Book Review: Sweet Sorrow

43188441._SY475_Boy Meets Girl. A Shakespearean Tragicomedy. Charlie Lewis is the product of a broken family. His mother has gone to live with another man and taken his sister, leaving him to look after his depressed father. His part-time job at the petrol station is hanging on by a thread and he’s surely failed all his exams. But during the long summer of 1997 Charlie meets Fran. Fran is from the better end of town, well-educated and immersed in her role as Juliet in a summer drama camp, something she persuades Charlie to join, too.
It’s a familiar enough story, and in another author’s hands this novel might have failed spectacularly. But the quality of the writing and the sheer sense of character, place, and time, makes for compelling reading. Not once does this novel rely on a plot twist, a gratuitous scene of sex or violence, or any other kind of trickery to have the reader stay engaged and read on. We’ve all known people like these. It’s realistic, the narrative is witty, the tragedy and the comedy slot together beautifully. And although this is a-coming-of-age story with all the embarrassment that inevitably brings, Nicholls delivers it with great style and insight.

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Book Review: The Lost

61F0ewozQiL._SY346_Forensic psychologist Paula Maguire returns to her hometown in Ballyterrin to keep an eye on her ailing father, and to investigate unsolved cases of two missing girls from 1985. Since she’s a local girl and since her own mother also went missing, its assumed that Paula will have a better feel for solving these old cases. Paula is hard-hitting and strong-minded, but likeable in that she shows vulnerability and makes mistakes. It was easy to get behind her cause. Her supporting cast in the force are equally well-drawn and believable. Aidan, her ex, who runs the local newspaper and whose father was murdered by the IRA is also fully fleshed out and the characters running The Mission felt suitably creepy without falling into cliche.
Lost children are commonplace in this genre and police procedural novels are not usually my thing but this one surprised me. Good pacing, realism, tension, depth of character and setting; all held my interest throughout. The author shared a good sense of place and memories of The Troubles, those internal wars which blighted Ireland through the 80’s, leaving a trail of trauma for years to come, helped root the novel in believability. I especially liked that the author didn’t rely on gory details. Clean, concise writing, just enough descriptive elements to paint a picture within the realms of the genre.

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Should I be Riding my Horse During the Coronavirus Restrictions?

A post in support of those who have made the right decision for themselves either to ride, or not to ride.

Trampoline-InjuriesAs the lockdown continues, the rage of the social-media exercise-police gathers momentum. There are no specific rulings from the government as to how we take our permitted exercise, other than we should avoid high-risk activities which are likely to put further strain on the NHS, and that we should practise social-distancing at all times. The latter is an extremely easy business to achieve on the back of a horse. The rest of it is proving to be something of a grey area, and provoking considerable hostility, especially through social-media where people are lightning quick to sit in judgment on someone they don’t actually know, let alone the world of equitation – and, where any one individual sits within that sphere. Anger is high towards those still able to continue with some of the activities they’ve always done. Families are grounded at home, and not only is this encouraging lots of on-line activity, but I’m wondering if the accidents on quad bikes and trampolines over the easter bank holidays could potentially outweigh those of low-key horse-riding! 
Untitled designAt the time of writing the UK government, quite rightly, recognises the fact that exercise is vital for mental and physical health. And the need for it to continue is also relevant in order to keep the population fit, and to avoid a whole range of problems for future NHS services. Those who exercise regularly already know the benefits and understand the reasons for doing so. But these waters have become muddied by hoards of people taking exercise together, or hanging-out in the park and for some reason, the lone rider or cyclist, or walker, is an easy target for fear and anger. Some situations need to be understood in context. Someone walking, cycling or horse-riding from their back door in the Welsh hills and covering 10 or more miles, is virtually no risk compared to a guy attempting the same activities in a highly populated city. 
If your horse is kept on a public livery yard then the decision may already have been taken out of your hands. If you have to travel a long distance to ride your horse, then its probably not a good idea either, unless the issue is also the fact that you need to feed, water, and do all the things necessary to maintain basic welfare requirements. But if you choose to ride, how do you evaluate the risk factor? It’s obviously down to the individual  horse, your own confidence and ability, and the type of riding available to you. If your horse is only used to competing in an indoor school and this is now unavailable, is your horse safe to hack out in your designated area? And if you don’t ride your horse at all, how safe will he be once you decide to get back into the saddle?
IMG_20200214_102809796_HDRI am currently riding a 17 year old 12.2 pony and able to ride mostly off-road – not that the roads are a problem, there’s never been a safer time to use our country roads! I hack at a steady pace and consider my activities to be as low-risk as they possibly could be. Compare this scenario to that of riding a young thoroughbred and perhaps schooling at home over jumps. I would evaluate both the horse and the activity to be pretty high-risk. There are a million permutations in-between these two extremes. This is why riders should be allowed to make their own, honest judgement in deciding whether they should or could be riding at this time, or not. And without fear of reprisal or guilt.
A response from someone who works in an NHS emergency department.
” We’ve had 2 trauma calls in the last few weeks. They were both RTAs. We’ve had around 20 large bone fractures. There were a couple of cyclists, but mainly elderly falling in their own gardens and 1 drunk person on a hover-board in their house. I have seen zero horse injuries. Zero sport injuries. People really are listening in this respect and we’ve been very thankful for the lack of this work whilst the respiratory work increases daily. I think the key is low risk. You know your horse and local area. You know whats an easy ride Vs challenge. We trust you to make good decisions, and if you don’t, that’s called autonomy and we’ll still be there with open doors to help if needed.
You still need to enjoy life, responsibly.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, its mental health and domestic violence we’ve seen rises in.
Personally if going for a gentle ride in a remote place stops your mental health declining, I’d rather you did that.”

