By Jane Pitman 2014
I’m not quite sure why I have a “thing” about old stable buildings, but a “thing” I most certainly have! I’m a stable spotting anorak according to my friends. “Surely once you seen one, you’ve seen them all” they say. Well no, not quite. They come in all shapes and sizes, from grand mansion stable blocks to humble farm stalls, I find them all fascinating and architecturally interesting.
I’ve always loved horses, I had a model stable in my bedroom, complete with plastic horses with “real” manes and tails called, ‘Dream Ponies’, and avidly read pony books (and still do!) Like a lot of young horse-mad girls I pestered my parents for a pony, but that dream had to wait until I left home and got married. My parents did allow me to have riding lessons though, which led to helping out at a local riding stables at weekends in exchange for rides. I also remember helping a lady who lived in a large house with a grand stable block. I wonder if my passion stems from there or maybe from watching popular children’s TV series in the 1970s like The Adventures of Black Beauty and Follyfoot. Both featured lovely old stables.
Of course I just had to see where those farms where filmed. So a visit to Stokers farm in Rickmansworth, Herts was in order for the Black Beauty location. Luckily a public footpath goes right past the farm and you can also admire the barns from the canal tow path. I could just imagine Vicky galloping Beauty across the fields. It appears virtually unchanged and better still horses’ heads were looking over stable doors when I visited in 2013. Unfortunately, Follyfoot farm in Yorkshire is a different matter. No stables or horses there now and the farm yard and house are vastly altered, but the countryside location is still beautiful, if nothing else, and a public footpath takes you right past the farm and lakes.
I know very little about architecture, but I do know I like brick or stone archways with cupola and/or clock tower which leads you into a square courtyard flanked on each side by stables, coach house and harness room. So many grand stable blocks disappeared during the 1960s and 70s when country houses were being demolished at the alarming rate of one every three and half days (don’t get me started on that one!) And farm stables no longer housed cart horses as tractors became the new work horse.
I have heard it said that the invention of the combustion engine was actually a good thing for the equine world. Horses worked very hard as their owners depended on them for their livelihoods and as a consequence many poor horses dropped dead as they worked. Hence a new type of stables appeared in 1886, the ‘Home of Rest for Horses’. It gave many old, sick and overworked horses a place to recover with much needed rest. Now known as ‘The Horse Trust’, their impressive stables can be visited in Princes Risborough, Bucks.
Thankfully, a lot of National Trust properties have stable blocks which can be visited even if the majority have found new uses such as tea rooms/shops and toilets! Tables and chairs fill the stalls and customers can drink cups of tea and eat cake while admiring the old hay racks and mangers. It’s fantastic that some are still left intact and undisturbed such as Dunster Castle in Somerset. Part of the 17th century stable houses a shop, still complete with its stall partitions, but the rest is left more or less just as it would have been and there are fine examples of very rare wooden bailes which separate the stalls.
Another example of intact stables can be seen at Uppark in West Sussex. These have attractive wooden detailing above the stalls and large acorns topping the posts. I went during the run up to Christmas and the air turned blue when I discovered festive trees in the stalls which spoilt any chance of decent photos! Whilst young children appeared to be enjoying this Christmas experience I was more fascinated by elaborated brass fittings on the stall posts which could be pulled out by a ring. I’ve never come across this design before. I’m not entirely sure what they were for but assume they would be pulled out by grooms to hang bridles and heads collars on and pushed back in when not required. Also just as fascinating are the spooky tunnels which lead from the stables to the house.
Mottisfont Abbey in Hampshire is another that has a few stables left untouched. These were built in 1837 for Sir John Barker Mills He ran a stud, kept racehorses and was master of the Mill Hounds. Underneath one of the wide coved canopies in the courtyard is a life-size wire sculpture of a horse complete with saddle and bridle.
The stable block at Kingston Lacy in Dorset had me drooling the moment I clapped my eyes on the mellow red brick and stone archway topped with a classic clock tower. I had to chuckle when I heard plaintive wails from a bored child “but Dad we didn’t come here to look at bricks, we came here to enjoy ourselves!” Obviously Dad was admiring the wonderful architecture too!
