Over the Hill: 14

My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park. 
P1000024-1The Sychnant Pass was built in 1772 and snakes through a deep cleft in the hills between Alltwen and Maen Esgob. The tiny access road from Pen Pyra Farm snaking down from Conwy Mountain runs below Carreg Felen, an outcrop of rock formed from volcanic lava c.450m years ago. I am in awe of such historical facts and feel slightly nervous that Conwy council have closed a mile or so of this unique road – more specifically the section which runs between the walls of Pensychnant Estate and down towards Dwygyfylchi – in order to carry out ‘essential groundworks.’ Some humorous soul informed me that they were putting in a dual-carriageway.375 Jokes aside, it seems we’ll be under siege until December 21st with barricades at strategic places in the form of flatbed trucks occupied by dozing workers. I see the patch of tarmac chalked up as temporary (I think it’s been there since 1972) has morphed into a cavernous hole, then abandoned and coned off. On the eve of my sixty-second birthday – of which we shall speak no more – my pony pal and I venture over Conwy Mountain to ascertain current access onto the Pensychnant bridleway. I dismount to walk down the steep access road, with Storm shuffling beside me. I’m poised for his reaction to the bulldozers, pneumatic drills, bleeping dumpers, and groups of shouting men in case we need to double-back. Ears pricked, he’s wide-eyed but not especially worried about this secluded section of country lane changing into one of noisy chaos resembling some sort of apocalypse. We cross the road sneakily and bound up the opposite grass verge, passing into the calm safety of the Pensychnant Estate. The sea is shivery and there’s a fierce breeze as we climb higher.
I’m glad when we change direction at the top, as my face is like cardboard and my gloved hands are cold. The sky is purple out towards Aber but as we meander downhill towards home, Conwy castle is bathed in a welcoming glow. Storm remains in mellow mood and canters nicely around the lake before we head up the Pass back home. Pertinent to the feel of the day someone has made a poster for their bedroom window which reads, Save Are Planet. I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment but the mis-spelling makes my teeth itch. I’m thinking about this when two minutes from home, Storm spots a horse having some dental work done. The sound of the rasp behind the hedge is enough to have him trot out an impressive range of lateral dressage moves. He propels us both rapidly through the yard gate and stands for a moment, head up, spinning, snorting and blowing, worried that he’s next on the hit list. Clearly, the dentist is a far bigger threat than any amount of road-works, high-vis outfits, or bottomless pits.
Down in the field the shelter has been modified into an escape-proof stable. Can’t beat an old-fashioned straw bed for coping with mud and keeping out the draughts, but most of all this golden cloud makes me very happy to look at it. Untitled design-1It certainly seems to be holding its own, unlike Storm’s bright blue cagoule – which has been rapidly and mysteriously destroyed. Maybe he felt the colour clashed with his halter. As I tramp back over the muddy grass to the feed store, I’m tempted to make my own poster, Save Are Rugs. But an impatient whinny has me focus on other, more pressing matters. There’s an empty bucket at stake. Afternoon tea is late, and saving the planet or a wardrobe malfunction must remain on hold. I strongly suspect the local council might be following a similar philosophy.

