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.

July 2019

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.

July 2019

Over the Hill: 4

My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park.
P1000024-1Signs of spring have all but disappeared. Lambs are sturdy and bleat less. Bracken springs up overnight and hides the smaller tracks in a maze of green fern. By way of compensation, the perfume of wild honeysuckle entwined through the hedgerows is divine, especially after a spell of rain. It’s been a cool, wet spring with flashes of brilliance. Through April and May I brushed out enough pony hair to furnish several bird nests to luxury standard, but now Storm is resplendent in his full summer coat of golden dapples – other than random patches of dark hair on both sides of his neck, like designer stubble.
The bridleway across Conwy Mountain is a steady climb until it reaches a plateau where a couple of long grassy tracks pose opportunities for a canter. Ahead, there are far-reaching views across the Pensychnant Estate and the Carneddau mountain range. We gather momentum alongside the perimeter of Pen Pyra, the only farm on the mountain, once the home of first world war hero John Edwards and although it’s still a working sheep farm, the house is currently a holiday let. 
Towards the end of this track as the the land falls away towards Dwygyfylchi – where Edwards is mentioned on the war memorial – the Irish Sea looms ahead. It’s not unusual to get blasted by the wind at this point, but today it’s relatively calm. A sharp left has the pony leaping to the top. There’s a pond here, frequented by Carneddau mares and foals and we stop awhile to watch them graze the plants at the water’s edge and paddle in the shallows. Ears pricked, Storm champs his bit in contemplative mood, like he’s chewing the end of a pipe.
Conwy Oakwood Park Hotel in 1911Skirting across the front of the farm we cross a small stream and since we’re facing home, Storm races up the short incline. As we slowly retrace our steps towards Conwy, the castle and the estuary hove into view. And as we amble lower down the stony track, more wild ponies, and a commanding black and white turreted building is glimpsed through the trees. Oakwood Park Hotel and Golf Course opened in 1898. In its heyday, Oakwood guests included George Bernard Shaw, David Lloyd George, Amy Johnson, and King Alfonso XIII of Spain. The hotel closed in 1940 and both the golf course and the hotel buildings fell into disrepair. After serving as a private school and a care home, the hotel was refurbished and divided into three private residences. As well as the main building the lovely old pavilion remains including the original railings along the lane, although the golf course is now returned to pasture and inhabited by two equine friends. Storm often draws to a halt here and stares at something I can’t see, oblivious to the leg and any other command. My friend says it’s like they’re seeing dead people when horses do this. I imagine there’s plenty of ghosts in this area, both human, and equine. In fact, reading about some of the history of Oakwood I came across the dairies of Isobel Lee, including her long visits to Oakwood Park Hotel; describing the parties, the golf, and the tennis she filled her days with – through to a more sombre existence doing voluntary work in a hospital. Her final diary entry was June 6th 1917. And her home address? Wilmslow, Cheshire. A little uncanny that I had also moved from Wilmslow to Conwy, and the date of my ride on this day was June 6th  hopefully not my last diary entry!

