The Stage Coach
by Joy Mason
IT WAS QUITE BY CHANCE I discovered the old coach. I had so many times passed by the garage situated in a small side street in Ryde, never guessing that behind its doors stood this relic of by-gone days. One afternoon the garage doors were open, and there stood Mr Vanner, the owner. It is a delightful part of Island life that stopping for a chat is still quite a normal thing to do whenever the opportunity occurs. While we were engaged in this way, I noticed in a far corner of the dark interior of the building the unusual outlines of the ancient vehicle.
On closer inspection I saw that its paintwork of red and black was dimmed by the years, its upholstery of faded green velvet showed a genteel shabbiness, and the big wheels, although in excellent condition,looked as though they had stiffened in age very much as old limbs do with the passage of years. Mr Vanner seemed amused at my curiosity, but very kindly gave me the outlines of its history and of his family, who had carried on the coaching business for well over a hundred years.
The coach had been named 'Civility' and had been built in the early 1860s by R B Chevertons at Lugley Street, Newport to the order of Abraham Vanner, grandfather of the present owner.
It made two trips daily from Ryde to Newport and back until 1890, when the coming of the railways lessened its value.
'Civility' would stand by the Lion Hotel on the corner of Garfield Road and collect the passengers. When fully loaded, about sixteen people would have climbed aboard.
One can imagine the pleasure of bowling along the quiet country lanes with just the jingle of harness and crack of whip, the fragrance of the hedge rows untainted by petrol fumes.
First stop from Ryde was at the Old Toll Gate over the brook which formed the boundary between the Brigstock and Fleming estates, just before one reaches Binstead. Here, passengers would be again collected or dropped as they were at the Sloop Inn further on at Wootton. This hostelry was then tenanted by the Vanner family, and, if the load was light, the two lead horses were uncoupled and stabled until they could be picked up on the return journey.
One dark night, the coach rolled in to the Sloop yard as usual, the two horses led out and the ostler handed the reins to the driver. Off they went with a clatter of hooves, but it was not until they reached New Shute Copse, where one now turns down to Fishbourne, that the driver noticed the lead bars were swinging. The ostler had forgotten to hatch on the traces. The horses knew what was expected of them and it was just as well, for it was one of those days when everyone had been drinking heavily.
Old Uncle Vanner eventually passed the Sloop Inn over to his daughter who married a Fred Purkis. They had two sons, Albert and Fred, and these two young men drove the 'Civility' on her daily trips, keeping up the tradition of the family.
Mr Vanner's grandfather was apparently quite a character. One day he was driving along his usual route to Newport, when Queen Victoria's out-riders signalled him to pull to one side as Her Majesty was to pass that way. But grand- father refused to obey the imperial command, whipped up his horses and drove on.
Later, he was ordered to Osborne House to account for his behaviour, but as he was a man who never worried about anything and took things in his stride, he was not unduly impressed.
When asked why he had ignored the command, he simply answered in his quiet Island manner but with tongue in cheek, 'Well, my horses were so fresh I could do nothing with them'. He then tendered his apologies which were somewhat reservedly accepted. No doubt there were a few private thoughts that the old coach 'Civility' and its owner had scarcely been appro- priately named.
As the railways became more efficient and the roadsimproved, the tourist trade increased, and the Vanner business with it. They ran excursions by horse drawn charabancs, which seated twenty people, along the sea route to Ventnor, and to Carisbrooke Castle and the watercress beds which were then quite famous.
During the summer season, the long journey to Alum Bay must have been a real day-trip, stopping at the 'Eight Bells' in Carisbrooke there and back, to change horses and for refreshment.
So the years rolled by, until transition from horses to motor cars effectively put an end to the horse-drawn coach business. Some were laid up at Stonepitts Farm at Ryde, and some at a coach house in Union Lane, but the day arrived when both horses and carriages had to be sold. Like so many treasures of those days, they went for a mere song, the prices paid for them at the sale being from five to ten shillings apiece, one buyer being so disinterested he left his purchase in the field to rot away.
It was just luck that 'Civility' was spared this fate. It was stored in the Union Lane Coachhouse where it remained forgotten until 1929, when, in conjunction with the excitement of the Schneider Trophy air race, the County Press needed a gimmick for advertising, Mr Vanner was asked if he still had an old coach.
'Yes and harness too,' he replied, 'but no horses'.
That difficulty was overcome by Mr William Moul, who at the time provided horses for the Territorial Army's gun carriages. Four were chosen, the old harness cleaned and polished, and 'Civility' came out of her long retirement to travel once more her familiar routes with young Leslie Moul (who now owns the Rosemary Stables at Ryde, but was then only ten years of age) taking the reins. How different from 'Civility's' early travels, for now there were cars of all kinds speeding by and even the odd aeroplane roaring overhead, contrasting with the passengers who for this special occasion were dressed in costumes of the period.
Mr Vanner is retired now, but there in his garage rests 'Civility', her interior useful as a place to store odd pots of paint. There is nothing to stop her taking the road again should the opportunity recur. Her wheels would have to be soaked and oiled no doubt, but at least she is at home on the Island where she belongs.
I don't think her owner would part with her now, although the offers have been tempting.