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.
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.
Continuing memories and reflections of an equine obsession 1968-2018.
Chapter 4: Winter
Higher House, Mottram-St-Andrew, Alderley Edge. New Year’s Day, 1979. Alderley Edge was gripped by frost, and topped with a dusting of snow. A frozen woolly hat embedded in a frozen cowpat. A thin, piercing blue sky and a cold sun creeping over the snow-capped Pennines. From Higher House, we rode along Oak Road through Kirklyditch, past farms and the occasional palatial property, the road so narrow in places that we could glimpse through the icy windows of roadside cottages. We took care to ride along the middle of the lane, avoiding the slippery verges. The crazy lurcher from the yard ran alongside us, joined on this occasion by a black Labrador from the cottage at the end of the lane. The lurcher, easily leaping fences, gates, and hedges, travelled twice as far as the rest of us, disappearing over the fields in a blur. His mission – to hunt rabbits. More often than not, he’d reappear unexpectedly further along the route, with only a frozen bread-crust, tongue lolling, flanks heaving. This mostly uncoordinated procession never caused a problem on the roads, but then, forty years ago, drivers fully expected to see horses and dogs in the countryside.
We trotted along the lane beside Finlow Wood, cantering on the wide grass verges where the low, winter sun had miraculously softened the ground, hundreds of noisy crows suddenly taking flight; an evocative sound I’ll always associate with The Edge. The trees along Artists Lane were still especially snow-laden and sparkling, but this dense canopy and the high bank to one side kept everything below in shade. Rivulets of water had frozen underfoot, leaving a solid film of ice beneath our horses’ hooves. We dismounted and let them slither their own way, yelping as they dragged us along at a pace we couldn’t quite manage. Both dogs barked, happy to demonstrate the non-sliding qualities of four paws. And then, once reunited with brothers Victor and Skippy, we continued onto the old sand quarry, an area which usually afforded a good place to let off steam. On this occasion, though, even the sand was frozen and we didn’t progress much above a careful walk until we entered the dripping silence of Windmill Woods. The horses were like coiled springs by then and burst into a canter along the muddy track, ice cracking like gunshots as we sped beneath low branches – collecting a neck full of snow – before clattering briefly across the main road and onto The Edge. Both dogs were panting hard by then, and the Labrador was beginning to lag behind. On the summit of Stormy Point, we dismounted and stamped some feeling back into our feet. As we turned for home, huge snowflakes began to obliterate the scenery, fingers and toes feeling the air frost begin to circulate again as the pale sun slipped away.
I loved riding in the winter. I rode on New Year’s Day, Christmas Day and any other bank holiday the horses were available. The weather or special dates didn’t seem important or relevant, perhaps because the horses knew no different. I enjoyed braving the elements despite suffering from chilblains one especially snowy year, but there’s always a cosy satisfaction in returning to the yard as dusk closes in. Expectant horses nickering for hay, our own faces pink and speckled with snow. Sometimes we’d head to the pub, to re-live and exaggerate our adventures. But the best snow ride ever was with the previously mentioned Golden Pheasant, Llangollen, North Wales. On this occasion – it was January 1986 – the horses had been fitted with snow studs in their shoes to prevent the snow balling-up – I guess the equivalent of equine snow tyres – which allowed us to canter slowly and safely along the lanes through deep, soft snow. The sound of all those muffled hooves thudding along in unison, the pungent air, the trees and fields dipped in crystallised sugar and the rose-tinted sky as the sun began to set, equalled a truly magical experience. And probably not one which would get past health and safety rulings now!
The way our roads are used now has become increasingly worrying for cyclists, walkers, and riders. Vehicular traffic has taken complete priority. Much of the time, I ride along the Welsh lanes without incident and the vast majority of drivers are respectful and patient. However, over the previous twelve months I can think of three or four occasions where I’ve been placed in a potentially dangerous situation, and it usually comes down to ignorance, or sheer impatience. Occasionally, it feels hostile. Most of these incidents happen in the summer time. Since I live in a popular North Wales tourist area this makes sense, but why drive any differently when on holiday? The lanes here are narrow and twisting, often heavily shaded, bordered with ditches and drystone walls. Combined with summer hedgerows visibility can suddenly be compromised in a second. A valid reason why I ride less in the summer. At least in the autumn and winter months, the hedges are cut right back and despite the darker days, visibility for riders and cyclists is much improved.
Compounding all of this, vehicles are faster and bigger than they used to be, including agricultural machinery. A modern tractor pulling a baler and travelling along a narrow lane bordered with hedges or stone walls, is a daunting obstacle from the back of a horse. The cab is crazily high, and if the driver is wearing earpieces or ear-defenders, he appears lost in his own world. Has he even seen me? I’ve been trapped between farm machinery unable to reverse, and a car behind me who wouldn’t reverse. On one occasion I rode down a farm driveway out of the way but the guy in the car began gesticulating, as if he wanted to get down the drive too, and I was now in his way. So, out we came and waited on the grass verge. For some unknown reason the tractor driver revved his engine and this huge rattling monster began to creep towards us. My sensible mount had an understandable wobble about this and took a couple of steps back, only to discover that the guy in the car hadn’t gone down the driveway at all, but had crept up behind us. Why? Where did he expect us to go? The pony inevitably came into contact with his front bumper and panicked, shot forward, then made for the driveway but slipped on a strip of concrete, and down we both went. The only injury was a grazed elbow (mine). The pony leapt up, unharmed. By the time I’d got to my feet and grabbed the reins, the car had vanished.
The British Horse Society says there have been more than 2,000 reports of accidents involving horses on UK roads since 2010 with almost one in ten resulting in a fatality. And according to the survey they conducted, three in four accidents happened because the vehicle passed the animal without allowing enough space. A spokesperson for the charity said a major problem was that many drivers are unsure how to behave when near a horse. Section 215 of the Highway Code sets out how road users should act when there’s a horse on the road. It says that: “Drivers should take ‘great care’ and ‘treat all horses as a potential hazard’. Drivers should ‘pass wide and slowly’ when passing a horse and always listen to a rider’s request to slow down or stop. If a driver doesn’t slow down or drives in a dangerous or inconsiderate way around horses on the road, try to get their number plate and report it to your local police station.”
This statement already feels out of date. And the police tell us they are powerless to enforce prosecutions now without video evidence. We are expected to ride wearing a Go-Pro camera, or its equivalent, at all times. This is putting all the onus onto the rider. We should all be responsible for everyone’s safety. And I’d rather we took this back to source and include education about other road users for learner drivers. Passing horses and cyclists should be part of the driving test, even if it’s only a simulated version. I’ve seen terrible road rage between cars and cyclists, I’ve experienced verbal abuse at first-hand for no good reason, and I’ve had cars skimming past me despite clearly requesting a speeding, approaching vehicle to slow down. These days I am fully insured through the British Horse Society, I wear high-vis clothing, and I possess a certificate to prove that I am road-worthy on the back of a horse.
I took my British Horse Society Road Safety Test in 1989 at Finlow Hill Stables, Over Alderley. When The Edge closed to horses in the mid-eighties, we were thrown onto the mercy of the roads and the BHS were keen to have riders aware of the rules of the road – especially those young enough not to hold a driving licence. I’d ridden out solo from Finlow Hill a few times on a very obliging albeit slightly neurotic mare called Kerry, but riding in the area was never the same without the freedom to roam. Despite the close proximity of the sand hills and the track through Windmill Woods, restrictions elsewhere meant that most viable routes were linear, and repetitive. And then the upheaval of my personal life in the early nineties meant that I only rode occasionally, lacking both the spare cash and the enthusiasm to find somewhere new. Finlow Hill eventually changed its status to a livery yard. I don’t know when Dawson’s closed. I suspect Stan and Mary retired in the nineties but at the time of writing, Higher House is currently a cattery. Good to see that the original listed house and the stabling, is all still intact.