June 2019

Over the Hill: 3

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 gate by the cattle-grid on Sychnant Pass is so heavy I fear if I misjudge it the whole thing will swing into us before we can get through, but Storm seems to understand its brutal mechanism. Not so much the two men who tried to carry an especially long roll of heavily patterned Axminster into the church on Hendre Road. He still remembers the day we saw a real life pushmi-pullyu and casts a wary eye towards the building as we trot past; an incident which is known only to Storm and I as The Day of the Debacle at the Tabernacle. We continue the length of Hendre Road to the very top, where the lane narrows significantly with no passing places and it’s a bit like running the gauntlet, and so dark beneath the trees the camera flash goes off and momentarily lights up the back of Storm’s ears.
Meeting farm machinery here is the worst possible scenario. Inevitably, we come face to face with a tractor devouring the overgrown hedges and so double-back to a farm entrance to wait for the dragon to roar past. As we climb towards the open hillside, there’s a stillness which is somehow symbolic to the vast, historic wilderness of the Carneddau. And yet, it’s not silent. Birdsong, bleating, streams surging over rocks, the high-pitched whinnies of wild ponies. The route across the mountainside is slow going but Storm is familiar with the hard, rock-strewn tracks and I let him pick his own way until we get to a grassy stretch where we can canter.
For me, this is the best kind of riding in that it epitomises freedom and simplicity. And although my solo roaming is not without challenge, ostensibly it feels more natural to the spirit of the horse. I don’t venture off the tracks through any dense vegetation as there are reports of an increase in adders, and an encounter with one of these has the ability to turn the entire day on its head. We’re rarely, completely alone on this well-worn route into Conwy and soon come across a group of schoolchildren on a field trip. Oh, isn’t he sweet, isn’t he cute! The girls take turns to pat Storm. The boys hang back and only want to know how fast he can go. And it’s a day for mountain bikers. Some of them flying at great speed over the ground, the bikes not fully visible down to the undulating lay of the land. Storm imagines they must be riding horses and breaks into a canter. Another group are lost and want to know how to get to the stone circles above Penmaenmawr. And then, when we come across three men, braced in a line having a wee behind a drystone wall, they laugh and wave. We skirt the lake, drop down onto the Sychnant Pass again and the pony shoots across the inviting, flat area we call the ‘naughty-grass’, for good reason. The last canter facing home is always a strong one, but I find it wise to remember that it involves a telegraph pole and a perilous downward slope onto the road.
It takes us three hours to complete this circuit, including stops to chat, and time to stare. Back on home ground, Storm demands his Pot Noodle. This is a mug which looks like a Chicken and Mushroom Pot Noodle, and something we use as a measuring device for pony nuts. I think it originally contained a Pot Noodle Christmas Dinner. Obviously, this vile concoction was bought as a joke. Clearly, there’s a use for everything. Even heavily patterned Axminster.

June 2019

 

Over the Hill: 2

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

P1000024-1Saturday morning is usually a good time to set off for the beach. Since the route involves passing by the local council offices and the secondary school these establishments need to be closed, otherwise they generate too much traffic and hullabaloo. Then there’s the tide times to consider and the crossing of two bridges; one a pretty, ancient thing over a railway line with perilously low stone walls. The other, less attractive obstacle spans the busy A55 dual carriageway. I always ride towards the middle of this one in the event of any sudden lateral moves. Thankfully Storm remains his calm, stoic self, despite Bank Holiday traffic passing beneath us at 70 miles an hour heading for the estuary tunnel.
Then it’s the housing estate – lawnmowers, garden parasols, a whining strimmer – and then the golf course. The golf course is potentially full of hazards since the pony is already deeply suspicious of squeaking golf trolleys, men in yellow pants, and the whipping noise of several clubs whacking balls; sometimes in quick succession. He dances on the spot a little to signal his disquiet, then  stares through the hedge at the practice area. We survive all of this and arrive at the beach only to stop dead at a line of big boulders. Boulders, he declares, are the work of the Devil. They cast shadows… they hide predatory things… It’s not as if he hasn’t seen boulders before, but we waste long minutes before he deigns to pass between two of these stone beasts as they slumber on the edge of the car park. Ok, human, so nothing bad happened. This time.
IMG_4015Once on the beach, we sink into the silt that borders the estuary before heading for the firmer, rippled sand towards the mussel banks. Thankfully, there are no marauding dogs on the horizon. On a previous visit my friend and I were plagued by such a pest. His owner watched with mild disinterest as his dog leapt around our horses’ legs, barking and snarling. We suggested he might want to call his dog away in case it got kicked in the teeth. Amazingly,  the guy seemed offended that we’d suggested such a thing. Today the area is quiet, only the chatter of oystercatchers and gulls, and the rush and slide of the tide. But Storm is fixated on the opposite bank, where much is going on with boats and kites. He only canters with any conviction when I turn for home and even manages to throw in a violent dodge round a pool of muddy seawater. 
Previous hazards prove curiously inconsequential on the return journey – boulders? I ain’t scared of no boulders – but we’re riding along the lower section of the bridleway on Conwy Mountain when a man walking two elderly dogs suddenly ducks down in the shrubs. I’m sure he thinks he’s being helpful, but the pony can’t fathom why he’s suddenly disappeared and slowly draws to a halt, head and neck up, ears pricked, everything tense – the equine equivalent of a dropped jaw. I guess his behaviour echoes my own, suspicious thoughts. In the end I shout and request that the man reveal himself. No, I quickly rephrase that and suggest he gets to his feet. He does, slowly, explaining he hadn’t wanted to spook the pony, and felt it might be a better idea to hide. I say the best thing to do around horses is to act normally rather than appear predatory and crouch in the bushes. We pass without incident but both Storm and I tut at the incongruity of men, and boulders.
25th May 2019

