John Parker obituary
John Parker, who died at the age of 81, was one of the greatest coach drivers in the world, so brilliant at controlling teams of diving horses that he became a stuntman, a world record holder, a star of television and a renowned teacher.
At the heart of it all were his horses, and this month John, of Swingletree Stables, Wingfield, near Diss, made his final trip in a horse-drawn hearse.
John fell in love with the equine world as a child, working with county horses on his grandfather’s farm. At 17, he obtained his jockey license, then enrolled in the army, joining the horse transport division. âWe had pack mules, horses – and a regimental car,â John explained in an interview with this newspaper a few years ago. âI thought, ‘This is what I have to do!’ I had driven carts with two horses and learned to drive four myself.
He excelled, eventually leaving the military to become the car driver of choice for movies and television programs.
In the classic film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the man who drives Child Catcher’s terrifying carriage is not actor Robert Helpmann but John. He was also the voice actor for the carriage drivers in the 1967 film Dr Dolittle. And in The Wrong Box with Peter Cooke, Tony Hancock and Dudley Moore, John drove five of the six cars in one scene.
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âI also did a lot of Hammer Horror,â John said. âBut it was good money. It was silly money. I could buy a car every two weeks if I wanted to!
Instead, he decided to buy his own car – and discovered that it was the Post Car that carried the post between London and Norwich in the early 19th century.
It had once been driven by John’s hero James Selby, who held the record for the longest distance traveled by a single coachman – until John beat him in 1984; and for the fastest, a team of mail trainer horses could be replaced by fresh horses – until John broke that record in 1996.
âHe was the great coachman of the time. The fact that he drove the coach meant everything to me, âsaid John.
He brought the coach back to Norfolk and, with his partner Susan, who died three years ago, started Swingletree Stables. They bought a house first and gradually added land, horses and cars to become one of the largest car driving centers in Europe.
25 years ago, on the 150th anniversary of Britain’s last coach trip from London to Norwich, John retraced the route, in the same coach, and broke his own world record of speed and the longest distance traveled by a single coachman. “The Duke of Edinburgh told me I was an idiot, if I remember correctly!” John said later. His six teams of horses worked and rested in relays, changing every eight to 10 miles, throughout the 21.5-hour, 139-mile journey. As the final team pulled up outside Norwich Cathedral, the reins must have been appreciated due to its temporarily crippled grip.
For many years, Norwich Union (now Aviva) hired John’s mail and paid for it to transport it all over Britain and abroad. The coach has helped him raise more than Â£ 750,000 for charities such as Save The Children and SportsAid. After more than a million people made it to one of his record breaking trips, subsequent trips were always accompanied by charity fundraising buckets.
John was also a coach racing champion, representing Britain 11 times at the World and European Pilotage Championships.
For four decades, John and Susan taught everyone from coachmen who drive carriages in royal processions to children at annual summer camps. They are remembered as gifted teachers.
They were also incredibly talented. For many years, they performed mind-blowing maneuvers at the Horse of the Year Show in London, including driving a carriage pulled by a team of five horses through a tunnel of fire.
John loved stunts and challenges, once pitting himself and his horses against a Formula 1 driver in a Ferrari and another time changing a team of horses faster than a crew at the Le Mans pit could. change a wheel (this one was televised as a world record).
But there was also a serious side. John was a past President and President of the British Driving Society, Vice President of the Goodwood Riding and Driving for the Disabled Association, Teacher, Examiner and Inspector of the Department of Transport and the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and patron of the British Mule Society.
And until recently, in the lanes of the Waveney Valley, a drumming of hooves, a squeak of taut wood and leather, and a rumble of wheels could herald the arrival of the almost legendary 81-year-old coachman, his face, contoured. by decades outside, so full of character, it could have been conjured up from a fairy tale.
Stephanie Evans, who worked with him for over 40 years, said: âHe was a friend and mentor to so many people, a brilliant rider and carriage driver; he was the last of the great coachmen.