Not only did my first marriage end when my son was four, but it felt as if the carefree era of riding I’d taken for granted had also come to an abrupt stop. I found my writing mojo again though, and penned a second novel which actually found an agent. Nothing came of Summer in October but this time, I didn’t burn the manuscript because someone credible in the publishing world had told me that ‘it had something.’ Much later it became the basis for Midnight Sky. It’s worth remembering that any serious rewrite can always make for a better version of almost anything, and by 1995 my storyline had changed completely. Along with Second Draft and my son, we moved to pastures new in Wilmslow. I continued to work in property, mentally storing a wealth of research and first-hand experience for Wild Water – a novel which didn’t surface until much later. But the best job I had for studying character and appreciating satire was a tele-appointing position for a hearing-aid company. One needed a special blend of humour, patience, and empathy to get through the week. In addition to this mildly entertaining job, there were two horses to the rear of the offices. For reasons which escape me, someone christened them Elvis and Mad-For-It. If it was warm enough to take lunch outside, these two cobs tended to gravitate towards us and wait for apple cores. On learning of my riding experience, a male colleague dared me to climb over the fence and sit on one of them. So, naturally, I climbed through the barbed wire (I had said colleague hold it away from my smart office suit). I weighed up the docile looking coloured cob, took hold of his mane, and vaulted on. Elvis didn’t bat an eyelid. This was before social media and mobile phones with cameras.
Too distracted with family life through the nineties, I didn’t write and I wasn’t even reading much, but I did pick up The Horse Whisperer by Nicolas Evans. It was a book (and a film) which coincided with the rise in popularity of Monty Roberts. An American trainer, Roberts was the first recognised ‘horse whisperer,’ bringing a new, softer method to training horses which hadn’t been explored before. ‘Natural horsemanship’ taps into natural behaviours and Roberts developed this into a two-way language based on the social dynamics of wild Mustangs. It’s not so much about whispering but listening and observing body language and natural reactions to any given situation. This sits easily in tandem with the most powerful instinct of all – that of survival. Although variations on these natural methods are now commonplace, back then it was a different way of looking at a subject I thought I knew plenty about. It made me question the impact we have on riding horses. And it perhaps also reflected a changing mindset when it dawned on me that horses only tolerated being ridden, and surely it made sense that better relationships could evolve if the ‘conversation’ between horse and rider was sometimes less rulebook and more instinctive and observational. After all, we don’t all parent in the same way; the give-and-takes which work for one child, might not be as effective for a child with a less subservient personality. Although unable to reason emotionally, horses are as individual as people and just as much a product of their background, breeding, and historical interactions as humans are. It was a concept I’d return to in later years and much of it, along with my experiences of riding schools and the complexity of family relationships, sewed considerable seeds for my second novel, Midnight Sky.
My son began riding around the same age as I did. Fortunately, children’s riding lessons were easier to come by and we began to frequent Ashton Old Hall Equestrian Centre, Church Lane, Sale. In December of 1996 a children’s fun ride with Father Christmas at Finlow Hill Stables ended the year with something less formal. It was a strictly supervised event with an army of teenage girls leading a string of novice children around the sand hills. Somewhere along the line, my son’s pony spooked at some fake fairy wings and he experienced his first tumble. It didn’t put him off, but like most boys, he was never as keen as his older stepsister. We sometimes took both children to Finlow, walking beside the ponies along those same lanes I knew so well. Through the following summer my son gained considerable confidence under the instruction of Lisa, riding forward-going, interpretive Fudge and a much less responsive pony called Shantih. Between these two characters, he learnt that stop and go had variable boundaries.
Body protectors came in and according to the manufacturers, every rider needed one. Since my son had happily inherited my old hat – the latest style then was one with a moulded chin strap – which was a perfect fit, so it didn’t feel too extravagant to invest in a body protector. In later years, I even purchased one for myself. I could see where it might prevent a collar bone injury or worse, but for me it compromised the way I sat and moved on the horse and I never got past the feeling of being encased in a straitjacket. I wore it round the house for a while in an effort to get it to mould to my shape, but it never really did, and more often than not, it remained in the boot of the car. In these consumer-mad times, equitation attracts a formidably expensive catalogue, if one dares to go looking. Alongside the matching this, that, and the other, there’s an astonishing amount of unnecessary bling. Fortunately, there’s always a budget version of anything and everything, but one thing I’ve never compromised on is a kite-marked hard hat. Surprisingly, it’s not a statutory requirement, but I wouldn’t think of getting on a motorbike without one, and I’d not ride a horse without one either. This is basic common sense, surely? Head injuries usually mean bad news and on the occasions I have parted company with a horse – and it’s probably inevitable at some stage – the outer shell of my hat has taken some hard hits, sustaining a variety of nasty looking dents. So why wouldn’t you wear one… vanity, bravado? Maybe it’s the irresistible feel of one’s hair blowing in the breeze.
Despite personal and relationship stability, Second Draft and I began to feel suffocated by encroaching suburbia. Building along the Cheshire greenbelt exploded in the mid-nineties as did the sprawl of Manchester International Airport: now the third busiest airport in the UK. The 60 million-pound Wilmslow bypass ripped through the countryside, the birth of a new, consumer saturated landscape. Perversely, during its construction, the bare bones of the road made a pleasant cycle path, a smooth ribbon of compressed earth stretching for miles through the still quiet fields. The calm before the storm. Once it opened we enjoyed – at least for a short time – two of the big city stores within easy reach, but there was a hefty price to pay. Two stores grew into five, six, seven… more. Where the bypass did indeed create quieter roads around Wilmslow, Handforth, and Cheadle, it also generated more retail developments, fitness centres, and housing estates alongside the new road until eventually, the volume of traffic increased to a constant roar. The familiar problems had merely taken a side-step and mushroomed into something far less attractive than the original village bottlenecks. We began to crave open countryside, a dog, and opportunities to walk (and ride) more than the convenience of shopping and all the other trappings which went with a semi-urban lifestyle. Keeping up the Joneses began to feel disingenuous, if only to ourselves. My childhood Cheshire had changed beyond recognition, and horses had begun to feel part of a long-lost dream, something I felt powerless to recapture. The sad demise of the public riding school had continued to spiral slowly downwards until I felt trapped in the winter of my equine discontent. In retrospect, and although it is probably rather self-indulgent to admit, I think my environment stifled much of my creativity. Of course, horses and creative pursuits are luxury items and jobs and schools had to take precedence. But then, at the end of 1997 some crazy plot twist came out of the blue, and a life-changing opportunity presented itself. It felt like another bite of the cherry, although for a while we couldn’t decide if it was maybe a little too much like pure fiction to take seriously…
Continue reading: https://janruth.com/2019/03/15/disappearing-dreamscapes-5/
About this Series.
The first four chapters of Disappearing Dreamscapes represent 30 years from 1968-1998 and are split over four seasons based on diary entries through 1979. Chapters 5-8 represent 20 years from 1998-2018 and are recorded chronologically.
Continuing memories and reflections of an equine obsession 1968-2018.
Chapter 3: Autumn
Higher House, Mottram-St-Andrew, Alderley Edge. Shorter, darker days meant woodsmoke and bonfires, drifts of leaves, bottled damsons in the farmhouse, and a bite to the air. Clay-pigeon shoots; and the horses would be momentarily startled into a dead-stop, heads thrown up, ears pricked, nostrils wide. Or they chose to dance and prance, crab-like, snorting. Being a densely wooded area, Alderley Edge was especially spectacular through the autumn and my hours in the saddle tended to increase once the school holidays came to a close.
