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News >

Word from Wormingford

Ronald Blythe on the Borstal boys and their horses

IT HAS been one of those “he saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha” days. The white cat and I, each happening to look out of the window at the same moment, are taken aback at the effrontery of hounds pouring through the garden, their muzzles hoovering up distinctly unfoxy scents, such as withering snowdrops and fresh primroses.

Through the bare hedge rides a slender, helpless huntsman, his pink coat gorgeous against the dull field. He toots his horn wanly, and the hounds run past the pond in a doggy stream, and the pheasants squawk. Then, faraway and out of sight, we hear the main pack, then silence. I go back to work, but the white cat goes on looking out of the window at the garden all the rest of the afternoon, as I might have done had ten lions passed by just after lunch.

This cat is a great observer, and should she enter Who’s Who, she will, like William Sansom, put “watching” as her hobby. Not mouse-holes or Whiskas tins or anything like that, but Life, taking it all in, missing nothing, the jogger, the screaming gulls, the wren on the rose an inch the other side of the pane, and now the pretty huntsman and the dreadful dogs.

This same day comes the serious news that the Hollesley Bay Prison on the Suffolk coast is to give up farming, and thus its horses, the majestic “Punches”, the magnificent beasts that worked the fields of East Anglia for centuries. They were brought to Hollesley when it was a Borstal, as therapy for the wicked lads, many of whom fell in love with them and changed their ways. They were big and beautiful and weighed a ton or more, and now they say there are only 30 left.

Since it is the liturgical springtime, I want to tell them, “Be fruitful and multiply.” Find a nice meadow, and do your stuff; only horses do not breed like this. The Suffolk Punches in return are telling us, “Find a place in your economy for us, and we will in return find a place in our hearts for you. Let it be like the old days, a stately give-and-take of favours.”

Every farm had them; now they are semi-mythical. A pair of them might be seen all glossed up, pulling a local brewer’s dray, although Roger down the road still ploughs with them normally, as one might say, and people stop their cars to watch what until the ’30s was a common sight.

Never were there so many horses as now, and the blacksmith is booming: wonderfully idle horses, for the most part, several of them gossiping together at this moment on the high hill as I write, two of them retired from Newmarket, the others waiting for girls to ride them along the lanes. But work horses, horse-power horses, where are they? Will the Punch become one with the dodo?

Brendan Behan did time at Hollesley Bay, and described it in Borstal Boy, and who knows but that the Suffolk Punches there had a hoof in making him part of the glory of Irish literature? Has anyone ever thought of writing a thesis on the influence of the Heavy Horse on Drama?

My neighbour Mr Grout — this was ages ago — once told me about his boyhood on the farm. “The head horseman was called the ‘lord’ — and that’s what he was, lord of all the horses. That was me one day: I was the lord of the horses. . . the horses on the farms were friends and loved like men. Some men would do more for a horse than they would for a wife. The ploughmen talked softly to their teams all day long, and you could see the horses listening. Although the teams ploughed 20 yards apart, the men didn’t talk much to each other, except sometimes they sang.”
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