Horse power: Tony Munt, carriage driver
Sam Fraser meets Tony Munt, the doyen of carriage drivers
Published in October ’12
‘I didn’t want to tell you earlier, but we call that groom’s place next to the driver the “suicide seat”,’ says Tony Munt. ‘Still, you seem to have survived!’ It is a breezy Sunday morning and we have been on a carriage tour of the woods around Tony’s Pallington home, drawn by a four-strong team of handsome chestnut Gelderlanders. The experience has been unexpectedly exhilarating if mildly terrifying, and also resulted in something resembling a Jane Austen moment: eyes closed and listening to the sound of sixteen hooves and four wheels progressing along muddy tracks.
There could not be a better mentor to make the introduction to the rarefied world of carriage driving. Tony is a member of the exclusive Coaching Club, has appeared in a number of hit films and is the fourth generation of Munts to drive horses.
‘My great grandfather used to drive road coaches from London to Brighton, my grandfather drove horses in the army and my dad drove right up until his death last year, so it’s very much in the blood!’
In fact the name of Munt is synonymous with carriage driving at its highest levels. Tony’s father, Peter, is spoken of with reverence in coaching circles. A champion driver, he enjoyed a career which took him across the world, a close friendship with HRH the Duke of Edinburgh who regularly sought his advice, and success in cinema stunt driving. Readers familiar with period films such as ‘Mrs Brown’, ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘Nanny McPhee’ and ‘Sense and Sensibility’ will unwittingly have seen Peter and Tony feature as drivers.
‘My father built up the film work and I’d go and help him – it’s quite specialised work. I’d take time off from my job as a builder if he needed a second driver. We went all over the world together and never had a cross word.’
The affection with which Tony recalls working with his father clearly points to a close bond between the two in spite of the separation Tony endured as a child when his parents divorced.
‘My parents split up and I moved with my mum down to Poole while my dad stayed with his business in Ascot. Later, I brought my own family up in Upton before moving here twelve years ago. At that point my father was looking to retire and, as we’d done a lot of filming in Dorset in the past, he knew the area and was happy to join me to help out with the horses if I found a plot of land.’
The plot of land which is now home to ‘High Steppers’, the carriage driving business Tony runs with partner Sue Wiles, is situated in the village of Pallington, just outside Dorchester. But achieving his dream of a home and stables took a six year battle with the council’s planning department.
‘My grandfather lived with his horses, my father lived with his horses and I wanted to live with my horses – that’s how you get to know them, but we had a real battle to convince the council.’
Several years on from their successful appeal however, Tony and Sue, herself an experienced driver of horses, live happily side by side with Achilles, Hector, Hugo, Rossy and other equine friends. The effort paid off and business is brisk. As well as film work, Tony’s driving team is available for hire.
‘We do about twenty-eight weddings a year, as well as other special occasions like school proms, birthdays, graduations and trips to the races. Every event is special and the horses really add a little magic. And of course, there’s really nothing more elegant than arriving in a glass Landauer.’
Inspecting the coaches housed on site, it is impossible to disagree. The hand built glass Landauer is positively fairytale in design and is favoured by brides for its sumptuous cream leather upholstery, rich burgundy paintwork and glass front to combat inclement weather. But it is the Gentleman’s Coach, based on an original Holland & Holland 19th century carriage, that is particularly evocative of a bygone era of romance and opulence.
‘My father was the only member with two sons in the Coaching Club and we’re very proud of that achievement. One of the privileges of membership is an annual invitation to Royal Ascot and this is the coach we take,’ Tony explains. ‘It can accommodate nine passengers and two grooms with a drop down table for lunch! We love to show the horses there and they enjoy the experience, from the bathing and grooming beforehand to the excitement on the course.’
Aware of his father’s achievements in coaching, Tony is keen to uphold the reputation that is his legacy: ‘I was working on ‘Nanny McPhee,’ he remembers, ’and I had a scene in which I had to drive the horses through the village at a gallop. After I’d done it, Emma Thompson came to congratulate me. “I’ve only seen one man drive a team like that,” she told me, “and that was Peter Munt.” “Peter Munt is my father,” I replied. It was a very special moment.’
Listening to the variety of his work and experiencing the thrill of travelling behind real horse power, it’s not difficult to see why Tony gave up his building business to concentrate on the horses.
‘One day you might be working on a film set with the likes of Billy Connolly, the next you’ll be teaching a couple how to drive the pet pony their children have grown out of. It’s such a pleasure.’
It is also a pleasure he has passed on, as his son, Geoff, also has the bug and indeed drove the team at the Dorset County Show at Dorchester last year.
‘My father sponsored the Dorchester show for four years and I’ll be sponsoring it this year,’ Tony explains. ‘We travel to as many shows as we can each year, but this is our local one and we’re proud of our association with it.’
It is this sense of continuity, of the passing down of traditions, skills and history to future generations that gives High Steppers such integrity. In an age of virtual thrills and synthetic fuels, the timelessness of the experience of carriage driving has a new appeal. It may be at times appear to be a relatively slow form of transport, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it. It fact nothing else feels like it.