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The wooden horse of Ilmington

The hobby horse created for the legendary Sam Bennett is still trotting out with the Ilmington Morris. SIMON PIPE tells stories of old Sam

Landlords tend not to take it kindly if you wander into their pubs on horseback. For Pete Shadbolt, this is a problem.

While fellow members of the Ilmington Morris head straight for their natural home at the bar, Pete's left stranded outside. If he's lucky, someone will bring out a drink and a packet of crisps, just to keep him quiet.

At 68, Pete's a little old to find himself in this position, but he's a youngster compared to Sam, his horse, which this year will be 101, or possibly 102.

Pete's not entirely sure of the age and it's no good inspecting Sam's teeth for an answer because they're only wooden pegs. Amateur horse dentistry is part of the job of looking after Sam, along with making regular visits to the knacker's yard for another spare part. It's true: his tail is actually a wig, so to speak, regularly replenished with strands of the real thing to replace those pulled out by youngsters.

And there's a good reason why Pete doesn't simply dismount and leave Sam tethered at the tavern door. The truth is that if Pete went inside for a drink, it would be the horse that ended up legless.

Sam, you see, has no legs of his own, whereas Pete, a perfectly normal man in other respects, has four: two hidden beneath Sam's splendid skirt, and two boot-clad falsies that emerge from beneath his own tail coat and flap uselessly over the horse's flanks, just for effect.

It's a problem.

Sam has been a part of the ancient morris tradition in the Warwickshire village of Ilmington, near Shipston on Stour, since the end of the 19th century. He's now one of the oldest working hobby horses in England.

On the first weekend of July, 2000, Pete rode him to Banbury Cross to take part in the town's hobby horse festival, where the pair of them were accorded a certain respect. This was not just because of Sam's great age, but also because of his great weight. Shoulder him for long, and you would gain a new respect for cart horses.

"He was put together in 1898 or 1899 by a man in Stratford on Avon," says Pete. "Most bits of him are original, including the wicker chair-back. The back of the horse is made from the chair, with a goat skin stretched over it and a skirt all around it.

"Then there are the original iron fittings, which the shoulder straps are connected to. It's incredibly heavy."

Sam's lately been wearing a rosette that was presented at the Moreton Show in Gloucestershire. Asked how he won it, Pete replies, "Well it wasn't for jumping, anyway."

A floral-patterned skirt covers Sam's body; or rather, disguises the fact that he doesn't actually have a body. Cleaning it is a big job: it's secured with heavy brass pins, so bundling it in the twin-tub is not an option. "I put Sam on our picnic table in the garden, and I have an old tin bath tub and I move around him as I scrub. He has to be out there all day to dry because it's thick curtain material."

Sam may be a fine specimen, but in morris terms, it's Pete who has the pedigree. Although he's lived close to Ilmington since he married 44 years ago, he was actually raised in Chipping Campden, one of only a very few places in England where the familiar hankie-waving form of morris dancing still survived at the dawn of the 20th century. Pete's own forebears have been members of the set for generations; his uncle, Bert Hathaway, was the team's fiddler, and his brother has danced with the Campden men.

Sam was made for the legendary Ilmington fiddler, Sam Bennett - a celebrated figure within the "Merrie England" revival between the wars. At the time, horses hadn't been associated with the morris for centuries (they have their own, quite distinct history).

"Sam Bennett was the local carrier, farmer, odd-job man - he did just about everthing," says Pete. "And he used to play the fiddle for the dancing. He was quite a character.

"At his house in Ilmington, the old hobby horse is carved in a wooden beam over a door, at the top of a flight of steps. Visitors don't know it's there."

In a wireless broadcast in 1942, Sam Bennett told how the function of the horse was to entertain, and to keep the crowd back with the snapping of his jaws.

The horse has quite a repertoire of such tricks, performed with his rider's help. "The reins make the mouth open, there's a cord to make the head nod and another to make the ears waggle," says Pete. "The kids love it because I can lift the head up and down and they stroke him and they think the world of it.

"A lot of kids think these are my own legs down the side, until they see my feet sticking out underneath."

In truth, an Ilmington morris jockey must be both showman and stoic. "You have to stop in there for a long time, and you know people are thinking: 'Look at that fool in the horse,' which they do, but you must just laugh with them.

"We get our leg pulled. 'Back from Aintree, then?' - that's one I hear a lot. Sometimes they might say, 'Where's the meet?', as if he's off hunting, and things like that."

One passer-by gave Pete a nasty turn, quite literally. "I was standing on the pavement with my back end sticking out a bit, and a car just touched me as it went by and it spun me round a bit quick.

"I thought, well that could have been an accident: I'd better keep away from the edge of the road in future. So I'm always a bit wary now."

A few years ago, on one of their guest appearances at a big morris gathering in Westminster, Pete and Sam found themselves stranded outside the pub once again.

"A mounted policeman came along, so I stood my horse in the road and lifted its head up. And this police horse reared right up in the air and slammed its feet down on the cobbles in the road - I'd frightened him half to death.

"Afterwards, I thought, if he'd charged at me, what would I have done?"

As for the policeman, he reacted the way people usually do when encountering the Ilmington hobby horse. "He just looked," says Pete, "and smiled."

LINKS: Ilmington Morris

2000 Simon Pipe, Mark Rogers, The Outside Capering Crew

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