Rocking-horse craze rides high among rich Arabs

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The Independent Online

But a surprising number of wealthy Arab buyers, including King Hussein of Jordan, are in the vanguard of a new shopping craze that has its roots in a very traditional vision of English childhood. This year hundreds of beautifully crafted rocking horses will be hand-made in a modest white wood-fronted building deep in the Kent countryside and sold around the world for between £1,500 and £10,000.

Central to their popularity is the maker's offer to replicate a customer's favourite horse, copying everything from the colour of the forelock to the design of the bridle. And in supporting the toy horse industry, the mixture of wealthy foreign buyers, owners of country houses and horse-loving middle classes are keeping alive a classic emblem of an old-fashioned childhood, amid the omnipresence of bleeping computer games and DVDs.

About 400 rocking horses rolled out of Stevenson Brothers' workshop in the village of Bethersden, near Ashford, last year. And the manufacturers expect the numbers to grow over the coming months.

Some are bought as furniture, others as presents for adults. Marc Stevenson, 49, the co-owner of Stevenson Brothers, said: "They are equine sculptures but they are usable pieces of sculpture. When you look in the toy store for things you would give house-room to, a lot of it comes from China and has no inherent value. [Our] customers want something that isn't made of silicon chips and batteries."

Rocking horses had their hey-day in Victorian and Edwardian Britain, when they were a way of introducing the children of the nobility and squirearchy to riding. Mr Stevenson and his twin brother Tony entered the business in 1982, inspired by their uncle James Bosworthick, a shipwright at Chatham dockyards.

With the whiff of lacquer and paint hanging in the air, 11 artisans do the joinery, carving, sanding and painting that transform bare wood into a finished toy.

Tulip is the wood most used, followed by oak and walnut, though cherry was the favourite a few years ago. The archetypal "dappled grey" model is the most popular but horses can be painted piebald or any other design. A secret lockable compartment under the belly allows the stowing of documents or a time capsule. Blankets are embroidered with the owner's initials. The tails of dead horses are used for the manes and they hang, somewhat incongruously, on a fence outside. Getting hold of less common hair such as grey can be awkward. Sue Russell, a partner in the business, whispered: "Sometimes that causes us immense problems because horses don't die to order."

For modern flats where a traditional rocking horse might look out of place, the company makes rocking tigers and zebras. New rocking horses are delivered all over the world, particularly to the United States. King Hussein has one, and the Queen has two. Frankie Dettori and Alan Shearer have one horse each.

Marc Stevenson says an old "Stevenson" rises in value but realises most of his thoroughbreds are bought for enjoyment rather than investment. "It's a nostalgic gift and it reminds us of a time when there was plenty of time to indulge ourselves in fantasy. When you look at a child going on a rocking horse they disappear into their own thoughts. They are racing along the beach or flying up to the moon - and back in time for tea."