Ron Pace, horseman

18 Jul

Ron Pace: “I’ve had horses all my life.”

Everyone has a story, so meet Ron Pace, Islington original. Interview by Nicola Baird

Most Tuesdays Ron Pace is up in Highbury. As ever he’s dressed in flat cap, work boots and a blue jumper, but today he’s leaning on a bollard outside Drayton Park Primary School, N5 studying the slow dismantle of the RNLB lifeboat in the playground. Ron’s a touch arthritic, so ready for a chat before he heads up hill to his Highbury yard. Behind the expensive houses and Olden Community garden there’s an unexpected piece of old Islington which still has stables, manure pile and a pigeon loft.

Ron was born at home in Freeling Street, N1 in 1935, and seems to have forever been one of Islington’s originals. His father ran a yard with 12 driving horses, mostly Welsh cobs, in Pembroke Street, not far from King’s Cross – the site is now flats. And Ron was impatient to follow him into horse business.

“When I was a boy at Gifford Street School (kids started at about five and left at 14) I’d bunk off and go and borrow a horse and cart and go scrap totting. I’d find old iron, rags, metal just lying in the street. By the time I was 12 I was in the fruit game. I went round with a horse and cart selling tomatoes, beetroot, potatoes, apples, pears door to door. And on Sundays I’d sell winkles and cockles. The other kids were jealous because they didn’t have horses, they were just lahdidahs, did nothing.”

Tram traffic
Ron grew up seeing trams along Caledonia Road, Upper Street and Essex Road but there were still plenty of horses pulling carts in London. “I didn’t have a favourite horse, and my dad had two or three men who looked after them. I liked breaking them into harness.” He laughs and then admits, “I can ride, but have never really been riding! It’s better if a horse is trained at one thing, not ride and drive.”

As a youngster he enjoyed visiting the blacksmith at Star Street, Paddington – an essential visit made every six weeks by horses using tarmac roads. “I started pulling shoes off for the farrier, and not long after I started putting them on,” he says with a characteristic twinkle. When we meet up in the street Ron often talks about doing a shoeing job for a mate’s Shire – huge heavy horses, weighing around a tonne, which require considerable skill to shoe – especially if you’re 77. It ought to be a young man’s game but blacksmiths, like Ron, seem to have special abilities to stop their clients’ horses leaning on them.

“So much has changed, especially prices,” he says matter-of-factedly. “I can remember going to Elephant and Castle and buying a cob for £14, and a set of harness for five quid.” These days a top class Welsh Cob stallion can fetch nearer £10,000. Though Elephant & Castle still has eclectic offerings at its daily market, finding a horse (other than as a motif on a Tshirt) is unlikely.

Flying changes
Horses may be Ron’s first love but he’s an expert with other animals too. He often brings a Jack Russell terrier up to his yard, and he has a soft spot for bantams, canaries and homing pigeons.

“I only got racing pigeons for my kids,” he claims. But his two sons and daughter have long grown up and Ron still has 19 birds – many he bred himself.

It’s a marvellous feeling to be in London hearing the swift flap of racing pigeons as they woosh over you at 50mph, racing towards Arsenal’s Emirates stadium, and then seem to turn as one and flash back for another circle, and another, before disappearing from view. Turns out they were Ron’s. He’s surprised by my interest. “There used to be pigeons everywhere,” he explains. “Twelve or 14 pubs round here had them. You could bet on them you see. There’s a few left – go to the Wood Green Social Club, they’ve still got pigeons.”

Next stop: Wood Green.

Words

  • Welsh cobs – hardy native breed approx 13-14hh (hands high), 130cm -143cm measured from the withers at the base of the neck.
  • Lahdidahs – work that doesn’t involve hard graft (eg, printers in Fleet Street working for the Star or Standard), or doing nothing.
  • Scrap totting – collecting and selling unwanted items. Nowadays the council takes on this job by offering recycling and rubbish collection.
  • Blacksmith/farrier – skilled job shaping hot metal to fit a horse’s foot. Horses need reshoeing every six-eight weeks, costing approximately £50-70 per set of four shoes.

Over to you
What do you think of this wonderful man? By the way, if you’d like to feature on this blog, or make a suggestion about anyone who grew up, lives or works in Islington please let me know. Thank you. And yes, this blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

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2 Responses to “Ron Pace, horseman”

  1. nicola baird July 23, 2012 at 10:19 am #

    From Facebook:
    Anne de V: “wonderful, keep these stories alive and get them written down. Thanks Nicola, thanks Ron.”

  2. nicola baird July 24, 2012 at 11:55 am #

    From Facebook:
    Simon K “love it”

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