Over the Hill: 11

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

Over the Hill: 10

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

Over the Hill: 9

My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park. 
P1000024-1A fly-tipped fridge at the side of the road has Her Little Ladyship slowing to an uncertain halt. His Little Lordship masterfully takes charge, although he still needs encouragement and backup from both of his field-mates. Fortunately, early Bank Holiday traffic is pretty much non-existent on Hendre Road and the sky promises sun, and light, summery winds. It feels too soon to be thinking of cooler times, but all things flowering are dying off to leave small green buds and berries. From a distance the heather across the mountains remains a sea of purple, but like the bracken it’s already starting to brown at the edges. The hedgerows, especially the blue-black berries of the blackthorn have me in mind of harvest festivals, sloe gin, and Christmas jam. The rest of the countryside looks either hopelessly overgrown, or shorn to within an inch of its yellow life as final hay making gets underway. We push on to reach Parc Mawr Woods, grateful for the shade, and by the time we’ve tackled the steep bridleway up to the old church we’re thinking longingly about the aforementioned fly-tipped fridge being full of cider, strategically placed in a hollow somewhere and magically hooked up to the National Grid. Perhaps next time we should think ahead and lower some bottles into the nearby holy well of St Celynnin.
On the mountain, there’s a welcome breeze to clear the air of biting insects and we canter over the undulating ground, Storm heading-up our small group and taking a strong hold for a while, but when the incline increases he drops back to a walk. And then a strange sight as long, horizontal skeins of sea mist obscures our view and cools the air temperature. Sheep and ponies appear ghost-like and it seems surreal to look down on the sun-filled valley below, and yet not be able to see much beyond a few feet ahead of us.
Back on the yard, His Lordship appreciates a wash-down with a big car sponge, at least I assume he does. Hey, I’m not an old Vauxhall Viva! Any perceived indignity is instantly forgotten as I fill his bucket with a scoop of pony nuts and a handful of chop – this described as soft grass and alfalfa with a molasses coating. It smells divine. Rather less so Storm’s sweaty saddle pad, which sports a thick furry layer of loose hair. The previous time I washed a saddle cloth in the washing-machine my husband had to suffer a week of hair shirts, so I set to with a stiff brush and hang it on the line to air. We turn out Ellie and the two ponies, and Lady chooses a slightly uphill spot to roll. This looks slightly incongruous, like a precursor to misadventure. I hope they don’t get up to too much mischief in this field which is bordered by a variety of trees, and sections of less conventional fencing. Storm likes to explore – probably in an effort to breakthrough to the orchard, recent evidence being telltale scratches at chest height, and a shifty look. On occasion, he has been allowed to graze beneath the apple trees – minus any early windfalls – being the only pony small enough to fit beneath the low, gnarled boughs. One time he wouldn’t settle and I crept back to spy on him, like secretly peering through the school window after leaving a fractious child at nursery. And he stared right back at me, head lowered through the hedge. Hey, I’m not wet behind the ears, you know. All the apples have gone!

 

Over the Hill: 8

My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park. 
P1000024-1The heather across Conwy Mountain is at its most spectacular, highlighted with yellow gorse and dappled sun. A honeyed perfume drifts across the swathes of purple, lots of blackberries are already ripe and the drone of insects is especially busy. We have company. His Little Lordship and Her Little Ladyship have been an item for some time and they’ve occasionally exhibited varying degrees of oneupmanship. Storm doesn’t like being overtaken, in fact he doesn’t always tolerate another pony hot on his heels either and is quick to engage the equine equivalent of sticking his elbows out. This can take the form of dastardly cutting-up manoeuvres or last-minute swerves of direction. Even a strong leg and hand applied to the opposing side brings no real control to the situation. However, Conwy Mountain presents a slow amble uphill and the ponies are positively docile. We dismount to walk down the steep slippery footpath which brings us to the top of Sychnant Pass to cross over the road and pass through the gate to the Pensychnant Estate.
Immediately, Lady’s head is raised, both sets of ears are pricked forwards and there’s a subtle shift in Storm’s interest as his hooves make contact with a sea of grass. It’s an especially scenic bridleway, the heathery views enhanced by glimpses of the sea and the eastern coast of Anglesey. But the best bit is of course, good safe going for a canter. Girths checked, we set off at a brisk pace. In no time, the ponies are neck and neck until Storm surges ahead at the last moment. But there’s no bucking, squealing, or swerving, and the gradual incline affords a natural brake. The route meanders to the boundary at the top, where it merges into the foothills of Tal Y Fan and continues as the North Wales Path. The previous summer Storm and I were caught-up here in a huge group of elderly ramblers. No one seemed aware that a pony and rider had tagged on behind, until a particularly officious Tail-End-Charlie suddenly caught sight of us. Stand well back everyone! There’s a big ‘orse wanting to come through!
The walkers slowly turned to look, expecting to see a horse and rider twice the size of us. I impressed that there was no need for alarm, but the opportunity to entertain didn’t escape Storm. He certainly knew how to work a crowd – his immediate reaction being to display his manhood – and then to take a long pee. This seemed to go on for some considerable time, head and tail raised to the wind stallion-style until finally, all 12.2 hands of proud pony strutted past a long line of tittering spectators, the majority of them compelled to tell me that Storm was a boy.
No ramblers today. Only a scattering of wild ponies, and sheep. We turn left after passing through the old iron gate to head past the pond, then take another left to resume the downward trail above a slightly misted Conwy Valley. Like the subtle shift in the seasons it feels as if the ponies have established their hierarchy to one of calm acceptance. Even the final canter facing home across the previously acclaimed naughty grass fails to deliver any explosive action – an area where Storm has often continued to canter downhill towards a strategically placed telegraph pole. For the moment though, it seems Her ladyship and His Lordship are living up to the dignity of their respective titles. Or maybe they’re just lulling us into a false sense of security…

