Walk On Gently:
A Carriage Ride Adventure Through Woburn Deer Park - Part 1
by B.E. Smith
Woburn Abbey is a beautiful, gothic structure, inhabited and maintained by the Duke and Duchess of Bedford. It is settled on the top of a hill in Bedfordshire, England, that overlooks the deer park and gardens surrounding it. Woburn Abbey Deer Park supports the lives of thousands of deer, crossing nine species. Some of these deer were near extinction before being brought to the preserve and given the opportunity to thrive. One such deer is the Pere David deer from China, that have found refuge in England on the rolling hills of the estate. How do I know so much about the deer at Woburn Abbey? The answer is this, I spent one afternoon on a carriage ride through the absolutely gorgeous grounds of estate, guided by the owner of Westways Carriage Horses, David West.
It was a lovely, brisk October afternoon. The sun was welcoming and warm, despite the crisp breezes chaffing at our skin; just enough to give everyone’s cheeks a rosy glow. David and his daughter, Catherine, brought thick wool blankets that were very much up to the challenge of keeping the inhabitants of the carriage comfortable for the duration of the ride. The ride itself took close to 2 hours, all said and done.
We were introduced to several happy, healthy herds of deer that slept in the sun, ran alongside the carriage, and drank from the many water sources that have been created for them.
David West is exactly the kind of person that comes to mind when you think of an equestrian. The type most equestrians strive to be. Although, we often fall just shy. He has a mild manner and unequaled patience. You can see his care and even temperament in his horses.
That day, we were lucky enough to meet two black and white Friesian/Pinto crosses name Jack and Bill. The horses were brothers and a bonded pair that complimented one another’s temperaments. Jack, being a focused, no nonsense work horse, and Bill, being more prone to showing off and shirking a little bit of work. They were both calm, and friendly, and a pleasure to be around. David peppered in a little bit about each horse’s personality between bits of historical and modern trivia about Woburn Abbey.
For instance, the Abbey itself has been under renovations since 2019, requiring the Duke and Duchess to move their primary residence elsewhere until the updates are complete. Part of the reconstruction is being done to add areas for guests to utilize. On offer, there will be a building where guests can experience a culturally and historically accurate tea party. The experience would not be complete without, you may have guessed, a carriage ride around the grounds. I was quite excited to hear about this new venture in Westways Carriages future, as David’s knowledge of the grounds would add to any experience for interested patrons.
The grounds themselves feel like a step out of time. The beauty one may have come to associate with the likes of Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte. The deer add to the feeling of mysticism, as do the black squirrels. There are only about 25,000 black squirrels in the whole of the UK. We were blessed enough to see three of them as we rounded the top of one particular hill. The first black squirrel was actually recorded in Woburn in 1912. As the abbey was built in 1145, there’s a good chance that these dark, tree loving rodents were living there long before they were first recorded. It is easy to see why they chose Bedford, and Woburn Abbey, as their safe haven. It is free of traffic and hunters, with only the occasional dog walker or horse and carriage to concern themselves with. The experience David and the horses of Westways Carriages provides is certainly one of a kind. Observing the splendor of the Abbey from within a horse drawn carriage practically transports the passenger back in time.
David himself adds to the experience. He has a serene, almost still, energy. He seems to practically be part of the Abbey’s peace. His horses clearly thrive under his care and training. They were healthy, happy and focused on their work. Well, Bill was mostly focused on his work, at times he would eye something ahead of us, but the stalwart Jack kept Bill moving in the right direction with the aid of kind words from David.
One of my favorite things while on the carriage ride was listening to David speak to his horses. He encouraged them, praised them, and gave them clear directions.
We stopped several times throughout the ride. Sometimes it was to take in the scenery. At other times it was to wait for a gate to be unlocked to allow the horses, the carriage and the patrons through. As we stood, he allowed the horses to look around, and take in their surroundings also. I have been around a lot of equestrians, and many are so concerned with keeping their horses focused on the work, and away from anything that could upset them, that they end up infusing the situation with more stress than they intended. David does not worry about the horses looking around. If they seem to tense, he calls their name, and once their ears twitch to acknowledge his voice, he reminds them, “steady on”. In particular, there was one “command” that I felt represented David’s relationship with his horses and training style quite well. After halting and standing, when we were ready to get going once again, he would tell them, “walk on, gently”. His voice was firm, but soft also. It was a command, yet it was one that respected the horses. We often want a response immediately in life. Not just when working with animals, but during many circumstances.
