Cantering over Canny Hill, Cookie, and the Cartmell Fells.
Who knew we’d need to learn how to tie a boating knot and trust an ex-car mechanic – someone who’d only sat on a horse some three years ago – to escort us on an 80-mile circular trek across Lakeland. I’m always up for an equine adventure, and I was ready to accept that being five foot nothing with short legs and on the wrong side of 60 might carry certain limitations. Or so I thought. I thought I didn’t want a big cob. Physically, big cobs and I don’t always get on. The width and the rolling gait can leave me feeling compromised. No, I wanted a small, slender beast I could manage without assistance. A horse who’d wait patiently outside the pub without feeling the need to untie himself in order to send my hat rolling down a steep bank towards a stream. A horse that didn’t feel considerably taller than 16 hands towards the end of the day, when jumping off onto hard ground felt increasingly perilous on tired legs.
But I got Cookie. The Cookie Monster. The mighty Cookster. My feet dangled somewhere behind his immense shoulders, and his special treeless saddle initially felt as if it offered little in the way of anchoring. My toes nudged the saddlebags slung across his withers; fixed by straps through the girth and balanced out by two bags of hard feed – his substantial lunch. Once up top, I couldn’t even reach the girth straps and his massive head felt an awful long way out in front. This was going to hurt. My riding fitness was mostly based on hacking out a pony belonging to my good friend and travel companion, Sue. Fortunately, thanks to her nursing background Sue possessed impressive medical supplies, including some black-market Voltarol – a potion apparently strong enough to handle the pain of childbirth. It all sounded good until we learnt it could only be administered via suppository. A thoughtful silence descended as we headed out across Canny Hill and up through the forestry at Simpson Ground Plantation. Maybe we’d make do with gin, heat pads, and ibuprofen after all.
Four mature ladies, five days in the saddle. Sue and I were joined by Lydia from Manchester, and Wendy from Virginia. We were following mostly ancient bridleways across the fells, through forests, villages and fords, calling at predestined pubs for lunch and overnight stays. The route would take us along the east side of Windermere as far north as Kentmere, before circuiting both Ambleside and Grassmere across central Lakeland, and then heading back via Conniston and over the top of Walna Scar. Basically, it was a massive pub crawl on horseback, starting with the Hare and Hounds at Bowland Bridge. Cookie had proved himself eminently reliable through the morning and waited patiently for me to untack and tie him to a suitable bit of fence in the car park, before I emptied the saddlebags and tipped up his lunch onto the grass. An hour in the pub for us meant plenty of time for the horses to digest their hard feed. Cookie would invariably be resting one hind leg and snoozing in the sun on my return. Mostly. If any of the horses were going to get tangled in their own lead rope, sit on a car bonnet or get loose, it would be Sue’s Lusitano-cross mare, Gaia. We began to call her Princess Gaia for good reason. Probably more a testament to her fitness, but she didn’t even sweat.
Throughout the morning we’d glimpsed the long shivery stretch of Windermere in the distance from the considerable height afforded by forestry tracks and the open hillside, but the afternoon saw us crossing lower ground as we headed up the valley towards Ings. Cookie felt fortified after his lunch and we picked up the pace with some steady canters through fields and along little-used bridleways. This horse knew where to take on water and how to pace himself, and exhibited the same stoic sensibility whether crossing the deep ford at Winster or trotting along a short stretch of busy road to the next bridleway. We meandered through open pastureland to arrive at Ings by late afternoon. Six hours in the treeless saddle, and although I felt tired I was more relieved to discover that not only was the saddle a good fit for both Cookie and I, the horse was a gentleman to handle.