Grey Filly’s pale coat was good for dark days, not so good in a mist. Although I didn’t go out of my way to ride on the roads, I never really worried about traffic and our visibility. Sometimes we’d head up Mottram Road towards Alderley village before taking a tight left into Swiss Hill; a narrow, cobbled lane winding some 200 feet uphill between a variety of individual properties. Some of them, like Frog Palace, were positively mansion-like. Looking at recent footage on YouTube, this tough ascent seems to have become a rite of passage for local cyclists, despite it being cluttered with parked cars at the top; something I never encountered back then. This conservation area used to be a haven of Sunday solitude, like most country lanes. At the top, I’d turn onto the main B road, the mare blowing slightly by then, with The Edge and our off-roading playground less than a mile away. The main Macclesfield Road out of Alderley village was perhaps the busiest section on this circuit, but I never ran into a problem. The increased volume and speed of traffic along the B5087 now is not something I’d care to experience on the back of a horse, and Sundays have become like every other day of the week – busy.
I began to read the Poldark series by Winston Graham and then, looking for something lighter, enjoyed the early books by James Herriot. Although Herriot’s books were set in an era before my time, I felt a deep wistfulness for the freedoms and values Herriot’s way of life represented. Herriot used his own life experiences in the books, adding a rich believability to the narrative, something I like to try and do with my own material. In contrast to the plain honesty of Herriot’s easy style, Jilly Cooper’s Riders hit the shelves in 1985. My copy had the modest show jumper on the cover. Novels containing this much sex are everywhere now, although the BDSM culture has overtaken Cooper’s original handsome, controlling male character: the infamous Rupert Campbell Black. Of course, commercial publishing is all about money and this book has sported a few different covers to reflect the times. Curiously, on Riders 30th anniversary edition in 2015, the hand on the female behind was moved higher, but you can also see more of the riding crop – a shameless and unnecessary nod to Fifty Shades?
In the mid-seventies I also rode with a yard attached to a place I only remember as Montebello, at Bucklow Hill, Knutsford. Some of the characters wouldn’t have been out of place in a Jilly Cooper novel. The property was a rambling, crenelated building up against Chester Road. Some of the livery owners allowed their horses to be hired out by individuals like me, no doubt as a way of keeping their horses fit for late autumn-winter hunting fixtures, taking full advantage of 2,000 acres of nearby parkland at Tatton Hall. The riding was fairly reckless when I think about it now, but then, I simply viewed it as a super-charged adrenalin run, and every man – or woman – for themselves. We’d set out from the yard on a selection of pumped-up, grain-fed horses who’d likely been stood-in for a few days. Champing at the bit took on a whole new meaning. Crossing the Chester Road would be unthinkable now, but the traffic actually stopped for us. We’d continue along quiet country lanes through picturesque Rostherne village to arrive at the main entrance to Tatton Park, with fully warmed-up horses, raring to go. Basically, we galloped from the Rostherne gates to the Knutsford gates, and the pace was furious from the off. Within seconds we were at a flat-out gallop between a wide avenue of beech trees on a beautifully firm surface which felt tailer-made for the experience. During late autumn these trees were vivid with colour, the horse-chestnut trees always the first to surrender to cooler temperatures. Rapidly swirling leaves and the sounds of rutting stags added to the charged atmosphere.
Only once did I feel out of my depth on one of these rides and the perpetrator was a stocky, dun-coloured horse called Shadrack. Ridden in a cross-over noseband and a pretty severe bit, I should have spotted the warning signs early on. After a mile or so, the avenue of trees end and the parkland opens up to herds of red and fallow deer, huge lakes called meres, botanical gardens, families walking dogs, uneven ground. All of this flashed by at breakneck speed. Galloping is one thing, experiencing a brake fail when the ground begins to veer downhill, is quite another. Shadrack must have bolted with me for at least a mile – I even considered throwing myself off – until I faced him towards Tattonhall Mere, where he bounced to a reluctant canter before finally stopping, snorting like a dragon and pawing the ground. No one came to my rescue.
Despite the romanticism of the famous Tudor hall in the distance, not a single hero materialised. There was nothing for it but to pull up my big girl pants and carry on. My arms felt like they’d been wrenched out of their sockets from holding this horse steady for an hour, the reins slick with sweat. How we managed to find the other riders was a miracle, but we did. And we both survived intact, eventually locating the rest of the party under the trees by the Knutsford gate enjoying a cigarette break and gossiping about Cheshire life. After an additional ten-minute breather – presumably for my benefit – we galloped the two-and-a-half miles back to the Rostherne gate. Shadrack, a pure galloping machine, easily kept pace with the thoroughbreds and the bigger hunters, and I could have been a sack of spuds for all the difference I effected in the saddle. I tried to take heart in the belief that certain horses come into our lives at certain times for a reason. Shadrack certainly taught me how to dig deep, and as I’ve reiterated before, there’s always more to be gained from those horses who defeat us one way or another, or test our resolve.
Although Montebello is no longer in operation, horse riding is still permitted in the park, although galloping is now prohibited.
Before any galloping fun was stopped, I had occasion to ride another headstrong beast in the park, this time with Tatton Hall Stables. The yard was situated on site and within the park boundaries, so no roads to cross. As part of my ten-year-old son’s riding experience in the mid-nineties he joined a small group of intermediate riders to sample riding across open countryside. Satisfied his quiet pony was suitable, I left them to it. My husband (the improved, second draft) and I, donned walking boots and followed the second party of riders – the advanced group. I did fight a certain measure of nostalgia following in their wake on foot, but I reminded myself how rusty my riding skills were, having ridden considerably less through the nineties as family and financial commitments had combined together to temporarily defeat me. The group of maybe five riders cantered ahead in single file, skirting a large field as a warm-up. A horse in the middle of this group let fly with a playful buck and raced up to the front of the line, unseating his rider easily. There was a commotion at this and since we were on hand to help, my husband and I became drawn in.
The fallen rider wanted to limp back to the yard and I offered to accompany her and lead the horse. But then someone suggested I actually get on the horse and join the ride. Never one to turn down an opportunity, I borrowed a hat, and received an energetic leg-up onboard. Straight away, I knew this horse and I were probably at odds with our level of strength and fitness. The hat was too big and my walking boots were not the best thing to ride in. When I understood we’d be jumping, I was a bit less sure about how things might pan out, but I ignored husband’s rolling eyes and adjusted my stirrups accordingly. Memories of Shadrack popped into my mind but then so did all the other glorious rides in the park which had happened without incident. Fortunately, this horse seemed to know his job well enough and we flew over several fallen tree trunks at a strong gallop without me putting too much guidance in. These tree trunks were big, in girth as well as height but the horse had a humungous leap and we gained ground very quickly. Barging past some of the other riders isn’t the safest thing to do, and I spent much of the first twenty minutes shouting apologies to the left and right. Initially, it felt pointless and possibly fatal to fight my equine partners’ enthusiasm for running with the ‘herd’ but once he realised I wasn’t going to hold him in too tight, or, God forbid, hold him back, the horse settled down and even began to listen to his pilot. We remained friends, and both of us stayed in one piece for the duration of the ride.
I guess riding in the park back then was comparable to the thrill of the hunt – but without the dogs, or a fox. Prior to the ban hounds only contributed to the deaths of 6.3% of the 400,000 foxes killed annually. Foxes will always be shot in rural areas by farmers to keep the numbers under control, since they have no natural predators. Shooting a fox is notoriously difficult and not always a clean kill. Our desire for free-range and organically reared chickens and other birds, is severely compromised by Mr Fox. I have friends with small holdings who struggle with these issues and see no alternative but to shoot those foxes who consistently come onto their land and are quite capable of killing up to thirty or more birds in one fell swoop.
