Although its primary focus is on the preservation and display of historic buildings from South-East England, the Weald and Downland Living Museum offers other fascinating insights into the lives of ordinary people in times past. A notable highlight of our visit last October was to be able to watch a team of horses ploughing a field that forms part of the Museum’s land. Only a few decades ago such a sight would have been totally unremarkable anywhere in rural England, but these days draught horses have little if any role in country life beyond their participation in ploughing competitions that hark back nostalgically to the pre-industrial world.
The term “draught” horse is derived from the Old English word dragan, meaning “to haul” or “to draw”. They are also referred to as carthorses, work horses or heavy horses. And these terms, I guess, tells us all we need to know. Back in the day, when heavy loads needed to moved or agricultural land had to be worked, the horse was England’s go-to beast of burden. Even as the Industrial Revolution started to kick in, horses toiled along towpaths hauling canal barges laden with raw materials and manufactured goods.
In these modern times, when internal combustion and diesel engines rule the roost, it’s difficult to imagine a moment when we depended not on them but instead on the humble horse. The Weald and Downland Living Museum’s mission is to celebrate and remind us of the world we have lost, and watching three magnificent horses going about their business did just that.
The Museum’s horses are Percherons, a breed of draught horse that originated in western France. Usually grey or black in colour, Percherons are sturdy animals known for their intelligence and willingness to work. They were originally bred as war horses, but later became sought-after animals for agricultural work and hauling heavy goods. As well as ploughing, the horses we encountered also help out with a number of other seasonal farming tasks. These include sowing, haymaking and harvesting, as well as timber-extraction from the Museum’s woodland.
The Museum’s Percherons seemed content in their work, and the guy leading them clearly cared deeply for their welfare. He was practising for a ploughing competition the next day, and although I’m no expert it seemed from what I saw that he and his horsey team were in with a good shout!
In addition to its draught horses, the Museum has several fine examples of historic horse-drawn vehicles. These include a spectacularly colourful gypsy caravan dating from the late 19th century, and a far more humble “living caravan” which would have been home to labourers who travelled the countryside in search of opportunities for paid work.
Like the rest of the exhibits on display at the Weald and Downland Living Museum, the Percherons and horse-drawn vehicles we saw there offered fascinating insights into a world that is almost beyond comprehension from our comfortable, 21st century perspective. I strongly recommend a visit!