For the first twelve years of my life I lived in a row of cottages sandwiched between a flour mill and the council-owned stables. My older sister and I were friends with Teddy, the son of the mill owner, and we used to have great fun playing among the sacks of grain, sliding down the chute and even chasing rats. The mill was the dustiest place imaginable and we were always in trouble when we got home with our hair looking like powdered wigs and our clothes in a disgraceful mess.
In contrast to that, we went to the stables by invitation and dressed in our Sunday best. The enormous double gates were only opened for the horses and dray carts to pass through and there was a small gate cut into the larger one for mere mortals to enter. The cobbled yard was enclosed by the gates at one end, stalls for the horses and carts on two sides and the fourth side consisted of a beautiful single storey stone house and a smithy. The blacksmith's wife, Mrs Horton, was the most elegant woman I had ever seen; she used to invite us for afternoon tea and she always wore lovely tea dresses and pearls and served home made gingerbread and scones on delicate china plates. After tea we were allowed to watch the smith at work or the lads cleaning out the stables or polishing the horse brasses. For some reason that I can't recall, I became a particular favourite there and was always asked to visit when Mrs Horton's grandchildren came to stay. I still have some china plates and a trinket pot that she gave me when we moved from the area.
I loved the horses, such gentle giants. Even in those days of the 1950s their future was threatened. They were no longer used as working horses, the dust carts they used to pull had been replaced by lorries and the horses were only brought out on special occasions such as parades and the Whitsun Walks. I loved watching the lads brush the horses until they shone, braid their tails and fasten ribbons in their manes. The leather and brass were polished and the carts decorated, then the great gates were rolled back to let the magnificent procession begin.
That stables was demolished many years ago and there are probably no shire horses to be found anywhere in that part of Lancashire any more. In recent years the few breweries still using dray horses have had to give up, the Shire Horse Centre in Devon closed in 2000 and today I heard that the beautiful Suffolk Punch will be extinct within a decade.
Are we really going to allow these magnificent creatures to vanish without trace? If you want to help to save them you can support the campaign by becoming a Friend of the Suffolk Punch. Contact The Suffolk Punch Trust Ltd, WREN House, Manor Farm, Bridgham, Norfolk NR16 2RX.