The Lifeboat Horse

A salute to the working horses of Wells

The Lifeboat Horse, made from steel bars and whisky barrels, was created by artist Rachael Long as a tribute to the horses that once pulled the town’s lifeboat more than two miles from the quay to Holkham Gap. It stood in the harbour of Wells-next-the-Sea throughout summer 2018, and after a brief absence, returned in spring 2019.

©Rachael Long, ©Richard Little, ©Damson Ellen, ©Robert Smith MBE

The sculpture is one of a series of 17 made especially for the Wells Heritage Art Trail, an event spanning June-September 2018 featuring works of art celebrating the town’s rich and varied history.

The main frame is made of metal, then ‘coloured in’ with oak from old barrels. Despite the hollow nature of the structure, it’s remarkably heavy. During installation, a crane was used to lift it into place, and huge rods used to pin the horse to the seabed.

Located on the harbour sand, it was fully visible at low tide, and partly submerged at high tide, appearing to swim through the waves.

The sculpture trail was commissioned by Wells Maltings, who contacted Rachael and asked her to submit a proposal. She visited Wells and met with Harbour Master Robert Smith MBE to discuss the project.

“We talked about the site that he wanted one of the sculptures to be on, which was in the harbour. We discussed my work, which is mainly animals and birds, and he showed me this amazing photograph of the Wells lifeboat being pulled on to the beach by five pairs of heavy horses.”

She discovered that, in the 1800s when rockets were fired to summon the lifeboat crew, the horses knew to gallop to the gate and be led down to the lifeboat house on the quay. They would then pull the 33ft lifeboat two and a half miles to Holkham Gap where it was launched. These same horses were also used to haul heavy cargo in the harbour.

Rachel found her inspiration there and then. “I realised I didn’t really have any choice but to do a sculpture of these horses – it seemed so natural, and it fully answered the brief.”

The culmination of that conversation was the striking 3-metre high sculpture that stood on the sandbank in the harbour, a fitting tribute to the working horses of Wells.

In October 2018, when the sculpture trail had closed, and summer had ended, the Lifeboat Horse was removed.

But the story didn’t end there.

Residents and visitors were keen to see the sculpture return, and a campaign was started to raise the £15,000 required to reinstall it. The harbour commissioners, who led the campaign, had until the end of January 2019 to raise the money.

Harbour Master Robert Smith MBE said it was important to buy the sculpture because “so many people loved it.”

“People have already come from all over the country to see the horse – it’s good for tourism, it’s good for Wells and it’s good for Norfolk.”

The community rallied round, with businesses and residents donating money, even the local children donated their pocket money, and together they successfully raised the £15,000.

The Lifeboat Horse is now a permanent fixture. It had been in storage since October for protection from the winter weather, but was returned to its original setting in May, and the harbour commissioners have pledged to cover all future maintenance costs.

Rachael Long