Memories and reflections of an equine obsession 1967-1997.
Chapter 2: Summer
Higher House, Mottram-St-Andrew, Alderley Edge, Cheshire. During the summer, or when Dad moaned about his car never being available, I would cycle the seven miles or so to Dawson’s and ride for two-and-a-half hours, before cycling home again. This was never a hardship. I’d set off around 7.30 in the morning, beating the heavy traffic (or what we used to perceive as the rush-hour) around the suburbs, before arriving on the outskirts of Mottram-St-Andrew. This wouldn’t be a pleasant experience now, but in the seventies and early eighties, these country lanes were mostly empty. I’d be leaving the yard by 9. a.m. and trotting up towards The Edge. Grey Filly, a favourite, may have been one of Mary’s failed racehorses. Her strides were long and powerful, as one might expect but she never gave me cause for concern, even when we cantered along the flat stretches around the sand hills and up through Windmill Woods, or across the top of The Edge, where she could easily have got the better of me. Although I enjoyed all the early Dick Francis novels, I never cared for horse-racing or anything mildly competitive. I tended to shy away from gymkhanas as a child and became bored and restless if I had to ride in an indoor school for longer than half an hour. I much preferred – still do – to spend all day happily bumbling round the countryside. I liked to think Grey Filly agreed with me.
Early summer and the cottage gardens were ablaze with colour, Bradford Lane shining like a snake where the sunlight caught wet cobbles from an earlier shower. The first cuts of hay stacked beneath old barns, hedgerows laced with wild flowers. The rhythmic nod of Filly’s head, and the four-time beat of her hooves. The long flick of her tail, the creak of the saddle, and the distant drone of farm machinery. Then slow cantering, the ground too hard to gallop, the unclipped mare too hot to care; clouds of dust in our wake. We cooled off beneath the trees on The Edge and ambled to Stormy Point to take in the view. An artist, perched on a rock with a sketch pad. The sound of summer: a cuckoo, plaintive and repetitive. Rising heat obscured the distant scenery other than Jodrell Bank observatory, lying on the horizon like a giant’s discarded spinning top.
The Edge is a red sandstone escarpment rising above the village of Alderley Edge, 110 metres above the Cheshire Plain, and shares an uncanny resemblance to Nutwood, although I read that much of Rupert’s landscape was inspired by the Vale of Clwyd. The northern side of the Edge is shaped like a horseshoe or hough (pronounced huff, and appropriately, this also happens to be my maiden name). The red colour of the rocks is due to the presence of oxidised iron. It’s mostly a woodland area, owned and managed by the National Trust, and a site of geological interest spanning back to the Triassic period – that’s 250 million years ago. Shrouded in folklore and history, there’s magic in this place. It’s well known for inspiring Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (based on the legend about a wizard, a milk-white mare, and a farmer from Mobberley) and The Moon of Gomrath. I think I probably drew a lot of early inspiration from the area myself although I didn’t begin to write novels until much later, and never fantasy. But in hindsight I can see how my love of landscape, and character, has evolved from some of these experiences. I began to pen stories and describe my rides in diary form. My English teacher would encourage me to enter competitions, and then at secondary school I made it to the finals of the East Cheshire Books for the Children Essay Competition. My prize was a signed book from author Joyce Stranger. Stranger claimed that most children’s books about the countryside were inaccurate, too sentimental, and humanised animals in an unrealistic way. Back then I didn’t realise quite how much I would come to agree with this statement, not only in fictional terms but in other areas of my life, especially concerning horses.
High summer, through July and August, tends to be my least favourite time of the year to ride. Heat, humidity, and an increase in traffic and flies doesn’t combine well with horses. And then there’s the school holidays… Since Surprise couldn’t be trusted in fancy dress, and since he tended to misbehave around children, Nicola and I were always allocated this fiery, headstrong horse for riding out while Mari, the head girl, supervised activities on the yard. I enjoyed Surprise, and he did have a few. Suddenly moving backwards at speed into thick shrubbery – was one of his less desirable traits, and I always made sure I carried a short crop in case I needed to remind him that this wasn’t such a great idea. We often rode the brothers together – Victor and Surprise – and like most brothers they could be competitive when it came to open ground. There was a cinder track by the sand hills which Nicola and I liked to frequent. We’d amble down then turn at the dead end – horses barely restrained as they knew full well what our intention was – and then we’d race back, hopefully executing the tight left-hand turn without incident, before plunging through Windmill Woods where the track was only wide enough for one horse. It might sound as if we were forever galloping about irresponsibly, but it’s always the exciting bits one remembers. We took care to always have a long cool-off on the homeward journey, and we never returned with a sweated-up horse. Over the course of ten years, nothing untoward happened.