Over the Hill: 13

My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park. 
A dry, bright Sunday afternoon at the start of November feels made for riding-out. The colours of the season are holding-up, despite the bracken looking flat and rain-washed, and parts of the countryside looking raw, and exposed. Strings of rose-hips are laced through bare branches like ruby necklaces. A breathtaking gallop ensues and at the top, we assume there can’t be much more in the tank, but both ponies prove us wrong. On the rise we stand breathless to study the curve of Anglesey’s coastline amid a cobalt sea – looking and feeling nothing like November – before Lady takes the lead. Storm insists on tail-gaiting, hot on the heels of the mare at every turn. Payback comes in the form of flying mud, including a good mouthful for me. We pass through the old iron gate and head along the North Wales Path for a short distance before taking a left past the swollen pond. The annual pony gathering means that the majority of the wild ponies have been herded over to a hill farm in Llanfairfechan and the landscape is strangely quiet, not even a distant whinny. It feels like the Carneddau has temporarily lost its beating heart.
Up on the roller-coaster track we ignore the presence of a significant cloud bank rolling in. There are more pressing matters at hand, since Storm is still intent on surging in front of Lady and I have my work cut out to ensure he stays in line. And just when we think they’ve surely had their fill of speed wars, both ponies surprise us by bursting into a flat-out gallop on the final stretch, and for long minutes we struggle to pull them up before the scary descent, Storm flying over the heather in a last second attempt to take the lead. But then the rain starts, and shaves considerable shine off our light-hearted bravado. Could we be any further from the yard on this particular circuit? Lady managed to prick the sole of her foot once at this point and Christine walked all the way home, just to be on the safe side. No accidents or minor injuries on this occasion, but perhaps another lesson in the fickleness of mountain weather. Views across the Conwy Valley deteriorate into nothing more than a misted blur as the rain sweeps in, and plans to buy those waterproof thermals move up the wish-list.
Back at base, His Little Lordship devours his afternoon tea. It’s cold and wet now, with more rain forecast after dark, but there’s something intrinsically cosy about evening stables. It’s those soft pools of light in the dusk as horses are safely bedded down for the night. Since the mares are stabled, Storm – aka Houdini – is settled into his evening quarters where the benefits of some large trees and hedges afford plenty of shelter.
He stays in there for all of twenty minutes.
Unknown to us an ornamental gate into an adjoining garden has been left slightly ajar. Not one to miss an opportunity for extra-curricular foraging, Storm manages to alarm a neighbour by suddenly appearing in her garden in his bright blue cagoule. Visions of deep holes in a svelte lawn have us set aside our mugs of steaming tea. No accidents or minor injuries to the foliage on this occasion, but plans to modify the field-shelter for the duration of winter quickly moves up the planning-list. It will likely feature a boarded-up five-bar gate, an alarm, and three high-security searchlights.

Over the Hill: 12

My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park.
P1000024-1‘Exmoor ponies ride like solid 14.2 cobs with a short neck, and once you’ve got over the lack of bonnet upfront, you should have a good ride.’ I thought this quote from an online forum was a fairly accurate description of Storm’s moorland pony heritage. Occasionally, I also get to experience what I imagine it might feel like to sit astride an alarmed alpaca. It begins with slowing to a firm halt, head up, everything on red alert. There’s a widening of the eyes and nostrils, ears pricked, maybe a snort of disbelief. His neck draws in to an almost vertical rigidity and a sense of flight or fight prevails. Any suggestions from me to relax and move forwards meets a wall of indifference. It’s a reaction usually reserved for miniature ponies pulling carts or other works of the Devil such as brass bands, clusters of red toadstools, drones, or donkeys.
Despite the approach of Halloween it was a friendly sort of day, at least to begin with. A dry October morning, golden and windless, enhanced by a low sun in a bright sky. A day made for ambling around the countryside in the manner to which we’ve become accustomed. Simple and natural is always our mantra of the day. Not for us the pressure of competition, a complicated plethora of tack and equipment, or the need for clipping and specialist rugging. His Little Lordship’s fluffy coat is now the colour of beech leaves and aged bracken and by the time we’ve trundled up to the top of Parc Mawr Woods, we’re both warm.
I always walk part of this route as it’s so steep, and at 8 stone I reckon I’m Storm’s top weight when one considers the extra weight of his tack plus my riding clobber. The same equine forum explored rider height and weight restrictions for native ponies and I did feel uncomfortable with the suggestion that someone over 5’ 5” at 10 stone would still be an acceptable passenger. I’m sure lots of small ponies could carry 10 stone for half an hour in an indoor school but maybe unfair to expect that same pony to carry the same weight over hills and dales all day. And one must consider the long-term ramifications, the age and condition of the pony, and the capabilities of the rider. Whilst the rider might be skinny weight-wise, height matters too, especially leg length. Lots of riders with long legs on small horses tend to ride with short stirrups to avoid looking under-horsed but this can push them too far back in the saddle, leaving the poor pony to carry the weight across its loins.
His Little Lordship stops for a long drink on the stone-strewn stream bed up to the old church. On the open hillside there’s a mild breeze and Storm feels ready to canter at every inviting stretch. He shoots up the incline to the roller-coaster path as if propelled by a catapult. We turn left and pass by the lake – distracted then by clear, sparkling views of the Irish Sea and Anglesey’s coastline – before heading into the Pensychnant Estate and meandering down to the Sychnant Pass. A brisk trot between the ancient walls and then we take a right up the long canter track parallel to the road. And then it happens. In this case, an innocent clucking pheasant breaking cover. We are in mid-canter but Storm spooks and throws in a dead stop. Trick, or treat? I almost pitch over his shoulder. But not quite… I’m saved. Saved by my Moorland Alpaca pony, and his amazing pop-up bonnet.