Conflict between fox hunting and saboteurs has grown in violence – and there’s been ugliness on both sides – at times directed just as aggressively towards the horses and hounds as much as the riders. This is often out of context as to what is actually happening. Often, these meets are drag hunts ie: no fox, merely an artificial scented trail. Obviously, ‘accidents’ do happen if hounds come across a live fox and I’m sure this woolly boundary is probably exploited. For the vast majority of modern rural communities, the hunt is a social day out. It’s about the challenge of riding across countryside normally denied, since farmers will only open up land to allow fox hunting, and for no other reason. This access to open land is more of a big deal than non-riders might appreciate, especially in modern times. I’m a bit of a sucker for tradition, and I admit to enjoying the historical pageantry of it all, but the idea that people who ride to hounds are bloodthirsty ‘toffs’ lends significant fuel to the theory that the surrounding conflict is often about a class war. Some saboteurs don’t seem to be nearly so worried about the shooting or snaring of foxes, and yet the sight of a group of well-turned out horses and riders nearly always evokes an extreme reaction. So, although I don’t especially like fox hunting per se, I have to balance it with the viable alternatives, and how communities exist in rural areas. Those who are interested in farming, horses, and country life do feel increasingly ostracised in our urbanised world. A world which understands less and less about farming and food production. For the most part, fox hunting is well down on my personal list of animal welfare concerns. I feel more aggrieved about the transportation of live animals, what goes on in some abattoirs, and the production of halal meat, veal, and pate.
I came across a couple of opportunities to participate in drag hunting through the eighties but it never came about due to a combination of foul weather and the right horse never being available for hire. Then, bad news around 1983 when access onto my beloved hacking-out area, The Edge, was denied to horses. After some ten years this news was a terrible, terrible blow. Undefeated, friends and I began to travel fortnightly to the aforementioned Glyn Ceiriog in North Wales: a 130 mile round trip to the Welsh hills or when I could afford it, an even bigger trip to Ferniehirst Mill in the Cheviots. Since the hacking in both these places was so good, it went some way to appeasing the disappointment over the local riding ban on The Edge, despite the distances involved. It also had me elicit something of a U turn on my avoidance of indoor schools because in 1985 not only was the situation becoming Hobson’s Choice, but I suddenly decided to consolidate my random riding experiences and begin training towards the BHS (British Horse Society) exams. The exams covered care and handling as well as riding to a standard recognised by the BHS.
Practice of the riding element happened during the evening after work at B1st Riding School, Higher Fold Farm, Windlehurst Road, High Lane, Stockport, where I rode Kestrel. This funny little horse wouldn’t have won any shows for looks or conformation but he could complete a tight, indoor jumping course like a gazelle, and he taught me the finer points of balance and control – without relying on stirrups. It’s easy to underestimate the technical and physical effort that goes into riding a perfect circle at working trot without stirrups; let alone the precision and discipline of the most basic dressage test. It’s a brave and foolish man who thinks the horse does all the work! Back then, I don’t think we even described it as dressage, it was simply advanced riding or schooling. I learnt the basics; shoulder-in, leg-yielding, extending and collecting paces through trot and canter, and how to canter a 4-loop-serpentine – to a reasonable standard. To perform classical dressage it used to be assumed one needed a suitably supple and responsive, classical sort of horse but the boundaries have softened over the years and this discipline has become more accessible, which is a good thing. And although some of these exercises might seem nonsensical to the uniformed, they do demonstrate how important it is to get the basics right first before going on to bigger things.
And in truth, a turn-on-the-forehand, reining-back, or a nifty leg-yield (lateral movement) is an everyday occurrence when riding out and about, for example, when passing through a gate. Ah, the power of gates and the joy of spotting a rider-friendly handle! Some gates are in the downright awkward category with not a chance of getting through them safely – regardless of reasonable riding skills and a calm, helpful horse – without dismounting. A particular ‘favourite’ of mine collapses the second one slides the bolt back. Lifting this heavy metal contraption to open it wide enough to pass through, also happens to take down half the barbed-wire fencing to one side. And then once through, it’s necessary to repeat the entire farce in reverse and rebuild the damned thing. Not an easy manoeuvre with a horse in tow, reins looped over one arm.
Some of my training also took place at the Manchester BHS exam centre at Carrington Riding Centre, Nursery Farm, Isherwood Road. I acquired a second-hand copy of The Manual of Horsemanship… You will be assessed in your competence to ride a variety of school horses showing walk, trot and canter, change of direction and correct pace through all school movements. You will be able to show an understanding of respecting other users while applying aids to work the horse. You’ll be able to ride outside in an open space, jump single fences and a small course. You will be starting to evaluate your own riding and the way the horse goes both in flatwork and jumping…
I found all of the elements well within my capabilities. My only concern was jumping the previously unseen course at the end of the day. It wasn’t something I’d had the opportunity to practise much, and I worried about remembering the order because the examiner only gave us this information once. I made it my business to watch the other candidates and pray I didn’t get picked to go first. There were eight pool horses for the exam, a couple of them I knew from training sessions such as the handsome warmblood, Tulsar, and the lovely sparky Sunshine, but we weren’t allowed to pick and choose our partners in crime – we had to draw straws. Somehow, I knew I’d get the one and only big stubborn Dobbin – and I did. When my turn came to ride the heavy cob, I gave up trying to get a warm-up canter out of him and decided to go for an energetic trot instead. We managed a trot of sorts, but I can’t honestly say we achieved much in the way of lightness and forward movement! The three British Horse Society judges watched from behind the paddock fence, po-faced, clipboards in hand while the cob huffed and puffed towards the first obstacle. He bunny-hopped awkwardly over it, and I knew I had to get tough if I wanted to complete the course in reasonable time, so I resorted to growling at him, and then by fence three had to give him a hefty whack with the crop. By then, I imagined my lack of style and my less than eloquent vocal ‘encouragements’ had amassed so many negative points I was a sitting duck to fail.
Somehow, we finished the course without a refusal, or without demolishing anything. At the finish one of the judges actually broke into a grin and slow-clapped. At first I couldn’t decide if she was being facetious, but she shook my hand and told me well done for persevering. So I passed all the required elements and received certificates for Grades One and Two. I even began training for Grade Three, which would have opened up possibilities of becoming a BHS AI (Assistant Instructor). But then, somewhere along the way I lost interest, partly down to facing some facts as an adult with a mortgage and coming to realise that the financial prospects for working with horses remained pitifully low. And, if I was really honest, my dreamscape remained one of cantering into the wind with a map stuffed in my pocket, and with no one passing comment on my leg position. And then, the following year I was excited to discover another development – I was expecting a baby.
So… no more riding for me?
Continue reading: https://janruth.com/2019/03/02/disappearing-dreamscapes-4/
About this Series
Continuing memories and reflections of an equine obsession 1968-2018.
Chapter 2: Summer
Higher House, Mottram-St-Andrew, Alderley Edge, Cheshire. During the summer, or when Dad moaned about his car never being available, I would cycle the seven miles or so to Dawson’s and ride for two-and-a-half hours, before cycling home again. This was never a hardship. I’d set off around 7.30 in the morning, beating the heavy traffic (or what we used to perceive as the rush-hour) around the suburbs, before arriving on the outskirts of Mottram-St-Andrew. This wouldn’t be a pleasant experience now, but in the seventies and early eighties, these country lanes were mostly empty. I’d be leaving the yard by 9. a.m. and trotting up towards The Edge. Grey Filly, a favourite, may have been one of Mary’s failed racehorses. Her strides were long and powerful, as one might expect but she never gave me cause for concern, even when we cantered along the flat stretches around the sand hills and up through Windmill Woods, or across the top of The Edge, where she could easily have got the better of me. Although I enjoyed all the early Dick Francis novels, I never cared for horse-racing or anything mildly competitive. I tended to shy away from gymkhanas as a child and became bored and restless if I had to ride in an indoor school for longer than half an hour. I much preferred – still do – to spend all day happily bumbling round the countryside. I liked to think Grey Filly agreed with me.