Book Review: Daughters of the Lake

24715963A Classy, Contemporary Family Drama.
Eager to celebrate an anniversary and announce her news, Madalena requests the company of her four adult children and their respective partners to her hotel in majestic Switzerland. These relationships are mightily dysfunctional and complex. The reasons behind the indifference between self-obsessed Portia and her neurotic, flat-chested pianist sister, Vienne; Annie’s sexual confusion and Lawrences’ loss of direction in life, are slowly unravelled. The arrival of Portia’s confused thirteen-year-old daughter –  expelled from school – adds to the discord as old family secrets threaten to implode.
I’m not sure I really liked any these people but I was desperately interested in their plight! I thought some of the narrative a little dialogue heavy here and there, and perhaps some of the revelations were not fully explored as the number of characters and the plot tended to take over. A lot of characters are introduced fairly early on so one needs to pay attention and I admit to starting this one a couple of times. Overall though, I really enjoyed the book and intend to seek other works by this author.

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Book Review: Taking Flight

5174I5+x6gLA privileged, snarky teenage boy hooks up with an elderly man in the throes of Alzheimer’s. Jeremy is railing against his self-absorbed parents and goes AWOL at the airport, and Harry is simply hankering after a last taste of freedom. Down to a moment of fate they find themselves on the road together, bird-spotting. Before too long, they are both missed…
Harry’s wife is fighting her step-son in order to find Harry safe and sound and prevent Oliver from finding any more excuses to put his father in a dementia home. And once Jeremy’s parent’s realise they’ve been ‘had,’ they begin a hopeless, scatter-brained mission to track down their son.
There’s a slightly farcical element to this tale in that some of the plotting felt a little contrived here and there. And I admit to some gnashing of the teeth as to the selfish character motivation from Jeremy’s dysfunctional parents. Some of it felt a little far-fetched. And yet… these people exist. And these characters and their lifestyle choices make for a good contrast in highlighting the tenderness of the developing relationship between Jeremy and Harry, and underpinned Jeremy’s refusal to toe the line and behave as he did. The earthiness of some of the other cast members such as Grace, and Abbey, added colour, realism, and depth. At no time did this novel lapse into cheesiness or become sentimental. It’s a touching, humorous, insightful, and original story, and I enjoyed the road trip. Don’t be put off by the bland cover.

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Book Review: To Kill A Mockingbird

‘Shoot all the Bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a Mockingbird.’  Set in 1930’s Alabama the language and writing style of this novel initially took some effort to become engaged. And dare I say it, some of the opening scenes were a little tedious? There, I’ve said it, but then something slowly grabbed my attention and I was there, in the long slow heat of a developing drama. The story is narrated through the eyes of nine year old tomboy Jean Louise Finch (Scout) who lives with her older brother, Jem. Both children are being raised by their widowed father Atticus, a lawyer and a man of some standing and integrity in the county of Maycomb.
Atticus is defending a black man against the accusal of raping a white woman. To say the odds are stacked against Tom Robinson is an understatement. And the fallout of the trial witnessed through the eyes of Scout and Jem, highlights the stubborn longstanding ignorance and prejudice of those times and beyond.
Slivers of description threaded through the narrative are vivid and the rest of the cast spans every strata of society; the upper class white women taking tea and cake down to the servitude of the lower-classes, and those who dare to step into both worlds. Then there’s the mysterious Boo Radley, the steadfast Miss Maudie, the slippery, no-good Ewell family, the morphine-addicted, acidic Mrs Dubose, the Finch family’s black cook and mother-figure Calpurnia – who often serves as a bridge across the divided communities. The respective warts and good deeds of these characters are always exposed, the consequences of their actions fully played out. Atticus advises his children to always try and understand what life is like in another person’s skin, in the hope that any hatred will never destroy their faith in human kindness and understanding. There’s a strong, simple social message in this story and it’s still relevant today.

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Llangollen: 2

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

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

The route

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

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

Food for Thought

Feeding the World and Saving the Planet.