Llangollen: 2

A circular walk of 9.5 miles including 2,100 feet of elevation overall (excluding Dinas Bran) Start Point: Panorama Walk, Llangollen LL20 8ED. Map References: SJ 2340243187 or Lat: 52.980530 Lon: -3.142302 

adult-blur-boots-1452784Llangollen is a small town in Denbighshire on the River Dee known for its network of canals featuring horse-drawn barges, and various sites of historical interest. This is a route of varied terrain including dramatic limestone escarpments, open pasture and woodland and a short section along the Shropshire Union Canal. There is an opportunity to visit Valle Crucis Abbey, founded in 1201 on the site of a wooden church. Valle Crucis was the last Cistercian monastery to be built in Wales – check opening and entrance fees online. Or if you prefer more of a challenge, take the additional climb to the ruins of Castell Dinas Bran, adding around an extra 1,000 feet of elevation. Castell Dinas Bran translates to English as: The Castle of the City of Crows. Perched on a conical hill above the town it enjoys fantastic aerial views and despite its dilapidated state, commands not only a strong historical presence, but also one of love, legend and fairytale.

The route

  1. Park on Panorama Walk; a narrow elevated road with plenty of parking space and fantastic far-reaching views across the vale of Llangollen including the River Dee, the castle ruins, and the canal. With this panorama to your right, walk away from Castell Dinas Bran perched on its distinctive conical hill, and take a left on the hairpin bend by the finger-post onto a steep grassy bank. (Ref: 52.981276 -3140336) Continue the ascent, ignoring the metal gate a little further on and keeping to the left of the fence-line. Aerial views of Castell Dinas Bran, the limestone escarpments, and far-reaching views of the valley materialise to the left.
  2. At the next finger-post go straight on, continuing to follow the undulating track through heather and bracken, especially colourful in August. At approx one-and-a-half miles from the start point, pass through the metal gate by a signpost for the Llangollen Round. Follow the track as it begins to wind downhill and bears to the right. At end of this track, cross the stream and turn left at the signpost, continuing downhill. At the next signpost keep LEFT, ignoring the sign indicating the route continues uphill. Continue downhill alongside the stream. Some easy scrambling then between a deep cleft in the rocks.
  3. Head towards a single-track driveway ahead but bear slightly right over a broken wall, and then turn right at the Offas Dyke signpost by a white property, and follow the obvious track. Walk along this ridge for a short distance and then descend towards trees, keeping the fence-line to your left. Cross the stream and keep LEFT to descend slightly. Ignore all gates, and continue through the trees on a rough track to locate a stile on the left.
  4. Enter the pasture and cross diagonally, bearing left to locate another stile by the farmhouse. Turn left onto the road, then after a short distance look for an orange post-box set into a tree on the right. Turn right here to locate a stile and a signpost indicating the Clwydian Way. Follow this track through the trees, a stream to the left. Continue over the next stile and descend to another stile by the stream. After a short distance, cross a wooden bridge into open pasture.
  5. Walk through the fields on an obvious track to the farmhouse. Turn left at the road, then take the first sharp right into a driveway with a cattle-grid, by a finger-post signed for Valle Crucis Abbey. Follow this gradually ascending single-track road, passing two or three individual dwellings, until the road dissolves into a track through a wooded area. Continue through the trees to the fork, then take the lower righthand track, signposted for Valle Crucis. Look for a stile on the right, then take the next stile immediately to the left by a white property, and enter the open pasture.IMG_6035
  6. Keep to the fence-line on the right, and look for an old iron ladder stile set into the trees on the right, by a signpost for Velvet Hill. Follow the path as it descends through woods to a wooden bridge over the Eglwyseg River, and into a field. A caravan park and Valle Crucis Abbey is situated to the left. Climb the stile by the house and continue along the driveway to the A452. Take a detour here to visit the Abbey, or continue the walk by crossing the road to go over a stile opposite, giving access to Velvet Hill.
  7. Once over the stile head up to the right and follow the steep track as it begins to bear right along a wide, steep grass path to the summit. Good views of Valle Crucis Abbey from here. At the top, turn left and follow this undulating route until all tracks begin to descend. It’s difficult to be precise about this section but generally head south/south-west without climbing any higher, to leave the hill via a stile by the road into trees.