Early summer and the cottage gardens were ablaze with colour, Bradford Lane shining like a snake where the sunlight caught wet cobbles from an earlier shower. The first cuts of hay stacked beneath old barns, hedgerows laced with wild flowers. The rhythmic nod of Filly’s head, and the four-time beat of her hooves. The long flick of her tail, the creak of the saddle, and the distant drone of farm machinery. Then slow cantering, the ground too hard to gallop, the unclipped mare too hot to care; clouds of dust in our wake. We cooled off beneath the trees on The Edge and ambled to Stormy Point to take in the view. An artist, perched on a rock with a sketch pad. The sound of summer: a cuckoo, plaintive and repetitive. Rising heat obscured the distant scenery other than Jodrell Bank observatory, lying on the horizon like a giant’s discarded spinning top.
The Edge is a red sandstone escarpment rising above the village of Alderley Edge, 110 metres above the Cheshire Plain, and shares an uncanny resemblance to Nutwood, although I read that much of Rupert’s landscape was inspired by the Vale of Clwyd. The northern side of the Edge is shaped like a horseshoe or hough (pronounced huff, and appropriately, this also happens to be my maiden name). The red colour of the rocks is due to the presence of oxidised iron. It’s mostly a woodland area, owned and managed by the National Trust, and a site of geological interest spanning back to the Triassic period – that’s 250 million years ago. Shrouded in folklore and history, there’s magic in this place. It’s well known for inspiring Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (based on the legend about a wizard, a milk-white mare, and a farmer from Mobberley) and The Moon of Gomrath. I think I probably drew a lot of early inspiration from the area myself although I didn’t begin to write novels until much later, and never fantasy. But in hindsight I can see how my love of landscape, and character, has evolved from some of these experiences. I began to pen stories and describe my rides in diary form. My English teacher would encourage me to enter competitions, and then at secondary school I made it to the finals of the East Cheshire Books for the Children Essay Competition. My prize was a signed book from author Joyce Stranger. Stranger claimed that most children’s books about the countryside were inaccurate, too sentimental, and humanised animals in an unrealistic way. Back then I didn’t realise quite how much I would come to agree with this statement, not only in fictional terms but in other areas of my life, especially concerning horses.
High summer, through July and August, tends to be my least favourite time of the year to ride. Heat, humidity, and an increase in traffic and flies doesn’t combine well with horses. And then there’s the school holidays… Since Surprise couldn’t be trusted in fancy dress, and since he tended to misbehave around children, Nicola and I were always allocated this fiery, headstrong horse for riding out while Mari, the head girl, supervised activities on the yard. I enjoyed Surprise, and he did have a few. Suddenly moving backwards at speed into thick shrubbery – was one of his less desirable traits, and I always made sure I carried a short crop in case I needed to remind him that this wasn’t such a great idea. We often rode the brothers together – Victor and Surprise – and like most brothers they could be competitive when it came to open ground. There was a cinder track by the sand hills which Nicola and I liked to frequent. We’d amble down then turn at the dead end – horses barely restrained as they knew full well what our intention was – and then we’d race back, hopefully executing the tight left-hand turn without incident, before plunging through Windmill Woods where the track was only wide enough for one horse. It might sound as if we were forever galloping about irresponsibly, but it’s always the exciting bits one remembers. We took care to always have a long cool-off on the homeward journey, and we never returned with a sweated-up horse. Over the course of ten years, nothing untoward happened.
Grey Filly, Skippy, Surprise, Carousel, Fernando, Victor, Herbie, Romany, Babysham, Pepsi, Jason… All of the horses were forward-going, never bolted, rode out solo, rode in a group in any combination, and tolerated the school holidays. On our return to the yard that day we discovered Skippy draped with a white bedsheet, a pair of makeshift wings somehow attached to his flanks with string and Sellotape. Carousel sported hairnets and curlers in her mane and tail and Grey Filly was backed by an Indian chief, her tack whittled down to a single length of rope. Babysham pulled a flimsy looking chariot made of orange boxes. This procession wound its way along the road to the place of judgement in the paddock, wings flapping, curlers bobbing, the chariot threatening to part company at any second. These horses were fit. Of the finer types, their ribs were often visible, just. Comparing my old photos with current times, evidence of our national problem with obesity now applies to many of our horses and ponies too, especially show ponies. A horse-trekking business in Dartmoor is having to close, in part because riders are getting too fat. It comes after a study by the Animal Health Trust into the impact of riders being too heavy to ride. Numbers of people turned away from Babeny Farm on Dartmoor because of weight restrictions, has increased by about 30%. Nowadays, this is a common problem for riding schools. Weight restrictions used to be unheard of, now it’s the norm. It also explains the popularity of riding ‘heavy’ horses: the Clydesdales and the Shires, those old-fashioned breeds originally bred to harness for ploughing and other weight-pulling tasks. These horses are obviously up to carrying more weight than the average riding horse and although this is good news for our old breeds under threat of dying out, the overall message is worrying.
I don’t ever recall feeling concerned about the weight-carrying ratio between horses and riders, not even during holiday times at trekking centres. Blackpool was a popular day trip when I was learning to drive, or if Dad had acquired a new second-hand car and wanted a test run. A couple of times we’d end up at The Lido Riding School, somewhere not too far from Blackpool centre, although I can’t imagine where this may have been located. It certainly wasn’t surrounded by any green fields but I remember riding along bridleways on the outskirts of Blackpool, the rattle of the rollercoasters from Blackpool Pleasure Beach still in earshot. Chico, the skewbald thoroughbred-cross was pretty fleet of foot on the beach, where we could gallop on the hard sand at low tide, away from the crowds. Riding on the beach at Blackpool is banned now during the summer months between the piers.
More beach rides, but longer and more picturesque, happened in North Wales. My most influential long-standing love affair with riding on holiday was with Pinewood Stables, Sychnant Pass, Conwy. My parents loved North Wales, and as a young teen my discovery of the Welsh countryside took over my holiday dreamscape through the early seventies and beyond. Conwy Mountain, the beach, and the foothills of Tal Y Fan had limitless possibilities for adventure. This was down to the open accessibility of the hills and beaches. The terrain was far more challenging than Cheshire with its gentle woodland paths and sandstone trails. In comparison, the Carneddau rose like a vast, crumpled carpet of rock, heather and stone. And there was miles of it – reaching far into the rugged national park of Snowdonia. It was pony-trekking heaven, and although that wasn’t my bag, Pinewood organised more ambitious rides for those above novice level. Anything too finely bred or those horses with poor feet would struggle on such flinty tracks and unexpected bogs. Cobs and ponies fared best, and Pinewood had around 40 of them in their heyday. I’d invariably get dropped off there while Mum and Dad did their own thing. There were arguments though when I wanted to ride and Dad wouldn’t drive to Conwy again. This was before the estuary tunnel which opened in 1991 and completely bypassed the centre of town – before which the queues of traffic through Conwy were legendary. When Dad put his foot down, I would sulk and sit it out with another Dick Francis or a Jilly Cooper or, inspired by the Welsh castles maybe a Gothic romance by Victoria Holt. I had favourites at Pinewood and of course they changed from year to year. I especially remember Lady, and Sinbad, both greys. Sinbad was always ridden in a Hackamore (bitless bridle) and he wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I loved his jousting-style bursts into action. He had a sizeable dent in his neck down to a collision with a car, and I seem to remember he shared some historical association with Gwrych Castle. Maybe he’d belonged to one of the legendary Gwrych knights!
