Disappearing Dreamscapes 7

Continuing memories and reflections of an equine obsession 1968-2018.

Chapter 7: Home Ground

Springtime in Parc Mawr Woods. Snowdrops first, then maybe a few daffodils poking through the leaf mould and all around the insistent drilling of a woodpecker. But when it’s time for the wild garlic and the bluebells to flower, the fairy grotto effect is in full force. At the main fork in the path, the lower track returns walkers or riders to the lane. Alternatively, another ten minutes of climbing elevates one beyond the tops of the fir trees to reveal far reaching views of Conwy valley and the river. Pass through the rider-friendly gate and take the steep bridleway – usually studded with primroses by the close of March – and sheltered by ancient, gnarled trees, to arrive at the old church. Progress is slow as it’s a rocky route, often gushing like a healthy brook through the winter, during a wet spring, or after snow. Drystone walls border the way, forming a narrow passage to the church of St Celynin – a sixth century saint. One of the oldest churches in Wales, horses would bring coffins along this way to their final resting place. Beyond the church the open countryside is much as it was thousands of years ago, predominantly inhabited by Carneddau ponies, sheep, and birds of prey.
IMG_5013I’ve known this area for a long time. I’ve admired it in bright sunlight, and in the chill dusk of winter. And I’ve seen it sprinkled with snow and bathed in moonlight beneath the stars. I’ve also looked with longing at the hoofprints pitted along these tracks, thinking how wonderful it must feel to be able to observe such ancient wildness from the back of a horse, but I’ve had to accept that the public riding school as I used to know it, was pretty much finished. Other than my short list of places which meant long-distance travelling and an overnight stay to make a riding trip viable, there was nowhere to ride beyond an indoor school.
midnight-sky-series-coverMeanwhile, writing had been extra productive, including two sequels in the Midnight Sky series. Aspects of these books represented how my equine obsession developed by exploring areas which not only appealed to me as a writer, but reflected an interest in alternative training methods and therapies. It also opened a variety of different doors which not only drew me deeper into my community, but affected a subtle change in me, too. One of the early triggers for this came from watching Guido Louis Leidelmeyer on a couple of occasions back in 2016. A stunt rider, and an equine behaviourist, Guido’s methods come from that broad spectrum described as Natural Horsemanship.Once upon a time the British Horse Society was the only equine reference on the shelf. Everything one needed to know would be laid down in black and white, somewhere. There were rules. There were standards. These inflexible, uncompromising ways are becoming old-school. Every horse, every person, is an individual. How any one combination of horse and rider works together, is not always black and white. I think we’ve always known this, but it’s never been quantifiable. Real equestrian skill comes with understanding what works for one, might not work for another, and how to apply that knowledge. Sometimes it’s only a feeling, but instinct can be more powerful than any how-to manual. Guido suggests we train in silence. Our gibberish means nothing to horses. Body language is how animals read us much of the time. After all, it’s how they survive in the wild and communicate with each other. Understanding more of this language, or engaging whispering techniques, can teach us not only about the relationships we have with our horses but much of the time a good deal about ourselves, too. You might be able to fool a stranger with a fake smile, but a horse will know the real story. And in essence, the horse remains the most truthful of teachers since his agenda is never compromised by incongruent behaviour. 
10982448_877878988921417_4697274201469467442_nAs with any relatively ‘new’ subject which comes along to challenge the old ways, there will always be extreme versions and there will always be con-artists, but if the desired result is achieved without distress for the horse and no one gets hurt, then it’s good enough for me. I’ve watched Guido manage to clip a nervous horse he’s never met before in the space of twenty minutes. The owner had tried everything. As West Taylor (science-based horsemanship) also reiterates, it’s not always about the stuff, it’s often about us. It’s about our perception of the problem and not allowing it to manifest into something bigger than we can handle. At times though, outside influences are so strong we literally dabble with life and death.
More on Guido: https://janruth.com/2015/01/25/sweet-nothings/
DSCN5324A road traffic meeting in Conwy’s Guild Hall in the spring of 2017 only came about after a tragic accident – much like closing the door after the horse had bolted. A driver ploughed into the back of a horse and rider in broad daylight, and although the rider only sustained severe bruising it resulted in a broken leg for the horse which had to be destroyed on the spot. The driver didn’t even stop. That rider could have been me. She was experienced, mature, wearing hi-vis, and riding a quiet horse. The Sychnant Pass is mostly single-track, winding, and with variable visibility. Sheep and wild ponies roam loose across the area and common sense should dictate speed and behaviour. I’ve watched children trying to remove their ponies from Pinewood’s fields with traffic whizzing past at 60mph… The guild hall was packed, standing room only, and the debate was heated. Some of the stories were hair-raising, and in some cases the ignorance, the sheer disregard for someone’s life, quite breath-taking. The conclusion was that the speed limit on the Pass should be cut from 60 to 40 mph – other than where it already dropped to 25 – and large hazard signs employed. On the whole traffic is pretty calm in this beautiful, scenic place, but I’m aware at all times that it only takes one careless driver working to an impossible schedule, or someone under the influence of drink, stupidity, ignorance, or drugs, to change that.
HenrydOur world is often one of fear and disappointment and reading or writing fiction is good escapism, or at the very least a powerful medium to channel thoughts and emotions. But I also needed to escape the isolation and unhealthy aspects of writing, sitting, and thinking. Then I came across a mobile phone number and some scant information about trekking pinned to a supermarket notice-board. The yard was in Henryd – a couple of miles away from me at Merchlyn, a beautiful old forge with Victorian stables and stone barns. And so in the spring of 2017 I found myself cantering between those banks of bluebells in Parc Mawr woods on Debbie Youngson’s thoroughbred, Trudy, aka The Intruder. Not in the first flush of youth, the mare was still an eager accomplice whenever we rode up to the old church and back down the steep, winding lanes where a short cobbled bridleway brought us back round to the woods again. Or we’d loop through Rowen village, past the pub and the telephone kiosk – which is now home to second-hand books, plant cuttings, business cards, and a defibrillator. Then a left turn brought us past the Dutch Pancake House and the Water Gardens. The horses sometimes spooked at the Water Gardens. During busy times there could be a long line of fisherman behind the hedge and we had to be aware of sudden movement, or the sound of whipping and plopping lines. I wasn’t so keen on the road riding despite the scenic nature but the kinder, drier weather of late spring promised longer mountain rides, so this was something to look forward to. And it was undeniably lovely to ride through those woods.
Riding circuits around the local villages it didn’t go unnoticed that there was a schooling area by the entrance to Parc Mawr, attached to Tanrallt farm. I’d been researching disabled riding for a theme I’d introduced into Strawberry Sky, only to discover that this very locality was used by Conwy RDA group – and they wanted volunteers. What better way to research a subject than to be actively involved in it? Not only this, it would place me into a familiar environment, a situation which I hoped could produce mutual benefits. And so one spring morning I walked from home across the fields, through Rowen Woods and up to the top of Henryd village to watch a session in progress and meet the team. IMG_20170920_114641288_HDRStraightaway, I felt there was something real and organic about this upbeat, positive community. Above all, it was run for the benefit of the people who used it, rather than for the sole purpose of making money. It’s much how I’d begun to approach producing the books I wanted to write, because much of the time ebook publishers are about trends and making cash rather than producing something of substance and quality, so this parallel ethos appealed to me and I committed to Wednesday mornings with ease. Getting involved with people who are disabled or disadvantaged in some way is a great leveller. Curiously, I began to feel less stressed, able to concentrate for longer, and generally experienced a better frame of mind. Was that down to the horses, the environment, or the people? I like to think it’s down to the unique combination. 
More on Conwy Gogarth RDA: https://janruth.com/2018/10/26/rda-our-conwy-community-collage/
When the weather improved, Debbie and I – often joined by Gill who had a horse on livery at Merchlyn, and Angharad, Debbie’s business partner, rode longer circuits of Tal Y Fan. Bessie, the black cob mare reminded me of Kirby and she was probably my favourite, although the mare was nervous if not following another horse. I really liked Storm, too, the small pony with the big personality, and Martha. Sadly, just as I was settling in to the possibilities of adventure, Debbie’s personal circumstances changed into one of an uncertain future and despite sporadic rides through the summer, I had to accept that yet again there was some familiar writing on the wall. 
But as my involvement with the RDA grew, so did my connections to local equine people, and the secretary for Conwy Gogarth RDA, Carol Moore, soon introduced me to her three cob geldings Snowman, Freddie, and Fergus. Carol’s yard was tucked away in Rowen Woods, part of the estate known as Glyn Parc. Formerly a tourist attraction, Glyn Parc used to be a rare breed farm prior to the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001. Some of the original sheep have been retained to cross-graze the pasture, but the place is now primarily a livery yard and a holiday cottage. I wasn’t unfamiliar with the area as it’s criss-crossed with public footpaths amid an idyllic setting – lush with flora and fauna, orchards, peacocks, and doves.
Fergus, the rather Rubenesque coloured gypsy cob with a classic apple-shaped bum, reminded me of my unease riding the aforementioned Paddy. His rolling gait and the tendency to lower his head in canter wasn’t the best physical fit for me and my short legs. Snowman, adopted by Carol and previously owned by a riding school, was less forward-going than his step-brothers but essentially a sensible, genuine sort. A stoic character in excess of a portly 16 hands, mounting and dismounting was always going to be a major problem for me, but generally he was a gentleman to handle, even dipping his head low enough for me to pass his reins and the martingale over his head, although fastening his girth wasn’t quite so easy! Adept at escaping his loose box, one always had to ensure both bolts were rammed home and the feed bin out of sight.
Freddie, the lighter, slimmer skewbald horse felt pretty perfect, although this came at a price. Freddie had an unusual personality. Sometimes ticklish, he did his best to avoid being groomed, but much depended on his mood. I guess one might say he was mildly unpredictable and not always the easiest to handle. He certainly had a twinkle in his eye and he did test me initially, but Freddie was great off-road and remarkably athletic, reminding me of the aforementioned Ted. A sporty chap, Freddie was always happier in the lead and occasionally he’d put in a disgruntled buck if he found himself behind one of his stable-mates. And then one fateful July day, Freddie and I parted company. We’d enjoyed a good long ride with Carol and Fergus, and we’d done all the arguably risky bits across open countryside without incident other than a couple of playful bucks, but nothing unseating.
We were on the final sun-dappled canter track along the bottom of Parc Mawr, heading for home, tired, happy and bowling along behind Fergus but steady, relaxed. We weren’t too close to Fergus, nor were we too far behind and our pace couldn’t be considered as excitable. Any spooky outside influences were less than negligible. One second I was listening to the birdsong and wondering what to have for dinner and the next I was on my back looking at the tree-tops. Freddie was nowhere to be seen. One of my stirrup leathers dangled on top of a bush. What the…? Usually under these circumstances there’s a couple of seconds to consider impending doom as one slithers down the right or left flank, braced to hit the soil. But this time… nothing. Once I’d got over the shock, I staggered to my feet without too much creaking but I knew instantly I’d badly bruised my coccyx the second I began to walk.
A concerned Carol materialised from the opposite direction, leading both horses and full of questions but I had no explanation for what had happened. To this day I still have no idea how Freddie managed to evacuate me with such lightning precision, if indeed, that had been his agenda. I did remount (standing on the wall by the scout hut) and rode back to the yard, leaning forward rather more than I should – but driving home afterwards included swear words, especially where too much clutch action had me gritting my teeth. The injury took at least a month to fully heal and the inconvenience of not being able to drive or sit for too long, and the very real fact that my accident could have been so much worse, prompted me to invest in an air jacket. Unlike the old, stiff and restrictive body protectors which I’d resisted for years, the air jacket is the cutting edge in equine protection. It consists of a light tabard style ‘jacket’ which is worn over all other clothing and attached to a D ring on the saddle via a bungee cord. If the cord becomes forcefully detached then the jacket inflates, cushioning any fall to the ground.
imagesA fairly hefty sum to purchase initially at around £400, it’s still a small price to pay to prevent broken bones or another bruised coccyx, and I also had to bear in mind my recent diagnosis of border-line osteoporosis. The only caveat is that it is so light I forget I’m wearing it and therefore forget to detach the bungee when dismounting. I’ve jumped down off Snowman with it still attached and obviously, the taller the horse the bigger this problem can be! Stretched taut, it’s the very Devil to unhook from the ground, in fact it’s easier to remove the entire jacket. I’ve never made so many notes to self… Remember to unhook the blasted bungee cord!  
Four weeks after the fall I was back in the saddle. I’d taken to riding Snowman and came to enjoy his predictable, steady pace. We rode for almost four hours one warm afternoon in late summer, taking the route which swings left after the old church and around Craig Celynin before following the lower flanks of Tal Y Fan, and enjoyed some long grassy canters despite the number of uncooperative gates along the way, held up with the ubiquitous ancient rusting wire and frayed baler twine. Then we took the green lane back to the village, plucking blackberries from the hedges along the way. I loved these occasional long rides through the hills, but there were changes in the air. Snowman’s owner talked of taking him back, another young horse came onto the yard and the equilibrium of our small group felt disturbed. A shame also that the close bond of ‘the boys’ meant they wouldn’t ride solo, at least not for any substantial distance and I wasn’t sure if the restrictions created by these various arrangements were going to suit me long-term.
When the offer of riding Emily – a prematurely retired New Forest pony – cropped up in October, I took my leave from Glyn Parc and decided to rise to the challenge of bringing the mare back into work. Em lived on a hill farm at the top of Henryd not too far from the old church, so access to the Carneddau couldn’t have been easier, or more attractive. Driving up to my allotted parking spot, though, was often like running the gauntlet and one needed to be prepared to reverse downhill or uphill, the usual ditches and stone walls running to either side. Wild, and beautiful, the hill farm was perhaps the opposite to Glyn Parc in terms of cosy convenience and ease of execution. But I soon came to realise that none of that mattered. I relished the challenge of nurturing a proper bond with this mare, a mare I knew would ride out without the security blanket of other horses. Already, I felt we were two of a kind. Em wasn’t completely unfit having access to several acres of high ground and typical of Welsh hill farms, none of it was level. IMG_2098The configuration of various field gates was awkward, though, and sometimes it was no mean feat to remove the mare from the field without disgorging her pony companion and several hundred sheep at the same time. However, I set to cleaning her neglected tack with oil and saddle soap. We began with ten-minute ambles down the lane. Because of her change of shape since she’d last been ridden – she was clearly more rotund than she should have been – I did get a few problems with her saddle slipping but a new, rubberised saddle pad and a longer girth seemed to fix this. And it soon became clear that Em wasn’t averse to being put back into gentle work, in fact she felt keen to get going so I began to extend our walks in various directions. Only once did she plant her feet and test my intent. We were up by the old church and she still wasn’t shod so I wondered if her sudden stubborn streak had anything to do with the anticipation of scrambling over the rough stream bed further on. I hadn’t intended to take her that far but it took some insistence from me to have her going forward again. I let her turn for home only when I decided she could, and by way of protest she put in a funny little buck and the sort of canter only a tubby, unfit mare could do.
By the time we’d got into November Em acquired a full set of shoes via Fraser Youngson from Merchlyn and we enjoyed longer rides, building up to an hour-and-a-half every other day. She felt good, and slowly the mare was able to sustain a strong trotting pace up some of the gentler hills so I felt we were well on our way to a future summer of fun. She was sensible through gates, unfazed by vehicles be it farm machinery, refuse trucks, motorbikes. Although she had plenty to say about other horses, maybe down to her being turned out in an isolated spot for a number of years, but every equine we passed in a field had to be commented on in the form of snorts, whinnies, and goggle-eyed stares – as if she’d forgotten there were other horses in the world. But she’d go wherever I pointed her, never shied, bucked, or misbehaved. I could approach a group of ridden horses and ask her to stand while I chatted, and she’d walk away again in the opposite direction without a fuss. And I never had any trouble catching her, despite the acres she had at her disposal. Sometimes she’d be perched on top of a knoll, mane flying in the wind like Black Beauty, surveying the far-reaching views from her elevated estate. She’d watch me toil towards her, halter over my shoulder as I climbed against the wind, eyes and nose streaming with cold. And then one day in December I knew we’d really started to bond when she uttered a deep wicker of recognition and walked towards me, dropping her soft muzzle into my cold hands. It felt mildly euphoric, but sadly this lovely sense of mutual trust pre-empted a truly nightmarish day. The day of the pigs…
To be continued. Final chapter publishing April 30th

