more sometimes, and you really needed to be at both ends simultaneously.

The literature of the Welsh Romany Caravan Company managed to make a holiday in a horse-drawn caravan sound almost irresistible, a carefree progress through lovely Mid Wales drenched in the soft song of tinkling harness and creaking leather, not sweat. The countryside was unquestionably beautiful, well within the terms of the Trade Descriptions Act, but even when the green hills rolled and the slender trees kissed in quiet glades you began to wonder later if you could get the company on some sub-section relating to horses down among the fine print of that invaluable document.

You also saw, for the first time, why Romanys had so readily given up a gentle and picturesque mode of travel in exchange for the smelly motor-car. Nobody would feel much like making clothes pegs after a full day spent in horse management.

‘Previous experience of horses is not necessary but it is useful.’ said the brochure, and after a weekend with a horse you realised that this was not merely informational but a philosophical statement of considerable importance, Having to do with a horse and cart is much more valuable for building hardiness and character than an expensive education like the Duke of Edinburgh’s.

Nothing in life prepares you, or me anyway, for exposure to a working horse, You collected your caravan at Mr I wan (?) Thomas’s farmyard just outside Aberystwyth and that was quite straightforward. The caravan was rounded and gaily-painted and typically Romany apart from a small advertising legend for this type of holiday on the back. I had taken my wife along, not so much for company as to admire me mastering another skill, and I left her to the woman’s work of checking on the beds and the stove and the cupboards, all of which she reported present. I went with Mr Thomas to the stables to fetch the horse and he laid back his ears, rolled his eyes and kicked the woodwork savagely.

The horse, that is, not Mr Thomas, who went to the adjoining stall and led out a much more tractable beast although his name was Fireball, which might or might not have been ironic. The other horse, it turned out, had not yet been broken to the shafts but it was an early reminder of what these creatures look like in a temper. I wasn’t sure whether to ingratiate myself with Fireball, doing it all by kindness like Elizabeth Taylor in ‘National Velvet’, or to marshal him about firmly like Mr Thomas. I didn’t know how he would stand for firm marshalling when we were alone together so I sent my wife to the village shop for lump sugar.

Meanwhile Mr Thomas produced a skein of leather straps and buckles, chains and rope and bound it all round Fireball as if he were readying Houdini for his greatest escape. The various elements, however, sorted themselves out satisfactorily and when all was in position he merely tapped the horse lightly on the nose and Fireball shot backwards into the shafts as though the arrangements under his tail included some powerful magnetic device. There was clearly not very much to harnessing up.

Mr Thomas, it emerged, came with you for a couple of miles until you got the hang of the steering and then you drifted off into Mid- Wales to go wherever you willed, except that there was a route map pinned up inside the caravan with a series of farms marked on it together with the names of their owners, which were all either Davies or Evans. You weren’t obliged to go to any of these places but at least you could be assured of a welcome from the appropriate Davies or Evans when you appeared in your gaily-painted caravan and would be offered a field for the night. The alternative was to strike out on your own, risk being mistaken for a genuine Romany and possibly be greeted with a hail of buck-shot.

We started up off the road and within perhaps half a mile discovered something very depressing about horse-drawn transport. A hill loomed up and Mr Thomas promptly dismounted, indicating that I should do likewise. Horses, it turned out, had to be walked up hills otherwise they got tired. You were supposed to get tired instead and you did because you had to hold on to the bridle all the way and proceed at the pace of the horse which though burdened had two extra legs. You had to move your two as fast as a figure in a silent film and when the horse threw his head up you found yourself bicycling in mid-air until your feet returned to the ground. Halfway up the hill Mr Thomas noticed that my wife was still aboard the caravan, looking queenly, and he made her get down too. She dwindled quickly behind us, calling out piteously whenever she could catch her breath. At the summit there was another discovery. Horses had to be walked down hills as well.

It didn’t look as though the question of rein-handling would arise very often but it was quite simple, left rein to go left and its logical corollary. There wasn’t much more Mr Thomas could do when we reached the crossroads, except to wish us luck, which he did amiably enough although I would have preferred more conviction. He dismounted and left.

