In November of 1994, I joined the Cobb Green Veterinary Practice in Leavesden as a junior associate. A fortnight after my appointment, Peter Everson, one of three partners that ran the surgery, called me into the office he shared with Clive Beel.
When I entered the room he was crouched down over the battered, brown satchel case that he used to carry the basic tools of his trade.
“You’ve got quite a bit of experience with horses haven’t you?” he murmured as he peered thoughtfully into the cavernous interior compartment of his bag.
It was intended as a rhetorical question, but I answered in the affirmative.
“I’d like you to come out on a call with me.”
He cast a pensive glance over at the brand new pair of black shoes that I was wearing, which still bore their highly polished factory sheen. My move to London from Middleham, in North Yorkshire, had, I assumed, brought to an end my career as a farm vet. I no longer felt compelled by my profession to dress like a man who might be called upon to navigate a waterlogged, cowpat-strewn pasture at a moment’s notice.
“It’s probably going to be muddy. I’d bring wellington boots if you have any. There’s a pair about your size by the hatstand in the hallway if you need them.”
We drove for ten minutes, crossing over the M25. Below us, traffic travelling in a clockwise direction had slowed to a near standstill. The captive lanes of cars and lorries stretched for as far as the eye could see; a solid wall connecting two horizons.
Freed from the influence of London, the landscape became more rural. We passed within sight of the commuter village of Great Notley. I caught my first brief glimpse of the unfinished and unconsecrated “dissenters’ cathedral”, its jagged stone spire rising up from behind a tall thicket of bare trees.
On the outskirts of Bedmond, Peter pulled into a shallow lay-by alongside a dry stone wall. We both got out of the car and gathered our things.
Directly adjacent to us, a rusting five-bar gate showing odd specks of dark green paint slouched downwards and inwards on badly corroded hinges that were caked with flakes of rust the colour of dried blood. A tatty length of frayed, synthetic blue rope fastened two of the horizontal gate struts to a diagonal aluminium support beam which appeared to have been welded in place at a much later date and seemed to be instrumental in holding the whole thing together.
On the other side of the dilapidated gate lay a scruffy, triangular paddock which tapered sharply at its farthest end. Its two longest edges were bordered by a newish looking, waist-high, wire fence. This was attached, by means of industrial staples, to lines of sturdy round posts made from blonde wood that bore a faint tinge of green dye. Beyond these boundary markers were two small patches of woodland. The shadows cast by the tall, convergent lines of trees cast a perpetual gloom over the meadow.
Loitering in what was roughly the centre of the field were five grey horses. Although they were loosely grouped together, it was an unsociable gathering; individuals were poised, with studied aloofness, not quite side-on to one another, or with their backs turned upon their immediate neighbours. Occasionally, one of the band would amble a few paces forward, or would bend down to suck the copious morning dew off a tuft of grass. The largest of the five walked with a dramatic limp in his front left leg, which gave the impression that he was perpetually on the brink of toppling over face-first. It was an alarming spectacle, and I naturally assumed that he was the purpose of our visit. It was only after further observation that I came to realise that it was the legacy of an old injury, and that he carried his handicap with the abnormal, yet well-adjusted, gait of one who has long become accustomed to it.
“Off the top of your head, what breed would you say they are?” Peter enquired.
I studied the small herd again, bringing to bear my two years of patchy experience as an equine vet. They were built solidly like draught horses but lacked the carriage and the muscular definition. The smoggy, grey marbling of their hides was reminiscent of Lancashire Milnans, but the specimens on view bore none of that breed’s rugged pedigree. In truth, they had a rather homely and graceless air about them; something that was almost unhorse-like.
“Honestly, Peter, I couldn’t say.”
“I know exactly what you’re thinking, because I thought the very same thing the first time I clapped eyes on them: altogether a very sorry looking band indeed. They’re London Rounders – or King’s Rounders, if you happen to be of a Royalist bent. What you are looking at there is all that remains of one of the great equine dynasties. Probably not quite how you imagined them, eh?”
It was, as Peter had rightly surmised, a bit of a shock. I rattled off some comment about it being news to me that there were any left at all, then immediately felt the need to clarify it.
“I’m sure I remember reading somewhere that myocarditis had done the last of them in after the foot-and-mouth outbreak.”
