As the countryside turns to gold under the autumn sun, it’s the perfect time to speak to a man with abundant memories of our agricultural past who has reaped the rewards of a life well-lived.

Ray Hubbard is the region’s last horseman, a true countryman who, in his own words, has lived “a wonderful life and a happy life with no regrets”.

Norwich Evening News: Suffolk and Norfolk legend Ray Hubbard. Picture: Sarah Lucy BrownSuffolk and Norfolk legend Ray Hubbard. Picture: Sarah Lucy Brown (Image: Archant)

In his ninth decade, Ray was six when World War Two began and is a shining example of a generation for whom respect, loyalty, determination and thrift were key.

Not only is Ray a legendary horseman, he is also a consummate entertainer who has performed across the county and the country and raised thousands of pounds for a variety of good causes.

And on top of that, he’s a treasure trove of wonderful memories that help bring bygone Norfolk back to life: stories of long days and hard work at the farm, of making do, of being grateful for a bag of apples or swedes, of expecting little but loving life so much.

Norwich Evening News: Suffolk and Norfolk legend Ray Hubbard's invitation from the QueenSuffolk and Norfolk legend Ray Hubbard's invitation from the Queen (Image: Archant)

He’s been at garden parties with the Queen, enchanted Princess Anne so much that she had to be reminded she had other people to see, recorded albums and DVDs, had his personal belongings exhibited internationally and been interviewed more times than he can remember.

Norwich Evening News: Picture shows Ray in his 20sPicture shows Ray in his 20s (Image: Submitted)

But at heart, he’ll always be the little boy who dreamt of working on the land with the gentle giants that he first saw as a child from the windows of his house in Dickleburgh on the Norfolk/Suffolk border.

Ray’s parents Henry and Agatha were both raised near Diss and he was born in 1933 at Langmere, a small hamlet in the Dickleburgh parish, four miles away.

“You can trace my family working with horses back to the 1700s,” he says, my great, great, great grandfather had a farm in Dickleburgh and the sons of the family took it on until my great grandfather died leaving his wife with five children.

“There were four boys and a girl, the four boys – including my grandfather – were all horsemen and then my father was a horseman for a builder. Horses are in our blood.”

Norwich Evening News: Horseman and musician Ray Hubbard, pictured with Captain in the 1960sHorseman and musician Ray Hubbard, pictured with Captain in the 1960s (Image: Submitted)

He started working with horses alongside farmer Albert Saunders at Langmere Hall Farm on the county border when he was eight-and-a-half, when men and women working the horses were a common sight in Norfolk and Suffolk’s fields.

“One of my first memories is my mother taking me to the garden gate to see when a horse came by and I could see working horses out of the windows at our house,” said Ray.

Norwich Evening News: A horse-mad Ray on a cart as a childA horse-mad Ray on a cart as a child (Image: submitted)

Next door, Mr Saunders hired Oak Farm. Mesmerised by what he saw, one day Ray waited to speak to him at his gate and asked for a Saturday job.

“I’ll let you know,” he was told, gruffly.

The next day, Mr Saunders told Ray’s mother – who’d had no idea he’d asked for a job - that the young lad should come to the farm at 7am at the weekend: excited, the horse-mad boy arrived at 6.45am.

“Hello boy, you’re early,” said Mr Saunders, “keep this up, we’ll get on.”

Left to chop up sticks, Ray quickly wondered if he’d made a terrible mistake – he wanted to be with horses! – but later, he was taken out in the pony and cart to feed the cows and over the weeks, Mr Saunders introduced Ray to the horses.

Norwich Evening News: Ray HubbardRay Hubbard (Image: Submitted)

“I used to lead in the harvest field and take the wagons home when I was just nine or 10, we’d work late into the night if there was light,” he recalls.

“I’d lead the middle wagon when it was dusk, the farmer would be in front with one wagon, the horseman would be behind me with the last one. We always used three.

“One time, the farmer turned in the gate and I turned and somehow the gate swung between the front and the back wheels and pushed up tight so the mare couldn’t move and the back wheels were hanging on the gate over a big ditch.

