Day one, and we stopped in a vast forest throbbing with birdsong to gather mushrooms, easily filling one of the saddlebags with our cache. Hopefully, we’d picked a non-poisonous addition for breakfast the following morning. My horse for the day, Cinnamon, was the colour of, well, cinnamon. Standing at 16h I needed a handy rock to perch from in order to scramble back on as he wasn’t keen on standing still and I’m on the short side. We’d already passed some sort of horsemanship test together by hurtling down the steep grassy slopes of an ancient fort, galloping out through what would have been a drawbridge. An excersise our leader informed us, ‘Sorts out the wheat from the chaff,’ before we got onto the serious part of the ride, a four-day trail across The Cheviots.
The Cheviot Trail – a loop reaching from Jedburgh in Northumberland all the way to Kirk Yetholm, just inside the English border – was no pony trek. Our horses were thoroughbred-cross, corn-fed and super-fit. To the uninitiated, this meant it wasn’t for novice riders. John Tough (pronounced Tooch, although tough suited him just as well), was no ordinary leader. If I had to make a short list of people who’d made an impression on me in my life then this guy would be close to the top. Not one to pander to any British Horse Society regulations, Tough set his own high standards and had little regard for officialdom, preferring to trust his own instincts about people, as well as horses. Hosting riding holidays for total strangers, some of whom spoke no English was clearly not for the faint-hearted, but if Tough decided after day one he didn’t like the way you handled his horse then your holiday ended right there with a full refund and a lift to the train station. There’s nothing like the burr of a Scottish accent in full flow to overcome any language barriers. No one, argued with him.
I was bunked-up in the local village with Hope, an Irish woman who claimed to work in the only undamaged building in Belfast – the library. She’d travelled with two male companions, Mike, a solicitor, and Barry, a TV news reporter. Mike was perhaps the least capable rider of the three and the butt of many jokes. Since he was allotted a sturdy cob – Midnight Sun – he was also saddled with the saddlebags, which other than a token first-aid-kit and a hoof pick, were mostly stuffed with cans of beer. Part of the lunch-stop ritual was finding a suitable stream to cool down the cans. After three hours of bouncing they’d built up a considerable head of steam. The saddlebag straps even came adrift on one occasion, hanging beneath Midnight’s belly in full gallop and I don’t think Mike and Barry ever got over losing two cans of lager in a bog. All three of the Irish contingent partied hard, able to drink copious amounts of whisky, perform a reasonable demonstration of Irish dancing – with the aid of two riding crops crossed on the floor, and a good ‘diddler’ – and still ride for five or six hours the following day. Like the best of stories though, it wasn’t all laughs. By midweek, the drama cranked up several gears. Five thoroughbred horses and a cob carrying booze high on the moors in a high wind was maybe the precurser for some sort of misadventure. But before all of that, we were lulled into a sense of false security in the June sunshine; trotting through bubbling burns and stopping for ice creams and cigarettes in quaint hamlets such as Mossburnford and somewhere called Bloody Laws.
On Tuesday at the start of the serious trail, I was allocated a different horse – a chestnut mare called Flick. Tough told me she disliked men. Not all men, but most of them, and there was no knowing her level of tolerance until it was too late. This was one of her two, less endearing idiosyncrasies. Since I discovered she was perfection to ride, I worried about the other trait for most of the morning. There was plenty of distraction though, in the form of big scenery and fast riding. Northumberland is designed for premier horse riding, it’s simply the best terrain. Whereas my native Snowdonia lends itself more to pony trekking because of the mountains and hard tracks, the Scottish border country is softer, combining undulating grassy hills crossed with Roman roads such as the famous Dere Street. Miles of uninterrupted moorland dotted with mysterious stone circles and the relics of hilltop settlements, long since deserted to the Jacob sheep and the wind, decorate a landscape that probably hasn’t changed much since Roman times. And Tough had a good liaison with local landowners and this meant we could wander across territory normally inaccessible, riding virtually road free for the entire day.
Lunch was as civilised as it could get up on the remote heathland by a disused farmhouse at Pennymuir, and brought to us via our own personal Roman chariot, the Land Rover from The Mill. Rolls filled with thick slices of beef, a buttery fruit and treacle cake and gallons of coffee. Why does simple food taste so good outside? This was despite being fortified only hours before with a full cooked Scottish breakfast – including haggis, and those wild mushrooms. The horses had earned a break too, and rolled free of tack in a huge meadow. True to form, they all trotted to the furthest point until they were a spec on the horizon.
And then the catch. After lunch, I discovered that my horse was the only one which was basically uncatchable. My companions were all tacked-up, remounted and ready to go, whilst my mare watched from afar with pricked ears, her saddle still perched on an old gate and her bridle slung over my drooping shoulder. ‘You’ll be alright walking for a wee while, won’t you?’ Barry deadpanned, already out of the gate and on the track heading towards Capehope Burn. It was only when my mare thought she was actually being left behind for real – and so did I at this point – that she finally cooperated and came flying down the hill like Black Beauty, mane and tail streaming behind. She even paused mid-gallop to throw out a beseeching whinny. She looked pretty amazing, but then I guess she knew how to work the crowd! As soon as she came within touching distance, Tough caught hold of a chestnut ear as if she were a recalcitrant teenager, and she stood patiently.