1. There are many opinions about how our food is produced and how the countryside should be managed, but some of the arguments are wildly inaccurate. When did we get so far removed from reality? For some people, the lack of exposure to nature is causing depressions and other mental health issues. Keeping hens and bees, growing food from seed and looking after the land and our animals is not only something we need to understand and protect, but is of tremendous benefit to our overall health. 
2. Farm animals are not slaughtered for their skins to make leather handbags, in the same way that sheep are not slaughtered for their fleece. The wool is a by-product of the meat industry and is vastly underused and undervalued. For some breeds of sheep, not shearing can bring great misery and even death via parasites. But the fleece has become almost worthless, and so understandable that some farmers cannot afford to shear. Those breeds which don’t need shearing are not always able to survive winter conditions on a traditional hill farm. 
3. It seems out of kilter in these planet conscious days that man-made fibres have overtaken the more traditional materials such as wool. Maybe we should get back to what is, after all a more natural product and helps to sustain the farming industry. As it stands, cheap imports rely on materials which are not always planet friendly and may even contain plastics. If the animal is bred for the food chain, then it makes ethical sense to use every part of that animal.
4. Farming and food production gets unfairly singled out for the mass destruction of animals. Extreme vegan activists are concerned about the exploitation of sentient beings. This is an admirable cause, but we are all guilty of the claims made against non-vegans by merely existing and going about our business. I don’t believe it’s tenable to take the food chain argument down to extreme levels. We kill animals when we drive cars, fly in planes, build railway tracks, farm grain, grow apples, hunt for pleasure, or mine sand. We alter ecosystems when we put up new housing developments and ship lentils across the world. We push native animals out of their environments all the time and being vegan doesn’t alter these facts. Being vegan doesn’t make you a paragon of virtue in relation to saving the planet. We all need to consider planning smaller families, recycling and repairing, taking less long-haul trips and driving smaller cars.
5. It’s good to have diversity in the food we produce. vegetarianism-vs-meat-1492553521If the population was all entirely vegan and reliant on a short list of ingredients, it would create yet another set of problems in trying to feed millions of people on legumes, nuts, and flax; and artificial meat substitutes produced in a factory. The entire countryside would be given over to vast swathes of specific crops. Controlling those areas set aside for growing crops such as peas, creates a need to control other animals eating or destroying that crop because to grow anything on a vast scale invariably means that something else is compromised. Over a five year period up to 2013 rice farmers in NSW killed 200,000 ducks in order to protect the crop.
6. As an aside, I think we do eat too much protein, especially red and processed meat, and probably not enough vegetables and fruit. Meat is not good for us in big quantities – but then, neither is anything else, including peas, beans and lentils. All things in moderation is a cliche for a reason. It makes sense to eat foods in season and produced locally so why not spend a little more and buy local, grass-fed meat, but eat it less often? Natural, sustainable, and local to the area where we live surely creates the right balance and is likely to be more suited to the land. Massive carbon emissions are created by long haul flights bringing out of season foods to the UK, invariably wrapped in plastic.
7. I’m not vegan or vegetarian, but that doesn’t mean I have no empathy for animals reared for the table. What we should be doing is looking to improve animal welfare ie: not importing animals thousands of miles in crates and lorries to meet their demise in another country, or supporting those products which are mass produced, such as eggs from battery hens. Eggs are cheap anyway so take a moment to read the labels, and buy local, free range. 
8. Our world population is too high – the root of all our problems – to restrict food production to a single type. The key to finding harmony between all the arguments, moral or otherwise, is respect and education. I think it’s great that some of the population are vegetarian or vegan, but it’s just as worthy of acceptance that the rest of us choose to eat meat, fish, and dairy. 

 

The Castle on the River

I’ve sped past Gwydir Castle many times and, because it’s local, tend to fall into the trap of thinking I can go anytime I wish. But then one never finds the right time. When a friend lent me Judy Corbett’s book, Castles in the Air – an account of the restoration of Gwydir – I quickly became hooked. And I had to see for myself the result of many years of struggle to bring Gwydir back to medieval life. Passing beyond the boundary wall is stepping back into history, and there’s an instant cloistered atmosphere. The property is described as ‘… an irregularly planned house in late Perpendicular Gothic style with some late 16th century Renaissance detailing. It is of roughly J-shaped plan, constructed of slate-stone blocks with sandstone dressings and slate roofs. Many of the building materials came from Maenan Abbey.’
In 1994 Peter and Judy left London to search for a house to restore. Drawn to North Wales, partly because Judy grew up there and partly down to Hiraeth – the Welsh word for homesickness – there was already a powerful magnet along with an affinity to rain, the mountains, and ancient Welsh history. They discovered a crumbling 16th century stone mansion hovering on the periphery of the flood plains in Llanrwst. Gwydir wasn’t your average ‘doer upper’. Regarded as one of the finest Tudor houses in Wales, the derelict castle was formerly the ancestral home of the powerful Wynn family. Having fallen foul of previous attempts to ‘modernise’ it, the building had lost its majestic identity to a hideous nightclub along with a makeshift recording studio. Despite this, Peter and Judy’s dream of owning such a place had them pursue a sale, and soon they were sharing the marginally less squalid floor space with rats, bats, and a ghost.
The story related by Judy is one of unwavering obsession, and how the sheer size and magnitude of the task they had undertaken almost emotionally and financially defeated them, in part down to a period of ghostly possession in the name of Lady Margaret Cave – the most compelling and convincing account of a haunting I’ve ever read. And this sets a theme for living in Gwydir, where the constantly blurred edge of real and imaginary, past and present, becomes the norm.
In 1921 some of Gwydir’s historic contents – including two panelled rooms – were sold. The Dining Room was purchased by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (of Citizen Kane fame). Hearst was after purchasing historic interiors to furnish his mock castle in California. The fireplaces, panelling and door cases from Gwydir were crated up and shipped to America. In 1995 Judy and Peter discovered Gwydir’s lost Dining Room in a warehouse belonging to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Following lengthy negotiations, they were able to purchase the 17th century panelling, fireplace and door case, and all were finally returned to Gwydir – six tons of it, in fourteen giant packing crates – after a seventy-five-year American exile. I love how Judy describes this homecoming in her book, the way the very essence of Gwydir seemed to fill the air the moment the lids were eased off the crates…
The restored Dining Room wing, with its reinstated panelling and folded leather frieze was opened by HRH Prince Charles in the summer of 1998. The search continues for the Oak Parlour… Inconceivable then that these treasures should be at risk of flooding, and yet the Conwy River is prone to bursting its banks and Gwydir has fallen foul on more than one occasion. But plenty of locals are willing to pitch in and a band of volunteers are helping to build a sandbank wall.
If you’d like to get involved: https://www.facebook.com/GwydirCastle/
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This is a beautifully and evocatively written book; and records how Peter and Judy struggled to live in a cold, damp gothic property with not much money, but a huge amount of love for the building and a tremendous determination to get it right.