About this Series

The first four chapters of Disappearing Dreamscapes represent 30 years from 1968-1998 and are split over four seasons based on diary entries through 1979. Chapters 5-8 represent 20 years from 1998-2018 and are recorded chronologically.

Disappearing Dreamscapes 6

Continuing memories and reflections of an equine obsession 1968-2018.

Chapter 6: Midnight Travels

We flew to Auckland in late February 2013, leaving behind an early spring day in Snowdonia, to arrive at the tail-end of New Zealand’s autumn. The 2012-2013 drought affected the entire North Island and the west coast of the South Island.
It was one of the most severe droughts to have impacted these areas in at least 40 years, and in some cases more like 70 years. The trip was in aid of my step-daughter’s marriage to an equine vet, culminating in a beachside ceremony on the beautiful Coromandel. But before all of that, a taste of riding the farm boundaries, Kiwi style. A few days later, a couple of hours’ drive south of Auckland saw us head out through the small township of Huntly in the Waikato district (much like small-town America) and into miles of deserted, tinder-dry brown landscape out towards Raglan Bay. A long, long way from the green green grass of Conwy Valley.The horses were most certainly crossed with a heavy draft type – Clydesdale, Percheron, or Irish Draft – with the infusion of a lighter breed like Arab or Thoroughbred.
My allotted beast, a well-muscled bright bay, was as sensible as he was strong, calm, and sure-footed. In looks at least, he had me in mind of the Cleveland Bay, an old-fashioned Yorkshire breed used mostly for driving or fox hunting. gdimagemirror_full_withtacks2Hunting of all types is commonplace in New Zealand. Much of the traditions and protocol of English fox hunting applies, although it’s more likely that the quarry will be hare or wild boar. Farms and indeed many homesteads are so remote life is pretty much reliant on farming and self-sufficiency, although hunting is equally enjoyed for recreational purposes.We had no trouble eating and enjoying all of the home-produced beef, and the fish and shellfish caught, gutted, and cooked by our Kiwi hosts. In the rural areas there is less reliance on shops, less choice of commodities, and much of the country has a feel of how parts of the UK probably functioned in the fifties. I found this deeply appealing but the one aspect which did surprise me was because the country is so young compared to the UK, the lack of history had me feel strangely homesick for our ancient heritage and those miles of drystone walls. As is the case for our own corner of Wales and the farming communities, historical backgrounds are what shape the people as well as the country, and I hadn’t realised quite how much I was emotionally rooted in my adoptive country. North Wales is astonishingly compact compared to New Zealand. There are vast, vast acres between properties and roads, much of which is featureless. The countryside is generally not as accessible as the UK and any boundary fences up for jumping out hunting with horses, will almost certainly be constructed of wire. After all, New Zealand is the real Mordor, the land of extremes, and outdoor adventures are not for sissies.