Over the Hill: 1

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

P1000024-1There’s a dead banana on the Sychnant Pass Road, splayed flat like a dirty yellow star and embedded into the tarmac. The pony always drops his head to investigate, nostrils quivering. This is despite much nicer pickings amongst the stitchworts and bluebells along the verges and the tall hedgerows, heavy now with cow parsley and other delicacies dangling at nose level. But the downside in stopping amid all this abundant foliage is that we’re dangerously concealed along some sections of this narrow road, and I’m always happier when we get onto the open ground at Crow’s Nest. Sheep and feral ponies roam here, many of the Carneddau mares with foals at foot. The pony tends not to be overly interested unless there’s a young stallion in the vicinity, although I’m not convinced that making a noise like Scooby Doo is sufficient warning. 
We turn off Hendre Road into an unmade lane by Llechwedd, a route back onto the open hillside which is dogged by gates. Storm’s small stature is appreciated when it comes to jumping on and off, especially since there’s nothing remotely helpful to stand on. Even I can get my foot in a stirrup which is just a few feet from the ground and mostly stationary. (I’ve learnt to ignore his rolling eye.) We approach the second gate when the head of a lamb suddenly pops up… from beneath the cattle grid. My immediate thought is to applaud Storm’s lack of reaction and assume that if the lamb has fallen down there, then it must be able to get out. But as we draw closer, the lamb appears to be well and truly imprisoned. I slide off the pony and trust him to stay put, which he does. I try every which way to manipulate the lamb, but there’s no way he’s coming up through the bars of that grid. The ewe paces up and down, bleating pitifully. A neighbour says she’ll call the farmer, so not much more I can do.
More Carneddau ponies by the lake at Pensychnant, including a foal born during Storm Hannah; one I’d been concerned about in the rough weather, but all looks good in the sun. The pony picks up his pace facing home, and pounds up the road at full speed, shying at a pair of knickers in the hedge. The two mares he shares field space with, whinny at the sound of his approach well before he’s in sight. The smaller mare, Lady, is currently in season and in fat-camp (on sparse pasture) and this situation can be comical or exasperating depending on everyone’s mood. There’s often much calling and posturing between both gelding and love-sick, segregated mare. The older, taller thoroughbred, Ellie, misses her female companion and is mortally disappointed when I release Storm back into her space. She gives him a cursory head toss, ears flattened. Uh, it’s Pipsqueak. I guess he’s better than nothing. Go on, get out of my way! He generally heeds her warnings. It’s an entirely different scenario when Lady is around, since she actively seeks him out the moment he’s through the gate. Where’ve you been? Shall we groom each other? How about I nibble your withers? 
He strolls single-mindedly towards the water trough as if it’s a big American fridge, like he’s some hotshot stallion home from the office and he’s going to get a beer. Lady follows, and he slows up, turns to contemplate. Give me five minutes, can’t you? I’ve just got in from work. Been up and over hills all afternoon with the Old Biped… 
13th May 2019.