The Lakes Trail, Bigland Hall Equine, Cumbria 2019

Day One

Cantering over Canny Hill, Cookie, and the Cartmell Fells.
Who knew we’d need to learn how to tie a boating knot and trust an ex-car mechanic – someone who’d only sat on a horse some three years ago – to escort us on an 80-mile circular trek across Lakeland. I’m always up for an equine adventure, and I was ready to accept that being five foot nothing with short legs and on the wrong side of 60 might carry certain limitations. Or so I thought. I thought I didn’t want a big cob. Physically, big cobs and I don’t always get on. The width and the rolling gait can leave me feeling compromised. No, I wanted a small, slender beast I could manage without assistance. A horse who’d wait patiently outside the pub without feeling the need to untie himself in order to send my hat rolling down a steep bank towards a stream. A horse that didn’t feel considerably taller than 16 hands towards the end of the day, when jumping off onto hard ground felt increasingly perilous on tired legs.
But I got Cookie. The Cookie Monster. The mighty Cookster. My feet dangled somewhere behind his immense shoulders, and his special treeless saddle initially felt as if it offered little in the way of anchoring. My toes nudged the saddlebags slung across his withers; fixed by straps through the girth and balanced out by two bags of hard feed – his substantial lunch. Once up top, I couldn’t even reach the girth straps and his massive head felt an awful long way out in front. This was going to hurt. My riding fitness was mostly based on hacking out a pony belonging to my good friend and travel companion, Sue. Fortunately, thanks to her nursing background Sue possessed impressive medical supplies, including some black-market Voltarol – a potion apparently strong enough to handle the pain of childbirth. It all sounded good until we learnt it could only be administered via suppository. A thoughtful silence descended as we headed out across Canny Hill and up through the forestry at Simpson Ground Plantation. Maybe we’d make do with gin, heat pads, and ibuprofen after all.
Four mature ladies, five days in the saddle. Sue and I were joined by Lydia from Manchester, and Wendy from Virginia. We were following mostly ancient bridleways across the fells, through forests, villages and fords, calling at predestined pubs for lunch and overnight stays. The route would take us along the east side of Windermere as far north as Kentmere, before circuiting both Ambleside and Grassmere across central Lakeland, and then heading back via Conniston and over the top of Walna Scar. Basically, it was a massive pub crawl on horseback, starting with the Hare and Hounds at Bowland Bridge. Cookie had proved himself eminently reliable through the morning and waited patiently for me to untack and tie him to a suitable bit of fence in the car park, before I emptied the saddlebags and tipped up his lunch onto the grass. An hour in the pub for us meant plenty of time for the horses to digest their hard feed. Cookie would invariably be resting one hind leg and snoozing in the sun on my return. Mostly. If any of the horses were going to get tangled in their own lead rope, sit on a car bonnet or get loose, it would be Sue’s Lusitano-cross mare, Gaia. We began to call her Princess Gaia for good reason. Probably more a testament to her fitness, but she didn’t even sweat. 

