A MUCH-LOVED fixture on the heath for more than 60 years, Blackheath's donkey man Len Thorne has sadly passed away, his family have announced.

The 78-year-old, who gave donkey rides every weekend, had been diagnosed with lung cancer just eight weeks before his death on July 11.

His family say they have been inundated with tributes since the news was announced, but plans to honour his wishes and hold his funeral on the heath, attended by his two oldest animals, have been put on hold because of the Olympics.

Daughter Lorayne Ahmet, 50, said: "It's always been his way of life. He regarded it as his religion on Saturdays and Sundays - he'd be there come rain or shine.

"His animals were like his family."

The family now intend to keep the donkeys going, returning to the heath in October and hiring out the animals for fetes and parties in the meantime.

She said: "It's not been about the business - it's been about keeping the donkeys."

A a divorced dad-of-five with eight grandchildren and two great grandchildren, Mr Thorne was also an outrageous flirt and keen songwriter, who would often perform his works at the Royal Oak pub.

Ms Ahmet said: "He wasn't a religious man and he loved a joke and reciting his songs to people. He loved being with the children.

"He was also the best friend I ever had."

She added: "He was a wonderful, inspirational man. He always encouraged people to grasp life, to go out there and give it all and that's just what he did."

A big horse fan, Mr Thorne even bought a racehorse 20 years ago. In the 1990s, one of the stable grooms managed to get Lester Piggott to ride the nag - called Imco Double - for free at Lingfield race course.

The jockey was kept a secret until the last moment, meaning his odds were 12-1. In the end he finished second in a photo finish

Ms Ahmet said: "It was quite an adventure for dad - he really loved it. He had such a good eye for a horse

In more recent years, his daughter said life had not been quite so happy for Mr Thorne, a muscular dystrophy sufferer, after his donkeys were moved from Shooter's Hill to Eltham, so that the new equestrian centre could be built.

Ms Ahmet claimed he started to go downhill after that, saying: "He told us 'this will be the finish of me.'"

Arrangements for his funeral have been complicated because Olympic organisers have fenced off his old pitch.

She said: "If we can't get across to the pitch then the funeral won't take place until after the Olympics."

Ms Ahmet added: "We've had loads of people leaving tributes.

"We're hoping when the funeral is actually set that people will come and pay tribute by coming along."

To book the donkeys, or find out about the funeral call Ms Ahmet on 07762 389 814 or email lorayne.aquilas@hotmail.co.uk