The Lakes Trail, Bigland Hall Equine, Cumbria 2019

Day One

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

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

Day Two

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

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

Day Three

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

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

Day Four

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

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

Day Five

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

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

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The Cheviot Trail, Ferniehirst Mill, Northumberland 1979

Day one, and we stopped in a vast forest throbbing with birdsong to gather mushrooms, easily filling one of the saddlebags with our cache. Hopefully, we’d picked a non-poisonous addition for breakfast the following morning. My horse for the day, Cinnamon, was the colour of, well, cinnamon. Standing at 16h I needed a handy rock to perch from in order to scramble back on as he wasn’t keen on standing still and I’m on the short side. We’d already passed some sort of horsemanship test together by hurtling down the steep grassy slopes of an ancient fort, galloping out through what would have been a drawbridge. An excersise our leader informed us, ‘Sorts out the wheat from the chaff,’  before we got onto the serious part of the ride, a four-day trail across The Cheviots.
jans-horses-015The Cheviot Trail – a loop reaching from Jedburgh in Northumberland all the way to Kirk Yetholm, just inside the English border – was no pony trek. Our horses were thoroughbred-cross, corn-fed and super-fit. To the uninitiated, this meant it wasn’t for novice riders. John Tough (pronounced Tooch, although tough suited him just as well), was no ordinary leader. If I had to make a short list of people who’d made an impression on me in my life then this guy would be close to the top. Not one to pander to any British Horse Society regulations, Tough set his own high standards and had little regard for officialdom, preferring to trust his own instincts about people, as well as horses. Hosting riding holidays for total strangers, some of whom spoke no English was clearly not for the faint-hearted, but if Tough decided after day one he didn’t like the way you handled his horse then your holiday ended right there with a full refund and a lift to the train station. There’s nothing like the burr of a Scottish accent in full flow to overcome any language barriers. No one, argued with him.
jans-horses-009I was bunked-up in the local village with Hope, an Irish woman who claimed to work in the only undamaged building in Belfast – the library. She’d travelled with two male companions, Mike, a solicitor, and Barry, a TV news reporter. Mike was perhaps the least capable rider of the three and the butt of many jokes. Since he was allotted a sturdy cob – Midnight Sun – he was also saddled with the saddlebags, which other than a token first-aid-kit and a hoof pick, were mostly stuffed with cans of beer. Part of the lunch-stop ritual was finding a suitable stream to cool down the cans. After three hours of bouncing they’d built up a considerable head of steam. The saddlebag straps even came adrift on one occasion, hanging beneath Midnight’s belly in full gallop and I don’t think Mike and Barry ever got over losing two cans of lager in a bog. All three of the Irish contingent partied hard, able to drink copious amounts of whisky, perform a reasonable demonstration of Irish dancing – with the aid of two riding crops crossed on the floor, and a good ‘diddler’ – and still ride for five or six hours the following day. Like the best of stories though, it wasn’t all laughs. By midweek, the drama cranked up several gears. Five thoroughbred horses and a cob carrying booze high on the moors in a high wind was maybe the precurser for some sort of misadventure. But before all of that, we were lulled into a sense of false security in the June sunshine; trotting through bubbling burns and stopping for ice creams and cigarettes in quaint hamlets such as Mossburnford and somewhere called Bloody Laws.
11-15-2011_20On Tuesday at the start of the serious trail, I was allocated a different horse – a chestnut mare called Flick. Tough told me she disliked men. Not all men, but most of them, and there was no knowing her level of tolerance until it was too late. This was one of her two, less endearing idiosyncrasies. Since I discovered she was perfection to ride, I worried about the other trait for most of the morning. There was plenty of distraction though, in the form of big scenery and fast riding. Northumberland is designed for premier horse riding, it’s simply the best terrain. Whereas my native Snowdonia lends itself more to pony trekking because of the mountains and hard tracks, the Scottish border country is softer, combining undulating grassy hills crossed with Roman roads such as the famous Dere Street. Miles of uninterrupted moorland dotted with mysterious stone circles and the relics of hilltop settlements, long since deserted to the Jacob sheep and the wind, decorate a landscape that probably hasn’t changed much since Roman times. And Tough had a good liaison with local landowners and this meant we could wander across territory normally inaccessible, riding virtually road free for the entire day.
jans-horses-007Lunch was as civilised as it could get up on the remote heathland by a disused farmhouse at Pennymuir, and brought to us via our own personal Roman chariot, the Land Rover from The Mill. Rolls filled with thick slices of beef, a buttery fruit and treacle cake and gallons of coffee. Why does simple food taste so good outside? This was despite being fortified only hours before with a full cooked Scottish breakfast – including haggis, and those wild mushrooms. The horses had earned a break too, and rolled free of tack in a huge meadow. True to form, they all trotted to the furthest point until they were a spec on the horizon.
