Heavy horse enthusiast Derek Spanton, who has died aged 83, went to his first Royal Norfolk Show in 1952 aged 11.
He was taken by his coal merchant uncle to Raveningham, near Beccles – and over the following nine decades, he returned to the show as a trade exhibitor and competitor in veteran and agricultural turnout classes.
He forged a partnership with Norfolk’s oldest-established brewery, Woodforde’s of Woodbastwick, and was its “flagship ambassador” for almost 30 years with his Shire horses and dray.
With the Woodforde’s dray, Derek Spanton. Picture: Bruce Ash, Woodforde’s
Derek Spanton with barrel of Woodforde’s at Red Lion, Stiffkey, in 2005. Picture: EDP Newsquest Library
When six teams of dray horses were invited to Windsor, he was presented to The Queen, the late Elizabeth II in 2005, and also to the former Prince of Wales, now King Charles III in 2003. Heidi Hannant, who helped him for the past 20 years, also joined those presentations and now looks after his retired veteran Shire, Herbie, who was 25 on January 1.
His life-long love of heavy horses was a family tradition dating back more than a century or more. He helped his grandfather, who lived at Sloley and worked for Norfolk County Council to cart gravel by horse and cart from the beaches at Mundesley and Bacton to be used for road making.
His father, Jim, delivered milk with a pony and trap while a coal merchant uncle, Oscar Peek-Vout, used horses from nearby Worstead station yard. On his uncle’s death, Derek inherited harness, tack and some land – so in 1988, he bought his first horse, a 18hh Shire called Jim.
Derek Arthur Spanton was born in Sloley and went to the village school and then to North Walsham. He joined Eastern Electricity, where he worked for 45 years as a lorry driver but heavy horses were always his first love.
He had been approached in 1994 by Ray Ashworth, then head of Woodforde’s, to supply the brewery’s re-opened Woodforde’s pub, the Billy Bluelight in Norwich. He had restored a dray – owned by his uncle – which had been stored in a barn at Worstead by the late Gavin Paterson.
It was such a success that he was invited to promote Woodforde’s. His dray and Shires became a regular fixture at the Royal Norfolk Show and shows and events across the eastern counties.
He promoted heavy horses with enthusiasm and enjoyed success at the Royal Norfolk Show, for example, winning the veteran 2012 championship, and then again 2019, with Acle Ryan. He competed in the agricultural turnout classes, said Chris Self, heavy horse head steward for the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association, and also former Aylsham Show secretary. “He was always supportive of showing classes and was respected by all in the heavy horse world,” he said.
His horses were stars when he took the reins at the Aylsham Agricultural Show Association’s 75th anniversary pageant, which was staged in Blickling Park in August 2023 before a record grand ring crowd. He visited the Aylsham Show for the first time aged 12 arriving with his parents by horse and cart at the town’s Recreation Ground in June 1953 when a record crowd of 10,000 went through the gates.
His collection of trophies and rosettes from his lengthy showing career filled rooms at his Smallburgh home. Always willing to promote Shires and heavy horses, he took part in hundreds of events across the region from the annual Stradsett Park Vintage Rally, near Downham Market, to the 25th heavy horse show at Ely in 2012.
His support of Aylsham Show over almost eight decades was greatly appreciated, especially as a key exhibitor, who had revived the heavy horse presence. He “lived for his horses” said Mike Gamble, who is the AASA’s retiring chairman.
Mr Spanton, who died at the Norfolk & Norwich University Hospital on December 16, leaving a brother, Michael.
A Suffolk Punch, Gifford, driven by his former groom, Karen White, will pull the dray with his coffin to the funeral service.
The funeral service will be held at St Batholomew’s Church, Sloley, on Friday, January 19 at 2pm, followed by interment.
Donations may be made to Cancer Research UK. Further details from Gordon Haynes Independent Funeral Directors, North Walsham.