I did go to watch the jousting when the castle was still open to the public through the seventies and early eighties, operating as a tourist attraction for medieval re-enactments. In 1946, the castle was purchased by Leslie Salts, who opened it up to tourists as a medieval entertainment centre featuring jousting and banquets. After a run of almost 40 years, the castle then entered a period of slow decline leading to the entire site closing in 1985. New Age travellers moved in and gradually, the castle was asset-stripped and vandalised. Thereafter, it stood as a ruin for a good few years; but then Mark Baker happened. Baker passed the castle every day on his way to school and decided that he was going to fight to restore it. And he did just that, going on to found the Gwrych Castle Preservation Trust, at the age of 12. The castle was finally purchased by the Trust in 2001 – on behalf of the nation. It might sound like a fairy tale, but Baker made his dream become a reality and restorations have already made inroads, restoring the impressive Gardener’s Tower and lighting the stove and the main fireplace for the first time in 100 years. Reading Baker’s biography and the historical works he went on to write, it was interesting to note that once upon a time we shared the same Welsh publisher. (An era of publishing history I’d rather leave behind!) Gwrych has an increasingly strong atmospheric presence thanks to Baker. Walking through the woods which border the emerging castle grounds, it’s not difficult to imagine how life might have been 100 years ago. More horses, certainly.
In the mid-seventies, Barbara and I booked a week of riding at the Tarn Hows Hotel, Hawkshead, Cumbria. We shared a twin-bedded room above the stables, although breakfast and dinner was provided for in the main hotel and I can still recall the five-star meals, none of them representative of standard riding holiday fodder. I suspect we possibly ate our own body weight in smoked salmon and raspberry bavarois. The rest of the time I was partnered with a native black Fell pony called Heather, and sometimes Goldie the palomino. Barbara always rode Foxy. On the downside, the actual riding was a little sedate, perhaps more akin to pony trekking – but the countryside was stunning. Cumbria, home to Beatrix Potter, famous for the Wainwright fell tops and loved for its quintessential English villages, also has its fair share of hauntingly beautiful, desolate places. We’d stop at a predestined pub for lunch, tying up the ponies in the pub car park and crowding round the picnic tables with pints of shandy, before heading up onto the fells – riding for full days through Grizedale Forest, to Conniston, Tarn Hows, and beyond.
The hills were baked brown through the legendary heatwaves of ’76 and ’77 and at the end of each day we’d discard our riding gear in order to ride the ponies back down the lanes to the field in just rope halters, bareback, and often leading two alongside. We didn’t bother with riding hats, sometimes wearing only t.shirts, shorts and sandals, but the delicious feel of warm pony against bare legs as we meandered down sun-dappled lanes was all part of the experience. And the hotel pool was a great finish to those long, hot days in the saddle. But the Lake District is generally a watery place and on one occasion we were faced with high winds and torrential, heavy rain. The hotel loaned us some huge voluminous capes – the sort of attire one might wear to stalk grouse on the fells. Once on higher ground, I thought it entirely possible we could take flight. When it rains in the Lake District, it can be relentless. And despite the Super Woman image in the cape and boots, I remember suffering with mild hypothermia after that experience. It didn’t stop me finishing the rest of the week.
The Tarn Hows Hotel currently operates as a B & B. No horse-riding available.
Through the summer of 1978, I owned a horse. I bought him from Holly Tree Riding School, Plumley. Out of a short list of two, I chose the rising five-year-old bay thoroughbred-cross, rather than the steadier, older, coloured cob mare. Naturally. I called him Strider, after the character in Lord of the Rings. This was a huge tome of a book I’d read more than once through my teen years, despite not really enjoying much of the fantasy genre. Arguably, there’s plenty of similarities between the cosy patchwork of the Cheshire countryside – after all, Alderley Edge even boasts its own wizard – and Middle Earth; and then the quest was facilitated by an adventure on horseback. I kept Strider on some land in Cheadle Hulme owned by a mostly unhelpful farmer. The lack of facilities soon had me move to Wendy Thexton’s place at Hall Moss Lane, Woodford, previously known as Moorfields Riding School. Opposite the yard on the corner of Blossoms Lane, George Best had an architect-designed house built in 1969, and we were always peering over the hedges to take a closer look – something one could do on a horse without attracting too much attention.
I parted company with Strider and befell more accidents than was good for me. I never told my mother of these incidents but it ranged from being chased by the park warden for galloping in Bruntwood Park to having a horrible fall on the road (tripping over a sunken manhole) just before dusk, and having to walk the poor horse home on darkening roads. Proof that most accidents with horses tend to be freakish and entirely unpredictable. Given the number of occasions over the years I’d been catapulted elsewhere at short notice – I never suffered a single bruise, but tripping on that manhole cover left Strider with cut knees and myself with a rather large veterinary bill. Sometime after this I came to realise that not only had I bitten off more than I could chew, but the expense of encroaching winter, the logistics of toing and froing to Woodford with Dad fed up of his car being unavailable and full of mud… forced me to face some painful home truths, the most pertinent being that I was working so many hours to keep the horse, I didn’t have time to ride the horse! Eventually, I did the sensible thing and returned him to Holly Tree. I beat myself-up about this experience for many many years, (if only I’d done this, that, or the other) but that old cliche about learning more from failures is a cliche for a reason. And on the upside, after this experience I was cash-rich to the tune of £300. So I booked a week of trail riding at Ferniehirst Mill, Jedburgh, Northumberland, in June of the following year. The week restored my flagging confidence, and I enjoyed writing-up the experience of my trail ride through the Cheviots: https://janruth.com/2016/10/07/what-i-did-on-my-holidays-37-years-ago/
I penned my first novel in the early eighties on a succession of second-hand typewriters. Since I wasn’t allowed to take the typewriter on holiday, I compromised with an A4 sized notebook. I was obsessed. (I can’t recall the title of the book but it took only months to get the first draft down, and then it was so bad I hid it in a cupboard before eventually setting fire to it in case anyone accidentally read it.) Chapter ten (the bit where his sister dies in a bog on the moors after falling from a horse and his evil stepfather tries to kill him, that bit) coincided with a weekend trip to the Golden Pheasant, Glyn Ceiriog, Llangollen. This wasn’t the name of the farm, but the riding was somehow linked to the Golden Pheasant Hotel in the village. Husband (husband one: first draft) and I stayed in the house up at the stables – a typical Welsh farmhouse built of local stone. It was an elevated property, looking down over fields of grazing horses, an exciting cross-country course, and the foaming River Ceiriog at the bottom of the valley. The farmhouse was a beautiful, rambling place, full of the character one might expect with open fires, an assortment of dogs, creaking floors, and a four-poster bed. The countryside at the mouth of the Ceiriog Valley wasn’t chocolate-box pretty like Cumbria, it was far more more rugged and a bit rough round the edges. And, unlike Cumbria, the forestry trails and the hillsides felt distinctly unpopulated, and we enjoyed some rip-roaring gallops across open moorland.
It was a privilege to ride Jane’s stunning mare, Venture, but the little horse who really stole my heart was Vodka. The mare in dancing shoes. She didn’t walk, she danced, jogging instead of walking and bursting into canter at the slightest touch, on the spot if necessary, rocking-horse style. I’d probably find this exhausting now but in my twenties I loved this showy exuberance. Jane assured me she’d jump anything. She certainly had enough natural suspension. To prove a point we followed Jane and Venture around the cross-county course, easily flying over everything in our path, before taking to the open countryside and tackling the drystone walls. Although not especially big, the walls were challenging since they either leant in towards us or fell away, with maybe a ditch on the far side. The mare knew they were solid and we couldn’t afford a mistake, but Vodka cleared everything with feet to spare and it was an exhilarating experience. I took the mare to Lake Vyrnwy in Llanwddyn for a weekend trip and we stayed at a hotel which provided overnight grazing for the horses. I remember walking up to check on them after dinner, a vodka and tonic in one hand – naturally – and a carrot in the other. Vodka was finally stationary, resting one hind leg, ears pricked and watching the sun set over the lake. Thereafter, we made the trip to Glyn Ceiriog once a fortnight. Afterwards, we’d drop into the Glynn Valley Hotel for soup and a sandwich before starting the 90-minute drive home. But life was changing, my dreamscapes were closing in and by the mid-eighties, the riding freedom I’d taken for granted in Cheshire, looked set to end. Continue reading: https://janruth.com/2019/02/15/disappearing-dreamscapes-3/
*Photo of Chico at The Lido by kind permission of Barbara Atamaniuk.