“Not quite. A few managed to hang on, though they’ll be gone soon enough. We certainly won’t be seeing any pure-bred foals in the future.”
“I suppose that inbreeding has been an issue.”
“There is that. The other, more imminent problem is that they’re all males. The last of the females died a couple of years ago giving birth to the one second from the right.”
He unpadlocked the chain and gingerly lifted the gate open, dragging the bottom corner out of its frozen rut and leaving behind a trail of grainy ice crystals that resembled crushed windscreen glass.
“Come on. After we get this done we’ll have lunch at The Bluebells.”
The ground underfoot had thawed unevenly in the shade of the trees. It was cloddy and difficult to walk on, as if, at some point in the past, it been ploughed and then allowed to grow over. The roughly grazed grass, silver with dew, was veined with dark trails where the horses had walked. The composting smell of the wet autumnal woodland on either side of us mingled with a damp chemical odour which seemed to be emanating from the fence posts that were keeping the lines of trees at bay. As we trudged towards the horses, who seemed indifferent to our approach, Peter brought me up to date on their recent history.
“Since 1963, Cobb Green vets have been under royal charter to take care of the herd; what remains of it, anyway. Technically, they are still the Queen’s horses, although I’ve never known anyone from the Royal Family show even the remotest interest. We get paid an annual stipend for their upkeep. I couldn’t tell you how much it is. Alan deals with that side of the business. Maybe you can ask him when he gets back from the Canaries.
“When I joined the practice, there were three other veterinary clinics that were involved in their upkeep. The herd was a lot bigger in those days and they weren’t confined to paddocks like they are now. They used to roam free. We relied on the police and members of the public telephoning the surgery and letting us know where they were. We used to have a very large map of outer London that Alan bought from Stanfords. We used it to keep track of their movements.
“Anyway, over the years, the other practices have fallen by the wayside. Now it’s just us. Clive or myself will generally drive out here once a week and give them a check up. That’s a job that we’ll probably be delegating to you in the future. There’s a couple of volunteers who live locally, who come by on a daily basis to feed them and make sure that they have fresh water. If the mercury falls too far below freezing we stable them down the road at Kentings…”
He paused ten feet shy of the nearest horse, who continued to regard us with disinterest.
“… they seem to prefer being outside though.”
It was a Roman scholar called Philetus who, in 197 AD, first wrote of two great herds of wild horses that he claimed were engaged in an unending circular migration of the lands surrounding the Britannian city of Londinium. The herds were of unequal size. The slightly larger one travelled in a direction that we would now refer to as clockwise; the other went counter-clockwise. These horses could seldom be spurred to a gallop and preferred to travel at a sedate walking pace which saw the two bands meet every few weeks. They moved along well-established pathways and would pause for rest on traditional grazing areas. Philetus estimated their number to be in the region of 10,000. When word of his discovery reached the senate in Rome, it was assumed that his tale was a parable of sorts, or some kind of coded warning. A trusted man called Balbus was dispatched to Londinium to investigate. He returned to Rome six months later confirming that what Philetus had written was true.
The Roman military regarded the Londinium herd as indolent and not easily set to task, and so did not seek to employ them in their towns and garrisons. Philetus observed that the native tribes seemed to have an aversion to riding these horses or turning them towards domestic purpose. He speculated that this reluctance might have a religious basis.
Following Balbus’s written account of the Londinium horses to his masters in the Roman senate, the herds disappeared from the pages of history for many centuries. When they re-emerged in 1156, they had risen in status and were known jointly as “King Henry’s Stable”. The monarch in question was King Henry II. He took issue with the Roman appraisal of the horses, which he regarded as hardy and reliable in battle. It was King Henry who first coined the term “Rounders” which was subsequently used to identify the breed. Initially, they were referred to as King Henry’s Rounders; later, they became known as the King’s Rounders, or London Rounders. A headcount taken during his early reign records a population of 8,703. In 1158, King Henry magnanimously granted mastery over the anti-clockwise herd, which was now the larger of the two, to his friend and lord chancellor, Thomas Becket.
King Henry’s successor, Richard (the Lionheart), was less enthused by the Rounders. He is said to have scorned his predecessor’s efforts to mould them into a domestic breed, and was content to allow the stable to return to the wild. With the passing of the years, the entwined destinies of the horses and the English monarchy gradually unravelled as the two dynasties went their separate ways. Once more, the pervading view came to be that these animals were stubborn and difficult to train. There is evidence to suggest that they were occasionally used by traders or bandits. Charred bones found in excavations from this period indicate that they may also have been a source of meat for poorer folk.