We often lose patience when on the phone with a receptionist or in a store with customer service representatives. On our personal devices we barely have to wait for a page to download or an app to open. If we do, its often notable and a bit irritating. Yet, in the middle of what Henry Channon referred aptly to as a, “feudal magnificence” David tells his horses to walk on, but in their own time. Here, the instant gratification needs of the modern world fall away, and all that is left is the beauty of nature, the cool breeze coming over the hill, across the meadow, and a reminder that there is more to life than getting to the next appointment or meeting. The world around us stilled a little during our horse drawn carriage excursion. I was reminded of the quiet moments with mother nature that I used to experience as a child. I was reminded of this through the magnificence of the horse and the natural order that they capitulate to.
We rounded out our trip to the abbey with a final ride down a long path that leads from the largest lake on the grounds, up to the abbey itself. At the end of the path is a life size statue of a horse. It is a gravestone marker. David let us know that this was the resting place of a race horse named Miss. Moss. She was the favorite broodmare of the current Dowager Duchess of Bedford. Miss. Moss was lain to rest amidst the tranquil setting of the abbey. Her statue can be seen in the distance from the front windows of the Abbey itself. The Duchess has a deep abiding love of nature and the horse. David cares for her own pulling team, a pair of gray Hungarian Lipizzaners, that the present Duchess Louise Bedford, regularly drives within in the park.
After the drive, David welcomed us to visit him back at his home where we met her two big, beautiful, white drafts who sit amongst a barn full of black Friesians, as well as our very own Jack and Bill, two black and white Friesian crosses. The same calm and attentive energy that we saw in Bill and Jack was present in all of David’s horses. It was a barn full of black stallions at dinner time, and no one was kicking the door or nipping at the barn staff. David opened each horse’s door to allow a meet and greet with each of them. They were all fit and healthy, with shiny coats and a quiet eye.
One of our favorites, apart from Jack and Bill of course, was a 3-year-old named Ebeneezer. He took a particular liking to my mother-in-law, who seemed to commune with him through touch. He leaned into her, almost wrapping his neck around her. Their instant bond and his unflinching trust were just another reminder of why we do what we do. Being able to observe the might of these graceful horses, but also their childlike curiosity and desire to be with use as well warmed something inside all of us.
These horses and our experience with Westways Carriage Horses are a credit to David, his family, and all the hard work they do. Working with horses is a tireless work. It can sometimes wear us down. I feel a deep sense of gratitude toward David for reminding us all that with patience and a kind word, we can be part of something kinder and grander than any one of us.
Carrington, James., Nine Species of Deer Found in Woburn Safari Park. Reproduction of a Drawing by J.W.C., Welcome Collection, Reference No. 39822i, https://wellcomecollection.org/works/x57v32a8/items
Henry ("Chips") Channon the Diaries., 1938-43 (Vol. 2), edited by Simon Heffer, Penguin 2021.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopedia. "Woburn Abbey". Encyclopedia Britannica, 15 Nov. 2015, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Woburn-Abbey.
Carriage rides are made possible at the Woburn Deer Park and Estate by kind permission of their Graces The Duke and Duchess of Bedford.
Editor’s Note: We look forward to sharing Part 2 and 3 in this series covering the horsemanship lessons the author learned from David West during the drive, and the inside look at the incredible horse carriage collection that Westways has on offer for use, including funeral carriages.
If you are interested in taking one of these extraordinary carriage riding experiences with Westways Carriages, please contact them via their Facebook Page https://www.facebook.com/WestwaysCarriageHorses/ or via their website http://westwayscarriagehorses.co.uk/
About the author: B.E. Smith is currently attending Southern New Hampshire University, where she has been an honor roll student, appearing on the Dean’s and President’s lists every semester since enrolling. She is working hard towards a bachelor’s degree in English, with a focus in creative writing. She will be entering her final classes soon and is on track to graduate in 2024.
Her next objective is to publish the horror novel that she is currently working on. The novel takes place in 1941, in the frozen wilderness of Czechoslovakia inside gothic Houska castle; notoriously nicknamed the gateway to hell by the locals.
When she is not writing, she is spending time with her husband, dog, cat, or horse. Smith is a long-time equestrian. She rode horses through childhood, training under Eventing riders. After, high school she chose to head south to work on ranches, where she learned how to ride a less formal style of western. This unfolded naturally into an interest barrel racing. Ultimately, she missed the dressage aspects of her childhood Eventing training and has been training primarily as a dressage rider ever since. Smith is also a certified and accomplished equine massage therapist. In her down time, she enjoys reading and spending time with family, when she is not at the barn with her Appendix mare, Orla.