  8. Follow the short woodland track to the road junction. Turn left towards the main road, then turn right to walk along the main road a short way before turning first left towards Corwen on the B5103. After a short distance, take the steps on the left signposted for the canal. Cross the bridge, and descend the iron steps on the other side, then turn left and walk along the canal towards Llangollen Wharf, with the River Dee to your right. After a mile or so, look for a blue sign: Please give way to working horses on the tow path. Exit the canal at this point, opposite Tower Road.
  9. Cross Abbey Road (A542) and enter Tower Road. After a short distance you’ll arrive at the crossroads; go straight on. At the top of this section turn left and follow the signs for Castell Dinas Bran. Go through the kissing-gate and take the lower track to the left by the fence-line. (Or take a short detour here and tackle the ascent to the castle ruins by walking up and over the hill.) Follow the fence-line path as it gradually ascends to a lane, signed Llangollen History Trail and Panorama Walk. Pass through the kissing gate (If you’ve walked down from the castle, pick up the route here) onto the lane and turn left, then right onto Panorama Walk and return to the start point.

The described route is a guide only, it’s always advisable to use a map or a GPS device.

Over the Hill: 11

My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park.
P1000024-1A sunny Sunday afternoon and it seems everyone is out and about. Some glide along via immaculate thoroughbreds and smart cobs. Then there’s us – the British comedy version pelting across the grass verges. It’s good to have a sense of humour about these matters, especially when it seems we’re faced with every conceivable hazard from the get-go. Glamorous horses aside, we’re faced with huge, rattling trailers and noisy motorbikes along the Sychnant Pass. But we negotiate these without incident other than a nervous scuttle and a rolling eye, only to round the corner and discover builders throwing slates off a roof into a skip. At the same time we’re faced with a flock of sheep swarming towards us like an arrow-head, herded along the lane by a Land Rover and a couple of loose dogs. screen-shot-2018-11-14-at-10-31-27-pmHis Little Lordship isn’t too concerned by all the extra curricular activity, but Her Little Ladyship is easily offended and Sue decides to take her up onto the adjacent grassy slope. Of course the situation isn’t directly comparable, but our chatter reminds me of the French and Saunders horse-riding episode where they do battle with the loves of their lives; Peter Pan, and Jigsaw. French is the middle-class girl, the classic all-the-gear-and-no-idea rider, and Saunders is the ubiquitous farm-girl, a length of binder twine holding her coat together. But it’s the endless, breathless commentary that makes me laugh.
She was frightened of something there, wasn’t she? Come on, Peter Pan, you can do it…
As we meander past the tabernacle, Sunday service is resumed to the point of foraging as we go. Blackberries for us, anything going for Peter Pan and Jigsaw. The previous ride in this direction was incredibly windy and His Lordship and I were severely pelted by hazelnuts and acorns, but today it is positively serene with just a golden hint to the trees against an azure sky. We begin the climb up to the sheep-pens above Henryd, where the single-track lane gives way to the open hillside, and then we’re on the grassy tracks of Tal Y Fan. We test Peter Pan and Jigsaw’s brakes with a short canter and suitably reassured, we head up over the track we call the roller-coaster. As the name might suggest, the undulations here can sometimes stretch the definition of fun.
A couple of wild Carneddau ponies lift their heads in mild interest as we set off at a brisk canter. We take a left past the silvery pond, hitch open the old iron gate and enter the estate. Pensychnant are re-wilding one of their hay meadows alongside the Pass, and a band of helpers are busy scattering hay. Traditionally, upland farmers in Wales always had a fenced-off wildflower meadow. They called it the hospital field – essentially using the herbs it contained as medication. The preparation looks hard work but what a wonderful sight it will be once established. We pause to offer an encouraging wave but Peter Pan and Jigsaw are in sight and smell of home ground, and are more than ready to pelt back across the naughty grass. The aforementioned fly-tipped bags are still in situ and Her Little ladyship balks at the plastic monsters lurking in the undergrowth. But much like Peter Pan it seems equine chivalry hasn’t aged one little bit, and His Lordship bravely takes the lead.
Come on Peter Pan, you can do it… the British Team are depending on us!

