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Pride of the shires

Nicki Household visits a centre in Norfolk where heavy horses are used for work as well as for exhibition.

Weighing in at over a ton, with huge white fluffy feet and a monumental girth, 24-year-old William is the star attraction of the Norfolk Shire Horse Centre. "William's an old hand at show business. He's never known any other life, " says his devoted owner David Bakewell, who co-founded the centre, near Cromer on the north Norfolk coast, with his wife Jonquil in 1982.

Although Bakewell has 21 other heavy horses, it is usually William who stands next to him while he does his introductory talk about the origin of these great horses and the essential farm work they used to do. And it's William who stands patiently still afterwards, while admiring visitors crowd around to stroke his nose, pull his mane and take his picture.

But William is no mere lap horse. When the photo-call is over, he is put into a chain harness, with a leather collar, long-reined bridle and blinkers, and taken into a field to show off his skill at working a cultivator or pulling plough. Like all the other horses at the Norfolk Centre, he's still a working draft horse.

As well as Shires, which is not a collective term but a distinct breed, the centre has two other important British breeds, the Suffolk Punch and the Clydesdale, and two famous French breeds, the Percheron and the Ardennes. Selectively bred during the 18th and l9th centuries for their massive strength they can comfortably pull twice their own weight these friendly giants are the descendants of the great war horses of the Middle Ages.

David and Jonquil Bakewell's objective in setting up the centre was not only to celebrate and ensure the survival of these fine animals by the 1950s, 95 per cent of them had been killed and had been replaced by tractors but also to show them doing their traditional work. Depending on the day and the season, you can watch them performing a variety of tasks from drilling seed to pulling up potatoes and loading timber. As in past times, they're controlled almost entirely by the spoken word - "gee-up" to go forward, "ho-back" to reverse, "eeesh" to turn right, "come here" to turn left and "woe" to stop.

The centre also has a large collection of beautifully restored horse-drawn carts, caravans and farm machinery, plus videos and photographic displays of cart-horses launching lifeboats, working horse-powered engines, pulling buses and trams, shunting railway carriages - for which they were last used in Newmarket in 1960 - and charging into action in the First World War.

Two 90-minute daily shows, at 11.15am and 3.00pm, include a general introduction - via William - to the heavy horse, harnessing, heavy horse working demonstrations, a children's small animal show, a parade of the five different breeds of cart horse and a horse-drawn wagon ride.

Additional attractions include the two barn museums, a children's touch table, ponies, donkeys, goats, lambs and an assortment of birds and small pets. Disabled visitors are made particularly welcome - all the areas are ramped and the grass is kept short - and there are the usual cafes, gift shop and picnic areas.

Special events over the summer include regular sheepdog days, tarrier demonstrations, foal parades and harvest days. Normal school parties can either share the regular show with the general public, or, by pre-arrangement, have their visit tailored to a special project on, say, food and farming, Victorian or pre-war Britain or land transport. An education pack has just been produced to tie in with national curriculum topics.

The best news about heavy horses, according to David Bakewell, is that they're back in agricultural use, especially in forestry. So there's more to these dignified beasts than just history and nostalgia.

Open April 2 to October 29. School party rates: Pounds 1.25 per pupil, teachers free of charge. Further information from David and Jonquil Bakewell, The Norfolk Shire Horse Centre, West Runton, Cromer, Norfolk, NR27 9HQ. Tel: 01263 837339.

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