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I’d left the UK in the midst of writing Silver Rain and later, much of the New Zealand landscape and character found its way into the story. I did intend to write a travel blog too, but that never happened and many of my impressions manifested themselves as short stories instead in A Long Way from Home. In other book matters I continued an email conversation with my new cover designer about Midnight Sky. It was a difficult book to pin down, image wise. The two professional bodies I’d dealt with at the time of writing were conflicted. The agent who was half-interested in this novel suggested less equestrian references in order to ‘sell’ it as a straight romance, and the other, in a more advisory, editorial capacity wanted more, believing it better placed as a niche product. Both believed their versions to be more commercial. The agent declined the book in the end as is the nature of the publishing beast. My original homemade cover didn’t really sell the book, but then my branding hadn’t developed by then, either. The cover we settled on whilst I was in New Zealand did relatively well, but the third cover – once I’d extricated myself from a bad publishing deal in 2016 – was the one which really worked for the material. So much so I wrote the sequel, Palomino Sky, with a lot more confidence, perhaps because I wrote the book I wanted to write. And I included as much equine detail as deemed necessary to enrich the story.
GarethWynJones-webAfter four weeks away in New Zealand with flying visits to Australia and Singapore en-route, we were tired and ready for the cooler temperatures of North Wales. Exhausted by the time we finally reached Manchester International Airport, I just about had the wherewithal to call the taxi firm to confirm our ride back to North Wales. The driver warned us that we might not be able to get to Conwy because of the snow. We laughed. It was March, springtime! We imagined not only did our body clocks need time to readjust, but after 90% humidity in Singapore, our temperature gauges probably did too. Forty minutes later and we hit crawling traffic around Chester, aghast at the volume of snow piled-up at the side of the roads and smothering the fields. Once finally home after a slow journey along slushy roads, we were devastated to learn the full impact of a sudden, massive snowfall across the Carneddau. Sheep and new lambs, and half of the wild ponies from Aber and Llanfairfechan were buried beneath drifts. Local farmers had spent days and nights digging out animals. Over half of the ponies had frozen to death. Natural disasters are part and parcel of farming and rural life, but the cruel prettiness of our mountains had never felt quite so brutal.
DSCN0167Spring eventually arrived in a guise we all recognised and I resumed my quest for a horse to ride. Occasionally, through 2012 and 2013 I rode with Willington Hall Riding Centre, Tarporley, Cheshire. Close to Delamere Forest, Kelsall Hill Farm Ride, and the Sandstone Trail, the drive over was worth the journey if there was a forest ride in the running but more often than not, the farm ride seemed more popular. Farm rides are a man-made equestrian leisure complex with cross-country fences, gallops, and training areas. I’ve no objection to popping over the odd natural obstacle whilst out and about, but the artificial nature of farm rides don’t really tick my boxes. On the occasions we did venture into Delamere Forest I enjoyed the company of Charlie, a robust very forward chap (sometimes a bit too forward) and Penny, a particularly agreeable grey mare. The forest is the largest area of woodland in the country and provides plenty of scope for long rides. We regularly became lost in the maze of tree-lined paths, bridleways, and dense forestry and it was always a great mini-adventure, but the combination of travelling and pinning down the right ride at the right time (the forest rides were very much restricted to dry ground) began to feel impossible and infrequent. And then in April of 2013 I came across Pennant Park Riding Centre, Whitford, Holywell. 
This yard had inherited some of the horses and ponies from the aforementioned Coachman’s, and Whitford represented an easy forty-minute drive into Flintshire. In terms of bridleways and quaint villages – and Mostyn Farm Ride, should you be so inclined – this hidden gem of an area had a lot going for it. The yard itself was maintained to a very high standard, but my suspicions were mostly confirmed that the riding itself was geared very much towards novice riders and children, and their mix of cobs and ponies reflected this. However, I really enjoyed Simona and once, the rather handsome Tom. During the school holidays there was a trip to Mostyn Farm Ride, a pub ride, and a beach ride to Talacre but with nervous, less-able riders in the mix these trips didn’t really work. And I much preferred the natural countryside around Whitford with its historical buildings, country lanes and criss-cross of old bridleways.
The name Mostyn has strong connections to Flintshire and Llandudno, the family name going back some 500 years. Despite the strong presence of the Pennant family, Mostyn Estates remain the oldest landholding institution in Wales and soon took stakes in Whitford through marriage. Opposite the lodge house to Mostyn Estates Sawmill, lies a long grass slightly uphill bridleway – perfect for a canter – and a likely route the family from the ‘big house’ would take to the village church. An impressive area of managed estate land sits in-between this bridleway and the village, and affords plenty of attractive off-road riding. The proprietor always accompanied me on these hacks and initially, seemed keen to oblige with two-hourly rides and even explore new territory across Halkyn Mountain. This all sounded promising but I noted with some trepidation that there was an indoor school under construction and sadly, any commitment seemed to fade rapidly as the summer progressed. By the time daylight saving hours had crept in at the end of October, the hacking had politely tailed off. I certainly wasn’t new to this pattern of events, in fact I almost expected it, but this time around I did feel especially cheated and defeated.
KIRBYI was running out of options. Someone suggested Cae Hic Livery and Riding Centre, Ffordd y Blaenau, Treuddyn. This meant over an hour of driving for me so not worth the trip unless riding for at least two or three hours. I took a private riding assessment on a black cob mare called Kirby. Thereafter followed three years of three-hourly rides every three weeks. Initially, I didn’t take to the black mare at all, but arranged a ride on Seamus. Smooth, with a big stride Seamus ate up half a mile of bridleway in a strong canter. Great! The Coed Talon bridleway was a former railway line and the long, level track bordered by trees and streaking across part of a watery nature reserve proved pretty good for riding through all seasons. The first occasion was late autumn and especially scenic down to the variety of trees. In summer-time it was like riding through a green tunnel, wild garlic so profuse it lay like snow drifts along the edge.
Real snow happened, too. On this occasion, the ground was on the hard side so we discounted the alternative destination to Nercwys Forest, imagining the heavy shade would further compromise the icy ground conditions. We were a sizeable group. Horses and riders had been cooped up for too long down to poor weather, and we were looking forward to some Christmas fun. I was riding Ernie, the-fastest-milk-horse-in-the-west. An ex-racer, he was tall and sleek with a slightly discombobulated trot. But Ernie hadn’t been trained to trot, he’d been trained to gallop, and it really was his best stride. Cool-headed, he was always chilled when the other horses jostled for position, knowing full well he could outrun the lot. The track looked icy here and there, with random frozen puddles. We set off, carefully. No overtaking. A long line of jogging horses, all of them tail-gating. As we began to canter, eyes peeled for ice, the horses strung out and Ernie found his stride. We skimmed over a big frozen puddle and for a heart-stopping moment he lost some traction. The guy behind me shouted out but I couldn’t stop, didn’t dare look round. Miraculously we all made it to the end, faces flushed, horses steaming.
66-1000x504_cBut it was Little Jack the pure Haflinger who really challenged Ernie’s fleet feet. A pretty chestnut boy with a full flaxen mane and tail, Little Jack stood around 14.2. Pony-size really, so straight away one is lulled into a false sense of security, but I’d witnessed his performance on Talacre beach… Hence, I was a cautious participant when on this occasion we partnered each other along Coed Talon. All good, until we made that fateful decision to simply turn round at the end and gallop back the way we’d come. Bored with waiting whilst we discussed the finer points, Little Jack suddenly burst into action as if catapulted. No polite warning, not even a paw at the ground or an impatient toss of the head. Trees and ditches whizzed by at a rate of knots, the ground a blur, hoof beats a galloping staccato. There was nothing I could do to slow him, let alone stop. Aware of his personality via Colin’s stories, I knew it would be pretty pointless trying to pull him up. I settled-in for the duration and crouched low over Jack’s neck, quickly deciding that going with the flow was the safest option, although I dreaded meeting someone or something, head-on at such breakneck speed. Worst case scenario would be pedestrians walking in the same direction wearing earpieces, and maybe pushing a double buggy with excitable dogs tied to the handle… but no, the track was mercifully clear. Jack shied at the wooden bench to the right, then shied at a bird taking flight to the left, but motored on relentless, eyes bulging like Bambi’s, ears aerodynamically flat against the side of his pretty head. I could hear the others pounding behind me. Someone shouted my name, asked if I was ok? I yelled in the affirmative but warned whoever it was not to come up too close or God forbid, try to pass me! I was determined to stop Jack before he decided he wanted to stop, and I did just about manage it, using my body weight the second he showed signs of slowing. No harm done and we did laugh on the way home but Little Jack changed his name to Little-Tenna-Lady-Boy for a while.
Longer rides happened in Necwys Forest or sometimes Coed Talon was made into a longer loop by incorporating part of Hope Mountain. The forest was some fifty minutes away but there were plenty of rideable tracks once inside. Colin’s routes always made full use of the forest terrain (until the council saw fit to incorporate several tons of hardcore onto some of the main tributaries, making for an uncomfortably hard surface). To break the long ride back along endless single-track lanes, we’d sometimes take a byway which afforded long, fast canters all the way to the top. Our shaky start forgotten, Kirby soon grew to be my favourite for these excursions. The mare was a different character once out of the school – much like myself – and I found a kindred spirit. A trot so smooth one didn’t even need to rise, a strong canter, brakes. But freedom-wise the beach remained the best place to canter and gallop and Talacre fitted the bill for this. Tacking-up excited horses in a beach car park – amusement arcades and a bingo caller within earshot – is no mean feat. 58, make them wait. I was 58 at the time, and Ginger wasn’t up for much waiting.
On another occasion I rode Tyson the slim coloured cob in exchange for Paddy. Paddy and I didn’t get on. This is what happens with age, one discovers weak areas at the most inopportune times. I’d never ridden Paddy before and horses big in the barrel and sporting a rolling gait, often made me feel insecure in the saddle and put a strain on my lower back. As a result I couldn’t get a handle on this horse at all as he ploughed across the sand and leapt through water inlets, but a kind soul swapped with me and I clambered onto Tyson instead. Thereafter we had a magical, sunlit afternoon; cantering through the surf at the edge of the incoming tide and sending up sprays of seawater over each other. Sliding down deep, soft sand-hills and racing across the rippled sand before heading back towards the lighthouse.
One summer, a group of us headed over to the aforementioned Kelsall Hill Farm Ride. We set off in high spirits, the old horse box lurching along at a leisurely pace with six horses swaying in the back. Kelsall is a slick operation, not as pretty as Mostyn Farm Ride, but the acres of clean space is undeniable. As the smart trailers began to arrive, disgorging immaculate thoroughbreds and hunters for training and exercise, we tacked-up our hairy cobs round the back of the manure-splattered lorry. On unfamiliar ground, the horses were all as high as kites and Tyson lived up to his name. A strong horse, he proved a serious handful at being held back when some of the other riders made use of the cross-country instruction from Sarah. The water splash was fun, no casualties. Then a calm interlude through a wooded area before we got to the wide, beautifully managed grass gallops – where all the horses thought they were in the Grand National. Little Jack, and Sarah’s competition horse ridden by Chinese Chris, fronted the group while Colin, our in-house ex-paramedic, ran behind with the first-aid box. We powered up a hill in a tight group, powered down the other side with a few whoops, then executed a tight left-hand turn which came upon us all too quickly and made for much hilarity. Whilst other, more manicured horses went gracefully about their business, we were a bit like an oversized version of Thelwell. It still makes me smile and it’s a reminder of how important it is to push the walls of our comfort zones from time to time.
But then the inevitable happened when Cae Hic acquired an indoor school, and that old familiar shift kicked-in. After three great years, travelling distance and ride arrangements began to feel inhibitive for the first time. Much like my publishing journey, catering for the non-mass market is hard from both sides of the fence and one has to be ready to take the negatives. There’s always a price to pay for individuality and I’d fallen through a gap in the market yet again, trapped in an equine twilight zone. I wanted what I perceived to be the most simple of disciplines; a willing equine companion and some countryside. I didn’t have the resources or especially want the full commitment which came with owning my own horse, but I wasn’t ready to give up on something I’d loved for over forty years. It was a conundrum which alternated between me fearing I probably should give up, and then feeling depressed that I was about to draw such a permanent line. 1a516b3130fa769ae23bc62007995491There was fear too, fear that if I stopped for any length of time at this stage of my life, I’d lose something precious. Not so much physically, but mentally. We all know that learning new things becomes more difficult as time goes on, but confidence is also an especially tricky beast to handle. If you don’t use it, you can lose it. For women, it takes a hit when we become mothers, which I guess is part of our survival mechanism but then it takes another, more complicated hit after the menopause. Physical stuff, too. I hurt my foot in 2015. No, not doing anything even mildly risky or interesting. I was hanging out the washing and slipped backwards off a tiny step. And no, no alcohol had been consumed. I continued to drive to Treuddyn to ride Kirby, then because my foot still felt quite sore after a fortnight, I decided to get it x-rayed. The radiographer told me I’d broken my metatarsal bone and asked what I’d been doing to look after this injury because now it was a displaced fracture. Suitably admonished, I admitted I hadn’t felt the need to do anything, not even the need to take a painkiller. I was strapped into a plaster boot on the spot, and diagnosed with borderline osteoporosis a few months later.
50810175_2351959371751413_5496139932088926208_nInevitably a new, whiny voice crept in, reminding me that I do in fact have a limit. I’m fit, but I’m not as agile as I used to be, reactions can be a split-second slower and sometimes, that’s all it takes to hit the ground. But rather than be anxious about breaking bones, I was more scared of being forced to take up knitting or deep-clean the cupboards. A lot of women my age and still riding are either confirmed horse-owners, or happy to join those coffee-morning rides to refresh their skills for an hour once a week in a safe, controlled environment. I can’t yet envisage a time when a safe, controlled environment might appeal to me. So I began the search yet again for the missing piece of the jigsaw. A piece of me. Out of ideas but not of energy or enthusiasm, I looked to my community instead and discovered something which challenged all of my equestrian experience to date. Not only did it present something a bit left-field, but I like to think it also offered me a slice of Karma, too.