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Throughout the morning we’d glimpsed the long shivery stretch of Windermere in the distance from the considerable height afforded by forestry tracks and the open hillside, but the afternoon saw us crossing lower ground as we headed up the valley towards Ings. Cookie felt fortified after his lunch and we picked up the pace with some steady canters through fields and along little-used bridleways. This horse knew where to take on water and how to pace himself, and exhibited the same stoic sensibility whether crossing the deep ford at Winster or trotting along a short stretch of busy road to the next bridleway. We meandered through open pastureland to arrive at Ings by late afternoon. Six hours in the treeless saddle, and although I felt tired I was more relieved to discover that not only was the saddle a good fit for both Cookie and I, the horse was a gentleman to handle.
The horses stayed overnight at an international showjumping yard, and our billet for the night was an old-fashioned guest house run by the lovely Mrs J. Our rooms were an eclectic mix of floral, flock, and frills, a blend of historical styles which stopped somewhere around the seventies. A crocheted mat for every item, a pile of Reader’s Digest circa 1999, china knick-knacks, faux flowers and brass beds, patterned rugs on swirly carpets, snake draught excluders, and the radiator in the hall set to scorch level. It felt reminiscent of visiting Nan as a child or seaside holidays with Mum and Dad. And sharing with Sue took us both back to school trips when mild exhaustion and forbidden drink took the form of giggly hysteria. But then things took a sinister turn when we decided to Google the meaning of the Latin scrolls on the wallpaper. The best we could come up with translated to the iron hand of blackest terror… Safely cocooned in nostalgia, the discovery of this felt mildly disturbing and for some unfathomable reason we thought it might be prudent to check inside the wardrobe. We grabbed a handle each… tugged. It lurched, then suddenly toppled towards us and a hundred mismatched hangers flew out. Trying to push the thing back upright against the wall and replace the innards made a considerable racket. Likewise the litter bin which seemed placed for musical impact rather than practicality, since the lid bashed the party wall with a resounding boom-tish every time the pedal was depressed. Sensing we might already be unpopular with our fellow companions, we retired early to our flowery beds and stifled our inner schoolgirl.

Day Two

Sticky Toffee Pudding, the Troutbeck Valley, and Trotting On.
P1000168Another day promising sun! Mrs J had already taken our breakfast order the previous evening, but lost the list. When it came down to it, any variation on a full English had her in the iron grip of blackest terror; so we all pitched in. By the time Mike arrived in the pickup to collect us and our bags, we’d cleared the table and said a fond farewell to Mrs J. Back at the showjumping yard, we collected the horses from their overnight grazing and began preparations for day two of the trail. A quick groom, a fresh saddle pad (all of them washed at the end of every day) saddle, saddlebags, breastplate, and the halter left on under the bridle for convenience, with the lead rope secured out of the way using Mike’s special boating knot. I loved day two, perhaps because I was already familiar with much of the area, and as we drew closer to central Lakeland the countryside developed into the classic, rolling English countryside the Lake District is famous for, inspiring not only Wordsworth but also Ruskin, Arthur Ransome, and Beatrix Potter. Plenty of sun and a warm breeze kept light cloud scudding across the fells, highlighting miles of drystone walls and some of those iconic Wainwright summits.   
After a sharp incline, we meandered down a long bridleway towards Kentmere and across open countryside before dropping down to a cluster of properties. An old gent stood by his garden gate, his hands held out, his expression rapturous. I’ve been watching you, coming down off the hill along the old bridleway. What a sight! What a wonderful, wonderful sight… We waved as we clattered past, heading through the hamlet and onto the Garburn Pass, an ancient byway which took us over the fells and into the pretty Troutbeck Valley. Much of the going was rough at the start with huge rocks and boulders forming some of the climb but the horses never hesitated and rarely put a hoof in the wrong place. Cookie needed no directional assistance whatsoever and the lightest contact through the reins. All I had to do was to stay in balance and make his job as easy as possible. Mike, Sheila, and Zara Myers had done an impressive job with their horses, especially since many of them have been acquired from less than satisfactory beginnings. Although the pace on the trail was very much dictated by the terrain – and lots of the time it was rough and slow going with the horses scrambling over rocks and on one occasion, steps – this isn’t pony trekking. Experience of riding a fit horse across open country is a priority, as is general fitness and stamina. Bracing against severe inclines and staying in balance with the movement of the horse over uneven ground is deceptively tiring for the uninitiated. And riding continues across five consecutive days, with care of your horse at the end of each day coming well before dinner. Heaving off the tack and the saddlebags and then heaving your own bag up to a hotel room had us all ready to eat and fall into bed before 9pm most evenings. The mantra was very much eat, sleep, ride, repeat. Since I’m happy doing all of these things the routine suited me quite well.

