Handmade rocking horses from East Yorkshire
PUBLISHED: 22:44 09 December 2012 | UPDATED: 22:29 20 February 2013
Old fashioned it may be but a toy horse would still rock the world of most children at Christmas. Chris Titley visits the Yorkshire workshop where they are hand crafted. Photographs by Andy Bulmer
This is not just any showroom. Its a magical, merry-go-round world of a showroom. Everywhere, painted horses gleam and twinkle. Theyre all shapes and sizes, from Little Rocky, the tiny white pony with the toddler-friendly seat to the dapple grey Garrowby, to Black Beauty, high, haughty and magnificent. Some have a pedigree dating back more than a century, some are brand new; all are hand-crafted. This is the Rocking Horse Shop, tucked away in a corner of Fangfoss, the East Yorkshire village between Pocklington and Stamford Bridge.
Founder Tony Dew still owns a third of this niche business. Jane Cook owns two-thirds. At this converted dairy farm they craft rocking horses to order, restore old horses and sell plans and accessories for hobbyists to build their own horse at home. If its to do with rocking horses, we reckon we do it, says Jane.
She takes me on a tour. First stop is the metalwork shop. Although the horses are made of wood, they swing on a metal mechanism fashioned by Gerry McDonald. I enjoy working here, he says with a warm smile.
Sometimes I deliver the finished horses to customers, and thats the best part of the job. I get to do the reveal. You see the childs face light up its wonderful.
Next stop the packing area. Eighty per cent of the business is now via the internet, and it is here that staff parcel up the plans, kits and timber they send out to home woodworkers.
Theres a real family feel among the nine-strong workforce. Here Barbara is lining and dyeing stirrup straps, Julies sorting various manes and Dawn is stitching saddles. Their work is watched by old horses in various states of wear and tear on shelves high above.
Next door, master carver Sam Glass is fashioning a rocking horse head. He stumbled into this unusual trade by accident he says. I bought a craft shop and started making little wooden toys and somebody asked me to make a rocking horse.
That was in 1989 and hes still making them. I do it because I love it, says Sam. And thats despite his one and only ride on a real horse. The experience ended fairly disastrously I ended swinging from the top of the stable door while the horse went in and left me. So Im quite happy making these horses now.
Why the enduring appeal of the rocking horse? Its a toy but its not just a toy, he says. Once your kids have grown up you can still keep a rocking horse in the corner of the room and you are left with a beautiful thing. And you can save it for the grandchildren.
This world can be a bit topsy-turvy. Two horses in an adjoining room are waiting for final coats of paint. One looks worn and old but its a new horse deliberately scuffed and covered in yellow varnish to give it a timeless feel. The one that looks brand new is many decades old, carefully restored to its glorious best.
We cross the yard and enter the Rocking Horse Shop museum where Tony Dew is preparing to host one of his regular carving workshops. It all began for him when he made his first rocking horse for a college project in 1976.
It just seemed like a wonderful thing to do, he says. At that time it seemed a virtually dead craft. People said, A rocking horse, how lovely, you never see them any more. I thought heres something that should be revived.
Among the museum exhibits are a couple by the 19th century maker FH Ayres, which are generally regarded as the Rolls Royce of rocking horses. One has a swivelling head, an 1886 design innovation which didnt catch on. Different makers have different styles. Some are very simple, some are beautiful, some are rather odd looking, says Tony.
The team can identify the maker of virtually any rocking horse and will value them for insurance purposes. But for many people this is a formality, says Jane. If you are not going to sell it, if its for children and grandchildren, its not about the money. Its not going to get thrown away like an XBox when the XBox 3 comes out.
Tony agrees. Computers are great, but rocking horses tend to have a bit of personality. Children name them. They become friends, they talk to them and tell stories around them.
This is borne out by a delivery he made to a home in Leeds the day before Christmas Eve a few years back. The lucky recipient, a little girl, had been taken out for the day. When he took the horse out of the van he saw its ear was broken, the result of a jolt as hed driven over a speed hump. There was no time to do anything more than an emergency repair with Superglue.
Soon after Christmas he returned with an identical, brand new horse when the little girl was out. The old one was in the hallway with a great big bandage on the ear, Tony says. They swapped them over and put the dressing back on. Then when the little girl returned she found a note saying The ear is healed, love Father Christmas and when she removed the bandage, it was.
The mother rang up and said you wouldnt believe the expression on her face when she took the bandage off and read the note! It was a lovely thing to do.
His passion for rocking horses encompasses everything from the replica he built of the first one ever made, for Prince Charles, the future King Charles I, in about 1604, to Bigger Bertie, the 15ft high giant horse which towers over the yard. Jane shares that passion.
She bought the majority share of the business in 2009, a deal made all the sweeter as it followed her recovery from potentially life-threatening cancer. Its a decision shes never regretted.
The rocking horse community is a nice community, she says. We have a lot of friends who are makers and restorers.
Its about keeping the art of rocking horse making alive and thats what we want to do.
Find out more at rockinghorse.co.uk