Last week I had a very exciting trip to London - I had been invited to the Royal Mews, Buckingham Palace, to photograph the incredible tack made by Frances and her colleagues. As well as Lord Vestey (Master of the Horse) aboard his mount, Ola.
We were tightly crammed in amongst busy commuters; Phoebe and I stood out from the smartly dressed office workers, in our Ariat boots and big winter jackets. Met by Frances at the gates, we headed in.
The stables were like a scene from a fairy tale, with white pillars on the corner of each stable, a gold dome on top; a pastel patchwork of turquoise tiles upon the walls and a hand painted sign on each door. The horses lived in luxury with bright, airy stables - all contently munching their hay.
Frances Roche is a Master Saddler specialising in bespoke bridles and harness: "I am past President of the Society of Master Saddlers and currently course leader for their bridle fitting course. I spent 4 years lecturing at Corwainers College teaching Saddlery skills, and also currently developing a City and Guilds bridle fitting qualification for the Society of Master Saddlers." Frances also works at The Royal Mews making and refurbishing Ceremonial Carriage Harness'.
The day began with Lord Vestey and Ola, who looked spectacular in their Regalia - the golden details gleaming under the morning sun. We worked our way around the courtyard, making the most of the architecture - Ola was the perfect model. Pairs of grey horses came and went as they were busy carrying out their duties, taking mail to the Palace, or out on morning exercise. From the courtyard you could see in to the museum area where hoards of tourists were admiring the coaches, the horses and got to see a glimpse in to the stable areas.
"I have been a Saddler for almost 40 years, I trained as a Harness Maker at Turner Bridgar who were based in Goring on Thames. I was always keen on making things and had a couple of horses so it seemed a natural choice for me."
The bridles were just incredible. The intricate details were so precise and delicate - the golden thread and metal detailing and raised patterns in the leatherwork were so beautiful. When I asked how long some of these bridles took to make, Frances and Catrien laughed, and said it probably wasn't best they worked that one out!
Metal work from old or damaged bridles were repaired and re-used on new pieces, the hours of pain staking work culminated together and the bridles looked amazing, a work of art. The first bridle of the day I photographed was the "Master of the Horse" bridle that Ola was wearing. The leather itself was a dark blue colour, with gold patterned textile reins, gold coloured buckles and chain detailing.
"Although I have spent a lot of my career as a harness maker, I much prefer making bridles and have also made some unusual things, such as: a leather chess set and a leather aeroplane, but my favourite is The Master of the Horse Bridle which I made for the National Saddlery competition this year."
"I first saw this bridle when I was an apprentice and fell in love with it, and have always wanted to re-make it. My opportunity eventually came as it had fallen into serious disrepair. Luckily there was a class in the National Saddlery Competition this year for Ceremonial or Iberian Bridles, I entered and won the class along with the "Best Bridle Entry" trophy and "Best in Show", so it was a good year for me at the competition."
Ola, who is actually a police horse, rather than a resident at the Royal Mews, had finished her morning of modelling and was being prepared to head back to the stables. I had a few minutes to chat with her "groom" and we quickly got on to the subject of their yard cat, Henry, who I met on a visit their last year. He likes to spend his days fast asleep on top of the saddles in the tack room, and is quite a character! It was also lovely to hear she knew of many of the horses, who have now retired, that I have had the pleasure of photographing at The Horse Trust over the past year. It was great to hear a few stories about some of them in their "younger days" as I've only ever known them as the "butter-wouldn't-melt-golden-oldies" who don't seem to put a hoof wrong!
I then got to photograph the bridles , without them being on a horse, and it wasn't until you saw them up close, that you could begin to appreciate all the little details and decadence. I'm not the best at writing anyway, but I'm actually struggling to think up any more words to describe how insanely-beautiful these pieces are! Our gorgeous grey models for the day, a colour of course synonyms with the Royal Mews, were: Claudia, Basil and Coachman. I was in total awe, having owned a grey myself, how pristine every single grey was! That is surely a full time job in itself?
Phoebe and I spent every moment we could between shots asking the staff about the daily running of the stables, the history and of course, stroking the horses! We were even given a little behind the scenes tour of the various workshops and a look at the many carriages and facilities. I've always had a love for anything to do with the Royal family, so this was like a total dream come true! We learnt how the horses each had their name chosen by the Queen, and that infact, the Royal Mews was originally built to house the Royal hawks - which is where the term "mews" comes from - to mean the time the birds moult. The Royal Mews at Buckingham Palace is responsible for all the road travel arrangements for the Queen and members of the Royal family.
"I trained at Turner Bridgar, as I mentioned before, who were Royal Warrant holders, so I learned to make State Harness whilst I was there. Many years later when I was teaching at Cordwainers, the Head Coachman from the Royal Mews used to come and give talks to the students, he asked me if I would consider a job at the Royal Mews, and to cut a long story short about a year later I took up the offer and have now been there for 21 years, now in a part time role."
Phoebe's favourite bridle of the day was made by Catrien - a dark reddish, purple bridle, also made for the National Saddlery Competition, where it placed second to Frances, in the Iberian, Ceremonial or re-enactment bridles class. The padded cut away head piece was a focal point, as well as the complex raised "swirls" and adorning rosette. The colour really suited the Windsor Greys: Claudia and Coachman!
The State Harness has to be one of my favourites of the day, modelled by the rather handsome, Basil: the golds and reds contrasted against his grey coat, the precision of every stitch and intricate shaping of the leatherwork were exquisite.
As well as working at the Royal Mews, Frances is currently developing her own range of bridles - which is how we first got in touch. She has produced bridles for Robin, and Paddy who I photographed last year, who belong to my two lovely friends: Jan and Phoebe. Zeno was drafted in to be the star model of the day - wearing everything from a patent drop nose band, to a blingy browband - a breastplate made by apprentice Kirsty and a double bridle.
More often than not, owners often overlook the importance of a correctly fitting bridle and bit, and don't realise how it's just as equally as important to have checked, as a saddle. I asked Frances about this:
"There are now very few large companies making bridles in this country, mainly because they are very fiddly to make, (especially with a lot more awareness of peak pressures and good shaping around the ears to make the horse more comfortable), and customers are not used to paying the cost for skilled bridlework."
"Many horse owners are aware of how important it is to have their saddle fitted by a qualified saddle fitter but overlook the fit of the bridle. It is is every bit as important to have a properly fitted bridle and bit. However, there is currently no qualification for bridle fitting but the Society of Master Saddlers do run a bridle fitting course; and they are in the process of developing a qualification along with City and Guilds - this should be up and running next year. But I would say that most bridle makers who are SMS (Society of Master Saddlerers) trained are good fitters and a number are registered as bridle specialists." (Which can be found on the SMS website: www.mastersaddlers.co.uk)
"I am currently developing a new bridle range to be called “Windsor and Henley Bridles" along with a fellow bridle maker Karley Brown, who trained as an apprentice with me 17 years ago. We are developing some very high quality and stylish bridles made to measure with a "try before you buy service," whereby we visit clients with a range of bridle parts so that they can test the benefit of a well fitting bridle before they commit to buying. How many riders have tried one bridle after another only to end up spending lots of money and no usable bridle? Far better to get one made exactly as you want it in the first place!"
Thank you so much to Frances, Catrien and everyone else who made the day so wonderful! It was such a pleasure to photograph such high-quality craftmanship and of course, in the most beautiful setting.
Phone: 07798 652602
And I'll share the Facebook page and website details once they're up and running!