Saddle and bridle back on and a leg-up from Tough, and we were back on the trail, cantering alongside the foaming burn and scattering long-eared Border Leicester sheep, disturbing rabbits, partridge and pheasant. The occasional stag leapt from cover, startling ourselves as well as the horses. The open hills grew steadily more remote as we climbed, where the cry of the curlew became a constant, familiar wail. Where possible, the riding was fast, challenging and exhilarating. We were assured of the safety under-hoof, as long as we stayed in single file behind Tough and his horse, Carita. This was the general guideline for not descending into a bog, or encouraging the horses to race alongside each other on open ground. Tough would raise an old, battered riding crop to signal he was slowing down, or there was a gate across the track (good excuse to take a nip out of the hip flask) or something needed negotiating at a slower pace. We knew we were in for a long steady amble when the whistling started (usually Mull of Kintyre) and then it was a slow descent into Hownam where the Land Rover was waiting for us at our designated B & B. First though, it was dinner for the horses – a tasty selection of oats, nuts and sugar-beet tipped into a selection of washing-up bowls. Several acres of grazing stretched towards the horizon, and I was concerned about the distance Flick could put between us overnight but I needn’t have worried. The orange washing-up bowl proved key…
Our destination for the following day was Kirk Yetholm, over the border into England, an area well known for its turbulent history between the Scots and the English. There was no sign of any turbulence as we resumed the trail with blue skies and light cloud, splashing through wide burns and meandering the sheep tracks as we headed towards a remote hill farm above the Bowmont Valley. The Billinghams were Flick’s previous owners and in both senses, we enjoyed a warm welcome in the hills. Tea out of big copper kettles. Fruit cake slathered with butter on willow-pattern plates. Shortbread warm from the Aga and a trio of drooling sheepdogs. We lazed in the garden until the sun slowly withdrew and the clouds began to roll stealthily over the Pennines, but it was the increasing wind which had us gather ourselves together, ready for the final push into Kirk Yetholm. Horses and strong winds are never the best companions. Barry’s horse, Silus, a lean ex-steeplechaser, was perhaps the most perturbed and Barry had his hands full from the off. The weather worsened as we climbed onto higher ground. Craik Moor, Blackborough Hill and Windy Rigg already had predetermined personalities, and they lived up to them. Gunmetal grey skies and powerful crosswinds – the sort that could lift a well-secured riding hat – made for heavy going. And then the rain started.
Most of us had set out in waterproof attire, but Barry’s jacket was still tied around his waist. His mistake was to try and put it on with his reins in one hand. Tough said he didn’t think it was a good idea, twice. Barry had about three seconds to realise he was probably right, when the wind whipped the kagoul from his grip like flotsam. The real problem started when the toggles somehow wound themselves around the reins and then the flimsy material clamped itself limpet-like to the side of Silus’ head. Silus reacted predictably; reared, then bolted, covering the rise of boggy ground to our left as if it were a stretch of flat turf. Man and horse seemed to melt into the windswept moorland, lost to sight in the blink of an eye.
Tough prepared to set off after them. ‘Stay right here, on this track. Don’t move an inch.’ Midnight, Flick, and Hope’s horse, Kelly, were not happy that two of the party had set off without them, and we had our own battle trying to keep them more or less stationary. The errant pair did eventually return, with Barry walking down the hill leading Silus. It didn’t look good, but at least they were both still walking. Both of them were plastered in bog. Amazingly, other than looking and smelling pretty bad there was no real damage, although Barry was white-faced. Silus had clearly run an impossible race against the wind, flanks heaving, eyes bulging. The culprit, the bright blue kagoul, was shredded and got stuffed in a saddlebag out of harm’s way. The hipflask came out. Should I have been flattered that Tough insist that I swap horses with Barry or was it down to my unflappable jacket? I wasn’t overly keen on losing my mare to a powerful thoroughbred with wind-fright, but at age 22 I was always up for a challenge where horses were concerned. Taking into account the amount of mud between horse and rider, Barry and I looked an odd duo, but no one was quite ready to laugh at that point. Tough was angry with Barry for not heeding his earlier warning, and the mood dropped. Every time Carita moved into canter, Silus was like a coiled spring right on her tail. It was a tough afternoon and none of us really settled until we’d dropped down a few hundred feet and left that dark hill and the screeching wind behind.