Grey Filly, Skippy, Surprise, Carousel, Fernando, Victor, Herbie, Romany, Babysham, Pepsi, Jason… All of the horses were forward-going, never bolted, rode out solo, rode in a group in any combination, and tolerated the school holidays. On our return to the yard that day we discovered Skippy draped with a white bedsheet, a pair of makeshift wings somehow attached to his flanks with string and Sellotape. Carousel sported hairnets and curlers in her mane and tail and Grey Filly was backed by an Indian chief, her tack whittled down to a single length of rope. Babysham pulled a flimsy looking chariot made of orange boxes. This procession wound its way along the road to the place of judgement in the paddock, wings flapping, curlers bobbing, the chariot threatening to part company at any second. These horses were fit. Of the finer types, their ribs were often visible, just. Comparing my old photos with current times, evidence of our national problem with obesity now applies to many of our horses and ponies too, especially show ponies. A horse-trekking business in Dartmoor is having to close, in part because riders are getting too fat. It comes after a study by the Animal Health Trust into the impact of riders being too heavy to ride. Numbers of people turned away from Babeny Farm on Dartmoor because of weight restrictions, has increased by about 30%. Nowadays, this is a common problem for riding schools. Weight restrictions used to be unheard of, now it’s the norm. It also explains the popularity of riding ‘heavy’ horses: the Clydesdales and the Shires, those old-fashioned breeds originally bred to harness for ploughing and other weight-pulling tasks. These horses are obviously up to carrying more weight than the average riding horse and although this is good news for our old breeds under threat of dying out, the overall message is worrying.
I don’t ever recall feeling concerned about the weight-carrying ratio between horses and riders, not even during holiday times at trekking centres. Blackpool was a popular day trip when I was learning to drive, or if Dad had acquired a new second-hand car and wanted a test run. A couple of times we’d end up at The Lido Riding School, somewhere not too far from Blackpool centre, although I can’t imagine where this may have been located. It certainly wasn’t surrounded by any green fields but I remember riding along bridleways on the outskirts of Blackpool, the rattle of the rollercoasters from Blackpool Pleasure Beach still in earshot. Chico, the skewbald thoroughbred-cross was pretty fleet of foot on the beach, where we could gallop on the hard sand at low tide, away from the crowds. Riding on the beach at Blackpool is banned now during the summer months between the piers.
More beach rides, but longer and more picturesque, happened in North Wales. My most influential long-standing love affair with riding on holiday was with Pinewood Stables, Sychnant Pass, Conwy. My parents loved North Wales, and as a young teen my discovery of the Welsh countryside took over my holiday dreamscape through the early seventies and beyond. Conwy Mountain, the beach, and the foothills of Tal Y Fan had limitless possibilities for adventure. This was down to the open accessibility of the hills and beaches. The terrain was far more challenging than Cheshire with its gentle woodland paths and sandstone trails. In comparison, the Carneddau rose like a vast, crumpled carpet of rock, heather and stone. And there was miles of it – reaching far into the rugged national park of Snowdonia. It was pony-trekking heaven, and although that wasn’t my bag, Pinewood organised more ambitious rides for those above novice level. Anything too finely bred or those horses with poor feet would struggle on such flinty tracks and unexpected bogs. Cobs and ponies fared best, and Pinewood had around 40 of them in their heyday. I’d invariably get dropped off there while Mum and Dad did their own thing. There were arguments though when I wanted to ride and Dad wouldn’t drive to Conwy again. This was before the estuary tunnel which opened in 1991 and completely bypassed the centre of town – before which the queues of traffic through Conwy were legendary. When Dad put his foot down, I would sulk and sit it out with another Dick Francis or a Jilly Cooper or, inspired by the Welsh castles maybe a Gothic romance by Victoria Holt. I had favourites at Pinewood and of course they changed from year to year. I especially remember Lady, and Sinbad, both greys. Sinbad was always ridden in a Hackamore (bitless bridle) and he wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I loved his jousting-style bursts into action. He had a sizeable dent in his neck down to a collision with a car, and I seem to remember he shared some historical association with Gwrych Castle. Maybe he’d belonged to one of the legendary Gwrych knights!