Barking Mad

A nation of animal lovers?

  1. In 2018 more than 47,500 dogs were abandoned by their owners in the UK. The animals all ended up in council pounds and more than 5,000 were later put down, according to the Dog’s Trust annual survey of 345 local authorities. It is estimated that around 20,000 dogs are put down in the UK every year. Why do we continue to breed dogs? I guess the answer is that we want specific breeds, fashionable breeds, breeds that don’t shed hair, breeds that look cute on Instagram. Maybe we should stop breeding dogs until all the shelters are empty? 
  2. Overbreeding and puppy factories have been blamed for the rise in stray dogs. Breeding dogs this way should carry a massive fine and a lifetime ban on owning animals. As an aside, I think all dogs should be identity chipped and licensed. The license to own a dog should enforce responsibilities such as training and exercising the dog appropriate to its breed.
  3. Don’t have a dog if there’s no one home all day. Most dogs are likely to become fractious, bored, obese, and naughty. Dogs are pack animals and need exercise, company, stimulation; and to be socialised with other dogs. Above all, don’t have a dog if you dislike walking, especially walking on dark winter mornings combined with cold rain. Most dogs need walking twice a day, not just at the weekend or when you feel like it. Using a ball-launcher instead is not a good idea. Consider how hard and fast your dog is running, turning, and leaping to catch that ball and then read about all the joint injuries this activity can cause. Walk the dog.
  4. Dog mess. More people do pick it up, but then they leave it hooked over a gate or discarded on the path in a plastic bag! Think about the implications to our environment.
  5. If your dog is loose and there are other dogs in the vicinity on leads, you must call your dog to heel or put it back on the lead. The dog already on the lead may feel vulnerable if a loose dog bounds up uninvited, no matter how friendly you think your beloved Rex is. The dog on the lead may be sick, old, not trained to recall, or blind, and the owner is trying to be responsible. When our elderly Labrador lost his sight he became nervous around other dogs and exercise meant lead walks only, but I’ve lost count of the amount of other dog-walkers who deliberately thwacked balls in our direction, and claimed that their big bouncy dog just wanted to play with him. Retractable leads can be just as useless in these situations. Not only do they break quite easily, but it’s common sense not to use them fully extended where there are roads, pedestrians, and other dogs, as essentially you are not in control – basically you have a semi-loose dog which can still run sideways, and barge too far ahead of you. 
  6. Dogs respond quite readily to simple voice commands and body language, so teach your dog to understand what NO means. And practise some recall obedience before you let the dog run free in a public space to be a nuisance to other people and their dogs, or attack livestock. Train the dog to walk to heel and/or buy a stop-pull harness – please don’t buy a choker chain. Reward the dog when he returns to you, rather than rant that it took too long or express what a naughty boy he is. He’ll be loathe to return at all next time! 
  7. Dogs are pack animals and are happier and less likely to become a problem if they feel secure in the family pack, ie: they know their place. If you allow the dog to eat from your plate and sleep in your bed, you are granting special privileges in the canine pecking order. This may or may not become a behavioural problem… but if it does become a problem, are you going to blame the dog?
  8. Why do some dog owners feel the need to dress their dog? Another social media spin-off? I’m not talking the odd hat or a quirky necktie for fun. Our Labrador looked especially dapper in a bow tie on special occasions, but he’d draw the line at being trussed up like a surrogate child, and so would I. Respect the fact that Rex is a dog and would prefer to be treated as a dog because that is what he understands. By the same token, children should be taught to respect Rex as a dog. When Rex is sleeping – preferably in his own bed – because then the message is crystal clear. But if Rex reacts adversely to being suddenly jumped on, are you going to blame the dog? If so, we’ve arrived full circle back to bullet point 1 in that an unhealthy proportion of abandoned dogs in rescue shelters have arrived there through behavioural problems created by their owners.