About this Series

The first four chapters of Disappearing Dreamscapes represent 30 years from 1968-1998 and are split over four seasons based on diary entries through 1979. Chapters 5-8 represent 20 years from 1998-2018 and are recorded chronologically.

 

Craflwyn and Llyn Dinas

A circular walk of 7.5 miles including 1,200 feet of elevation overall. Start Point:  Craflwyn National Trust car park on the A498, Beddgelert, Gwynedd, LL55 4NG

Map References: SH 59945-48928 or Lat: 53019270 Lon: -4089377 

adult-blur-boots-1452784Considering the modest elevation this walk offers plenty of scenic variety and on a clear day, far-reaching views and a real sense of being in the heart of Snowdonia. Streams shape the landscape here, all flowing towards three rivers; the Gorsen, the Cwm Llan, and the Y Cwm, all of which eventually join forces with the Afon Glaslyn. As a result, the first section of the route can be boggy, although much work has been carried out over the previous 12 months with huge boulders forming a solid path of stepping stones – allowing the land to be navigated whether streams are trickling or tumbling. Welsh black cattle – belonging to the National Trust’s Hafod Y Llan farm, graze here. Essential for land management, these cattle produce some of the best organic beef in the world.

You’ll come across the remains of old copper mineshafts scattered across these hillsides – last worked in the late 1800’s. Due to the copper, the streams and rivers are sterile although clear and often a deep turquoise. Further downstream, where the copper becomes diluted, salmon and trout return, also inhabiting the pretty Llyn Dinas. The lake takes its name from the nearby Dinas Emrys, a rocky and wooded hill where the remains of both medieval and older fortifications have been found. A rock near the lake – called the Stone of the Eagle – was said in a charter of 1198 to mark the spot where the boundaries of the three cantrefs of Aberconwy, Ardudwy and Arfon met. According to legend, an eagle used to perch on it once a week, anticipating battle between the three men.

The route

  1. Start by taking the footpath visible from the car park through woodland, following the black arrow way-markers. Continue past a carved wooden dragon bench and a small waterfall, climbing steadily to reach a giant carved chair at the first viewpoint.
  2. Still following the black arrow way-markers, the route continues up steps and crosses over a small stile in a fence. Follow the path east towards Bylchau Terfyn, eventually crossing a stile in the wall. Although the going is rough – rock, bog and uneven ground – the path is clearly marked by stepping stones where necessary, and way-markers. When you reach the old wooden bridge, cross this and bear left back onto the main track.
  3. Head up towards a broken stone dwelling by the old copper mine; then pass this ruin on your left and continue on the track, until you reach a stile in the wall. Begin a steady descent towards the Watkin Path. The views here are especially good on a clear day – Moel Siabod standing in isolation ahead, Llynn Gwynant nestled below.
  4. Once you join the Watkin Path – one of the main Snowdon routes – the black way-markers cease. Turn right and follow the well-defined path. The impressive Afon Cwm Llan waterfalls will be on your left and the last stretch of the Watkin Path takes you through the ancient oak woodlands of Parc Hafod y Llan. At the single-track lane, turn right. And at the end of this lane, cross the main road and turn left, continuing through the lay-by.
  5. Take a right turn towards Plas Gwynant, which is also signed as a footpath. Follow the lane, taking the left fork up through the trees. At the end of this lane, turn sharp right just before the cattle grid and follow a short path through the woods, taking a bridge to cross the stream.
  6.  At the top of this track, turn right onto a single-track road. Follow this road until you reach another cattle grid on the left – turn left here – by the footpath sign for Llyndy Isaf Farm. Follow this track past the farm and continue towards Llyn Dinas, where the route follows the shores of the lake.
  7. At the end of the lake, bear left – ignoring the bridge to the right – and continue to follow the Glaslyn River as it heads downstream towards Beddgelert – until you reach the Sygun Copper Mines. Turn right here and cross the stone bridge onto the main road. Take a sharp left through a wooden gate and follow the path alongside the road.
  8. At the end of this path, cross the main road and bear right to enter the driveway of Craflwyn Hall. Cross left in front of the hall along a short driveway and return to the car park.

