How Weston -super-Mare keeps donkey tradition alive by the seaside

They rate with kiss-me-quick hats, knotted hankies headwear and rude postcards as iconic seaside traditions. But while the rest may have gone out of fashion, donkey rides on the beach are as popular as ever.

It is thought that the Mager family kicked the tradition off in Weston-super-Mare in 1886 – and they are still running the rides in the Somerset resort.

Kevin Mager, 67, who works at Weston Donkeys with brothers Nick, 59, and Pete, 53, says their 48 donkeys are an integral part of Weston’s character.

“They say never work with animals or children – I’ve got both!” laughs Kevin as we have a coffee in a cafe along the promenade, another Mager business.

Kevin Mager with donkeys on the beach at Weston Super Mare

“My family have been here 132 years. We must be one of the oldest places for donkey rides in the country. It’s part of the town here – it wouldn’t be Weston without them.”

Kevin’s great-great-grandad William Mager came up with the idea after seeing fishermen use donkeys to carry baskets of fish on the beach.

The gentle creatures were perfect due to their patient and sure-footed natures – characteristics William realised would be great for tourism.

So as the Victorian seaside was born, so were donkey rides.

The Beatles ride donkeys on the beach in July 1963

Sea air was thought to have health benefits and with many disabled people unable to walk the beach, William made a little carriage to attach to his donkeys.

Soon, the wealthier classes also wanted to use the carriages to avoid getting sand in their shoes.

William even dressed one of his boys as a coachman, who walked alongside to give an authentic experience.

“There is nothing better than a day at a British beach,” says Kevin. “A donkey ride, a play in the sand, an ice cream – there is nothing better.”

Mirror’s Laura Connor with a donkey on the beach in Weston Super Mare

Donkeys on the beach in Weston Super Mare

Even The Beatles rated Weston, pictured on a ride during a visit in 1963.

And Kevin says the donkeys’ calming natures can even inspire romance.

The three brothers have overheard one or two marriage proposals and one couple visit on their wedding anniversary every July because they got engaged on a donkey 50 years ago.

Nick met his own wife, Anne, through the donkeys. One Palm Sunday, he took a few to a local service but he arrived too early.

A holidaymaker and some donkeys

Seven-year-old Sands donkey Judy with her foal

As he waited outside, vicar’s daughter Anne came out to offer him a lemonade. Kevin jokes she fell straight in love… with the donkeys.

“Who could fail to fall in love with them?” he says, patting Tim’s silky brown coat. “Weston wouldn’t be right without donkeys.”

But away from the seaside, and certainly out of season, life is not a beach for all in Weston.

An Office for National Statistics report said 40% of households live on the breadline, including 6,000 children in poverty. The town has repeatedly been branded a drugs hotspot.

Kevin Mager with children riding donkeys on he beach

Donkeys on the beach with Amelia riding Dandy

When Kevin lets us help out with rides, it is a typical windy summer’s day, the beach full of families.

Janet Huckfield, 60, has travelled from Walsall in the West Midlands so that four-year-old granddaughter Amelia can ride handsome white and brown donkey Dandy on the beach.

Janet, who has holidayed in Weston for 11 years, says: “It’s important to visit local resorts to keep our economy going. We’ve got everything we need. Why would we need to go abroad?”

Amelia loves the donkey rides too – something she would not be able to do on a beach in Portugal. “Dandy is my favourite,” she tells me.

Donkeys eating some hay on the beach

Vicky Cartwright, 37, has also driven from the West Midlands, from Stourbridge, so daughter Niamh, seven, can ride the donkeys.

She says: “This is the first beach Niamh came on as a baby, so it’s a tradition. Everyone in the UK goes abroad these days but when you’ve got young children, by the time you’ve faffed around at the airport you can be here. You can’t beat it for a day out.”

Kevin adds: “Obviously, the summer isn’t always like it’s been with the heatwave this year. Last year it rained right through July and August, so business was a literal washout. We have to prepare for the bad years.

“We have to make sure we have money to bear the brunt of a bad year.

Children riding donkeys on the beach

“But this year, we’ve been busy. If we could guarantee reasonable weather, people would holiday here all the time. But it’s often cheaper for families to go abroad on all-inclusive holidays.”

For £2, kids get to ride the donkeys with Kevin’s 20-year-old grandson William – named after his great-great-great-great-grandad. It’s a long working day for the Magers in the summer, especially if the donkeys start to misbehave.

“At 8am we will bring them to the beach, brush them down, give them their breakfast and clean their saddles,” says Kevin.

“Then we’re ready for a busy day, which can go on for 12 hours. That’s if nothing goes wrong!

Donkeys starting their work in British summertime

Read More

Beach Holidays

“The donkey can sometimes walk away from the kids, or maybe do their business up the beach. That’s part and parcel of the job! Thankfully, the kids find it hilarious.

“And it’s been a good life. I’ve been doing this 60 years, working up to 14-hour days by the time they’ve been put to bed. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Sadly, the family’s patriarch Ron died just last week, aged 91, after a lifetime working on the beach.

Kevin says: “It was so important for dad to see me and my brothers carry on. Weston Donkeys has been his life.”

June Beckett and Shirley Boyer riding on donkeys

The family gets many of its donkeys from a local sanctuary and some are healthy enough to work until 25. They usually start at around four and cannot carry a weight heavier than eight stone.

Unfortunately, that rules me out – but I still get to pose next to the adorable Tim.

A typical summer season for the Magers starts around Easter and will run until the end of September. In the winter, the donkeys live at local farms.

“They know exactly where they are going in winter,” says Kevin. “They even know the paths to the farm gates, it’s like they’re going on their own holiday.”

Post Author: admin