I did go to watch the jousting when the castle was still open to the public through the seventies and early eighties, operating as a tourist attraction for medieval re-enactments. In 1946, the castle was purchased by Leslie Salts, who opened it up to tourists as a medieval entertainment centre featuring jousting and banquets. After a run of almost 40 years, the castle then entered a period of slow decline leading to the entire site closing in 1985. New Age travellers moved in and gradually, the castle was asset-stripped and vandalised. Thereafter, it stood as a ruin for a good few years; but then Mark Baker happened. Baker passed the castle every day on his way to school and decided that he was going to fight to restore it. And he did just that, going on to found the Gwrych Castle Preservation Trust, at the age of 12. The castle was finally purchased by the Trust in 2001 – on behalf of the nation. It might sound like a fairy tale, but Baker made his dream become a reality and restorations have already made inroads, restoring the impressive Gardener’s Tower and lighting the stove and the main fireplace for the first time in 100 years. Reading Baker’s biography and the historical works he went on to write, it was interesting to note that once upon a time we shared the same Welsh publisher. (An era of publishing history I’d rather leave behind!) Gwrych has an increasingly strong atmospheric presence thanks to Baker. Walking through the woods which border the emerging castle grounds, it’s not difficult to imagine how life might have been 100 years ago. More horses, certainly.
In the mid-seventies, Barbara and I booked a week of riding at the Tarn Hows Hotel, Hawkshead, Cumbria. We shared a twin-bedded room above the stables, although breakfast and dinner was provided for in the main hotel and I can still recall the five-star meals, none of them representative of standard riding holiday fodder. I suspect we possibly ate our own body weight in smoked salmon and raspberry bavarois. The rest of the time I was partnered with a native black Fell pony called Heather, and sometimes Goldie the palomino. Barbara always rode Foxy. On the downside, the actual riding was a little sedate, perhaps more akin to pony trekking – but the countryside was stunning. Cumbria, home to Beatrix Potter, famous for the Wainwright fell tops and loved for its quintessential English villages, also has its fair share of hauntingly beautiful, desolate places. We’d stop at a predestined pub for lunch, tying up the ponies in the pub car park and crowding round the picnic tables with pints of shandy, before heading up onto the fells – riding for full days through Grizedale Forest, to Conniston, Tarn Hows, and beyond.
The hills were baked brown through the legendary heatwaves of ’76 and ’77 and at the end of each day we’d discard our riding gear in order to ride the ponies back down the lanes to the field in just rope halters, bareback, and often leading two alongside. We didn’t bother with riding hats, sometimes wearing only t.shirts, shorts and sandals, but the delicious feel of warm pony against bare legs as we meandered down sun-dappled lanes was all part of the experience. And the hotel pool was a great finish to those long, hot days in the saddle. But the Lake District is generally a watery place and on one occasion we were faced with high winds and torrential, heavy rain. The hotel loaned us some huge voluminous capes – the sort of attire one might wear to stalk grouse on the fells. Once on higher ground, I thought it entirely possible we could take flight. When it rains in the Lake District, it can be relentless. And despite the Super Woman image in the cape and boots, I remember suffering with mild hypothermia after that experience. It didn’t stop me finishing the rest of the week.
The Tarn Hows Hotel currently operates as a B & B. No horse-riding available.
Through the summer of 1978, I owned a horse. I bought him from Holly Tree Riding School, Plumley. Out of a short list of two, I chose the rising five-year-old bay thoroughbred-cross, rather than the steadier, older, coloured cob mare. Naturally. I called him Strider, after the character in Lord of the Rings. This was a huge tome of a book I’d read more than once through my teen years, despite not really enjoying much of the fantasy genre. Arguably, there’s plenty of similarities between the cosy patchwork of the Cheshire countryside – after all, Alderley Edge even boasts its own wizard – and Middle Earth; and then the quest was facilitated by an adventure on horseback. I kept Strider on some land in Cheadle Hulme owned by a mostly unhelpful farmer. The lack of facilities soon had me move to Wendy Thexton’s place at Hall Moss Lane, Woodford, previously known as Moorfields Riding School. Opposite the yard on the corner of Blossoms Lane, George Best had an architect-designed house built in 1969, and we were always peering over the hedges to take a closer look – something one could do on a horse without attracting too much attention.
