The Horseman's Word project was developed by the Field Theatre Group, Littleport and is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. ADeC has led the publicity, event planning, record keeping and youth club workshops. We have also managed the volunteer support for film screenings and exhibitions. 

The aims of the project are to:

  • Record memories, stories and information about Fenland heavy horses and the important role of horsemen in the working life of the area as this is rapidly disappearing from living memory.
  • Provide opportunities for local children, community groups, families and inpiduals to volunteer and take part in making a drama documentary written and produced by the Field Theatre Group with inspiration from stories and recollections from older people and horse keepers and trainers living in the area today.
  • Promote the way of life and cultural traditions of the fenland area so that there is increased understanding and knowledge about how the local community has been shaped.
  • provide an insight into the hidden histories of horse keeping as a traditional skill
  • show new ways heavy horses are being bred and used today
  • Disseminate this record around the Fenland area as a legacy of the project.

The planned outcomes of the project were:

Create an online archive of memories, images and documents relating to fenland horsemen working with heavy horses in the 19th and 20th centuries

Recruit a cast drawn from the local community and provide opportunities for people to learn about drama production from acting, making costume, set design led by experienced professional artists.

Create a drama documentary film which tells the story of the importance of horsemen and heavy horses to fenland life.

deliver a series of film screenings, drama workshops, reminiscence sessions and workshops with the community ending in a final celebration in Littleport

Produce a touring exhibition to regional museums and venues to show the project and its findings.

The project had an official launch at Littleport Village Hall in 2013 attended by around 50 people and included extracts from trial scripts by Deborah Curtis and performances from storyteller Mike Rouse and folk musician John Crowe. BBC Radio Cambridgeshire attended for an onsite interview.

To reach members of the horse keeping community, the project was promoted at Gorefield Show, Wisbech, Soham Horse Show, Prickwillow Ploughing Festival and Isle of Ely Vets Open Day.

Early community engagement involved talks to Littleport Society, Littleport Women's Group and future reminiscence sessions planned in Littleport. The first reminiscence session was held at Anchor Court in Littleport and led to group recordings with people remembering farming in the area. 

One particular participant was the son of a horse keeper and led to an extensive interview and loan of photographs. This participant also had an original horseman's book which are very rare. This event was very popular and the manager from the sheltered accommodation asked for a second reminiscence session at another site in Little Downham, Ely.

A living history day was arranged with Millfield Primary School Years 5 and 6 in partnerhsip with Ely Museum, Prickwillow Drainage Museum and Green Farm, Prickwillow. This involved ploughing demonstrations with heavy horses, role play, re-enactment, music and craft. The main learning aims were to investigate crop farming, produce grown in the local area, to see farming methods from horse led to                 

tractor-led and to learn about local traditional customs. Early filming was made during this event to capture ploughing with heavy horses. The event was welcomed by the headteacher, teacher and education manager of Ely Museum. Local press took an interest in it and in seeing that part of the film was being created during this living history day too.

7 oral history interviews were recorded in Phase 1 with several horsemen involved in farming and showing which led to a collection of soundclips and the loan of 30 photographs/ documents for copying. One horseman donated a handwritten account of 'a day in the life of a horseman' and another set of copied horse keeper recipes were donated. This information is scarcely recorded and inpidual practices of horsemen in the early 20th century have been passed down anecdotally with very few examples of written records made available for public access. This was a unique part of the project in gathering previously unseen material in the Fenland area.

To promote the project further, Adams Heritage Centre, Littleport agreed to host a window display about the work of the project with ways to be involved which raised the profile of the aims of the project.

Early in 2014, locations were researched and confirmed and ideas were developed into scripts and characters based on research and original oral testimony gathered in the previous phase.

Location filming took place at Weylands Farm, Suffolk, Adams Heritage Centre, Wicken Fen and at Prickwillow Ploughing Festival.

Two more oral history interviews carried out with additional material added to the archive - 20 more images and soundclips from a son of a horseman and a renowned horsewoman, Cherry Grover who was also the first female farrier in Britain when she started. Her involvement in the project added a necessary dimension as a female horse trainer and because of her experience of shoeing, farming and training horses as well as showing horses. Other horsemen books were researched and copies were given of one held in the collection of Gressenhall Farm Museum (Norfolk Museums).

Following the film production and editing phase in early 2015, there was a great deal of work involved in developing a stand alone website. which provides a home for the material collected.

The film was produced ready for a series of screenings and community engagement work. Film screenings took place at the final celebration event in Littleport Village Hall (27th September 2015) Babylon Arts (17th October 2015) and at Prickwillow Ploughing Festival (3rd and 4th October 2015). Alongside the screening at the festival and at the Village Hall was a display of images and archive material, a recreated horsemen's shed and information booklet about the project. The film screenings were seen by 150 people at these events with a further 450 people visiting the exhibitions as part of the ploughing festival.

A compilation of soundclips has been created on CD this is being shered with the Cambridgeshire Collection, Ely Museum, Chatteris and March Museum, Littleport Library, Adams Heritage Centre, Littleport and the Museum of Cambridge.

Workshops have been set up in partnership with ADeC which involve taking the film out to youth groups and explore drama and film-making as an activity. Four have taken place with young people in Ely, Stokeferry and an existing group of over 60s. Through these contacts, the film has been screened to a further 100 people half of which are a young audience unfamiliar with farming and heavy horses.

The film has been screened in stand alone workshops with young people and elicited an extremely positive response about creative film-making.

Currently, there are plans to take the display and screen the film at Wisbech and Fenland Museum or Wisbech Library, at a venue in Ely. Prickwillow Drainage Engine Museum has expressed a desire to have some kind of permanent display from the project in future expansion plans.

Feedback from partners and participants

'There was a good range of activity and I was pleased to have taken part. By the end of the day they had a good understanding of what it was like to work on a farm. They learnt about the different kinds of food grown in the area and where it goes.'  

(Mrs Brown  Millfield Primary School).

'Teachers and adult helpers were very clear that it was a good day and that children had learnt a great deal about their local area. Also about healthy eating and vegetables grown in the Fens. It was fully thought out and discussed with the farmers and Museum. This resulted in something different and special for the school.'

Sally, Austin, Learning Officer, Ely Museum

'This has brought back so many memories, happy memories and I am proud of the skills my father had.'

(Member of public at Prickwillow Ploughing Festival)

 ‘It’s important to keep these traditions alive between generations about a way of life that no longer exists. Heavy horses were so important to the land and the work of the horseman is little known before tractors came along. We are proud to have had the film and display and hope to incorporate some part of the project in our permanent exhibition. The stories need to be shown to people especially younger people - it helps people recognise what has gone before.

(Chair of the Prickwillow Drainage Museum)

'It was wonderful - youngsters gained an insight into what had happened in the past and the drama brought them out of themselves. Young people realised that this was not just a story but it was people's lives on the land. Older people also seemed to gain confidence talking about the past and reliving their childhood and young adulthood.  The group included some people who had lived here all their lives and also newcomers and they were sharing their own stories afterwards for quite some time - it was fun!'

Carol Nicholas – Letch (Stoke Ferry)

 ‘I have signed up to a drama group where I live now in Kent'
‘I am studying GCSE Drama now - it showed that drama involves a lot of hard work'
‘It gave me confidence to look for more drama opportunities - perhaps speaking parts next!'
'I liked being part of something and meeting new people'

(Drama workshop participants)

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