An historic horse-drawn passenger boat company has been forced to shut after 33 years after its owner was labelled “cruel” by passers-by who expressed concern over the safety of the horses.
The Godalming Packet Boat Company had become famous over the years, offering two-hour trips down the River Wey on its 85-year-old barge called Iona, which is listed on the National Historic Boat List.
Jenny Roberts, who owns the barge, has now closed the Godalming Packetboat Company in Surrey because the towpath, which is used by the horses to pull the boat, was becoming increasingly overgrown and narrow.
Roberts says this annoyed “impatient” cyclists and runners who couldn’t get past the horse and accused her of animal cruelty.
She said clashes with those who refused to step back to allow the horses to pass had made journeys “too stressful”.
“The whole thing was no longer safe. People were getting crosser and crosser,” she told Yahoo News UK.
“Walking on the towpath, trying to get past the horse and they're getting impatient and shouting ‘what are you doing to that horse?’”
“People on the towpath would get frustrated because the undergrowth was getting in the way and people couldn’t get past the horse when it was pulling the boat along.
“The horses couldn't see the edge of the towpath because the undergrowth is making it unsafe. If you can't carry on a safe operation, you can't continue running and I cannot make it safe,” she said.
Roberts also said that during lockdown she was able to gain some perspective and took the decision to shut up shop because the cruelty claims made it difficult to carry on the route.
She said: “They are heavy horses, that's what their built for.
“I can pull the boat, it's much easier on a horse than being ridden.
“The passers-by didn't understand the concept of heavy horses and that's what they're bred for. You couldn’t get an animal that big to work if they didn't want to.
“The RSPCA have come out and said it's absolutely fine,” she claimed.
Roberts says that while one horse, Buddy, is retiring, she intends to do more things with the other two – Alizee and Espoir – who are still quite young.
There are now only three locations in Britain running horse-drawn barge trips — Llangollen in Denbighshire; Newbury in Berkshire, and Tiverton.
Tony Tyler, head of UK welfare at World Horse Welfare told Yahoo News: “Pulling a size-appropriate boat through water is well within a working horse’s capabilities and, provided the animals are well looked after, fit for the job and given plenty of time to rest and socialise with other horses, then this traditional method of transport has no concerns for us.
“It does seem as if the increased human traffic on and in the canals was a significant factor in Ms Robert’s decision to quit, but comments made by people that do not understand that horses are able, and willing, to do a job such as this would understandably have contributed in her decision to stop."
Steve Butler, who runs the Kennet House Boat Co, also a horse-drawn barge company, said that it’s a “terrible shame” that Roberts’s company is gone and that she “will be missed”.
Iona, which featured in The Ronnie Barker film The Bargee (1960) and TV soap Coronation Street, will now be taken on by the Tiverton Canal Company.