Always ready to rock

Always ready to rock

Andrew Gallon visits a thriving small business keeping nostalgia alive (July 2014)

Beneath the eaves of a former dairy farm in the sleepy village of Fangfoss, a small team of skilled craftspeople keeps alive a manufacturing tradition dating from the early years of the seventeenth century.

There is nowhere in the world like the Rocking Horse Shop, a business that managing director Jane Cook describes as “an inch wide and a mile deep”. It is, in fact, a one-stop rocking horse shop, where new rocking horses are made, old ones restored and kits, plans, accessories and courses offered for those keen to have a go themselves. The Rocking Horse Shop provides a loving retirement home for unwanted rocking horses and runs the Guild of Rocking Horse Makers, which it established fifteen years ago and which extends to 1,500 members.

“We do everything there is to do with rocking horses,” says Jane. “Some companies sell finished rocking horses, some restore old rocking horses and one sells plans but I don’t know of another that does everything we do.”

The exterior of The Thornhill Arms, located in Yorkshire's Calverley

Jane Cook with a ‘large special’ rocking horse and, to the rear, an F H Ayres replica

The Rocking Horse Shop has a link to the original rocking horse, built circa 1605 for the future Charles I. Charles, a sickly child, was cursed with weak ankles. His nanny winced at the calipers the poor boy was made to wear and sought a carpenter to create something less primitive that would enable him to exercise his legs. The Rocking Horse Shop was asked to make a replica of this long-lost prototype and it is on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Early rocking horses, fitted with bow rockers, were made for the gentry, owners of large houses with spacious rooms and whose children used them to learn how to ride. From the mid-1800s they became widely available and, with the bow rocker replaced by the more stable safety stand, were developed as a toy. Companies such as F H Ayres, Lines Bros., Collinson’s and Patterson Edwards/Leeway popularised the rocking horse.

Some rocking horses had a very serious function. Huge examples were used to train British Cavalry Reserve recruits in equestrian positioning and balance before they were deployed in battle during the First World War.

Former secondary school woodwork teacher Tony Dew, a man with a yen for toy making, founded the Rocking Horse Shop in 1976. Now mostly retired, he still owns a third of the business, lives on the Fangfoss site and tutors participants on the company’s three-day course teaching how to carve a rocking horse head. The other option, also three days, teaches the carving of a half-size rocking horse.

“By the mid-1970s, the heyday of the rocking horse was long past,” says Jane. “When Tony started the business, rocking horses were about as dead as they were going to get. He brought them back to life. Tony realised that as well as selling the finished rocking horse there was a market in selling plans and accessories for people to make their own. It grew from there.”

How it grew! The Rocking Horse Shop now has a staff of nine, five of whom are involved directly in manufacture and restoration. Around fifteen designs of rocking horse are available in a variety of sizes. Prices start at £300 and go up to £4,000. Top of the range is the Extra Large Black Beauty, an exquisite rocking horse Jane describes as having “all the whistles and bells”. Orders for the company’s numerous products arrive from every corner of the globe.

“All our rocking horses are hand carved, not machined in any way, so every one is individual,” says Jane. “Even if you are buying a rocking horse from the lower end of our range, it is still unique. Wherever possible, we make everything ourselves. The only things we don’t make are our brass brackets and our stirrups because we don’t have a brass foundry.

The exterior of The Thornhill Arms, located in Yorkshire's Calverley

Sam Glass chisels the groove for the mane of a rocking zebra

“Our customers love their rocking horses, which become very special. We don’t have unhappy customers. We do a very good job and our customer service is second to none. We ask for feedback and it’s nice to hear what customers say.”

Each rocking horse, many of which are bespoke, takes three months to make. Twenty-four pieces of kiln-dried tulipwood, an American hard wood poplar that carves easily, are glued to create the horse, which is left to settle. It is then coated in gesso, a rabbit skin glue with chalk whiting of single cream consistency, sanded smooth and allowed to dry thoroughly. The horse is then painted. Some are stained with lacquer rather than painted. This eliminates the gesso stage.

Brass and leather tack, along with a real horsehair mane and tail, are added and the horse mounted on a safety stand or, occasionally, a bow rocker. The finishing touch is a brass plaque, engraved with the buyer’s message to the recipient.

“Inside, the horse is hollow,” says Jane. “With a bespoke horse, we encourage customers to put a time capsule in either the belly or under the saddle. It’s nice to capture a little bit of history. Customers like that because we’re making something for them that will go down the generations. If they make it themselves from one of our plans, not only will it go down the generations, they can say ‘Granddad Tom made it’. That makes the horse extra special.”

The stage-by-stage manufacturing process is essentially a production line of craftspeople, using traditional tools in a centuries-old way. Sam Glass is the carver and restorer, Karl Barker cuts and shapes timber, Julie Turner deals with bespoke leatherwork and hair, and Barbara Brown produces leatherwork for the company’s kits.

“They all come from different backgrounds and have stayed with us long enough to learn the skills,” says Jane. “Sam made toys; Karl, who joined us from college, is a chainsaw carver at weekends and Julie was a hairdresser. There isn’t an NVQ in rocking horse making, unfortunately. People get passionate about things and learn how to do it.

“The loveliest thing about making rocking horses is seeing one come together. When a customer collects a horse the look on their face is excitement enough because everybody’s done a bit to make that beautiful thing happen.”

Restoration accounts for a fifth of the Rocking Horse Shop’s workload. Some of the rocking horses in need of repair can be up to 150 years old. Occasionally, they are brought in pieces to Fangfoss, arriving in carrier bags. “We get them in all sorts of states,” smiles Jane. The F H Ayres rocking horse on the mock street at the Castle Museum, York, was revitalised at Fangfoss. An interesting ongoing project is the restoration of six gallopers for a hand-turned carousel.

Jane’s team receives many commissions. Two unusual requests stand out. The first, placed in 2010 by a conceptual artist acting on behalf of Tatton Park, the Cheshire estate garden, was for a massive rocking horse. Big Bertie, as he was nicknamed, can now be seen at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, West Bretton.

The second, dubbed Bigger Bertie, the world’s largest hand-carved working rocking horse, is the team’s crowning achievement. He was made for the 2011 WorldSkills youth competition at London’s ExCel. Bigger Bertie arrived incomplete and those attending the event assisted with his construction. At sixteen feet (5m) high and twenty-four feet (7.5m) long, he dwarfs Big Bertie. The build, between August 2011 and September 2012, absorbed 500 hours. Bigger Bertie, fashioned from marine ply, is on display at Burnby Hall Gardens, Pocklington, until April 2017.

“The kids at WorldSkills loved him,” says Jane. “But I’m not sure we’ll ever make a big rocking horse again.”

The Rocking Horse Shop’s courses attract people of all ages and from every walk of life. Business in new models is brisk. What, then, is the rocking horse’s enduring appeal? “It’s nostalgia,” suggests Jane. “People think about rocking horses and have a lovely feeling.” It seems we’ll always be ready to rock.


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