HORSE-drawn carriages are as much a part of great historic cities as street cafes and tour guides.
Such sights can be seen in places like York, Dublin, Rome, Brussels, Antwerp, Bruges, Montreal, Luxor and New York. And now, after decades of horse- free streets, the clatter of horse hoofs could soon be heard in the centre of Oxford again.
The final hurdle could be cleared if approval is given at a meeting of the full Oxford City Council on Monday, December 19.
When the plans were first revealed, many local residents assumed proposals from Kevin Merry Carriages to operate a horse carriage service in the city centre were a joke.
The idea of horses sharing space with the hundreds of buses and coaches that travel up and down historic High Street daily seemed unimaginable.
But in October the city council’s general purposes licensing committee voted to support the idea in principle, agreeing that bylaws could be established to allow horse-drawn sightseeing carriages to operate through the city for the first time in 70 years.
Kevin Merry, the man behind the idea, is the owner of the Forest Hill-based company Kevin Merry Carriages, which provides carriages for weddings, funerals and balls.
True, a petition was signed by 700 people opposing the introduction of horse-drawn carriages in Oxford, after the city council embarked on a public consultation. But that was organised by the animal rights group Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), which had alerted its supporters across the UK.
Another animal rights group, Animal Aid, is to make a last ditch bid to halt the plan.
The group is writing to city councillors urging them to delay the decision until after a meeting with Animal Aid representatives.
A detailed letter argues that horse-drawn carriages would be dangerous for both the animals and members of the public.
The plan is for the carriage to travel around the university’s colleges on a 30-minute trip starting and ending in Broad Street, with no pick- ups or drop-offs along the route, which would be no greater than 1km.
With several streets with “restricted access” the company says it would seek advice from the county highways department.
Mr Merry said: “The final route has been not yet been finalised. But if the area was difficult for the horses, we wouldn’t do it.”
It is, however, likely to include High Street, Broad Street and Radcliffe Square, which he maintains would hold no perils.
Mr Merry added: “Regarding congestion, we would be restricted by the council to one carriage, not many, as has been suggested.
“The route largely avoids main thoroughfares and where it does use main roads, our pace is only 8mph less than the maximum speed for other vehicles.”
During the 10 years he has run the business, Mr Merry says he has never once experienced a horse getting out of control.
Another issue that he will be obliged to clear up is the prospect of a new pollution problem.
The company says it would be impractical to stop and start to clear up droppings, but says there would be a collection at the end of the day to ensure Oxford streets were left clean.