Pre fossil fuel transport has always particularly fascinated me. Fossil fuels are inherently unsustainable, so it seems dumb to make our world dependent on them to my mind, but that is what we’ve gone and done anyway…. Nevertheless, we can explore alternatives and it won’t harm to be ready for when the oil runs out, right? My starting point is what we used to do – can it be updated perhaps?
Some things could perhaps be poised to return, things like cycling and sailing, perhaps even updating steam to run on renewable fuel? I dunno. Some things like oxen and horses seem consigned to the past though. Even if there was the infrastructure to allow a return to draught animals, is it ethical to do so? I think, probably not, and I say this as someone who owns and works oxen, mules and ponies. I believe working these animals and providing a happy life for them in balance with a viable workload requires skill and passion, and when the entire populace is dependent upon their labours, it simply won’t be the case that everyone working a horse will have that. It doesn’t matter if your bicycle, car, canoe or sailing ship isn’t maintained correctly – it won’t suffer as a result.
So, nobody should read this as a manifesto for the return of draught animals for anyone but the dedicated few who are passionate enough to provide the best care for them.
(No coracles were harmed in the making of this photo: I believe the coracle to be blissfully unaware of my exploitation of its bouyancy)
But that doesn’t mean I can’t still marvel at the lengths we used to go to to travel just a few miles an hour faster than we can on foot, back in the day! And it was only a few miles faster – even with money thrown at the problem to create staged routes, with inns, staff and fresh beasts, travel was only about 14 miles an hour at most via animal-power. The railways, starting at 30 miles an hour, would have therefore been mind-bogglingly fast and a true world first for land travel, absolutely incredible to the humans of the time.
Just thinking about the necessary steps to achieve a journey beggars belief – the animal would need to be prepared in advance, i.e; fed at the correct time (no running on a full stomach!), groomed and kept out of the rain, as riding or harnessing wet fur can cause discomfort and sores. Not to mention the stages up to this of breeding, rearing and training the animal. Then, out comes the harness (which has to be cleaned frequently and stored correctly) to be put on and adjusted, then the pony must be put to the cart, which also requires maintenance and storage. Then the person driving must not only be schooled in the technicalities such as we have with car driving lessons, but must also have a bit of a flair for the job, an understanding of the differences in temperament, ability and general quirks of whichever animals he has charge of.
This is explored in a fascinating book called ‘Down the Road’ by C.T.S Birch Reynardson. Reynardson was a coachman, writing in 1874, reminiscing about stagecoaches some twenty years or more before. Reynardson has amusingly strong opinions – wishing that people’s ‘brains would blow out’ for daring to blow a coaching horn wrongly. Holding the reins in two rather than one hand was appalling. Worst of all, was the railway. Reynardson remarks on Brunel’s bridges ‘ruining’ the view, and is convinced rail travel is gravely dangerous and even faintly ridiculous. ‘Why do we need to go so fast?’ seems to be his opinion. I would dread to think what he would make of the dwindling of rail and the dominance of the motor car
Reading these old accounts not only gives these interesting hindsight views of macro-changes to transport, but also for a historian, little snippets of un-self-conscious information about the day to day reality of the life of someone in the mid 1800s, or whenever. It’s easy to glean the overall history, the nuts and bolts, of stagecoach history, but what about the polish? The details? Reynardson gives us a lot, such as the need to screw horses from side to side on the road in order to get up an icy hill, the tip of practising whipping with reins tied to four chairs, the fact that the favoured drink of coachmen was rum and milk, and they had 20minutes for dinner which wasn’t enough because getting the great coat and scarf off when wet took up all the time!
As part of my research into coaching I visited the Streetlife Museum of Hull, which has an excellent horse travel exhibition, and a ride which gives the opportunity to experience coachtravel,with a coach mechanised to move realistically on the spot. I enthusiastically jumped in, eager to experience it, and promptly almost had a panic attack as the door shut behind me and the reality of just how small these things were set in! I’m claustrophobic, and there is only just room for four (small) adults to sit inside. I flushed hot, felt nauseous and fought the urge to hyperventilate as we were thrown from side to side. I learnt that if I was ever thrust back in time, I should travel on the roof of the coach as most did, weather be damned!
In the case of harness horses, it’s the blending of human, horses and hardware that really interests me. To be able to put these seemignly incompatible things – wood and metal and flesh and brains that don’t speak the same language – together in order to create an effective whole…that’s really impressive. Maybe I watched too much ‘Black Sails’ and ‘Master and Commander’ etc. but I find a coach and team of horses to be similar to the culture of a pirate ship. The ship was the sailor’s world; they had to work together with the wood, canvas and ropes to harness the wind and travel. Knowledge and maintenance of all the technologies was essential , and individuality becomes less important.
I get a valuable taste of what it’s like to be a part of one of these human-hardware-horse entities when I work as ‘coachman’ for Les Amis Equestrian Stunt Team, doing their Jacobite display. For a few days, I pretty much cease to matter. It’s not even ‘me and my horse’, a recognisable pairing to be personally identified with; all of us on the coach team have just one small part to play and to the audience we are simply ‘the coach’. I see to my own needs purely to ensure I can play my role, which is basically one of safety in this instance. I am to handle and comfort and calm the horses. Others harness up, drive, see to the waggon. My world is that waggon and all the bits and pieces, living or inanimate, which make it spring into life.
I’m one of those notorious ‘Millennials’ – we’re brought up to believe we’re all special individuals. ‘Being yourself’ and ‘doing your own thing’ is our mantra, a core belief. However, I feel there’s a kind of comfort to be had in letting go of your individuality and simply doing whatever needs to be done in order to achieve a common goal with the others making up your ‘entity’. I feel this is a big part of why I prefer driving teams to riding single animals these days. Riding is simply me telling another animal what to do. A coach and team is a far more complex organism! I enjoy that.
(‘Champion’ and ‘Fritz’, Hungarian Nonius horses, entertaining the crowd at Fort George)
Alas, Alas, where is it gone?
Alas! Alas! Where is it gone,
That coach with its four bright bays?
Alas! Alas! Where is it gone,
That spicy team of greys?
…Alas! Alas! Where are they gone?
The coach and the bays and greys?
Alas! Alas! Where is it gone,
That ‘light of other days’?
The sun has set that once shone out
So bright upon those teams;
The night has come, and all that’s past
Seems but as fleeting dreams.