And then the catch. After lunch, I discovered that my horse was the only one which was basically uncatchable. My companions were all tacked-up, remounted and ready to go, whilst my mare watched from afar with pricked ears, her saddle still perched on an old gate and her bridle slung over my drooping shoulder. ‘You’ll be alright walking for a wee while, won’t you?’ Barry deadpanned, already out of the gate and on the track heading towards Capehope Burn. It was only when my mare thought she was actually being left behind for real – and so did I at this point – that she finally cooperated and came flying down the hill like Black Beauty, mane and tail streaming behind. She even paused mid-gallop to throw out a beseeching whinny. She looked pretty amazing, but then I guess she knew how to work the crowd! As soon as she came within touching distance, Tough caught hold of a chestnut ear as if she were a recalcitrant teenager, and she stood patiently.
jans-horses-001Saddle and bridle back on and a leg-up from Tough, and we were back on the trail, cantering alongside the foaming burn and scattering long-eared Border Leicester sheep, disturbing rabbits, partridge and pheasant. The occasional stag leapt from cover, startling ourselves as well as the horses. The open hills grew steadily more remote as we climbed, where the cry of the curlew became a constant, familiar wail. Where possible, the riding was fast, challenging and exhilarating. We were assured of the safety under-hoof, as long as we stayed in single file behind Tough and his horse, Carita. This was the general guideline for not descending into a bog, or encouraging the horses to race alongside each other on open ground. Tough would raise an old, battered riding crop to signal he was slowing down, or there was a gate across the track (good excuse to take a nip out of the hip flask) or something needed negotiating at a slower pace. We knew we were in for a long steady amble when the whistling started (usually Mull of Kintyre) and then it was a slow descent into Hownam where the Land Rover was waiting for us at our designated B & B. First though, it was dinner for the horses – a tasty selection of oats, nuts and sugar-beet tipped into a selection of washing-up bowls. Several acres of grazing stretched towards the horizon, and I was concerned about the distance Flick could put between us overnight but I needn’t have worried. The orange washing-up bowl proved key…
jans-horses-018Our destination for the following day was Kirk Yetholm, over the border into England, an area well known for its turbulent history between the Scots and the English. There was no sign of any turbulence as we resumed the trail with blue skies and light cloud, splashing through wide burns and meandering the sheep tracks as we headed towards a remote hill farm above the Bowmont Valley. The Billinghams were Flick’s previous owners and in both senses, we enjoyed a warm welcome in the hills. Tea out of big copper kettles. Fruit cake slathered with butter on willow-pattern plates. Shortbread warm from the Aga and a trio of drooling sheepdogs. We lazed in the garden until the sun slowly withdrew and the clouds began to roll stealthily over the Pennines, but it was the increasing wind which had us gather ourselves together, ready for the final push into Kirk Yetholm. Horses and strong winds are never the best companions. Barry’s horse, Silus, a lean ex-steeplechaser, was perhaps the most perturbed and Barry had his hands full from the off. The weather worsened as we climbed onto higher ground. Craik Moor, Blackborough Hill and Windy Rigg already had predetermined personalities, and they lived up to them. Gunmetal grey skies and powerful crosswinds – the sort that could lift a well-secured riding hat – made for heavy going. And then the rain started.
Most of us had set out in waterproof attire, but Barry’s jacket was still tied around his waist. His mistake was to try and put it on with his reins in one hand. Tough said he didn’t think it was a good idea, twice. Barry had about three seconds to realise he was probably right, when the wind whipped the kagoul from his grip like flotsam. The real problem started when the toggles somehow wound themselves around the reins and then the flimsy material clamped itself limpet-like to the side of Silus’ head. Silus reacted predictably; reared, then bolted, covering the rise of boggy ground to our left as if it were a stretch of flat turf. Man and horse seemed to melt into the windswept moorland, lost to sight in the blink of an eye.
jans-horses-010Tough prepared to set off after them. ‘Stay right here, on this track. Don’t move an inch.’  Midnight, Flick, and Hope’s horse, Kelly, were not happy that two of the party had set off without them, and we had our own battle trying to keep them more or less stationary. The errant pair did eventually return, with Barry walking down the hill leading Silus. It didn’t look good, but at least they were both still walking. Both of them were plastered in bog. Amazingly, other than looking and smelling pretty bad there was no real damage, although Barry was white-faced. Silus had clearly run an impossible race against the wind, flanks heaving, eyes bulging. The culprit, the bright blue kagoul, was shredded and got stuffed in a saddlebag out of harm’s way. The hipflask came out. Should I have been flattered that Tough insist that I swap horses with Barry or was it down to my unflappable jacket? I wasn’t overly keen on losing my mare to a powerful thoroughbred with wind-fright, but at age 22 I was always up for a challenge where horses were concerned. Taking into account the amount of mud between horse and rider, Barry and I looked an odd duo, but no one was quite ready to laugh at that point. Tough was angry with Barry for not heeding his earlier warning, and the mood dropped. Every time Carita moved into canter, Silus was like a coiled spring right on her tail. It was a tough afternoon and none of us really settled until we’d dropped down a few hundred feet and left that dark hill and the screeching wind behind.