Over the Hill: 10

My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park. 
P1000024-1I wonder if Storm spent some of his summer on the set of Poldark. Employed by the BBC for Cornish authenticity, he’s been spotted either tied to a stake or trawling panniers up from the cove on several occasions. And then in the final episode he was ridden by Valentine Warleggan, a truly fitting finale for His Little Lordship. He had to get into mental and physical shape of course, and this morning I witness him continuing to practise his Pony Yoga. Roll to both sides, centralise and hold. Then sit up like a dog, forelegs straight out in front. Stand, shake, then flex each hind leg back as far as it will go. Arch neck and tail, hold for three seconds. Test ears. Shake thoroughly.
I hope Storm doesn’t retain any ideas above his station. Thankfully, other than a snooty harrumph at sight of his old halter on my arm, His Lordship follows me from field to yard obediently, if somewhat disconsolately. His mood improves dramatically when he realises Her Little ladyship is to join us, and whinnies his approval at sight of her saddle waiting next to his.
We take the sun-dappled bridleway onto Conwy Mountain. Always a strange vision when the moon is visible during daylight, and setting as the sun is rising. Today this occurs in a crystal blue sky, and the soft air temperature takes us back to summer. We’re soon reminded its autumn by profuse clusters of haw and rowan berries, and ruby rose hips entwined with blackcurrants, but there’s no humidity or biting insects so a real jewel of a day. As we approach the farm, the wind off the sea suddenly rushes full-on towards us and Her Little ladyship becomes anxious about Christine’s flapping cagoule. Careful removal of the offending object allows us to continue on our way, giving a wide berth to the sagging barbed wire where I previously snagged my jods. We dismount to negotiate the steep track down the mountain before continuing into the Pensychnant Estate, and then a thrilling neck-and-neck gallop on the roller-coaster grass has both ponies stretching for the final furlong. Lady is always gracious and allows His Lordship to take pole position at the last moment. But then on the next path I hear Christine shouting, snake! And so we slow to a walk and I learn that – unseen by myself or Storm – an adder slithered right behind us into the heather as we thundered past… close call!
At the top we pass through the gate and pause a while to catch our breath. The sea is like a mirror, and there’s still a mellow flush of colour across the Carneddau. Not another soul to be seen. As the main holiday period comes to an end it’s good to enjoy less cars and visitors, especially wild camping – an activity often leaving evidence of fires and litter. As we head alongside Sychnant Pass for the final canter, we come across a huge plastic bag suspended in the brambles disgorging fast-food trays, cans, and other debris – most likely thrown from a passing car. Storm swerves to a suspicious halt, all senses on red alert. It takes much firm persuasion to scuttle past, only to find two more of these rustling monsters further along the track. The ponies are spooked, but we arrive back at the yard with all potential hazards artfully negotiated. In fact we feel mildly victorious in surviving snakes, cagoules filled with wind, bags filled with rubbish, and sagging barbed wire. It seems pony yoga has some serious benefits…