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At Wood St Stables

March 12, 2018
by the gentle author

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 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 student protests, an English Defence League demo, 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

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10 Responses leave one →
  1. Greg Tingey permalink
    March 12, 2018

    Pony-cubes in a bag in your pocket at the ready …..

  2. VANDA HUMAN permalink
    March 12, 2018

    Beautiful horses and clean stables.

  3. Bex permalink
    March 12, 2018

    Greetings GA, think there may still be horses at Bow Road Police station as we often hear/see them in Bow and exactly as you say the clip clopping makes for a fine aural time machine! Behind the victorian police station, on Addington rd there’s a fantastical late 30s Moderne block with stables & flats above- every inch the perfect 30s ocean liner! Guess the architect was Gilbert Mackenzie Trench Anyway Id love to get a look inside

  4. Gary Arber permalink
    March 12, 2018

    A friend of mine used to visit the Bow stables with a barrow, they let her have manure for her tomatoes.

  5. Teresa Clark permalink
    March 12, 2018

    Keep listening and reporting to those of us across the pond. I remember those sounds, along with a rag and bone man, in 1980s Kensington. Great article!

  6. Mike Levy permalink
    March 12, 2018


  7. Ade Callaghan permalink
    March 12, 2018

    I used to pass these stables quite often and always fancied a peek inside. There was no mistaking the smell on a warm summers day.

  8. March 14, 2018

    At first I couldn’t understand why a small dog I occasionally walked into the little garden at the end of Aldermanbury became so agitated until I realised that it was the smell of the horses from inside the Wood Street Stables.

  9. Helen Donovan permalink
    March 15, 2018

    Many years ago on a Sunday – before Sunday trading hours changed – the boys and girls of Wood Street mounted Police let me use their lavatory. I was walking around the City getting a little bit desperate and I happened to bump into them asking where the nearest loo was. Well they must have taken pity on me and so I followed them back to Wood Street stables.

    I have ridden since I was a child anyway and have, on and off, always been around horses for my whole life so I am used to them.

    It was a lovely experience to meet the horses and see where they lived and obviously quite an unexpected visit too.

    Unsure whether anything like that would happen today, the world has changed so much since then. Besides, there are plenty of sandwich shops and pubs open now.

    I love seeing the mounted Police whilst out and about in the City. I always go and say hello.

    I gravitated towards the New York mounted Police when I visited last year. Both equally friendly and more than happy to chat about horses and their job.

  10. Diana 'Reardon permalink
    March 18, 2018

    I always credit the aroma and (maybe????) a bit of horse seepage with the magnificent growth of the magnolia and swamp cypress in the grounds of St Mary Aldermanbury – right next door to the stables. Long may they continue to co-exist.

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