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Lunch was at the Mortal Man in Troutbeck and we secured the horses in a small yard close to the pub. During our substantial repast, Cookie saw fit to untie himself and bump my hat off the post where I’d left it. Fortunately for him, it had stopped short of a deep stream, and who could be cross with a horse that enjoyed his head being cradled and stood like a rock to be cuddled, whenever required. On our way again, and the horses burst into action the second Kieron glanced behind to check all was well before upping the pace. Trotting on! We clattered briskly through the village towards Robin Lane Bridleway, instantly regretting the rather excellent two course lunch with sticky toffee pudding and pints of cider. And then we were cantering. Low branches! We grew to love and hate Kieron’s sense of humour. And we soon grew wise to his response whenever we asked how much longer to the pub/hotel/yard because it was always 40 minutes, regardless of where we were. But we laughed, a lot.
Robin Lane to Jenkin’s Crag is a beautiful bridleway which meanders for some five miles over Low and High Skelghyll. The scenery gradually opened up towards Lake Windermere and the Langdale Pikes, before dropping down through Skelghyll Woods into Ambleside. Then a long, long power trot around the outskirts of the town, over the Rothay Bridge and onto a single-track lane following the River Rothay virtually all the way towards Rydal Mount – Wordsworth’s famous residence. Kieron advised us to keep right on the steep, slippery lane (only slippery to shod horses) in order to avoid wheel spin. It seems you can take the man out of the garage but you can’t take the garage… The Coffin Route into Grassmere allowed us to peer over the walls into Wordsworth’s garden. I couldn’t see his writing hut but then the glittering expanse of Rydal Water came into view and hundreds of geese took flight. We cantered along a smooth stretch before the terrain of rock slabs and enormous tree roots had us back down to a considered walk. In places I had to hook my left leg over the top of the saddlebags to avoid getting my kneecaps bashed on the wall as the path was so narrow. A truly arduous task it must have been to carry coffins along this route to the main church in Rydal.
We were booked into a hotel at Grassmere. First priority was to buy two large gins and sit in the sun. Bliss. Back in the room, which had a gorgeous view of Helm Crag right outside the window, the second bliss moment was a deep bath. Too tired to wash my hair separately I soaped my tresses in the bath then reached for the shower head to rinse. Maybe it’s just me but I can never get hotel showers to run at an even temperature especially with soap in my eyes, so I suffered a short blast of stone cold instead. It dried looking no different to the original ‘riding hat helmet’ I’d finished the day on, and thanks to all the soapy residue and no conditioner, the sweetitch started during perusal of the dinner menu. I loved that there was Waldorf salad as a side though, and combined with a lovely East European waiter who had little grasp of the English language beyond I go check, it didn’t take much for Sue and I to lapse into sit-com territory. And another thing. Why do we look fat and rippled when we walk past the mirrors in this place? Er… Funhouse mirrors? Sticky Toffee Pudding?

Day Three

Tolkien, Teddy’s Tunnels, and Tourists at Tarn Hows.
P1000218In the cold light of day I was pleased to find that I still had no need of serious medication. In fact, other than the discovery that the shampoo-induced sweetitch had spread to my withers, I felt pretty good and ready for the day. While we ploughed through scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, Kieron had been busy bringing in the horses and tacking-up, for which we were incredibly grateful. Our day began with a long canter alongside Grassmere lake and a paddle, before heading up Red Bank bridleway bordering Loughrigg Fell. It had become apparent that when Kieron and Jigsaw dropped back, Cookie was no slouch when it came to heading-up the group and I often found myself out in front. Sooner or later though the mares, Princess Gaia and Wendy’s chestnut, Moody Milly, would see to it that Cookie was put back in his place – usually the minute Kieron and Jigsaw took up the lead again, and they’d skillfully manoeuvre themselves back up the pecking order. Until it came to passing through gates. Neither mare would entertain going through first and would mince and prance. Oh no, it might be dangerous! Get the cob! Only then would they allow Cookie to take the lead again. Cookie absolutely knew this was his dutiful job and walked manfully ahead, ears pricked forwards, his pride fully intact again until the girls decided his leadership was no longer required and barged past him with a snicker. At least he had moments of glory. The horses took no notice whatsoever of Lydia’s mount since Micky was the new bloke on the block, and firmly relegated to the rear at all times. 
We were en-route towards Elterwater and the Great Langdale Valley, wading through a deep ford at Little Langdale. Cookie ploughed through, his huge feet setting off a tidal wave. And then Kieron surprised us all by issuing baler twine so we could tie up the horses to the trees. Since there wasn’t a pub in sight, we were puzzled but duly obliged and followed him up a steep incline to a cave. Cathedral Cavern was the location used in the Bear Grylls episode with Warren Davies. Not my favourite thing, crouching in the dark beneath tons of rock, but I was encouraged by a group of schoolkids carrying candles, and therefore persuaded to stumble down a long tunnel. I was even less happy when the light from the entrance disappeared, but then blinding daylight ahead and, after a scramble down some rock slabs, the Cathedral revealed itself; a cavernous space above a dense pool of black velvet. I fully expected Gollum to come crawling out and I was happy to take the exit at that point and continue our Lord of the Rings adventure above ground, and with the horses. Hopefully they were still tied to the trees where we’d left them. True to form, resident drama queen, Princess Gaia, had managed to wind herself round and round some saplings until the length of her lead rope was down to strangulation point at three inches. Where have you been? Look what happened to me! Cookie hadn’t moved an inch, one hind leg at rest, eyes half closed in the sun-dappled copse. 