We were now in the classic posture of the brochure, sitting leisurely on either side of the caravan’s step, reins in the male Romany’s hands and the horse stepping lively before us. Somehow, though, a certain Gypsy cool was lacking and this I trace to the extraordinary spectacle of a horse in motion, viewed from the rear. For several furlongs ahead there was nothing but horse, starting from the huge hillocks of its hindquarters and proceeding by a series of undulating brown plains to the twin peaks in the middle distance which were its ears.

All of this flesh was moving with a powerful overall purpose but with little internal connection, much as an old feather mattress might proceed if granted locomotion. I felt at first humbled by the expenditure of so much effort on my behalf and then alarmed at the possibility that Fireball was coming to pieces. Presently another gradient appeared but I was so hypnotised by what was taking place in front of me that I failed to step down and now the activity was tremendous. Fireball seemed to elongate by several feet and serpentine waves passed down his spine, washing over his head which bobbed up and down like a buoy in a tempest. On the downward slope the process was reversed so that his hindquarters ballooned, threatening to overflow the driving position and disappear into the interior of the caravan to wreak heaven knows what damage.

The performance was so astonishing that I couldn’t see why Mr Thomas hadn’t mentioned it in the brochure, let alone recommending descent at inclines. It had been in my mind anyway, ever since that first hill, to disobey his instructions in this respect as soon as he was safely round the corner and I did so now as another rise approached. It was here, for the first but by no means the last time, that Fireball displayed the type of low equine cunning which makes the invention of the horse-whip infinitely more defensible.

Halfway through the travail of this second climb there was suddenly the sound of tearing calico followed by an odour so pungently rustic that I feared I might swoon like Ophelia on a dung-heap. My wife recovered first, perhaps because she was wearing a shawl. She crawled into the caravan to return with an atomiser container of Marcel Rochas’s expensive toilet water, some half a pint of which she promptly shot into the atmosphere. There was simply no question of remaining at the horse’s hindquarters for the descent and Fireball looked around with immense satisfaction as we climbed down. Justly so, for ever afterwards he never failed to respond in that way when called upon for extra effort, nor was he denied the same havoc or the rest of the Marcel Rochas. It was, I suppose, something else to be learnt about horses. I never knew they did that.

Perhaps merely by contrast, the rest of the day’s run was fairly uneventful. Fireball, thankfully, kept a steady pace and it was possible, perched just above the hedgerows and travelling so slowly, to notice the attractive detail of the countryside in a way that you never could in a motor car. Wild flowers posed prettily, nodding as you passed instead of falling flat on their faces in the blast of your exhaust. Wherever there were horses in a meadow they raised their heads when Fireball’s footfalls must still have been a murmur in the distance and were waiting, whinnying, by the hedge as the caravan went by, allowing you to wave to them in the manner of the Queen Mother.

The only slight irritation amidst this idyll was the fact that Fireball seemed to be listening to your conversation. Horses’ ears swivel round abruptly at every sound although their eyes remain blandly to the front, rather like a head-waiter when he hears a fiver crackle, and this was quite inhibiting after a time, something akin to chatting into a megaphone. Perversely it was just as annoying if Fireball’s ears turned in the other direction halfway through a remark as if it were too banal to merit any more of his attention. There was no reason why he should have expected particularly clever people to come on this kind of holiday.

On the other hand his general behaviour at this time was quite satisfactory. Mr Thomas told me later that some of his horses merely paid lip-service, as it were, to the bit in their mouths and conducted your tour for you as they saw fit. There was one beast, called Fred, who always stopped at the first Evans regardless of any instructions to the contrary, which meant that your day’s run lasted about 35 minutes. Didn’t this vex the more ambitious type of Romany? No, said Mr Thomas, Fred was tremendously popular. Children who had been on holiday with him sent him cards and little notes on his birthday and at Christmas.

Fireball by-passed the first Evans with no more than a sideways glance and seemed perfectly willing to go beyond the second Evans even unto the first Davies if I hadn’t decided to stop. I did, however, and after what happened next I thought of asking Mr Thomas for Fireball’s date of birth so that I could send him a poison-pen letter every year until he went to the knacker’s.

Actually it wasn’t Fireball’s fault but the event was so horrendous that the question of specific guilt seemed unimportant. It was really a matter of overconfidence. By now I could tell that I was one of those people who have a way with horses. You often see them in cowboy pictures and they are always rather engaging. I was so sure of negotiating the caravan into the field without aggravation that I sent my wife within to put the kettle on and took my place at Fireball’s head with a single finger hovering round his ear-hole. There was a hand-brake on the equipage which had been cannibalised from a Morris Minor but you couldn’t imagine a Mexican horse-wrangler needing a thing like that. There was also an incline leading into the field and when Fireball felt the full weight of the caravan on his haunches a look came over his face of the kind that you see on babies when they are holding their breath.

