There can be few more romantic ways to see the countryside than from a horse-drawn carriage. Clip-clopping down sun-dappled lanes, the wind in your hair, it’s easy to imagine that you have travelled back in time. “You see more wildlife this way than you would on a bike or probably even walking,” my instructor Roger Page tells me. “You’re more in keeping with it all.
He informs me I need to get to grips with the steering before we set out with our trusty steed, Lightfoot, for the day. As Roger and groom Laura look on, I practice on Woody – a model of a horse’s head. I hold the reins English coachman style in my left hand, using my right when necessary to make a turn.
Stopping is much the same as in horse riding – pull back gently on the reins. But the carriage is also fitted with foot-operated brakes.
Practice makes perfect
Having acquainted myself with the controls it’s time to harness up, a process which involves a bewildering array of straps and buckles, all with wonderfully lyrical names such as ‘breeching’ and ‘crupper’.
“I can harness up in about five minutes,” Laura tells me. Left to my own devices it would probably take me nearer 50 – and even then I imagine I’d have most of the kit on back to front.
But Lightfoot doesn’t seem to mind, and once I’m installed in the driver’s seat it’s off for a few turns around the outdoor arena.
Keeping the contact with Lightfoot’s mouth is, I find, surprisingly tricky: I think I’ve got a firm but not restrictive grip only to discover a few minutes later that I’m holding a pair of limp washing lines. Fortunately, Roger is sitting next to me throughout with his own set of reins: “We always have the horses fitted with dual controls for beginners,” he says kindly.
But while it’s going to take me more than a couple of hours to master the art, the great thing about driving – as Roger says – is that anyone can have a go. “We get lots of people who’ve had to stop riding but still want to be around horses. There’s no age limit – as long as people can get in the carriage, they can do it.”
Sweeping majestically through gorgeous rural Hampshire, it’s easy to understand the appeal: Grayswood is surrounded by a network of hedge-fringed tracks so it’s possible to drive for hours without hitting a road. And, of course, you have passengers with whom you can share the delights of spotting the rabbits, deer and buzzards in the fields.
“It’s a very sociable thing,” Roger concludes. “People often want to learn to drive just so that they can take their family to the country for a picnic.” As the afternoon sun shines down, catching Lightfoot’s conker-brown coat, I can’t imagine a better way of escaping into nature.
HOW TO GET THERE
Grayswood is 12 miles from Southampton following the M3 north, turning on to the A335 at J13, then the B3037. The nearest train station is Eastleigh, five miles away.
FIND OUT MORE
Grayswood Carriage Driving Centre
Low Hill Farm, Portsmouth Road, Fishers Pond, Hampshire SO50 7HF
A two-hour Introduction to driving session is £80. individual lessons start at £40 per hour and group lessons are also available.