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Another nod to Tolkien then after a short hack to the Three Shires pub, and another tie-up for the horses right outside. Patrons were amused to see five horses hooked up to the railings on the road, especially when Kieron carefully positioned the ice-cream boards at either end of the equine hazard we’d created. Fortunately, traffic was very slow at this point and refreshingly, the vast majority of people seemed happy to see the horses and interested in our adventure. After a substantial ploughman’s lunch – a glimpse of a truly hobbit-style piece of engineering in Slater Bridge, before picking up the old quarry road to Hodge Close. Myriad deep ravines and underwater tunnels were not something I wanted to linger alongside and I was much happier when we’d left the quarry sites behind and entered the maze of coppice at Holme Ground, to eventually arrive at beautiful Tarn Hows, the most visited spot in Lakeland. Thanks to some very obliging Chinese tourists we managed a good few group pics here until Princess Gaia declared she’d had enough posing, and put in a few playful bunny jumps. On to Conniston then through mature, ancient woodland beneath increasingly cloudy skies, and our thoughts turned to climbing Walna Scar the following day – the highest point of the trail climbing to 2,000 feet. Given the torrential rain elsewhere in the country we didn’t hold out much hope for staying dry.
Horses turned out, fed, and rugged up against the promised rain, we clambered into the pickup for a short drive to our guest house for the evening; Oakland, a traditional Lakeland property featuring plenty of local slate. Comfortably elegant and with enough en-suite rooms for us all to enjoy solo residence. Views from my dual-aspect room were overlooking the cricket pitch, with the dark bulk of Yewdale Fell beyond. I soaked away the grime of the day listening to the many garden birds on the feeders below, and the mellow sound of leather hitting willow. The rain began as we walked to The Crown in Conniston, but we had the best of meals here and in the true spirit of helping Wendy sample the local cuisine, we tested yet another sticky toffee pudding – and this one easily took the top pudding of the week slot.

Day Four

High Winds, War Horse, and Walking Walna Scar.
62380141_2345712329030904_7704534385374003200_nMy sweetitch problem fixed, plus scrambled eggs and a jar of homemade lemon curd on the breakfast table promised a good start to the day. A significantly better start than the resident garden birds, since our exasperated host reported the plunder of several very large bird feeders by a gang of young squirrels. She cast an eye towards the long barrelled shotgun above the door frame. We made a sharp exit. No rain; but a strong wind was in force, with ominous clouds moving slowly across the summit of Conniston Old Man. Fair to say, the track to Walna Scar is uphill all the way. A long pull against the wind towards the open fell, but we managed to enjoy some breathless canters on the undulating grassy track by the bridleway, before the terrain necessitated a pace closer to scrambling. Boulders, and steep slabs of rock at seemingly awkward angles for a horse posed no problem for our herd of professionals.
Cookie powered up, down, over or through everything in his path; bogs, scree, streams, bridges. He thought nothing of slowly sinking both front legs down a bank at a 90 degree angle in order to drink from a sunken stream. The only show of hesitance came when he had to go first through a busy farmyard, where he’d wait then for Jigsaw to head up the group again. Some powerful crosswinds at the summit of Walna, with far-reaching views to the west of the Irish Sea. Too much low cloud to see The Isle of Man but great views of Scafell Pike and Bowfell. And then it was a long, slow amble down Walna Scar Side by a foaming stream towards Seathwaite, and our lunch stop. I love a genuinely quirky pub, and the Newfield Inn didn’t disappoint. Net curtains, coat hooks fixed into the wood-panelled bar, and since it was only early June – a roaring fire and bowls of hearty lentil soup. A friendly, unpretentious place which likely represented the heart of the village. The sort of tiny rural place where all community problems were still referred to the vicar.
Lifting Cookie’s saddle above my head in order to get it on his back again was beginning to feel arduous, but Kieron threw it in the general direction for me and then once everything was buckled-up and belted-in, hoisted me on as well – although his energetic leg-ups sometimes had me halfway over the other side. I did love his excuse, though. You don’t weigh anything! We picked up the trail again across the Dunnerdale fells before entering Broughton Moor Forest and in places I had to crouch low over Cookie’s neck as we inched along dark forestry paths through dense, dense trees. Then we were out onto wide roads affording us plenty of canters where the gradient levelled out and the surface softened. Once out of the forest, the road down to Torver was impossibly steep and my limbs began to feel tired with both knee joints aching a little, and our overnight stop was a welcome sight. Sue and I complained that getting off at the end of the day with buckled legs was the worst thing ever. We both perched side-saddle and held out our arms, damsel style; and Mike came to our rescue for the second time that week. We’ve looked forward to this all day! we chorused.
So have I, Mike quipped, and lifted us down in a (mostly) gentlemanly fashion.