The horses stayed overnight at an international showjumping yard, and our billet for the night was an old-fashioned guest house run by the lovely Mrs J. Our rooms were an eclectic mix of floral, flock, and frills, a blend of historical styles which stopped somewhere around the seventies. A crocheted mat for every item, a pile of Reader’s Digest circa 1999, china knick-knacks, faux flowers and brass beds, patterned rugs on swirly carpets, snake draught excluders, and the radiator in the hall set to scorch level. It felt reminiscent of visiting Nan as a child or seaside holidays with Mum and Dad. And sharing with Sue took us both back to school trips when mild exhaustion and forbidden drink took the form of giggly hysteria. But then things took a sinister turn when we decided to Google the meaning of the Latin scrolls on the wallpaper. The best we could come up with translated to the iron hand of blackest terror… Safely cocooned in nostalgia, the discovery of this felt mildly disturbing and for some unfathomable reason we thought it might be prudent to check inside the wardrobe. We grabbed a handle each… tugged. It lurched, then suddenly toppled towards us and a hundred mismatched hangers flew out. Trying to push the thing back upright against the wall and replace the innards made a considerable racket. Likewise the litter bin which seemed placed for musical impact rather than practicality, since the lid bashed the party wall with a resounding boom-tish every time the pedal was depressed. Sensing we might already be unpopular with our fellow companions, we retired early to our flowery beds and stifled our inner schoolgirl.
Sticky Toffee Pudding, the Troutbeck Valley, and Trotting On.
Another day promising sun! Mrs J had already taken our breakfast order the previous evening, but lost the list. When it came down to it, any variation on a full English had her in the iron grip of blackest terror; so we all pitched in. By the time Mike arrived in the pickup to collect us and our bags, we’d cleared the table and said a fond farewell to Mrs J. Back at the showjumping yard, we collected the horses from their overnight grazing and began preparations for day two of the trail. A quick groom, a fresh saddle pad (all of them washed at the end of every day) saddle, saddlebags, breastplate, and the halter left on under the bridle for convenience, with the lead rope secured out of the way using Mike’s special boating knot. I loved day two, perhaps because I was already familiar with much of the area, and as we drew closer to central Lakeland the countryside developed into the classic, rolling English countryside the Lake District is famous for, inspiring not only Wordsworth but also Ruskin, Arthur Ransome, and Beatrix Potter. Plenty of sun and a warm breeze kept light cloud scudding across the fells, highlighting miles of drystone walls and some of those iconic Wainwright summits.
After a sharp incline, we meandered down a long bridleway towards Kentmere and across open countryside before dropping down to a cluster of properties. An old gent stood by his garden gate, his hands held out, his expression rapturous. I’ve been watching you, coming down off the hill along the old bridleway. What a sight! What a wonderful, wonderful sight… We waved as we clattered past, heading through the hamlet and onto the Garburn Pass, an ancient byway which took us over the fells and into the pretty Troutbeck Valley. Much of the going was rough at the start with huge rocks and boulders forming some of the climb but the horses never hesitated and rarely put a hoof in the wrong place. Cookie needed no directional assistance whatsoever and the lightest contact through the reins. All I had to do was to stay in balance and make his job as easy as possible. Mike, Sheila, and Zara Myers had done an impressive job with their horses, especially since many of them have been acquired from less than satisfactory beginnings. Although the pace on the trail was very much dictated by the terrain – and lots of the time it was rough and slow going with the horses scrambling over rocks and on one occasion, steps – this isn’t pony trekking. Experience of riding a fit horse across open country is a priority, as is general fitness and stamina. Bracing against severe inclines and staying in balance with the movement of the horse over uneven ground is deceptively tiring for the uninitiated. And riding continues across five consecutive days, with care of your horse at the end of each day coming well before dinner. Heaving off the tack and the saddlebags and then heaving your own bag up to a hotel room had us all ready to eat and fall into bed before 9pm most evenings. The mantra was very much eat, sleep, ride, repeat. Since I’m happy doing all of these things the routine suited me quite well.
