My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park.
The gate by the cattle-grid on Sychnant Pass is so heavy I fear if I misjudge it the whole thing will swing into us before we can get through, but Storm seems to understand its brutal mechanism. Not so much the two men who tried to carry an especially long roll of heavily patterned Axminster into the church on Hendre Road. He still remembers the day we saw a real life pushmi-pullyu and casts a wary eye towards the building as we trot past; an incident which is known only to Storm and I as The Day of the Debacle at the Tabernacle. We continue the length of Hendre Road to the very top, where the lane narrows significantly with no passing places and it’s a bit like running the gauntlet, and so dark beneath the trees the camera flash goes off and momentarily lights up the back of Storm’s ears.
Meeting farm machinery here is the worst possible scenario. Inevitably, we come face to face with a tractor devouring the overgrown hedges and so double-back to a farm entrance to wait for the dragon to roar past. As we climb towards the open hillside, there’s a stillness which is somehow symbolic to the vast, historic wilderness of the Carneddau. And yet, it’s not silent. Birdsong, bleating, streams surging over rocks, the high-pitched whinnies of wild ponies. The route across the mountainside is slow going but Storm is familiar with the hard, rock-strewn tracks and I let him pick his own way until we get to a grassy stretch where we can canter.
For me, this is the best kind of riding in that it epitomises freedom and simplicity. And although my solo roaming is not without challenge, ostensibly it feels more natural to the spirit of the horse. I don’t venture off the tracks through any dense vegetation as there are reports of an increase in adders, and an encounter with one of these has the ability to turn the entire day on its head. We’re rarely, completely alone on this well-worn route into Conwy and soon come across a group of schoolchildren on a field trip. Oh, isn’t he sweet, isn’t he cute! The girls take turns to pat Storm. The boys hang back and only want to know how fast he can go. And it’s a day for mountain bikers. Some of them flying at great speed over the ground, the bikes not fully visible down to the undulating lay of the land. Storm imagines they must be riding horses and breaks into a canter. Another group are lost and want to know how to get to the stone circles above Penmaenmawr. And then, when we come across three men, braced in a line having a wee behind a drystone wall, they laugh and wave. We skirt the lake, drop down onto the Sychnant Pass again and the pony shoots across the inviting, flat area we call the ‘naughty-grass’, for good reason. The last canter facing home is always a strong one, but I find it wise to remember that it involves a telegraph pole and a perilous downward slope onto the road.
It takes us three hours to complete this circuit, including stops to chat, and time to stare. Back on home ground, Storm demands his Pot Noodle. This is a mug which looks like a Chicken and Mushroom Pot Noodle, and something we use as a measuring device for pony nuts. I think it originally contained a Pot Noodle Christmas Dinner. Obviously, this vile concoction was bought as a joke. Clearly, there’s a use for everything. Even heavily patterned Axminster.