In the family for donkey's years
It's gone up since I were a lass," says a middle-aged woman as she hands over Pounds 1. Jake Clews selects a suitable mount for her granddaughter and leads them off down the sand at a gentle trot. But the woman gets her money's worth when the little girl returns, her face beaming.
Nowadays it costs 80p for a donkey ride 100 yards up the beach and back, but there is no shortage of customers. Young children seem intrigued by these docile creatures in their brightly-coloured ribbons and bells, patting them on the nose and exchanging bemused looks.
The old career rule about never working with children or animals doesn't apply here. Jake Clews does both and he likes his job just fine - most of the time. "It's nice when the weather's like this but yesterday it was blowing a gale and I hardly took a thing."
Rain or shine, the Clews family have been a feature on Blackpool beach for a long time. Donkeys' years in fact, since Jake's great-grandfather began plying his trade before World War One.
Eighty years on and the family has four "stands" on the beach, run by Jake and his uncles, and another in nearby St Anne's. Altogether there are about 25 stands strung out along the sea front, each with a maximum of eight donkeys. Competition is friendly rather than fierce.
"We start off at South Pier and work in rotation, moving along the beach a little every day," explains Jake. "The best pitch is by the side of the pier. When the tide starts to go out and everyone comes on to the beach, that's the busiest place."
The donkeys are as symbolic of the resort as the Tower and the trams behind them. Blackpool Borough Council recognised the need to protect their hoofed heritage back in 1942 when it passed a dozen by-laws "with reference to asses on the foreshore".
It was a forward-thinking piece of legislation by the council (motto: progress) en- shrining the animals' rights to a day off every Friday and setting down their maximum working hours from 10am to 1pm and 2 till 7pm.
"The kicking of any ass is strictly prohibited" and only persons under 16 and less than eight stone in weight are allowed to ride them.
Jake's "stud" consists of Chey-enne, Teddy, Bronco, Trigger, Fury and Bonanza, each with their own personality. "Cheyenne's the boss - he won't have anyone pushing him about. Bronco and Trigger are a bit lovey dovey, even though they are both mares. Teddy's very cheeky and if anyone's got any food then Fury wants it. Bonanza is the quiet one."
They don't need any training as such. "When you get a new donkey it just follows the others - the older ones know the way. They never run off, or if they do, they soon come back again. The only one who's a bit potty is Bronco who has a tendency to chase pigeons and dogs.
"They are lovely animals. They don't kick like people think they do and they've got a good character. If I had a house with land I would definitely keep the donkey as a pet." He brings them down to the beach in the morning after mucking out, feeding and watering, cleaning the tackle and brushing them. "It's the sea air," he explains "that makes their coat all matted."
The donkeys spend the winter on a local farm and work the season from Easter until November when the illuminations finish. At the height of the summer it's a full-time job to look after them. "There's lots to do. You never get a day off when you own animals. And you can never go anywhere on holiday because the animals depend on you."
The price of straw has doubled since last year and takings are down. But Jake makes about Pounds 200 in a good week which he uses to pay his way through catering college, where he's training to be a pastry chef.
Recently Jake had to retire Tommy, one of his stud, to a donkey sanctuary in Devon. "He was about 18 and his front legs were starting to go. I kept telling myself he was going to be all right butI" his voice trails off. "I get very attached to them you see."