The veins stood out on his forehead and his eyeballs bulged and then he accepted his fate. All of us set off across the field at a full gallop, heading straight for the hedge. Both Fireball and I gathered ourselves to hurdle but I recollected that my wife was back there somewhere, warming the pot and putting biscuits on plates. At the last moment I effected a superhuman lurch and the whole machine slewed round at right-angles and finally came to a shuddering halt. There was an appalling silence and then slowly, under the half gate that was the door of the caravan, there emerged a sickly ooze that I assumed at first must be my wife’s brains.

There was rather more of them than I would have expected sometimes and presently I climbed up to investigate. It was a terrible sight. On the floor of the caravan was a pyramid of cutlery and plates, food, water, tea-bags, all formed into a sort of custard by a steady seepage of Fairy Liquid. My wife was pale but calm and when I got her out of the cupboard she dabbed at it all absent-mindedly with her shawl and then began to croon to herself.

My instinct was to leave it all and return immediately to the railway station at Aberystwyth, which was only eight miles distant according to a signpost although we seemed to have been on the road for about three weeks. I recalled, however, that a further unexpected bore connected with horses was the necessity to remove them from the shafts if you stopped. The instructions were quite specific on the point and you were also supposed to de-harness if you were putting up for the night.

A horse left between the shafts when at rest begins to sag in a curious manner, rather like a worn-out deckchair, and you have no certainty that it will function in quite the same way should you decide to set off again. I meant to remove the harness in an ordered sequence but it wasn’t that easy. Each strap and buckle seemed merely to reveal another which had to be pursued to its conclusion at the other end of the horse. It was much as it must have been when undressing girls in the 1950s.

I ended up with about a hundredweight of assorted tack distributed across the paddock because Fireball took advantage of each release to move a bit and when the last strap parted he left the shafts like a cork from a bottle. A champagne bottle, for once he was free Fireball flowed about the field with his tail streaming and his mane dancing and you were able to recall that horses are beautiful creatures, full of grace and strength when they are naked and unencumbered by a Romany caravan tied to their bottoms.

I had plenty of time to observe this sort of poetic movement the following morning. Indeed I could probably have produced detailed sketches of a horse’s musculature if, like Leonardo da Vinci, I had the knack. The next day Fireball was up early, pushing over the caravan, because his oats were kept at the back and he seemed to be aware of that section of the instructions which said he had to have two helpings first thing. Mr Thomas had recommended using this breakfast to anchor the horse when the time came to harness him up but Fireball must have been eavesdropping again.

He eyed the oats longingly when I came out but there was a tremendous tension about him as if he expected them to explode like those lively cereals in commercials. In fact his nerves were due to the precise timing needed to grab a mouthful of oats and still get away before I caught him. All professionals are edgy when they call on their skills and Fireball was a good ‘un. An hour and a half later he was still free but we had gone through a series of athletic events together as they do in the Olympic pentathlon: sprinting, jumping over a stream, long distance running, stalking, falling over and swearing.

The particular Mrs Evans at this stopping place had been keeping an eye on us for some time, perhaps because she thought we were wearing holes in her grass, and presently she joined in. She was a very good shot with the tin that held her chicken-meal and she drove Fireball towards me while I pretended to be looking the other way. I was supposed to turn round at the last moment and grab him but I had made the mistake of taking all his clothes off and there was nothing to seize short of sinking my teeth into his ear and hanging. on. I should really have put him to bed in his bridle if I wasn’t going to nail him to the fencer which I would do another time.

The. tremendous activity in the paddock and the gong-like sounds of Mrs Evans’s chicken tin had now attracted a small crowd of Sunday morning passers-by and they began to line the hedge, under the impression perhaps that Fireball and I were going to wrestle, refereed by Mrs Evans.

