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Heavy horseman Derek Spanton obituary

Heavy horseman Derek Spanton, who has died aged 83, attended every Aylsham Show for more than 70 years.

With his Shire horses, he was presented to The Queen, the late Elizabeth II at Windsor in 2005 and to the former Prince of Wales, now King Charles III, in about 2003.

His horses were stars as he took the reins at the Aylsham Agricultural Show Association’s 75th anniversary pageant, which was staged in Blickling Park last August 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.

The family had worked heavy horses for more than a century. 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.

His uncle had gone to local shows and took his young nephew, aged 11, to the 1952 Royal Norfolk Show at Raveningham, near Beccles. Many years later, Derek returned with his Shires to compete.

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 forged a lasting partnership with the rapidly expanding Woodforde’s Brewery, based in Woodbastwick, after being approached by its then head Ray Ashworth in 1994. 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 used to supply the re-opened Woodforde’s pub, the Billy Bluelight in Norwich, and so he became the brewery’s “flagship ambassador” for the next quarter of a century. In 2005, he was one of six teams of brewery horses to parade before the Queen at Windsor. 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.

A keen supporter of heavy horse classes, he 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 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, had been a drover for North Walsham’s spring cattle sales, which were held at the town’s market between February and June until the 1980s.

He leaves 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. It 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.

Michael Pollitt