Lunch was at the Mortal Man in Troutbeck and we secured the horses in a small yard close to the pub. During our substantial repast, Cookie saw fit to untie himself and bump my hat off the post where I’d left it. Fortunately for him, it had stopped short of a deep stream, and who could be cross with a horse that enjoyed his head being cradled and stood like a rock to be cuddled, whenever required. On our way again, and the horses burst into action the second Kieron glanced behind to check all was well before upping the pace. Trotting on! We clattered briskly through the village towards Robin Lane Bridleway, instantly regretting the rather excellent two course lunch with sticky toffee pudding and pints of cider. And then we were cantering. Low branches! We grew to love and hate Kieron’s sense of humour. And we soon grew wise to his response whenever we asked how much longer to the pub/hotel/yard because it was always 40 minutes, regardless of where we were. But we laughed, a lot.
Robin Lane to Jenkin’s Crag is a beautiful bridleway which meanders for some five miles over Low and High Skelghyll. The scenery gradually opened up towards Lake Windermere and the Langdale Pikes, before dropping down through Skelghyll Woods into Ambleside. Then a long, long power trot around the outskirts of the town, over the Rothay Bridge and onto a single-track lane following the River Rothay virtually all the way towards Rydal Mount – Wordsworth’s famous residence. Kieron advised us to keep right on the steep, slippery lane (only slippery to shod horses) in order to avoid wheel spin. It seems you can take the man out of the garage but you can’t take the garage… The Coffin Route into Grassmere allowed us to peer over the walls into Wordsworth’s garden. I couldn’t see his writing hut but then the glittering expanse of Rydal Water came into view and hundreds of geese took flight. We cantered along a smooth stretch before the terrain of rock slabs and enormous tree roots had us back down to a considered walk. In places I had to hook my left leg over the top of the saddlebags to avoid getting my kneecaps bashed on the wall as the path was so narrow. A truly arduous task it must have been to carry coffins along this route to the main church in Rydal.
We were booked into a hotel at Grassmere. First priority was to buy two large gins and sit in the sun. Bliss. Back in the room, which had a gorgeous view of Helm Crag right outside the window, the second bliss moment was a deep bath. Too tired to wash my hair separately I soaped my tresses in the bath then reached for the shower head to rinse. Maybe it’s just me but I can never get hotel showers to run at an even temperature especially with soap in my eyes, so I suffered a short blast of stone cold instead. It dried looking no different to the original ‘riding hat helmet’ I’d finished the day on, and thanks to all the soapy residue and no conditioner, the sweetitch started during perusal of the dinner menu. I loved that there was Waldorf salad as a side though, and combined with a lovely East European waiter who had little grasp of the English language beyond I go check, it didn’t take much for Sue and I to lapse into sit-com territory. And another thing. Why do we look fat and rippled when we walk past the mirrors in this place? Er… Funhouse mirrors? Sticky Toffee Pudding?
Tolkien, Teddy’s Tunnels, and Tourists at Tarn Hows.
In the cold light of day I was pleased to find that I still had no need of serious medication. In fact, other than the discovery that the shampoo-induced sweetitch had spread to my withers, I felt pretty good and ready for the day. While we ploughed through scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, Kieron had been busy bringing in the horses and tacking-up, for which we were incredibly grateful. Our day began with a long canter alongside Grassmere lake and a paddle, before heading up Red Bank bridleway bordering Loughrigg Fell. It had become apparent that when Kieron and Jigsaw dropped back, Cookie was no slouch when it came to heading-up the group and I often found myself out in front. Sooner or later though the mares, Princess Gaia and Wendy’s chestnut, Moody Milly, would see to it that Cookie was put back in his place – usually the minute Kieron and Jigsaw took up the lead again, and they’d skillfully manoeuvre themselves back up the pecking order. Until it came to passing through gates. Neither mare would entertain going through first and would mince and prance. Oh no, it might be dangerous! Get the cob! Only then would they allow Cookie to take the lead again. Cookie absolutely knew this was his dutiful job and walked manfully ahead, ears pricked forwards, his pride fully intact again until the girls decided his leadership was no longer required and barged past him with a snicker. At least he had moments of glory. The horses took no notice whatsoever of Lydia’s mount since Micky was the new bloke on the block, and firmly relegated to the rear at all times.