“I was glad the horseman was behind me so he could say that it hadn’t been my fault! They got the mare out and borrowed another wagon to pull it off the gate.”

Norwich Evening News: Suffolk and Norfolk legend Ray Hubbard. Picture: Sarah Lucy BrownSuffolk and Norfolk legend Ray Hubbard. Picture: Sarah Lucy Brown (Image: Archant)

At home, Ray remembers a house filled with music: his father played the accordion and mandolin, and both he and Ray’s mother played the mouth organ.

“There’d be sing-songs on Saturday nights and we’d all be part of it,” he recalls.

Ray’s maternal grandfather, Harry Pentney, played the concertina and his grandmother Maria played the mouth organ and he remembers accompanying his mother to watch his grandfather play steel quoits and the sing-a-longs after matches.

His uncle would put records on the old gramophone, pull out his accordion and dance Ray around until his grandmother told him to stop and at school there was a percussion band and the children learned country songs.

Pupils learned maypole dancing, sword dancing and step dancing, a local form of tap-dancing where individual dancers improvise a sequence of steps, the sound of the ‘stepping’ being an important part of the dance.

“I’d dance in hobnail boots so they made the right sound but when the teacher asked us to bring plimsolls for the maypole, my father told me ‘you’ll go to school in your boots – there’s no money for dancing!” he remembers.

At Diss Grammar School, music became a duller affair when the music master used his lesson as an excuse to put his feet up and enjoy a cigarette.

He’d play Gilbert and Sullivan every week, and everyone was pleased when he was replaced with Mr Pursehouse, a country singer who spent his spare time performing at village halls.

Norwich Evening News: Ray as a child with his beloved hobby horseRay as a child with his beloved hobby horse (Image: Submitted)

“He liked my broad Norfolk dialect and told not to lose it!” laughs Ray, who admits the only time he fell out of love with music was when his father bought a piano and he was made to practice.

“I used to wet a piece of newspaper and put it on the clock so that when my half hour finished, I didn’t have to do any more than I had to!” he says.

A bright, hard-working Ray passed his exams and had high hopes of going to veterinary college to become an equine vet: but the course cost £400.

“It was after the war and we just didn’t have money like that,” he said.

Dejected at work the following Saturday, Mr Saunders asked how he’d done in his exams and he told him the situation: his boss immediately offered him a permanent job.

And more: he told him that when he reached the age of 21, he would hand over the running of the farm to him.

The more experienced horseman – his soon-to-be father-in-law - was retiring early due to health problems caused by ill treatment in a First World War German prisoner-of-war camp, but before he went, he and the farmer taught Ray all they knew.

Norwich Evening News: Horseman and musician Ray Hubbard, pictured with horses Britain and Boxer in the 1950sHorseman and musician Ray Hubbard, pictured with horses Britain and Boxer in the 1950s (Image: Submitted)

He became head horseman when he was 17 and on the Saturday after Ray’s 21st birthday, he took the reins at the farm: “The men were all right about it even though I was young,” he said, “they knew my family had been with horses and that I’d been working with horses since I was eight – they knew I knew what I was doing.

“Mr Saunders said ‘you’ve been about here long enough, you know what you’re doing, I shan’t interfere’. And he didn’t. He thought a lot of me. I thought a lot of him.”

Ray was in charge of seven men, eight horses and a cob, bullocks and pigs.

“I didn’t think anything of it really,” he says, “all of the children in school in those days had jobs on farms or in shops, it was just the way of life.

“One of my pals was a shepherd at 14, my wife was working in a shop at nine weighing up sugar and things like that. It was just the country way.”

Ray shares a fascinating window into the mysterious world of the horsemen of East Anglia, stories of horse whispering and superstition, the folklore that enveloped the art of mastering these magnificent creatures.

He speaks of the toad bone carried in his pocket, acquired by a centuries-old rite which was believed to give the owner of the bone power over horses and the ability to tame them, stop them in their tracks or get them to come to them.