I parted company with Strider and befell more accidents than was good for me. I never told my mother of these incidents but it ranged from being chased by the park warden for galloping in Bruntwood Park to having a horrible fall on the road (tripping over a sunken manhole) just before dusk, and having to walk the poor horse home on darkening roads. Proof that most accidents with horses tend to be freakish and entirely unpredictable. Given the number of occasions over the years I’d been catapulted elsewhere at short notice – I never suffered a single bruise, but tripping on that manhole cover left Strider with cut knees and myself with a rather large veterinary bill. Sometime after this I came to realise that not only had I bitten off more than I could chew, but the expense of encroaching winter, the logistics of toing and froing to Woodford with Dad fed up of his car being unavailable and full of mud… forced me to face some painful home truths, the most pertinent being that I was working so many hours to keep the horse, I didn’t have time to ride the horse! Eventually, I did the sensible thing and returned him to Holly Tree. I beat myself-up about this experience for many many years, (if only I’d done this, that, or the other) but that old cliche about learning more from failures is a cliche for a reason. And on the upside, after this experience I was cash-rich to the tune of £300. So I booked a week of trail riding at Ferniehirst Mill, Jedburgh, Northumberland, in June of the following year. The week restored my flagging confidence, and I enjoyed writing-up the experience of my trail ride through the Cheviots: https://janruth.com/2016/10/07/what-i-did-on-my-holidays-37-years-ago/
I penned my first novel in the early eighties on a succession of second-hand typewriters. Since I wasn’t allowed to take the typewriter on holiday, I compromised with an A4 sized notebook. I was obsessed. (I can’t recall the title of the book but it took only months to get the first draft down, and then it was so bad I hid it in a cupboard before eventually setting fire to it in case anyone accidentally read it.) Chapter ten (the bit where his sister dies in a bog on the moors after falling from a horse and his evil stepfather tries to kill him, that bit) coincided with a weekend trip to the Golden Pheasant, Glyn Ceiriog, Llangollen. This wasn’t the name of the farm, but the riding was somehow linked to the Golden Pheasant Hotel in the village. Husband (husband one: first draft) and I stayed in the house up at the stables – a typical Welsh farmhouse built of local stone. It was an elevated property, looking down over fields of grazing horses, an exciting cross-country course, and the foaming River Ceiriog at the bottom of the valley. The farmhouse was a beautiful, rambling place, full of the character one might expect with open fires, an assortment of dogs, creaking floors, and a four-poster bed. The countryside at the mouth of the Ceiriog Valley wasn’t chocolate-box pretty like Cumbria, it was far more more rugged and a bit rough round the edges. And, unlike Cumbria, the forestry trails and the hillsides felt distinctly unpopulated, and we enjoyed some rip-roaring gallops across open moorland.
It was a privilege to ride Jane’s stunning mare, Venture, but the little horse who really stole my heart was Vodka. The mare in dancing shoes. She didn’t walk, she danced, jogging instead of walking and bursting into canter at the slightest touch, on the spot if necessary, rocking-horse style. I’d probably find this exhausting now but in my twenties I loved this showy exuberance. Jane assured me she’d jump anything. She certainly had enough natural suspension. To prove a point we followed Jane and Venture around the cross-county course, easily flying over everything in our path, before taking to the open countryside and tackling the drystone walls. Although not especially big, the walls were challenging since they either leant in towards us or fell away, with maybe a ditch on the far side. The mare knew they were solid and we couldn’t afford a mistake, but Vodka cleared everything with feet to spare and it was an exhilarating experience. I took the mare to Lake Vyrnwy in Llanwddyn for a weekend trip and we stayed at a hotel which provided overnight grazing for the horses. I remember walking up to check on them after dinner, a vodka and tonic in one hand – naturally – and a carrot in the other. Vodka was finally stationary, resting one hind leg, ears pricked and watching the sun set over the lake. Thereafter, we made the trip to Glyn Ceiriog once a fortnight. Afterwards, we’d drop into the Glynn Valley Hotel for soup and a sandwich before starting the 90-minute drive home. But life was changing, my dreamscapes were closing in and by the mid-eighties, the riding freedom I’d taken for granted in Cheshire, looked set to end. Continue reading: https://janruth.com/2019/02/15/disappearing-dreamscapes-3/
*Photo of Chico at The Lido by kind permission of Barbara Atamaniuk.
About this Series
The first four chapters of Disappearing Dreamscapes represent 30 years from 1967-1997 and are split over four seasons. Chapters five and six represent 20 years from 1997-2017 and are recorded chronologically.