We were en-route towards Elterwater and the Great Langdale Valley, wading through a deep ford at Little Langdale. Cookie ploughed through, his huge feet setting off a tidal wave. And then Kieron surprised us all by issuing baler twine so we could tie up the horses to the trees. Since there wasn’t a pub in sight, we were puzzled but duly obliged and followed him up a steep incline to a cave. Cathedral Cavern was the location used in the Bear Grylls episode with Warren Davies. Not my favourite thing, crouching in the dark beneath tons of rock, but I was encouraged by a group of schoolkids carrying candles, and therefore persuaded to stumble down a long tunnel. I was even less happy when the light from the entrance disappeared, but then blinding daylight ahead and, after a scramble down some rock slabs, the Cathedral revealed itself; a cavernous space above a dense pool of black velvet. I fully expected Gollum to come crawling out and I was happy to take the exit at that point and continue our Lord of the Rings adventure above ground, and with the horses. Hopefully they were still tied to the trees where we’d left them. True to form, resident drama queen, Princess Gaia, had managed to wind herself round and round some saplings until the length of her lead rope was down to strangulation point at three inches. Where have you been? Look what happened to me! Cookie hadn’t moved an inch, one hind leg at rest, eyes half closed in the sun-dappled copse.
Another nod to Tolkien then after a short hack to the Three Shires pub, and another tie-up for the horses right outside. Patrons were amused to see five horses hooked up to the railings on the road, especially when Kieron carefully positioned the ice-cream boards at either end of the equine hazard we’d created. Fortunately, traffic was very slow at this point and refreshingly, the vast majority of people seemed happy to see the horses and interested in our adventure. After a substantial ploughman’s lunch – a glimpse of a truly hobbit-style piece of engineering in Slater Bridge, before picking up the old quarry road to Hodge Close. Myriad deep ravines and underwater tunnels were not something I wanted to linger alongside and I was much happier when we’d left the quarry sites behind and entered the maze of coppice at Holme Ground, to eventually arrive at beautiful Tarn Hows, the most visited spot in Lakeland. Thanks to some very obliging Chinese tourists we managed a good few group pics here until Princess Gaia declared she’d had enough posing, and put in a few playful bunny jumps. On to Conniston then through mature, ancient woodland beneath increasingly cloudy skies, and our thoughts turned to climbing Walna Scar the following day – the highest point of the trail climbing to 2,000 feet. Given the torrential rain elsewhere in the country we didn’t hold out much hope for staying dry.
Horses turned out, fed, and rugged up against the promised rain, we clambered into the pickup for a short drive to our guest house for the evening; Oakland, a traditional Lakeland property featuring plenty of local slate. Comfortably elegant and with enough en-suite rooms for us all to enjoy solo residence. Views from my dual-aspect room were overlooking the cricket pitch, with the dark bulk of Yewdale Fell beyond. I soaked away the grime of the day listening to the many garden birds on the feeders below, and the mellow sound of leather hitting willow. The rain began as we walked to The Crown in Conniston, but we had the best of meals here and in the true spirit of helping Wendy sample the local cuisine, we tested yet another sticky toffee pudding – and this one easily took the top pudding of the week slot.
High Winds, War Horse, and Walking Walna Scar.
My sweetitch problem fixed, plus scrambled eggs and a jar of homemade lemon curd on the breakfast table promised a good start to the day. A significantly better start than the resident garden birds, since our exasperated host reported the plunder of several very large bird feeders by a gang of young squirrels. She cast an eye towards the long barrelled shotgun above the door frame. We made a sharp exit. No rain; but a strong wind was in force, with ominous clouds moving slowly across the summit of Conniston Old Man. Fair to say, the track to Walna Scar is uphill all the way. A long pull against the wind towards the open fell, but we managed to enjoy some breathless canters on the undulating grassy track by the bridleway, before the terrain necessitated a pace closer to scrambling. Boulders, and steep slabs of rock at seemingly awkward angles for a horse posed no problem for our herd of professionals.