It was Henry VIII who reasserted the concept of The Rounders as the King’s horses. He brought to statute legislation making it a crime, punishable by death, for them to be exploited, taken or butchered without royal consent. Incredibly, this offence lingered on the English law books as a capital crime until 1998. By the time of its repeal no one had been executed for breaching the law in almost two centuries, although it was occasionally applied in a marginally less draconian form. Most notable was the case of 1920s underworld figure Harry Spicer. By means of threats and jury tampering, Spicer had managed to avoid execution by hanging for his part in the double murder, by arson, of a pub landlord and his wife, but was subsequently convicted of deliberately causing the death of one of the King’s horses and sentenced to twenty-three years. He died in Pentonville Prison three years later.
During World War II, the scarcity of meat saw Rounders become an unofficial food source. Although efforts were made to discourage poaching, a post-war census recorded a population of just 591 horses, split roughly equally between clockwisers and counter-clockwisers.
In 1967, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease had a catastrophic effect upon the remaining Rounder population, which proved to be particularly susceptible to the virus and its after-effects. Numerous fatalities were reported. Because of the quarantine measures in place, limiting public access to rural areas, their decomposing carcasses often lay undiscovered for considerable periods of time. Additionally, large numbers of horses were euthanized in an attempt to prevent further spread of the epidemic. Three farmers were prosecuted and fined after they were discovered to be hiding wild horses in or near their properties. Others evidently managed to conceal Rounders with greater success: following the lifting of the quarantine, the herd swelled in size, with many adults previously thought to have died returning from their undisclosed exile. Despite this upsurge in numbers, the population seemed to be heading towards a terminal decline. From 1969, all Rounders were tagged.
A census taken in 1983 documented forty-one horses. Ominously, there was no mention of any foals among their number. The report also noted a breakdown in traditional migratory behaviour. There were no longer two great herds: the contemporary Rounders roamed aimlessly in small family groups. The authors speculated that human encroachment onto traditional migration routes had effectively put an end to the great circular transitions of the past.
On the evening of Friday, 13th November, 1987, four Rounders caused a serious accident while attempting to cross the M25, resulting in pile-ups on both carriageways. A Portuguese lorry driver who witnessed the incident reported two horses panicking after becoming trapped between the metal crash barriers that run along the central reservation. In freeing themselves, one had dived, hooves-first, through the windscreen of a car, fatally injuring the driver and the front-seat passenger. In total, seven motorists were killed. A further thirteen were injured, two seriously. Three of the four horses also died, with the survivor sustaining a serious injury to his front left leg. The road was closed in both directions until late Saturday afternoon.
Following this incident, the remaining horses were rounded up and confined in three separate paddocks. It was agreed that their upkeep would continue to be paid for by the Royal Family, and that care would continue to be provided by the Cobb Green practice and the The Shenley Hill Veterinary in Radlett. They were never allowed to roam free again.
A year prior to the accident, a construction team building Junction 21 of the M25 had witnessed the last significant sighting in the wild of the London herd. It was a grey opaque dawn. Trailing wisps of fog clung like torn cobwebs to the barren branches of small deciduous shrubs. Visibility was down to no more than twenty feet when the horses had suddenly appeared: their long faces crowded together; their silhouettes a shade darker than the encroaching gloom. The grazing land they were searching for had been scoured of grass during the previous fortnight and now played host to a service road and a fenced area where heavy machinery was corralled. The horses had lingered for about ten minutes before ebbing away, dissolving into the fog that had given birth to them, their dismissive snorts and the crunch of their hooves on the gravel still audible long after they had faded from sight.
The steep decline of the London herd can be linked with the rapid expansion of the city and the rise of the car as the predominant mode of personal transportation. Over the decades, the horses’ migration patterns became more formalised and regimented around human needs. One has to make only a cursory study of a map of London’s outlying suburbs to find road names that obliquely reference the routes that were once taken by the Rounders. There’s Mares Close in Kings Langley – a breeding area established by King Henry VIII in an unsuccessful attempt to bolster the population – and, four miles to the east of that, Fallows Estate and The Grand Chase, another of King Henry’s designs: a long, broad avenue, once bordered by oaks where now there are houses, on which horses could be assessed for speed and stamina.
