In the run-up to Christmas, I had a remarkable number of conversations that went something like this:
Me: “Are you doing anything for the holidays?”
Them: “Yes! We’re going to France/to Australia/to Venice to stay in a chateau/at a surfing resort/with my stepmother, the Contessa. Then we’re going back to London/on to New Zealand/over to Rome to see “Mamma Mia!” / where they filmed “Lord of the Rings”/the Pope. What are you doing for Christmas?”
Me: “Um…we’re having dinner with friends at a pub where they walk a horse through the bar on Christmas Day.”
Yes, we chose a quiet close-to-home Christmas this year, venturing no further than West Sussex, but getting in on one of those age-old and inexplicable traditions that crop up all over the UK: they’ve been walking a horse through the bar of the Fox Inn in the little hamlet of Bucks Green for so long that nobody remembers when it started, or why.
Staff at the pub said they believe it may have to do with keeping a bridleway open, though that’s just a guess. British ramblers (US: hikers) can be fiercely protective of their right to use public footpaths and bridle paths, which can bring them into conflict with landowners when owners and ramblers have different ideas of how extensive the public’s rights really are.
Walkers, often from the Ramblers (a nationwide association), go past my house every once in a while, groups of people wearing plastic sleeves full of maps hanging from straps around their necks. They traverse all the local footpaths as a hobby, a form of exercise, and a means of asserting their right to keep those paths public and to make sure no one is threatening to close any right of way. On the other side of the fence (sometimes literally), landowners may close paths over private land a few days a year to remind people that the public has no right to pass. An old friend of mine in Essex had one of these—they’re called permissive paths—across his land, and used to close the gate on Christmas Day every year to remind people that while he was happy for them to walk across the land, his farm was private property.
Which brings us back to Christmas, and to the Fox Inn where a horse—his name is Blue—visits for lunch at Christmas. There’s a brick path running right through the building; presumably that’s the old bridleway and at some point—by at least the 16th century, because the present building dates back that far—somebody plunked a pub down right onto it. So Blue comes in on Christmas day, eats a bag of crisps (US: potato chips), has a bowl of beer, and then walks on out the other side.
I followed him out to snap some more pictures because the pub was chock full of people and I couldn’t get close enough to the horse inside the building to get a decent photo, though a very kind (and very tall) stranger lifted my camera up over his head to take a shot over the crowd. I don’t know where all the people came from; Bucks Green is a small group of houses classed as a hamlet, an outlier of the thriving metropolis of Rudgwick, itself a village that can claim all of 2900 people (if they round up to an nice-looking number).
A good proportion of Bucks Green citizenry must have been in the pub that day. In fact, Blue’s handler had to persuade him at one point not to try go back in. Once is all it takes; even if no other horse ever walks up to the bar at the Fox, the bridleway is (presumably) safe for another year.