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

Fancy a pint of Glaslyn? Not the river water, but the ale of the same name, courtesy of the Purple Moose Brewery. If your homeward journey swings towards Conwy then the  Pen Y Gwryd Hotel is worth a visit. A distinctly quirky pub, the building is dated at 1810. Worth noting that the Pen Y Gwryd Hotel was the training base for Sir Edmund Hillary before he attempted Everest in 1953. Lots of interesting memorabilia on the walls, including Hillary’s scrawled signature – captured forever beneath protective plastic – on the ceiling. Many an expedition continues to be planned here, although perhaps not on Hillary’s scale! http://www.pyg.co.uk/

 

Disappearing Dreamscapes 5

Continuing memories and reflections of an equine obsession 1968-2018

Chapter 5: Pastures New 

untitleddesign28829-1In the summer of 1997 we took a holiday in Cornwall. Poldark country…. Heather-clad moorland, ancient mine workings and a turquoise sea adorned with rolling, foaming white horses. It was a week of ponies, coastal walking, body-boarding and discovering the surf, and remembering the cast of Baywatch – well, Second Draft did, not so much the rest of us. The horsey highlight for my son and step-daughter happened at Wheal Buller Riding School in Redruth, Cornwall. The children chose the pony they wanted to ride straight from the fields (supervised) and the riding was proper off-road stuff in a small, bespoke group as opposed to pony trekking in a long line. The whole experience got three thumbs-up. My son’s beautiful little pony, Mini, was even up for sale and on our final day the hints fell like incendiary bombs. Oh, if only… the dreams of youth never quite go away, even though as adults we propose to know better. But we lived in Wilmslow, Cheshire, and had no resources financially or otherwise to consider owning a pony. Inevitably, Second Draft marched us all kindly but firmly in the opposite direction. Just as well someone in the family had immunity to such ethereal things, even if Pamela Anderson and a wet suit had easily over-fired his imagination earlier.
Untitled design (8) 13.43.12-1But then something happened which fired all of our imaginations. We’d taken a weekend break in Conwy, and the existence of twenty or so new-build houses springing up on Sychnant Pass didn’t escape our attention. The aforementioned Pinewood Stables epitomised much of my teenage dreamscape, and this familiar yard was just half a mile down the road. I knew the area intimately, in particular the medieval town of Conwy, the local mountains, the wild Carneddau ponies, and the beach beyond the marina. Noses pressed against the hoarding surrounding the building site, we allowed a good deal of mostly unspoken what-ifs to dominate the homeward journey. The location was without any doubt, heaven on a stick.
And then a curious thing. Second Draft received a work-related phone call about a colleague’s imminent retirement in North Wales, and less than a couple of weeks later we were speeding back to take a closer look at number twenty-three. Afterwards, we drove up to the car park by Crows Nest to ‘think’ about it. It was a really drab November day, the best kind of day for considering a job relocation and buying a house. A day when Conwy Mountain seemed entirely enveloped in scudding cloud and mist. A day when the wind bent the trees double and the dark, brooding mountains rearing beyond Pensychnant looked enticingly wild and inhospitable. And we knew there was no real need to discuss anything further. I easily recall the chain of events that day because the assistant in the sales office – also called Jan – apologised for listening to the radio while we signed on the dotted line but her daughter, Lisa, was in a band called Steps and they’d just broken into the charts. It felt like a good omen and by February 1998, we’d sold our Cheshire property and moved into the new house. And the dog came a couple of months later.
img_5154Riding lessons for my son continued at Tynllywn Riding School, Bryn Y Maen, Colwyn Bay. Teaching was excellent here (until inevitably, they too changed to a livery yard). Hacking out was restricted to the roads but this didn’t matter, since we had Pinewood Stables two minutes away from home. Snowdonia Riding School in Waunfawr also obliged with riding out onto the hills, but unlike Conwy with its gentle coastal tracks the landscape above Caernarfon was harder and steeper and more suited to pony trekking. I loved that Renee Thomas, the owner, was still riding and working horses into her seventies and I liked the ‘old-school’ feel of this yard. It was a bit like stepping into an old pony book, but the riding wasn’t quite right for me. A couple of times we went up to Penmachno Forest and rode with a yard there but again, the hard forest tracks (and a few other issues) were less than desirable, despite stunning snow-peaked views of Moel Siabod rising above the fir trees, and the smell of Christmas. Tal Y Foel Riding School (now operating under different ownership as Anglesey Riding School) was a great setup for children and novice riders, with something like five miles of private grass bridleways. However, these bridleways weren’t in use unless the ground was dry, creating only a small window of opportunity for somewhere like North Wales. Understandable that they wanted to keep these tracks in good condition, but more often than not, riding was confined to the indoor school. On the one occasion I did ride on the beach with them some years later, the experience was disappointingly lack-lustre. Likewise with another yard on the coast by Talacre beach, a yard which promised lots, delivered nothing. And this after the most rigorous of assessments in the school prior to a ‘beach ride’ which amounted to a novice trot along the beach on a mostly unfit pony. It was expensive, too!
Something inevitable happened when my son began his secondary school years when any interest in horses became lost to other things. But I always thought if one could swim and ride a horse, you were pretty set for most adventures in life, so the boy did good. I still can’t swim with any great conviction and only if the pool is devoid of all other activity likely to make a dangerous swell. I did try swimming lessons in later years and managed to – not drown, exactly – but to stub my toe on the bottom of the pool, thereafter it contorted into a black and purple toe twice the size it should have been. Dad did try his best to get me to swim as a child but if there was a choice between Wythenshawe Swimming Baths and riding in the rain, the pony always won. I hated that chlorinated pool; the smell, the noise, the changing rooms and the feeling of being confined in a building. And then in 2001, to further compound the lack of riding opportunities, North Wales was hit with the Foot and Mouth outbreak and the movement of all animals ground to a halt. Many rural businesses were compromised. The virus doesn’t actually infect horses, people, or dogs, but they can spread it, and as a result Conwy Mountain and other places were closed. Grass began to grow across the well-worn paths, dog walking was confined to the beach, and it wasn’t until the following spring that the countryside was opened-up again.
untitleddesign28829The beach rides with Pinewood took larger groups of riders than I remember in the earlier years, although I never experienced a problem. I recall enjoying Nero, the lightweight black cob, and the freedom of galloping along a beach has to be up there with one of the best riding experiences. Getting down onto the beach at Conwy is easily rideable from Sychnant Pass; the long stretch of hard sand at low tide interrupted only by mussel banks and deep rivulets of seawater. Most horses would take the water in their stride, some would slow to plough through, occasionally one would come to a dead stop before taking a wild leap of faith. There are also some areas of deep, muddy sand which are to be avoided, or at least only taken at a walk. But on a dry day with not too much wind, the beach affords miles of space to canter, or merely amble in a daydream disturbed only by chattering oyster-catchers and soaring gulls. Or, if the tide is close enough, a paddle, although cantering through even shallow surf can result in a good soaking, especially if you happen to be riding behind a set of big feet! But Nero and I managed to stay afloat, and there was never a time when I thought I might sink or stub my toe.
compensationWhen they were short-staffed I worked a couple of times for Pinewood, riding tail-end-charlie on rides across Conwy Mountain. In 2003 another inevitability when Pinewood changed their status to a livery yard. And that was the end of a very significant and happily revisited era of my childhood. Like many other yards the closure was down to a combination of timely retirement plans and other family matters, but it was also about being worn down by the blame culture. There was a max height barrier at the entrance to the beach. I was chatting to my friend riding behind me. I didn’t see the barrier and you didn’t warn me in time… A family run trekking centre from the sixties and through the generations, the original Pinewood represented those riding schools which perhaps epitomised a way of life, rather than a business model.
And so, it was back to the increasingly shrinking drawing-board. A board which represented hundreds of miles of accessible open countryside, but with no available horses in the vicinity, other than those privately owned and kept on livery yards. I began to look further afield, and although some riding schools advertised the fact that they catered for experienced riders, I more often than not found that this wasn’t quite true. It wasn’t so much as they couldn’t cater, it was more the case that they didn’t really want or need to. Unaccompanied riding is a thing of the past, and mixed abilities on hacks can be the stuff of nightmares. (If one member of the party doesn’t want to canter, then no one else can down to the nature of the beast, in all respects.) Occasionally, the riders making bookings are not without blame and for some unaccountable reason people do exaggerate their level of ability. But then if there’s little choice, the onus is very much on the riding school. Perhaps they’re looking to fill a lorry to take horses to a venue and make it financially viable, and a couple of less able riders may then slip through the net.
I’ve been in situations where I’ve travelled an hour to get to a yard and paid something in the region of £65 (2016) for a three-hour ‘experienced’ hack, but down to a couple of riders coming off at the first hurdle so to speak, the remainder of the time has, by necessity of safety, been given over to the novice riders. But where did that leave the rest of us who’d paid for an advanced ride? Dissatisfied, and unlikely to recommend or return. These problems are compounded as horses are used more and more in indoor schools. The behaviour of a normally quiet, compliant horse can easily become excitable in open countryside if, for example, this sort of riding is only scheduled once a month. In the end it becomes easier – and cheaper insurance-wise – to keep horses and riders on site.
As I write this in 2019, it does often feel as if many riding schools – or Equitation Centres – are about making money first, and providing the experience second. Beware those misleading on-line sites with stunning photography of riders cantering carefree along beaches, where the eye-watering price list is more about children’s parties, dressage competitions, ladies’ coffee mornings, and even ‘training’ sessions to take the BHS Road Safety Exam for something in the region of £130. Concentrating on the indoor school or changing to livery only seems to be the only way forward for many equestrian yards trying to stay afloat. I understand. But in some ways this feels as if we’re playing into the hands of insurance companies and those who seek monetary gain from what has already been established as a medium to high-risk sport for a very long time. And what of our bridleways? These are already under serious threat, and combined with a growing fear of riding along the roads – in some cases, purely to access those precious bridleways – we’re allowing ourselves to be pushed out of the countryside altogether.
41X4BSN6YFL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_Despite my sporadic riding through the nineties and the early Millennium years I did rediscover a passion for books again, in particular, a series by retired racehorse trainer, Jenny Pitman. Not surprisingly, these books were about a racehorse trainer trying to make a living out of a falling-down farm in Wales. The Welsh landscape certainly kick-started my stalled interest in writing in a very positive way. Although Cheshire has its history and pretty rural surroundings aplenty, Wales is far more abundant in both aspects. The castles and the rugged hillsides strewn with stone settlements, druid circles and Roman roads brought out the historical muse in me. To think that I’m treading the same path as someone who lived in the Iron Age, is both fascinating and humbling. This makes me sound as if I write historical-based fiction. Far from it. Much as I admire many other genres I tend to be very much rooted in current times and, much like Pitman, my material reflects a lot of my own life experiences set in a Welsh background. Typewriters a thing of the past, I began to dabble on a word processor with Wild Water.
But the sun seemed to have set on the sort of riding comparable to any of my old dreamscapes – until the spring of 2008. We were taking a walking break in Cumbria and I was sifting through the usual pile of tourist guides in our cottage, when I came across a leaflet about Mike Myers and Biglands Hall Equine Group, Brow Edge Road, Ulverston. The ride descriptions looked and sounded promising, so we went to take a look. The visit resulted in arranging a three-hour fell ride. I’d actually thrown my riding hat in the car – always hopeful – but forgotten my boots, but no matter, light walking boots it had to be. My calves suffered that day, but it seemed I’d hit a pot of riding gold, finally.
Mike Myers, someone who’s ridden at competition level in endurance riding and time trials, remains one of the best ride leaders I’ve ever come across. My horse for the afternoon was Spirit, a speckled grey Connemara mare. We soon left the Cumbrian lanes and rode up through a sprawling forest and eventually onto the open fells above Cartmel where the challenging terrain allowed a faster, albeit more technical pace. Spirit was sharp; dancing expertly over the undulations, ditches, streams… tail flying behind, ears pricked forwards. And then we headed towards Cartmel, clattering through the village with its imposing priory and the famous sticky-toffee-pudding shop, before crossing over a section of the local racecourse. Beyond the village, the woods were sprinkled with bluebells and wild garlic, a breath-taking gallop along the edge of open land, then ancient bridleways draped with heavy spring foliage and noisy with birdsong. We continued over part of the Holker estate – distant views of Morecambe Bay – and bounded back over Canny Hill.
The variety of the terrain, the mare herself, and Mike’s active pacing made this ride pretty special. Since I’d not ridden seriously for a good while, I suffered for the pleasure for several days afterwards, but I was hooked. I returned every occasion we travelled to Cumbria enjoying as well as Spirit, a cob called Jacob, Stanley, the ex-racer, and the tall, dark thoroughbred-cross Indy. I don’t usually enjoy big horses so much now, probably down to being five-foot-nothing and I sometimes feel compromised by my lack of leg, but Indy was an exception and nothing much beats an open space combined with the smooth power of a gentlemanly horse.
At home, the situation was less exciting and I began to cast the net ever further. On a cold, sleety day in January, 2010, I travelled to Coachman’s Riding School, Hall Lane, Sychdyn, Mold, on the borders of Denbighshire, where I signed up for a riding assessment on Penny. Thereafter, I rode out with Coachman’s every three weeks for a couple of years. The destination was always Halkyn Mountain – around an hour’s ride away along country lanes. Halkyn Mountain is something of an anomaly. Scarred with the remnants of limestone quarrying, plus lead and copper mining, Halkyn rises gently to a summit of just 290 metres, with views across the Dee Estuary and the Clwydian Range. The open landscape has never been enclosed and is still mostly common land grazed by sheep. It allowed plenty of freedom to roam, and this worked pretty well as a three-hour route especially in the early days when the group consisted of experienced riders only. It was a miserable winter’s day when I first rode Penny to the mountain, with thick mist on higher ground and not much of a view. But there were a good few places to canter along grassy tracks and a penultimate gallop up to the trig point. Thereafter, I rode Dublin, Mal, and Charlie; all strong, forward-going cobs, and the handsome, athletic thoroughbred, Ted.

