Callum Whittle on keeping history alive in a small Wiltshire town by delivering beer using a horse-drawn dray
I’m the fifth generation in my family to be working with Shires. My great-great-grandad bred them, my great-grandad worked at the Hull brewery when they had Shires, and my dad and grandad worked for a Shire show team, travelling the country.
Ten years ago, my dad was headhunted to work as the head horseman for the Wadworth brewery in Devizes, Wiltshire, because they wanted someone with showing experience, and so we moved down for the job from Mansfield, Nottinghamshire. I was 16 at the time and when I left school, I got a job working under him as the horseman.
Our day starts at 6am every morning at the brewery’s on-site stables, when we muck out and groom Sam and Jac, the two Shires. We still strap them the old-fashioned way — it means you’re not shampooing all the time. Instead we’re just buffing up the natural greases, which gives a great shine.From Monday to Friday we’ll harness up the horses at 8.30am, load the dray with beer and any other stock and head out delivering to the 15 pubs within a two-mile radius of the town.
As a rule of thumb, the Shires are able to pull double their bodyweight — so between the two of them they could probably pull around four tonnes.
We definitely feel a sense of pride when we’re out and about in Devizes; the public love them and often stop to talk to us or take a photo. We’ve had people come all the way from Australia just to see them working. It’s a nice reminder for people of how things used to be done.
There are only a handful of breweries left that still own Shires, but I think we’re lucky that there are so many local pubs here, which makes it viable to use the horses. We get regulars coming out to give them carrots and have a chat; they’re very much the town’s horses, they feel like they own them. I think that support has kept the tradition alive.
In August, the horses have their main two-week holiday — aside from being turned out for weeks here and there throughout the year — when they are turned out on the chairman’s nearby farm. They have a pint of beer first, and then we have a procession down to the field, with up to 200 followers. Everyone watches them as they are let loose. They go mad for 10 minutes, before they put their heads down to eat the grass.
Harness cleaning is the main afternoon job. We have work harnesses for everyday use, plus a show set. The principles of the harness have stayed the same through the generations and we still use the original trade harness. There are only two or three collar makers in the country left and so they’re like gold dust to us. It’s hard work; for one person to clean both of the show sets would take 16 hours.
We spend summer weekends showing — the Royal Bath and West, and Three Counties are our big ones — or doing advertising jobs at pubs and carnivals. For showing, the Shires need to look the same, and the brewery’s chairman Charles Bartholomew likes them dark bay with four white socks.
It’s a cliché that Shires are gentle giants — and you get the odd nutcase — but they always want to please and are very honest. Because they’re so big and majestic, you need to build up trust with them. You’d never stand a chance relying on brute force with something that powerful. You definitely get attached to them; they’re like an extended family.
Ref Horse & Hound; 6 February 2020