Several cars drew up and from a Mini a stocky man emerged accompanied by a small boy. They both marched purposefully into the field as though to put a stop to such a spectacle. For some reason Fireball stood stock still when these people appeared and it was actually the small boy who led him over, giving me the contemptuous look he probably reserved, as a rule, for girls. The man gave me quite a long lecture on horse- catching, saying ‘see!’ at the end of every clause, but I had to nod politely in case he shooed Fireball off again and set me a practical. He also showed me how you could grab a horse’s nose, much as the boys in the Remove did to Bunter, and squeeze it painfully as an aid to discipline. Everybody who claimed to know about horses, you noticed, began by telling you the best way to make their eyes water but I had a certain amount of sympathy with Fireball because he must have known what a mess I would make of putting his harness on again.

In the end seven people became involved in this operation, shouting and tugging and grabbing the instructions off each other. Fireball’s ears began to wilt and hang down like a spaniel’s from the number of times that he was obliged to push his head through his horse-collar, an immensely weighty object like a ship’s anchor. He was very patient throughout this torment, merely lowering his eyelids from time to time and looking like Saint Sebastian. You could have liked him quite a bit if he hadn’t got mixed up in the caravan business.

I judged it best, although it was still quite early, to start back for base. thus allowing for any tragedies that might take place and extend the journey into the winter months. I also proposed to run a few trials in horse-handling and it seemed a good idea to be near help. So far, for example, we hadn’t risen above walking pace and I fancied a trot. Fireball didn’t, but I discovered a means of getting him into top.

Horses, Mr Thomas had told me, have precedence over everything else on the road, even, he thought, the right to take liberties at junctions, which must have been a rationalisation since the only sure way to stop Fireball at a Halt sign would probably have been to root it up and use it as a club. Nevertheless, when the Sunday morning traffic began to build up behind the caravan I felt a compulsion to pull over and wave the cars on. This brought the hedgerows into contact with the ribs of the vehicle, producing a noise like a stick along railings.

Fireball’s ears revolved so fast when this happened that they caused a draught and immediately he picked up his hooves and began to gallop. This was most exhilarating for the driver, very much like the chariot race in Ben-Hur though it put up the overall miles to the gallon in terms of my wife’s toilet water.

Still, with the sun shining and the birds singing in Welsh cadences, it was good to be out on the road and I was quite sorry when the first Evans once again hove in sight. There were a lot of other Romanys in the field, making their way home at the end of their holidays, and the place had the look of a true Gypsy encampment. I was a bit reluctant to join this brotherhood and have to put up with other people’s stories about their adventures but it was clearly my duty to stop.

One family had scrawled ‘We are not Gypsies’ in chalk on the back of their caravan, which showed you the sort of time they’d had, and sure enough everyone had been traumatised one way or another, mostly by their horses. A maternal-looking lady with several children told me that they’d set out on a very hot day which made her horse perspire so violently that the kiddies thought he was melting. She felt so sorry for him that she made the family walk all the way, which had been a bit tough on the children. Another lady’s horse had had a nose bleed, which she found very alarming although horses evidently do this quite often even if you haven’t taken your fist to them.

In fairness it should be said that everyone seemed to have enjoyed their holiday, the children especially, and they all said things improved greatly when you got to know your horse a bit better and stopped putting his collar on backwards. One man thought the trick was to remember that you weren’t in a motorcar and once he’d realised there was no accelerator he found it very relaxing.

It was certainly a cheap enough vacation - £7 •50 a week during the Summer season, £5•50 the rest of the year. At the going rate for horse manure you could probably show a profit at the end of a fortnight because that’s another thing about horses.

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List of John Sandilands articles

John Sandilands

John Sandilands Articles

  1. Obituary, March 2004 >>
  2. Introduction to Articles >>
  3. Article2 >>
  4. When the cure is sun, sea and mud >>
  5. Interview with Ava Gardner >>
  6. Interview with Dustin Hoffman, Los Angeles Times, 1968 >>
  7. Fiji >>
  8. Patrick Moore >>
  9. Mr Pastry >>
  10. Interview with Jane Fonda >>
  11. letters to and from John to editors >>
  12. Ballooning >>
  13. The Toad Cross Code >>
  14. Peter Sellers; that is the problem >>
  15. In bed with John Sandilands plus Jilly Cooper, Zandra Rhodes and Peter Cook >>
  16. Know the Type >>
  17. Animal poems >>
  18. The Toad Cross Code >>
  19. Albert and the Jaguars >>
  20. Herogram >>