Halkyn-colour-map-Eng-edited

Ted was a speedy, sporty sort of chap with amazing suspension and could launch himself effortlessly over most obstacles as well as standard fences. On the occasion I rode him onto Halkyn, we’d already popped over a few random boulders and I was enjoying his athleticism to the point where we were flying over rows of gorse bushes at a speed rather faster than I would have liked, but he had brakes, so all good. Then our group split into two. The majority of the ride disappeared elsewhere whilst Ted and I followed Helen and her horse down a long slope to a wide flat area split by a watery ditch. Ted flew over this at a fast canter. Great! There was nowhere to go then, other than to turn in a wide circle, leap the ditch again and gallop back up the hill. I suspect that was the plan, anyway. Ted, pretty pumped-up by then, anticipated this a lot sooner than me, and although I’d got a firm hold of him, his slowing-down-canter was a thing of great bounciness and then the mother of all potential downfalls – I lost a stirrup.
It was at that point when Ted spun round, seemingly on one foreleg in a matter of seconds, when I lost my balance completely with no chance of recovery and I kissed the ground. Unhurt, I looked up in time to see Ted describing a beautiful arc over the ditch, before galloping up the hill and heading for the horizon, stirrups flying. My co-rider cantered off in hot pursuit while I walked in the general direction of… well, I wasn’t sure really. Is there nothing more embarrassing than a mud-splattered menopausal woman wandering about the moors dressed to ride with not a horse in sight? Ramblers and dog walkers smiled and nodded, eager to explain they’d seen a galloping horse some miles back. Great! Meanwhile, my right hand turned a ghostly shade of blue. (Months later, my little finger formed a funny bump on the bone, but much like the stubbed toe, that’s all I had to show for it.) Ted was soon recovered – a bit sweaty from his exertions – and we joined the rest of the party, although my shocked and shaky blue hand refused to cooperate in grasping the saddle in order to haul myself back on, so I swapped with Barry and rode Sky home instead. An active participant as part of the Coachman’s Polocrosse team, the mare was easily ridden with one hand and the ride home passed without further incident.
Sky, the grey Irish mare was probably my favourite horse on the yard and when Coachman’s finally closed and changed to liveries only in 2012, (yes, another one) I was glad when my riding buddy, Alison, bought her. For a while, thanks to Alison’s generosity, I continued to ride Sky. I even took her out solo onto Halkyn one sparkling, frosty morning in January. There are not many horses I’d trust to be sensible along frozen roads and white, misted hills, but some horses just inspire confidence from the get-go. Sky was one of these, and we clicked. Although she shied and started at tiny things, there was somehow a familiar pattern to this and in all the ways that mattered, she was generally cautious. The only problem was putting her bridle on in the first instance – there was clearly something in her past which niggled away at her, some rough treatment maybe. The bit itself, a plain rubber mouthpiece was never a problem, but I always struggled to slip the headpiece behind her ears and I usually had to summon help from someone much taller.
Sadly, the livery business also came to a close, the horses were moved elsewhere, and as is the nature of these things, the original crowd lost touch. And as is the nature of other things, my son moved to London, and we said a rather more permanent, sad goodbye to our family dog in the summer of 2012. By 2013 we’d downsized and moved a short distance out of Conwy. Meanwhile, a bit further away –halfway around the world, in fact –  an unknown horse was waiting for me.

