On a hot August day there can be few nicer places to enjoy a pint than in the garden of the Drum Inn at Cockington, the Devon village frequented by a teenage Agatha Christie.
Growing up in the nearby seaside resort of Torquay, the Queen of Crime spent many happy hours at Cockington Court, the 16th-century manor house owned by friends Charles and Margaret Mallock.
But Cockington’s English charm, with its thatched cottages, quaint tearooms and Norman church, never blinkered Christie to the downside of living in such small rural communities.
‘There is much wickedness in village life,’ her celebrated sleuth Miss Marple once observed. And while ‘wickedness’ is perhaps overstating it, recent events in Cockington do seem to have brought out some of the worst of human nature with terms such as ‘petty’, ‘selfish’ and ‘interfering nobodies’ bandied about in social media posts over the treatment of the village’s mayor . . . one Patrick the Pony.
Yes, you read that correctly. Four years old and standing just over 2ft tall at the shoulder, Cockington’s unofficial mayor is a miniature Shetland ‘therapy pony’.
Patrick took over the role from Don Mills, a (human) resident who died in 2019 and had successfully campaigned to make Cockington the first place in the UK to ban yellow lines, and to ensure new lavatories in the village car park had a thatched roof.
No one is kidding themselves that Patrick will be similarly effective. But he is exceptionally endearing, as I discover on meeting him and his owners Kirk and Hannah Petrakis in the living room of their three-bed home in Torquay.
He usually runs free in a nearby field but the pair do occasionally try to accustom him to being indoors for when he visits care homes and other places requiring his therapeutic services.
Kirk and Hannah Petrakis in the living room of their three-bed home in Torquay with Patrick the Pony
‘Whenever we were walking him around Cockington we saw how much people got out of meeting him,’ said Patrick’s owner Kirk
Since horses can’t be toilet-trained, the Petrakis family have learned to watch for Patrick’s tail going up, at which point they rush forward with a bright orange bucket. Apart from this foible, he fits in well with the couple’s three daughters, Amy, nine; Naomi, ten; and Sophia, 16, black labrador Pippa and Echo the gecko.
So how did Patrick’s elevation to high office come about?
‘Shortly after he appeared at a fundraising event for Ukraine, someone jokingly said he does so much good work for the community that he should become mayor and we thought it would be a bit of fun so we organised a petition and more than 200 people signed it,’ says Kirk, 44. Torquay-born and bred, Kirk used to visit Cockington with his grandmother as a little boy and loved taking the horse and carriage rides this idyllic spot is known for.
But it was not until 2013, when he was walking round the village as part of his rehab after a near-fatal brain haemorrhage, that he noticed the village’s last horse and carriage business was for sale. As Hannah is an accomplished horsewoman, they decided to take it on.
To pull the carriages, they bought four ponies named Cowboy, Nugget, Annie and Steve, and in 2019 welcomed Patrick.
‘Whenever we were walking him around Cockington we saw how much people got out of meeting him,’ says Kirk.
Born on St Patrick’s Day, the bay pony is, naturally, partial to Guinness. And so it was appropriate that his inauguration on July 23 took place at the Drum Inn, with dignitaries present, including Kevin Foster, Tory MP for Torbay.
Born on St Patrick’s Day, the bay pony is, naturally, partial to Guinness
Patrick had his own mayoral robe for the ceremony — fashioned from a bright-red horse blanket. But the finishing touch was his gold chain of office, its centre-piece one of the horse brasses sold in Cockington’s gift shop.
Of course, it was all very jokey and most people took it in the right spirit. But things have since taken a darker turn. Sadly, Patrick has now effectively been barred from the Drum Inn’s garden where the pub had allowed Kirk and Hannah to build his ‘interaction pen’ a year earlier.
Within this small fenced enclosure — measuring some 12ft x 14ft — Patrick conducted his ‘pony therapy’. Or, as Hannah, 37, puts it: ‘Standing still and letting people pet him. It really brings a lot of comfort and he loves it.’
His last visit was at the end of July with 14-year-old Jon Tarrant-Heckford from Ringwood, Hampshire, who is terminally ill with Sanfilippo syndrome, a genetic disorder sometimes referred to as childhood Alzheimer’s. At the end of July, Jon spent nearly three hours with Patrick.
His mum Lorraine told me this week: ‘We lifted Jon out of his wheelchair and on to the ground and Patrick came up to him, nudged him and then lay down next to him. They were great buddies. It meant so much and gave us some wonderful memories.’
Jon’s visit seemed like a wonderful thing all around but within days, planning enforcement officers from Torbay Council told the Drum Inn manager they’d had a complaint about Patrick’s pen.
‘It was a very detailed complaint and somebody had obviously gone to great lengths,’ says Hannah. ‘The last thing we wanted to do was upset anyone so we took it down the same day. I was in tears because it wasn’t just a pen, it’s what it represented. All we wanted was to help people. What problem could anyone have with that?’
The answer, on the face of it, is a straightforward breach of planning law. Torbay Council have pointed out that Cockington is in a conservation area and that the Drum Inn, designed by legendary architect Sir Edwin Lutyens (responsible for the Cenotaph in London), is a Grade II-listed building.
That was clearly a concern of the Friends of Cockington Country Park (FCCP) a volunteer-run organisation which bills itself as a ‘forum for people who care passionately about Cockington and its preservation and conservation’.
‘It’s very unfortunate that they located their pony pen in the middle of a sensitive, historic and important conservation area,’ wrote Robin Emdon, an administrator of the FCCP’s Facebook page, on August 2. Yet, according to Kirk and Hannah, other fences in Cockington have been put up without planning permission and no action has been taken.
So why might Patrick’s pen have been singled out? Some believe there is bad feeling dating back to last autumn when the couple gave up the carriage business following a longstanding dispute with Torbay Coast & Countryside Trust over adequate winter grazing in the village.
Andrew Barrand, a local councillor and another Patrick fan, points out: ‘This might look like a very leafy, thatched cottage kind of area, but some people may have felt that [the Petrakises] were being unreasonable in their demands about the grazing and trying to make themselves into a bigger story than the village itself.’
Soon, though, it was Patrick who became the story — and not everyone wanted an equine mayor.
Patrick’s inauguration on July 23 took place at the Drum Inn (pictured in the background)
Robin Emdon of the FCCP was certainly vocal in his criticism.
‘How many . . . residents and businesses want this?’ he asked online. ‘Patrick is a horse. Not a person. And not a person who can speak for Cockington.’
When approached last week, Mr Emdon said he was too busy to comment further.
But others have been far more forthcoming in their criticism of the council’s swift response to the solitary complaint. MP Kevin Foster described it as ‘totally over the top’ and said many residents ‘wish the council dealt with other more serious issues as promptly as they have this one’.
While the council say that the Drum Inn could submit a retrospective planning application, Kirk and Hannah say they felt ‘pushed out’ of Cockington and are looking for sites elsewhere.
Meanwhile, oblivious to all the, er, neigh-sayers, Patrick continues to go wherever people feel in need of his animal magic. All that remains of his pen are 11 upright posts. Too deeply embedded to be removed without machinery, they are a baffling sight for visitors.
Should it be explained to them, they might struggle to believe that such events could have taken place in this idyllic spot.
But then again, as Miss Marple observed: ‘In an English village, you turn over a stone and you never know what will crawl out.’