About this Series
Memories and reflections of an equine obsession 1968-2018.
Chapter 1: Spring
Higher House, Mottram-St-Andrew, Alderley Edge, Cheshire. 1976. Since I was the new girl, I was invited to join the regular Sunday morning crowd. Most of them were hungover, but the guy with his foot in plaster assured me that this wouldn’t be a problem. This same guy elected to ride Specky, the one-eyed hunter. No one questioned whether this was a wise combination, or not. No matter, spring was in the air along with the peal of church bells, and the day was full of promise. Masses of daffodils and crocuses, every shade of dark emerald green through to the palest of jade, chocolate-brown fields wet from heavy showers. I followed cautiously on a quiet bay mare called Babysham, which felt entirely appropriate on all counts. We turned off the road after some ten minutes and began to ascend a steep, sandstone track partially formed by huge boulders. Crouched low over Babysham’s neck, the climb presented a challenging scramble for four hooves – but all the horses took it at speed, experienced at keeping the momentum going and knowing exactly how and where to lunge around the rocks. Once the horses had caught their breath at the top of this escarpment, we would wind our way through ancient woodland, sometimes cantering along a criss-cross of tracks and leaping small logs along the way. The mare was light and forward, the company funny, and a whole new riding experience looked set to unfold. I was hooked…
Mary Dawson’s kitchen at Higher House was invariably a wonderful chaotic jumble; pans of boiling barley and sugar beet, wet jodhpurs steaming over the Aga, something in a bucket covered with a wet cloth. A chewed laundry basket full of puppies, a three-legged lamb in a box under the kitchen table. On the windowsill, a row of gin and dry martini bottles containing milk and fitted with huge rubber teats. Dogs, always dogs.
Bee the greyhound dropped a size eleven shoe on my foot and looked up expectantly. Naturally, I hurled it as far as I could across the muddy garden. The dog merely tilted her head enquiringly until eventually, I was forced to go and retrieve the thing myself. I was less amused when I discovered the shoes belonged to Big John. I understand now that Big John may have been mildly autistic, but mental health wasn’t really acknowledged or talked about much in the seventies. Verbally, he was pretty non-communicative – but his favourite story, when he felt so inclined, was the one where he cycled to Macclesfield on a bike with no gears in less than twelve minutes. He was freakishly strong – which had its merits on a stable yard, but on the flip-side he was often in trouble for over-tightening things and once, for teaching Midnight Prince how to smoke his pipe.
Big John found great amusement in trying to pair-off my friend, Nicola, and I with the local vicar; engineering timings so that we rode out together. We always tried to get mounted up and off before the local reverend arrived, one eye on the driveway as we fiddled with girths and adjusted stirrups. The vicar drove an extremely flash sports car. I can’t recall the exact make and model but it was sleek and low slung, and he invariably struggled to climb out of it. He was an archetypical country vicar too, with buck-teeth, a loud voice, and a receding hairline.
I loved all of this mild eccentricity, and stored it away for future use, for reasons unknown to me at the time, but anyone who has read my novels may well recognise my fictional roots starting to form.
Under her main hat, Mary Dawson bred racehorses as well as running a riding school. None of the hacks out were ever accompanied, she was too busy teaching and training. After a couple of visits and once I’d proven myself to be trustworthy, I was pretty much allowed free rein of the school horses. I bought a 1:25000 map and plotted dozens of routes, often riding out solo and I continue to do so now, although my dreamscape these days belongs to the Welsh hills – a significantly more remote playground than the cosy Cheshire green-belt I frequented then. My solitary riding across the hills here often attracts more than a raised eyebrow but this was how I learnt to ride well, and in hindsight how I learnt to fix problems of my own making. Back in the seventies and eighties, we never envisaged falling foul of an accident, and we never experienced anything we either couldn’t fix at the time, or learn from. We simply took responsibility for ourselves.
Now, we live in very different times, governed by a whole plethora of health and safety rules. Common sense and trust aren’t allowed to develop and prevail. But the domain of the public riding school has changed beyond recognition – access to suitable land has become more and more restricted, many bridleways have gone, country roads have become racetracks, and crippling insurance costs reflect our blame culture. The artificial world of the indoor school has obvious advantages, but its rise in popularity through the eighties and nineties has also produced a generation of horses, business owners, and riders nervous of the real world. Does this combined social baggage add to the mass of anxieties we have become? I think it might. Of course, riding schools find it physically easier and more financially lucrative to allow one member of staff to teach ten riders or more in a confined indoor space rather than venture off-site and risk an ‘accident’. And in this decade there’s been a boom in children’s parties, coffee mornings, and ‘educating’ children having them learn how to fill hay-nets and muck-out. This is good, but only up to a point.
I’m glad I learnt to ride more than fifty years ago. For me, it was a time when those personal dreamscapes felt real because we were allowed to experience them. Now, we seem to have lost a wealth of respect on our roads, and the ability to trust our own risk assessment of any given situation. Above all, we’ve lost a wealth of freedom.
Booths, Shaftesbury Avenue, Timperley 1968. The birth of an obsession. My new Australian friend regaled me with stories of her ponies ‘back home’. She owned the biggest collection of horse books I’d ever seen and The Observers book of Horses and Ponies, published around the year I was born, immediately went onto my Christmas list. I still have it. My imagination was further captured by Australian author Elyne Mitchell whose books – an unusual equine series set in the Snowy Mountains region of Australia – began to feature heavily in my teenage years. In direct contrast to my friend, I grew up on a quiet, leafy council estate in south Cheshire, with non-horsey parents. I was an outdoor child, fuelled by books and maps. Rupert Bear, and Nutwood, the fictional idyllic English village. Enid Blyton’s Brer Rabbit and the Secret Seven books all helped to inspire an active interest in animals, the countryside, and the idea of setting out on an adventure. I liked to be on the move. Around the age of ten, my father would cycle 6 miles or so with me from where we lived in Cheadle to Booths place, where Pamela Rigby taught me the basics on a ‘yard’ consisting of a few acres of fields and a couple of caravans. It was open and flat, and despite the road running alongside, felt like a different world to a child with a good imagination. Not surprisingly, this entire area is now under concrete and the road is a roaring, incredibly busy dual-carriageway.
Mr Booth, always seated in his maroon Jaguar, took the money. In 1968, an hour in the saddle under instruction cost ten shillings, aka 50p. Sometimes, Booth would put three-penny-bits between our knees and the saddle, promising we could keep them if they were still there at the end of the lesson. I don’t think I ever managed it! Now of course, gripping with the knees has long been ousted as correct or effective horsemanship. Copper prizes notwithstanding, Dad and I would cycle home afterwards, and my six-day wait would begin again. I started on the steady ones: Twinkle Toes, the grey, and Puffin, the roan, before progressing onto a smaller, albeit far wilier and more challenging Welsh Mountain Pony: Merrylegs. Twinkle and Puffin may have given me confidence and balance, but Merrylegs taught me how to ride. The adventure really began when I was considered proficient enough to leave the confines of the fields and join day rides to exciting places like Ashley, or on one occasion, a holiday in Hope, Derbyshire.