Cookie powered up, down, over or through everything in his path; bogs, scree, streams, bridges. He thought nothing of slowly sinking both front legs down a bank at a 90 degree angle in order to drink from a sunken stream. The only show of hesitance came when he had to go first through a busy farmyard, where he’d wait then for Jigsaw to head up the group again. Some powerful crosswinds at the summit of Walna, with far-reaching views to the west of the Irish Sea. Too much low cloud to see The Isle of Man but great views of Scafell Pike and Bowfell. And then it was a long, slow amble down Walna Scar Side by a foaming stream towards Seathwaite, and our lunch stop. I love a genuinely quirky pub, and the Newfield Inn didn’t disappoint. Net curtains, coat hooks fixed into the wood-panelled bar, and since it was only early June – a roaring fire and bowls of hearty lentil soup. A friendly, unpretentious place which likely represented the heart of the village. The sort of tiny rural place where all community problems were still referred to the vicar.
Lifting Cookie’s saddle above my head in order to get it on his back again was beginning to feel arduous, but Kieron threw it in the general direction for me and then once everything was buckled-up and belted-in, hoisted me on as well – although his energetic leg-ups sometimes had me halfway over the other side. I did love his excuse, though. You don’t weigh anything! We picked up the trail again across the Dunnerdale fells before entering Broughton Moor Forest and in places I had to crouch low over Cookie’s neck as we inched along dark forestry paths through dense, dense trees. Then we were out onto wide roads affording us plenty of canters where the gradient levelled out and the surface softened. Once out of the forest, the road down to Torver was impossibly steep and my limbs began to feel tired with both knee joints aching a little, and our overnight stop was a welcome sight. Sue and I complained that getting off at the end of the day with buckled legs was the worst thing ever. We both perched side-saddle and held out our arms, damsel style; and Mike came to our rescue for the second time that week. We’ve looked forward to this all day! we chorused.
So have I, Mike quipped, and lifted us down in a (mostly) gentlemanly fashion.
It seemed much investment had been sunk into our stopover at Torver; the ladies loos being the most surprising. Incorporating the use of slate and wood to such a rustic degree must have been eye-wateringly expensive, to create what I can only describe as something Barney Rubble might design. Eye-catching, but not terribly practical, and I wasn’t sure I enjoyed the intimate narration of War Horse echoing around the cubicle as I went about my business. Our en-suite room was light, clean and modern, if a tad bijou. Fortunate that Sue and I are so petite, so it didn’t pose a problem. But in the spirit of continuing observation, we did laugh at the blue ‘mood’ lighting and the over imaginative use of decorative panels, extra-large lamps, and mirrors hung for those over seven feet tall. In my tired clumsiness I found it awkward to avoid trapping my fingers between the shower screen and the wash-hand basin. And then filling the kettle from the sink tap wasn’t possible due to the angles of the sink and the size of the kettle. Both bottles of complimentary mineral water went to make the tea.
We’d arranged to meet Lydia and Wendy for pre-dinner botanicals at 6.30, but in our disorganised fuddle managed to land in the bar at 5.35, only to then wonder where the hell they were. This despite both of us glancing at several plus-size clocks, iPads, and phones. A couple of drinks later, we were ravenous and had already eaten the best part of a tasty hotpot by the time Wendy and Lydia arrived. Our faux pas forgiven, the evening passed with recollections of the week to date, the exchange of email addresses and the victorious realisation that our stash of drugs and support bandages had mostly gone unneeded. We hit the hay at a sensible hour, taking careful note of the mood lighting switch, should we accidentally need to illuminate our passage to the loo in the night. The sound of cars swishing through hard rain lulled me to instant sleep.
