Once, London was a city of horses. Humans lived cheek by jowl with the 300,000 horses of cabmen, traders, laundrymen, grocers and rag-and-bone men. You can see the traces of that time everywhere: old stone drinking troughs, hidden cobbled mews, mounting blocks, slips and ramps.
The rag-and-bone man
A horse and cart came up the street. There was a few non-descript items on the cart and a man in black overalls sat, nonchalantly steering his horse. My father told me it was a rag-and-bone man and he made his living wandering the streets, collecting and sell unwanted household items. Fascinated, I stared at the man as he rode past us, half-knowing, even as a young boy, that I was looking at a ghost from the past. I never saw the rag-and-bone man again.
The police horse and the French lady
My mother can’t walk past a horse without making friends with it. A superintendent policeman on a beautiful white mare used to ride up the main street at the end of our quiet road on his rounds. We regularly stopped him to give his horse carrots and sugar lumps. It got to the point where the horse decided that it could no longer walk up Palace Street without turning right to visit my mother. The superintendent carried the carefree demob-happy air of a man in control of his time and approaching retirement. He started delivering messages from my mother to her friends along his route, including Lady Scott Fox who loved horses and who was every inch the cliché of French sophistication and charm. Her husband was a British diplomat in Chile and once, making a speech on a horse, she muddled up her Spanish and inadvertently asked the men on the parade how the eggs in their balls were.
Hot summer afternoon, the sound of hoofs
The city dozed in the relentless sun of a hot summer afternoon. The sun streamed into the bedroom. The red curtains flapped and billowed in the breeze, making a comfortable reassuring rustle. I remember the noises from the street: the familiar sound of a black cab turning into the street, the clatter of people’s shoes on the pavement, the laughter and voices from the pub on the corner. I remember the sound of the cricket on the TV with its low murmur of commentary, the sound of ball on bat and the crowd applauding a piece of skill.
A clip clop of horses, the mounted police are on patrol. The sound of hooves echoed and bounced off the houses as they passed down the street.
Erotica at the Horse Hospital
An old horse hospital had been converted into an avant garde arts venue. I was fascinated by the old cobbled stones and ramps that once helped horses walk up to receive their treatment. Erotic arty photos were projected onto the walls. I was not sober, but I was holding it together as I exchanged polite conversation with someone. In fact, lots of wine glasses were being sipped and polite earnest things were being discussed as the walls turned more pornographic around us. It all went wrong when a halo formed around their head to be replaced by blown-up porn footage of a nun being ravished by a well-endowed monk. That was that. I snorted out my drink and doubled up with laughter. They quickly moved on.
Afterwards we walked the night city for hours. It was fitting that we kept turning into old cobbled mews streets, where the horses and grooms once lived behind the great houses of the wealthy.
The horses of Hyde Park
I remember horses emerging from the fog in Hyde Park. They were from the Queen’s Household Cavalry. I remember those days when I would come across the Household Cavalry parading on the Mall or crossing Birdcage Walk from the Palace. Close your eyes and hear a wonderful rhythmic noise – the sound of hoofs, the rumble of the cannons, the jingle-jangle of swords, hoists, stirrups and reins. There’s the snort of a horse and an order barked from an officer. For a moment, time slips and noises ghost in from another day when London’s streets thronged with horses, rumbling carts that jostled with the shouting, busy crowd. The cavalry pass and fades to be succeeded by the general din of London’s modern traffic.
The Royal Mews
We used to live a stone’s throw from the Royal Mews where the Queen keeps her horses and carriages. Naturally, this was a haven for my mother who charmed all the staff until we could wander in and out at will. My side of the family never had money, but my mother had ideas and nerve. One year, perhaps slightly riled by having to attend one too many children birthday parties thrown with big budgets, my mother hatched a grand but cheap plan for my birthday party. She borrowed one of the Queen’s coaches and a groom, took them to Hyde Park and gave all the children rides. For a family well-acquainted with a fall into disaster and tragedy, the day was the kind of triumph that belongs to another age.
The old brewery
The ‘60s tower block at the top of our street was there long before I was. I only recently found out that that it was previously the site of one of London’s main breweries, Watney Stag Brewery. Powerful dray horses hauling carts of beer barrels would once have been a common sight around these streets. The brewery was demolished in 1959 and all signs of its existence have long since gone.
Riding to Westminster Abbey
There were eccentric rules in my family. My father insisted on arriving at Westminster Abbey by horse and coach for among other things, Chilean Naval Day or my brother’s christening. Dennis Severs and his coach would convey the family through the streets of London with my father, sitting with top hat ensemble, highly satisfied by the arrangements made by my mother. (Dennis Severs’s died in 2000 but his house remains one of London’s lesser-known but extraordinary places to visit.)