What Weston owes to its donkeys

The donkey, described by G K Chesterton as 'The tattered outlaw of the earth', has made a great contribution to Weston's growth in

The donkey, described by G K Chesterton as 'The tattered outlaw of the earth', has made a great contribution to Weston's growth in popularity as a seaside resort. It provided the earliest means of public transport in village days. The smart horse-drawn carriages and brakes and the electric trams which became its rivals have disappeared from the scene, but the donkey plods on, and one can safely predict that there will never be a summer on Weston's beach when it is not there to make its contribution to the resort's attractions.Today Weston's donkeys do no more than carry youngsters for 100 yards along the beach from the various stands, but in former days they were used much more extensively. Visitors toured the district either on them or in donkey carriages. The donkey carriage men, mostly bowler-hatted and in long coats, were familiar figures in Weston years ago. There were donkey carriage stands along the sea front, and all day long the carriages, mostly carrying elderly, infirm folk, leisurely passed up and down.There are some interesting references to Weston's donkeys in the diary of a woman visitor who had holidays here in the years 1824-28. The writer was accompanied by her sister, who had been sent to Weston for her health.There was no railway line to Weston at that time, and it is assumed that the visitors arrived at Cross on the Bristol to Exeter stagecoach. The 1827 diary begins with the comment: "We slept at a neat inn at Cross, and the next day, the 27th September, arrived at Weston-super-Mare."Referring to her 1827 visit the diarist wrote: "While we were visiting Weston we frequently made exercises on donkeys in order to have a better view of the country. One morning when I was riding alone I met a party mounted in a similar manner, which my donkey thought proper to join, and which no power of the person attending me could prevent. "At first I felt extremely awkward, but was somewhat relieved by the kindness of the two ladies, who politely said how much pleasure they should have in my company. To my great delight I soon found that they were intimately acquainted with one of my dear friends at Bath, who wished much to introduce us to each other."On October 3 there was the entry: "Rode on donkeys to Locking and Uphill, returned via Uphill".Nowadays there are usually about 50 donkeys on Weston's sands every summer. But you will not see anything like that number in the fields around Weston in the winter. Has it ever occurred to you to ask: "Where do seaside donkeys go in the winter-time?"If they are not in the fields do they spend day after day simply stuffing themselves with hay in the twilight of stables?I have been told it costs between 30 shillings and two pounds a week to feed a donkey. The summer season at Weston lasts about four months and a donkey ride, once a penny, is now a shilling. But even at that price do the owners make enough to be able to keep donkeys doing nothing for eight months of the year?If that is what is happening the donkey certainly has the last laugh as well as the loudest. I have always thought there was something derisive about a donkey's bray.The question of where do donkeys go in the winter-time was answered for me a while ago by Weston's oldest donkey owner, Mrs Drew, who had been in the donkey business for about 70 years. Mrs Drew told me some interesting things about our seaside donkeys in former days.There was then no restriction on the number that could ply for hire on the beach, with the result that there were about 150 of them. The donkey boys could set up a stand where they liked. When business was slack, the appearance of a party of visitors on the beach slipway was the signal to stampede all the donkeys towards them. The fastest donkeys and the fastest donkey boys got the business.Donkeys were formerly allowed to ply for hire on Weston's beach for a shilling per head per season. Today there are three stands for them on the beach, each for 16 donkeys. When auctioned for a three-year term they have been known to fetch a total not far short of £2,000.Mrs Drew told me that of her 20 donkeys only three were then wintering in Weston. And where had the rest gone? The answer is that they were pets for the winter season at farms, homes and institutions all over the West Country, and even in South Wales. No money passed for this.Arrangements were made during the summer season with holidaymakers whose children fell in love with the donkeys. If the owners are satisfied a donkey will have a good home, they deliver it, collecting it the following Easter or Whitsun.A child who has a donkey for a pet for a winter becomes very attached to it. To avoid the heart-rending scenes of parting, the donkey man by arrangement often calls to collect, like a thief in the night, when the children are in bed or out of the way somewhere.In the summer there are often happy reunions on Weston beach, and it is surprising how a donkey, with dozens of children round it, will suddenly pick out and move to welcome the newcomer, the child who had it as a pet last winter.Sometimes nowadays a few donkeys may be seen on Weston beach at winter weekends. At one time some of Weston's donkeys were put to hard work in the winter. They were taken to Beer and Branscombe on the south Devon coast, and used to carry panniers of seaweed up the steep cliff paths. The seaweed was used as manure for potato patches on the top. Donkeys are still employed on this work today, but the farmers now have their own.The life of seaside donkeys cannot be regarded as the toilsome existence of beasts of burden. So humanitarian have been the forces at work in their interests that today they are as safeguarded from exploitation as if they had a trade union.For many years they were not allowed on the sands on Sundays. A short while ago the borough council remove this embargo, but stipulated that the donkeys should still only work a six-day week.Their hours are from 9.30 until 7.30, and since they are rarely on the beach until 10 or after and get many slack periods, they do not do so badly. There is also a fixed lunch hour from 1pm-2pm.A sixpenny ride is one of 100 yards and back, and there are white marks on the sea wall to show the limit of the ride. There is scarcely a donkey that will not 'do' the customer for a couple of yards if he has his way.Pictures of former day beach scenes show donkeys almost bent double beneath the weight of laughing, fat women. There is no regulation to say that adults cannot ride donkeys today, but few of them do so, so that mostly there are only the kiddies to carry.RSPCA and borough council inspectors ensure that the donkeys' charter is observed. Weston donkey owners are especially keen to keep their charges in good trim because once a year there is the rivalry of the annual parade at which there are prizes for the best kept animals. Mrs Drew proudly showed me her collection of trophies.Weston is fortunate in being able to number donkey rides among its beach attractions. Many other resorts would like to have them but have pebbly, steeply sloping, or soft beaches, a handicap that cannot be overcome. Weston's long stretch of firm, gently sloping sands is ideal for the donkey business.Down the years much has been made of donkeys in Weston's publicity campaigns. They have had pride of place on the cover of the annual town guide, and publicity officers have found a donkey mascot a very useful gimmick in selling the attractions of Weston.Weston's donkey business has also undergone developments in recent years. Don Trapnell and some of the other donkey owners now specialise in donkey breeding. Then there is that popular present-day sport, donkey derbies, for which Weston owners provide the runners for events held all over the West Country,With the 'union' hours and various regulations to protect them Weston's donkeys today can be said to be both eating and laughing their heads off.Today in the summer season they do not even have to walk to the beach from their pastures on the outskirts. With the increase in road traffic they caused serious dislocation as they were herded through the streets, so the local authority now insists that they must be given transport!Probably few Westonians know how Uphill's well-known 'donkey field' got its name.This field, with its fine trees, snowdrops, primroses, cowslips, and bluebells, is one of the few natural glories remaining within Weston borough.Many years ago it was the place of retirement of a very old donkey, which, when young, had been used on the Knyfton estate to pull a little fieldcart on which was the name of 'Thos. Tutton Knyfton Esq., Recorder of Axbridge'.This donkey lived to a great age and was everybody's pet. When it died it was buried in the field. For many years afterwards, Mrs Graves Knyfton allowed a donkey or two to graze in the field to maintain the tradition. Uphill's donkey-field, with a shaggy donkey being patted by passers-by, was a popular local holiday postcard of former years.* This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on September 29, 1967

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