Bridleways, Bullocks, and Homewood Bound to Backbarrow
Phone calls home the previous evening had revealed the most awful weather conditions in North Wales and a similar horror story from my son in London; so I wasn’t too surprised to see rain continuing to stream down the windows. Since it was the last day it didn’t seem quite so depressing to run into bad weather since we’d enjoyed three gloriously sunny days and only one cloudy, windy day, which is pretty good for somewhere as wet and green as the Lake District. We dressed ready for action in waterproofs and yet, by the time we’d saddled-up the rain had dissolved to an intermittent drizzle and it was a difficult decision then whether or not to remove the waterproof over-trousers. They certainly compromised grip in the saddle but then the thought of maybe trying to put them back again on top of the fells in pouring rain made it a tough choice. Everyone opted to keep them on but Sue, ever the optimist and resident weather expert stuffed hers in the saddlebags and declared it wasn’t going to rain properly until 3.55pm. Thus cheered, we took the old coffin road across the Woodland Valley and Lowick Common to arrive at Spark Bridge for lunch. While Kieron was busy checking the horses and tacking-up again (before the rain started at 3.55pm) we organised a whip-round. Our guide had looked after us royally and we felt bound by the laws of decency and appreciation to present him with a roll of notes and, for no other reason than it was us – wrapped around a Voltarol suppository. I like to think it expressed our combined experiences and wrapped up the morning rather well.
Although tired, our spirits remained high through the final leg home with Sue stuck in a strong northern dialect for most of the afternoon, and Moody Millie suddenly realising she was on the outskirts of home and taking up an active walk in the lead. We passed through some pastureland inhabited by bullocks who decided to follow us all the way to the gate at the far end, and we worried then about the logistics of getting five horses through an awkward gate without 50 head of cattle barging through with us. But Jigsaw was fearless in facing the snorting beasts head-on and Kieron herded them back up the field with a whoop, cowboy style.
And then it was quiet country lanes and hamlets as the countryside softened towards Backbarrow. The rain never did take hold and the experience of damp hedgerows heavy with cow parsley, wild honeysuckle, and rose, wasn’t unpleasant. At Low Wood, a long uphill track allowed us a final opportunity to canter. Only Sue and I elected to go ahead, the other horses happy with a steadier pace. Gaia and Cookie obliged, albeit none too energetically, although we waited ages for the others to catch up. Sue thought she might jump off and lie flat in the undergrowth while I explained to Kieron that the horses had bolted and Sue had been dragged for half a mile at least, and I was too scared to check if she was still breathing. And, although we laughed at the joke we could have played, the bottom line was we were just too damn tired to get off and back on again. And, we reasoned that Kieron really didn’t really deserve any more of our tasteless humour.
We turned up the familiar lane to the yard and for a moment it felt out of kilter that the horses were taken from us, untacked, and showered by a band of willing helpers, while we drank tea. Unable to put off the moment much longer, we loaded our bags into the car and tried to come to terms with driving home. Human farewells done, we had one last goodbye to do and wandered to the stable block where our faithful comrades were already in their pyjamas. A good finish to the trip to see our horses nestled in deep straw beds, and it felt especially gratifying that they nudged us for a final selfie, even Princess Gaia.
But it was a bitter-sweet end to five amazing days. Five days where at times we’d ached to get off our horses, but then ached to get back on. Five days of living in an almost fictional bubble, where real life stayed on hold somewhere far away. A cosy world where Hobbits and Potter’s Peter Rabbit felt more real and immediate than our lives back home. A world where Wordsworth and Wainwright had far more interesting and important visions to share. To be able to ride miles of ancient bridleways across such achingly beautiful countryside instilled in all of us, I feel sure, a deep sense of privilege. We’d explored a piece of old England the way it should be explored. And something magical happens when out-of-comfort zones are pushed together through circumstance, and instant bonds are forged with complete strangers – both human and equine.
Ok, let’s plan the next one. Ten day equine coast-to-coast, anyone? We’ll need more supplies… ibuprofen, chocolate, gin. And a torch. We’ll need a torch, for going down caves and checking wardrobes.