In the early seventies, Pamela Rigby relocated to Mobberley Riding School, Newton Hall Lane; a much bigger establishment with proper stables and an indoor school. I did continue to go as a child for lessons and even a few times in the late nineties when I took my son along for one of Pam’s holiday clubs. She kindly allowed me to hack one of her horses around the Cheshire lanes. The 16-hand middle-weight hunter was wonderfully schooled and a joy to ride, but the restrictions of those Cheshire roads just felt too confined for my roaming soul. Although I wasn’t part of this particular story, I love that Mobberley Riding School survived over 40 years and Miss Rigby enjoyed a long career at top competition level. The school only closed in the spring of 2016 but Pam is still very much in the business and now runs a performance and event venue at New Barn Livery in Knutsford; jokingly referred to as her ‘retirement project’. Pam was awarded the MBE in June 2013 for her lifetime service to people with disabilities. The site of Mobberley Riding school is now under redevelopment.
Once I was considered sensible enough to coordinate a bus ride into Stockport and catch a second bus to Offerton, I began to frequent Forsythe’s place at Offerton Riding School, Holiday Lane. This yard offered more scope in that we could ride – unaccompanied – on private land for something like £1.20 per hour. A horsey haven, nestled in the middle of suburbia. The beautifully kept whitewashed stables and the authentic Victorian buildings complete with iron hayracks and cobbled floors, the smell of the leather – all of these things felt deeply evocative – though I couldn’t explain why. Perhaps the history of those buildings and the thousands of dreams it all represented had somehow soaked into the foundations.
Ken Forsythe kept a big desk diary with all the horses’ names running down the left-hand column, Flikka, Trigger, Sabre, Winston, Brandy, Romany, Charmaine, Piper… It was a foolproof booking procedure, and nothing much ever went wrong or got mixed-up, and nothing was ever cancelled. Ken always wore a shirt and a tweed jacket with his wellies, which seems ridiculously formal but we didn’t have all the purpose made outdoor clothing we have at our disposal now.
Riding gear was mostly for show, rather than practicality. Anything other than a hacking jacket was often too bulky, or too long. Hats were not always worn, let alone air-jackets or back-protectors and high-vis tabards. Outdoor gear is probably one of the best improvements we’ve had since the early years – protective, lightweight, waterproof, high visibility, breathable clothing. I had a brown, second-hand riding hat for years, its only anchorage to my head being a loose length of elastic. I remember investing in a buff-coloured rubberised raincoat in the eighties which was the order of the day, but there was no ‘give’ in the material and the coat was so rigid it practically stood up by itself when I wasn’t wearing it.
At Offerton, there was a flat sandy area we were sometimes allowed to canter round, sensibly. Trigger was always especially up for this, and although I was a pretty confident rider by then I parted company from Trigger a couple of times in spectacular style. He was the first young, finely-bred horse I’d encountered. He moved much more quickly than the ponies I’d grown up with, sometimes choosing to leap the pools of sandy water rather than plough through them, and he was especially adept at changing gear and direction. Sometimes, we were allowed to leave the confines of riding school land, cross the stream and venture along the banks of Poise Brook for a long canter, until the track petered out. We were always accompanied for this venture, I suspect because none of us were trusted to stop in time before we ran into the immaculate greens of the local bowling club.
At the beginning of the eighties, the horses and ponies at Offerton were whittled down in preparation for Ken’s retirement – many of them sold privately or to Bank Farm Riding School, Poynton – which is still operating as a riding school, albeit only offering walk and trot rides. I do remember riding there a couple of times and galloping along the Middlewood Way on a horse with only fair-to-middling brakes, trying to slow down enough for the rest of the party who were miles behind. A sad coincidence that in 2017 my mother had occasion to stay in a nursing home just off Marple Road and I drove past the end of Holiday Lane in morbid fascination, lost in the nostalgia of it all and the terrifying march of time. Although in the grip of advancing dementia by then, Mum seemed to remember the day I led her around the fields on Brandy. Offerton Riding school closed at the end of the summer in 1981 and I read recently that the area is being further developed by a sand and gravel company. Sad to see that the stables and the buildings have all but collapsed, including those handcrafted Victorian stalls, now cluttered with rubbish and old shopping trolleys. The land is not built on as yet, but maybe it’s only a matter of time. The end of more than one bygone era…
Still in the early seventies, someone I only remember as Rosemary, set up a small riding school at Bruntwood Park, Cheadle, alongside her boyfriend’s dog training business. This was great news for me as I could walk or cycle the short distance from home to the cottage at the top of Bruntwood Lane. Rosemary had half-a-dozen horses but I only really recall Ebony – a huge black cob, both in height as well as girth. Eric Broadhurst ran a security business retraining failed police dogs, usually German Shepherds. I remember one afternoon running around in one of those padded strait-jackets so the dog could leap at me and wrestle me to the ground. Eric’s career as a dog trainer gained considerable repute, being associated with Crufts along the way and enjoying a long working relationship with Granada Television training dogs for film and TV.
When Eric and Rosemary went their separate ways, Eric retained custody of Ebony. Fearful of the cob’s ever expanding size, I began to ride him at Eric’s request that I keep the horse fit. This was no mean feat. The world was one big smorgasbord to Ebony. He was a wise soul, patient, mostly plodding, and happy to be taken anywhere, if we didn’t rush him. I occasionally rode him home, across Brookfields Park, paddling through the Micker Brook, round the fields at the back of the houses and onto Brookfield Road where we lived. I left him on our driveway once while I nipped to the bathroom. I could hear my mother shrieking downstairs that not only had he eaten a tub of geraniums but he’d come partway into the hall, looking for me. Dad went looking for the camera. Clear evidence here that he always managed to chop our heads off.
Sometimes my friend Barbara would join me on expeditions further afield, and we took it in turns to either ride the horse or pedal the pushbike – our packed lunches in the basket on the front. We attracted some verbal abuse and hilarity out and about through Cheadle Hulme and Bramhall, especially waiting in traffic at the lights where Ebony towered above the cars and peered through the rear windows of stationary traffic. Sometimes he’d choose to pee just as the lights turned green. He’d plant all four hooves, oblivious of honking traffic trying to get round him. And it could take a while, at least until the lights turned back to red – a torrent of foaming urine spreading across the tarmac. All credit to his stoic character, Ebony wasn’t fazed by anything we encountered on the roads. As part of his fitness regime we encouraged him to trot for as long as possible, especially uphill, and he did usually oblige – at least until whoever was on the bike began screaming for mercy. Barbara and I were very fit through those years, not sure how much impact it had on the horse.
During all of this I remember getting stranded in London in the spring of 1975 because I’d gone to see Led Zeppelin at Earls Court (with an unsuitable boyfriend, naturally) and missed the last direct train back to Manchester. The parents were furious. I think I arrived home just as the milkman turned up. A quick change of clothes, a note on the kitchen table and I was straight out again, Ebony’s halter swinging on the handlebars of my bike. I ditched the boyfriend not long after, kept riding the horse. Eventually, all that sustained trotting only produced the required slight sweat (mostly Barbara and I) and we moved on to cantering. Cantering only happened on Ebony’s terms, usually on the way back to his field. This was an idyllic meadow, full of big oak and beech trees – gone now, concreted over by a prestigious housing estate with properties hovering just below the million-pound mark. The park is hopelessly over-developed now boasting a boutique hotel and more car parks sprawling across what used to be an unlabelled open space of almost 100 acres. Another large chunk of this has been swallowed up by various superstores on the periphery.
I lost touch with Barbara, but later heard that she’d bought Trigger from Offerton Riding School. I don’t know what happened to Ebony... continue reading: https://janruth.com/2019/02/02/disappearing-dreamscapes-2/
*Black and white photos of Offerton Riding School by kind permission of Karen Corcoran
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