Continue Reading: https://janruth.com/2019/04/02/disappearing-dreamscapes-6/

About this Series

The first four chapters of Disappearing Dreamscapes represent 30 years from 1968-1998 and are split over four seasons based on diary entries through 1979. Chapters 5-8 represent 20 years from 1998-2018 and are recorded chronologically.

How to Write a Book Review

 

Authors are always clamouring for reviews. Some readers pen them automatically after they’ve read a book and have a ready-formed opinion bursting to get out, but a huge percentage of readers don’t bother. Some are not quite sure what it’s all about. Lot’s of readers are less than confident about sharing an opinion of something they’ve read, for fear of looking silly or uninformed. So here’s a quick overview of how to go about it.

Who are book reviews for?

You might be forgiven for thinking that writing a book review is primarily to flatter the author, or thank the author for writing an enjoyable book. Book reviews are for prospective readers; to inform those buyers who are browsing the Amazon bookstore, chatting on Goodreads or following on-line bloggers, to decide if they might enjoy the book as much as the reviewer did. 

What to include:

  • The best single rule to remember is this: Only write about the actual book!
  • You can include a very brief outline of the story, but remember the book description is already right there, so consider these points: Was the story believable, did it keep you engaged right to the last page? Did the structure of the plot work for you? If it’s a mystery, was there one?
  • The characters. Did they seem real, multi-dimensional people?
  • The author’s writing style. How was it for you?
  • Your personal enjoyment of the book and whether you would recommend it to other readers is always an overriding strength in a positive book review. Maybe there was an experience which resonated with yourself?
  • Comparing the book or the author to other books and authors is useful. For example, if you like Jilly Cooper you’ll love this…

It’s not necessary to be literary and serious; a lot of the time a couple of sentences will suffice. On the other hand, if you like writing essay-type reviews these can be brilliant, but study book-bloggers and top Amazon reviewers to see how they go about it. (Well-written reviews often attract free ARC copies from authors : advance review copies).

What not to include:

  • Your possible relationship to the author, however vague.
  • If you need to reference the author, then use the surname only or call them the author or include their full name. Never use Christian names as it may compromise the validity of the review and some sites will remove them permanently.
  • Imagine if you saw this review on the latest Dan Brown: Hello Dan love, fabulous book, Five stars! I expect the vast majority of us would laugh, Dan Brown would most certainly cringe – but most importantly, would this sort of review help you form a decision to buy the book if you’d not read it?
  • The weather! I’m being tongue-in-cheek here but really, no honestly there’s no need to mention the weather…
  • How long the book took to arrive in the post; ie it was damaged. This isn’t the fault of the author – stick to reviewing the book. Likewise, problems with your Amazon account; ie it won’t download. This is not the author’s fault and should never form part of a book review.
  • Spoilers; giving away crucial parts of the plot and therefore spoiling it for other readers ie: I’m glad Susan was dead by chapter three.
  • Copying and pasting the entire book description instead.
  • And the worst of all: I haven’t read it yet… so one star. Why on earth do sites allow these ‘reviews’ to remain?

It’s easier than ever to leave a book review. You can write a single sentence or several hundred sentences. I do hope readers who’ve never left a book review will now consider penning their valuable thoughts… weather permitting.

Disappearing Dreamscapes 4

Continuing memories and reflections of an equine obsession 1968-2018.