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It seemed much investment had been sunk into our stopover at Torver; the ladies loos being the most surprising. Incorporating the use of slate and wood to such a rustic degree must have been eye-wateringly expensive, to create what I can only describe as something Barney Rubble might design. Eye-catching, but not terribly practical, and I wasn’t sure I enjoyed the intimate narration of War Horse echoing around the cubicle as I went about my business. Our en-suite room was light, clean and modern, if a tad bijou. Fortunate that Sue and I are so petite, so it didn’t pose a problem. But in the spirit of continuing observation, we did laugh at the blue ‘mood’ lighting and the over imaginative use of decorative panels, extra-large lamps, and mirrors hung for those over seven feet tall. In my tired clumsiness I found it awkward to avoid trapping my fingers between the shower screen and the wash-hand basin. And then filling the kettle from the sink tap wasn’t possible due to the angles of the sink and the size of the kettle. Both bottles of complimentary mineral water went to make the tea.
We’d arranged to meet Lydia and Wendy for pre-dinner botanicals at 6.30, but in our disorganised fuddle managed to land in the bar at 5.35, only to then wonder where the hell they were. This despite both of us glancing at several plus-size clocks, iPads, and phones. A couple of drinks later, we were ravenous and had already eaten the best part of a tasty hotpot by the time Wendy and Lydia arrived. Our faux pas forgiven, the evening passed with recollections of the week to date, the exchange of email addresses and the victorious realisation that our stash of drugs and support bandages had mostly gone unneeded. We hit the hay at a sensible hour, taking careful note of the mood lighting switch, should we accidentally need to illuminate our passage to the loo in the night. The sound of cars swishing through hard rain lulled me to instant sleep.

Day Five

Bridleways, Bullocks, and Homewood Bound to Backbarrow
P1000268Phone calls home the previous evening had revealed the most awful weather conditions in North Wales and a similar horror story from my son in London; so I wasn’t too surprised to see rain continuing to stream down the windows. Since it was the last day it didn’t seem quite so depressing to run into bad weather since we’d enjoyed three gloriously sunny days and only one cloudy, windy day, which is pretty good for somewhere as wet and green as the Lake District. We dressed ready for action in waterproofs and yet, by the time we’d saddled-up the rain had dissolved to an intermittent drizzle and it was a difficult decision then whether or not to remove the waterproof over-trousers. They certainly compromised grip in the saddle but then the thought of maybe trying to put them back again on top of the fells in pouring rain made it a tough choice. Everyone opted to keep them on but Sue, ever the optimist and resident weather expert stuffed hers in the saddlebags and declared it wasn’t going to rain properly until 3.55pm. Thus cheered, we took the old coffin road across the Woodland Valley and Lowick Common to arrive at Spark Bridge for lunch. While Kieron was busy checking the horses and tacking-up again (before the rain started at 3.55pm) we organised a whip-round. Our guide had looked after us royally and we felt bound by the laws of decency and appreciation to present him with a roll of notes and, for no other reason than it was us – wrapped around a Voltarol suppository. I like to think it expressed our combined experiences and wrapped up the morning rather well.
Although tired, our spirits remained high through the final leg home with Sue stuck in a strong northern dialect for most of the afternoon, and Moody Millie suddenly realising she was on the outskirts of home and taking up an active walk in the lead. We passed through some pastureland inhabited by bullocks who decided to follow us all the way to the gate at the far end, and we worried then about the logistics of getting five horses through an awkward gate without 50 head of cattle barging through with us. But Jigsaw was fearless in facing the snorting beasts head-on and Kieron herded them back up the field with a whoop, cowboy style.
And then it was quiet country lanes and hamlets as the countryside softened towards Backbarrow. The rain never did take hold and the experience of damp hedgerows heavy with cow parsley, wild honeysuckle, and rose, wasn’t unpleasant. At Low Wood, a long uphill track allowed us a final opportunity to canter. Only Sue and I elected to go ahead, the other horses happy with a steadier pace. Gaia and Cookie obliged, albeit none too energetically, although we waited ages for the others to catch up. Sue thought she might jump off and lie flat in the undergrowth while I explained to Kieron that the horses had bolted and Sue had been dragged for half a mile at least, and I was too scared to check if she was still breathing. And, although we laughed at the joke we could have played, the bottom line was we were just too damn tired to get off and back on again. And, we reasoned that Kieron really didn’t really deserve any more of our tasteless humour.

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We turned up the familiar lane to the yard and for a moment it felt out of kilter that the horses were taken from us, untacked, and showered by a band of willing helpers, while we drank tea. Unable to put off the moment much longer, we loaded our bags into the car and tried to come to terms with driving home. Human farewells done, we had one last goodbye to do and wandered to the stable block where our faithful comrades were already in their pyjamas. A good finish to the trip to see our horses nestled in deep straw beds, and it felt especially gratifying that they nudged us for a final selfie, even Princess Gaia.
But it was a bitter-sweet end to five amazing days. Five days where at times we’d ached to get off our horses, but then ached to get back on. Five days of living in an almost fictional bubble, where real life stayed on hold somewhere far away. A cosy world where Hobbits and Potter’s Peter Rabbit felt more real and immediate than our lives back home. A world where Wordsworth and Wainwright had far more interesting and important visions to share. To be able to ride miles of ancient bridleways across such achingly beautiful countryside instilled in all of us, I feel sure, a deep sense of privilege. We’d explored a piece of old England the way it should be explored. And something magical happens when out-of-comfort zones are pushed together through circumstance, and instant bonds are forged with complete strangers – both human and equine.
Ok, let’s plan the next one. Ten day equine coast-to-coast, anyone? We’ll need more supplies… ibuprofen, chocolate, gin. And a torch. We’ll need a torch, for going down caves and checking wardrobes. 

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