Gotwick Horse Drawn Carriages: East Grinstead travel company beats Covid restrictions with thriving micro-business
A Sussex micro-business has been revealing the natural magic of the English countryside to people from across the south east since early spring this year.
Gotwick Horse Drawn Carriages, based near East Grinstead, was set up in April by Jonathan and Louise Nye.
It offers rides through ancient woodland on a 514-acre private estate along miles of purpose-built carriage tracks.
The couple normally run the long haul travel company travelfiveo, but the Covid pandemic and its various restrictions made this temporarily impossible.
“It devastated our centre of the business,” said Jonathan, 58, adding that travelfiveo’s clients are usually over-50s who would fly to places like Costa Rica, South Africa and South America.
As 2021 began Jonathan and Louise realised that planes would stay grounded for the foreseeable future.
However, they heard plenty of talk in the travel industry about staycations and a possible boom for UK holidays.
“We came up with something we could offer people while they’re holidaying close to home,” said Jonathan.
He explained that he and Louise live in the High Weald area of outstanding natural beauty, which is right on the border of East Sussex, West Sussex and Surrey, so they were well positioned to attract visitors from all over.
“I’ve been carriage driving all my life too, longer than I been in travel,” said Jonathan, adding that he simply ‘put two and two together’.
Jonathan said he then got in touch with a ‘neighbour’ who had the 500-acre Gotwick Manor Estate to ask for a license to drive horses there and got approval.
“The unique proposition was that we take people into an ‘enchanted forest’ on a private estate rather than just trotting around the road,” he said.
Jonathan, who is now head coachman and storyteller, said the operation is run by him and his family with a couple of friends, making it a true micro-business.
“We always carry a groom when we’re going on a drive so that will either be my wife or one of my sons,” he added.
Jonathan said he was once involved in the heavy horse world, as well as the agricultural horse and brewery horse worlds, having driven for Horsham-based brewer King and Barnes.
But, he said, when his family came along he put these time-consuming activities behind him and focussed on the travel business.
However, he did make a trip to France to purchase a couple of horses for himself, rather unique ones.
“You won’t see anything like it over here,” Jonathan said, adding that the animals he now uses for his carriage rides have unusual markings and characteristics.
“They’re a Konik, which is a Polish feral horse, crossed with a Franches-Montagnes, which is one of the Swiss national horses,” he said.
“The people that come and see us love the history because the Konik can trace its genetic heritage straight back to the Tarpan, which is one of the earliest domesticated horses that’s now extinct.”
Jonathan said guests often come up from Worthing, Littlehampton, Eastbourne, Haywards Heath and Lindfield with some staying in hotels on the Ashdown Forest, Forest Row, and around East Grinstead.
“We also get a few that have come to this area for the first time and they want to do interesting and unusual things,” he said.
The company’s main experience is a ‘champagne carriage drive’ into the forest, offering English sparkling wine from the Kingscote Estate near the bluebell railway.
“In the mornings we do pain au chocolat, fresh orange juice, croissants,” Jonathan added, saying that they change the basket to suit the occasion.
People can have handmade birthday cupcakes too and there are non-alcoholic alternatives for those who want to drive back after their 90-minute experience.
Trips also include a champagne stopper so guests can take the bottle home.
“Typically the average person is retired,” said Jonathan, adding that guests are usually in their sixties.
“The second biggest group has been octo and nonagenarians,” he said.
It is in this group that Jonathan feels the forest’s ‘healing powers’ are most apparent.
“When they go on a horse-drawn carriage people in their 80s and 90s immediately start to talk about their childhood,” said Jonathan.
“The bread van, the milk van, it seems to stir up some very deeply held memories and they start to talk about times gone by,” he added.
By the end of the journey, Jonathan believes the elderly passengers look happier, healthier and even a bit younger.
More generally, Jonathan said the experience simply benefits people who live in a town environment.
“The benefit to them is really reengaging in a quiet world,” he said.
“They simply can’t believe how silent the world can be and all they can hear is the birdsong and the crackle of a twig as a deer moves by.”
Visit www.gotwickhorsedrawncarriages.com to find out more.