Ashton Court, which is owned by the City of Bristol, was a welcome discovery. I stumbled across this stunning mansion house while out for a walk in nearby woods. My jaw dropped open at the sight of various mixtures of architectural styles. Entering the Courtyard Café, which also houses a visitor centre, my cheesy grin stretched from ear to ear as I admired beautifully tiled stalls and ornate sliding loose box doors. With glorious views across parkland overlooking Bristol’s rolling countryside I thought what a fantastic place to enjoy a cup of tea!
After an informative chat with a volunteer at Dyrham Park in Gloucestershire I discovered part of their stables are still in use, but not open to the public. I tried standing on tiptoe to peek through very dusty windows and managed a few tantalising glimpses of hay racks and wooden partitions before a face suddenly appeared out of the gloom. Thankfully not a ghost, it was only the friendly stable cat which proceeded to rub itself along the window showing me its bottom and refusing to move. Serves me right for being nosy!
Wandering around the Arts and Crafts gardens of Great Chalfield Manor in Wiltshire I found a smart row of stone stables which were built in 1905 by Sir Harold Brakspear. I really liked the two Tudor-arched doorways, one leading to a tack room and the other a passage way. Very pleased to see these original stables are still very much in use.
I thought the stable block at Basildon Park in Reading a strange one. It appeared to be a later building in comparison with the stunning Georgian mansion further up the hill. My assumptions proved correct as the original C18 stable buildings by John Carr were demolished and the later stables were built in 1843 in a new position at the bottom of the hill. The brick arched gateway looks rather odd with a stone clock plonked on top. It doesn’t look in keeping with the brick and flint structure and I have a feeling it could have been salvaged from the original stable block.
The Vyne’s stables in Hampshire are much altered. The coach house is now a retail shop and part of the stables are used by gardeners for storage, so a volunteer informed me. Reminiscences of life at the Vyne can be read on an information board and mentions three horses stabled there in the 19th Century. Their names made me smile. Slyboots because he appeared so, Thunderbolt was born in a storm and Kicker needs no explanation!
Examples of Pit Pony stables can be seen at Big Pit museum, Blaenavon World Heritage Site. And a very attractive example of accommodation for Barge horses can be found on the Grand Union Canal in Berkhamsted Herts, the site of a former boat building yard. The upper floor was used for storing boat cargo and the horses stables were underneath. It has now been converted into a private residence.
Further to the west on the same stretch of canal at Dudswell in Northchurch is a large building called Dudswell Mill. It was never intended to be used as a mill, or a warehouse either as the style of building suggests. Its original purpose was stabling for 21 barge horses. There used to be a cottage next to this building where a horse-keeper resided. The stables were later extended to enable a further 20 horses to be kept there. This has also been converted to private housing.
If you want to see posh and immaculate stables then a visit to the Royal Mews in London is a must. You could eat your dinner off the floors in there! If you are lucky you may see some of the Queens Carriage horses, the Windsor Greys or the Cleveland Bays.
And last, but not least, I must mention the magnificent Riding House at Bolsover Castle. Built in the 1630s it is the finest surviving example of its kind in this country. Here, in the beautiful Italian influenced interior, royal horsemaster William Cavendish indulged his passion for training horses in the art of Haute Ecole. From April to September the Riding House comes alive as spectacular displays by expert horsemen perform classical dressage movements accompanied by Baroque music. The once lavish stables now house a Discovery Centre.
These are just a selection of some of the stables I’ve come across over the years and happily there are still plenty more for me to discover where I can indulge my passion!
Books for Further Reading
Shire publications have a reasonably priced booklet Stables and Stable Blocks by Christopher Powell or if you fancy splashing out The British Stable by Giles Worsley is well worth tracking down. It contains beautiful photographs and is very informative.
Dunster Castle in Somerset (National Trust)
Ashton Court in North Somerset (owned by the City of Bristol)
Uppark in West Sussex (National Trust)
Mottisfont Abbey in Hampshire (National Trust)
Kingston Lacy in Dorset (National Trust)
Arlington Court in Devon (National Trust)
Basildon Park in Reading (National Trust)
The Vyne in Hampshire (National Trust)
Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire (English Heritage)
Former Barge horse stables Dudswell Mill in Northchurch Herts (now private housing)
Former Barge Horse Stables in Berkhamsted Herts (now private house)