The arrival of snow means many things, usually depending upon your age and whether you are hoping for a day off school or having to struggle into the office, but it has always been linked to pleasure.
Queen Victoria embraced the arrival of snow and looked forward to the days when Prince Albert would take charge of their royal sleigh and drive her around the grounds of Windsor Castle. Her journal features entries such as ‘Another sharp frost and a fine day – Albert drove Clem and me out in the sledge…with the exception of two or three little places, we went beautifully and as smoothly as though we were on ice. The sun bright and the sky so blue. We were out for an hour!’ Clem refers to Princess Clementine of Orleans and, as you can imagine, they were travelling in style.
Built by the royal warranted carriage makers, Hooper and Co between 1850 and 1870, the royal sleigh is decorated in a rich red and gold design with a sumptuous red velvet interior. It’s said that Prince Albert personally oversaw the build and, as with all British sleighs, it needed to be driven from the ‘rumble’ seat at the rear as the extra weight at the back made the sleigh easier to drive. The role of driver was usually left to a groom but Prince Albert enjoyed the freedom and it was from here that he controlled a pair of carriage horses. Their harnesses were decorated with ostrich plumes and silver bells that chimed with every stride and the grooms and outriders who rode alongside the royal party were dressed in scarlet livery. Father Christmas would have been proud.
Pleasure sleighs weren’t just for royals, however, and the Tyrwhitt-Drake Museum of Carriages in Maidstone has several beautiful examples in their collection. The museum is currently closed for the winter but one gem is thought to have originated in Northern Europe and is made of elaborately carved wood with a painted and gilded lion decorating its prow. Another, which isn’t quite so refined, was once owned by a family in Dover and is actually converted from a ladies’ phaeton, a type of carriage popular in the 19th century, and reuses the basketwork body and dashboard. Which just goes to show, it doesn’t matter how expensive your sleigh is, you just need enough snow to enjoy the ride.
Written by Rachael Hale from the keyword Sleigh
Image reproduced with the kind permission of Maidstone Museum.