Over the Hill: 7

My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park.

P1000024-1According to the farrier – who likes to keep us on the road and fully legal at all times – Storm has succumbed yet again to summer feet. We’ve tackled this rapid growth with some special equine moisturiser, and an extra trim. His nails look more resplendent than mine. Down by Pensychnant lake we canter up the slope, then take an almost hidden right into a vast swathe of bracken; a clear track in the winter but throughout August the ferns are so prolific they almost completely conceal us. Storm ploughs through the foliage in anticipation of a fast canter beside the lake, but we are thwarted at the last second.
P1000385It seems especially bizarre on this damp, deserted morning to come across two women loitering in the middle of our canter path comparing their summer feet ie: bunions from wearing ill-fitting sandals. Nothing for it but to wait until they decide to call up their dogs and shuffle back the way they’ve come. Slowly. Storm is agitated and paws the ground, until I finally let him fly. A couple of sheep dart out of the undergrowth and Storm leaps sideways. It crosses my mind that should we part company in this spot my body will probably lie hidden until the bracken has died back, sometime around October… but we recover, canter on. I hear the bunion women discussing the bobble on my hat, and Storm’s ears. They seem bemused by our closet activity.
P1000478Storm inches into the lake and takes a long drink. I’m not surprised he’s thirsty since someone with big teeth managed to remove the bath plug and let all the water out of the trough in the field. None of the residents claim responsibility, but I’ve a good idea who it might be. In fact, after several days of storms, there’s standing pools everywhere and my legs are wet from pushing through glistening foliage. Elsewhere, the ground is slippery so I decide to get back onto the lanes. The footpath to the rear of Oakwood View is blocked by a stone mason repairing the collapsed wall. I slide off the pony to ascertain if we can squeeze past, but his van is full of apoplectic dogs and the equipment on the grass doesn’t look horse-friendly. Mr Stone is super reasonable though, and obliges by reversing his vehicle all the way back down the track and we’re able to continue our planned route.
A right turn here leads us to a cattle grid and just beyond this, another right turn takes us by Berthlwyd Hall Holiday Park. P1000542I love this teeny narrow lane. It winds slightly downhill between gnarled oak trees and tall hedges, and in rough weather affords plenty of protection. At the junction, Storm takes it upon himself to turn left – the shortest way back to the yard, naturally. But I let him trot along Hendre Road until we come to the gap in the wall next to a row of terraced cottages, where a concealed footpath snakes uphill towards Oakwood. I dismount and let him scramble over the rock slabs at the entrance, which he does with ease. On such a dull day, this sunken path is a dark, spooky tunnel beneath a dense canopy of dripping trees. Whenever I pass this way I always recall getting halfway down with our dog – to come face to face with an enormous bull. Thankfully, no need for a hasty retreat today. Storm scrambles valiantly to the top, raindrops in his mane, his precious pedicure intact, and trailing a long bramble from his tail.

 

Over the Hill: 6

My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park.