“Those stories were passed down and we knew how to get the bone, what it could do and how to make the drawing oils for them and I carried one in my pocket all the time when I was at work,” Ray tells me – the bone is currently held in stores by a museum.

He also tells me about another charm he kept in his pocket: when a foal is born, its hooves are covered with eponychium, a soft capsule that protects the mother’s uterus and birth canal from sharp edges.

“These sponges on their feet, there’s another in the mouth and it comes out straight away when it’s born and if you catch it and let it dry out, it goes as hard as asphalt and then you can use it how you want. Bringing horses to you, that kind of thing.

“I had my grandfather’s book with all his old cures in that was written out in his handwriting, too. In all my time, I never had the vet out to the horses, so we must have been doing things right.”

All the horses that Ray worked with when he began his job were Suffolk Punches (other than the Welsh cob), a rare breed of draught horse always ches(t)nut in colour, a hard-working farm horse perfect for the clay soils of the East.

The breed can be traced back to 1768, when ‘Punch’ was an old English word for a short and stout person – their stockiness means they can lean into the collar to move heavy loads with more ease than a longer-legged shire breed and their ‘clean legs’ means no mud clings to them after ploughing.

Norwich Evening News: Suffolk and Norfolk legend Ray Hubbard takes part in Dickleburgh's Coronation celebrations in 1953Suffolk and Norfolk legend Ray Hubbard takes part in Dickleburgh's Coronation celebrations in 1953 (Image: Archant)

Thanks to conservation work, the future of Suffolk Punch horses is gradually looking rosier: from just nine Suffolk foals born in 1966, there were 32 foals born last year.

“They’re just a perfect horse in my eyes,” says Ray, “once they trust you they’ll do anything for you. When you have that kind of trust, it means everything.

“When you work with horses, they are a part of you.”

Ray’s tales of the comforting routine of life which saw him rise every day for a 4am start at the farm – Pamela rising with him to give him something to eat and drink – of the wheel of the year, the rhythm of the land, are a delight to hear.

Stories of breaking in horses, ploughing secrets, drilling the land, of having a place for everything and everything having a place, of grooming and harnessing, of carrying a lantern round the farm during hours of darkness and understanding the weather and the seasons.

It’s no wonder that Ray has been so sought-after as a speaker, it’s like listening to a rural fairytale – although he’s at pains to remind me just how much hard work life was.

In 1954, Ray married childhood sweetheart Pamela, the daughter of the retired horseman at Langmere Hall, they had courted for six years and would be married for 45 long, happy years: she was, from the very beginning, the centre of his world.

In all his years as a horseman, Ray didn’t take a single holiday, but when he and Pamela married, they planned a week off: time to move into their new home – the horseman’s house that belonged to the farm and which had no electricity or running water – and a day out in Norwich and then another in Ipswich.

“We married on the Saturday, started to get the house right and then on Tuesday Mr Saunders came and said he wasn’t happy at the farm and I needed to come back!” laughs Ray, “Pamela wasn’t too happy, but she understood.”

The pair had lots in common, including their interest in the Scout and Guide movement which saw them become leaders and take part in camps at the Royal Estate in Sandringham in 1948, perform at the Albert Hall in the 1960s and lead the English contingent at a large gathering in Holland in 1969.

Norwich Evening News: Suffolk and Norfolk legend Ray Hubbard's Concert Party (Ray is in the middle)Suffolk and Norfolk legend Ray Hubbard's Concert Party (Ray is in the middle) (Image: Archant)

Having both been members of the church choir since they were children – Ray later became choirmaster and he was also church organist at Rushall for almost 40 years – the couple shared a huge love for music which led them to set up their own Concert Party, a variety show with a changing cast depending on where it played.

Regulars included Ted Laurence and Albert Rose, brothers Ray and Revis Leader, Vic Steggles…the list is long. There were sketches and monologues, one-man bands and musical saws, ventriloquism and step-dancing, concertina playing and broom dancing – it was a show loved by all who saw it and in huge demand.

The songs Ray sings – and he sang me a few as I interviewed him - reflect the life he knew, the countryside, the sea and Norfolk. Many are funny, many have been passed down through generations, many are his own.

