At Wood St Stables
Just occasionally, I hear distant horses’ hooves in the street outside when I am sitting writing at my desk in Spitalfields. It always causes me to stop and consider this evocative, once familiar sound, that echoes down through the centuries. When horses were the primary mode of transport, there would have been hundreds of stables in the City, but today there is only one. So yesterday, I decided to follow the sound of the hooves back to their source in Wood St and pay a visit to the last stable, the home of the City of London Mounted Police – and Spitalfields Life contributing photographer Patricia Niven came along with me.
Passing among the shining glass towers of the City and then entering Wood St Police Station, we were ushered behind the desk, past a sign that said “Level of threat: normal,” down a passageway, through a courtyard and into the stables where the magnificent beasts are kept. Leather harnesses hung from the walls, straw was scattered upon the floor and the acrid smell of the farmyard prevailed here in this quiet enclave, a world apart from the corporate financial culture that surrounds it.
These are the last working horses in the City, out on the street in pairs for four hours at a stretch as they undertake patrols three times a day. Exchanged fortnightly, the troupe of ten is divided equally between here and Bushey Park where they get to run free and where training takes place. Mounted police officers double up as stable hands, cleaning kit and mucking out, grooming and feeding their charges. And, consequently, the stable is a scene of constant activity from seven each morning, when they arrive to wake the horses before setting out on the first patrol at eight thirty.
“I never envisaged, when I joined the police, I’d end up riding a horse,” admitted Sergeant Nick Bailey, greeting us eagerly, “I joined the police to ride motorbikes, but I suppose you could say I found a different horsepower.” Yet, in spite of his alacrity, Sergeant Bailey is a passionate horseman who grew up riding and competed in equestrian events before the demands of police work caused him to choose between his career and sporting endeavours. Now with thirty years service behind him, he came to the City of London to take charge of the mounted police just twelve months ago from Bridgend in Wales, where he set up the equestrian department. “My wife and family are still in Wales, I go back every third week” he confessed with a shrug, yet he was keen to outline his busy year that began with the Lord Mayor’s Show and included the student protests, an English Defence League demo in Luton, football matches at Watford and Arsenal, and a Heavy Metal festival.
Before the mounted police were created in 1946, horses were drafted in from the cavalry and recently the stable had a visit from blind ninety-seven-year-old who had lead the last cavalry charge in battle – an event which filled Sergeant Bailey with awe. “I can’t imagine what that was like,” he confided, as a vision of a distant harsher world, even if he admitted that “if a bomb went off, we would have horses out on the streets for seven hours at a stretch.”
Sergeant Bailey introduced his four horses in the stalls that morning. Trader, a powerful white stallion quivering with life, reached over to scrutinise us while Little Dave, a smaller dark horse, eyed us from a distance – weary from the traffic patrol that morning. Opposite, Finn, the oldest horse, with ten years service, stood composed and dignified and then Roxie, the only mare, pushed her glossy striped head over the gate to greet us enthusiastically.
There are one hundred and twenty five horses in the Metropolitan Police today where twenty years ago there were over two hundred and fifty. A fact which makes Sergeant Bailey evangelical on behalf of his charges, advocating the horses’ credentials as cheaper and greener than motorcars. “In the Summer, cafe owners bring out a bucket of water for them,” he told me, “People feel safer when they see horses on the street.”
Photographs copyright © Patricia Niven