Chapter 4: Winter

11-15-2011_5 3Higher House, Mottram-St-Andrew, Alderley Edge. New Year’s Day, 1979. Alderley Edge was gripped by frost, and topped with a dusting of snow. A frozen woolly hat embedded in a frozen cowpat. A thin, piercing blue sky and a cold sun creeping over the snow-capped Pennines. From Higher House, we rode along Oak Road through Kirklyditch, past farms and the occasional palatial property, the road so narrow in places that we could glimpse through the icy windows of roadside cottages. We took care to ride along the middle of the lane, avoiding the slippery verges. The crazy lurcher from the yard ran alongside us, joined on this occasion by a black Labrador from the cottage at the end of the lane. The lurcher, easily leaping fences, gates, and hedges, travelled twice as far as the rest of us, disappearing over the fields in a blur. His mission – to hunt rabbits. More often than not, he’d reappear unexpectedly further along the route, with only a frozen bread-crust, tongue lolling, flanks heaving. This mostly uncoordinated procession never caused a problem on the roads, but then, forty years ago, drivers fully expected to see horses and dogs in the countryside.
We trotted along the lane beside Finlow Wood, cantering on the wide grass verges where the low, winter sun had miraculously softened the ground, hundreds of noisy crows suddenly taking flight; an evocative sound I’ll always associate with The Edge. The trees along Artists Lane were still especially snow-laden and sparkling, but this dense canopy and the high bank to one side kept everything below in shade. Rivulets of water had frozen underfoot, leaving a solid film of ice beneath our horses’ hooves. We dismounted and let them slither their own way, yelping as they dragged us along at a pace we couldn’t quite manage. Both dogs barked, happy to demonstrate the non-sliding qualities of four paws. And then, once reunited with brothers Victor and Skippy, we continued onto the old sand quarry, an area which usually afforded a good place to let off steam. On this occasion, though, even the sand was frozen and we didn’t progress much above a careful walk until we entered the dripping silence of Windmill Woods. The horses were like coiled springs by then and burst into a canter along the muddy track, ice cracking like gunshots as we sped beneath low branches – collecting a neck full of snow – before clattering briefly across the main road and onto The Edge. Both dogs were panting hard by then, and the Labrador was beginning to lag behind. On the summit of Stormy Point, we dismounted and stamped some feeling back into our feet. As we turned for home, huge snowflakes began to obliterate the scenery, fingers and toes feeling the air frost begin to circulate again as the pale sun slipped away. 
22552313_1517469051670733_1974886018472353100_nI loved riding in the winter. I rode on New Year’s Day, Christmas Day and any other bank holiday the horses were available. The weather or special dates didn’t seem important or relevant, perhaps because the horses knew no different. I enjoyed braving the elements despite suffering from chilblains one especially snowy year, but there’s always a cosy satisfaction in returning to the yard as dusk closes in. Expectant horses nickering for hay, our own faces pink and speckled with snow. Sometimes we’d head to the pub, to re-live and exaggerate our adventures. But the best snow ride ever was with the previously mentioned Golden Pheasant, Llangollen, North Wales. On this occasion – it was January 1986 – the horses had been fitted with snow studs in their shoes to prevent the snow balling-up – I guess the equivalent of equine snow tyres – which allowed us to canter slowly and safely along the lanes through deep, soft snow. The sound of all those muffled hooves thudding along in unison, the pungent air, the trees and fields dipped in crystallised sugar and the rose-tinted sky as the sun began to set, equalled a truly magical experience. And probably not one which would get past health and safety rulings now! 
img_20171218_125907064The way our roads are used now has become increasingly worrying for cyclists, walkers, and riders. Vehicular traffic has taken complete priority. Much of the time, I ride along the Welsh lanes without incident and the vast majority of drivers are respectful and patient. However, over the previous twelve months I can think of three or four occasions where I’ve been placed in a potentially dangerous situation, and it usually comes down to ignorance, or sheer impatience. Occasionally, it feels hostile. Most of these incidents happen in the summer time. Since I live in a popular North Wales tourist area this makes sense, but why drive any differently when on holiday? The lanes here are narrow and twisting, often heavily shaded, bordered with ditches and drystone walls. Combined with summer hedgerows visibility can suddenly be compromised in a second. A valid reason why I ride less in the summer. At least in the autumn and winter months, the hedges are cut right back and despite the darker days, visibility for riders and cyclists is much improved.
deadslowinfowebCompounding all of this, vehicles are faster and bigger than they used to be, including agricultural machinery. A modern tractor pulling a baler and travelling along a narrow lane bordered with hedges or stone walls, is a daunting obstacle from the back of a horse. The cab is crazily high, and if the driver is wearing earpieces or ear-defenders, he appears lost in his own world. Has he even seen me? I’ve been trapped between farm machinery unable to reverse, and a car behind me who wouldn’t reverse. On one occasion I rode down a farm driveway out of the way but the guy in the car began gesticulating, as if he wanted to get down the drive too, and I was now in his way. So, out we came and waited on the grass verge. For some unknown reason the tractor driver revved his engine and this huge rattling monster began to creep towards us. My sensible mount had an understandable wobble about this and took a couple of steps back, only to discover that the guy in the car hadn’t gone down the driveway at all, but had crept up behind us. Why? Where did he expect us to go? The pony inevitably came into contact with his front bumper and panicked, shot forward, then made for the driveway but slipped on a strip of concrete, and down we both went. The only injury was a grazed elbow (mine). The pony leapt up, unharmed. By the time I’d got to my feet and grabbed the reins, the car had vanished.
The British Horse Society says there have been more than 2,000 reports of accidents involving horses on UK roads since 2010 with almost one in ten resulting in a fatality. And according to the survey they conducted, three in four accidents happened because the vehicle passed the animal without allowing enough space. A spokesperson for the charity said a major problem was that many drivers are unsure how to behave when near a horse. Section 215 of the Highway Code sets out how road users should act when there’s a horse on the road. It says that: “Drivers should take ‘great care’ and ‘treat all horses as a potential hazard’. Drivers should ‘pass wide and slowly’ when passing a horse and always listen to a rider’s request to slow down or stop. If a driver doesn’t slow down or drives in a dangerous or inconsiderate way around horses on the road, try to get their number plate and report it to your local police station.”
This statement already feels out of date. And the police tell us they are powerless to enforce prosecutions now without video evidence. We are expected to ride wearing a Go-Pro camera, or its equivalent, at all times. This is putting all the onus onto the rider. We should all be responsible for everyone’s safety. And I’d rather we took this back to source and include education about other road users for learner drivers. Passing horses and cyclists should be part of the driving test, even if it’s only a simulated version. I’ve seen terrible road rage between cars and cyclists, I’ve experienced verbal abuse at first-hand for no good reason, and I’ve had cars skimming past me despite clearly requesting a speeding, approaching vehicle to slow down. These days I am fully insured through the British Horse Society, I wear high-vis clothing, and I possess a certificate to prove that I am road-worthy on the back of a horse. 
I took my British Horse Society Road Safety Test in 1989 at Finlow Hill Stables, Over Alderley. When The Edge closed to horses in the mid-eighties, we were thrown onto the mercy of the roads and the BHS were keen to have riders aware of the rules of the road – especially those young enough not to hold a driving licence. I’d ridden out solo from Finlow Hill a few times on a very obliging albeit slightly neurotic mare called Kerry, but riding in the area was never the same without the freedom to roam. Despite the close proximity of the sand hills and the track through Windmill Woods, restrictions elsewhere meant that most viable routes were linear, and repetitive. And then the upheaval of my personal life in the early nineties meant that I only rode occasionally, lacking both the spare cash and the enthusiasm to find somewhere new. Finlow Hill eventually changed its status to a livery yard. I don’t know when Dawson’s closed. I suspect Stan and Mary retired in the nineties but at the time of writing, Higher House is currently a cattery. Good to see that the original listed house and the stabling, is all still intact.
Wild Water Cover MEDIUM WEBMidnight Sky Cover LARGE EBOOKNot only did my first marriage end when my son was four, but it felt as if the carefree era of riding I’d taken for granted had also come to an abrupt stop. I found my writing mojo again though, and penned a second novel which actually found an agent. Nothing came of Summer in October but this time, I didn’t burn the manuscript because someone credible in the publishing world had told me that ‘it had something.’ Much later it became the basis for Midnight Sky. It’s worth remembering that any serious rewrite can always make for a better version of almost anything, and by 1995 my storyline had changed completely. Along with Second Draft and my son, we moved to pastures new in Wilmslow. I continued to work in property, mentally storing a wealth of research and first-hand experience for Wild Water – a novel which didn’t surface until much later. But the best job I had for studying character and appreciating satire was a tele-appointing position for a hearing-aid company. One needed a special blend of humour, patience, and empathy to get through the week. In addition to this mildly entertaining job, there were two horses to the rear of the offices. For reasons which escape me, someone christened them Elvis and Mad-For-It. If it was warm enough to take lunch outside, these two cobs tended to gravitate towards us and wait for apple cores. On learning of my riding experience, a male colleague dared me to climb over the fence and sit on one of them. So, naturally, I climbed through the barbed wire (I had said colleague hold it away from my smart office suit). I weighed up the docile looking coloured cob, took hold of his mane, and vaulted on. Elvis didn’t bat an eyelid. This was before social media and mobile phones with cameras.
Too distracted with family life through the nineties, I didn’t write and I wasn’t even reading much, but I did pick up The Horse Whisperer by Nicolas Evans. It was a book (and a film) which coincided with the rise in popularity of Monty Roberts. An American trainer, Roberts was the first recognised ‘horse whisperer,’ bringing a new, softer method to training horses which hadn’t been explored before. ‘Natural horsemanship’ taps into natural behaviours and Roberts developed this into a two-way language based on the social dynamics of wild Mustangs. thehorsewhispererbookIt’s not so much about whispering but listening and observing body language and natural reactions to any given situation. This sits easily in tandem with the most powerful instinct of all – that of survival. Although variations on these natural methods are now commonplace, back then it was a different way of looking at a subject I thought I knew plenty about. It made me question the impact we have on riding horses. And it perhaps also reflected a changing mindset when it dawned on me that horses only tolerated being ridden, and surely it made sense that better relationships could evolve if the ‘conversation’ between horse and rider was sometimes less rulebook and more instinctive and observational. After all, we don’t all parent in the same way; the give-and-takes which work for one child, might not be as effective for a child with a less subservient personality. Although unable to reason emotionally, horses are as individual as people and just as much a product of their background, breeding, and historical interactions as humans are. It was a concept I’d return to in later years and much of it, along with my experiences of riding schools and the complexity of family relationships, sewed considerable seeds for my second novel, Midnight Sky.
My son began riding around the same age as I did. Fortunately, children’s riding lessons were easier to come by and we began to frequent Ashton Old Hall Equestrian Centre, Church Lane, Sale. In December of 1996 a children’s fun ride with Father Christmas at Finlow Hill Stables ended the year with something less formal. It was a strictly supervised event with an army of teenage girls leading a string of novice children around the sand hills. Somewhere along the line, my son’s pony spooked at some fake fairy wings and he experienced his first tumble. It didn’t put him off, but like most boys, he was never as keen as his older stepsister. We sometimes took both children to Finlow, walking beside the ponies along those same lanes I knew so well. Through the following summer my son gained considerable confidence under the instruction of Lisa, riding forward-going, interpretive Fudge and a much less responsive pony called Shantih. Between these two characters, he learnt that stop and go had variable boundaries.
imagesBody protectors came in and according to the manufacturers, every rider needed one. Since my son had happily inherited my old hat – the latest style then was one with a moulded chin strap – which was a perfect fit, so it didn’t feel too extravagant to invest in a body protector. In later years, I even purchased one for myself. I could see where it might prevent a collar bone injury or worse, but for me it compromised the way I sat and moved on the horse and I never got past the feeling of being encased in a straitjacket. I wore it round the house for a while in an effort to get it to mould to my shape, but it never really did, and more often than not, it remained in the boot of the car. In these consumer-mad times, equitation attracts a formidably expensive catalogue, if one dares to go looking. Alongside the matching this, that, and the other, there’s an astonishing amount of unnecessary bling. Fortunately, there’s always a budget version of anything and everything, but one thing I’ve never compromised on is a kite-marked hard hat. Surprisingly, it’s not a statutory requirement, but I wouldn’t think of getting on a motorbike without one, and I’d not ride a horse without one either. This is basic common sense, surely? Head injuries usually mean bad news and on the occasions I have parted company with a horse – and it’s probably inevitable at some stage – the outer shell of my hat has taken some hard hits, sustaining a variety of nasty looking dents. So why wouldn’t you wear one… vanity, bravado? Maybe it’s the irresistible feel of one’s hair blowing in the breeze.
Despite personal and relationship stability, Second Draft and I began to feel suffocated by encroaching suburbia. Building along the Cheshire greenbelt exploded in the mid-nineties as did the sprawl of Manchester International Airport: now the third busiest airport in the UK. The 60 million-pound Wilmslow bypass ripped through the countryside, the birth of a new, consumer saturated landscape. Perversely, during its construction, the bare bones of the road made a pleasant cycle path, a smooth ribbon of compressed earth stretching for miles through the still quiet fields. The calm before the storm. Once it opened we enjoyed – at least for a short time – two of the big city stores within easy reach, but there was a hefty price to pay. Two stores grew into five, six, seven… more. Where the bypass did indeed create quieter roads around Wilmslow, Handforth, and Cheadle, it also generated more retail developments, fitness centres, and housing estates alongside the new road until eventually, the volume of traffic increased to a constant roar. The familiar problems had merely taken a side-step and mushroomed into something far less attractive than the original village bottlenecks. davide-cantelli-139885-unsplashWe began to crave open countryside, a dog, and opportunities to walk (and ride) more than the convenience of shopping and all the other trappings which went with a semi-urban lifestyle. Keeping up the Joneses began to feel disingenuous, if only to ourselves. My childhood Cheshire had changed beyond recognition, and horses had begun to feel part of a long-lost dream, something I felt powerless to recapture. The sad demise of the public riding school had continued to spiral slowly downwards until I felt trapped in the winter of my equine discontent. In retrospect, and although it is probably rather self-indulgent to admit, I think my environment stifled much of my creativity. Of course, horses and creative pursuits are luxury items and jobs and schools had to take precedence. But then, at the end of 1997 some crazy plot twist came out of the blue, and a life-changing opportunity presented itself. It felt like another bite of the cherry, although for a while we couldn’t decide if it was maybe a little too much like pure fiction to take  seriously…
Continue reading: https://janruth.com/2019/03/15/disappearing-dreamscapes-5/

About this Series.

The first four chapters of Disappearing Dreamscapes represent 30 years from 1968-1998 and are split over four seasons based on diary entries through 1979. Chapters 5-8 represent 20 years from 1998-2018 and are recorded chronologically.