Ray is rightly proud of the huge amount of money that the concerts raised, and that he never charged a bean for any performances – he was still entertaining crowds until March 2020 when Covid hit.

“It all started when Mr Saunders joined the over-60s club,” Ray tells me, “they’d had some entertainment, a comedian, a lady singing and then they’d had bingo but they didn’t like it as much so the lady who organised it came to me and asked if I’d help.

“I said that I had the horses to see to but I spoke to Mr Saunders and he said ‘well, you can do that, can’t you?’ I told him I couldn’t carry my accordion and other instruments to the hall on my bike and he said ‘you’ve got the pony, ain’t you?’

“So I’d do my work, take the pony and cart home, load up, pick up Mr Saunders, leave the pony at the pub, do the entertainments, load up again, take him home, unload, have some tea, take the pony back and see to the horses. And I was glad to do it!”

Norwich Evening News: Horseman and musician Ray Hubbard pictured as a one-man band the 1950s.Horseman and musician Ray Hubbard pictured as a one-man band the 1950s. (Image: Submitted)

The shows were a huge success and Ray and his troupe were in high demand, playing across Norfolk and Suffolk and further afield in Sidmouth and London.

Ray retired as a horseman in 1966. His boss Mr Saunders had died several years previously and horses were being replaced by tractors (“I said no to driving them”).

Like his father, he went into the building trade for the remaining years of his working life, a job he enjoyed, albeit not with the same love that he’d had for his horses.

He worked with the Suffolk Punch Heavy Horse Museum in Woodbridge and when the museum linked up with the International Museum of the Horse in America, lent some of the tools of his trade to a major exhibition, All the Queen’s Horses, in 2003.

Norwich Evening News: Ray Hubbard plays a song on the squeezebox in 2007Ray Hubbard plays a song on the squeezebox in 2007 (Image: Archant)

Ray has also worked with Richard Dalton at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse in Norfolk and at the Museum of East Anglian Life at Stowmarket, where he looked after horses, and remains a world expert on the horses he loves and admires so greatly.

On his 65th birthday, Ray retired from the building trade. He and Pamela were looking forward to spending regular days out together for the first time in their marriage.

Ray left work on Friday, within just a few days Pamela fell ill and before a week of retirement had passed, the love of Ray’s life, Pamela died, just a few days before Christmas.

The couple had been part of each others’ lives since Ray was six. He felt lost. Adrift.

“We did absolutely everything together,” he said, “we were a team and without her it felt like I was missing a limb. She was just wonderful. Perfect.

“I can’t get to her grave now, but I have fresh flowers next to her photograph every week.”

Norwich Evening News: Ray Hubbard entertains the fans of the Suffolk Punch on Woodbridge Market Hill in 2004Ray Hubbard entertains the fans of the Suffolk Punch on Woodbridge Market Hill in 2004 (Image: Archant)

Singing and entertaining pulled Ray through his grief, and in 2007, he released his first CD: Norfolk Bred on the Stowmarket-based Veteran label.

Norwich Evening News: Ray's CD, Norfolk BredRay's CD, Norfolk Bred (Image: Submitted)

The 21-track CD was compiled from a lifetime of songs and memories – and many were gently comic: Has ya fa’r got a dicky, bor? You can’t tell them nothing, they know, The Muck Spreader…the songs that took him back to the happiest times of his life, with his family, with his horses, with his Pamela.

Now living in Diss, Ray is surrounded by a lifetime of memories and hopes to share more with audiences in the future. An advertisement for the health benefits of working incredibly hard, this true son of the soil offers a timely reminder that we can all learn from the past.

Although he last worked the land in the 1960s, memories are plucked like books from a shelf: the jingle of the harness, the clouds of warm breath from the noses of mighty horses on a frosty winter’s day, tugging the bucket from the well, a well-earned dinner on the table, the warm cheers from a happy crowd.

“It all feels like yesterday,” says Ray, “I feel so lucky to have lived my life.”

· Ray’s Norfolk Bred CD can be bought from traditional folk music label Veteran, 01449 67369