If you are looking for the most romantic and relaxing way to spend an afternoon, then a horse drawn carriage ride through the lanes of rural Sussex is possibly the most blissful experience you could find. Admittedly on the day we chose the sky was a cloudless cerulean blue and the sun was shining over the newly-mown fields – but this adventure would have something to offer at any season.
We arrived at the little farm near Forest Row which is home to The Horse Drawn Carriage Company and were warmly welcomed by the young owner, Julie Hodgson.
“I wanted to showcase the lovely tradition of carriage driving and the old English ways to give people the opportunity to step back in time and escape the pressures and urgency of modern life,” she said as she took us into the yard and introduced us to the two beautiful horses which were going to provide our locomotion for the afternoon. Some people say there is no such thing as a white horse- that they are all grey – but genetic technicalities aside, Tommie and Charlie are purely and deliciously white. They are perfect replicas of each other which is not surprising as they are sort of half-brother-twins, being born at the same time from the same father but different mothers. As they looked out over their stable doors we stroked their necks and soft noses and they shut their eyes with content. We could immediately sense that they were the kindest, most amiable creatures you could imagine.
“Yes, these two can win over even people who are afraid of horses,” Julie said. “They are Welsh Cob x Percherons bred for carriage work with eight years experience.”
They seemed so perfectly matched that we wondered how anyone could tell them apart. “Most people can’t,” smiled Julie, who obviously could. “Tommie is a bit bigger, 15.3 hands and Charlie is only 15.2 – and he is the cheekier of the two although in fact he is a bit more sensitive.”
Before seeing them being ‘put to’ the carriage, Julie showed us the vehicle itself, explaining that it was a barouche dating from around 1880. “The sort of vehicle used by the gentry for leisure driving,” she added, which made us feel rather grand. The pretty little four-wheel carriage is utterly charming, it is decorated with white silk flowers, has brass carriage lamps on either side and comfortable-looking double seats for the passengers and a raised box for the driver and groom. For the cooler months soft cosy blankets are provided. We admired its shiny black finish edged with gold and learned that Julie herself had painted it.
Next she showed us the spotlessly clean, gleaming but very complicated-looking tack with which she calmly harnessed the horses, who it must be said, looked completely relaxed throughout. We by now felt complete confidence in Julie. Her bond with these big, beautiful creatures was so apparent and the unhurried way she worked, all the while talking to us and answering our questions, was a joy. In fact Julie, who has spent all her life with horses and is one of the few drivers operating carriage, rides who holds the British Driving Society Level 4 certification. She also has a WATO (Welfare of Animals in Transport Order)
At this point Julie’s husband Duncan arrived and helped her bring the horses out and put them to the barouche. Duncan, who was to act as groom on this occasion, then placed a bottle of chilled champagne and two silver goblets in a basket inside the barouche, opened the little side door, and helped us in.
Julie got up onto the box flourishing a long whip which she assured us was not used to hurt the horses but to make sure that they pulled uniformly and one wasn’t doing all the work. Duncan meanwhile went out into the lane to see the carriage out of the farm gate. This involved a sharp right angle turn which the Tommie and Charlie accomplished with consummate ease.
“It is essential to have a groom when driving a pair,” Julie said as Duncan jumped back up on the box beside her and we set off. To help the passengers, to stand at the horses head when they are stationary and be ready to assist generally.
We certainly did feel very special sitting sipping our champagne high above the hedges of the cottages we passed. Everyone we saw waved and the sight of our elegant little equipage seemed to make then smile. As for us, we felt like characters straight out of Jane Austen. Soon however, we left houses behind us and found ourselves amid the green of fields and woodland.
It is very fortunate that the farm is on the edge of a big private estate interlaced with quiet lanes and tracks in one of the most attractive corners of Sussex making it unnecessary to venture onto the busy main roads. In fact the gentle motion of the barouche, the clip-clop of the horses’ hooves and the twitching of their ears as the listened to the sound of Julie’s voice, to say nothing of the taste of champagne on our lips, made us feel as though we had left the burly-burly of the twenty-first century behind and entered a gentler more satisfying dimension.
We learned that Julie, Tommie and Charlie, aided by a series of grooms are much in demand for weddings – for which the horses and the barouche are transported by lorry to the venue (together with a check-list of 90 items which begins with, ‘2 horses’ and ends with much- needed ‘coffee,’) where they are harnessed and prepared to take the bride to the church and/or to the reception.
A carriage ride is in fact the perfect way to celebrate an anniversary or even to get engaged – Julie confided to us that the next day she was taking a couple out and that the man was going to hide the ring in the barouche and propose to his girlfriend en route ( and yes, she did say yes)
Julie and the horses also do film work and offer a carriage ride which culminates with a picnic at which guests find a hamper of wine and local delicacies waiting in a secret picnic place with chairs and tables in one of the farm’s fields. This can also be extended to a family picnic with games and treats provided for the children who will then be taken to the goat paddock to feed and play with Julie’s three friendly goats, Teddy, Nora Batty and Gladis ( two of which are currently being trained to pull a mini-carriage although goat progress is apparently rather slow.)
We were also impressed by the flexibility of the company. Although the barouche has a hood which can protect passengers in a sudden squall, if the weather looks like being inclement, they are happy to reschedule. They will also pick people up from East Grinstead station and advise on local hotels for those wanting an overnight stay.
Julie and Duncan had been so friendly and efficient and Tommie and Charlie such delightful travelling companions that in one way the forty five minutes passed all too quickly – but in another the whole experience was so unique as to have taken us right out of everyday time.
It is in fact the most idyllic romantic interlude. We can unhesitatingly recommend a jaunt with The Horse Drawn Carriage Company as the perfect way to relax and renew you spirits.
The 45 champagne carriage drive for 2 costs £150. For details and prices of the other things the company offers please visit www.thehorsedrawncarriagecompany.com