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. Hunting 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.
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.
After 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.
Spring 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.
I 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.
But 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. There 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.
Inevitably 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.
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
Considering 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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/
Continuing memories and reflections of an equine obsession 1968-2018
Chapter 5: Pastures New
In 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.
But 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.
Riding 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.
The 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.
When 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.
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.
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.
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.