We joined the Pennine Way and a small group of wet hikers stumbled alongside us for the last couple of miles, warming their hands on the horses and feeding them polo mints. The long, final stretch of this 267 mile long hike from Edale in Derbyshire is boggy and desolate, and many walkers are defeated by it where the terrain is mostly peat moor and incredibly inhospitable. None of the walking party had seen anyone quite so filthy as Barry (it was especially strange since he was riding a relatively clean horse). ‘Hell, man! What happened to you?’ Barry, recovered by then, obliged with an embellished version of events such as a herd of kelpies enticing his horse into a bog. Despite the mud and the chill wind, the atmosphere warmed-up considerably and as the village came into view Tough struck up Mull of Kintyre. The hikers began to sing along and we clattered off the hill and down the main street flanked by several footmen, all of us anxious to get within sniffing distance of a pub and a hot bath. Our billet for the night was a stone house full of faded opulence, and its fair share of clocks and antiques. Virtually everything ticked. But there were rocking chairs and books around a roaring fire – yes, after all it was still only June – and a rattling Georgian tea trolley materialised, loaded with a substantial afternoon tea. The diminutive landlady took a moment to take in Barry’s appearance. ‘Och, now, has the wee man taken a tumble?’ Tough waited till he’d selected a cream scone and tested it. ‘Aye.’
We didn’t make the pub.
The sinister mood of the hills continued the following day. We ate breakfast in silence, aware of tree branches tapping the windows, warning of another furiously windy day ahead to negotiate College Valley. Barry was impressed that his riding gear had been cleaned and dried overnight, less impressed about riding Flick for another day, claiming she was hot to handle. Since Tough wanted me to take Silus again, neither of us had much choice but to get on with it. Trotting out of Yetholm, Silus shot across the village green and we narrowly missed a leaning telegraph pole. Barry was struggling with Flick too and at the first opportunity a playful buck had Barry halfway up her neck. We paused on a track above the village and Tough lit a cigarette, using his hat as a wind shield. He decided that I was best riding Flick again. Barry scrambled onto Carita and Tough took care of Barry’s overwound steeplechaser.
We were enchanted and battered in equal measure by every weather condition as we left Kirk Yetholm and crossed back into Northumberland, hit first by rain, and then hot sun would break through thick, swirling mist. Ethereal and atmospheric. Not much imagination required to expect a Roman army to come marching over the horizon. We cantered across the sodden heathland, stretching into a gallop up a long hill which eventually pulled us up and out of the Scotch mist, and then we were looking down at skeins of floating cloud. But then by afternoon we were in pale sunlight again, riding across a labyrinth of rolling countryside through the renowned College Valley. Vivid and intense, rainbows would be there one second, gone the next. It wasn’t only the scenery which was mesmerising, it was the growing bond with our horses, too. Riding the trails certainly evoked a deeper connection to this historical land, those ancient routes of the Border Reivers and the bloody battles between the Scots and the English. We fell into companionable silence, enjoying the low moan of the wind, the clink of horseshoe against stone, the creak of a leather saddle. Cold and wet, or dirty and sweaty ceased to matter. Minor discomforts became inconsequential, small victories where we’d pushed our personal boundaries became more important. How could we go back to ordinary jobs after this? I think I even told my parents not to bother collecting me.
The final day and we headed back to The Mill via Sourhope, along steaming wet lanes in bright sun, trotting into a flat-bottomed valley like a Scottish prairie. There was a herd of feisty bullocks grouped beneath the trees, flicking tails and watching our progress with interest. A breath-taking gallop, the horses full of spring on the lush expanse of damp turf, knowing they were homeward bound. The thud of hooves seemed to echo in that hollow space and then we realised why it was so loud – we had serious company. About 200 head of cattle had decided to follow us! Fortunately, they lacked the pace and stamina of our horses and we soon left them behind. A warning clink-clink on the tarmac warned of a loose shoe. Of course these were the days long before mobile phones and we had to find a phone box. An hour later, the Land Rover trundled towards us and Tough, ever resourceful, pulled out his farriers last and secured Flick’s nearside hind shoe. Problem fixed, we completed our ride across familiar territory as we dropped down through Birkenside Forest again. Soon, the mill house was in sight and our horses whinnied advance greetings to stable-mates they’d not seen since Tuesday.
It was our leader’s birthday – he’d kept that quiet all day – but we made up for it with a night of dinner, drinking and diddling at The Carter’s Rest in Jedburgh. The Irish trio were actually late, turning up halfway through the starters, still in grubby riding gear and holding each other up with leery grins. All of this attracted the attention of the next group of riders assembled in the bar. Barry made a makeshift sling from a couple of big white napkins, and began to hobble towards them. ‘Are you here for the Cheviot trail? No, don’t be put off by the bandages. We all really enjoyed it.’
‘Don’t listen to his tall tales,’ Tough said.
Once upon a time, John Tough bought a rundown mill on the River Jed and restored it. Then he bought horses, some of them with problems, both physical and otherwise, and nurtured them to full health. His reputation for riding the Cheviots, grew. In 1980 he built a lodge on his land, for rider accommodation. I returned – of course I did – from 1979 to 1986, riding in many different seasons, including colourful autumn trails and once, during the heavy snow of early spring. Tough retired at the end of the eighties due to ill health. Did I set out to write a book about John Tough, and Beryl, the young interior designer from London who never went home after her riding holiday? Surely, this was the stuff of fiction! Not that I was aware of, but I guess it’s an example of how more than 30 years later, the subconscious finds a story somehow, pulling together characters, historical facts, impressions and experiences… one I’ll never forget.