P1000024-1The distant drone of farm machinery. The fragrance of recently cut hay mingles with fly repellant and hoof oil. Blackberry bushes are flowering, adding a creamy pink foam to the overgrown hedges, and I push aside long, waving brambles. It’s warm at eight in the morning but other than butterflies and biting insects, the lanes are blissfully empty without school traffic and before holidaymakers emerge. Nearing the crossroads by Crows Nest I hear the intermittent parp of brass instruments – not an oompah band in full flow, more like a practice session – and it has the pony stop, ears pricked, head and neck fully extended, eyes on stalks. After long minutes Storm decides that a baritone tuba and 76 trombones are not a precursor to monsters, and we trot on. A middle-aged man on a Power Rangers skateboard comes zooming down the hill but slows and grins, slightly embarrassed to be caught in the moment. I tell him he’s too old for kid’s toys and he takes in My Little Pony and my pink riding hat cover, and tells me much the same thing. Touché!
We make it as far as the riding school and cadge a comfort break. That’s hay and water for Storm and tea and gossip for me. The pony club have taken over the yard and Storm gets plenty of attention. I suggest maybe Storm and I could join in their activities for the morning and a deadly silence ensues as they scrutinise my face. I believe a mature child with a sense of humour is a wondrous thing, and if I ever see skateboard man again, I shall tell him so.
In Parc Mawr Woods the cool shade is welcome, if not the impossible incline. I dismount for a while and Storm follows me like an obedient dog until the greenery proves too much of a temptation and I have to chivvy him along. He still manages to steal snatches of grass and Rosebay Willowherb at every turn, and soon looks to be carrying a bouquet. Earlier in the week I spotted a badger on this same path in full daylight, but no such luck today. I continue to walk for a while – the oppressive heat between the narrow banks and the steep rocky going is more than enough for my friend to deal with, and he stops to drink at every watery trickle – up to the 6th century church on the old coffin route, part of the Pilgrim’s Way. When the church comes into view, we rejoin forces and canter for a short distance on the dry grass, before slipping through the church gate. The entrance isn’t made for horses and it’s narrow and awkward but poses no problem for a pony used to going through garden gates and other mildly unauthorised spaces. Storm immediately drops his muzzle to the ground and for a while the only sounds are of tearing grass, sheep, and the plaintive cry of a buzzard. I take a look at the well dedicated to St Celynin – reputed to hold great healing powers for children, and decide to take the long route home.
On the open mountain the sky is a stunning canopy of clear blue. It’s mostly downhill to Conwy and the elevation means there’s a breeze. Probably down to the fresher climate and the homeward trail but maybe my tuneless singing (Johnny Marr) also adds to Storm’s sense of urgency and he suddenly picks up the pace where the ground levels out. I egg him on and we fly over the ditches, scattering sheep. I guess I’ll always be an ancient little girl at heart.

More about St Celynin’s Church: https://janruth.com/2015/06/15/st-celynnins-church-in-the-hills/

 

Over the Hill: 5

My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park.
P1000024-1Summer brings unwanted elements to our rides. Flies, youths on scramblers, moorland fires, speeding ice cream vans… if Mr Cool passes me again at that speed, his 99’s may well be shoved somewhere unpleasant… but the Welsh heather is beginning to flower, foxgloves stand like sentinels in the now profuse bracken and swallows dip and dive above the land like miniature kites. Our typically unsettled weather creates horizontal rainbows down to the strange mix of humidity, mist, drizzle, and intense sun. We canter up the track alongside the road at Pensychnant House, its bone-dry surface pitted by the movement of sheep and ponies. Storm runs out of puff halfway up and we trundle to the top with us both swatting flies, before gradually dropping back down to the Sychnant Pass; and a section of the road which winds between ancient walls covered in moss.
38218251_2002084286483178_3871159813224267776_nThe walls mark the boundaries of the Pensychnant Estate, now a nature reserve covering almost 150 acres. It was created in Victorian times around the country house of Abraham Stott, famous for his association with the Lancashire cotton mills. Since Storm’s visit to Pensychnant House for afternoon tea the previous summer, I still imagine Storm and Lady (aka His Little Lordship and Her Little Ladyship) rudely scoffing a selection of meadow-sweet, dandelions, and clover, served by grooms in silver buckets. The ponies are still an item. They groom each other with gentle nibbles, sometimes increasing the bite until one of them squeals and they break apart. But Her Ladyship doesn’t get away with as much bossing these days and will politely wait until His Lordship has finished eating before moving in to hoover up his scraps.
P1000311Along the road, the enormous variety of trees bordering the walls form a dense golden green canopy. I don’t often ride along here as it feels enclosed and narrow. Approaching traffic can be scary if it’s big and fast, especially motorbikes and farm machinery, since the engine noise creates a thunderous echo. Today the road feels quiet and inviting and I make a last-minute decision to trot on. Thanks to the absence of traffic, the old walls, the sound of Storm’s hooves, the birdsong, and the sun dappling through the trees easily transports me back a hundred years. It’s less than a mile to where the road opens out again at the base of Conwy Mountain, and then it twists and turns rapidly downhill towards Dwygyfylchi and the coast.
I jump off here and scramble up to the gate leading onto the Pensychnant bridleway, just as a tanker roars past and spoils all the imagery. Once on the other side of the gate, it’s the most lovely amble up through the estate onto the open Carneddau. We canter where the grass tracks even out before facing the temperamental iron gate at the top. I jump off, loop the reins around my arm. At the point of dragging the gate open, Storm makes a sudden lunge for some grass and I almost stumble into a sea of stinging nettles. But he stands patiently for me to remount, chewing furiously, and is forgiven. A moderately fresh, full-on wind has us turning sharp left, before ambling down towards the lake at Gwern Engen. (I set my first novel here, Wild Water, and called my imaginary property Gwern Farm.) Lots of Carneddau mares and foals are grazing or sunbathing by the water, and Storm stands like a rock when a mare and two curious foals come within nose-touching distance.
Despite my mottled hand and the lack of Victorian manners, summer brings some beautiful elements to our rides.