In the midst of traffic chaos, Carol Spero finds a little haven of horse sense
A Eurostar train streaks past the high-rise estate on its way to the depot. Traffic thuds along the forbidding spaghetti junctions of London's West Way, and beneath, ringed by a caravan site, ancient cars and working vans, there's a riding lesson going on.
A small girl in her hard hat is learning how to urge her pony gently into a trot, another child is moving sedately around a ring by the stables where 20 or so well-groomed Welsh ponies wait for the children of Notting Hill and Holland Park to join them after school.
Westway Stables was dreamed up some four years ago by Sarah Tuvey, in what was once home for the horses of the local totters, or rag and bone men. There's long been a history of horse-keeping and riding in these parts. Between 1837 and 1842 a smart race-track was constructed, starting where the now gentrified roads and lanes trickle down from Clarendon Road to Hippodrome Place. It didn't last very long, being too muddy and probably too near the "piggeries", where kitchen waste from Mayfair was conveyed by cart to feed pigs belonging to the local cottagers.
Sarah's forbears ("We were just ordinary folk who were used to working with animals") have lived in the area for around 200 years. A single mother with two boys to support, she discovered the site and started to transform it, with some financial backing from her mother. Then, encouraged by the local police and the RSPCA, she began the tough task of moving out some squatters and unsuitable animal owners and of cleaning up the mess, "which was terrible", she says. Last year she opened the stables as a riding school for local children, as well as for those from the better-off families in nearby Holland Park.
"The stables have to provide a livelihood for us all," she explains, "so I have to make it pay. But what I would really like to do is give free riding instruction during part of the week to underprivileged children of the area, so that as well as getting fun from riding, some may think about training for professional qualifications in stable management and horse care when they leave school."
And with the guts, good humour and determination that has made Notting Hill what it is today - a vibrant mix of market traders, small shopkeepers and artisans - she is well on the way to achieving her aim. Already she arranges pony rides for disabled children and nursery schools as well as the usual riding courses for all ages under experienced riding teachers.
Ms Tuvey has built up a yard of horses and ponies she has saved from slaughter. On special Pony Days, usually at half term, school groups which pay a moderate fee that includes a snack and a light lunch can come along for pony rides and hands-on experience of stable work. "You can't separate learning to ride from taking part in the day-to-day concern for the horses."
They learn how to groom, feed, water, muck out and maintain shining tackle, in company with an extended family of small dogs, who somehow turn up and regard the place as home. "We often find these rejected little animals tied to the railings when we come to work in the morning." And a grey goose parades about with the dignity of an abstracted professor. Every week or so the ponies are taken for a couple of days to a field at Slough, and again for two weeks each year, for a holiday in the country to enjoy the fresh air.
"When they are ready for it, we take the pupils for a proper ride on Wormwood Scrubs." For centuries the Scrubs has retained much of its wildness. In medieval times it was grazing land for pigs and cattle, and not long ago you could go blackberrying there.
Nowadays people jog, walk the dog, take a picnic around the perimeter of the park. So you might come across them, the children of north Kensington and the children of Holland Park out riding, side by side, over the grasslands there, on a tawny autumn day.
West Way Riding Stables: 20 Stable Way, Westway, London Wl0. Tel: 0958 682 7360l81 964 2140)