I once treated a Labrador called Barney. His owner, whose name escapes me, was fascinated by the history of the Rounders. On one visit he brought with him a facsimile of an extraordinarily detailed map which had been drawn by a vicar in the late 1700s and which showed the routes taken by the two herds. He also brought a plastic overlay showing the course of the M25. It is remarkable how similar the two routes are, as they trace a buckled circle around the capital. You could argue that the foundations of the great ring road were pummelled flat by centuries of hoof beats, and that the hot breath and sweat of the horses was eventually replaced by the choking exhaust fumes of the rush-hour traffic. This fact was not lost on those who oversaw the construction of the M25. They ensured that a horseshoe was buried deep in the foundations under each of its thirty-one junctions.
By 2009, the Rounder population had dwindled to a single male called Ronnie, who suffered from congenital heart problems. Early one Sunday morning, in October of that year, I received a call on my mobile from Janet – the volunteer who looked after him – summoning me to the paddock. With a heavy heart I threw some things into a bag and drove out to Pie Corner Wood. It was one of those very cold days that seem to herald the onset of winter. A faint odour, reminiscent of a blocked drain, or a nearby body of stagnant water, stained the frozen air like a faded bruise. As I climbed out of the car I noticed a one-man tent pitched in the far corner of the field.
Ronnie, the last of a bloodline, whose ancestry stretched back to before the time of Christ, had taken a turn for the worse. By the time I reached him he was kneeling down on his front legs, with his hind legs half bent. His breathing, which was regular but laboured, worsened whenever he struggled to raise himself up off the ground. His body was wracked by tiny spasms that seemed to be rippling just below the skin. Janet made several attempts to cover him with a blanket, only for him to slough it off. She told me that she had spent the previous two nights camped out, so that she could “keep an eye on things”. The swollen, arthritic joints in her wrists were blazing red from the cold and the damp. I didn’t ask her why she hadn’t called me sooner.
Having decided that euthanasia was the kindest option, I rummaged around in Peter Everson’s old bag for the sedative I had packed. As I was preparing to administer the shot, Ronnie suddenly slumped over onto his side. It was a slow but continuous crumpling motion; a peculiar, unfamiliar movement that seemed so well rehearsed that it must have been genetically choreographed and then lain dormant within him, awaiting the moment before his death to reveal itself. I quickly injected him with the sedative and followed up with a fatal dose of barbiturates.
Not long after the second shot he closed his eyes and seemed to be at peace. A moment later, there was a sudden, very violent convulsion that startled Janet, but was over almost as soon as it had begun, as if something else had interrupted it. After that, his body relaxed again, and his breathing gradually slowed. He died a few minutes later. I watched his final shallow breath as it condensed in the air around his nostrils and then dispersed as it rose to mingle with the fog and the traffic fumes.
While we waited for the body to be collected, I helped Janet to pack away her tent. We talked incessantly about all kinds of things. The one thing we did not remark upon was the trembling tone in our voices. I think we were both aware that only by stoking the conversation could we hold back the landslide of grief that was building up inside. Later, when I was back home alone, I broke down and surrendered to a succession of strangled cries. I pounded the cushions of my settee with my clenched fists in an expression of anguish and submission. I imagine that, at some point, Janet also found herself in a quiet and private place and did a very similar thing. And then, like me, she would have composed herself, concealed any evidence of tears, and never spoken of it to anyone. That moment would become one of those private memories that are too human for us to share even with those who are closest to us.
After Ronnie’s body had been taken away, I drove Janet to The Bluebells, which is now part of the Harvestman chain of restaurants. We shared an indifferent coffee in a booth next to a plate-glass window that looked out onto an annex of the car park. A pair of young girls in anoraks were playing on a small climbing frame that had been embedded in a kind of foam rubber that, from a distance, looked like tarmac. A line of conifers and a high wooden fence screened off the M25.
We listened to the drone of the traffic, and felt its subtle vibrations travelling up through the central column of the table to make the dark liquid in our cups tremble slightly.
Hidden from our view, an ever-changing stream of vehicles continued on an endless, relayed orbit of London, drivers and passengers bound into a ritual that was older than the city.