Wimbledon Village Stables, said to be the oldest riding stables in England, is an oasis of peace and reflection. Victor Smart samples its magic
Far from the crowds thronging the Centre Court shopping centre down in the town, just ten minutes up the hill Wimbledon Village sits in easy grace. With the big skies of the Common, its fine Victorian buildings and the clatter of horses’ hooves from the riding stables you can half convince yourself you’re residing in the countryside a century ago.
It’s a bright spring morning when I visit the busy stable yard of Wimbledon Village Stables, located behind The Dog & Fox pub. The saddler and the farrier (the ‘horseshoe man’) have both pitched up. Crumpet, the feisty little yard dog, is weaving in and out under the legs of the horses – big beasts in this tight, urban setting. Mid-week, it’s mainly women riders who are mounting their horses for a dressage session.
“It’s a sanctuary for many people,” explains Carol Andrews, the owner of the stables. “For some of those working in offices, coming here to ride may be the thing they look forward to all week.”
When the Victorians decided to build the railway station at the bottom of the hill, the village was left out on a limb. Fortunately, it’s retained its tranquillity and charm, something house prices more than reflect.
It’s been home to Wimbledon Village Stables for a century and the scene hasn’t changed much in all those years. It may not be close enough to central London for a ‘hack’ (Hyde Park holds that accolade) but nearby are 17 miles of horse trails around the Common, or farther afield in Richmond Park. Sightings of rare bird species are promised but galloping isn’t allowed.
Once upon a time, The Dog & Fox was a coaching inn. There would have been jobs for people like ostlers preparing horses for the final leg of their journey into London. The pub sold off the stables in 1915, creating what is believed to be the first stables in the country to offer riding lessons and horse hire.
It was bought by the current owner in 1980. Then there were several dozen yards in the area, explains Carol. Almost all have since vanished, one exception being nearby Ridgway Stables. The fact is, as house prices rise, stables are tasty morsels for developers who build in-fill properties. So how do those stables that remain avoid this fate?
Surprisingly, Carol’s solution has been to embrace the customer service ethos promoted by big business. As she sits chatting in her kitchen in her riding trousers, it’s hard to imagine her enthusing over a killer PowerPoint presentation or signing up for a corporate empowerment strategy awayday. She’s most at ease talking about how she and her team settle in the 26 horses, each brought over from Ireland. Yet she has clearly embraced customer service to good effect.
Regular riders are encouraged to think of themselves not as customers but as members, and even to buy a horse, selected jointly with Carol from the breeders. Casual customers are welcome but membership is more cost-effective.
Strengthening a rider’s ‘core’ is all important, especially in dressage, so Carol arranges fitness, yoga and Pilates classes. She works closely with the Wimbledon Village business association, which is campaigning for a 20-mile speed limit to give the place “a bit more of a village feel”. There are eye-catching equine road-crossing lights outside the stables as well as on the A3 route to Richmond Park. And, to keep herself up to the mark, Carol has regularly competed successfully for customer service awards in the face of fierce competition from far bigger corporate firms.
She’s embraced technology, too, in the shape of a state-of-the-art horse simulator that cost around £50,000. A full-size, electronic horse positioned proudly in her house next to the stables feels decidedly incongruous but a quick session on the handsome black beast soon wins me over. I was quickly able to canter and show off my long-forgotten skill in the “rising trot”. The simulator is a great way to monitor how a rider is sitting on a horse and instructing it. It’s also surprisingly fun. And, for the nervous, there is no risk of bolting or biting, of course.
Admittedly, to maintain the pleasing illusion of Wimbledon Village as a place rooted in the past takes an effort amid the hordes of SUVs cruising by and the chic boutiques displaying the latest fashions.
Clearly, though, Carol is not about to abandon her mission to help maintain this agreeable and pastoral spot in the heart of suburban London – a truly great place to unwind if you’ve worked up a sweat at the Centre Court shopping centre.
Well I never...
- The stables are often asked to provide horses for filming and photography shoots. In fact, one TV dating programme resulted in the instructor being asked for her phone number because the guy didn’t like his ‘date’.
- During Wimbledon fortnight, the team took two horses up to the Common, borrowed a net and filmed the girls playing tennis on horseback -– the video went viral!
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