The house and Carriage Museum team took a little time out recently and decided on an ‘educational road trip’, just before the season really gets going. A cunning plan was hatched for us to travel to London to visit the Royal Mews to look at their collection of carriages. Not only that, we also decided to take in another carriage museum at Luton on the way back. That’s just how we roll. Having rented a van and woken at stupid o’clock, the team assembled, albeit slightly bleary eyed and set off for the big smoke. House and CM manager Paula was our pilot for the day with yours truly as navigator. (With my sense of direction a sat-nav wasn’t far away.) Thankfully we are all too grown up for hours’ worth of ‘She’ll be coming round the mountain’…
As the green slowly gave way to the grey, we missed our intended turning (I blame the navigator..) and headed straight into London. Trying not to look like tourists we marvelled at the lavish designs and unique construction of these wonderful carriages. They include carriages used for royal and State occasions, weddings and the Opening of Parliament.
The Royal Mews carriages are also used for around 50 occasions during the year, ‘to convey newly appointed High Commissioners and Ambassadors from their official residence to Buckingham Palace to present their credentials to The Queen’. Since 1843 the Brougham carriage has set out from the Royal Mews to collect and deliver post between Buckingham Palace and St James’s Palace.
The natural highlight of the collection is the Gold State Coach, which has been used at every coronation since that of George IV in 1821. Very similar to the carriage we have on loan at Arlington although bigger and not as old.
After a spot of lunch, (the irony of travelling to London and eating Cornish pasties did not get lost on us) we took a quick detour to see the Mossman collection at the Stockwood Discovery centre. A wonderful collection of carriages and similar to the range of styles that we have at Arlington. Personal highlights were a carriage used in the film ‘Carry on Cowboy’, the gargantuan ‘Char-o-banc’, and the square and travelling Landau’s.
After a quick shot of caffeine it was time to hit the long road home…
Three of the carriages at Arlington had a rare and unusual treat recently. They were allowed outside! (gasp) We had a visit from the team involved with the magazine ‘World of Interiors’ and as well as requiring the use of our lovely carriages the courtyard provided a perfect back drop as it is the original 1865 building. Naturally the North Devon weather tried it’s best to scupper the plans.
Having decided on 3 carriages, the Hansom cab, the Double Brougham and the Park Drag, then came the task of moving them. Now this is naturally what they were designed to do, but as they are now museum exhibits with an average age of around 120, they are used to being still while being admired. As with any large object movement, you need to get the right amount of people to help. Naturally the carriage would have been pulled by a number of horses, but this would put a unwanted stress on the centre pole and fore carriage if we were to move them that way. (We also couldn’t find anyone willing to be harnessed up and do all the pulling.)
With moving carriages the comfortable amount of people is one per wheel, and a team leader at the front and/or back to keep an eye on the procedure. The Park Drag (surely the Range Rover of carriage world) proved the most problematic as it’s the biggest and in a fairly tight space. With our team assembled the first job was to use bottle jacks underneath the axle’s to raise the carriage wheel by wheel on to small trolleys to make movement easier. Once done the next task is to move the carriage to the doors, which proved way more difficult than it sounds due to the uneven historic floor in the stable block. With an expert eye from Ranger Dave (Equine division) we finally got to, and through the doors with inches to spare. It’s more of a delicate job than you would think, with our gloved hands ideally only holding the iron tyres of the 1.6 tonne carriage…
However the fun had only just started as the trolleys proved ‘problematic’ on the cobbles, so with the rest of the process the wheels did the work. Once outside and underneath the arches, we quickly learnt how to maximise the fore-carriage design and use the limited turning circle to the best of our advantage. (the challenging nature of this reminded me of a Golf GTI I used to have to parallel park in Bath) ‘Forwards, full lock right, backwards full lock left’ echoed round the courtyard many, many times…
As the winter clean at Arlington is now in full swing the carriages are getting some extra tlc. One of our most important carriages in the collection is the ‘Knole’ State Coach.
It was built around 1860 by Peters and Son, London, for George John Sackville-West, the 5th Earl de la Warr (1791-1869). The Earl de la Warr married Elizabeth, daughter of the 3rd Duke of Dorset at Knole in Kent in 1813. Although they spent most of their married life at Buckhurst Park in East Sussex, the coach was always kept at Knole were they were married and it remained there after George died in 1869 until the 1980’s when it was given to the Carriage Museum at Arlington Court. The silver plated fittings and furniture are unusually fine, including crested door handles, snake head body loops decorated with acanthus leaves, and heavily ornamented lamps.
To successfully clean a carriage you ideally need to be an ‘ambidextrous octopus’ as a colleague recently described it. (Preferably, one with really good eyesight and a penchant for surfing… ) With the conservation cleaning equipment set up to be within an easy reach, a small ladder is used to step in. (The steps built in to the body are far too fragile to use.) The carriage body has such a perfect suspension design you don’t really realise you’ve just stepped into a wooden box held up by metal springs and leather straps. Although as soon as you move, the carriage body sways slightly, up, down, left, right, forward, backward.
So when you have your stance the work can begin. One of the reasons the doors are usually kept closed during the open season is to protect the delicate fabrics inside. Usually fine silks and carpets that can easily be victims of light damage. However this also means the possibility of mould and pest damage, so the interiors are regularly inspected by the team. Thankfully the warning signs of beetle or moth damage were relatively few, but as usual, were reported, cleaned and bagged. As The Knole coach has recently had the textiles conserved by a specialist the process moved to the outside. To get to each section of the carriage is a challenge, and as a matter of procedure we have different brushes to clean each of the different materials, (metal, wood, leather) so not to cross contaminate. The outside is just as tricky but in a different way, as scaffolding is not possible, ladders need to be used to get to those ‘hard to reach’ areas. Not surprisingly, the heated floor mat for under carriage work, is a very popular piece of equipment at the moment!