jans-horses-011We joined the Pennine Way and a small group of wet hikers stumbled alongside us for the last couple of miles, warming their hands on the horses and feeding them polo mints. The long, final stretch of this 267 mile long hike from Edale in Derbyshire is boggy and desolate, and many walkers are defeated by it where the terrain is mostly peat moor and incredibly inhospitable. None of the walking party had seen anyone quite so filthy as Barry (it was especially strange since he was riding a relatively clean horse). ‘Hell, man! What happened to you?’ Barry, recovered by then, obliged with an embellished version of events such as a herd of kelpies enticing his horse into a bog. Despite the mud and the chill wind, the atmosphere warmed-up considerably and as the village came into view Tough struck up Mull of Kintyre. The hikers began to sing along and we clattered off the hill and down the main street flanked by several footmen, all of us anxious to get within sniffing distance of a pub and a hot bath. Our billet for the night was a stone house full of faded opulence, and its fair share of clocks and antiques. Virtually everything ticked. But there were rocking chairs and books around a roaring fire – yes, after all it was still only June – and a rattling Georgian tea trolley materialised, loaded with a substantial afternoon tea. The diminutive landlady took a moment to take in Barry’s appearance. ‘Och, now, has the wee man taken a tumble?’ Tough waited till he’d selected a cream scone and tested it. ‘Aye.’
We didn’t make the pub.
The sinister mood of the hills continued the following day. We ate breakfast in silence, aware of tree branches tapping the windows, warning of another furiously windy day ahead to negotiate College Valley. Barry was impressed that his riding gear had been cleaned and dried overnight, less impressed about riding Flick for another day, claiming she was hot to handle. Since Tough wanted me to take Silus again, neither of us had much choice but to get on with it. Trotting out of Yetholm, Silus shot across the village green and we narrowly missed a leaning telegraph pole. Barry was struggling with Flick too and at the first opportunity a playful buck had Barry halfway up her neck. We paused on a track above the village and Tough lit a cigarette, using his hat as a wind shield. He decided that I was best riding Flick again. Barry scrambled onto Carita and Tough took care of Barry’s overwound steeplechaser.
jans-horses-016We were enchanted and battered in equal measure by every weather condition as we left Kirk Yetholm and crossed back into Northumberland, hit first by rain, and then hot sun would break through thick, swirling mist. Ethereal and atmospheric. Not much imagination required to expect a Roman army to come marching over the horizon. We cantered across the sodden heathland, stretching into a gallop up a long hill which eventually pulled us up and out of the Scotch mist, and then we were looking down at skeins of floating cloud. But then by afternoon we were in pale sunlight again, riding across a labyrinth of rolling countryside through the renowned College Valley. Vivid and intense, rainbows would be there one second, gone the next. It wasn’t only the scenery which was mesmerising, it was the growing bond with our horses, too. Riding the trails certainly evoked a deeper connection to this historical land, those ancient routes of the Border Reivers and the bloody battles between the Scots and the English. We fell into companionable silence, enjoying the low moan of the wind, the clink of horseshoe against stone, the creak of a leather saddle. Cold and wet, or dirty and sweaty ceased to matter. Minor discomforts became inconsequential, small victories where we’d pushed our personal boundaries became more important. How could we go back to ordinary jobs after this? I think I even told my parents not to bother collecting me.
jans-horses-008The final day and we headed back to The Mill via Sourhope, along steaming wet lanes in bright sun, trotting into a flat-bottomed valley like a Scottish prairie. There was a herd of feisty bullocks grouped beneath the trees, flicking tails and watching our progress with interest. A breath-taking gallop, the horses full of spring on the lush expanse of damp turf, knowing they were homeward bound. The thud of hooves seemed to echo in that hollow space and then we realised why it was so loud – we had serious company. About 200 head of cattle had decided to follow us! Fortunately, they lacked the pace and stamina of our horses and we soon left them behind. A warning clink-clink on the tarmac warned of a loose shoe. Of course these were the days long before mobile phones and we had to find a phone box. An hour later, the Land Rover trundled towards us and Tough, ever resourceful, pulled out his farriers last and secured Flick’s nearside hind shoe. Problem fixed, we completed our ride across familiar territory as we dropped down through Birkenside Forest again. Soon, the mill house was in sight and our horses whinnied advance greetings to stable-mates they’d not seen since Tuesday.
It was our leader’s birthday – he’d kept that quiet all day – but we made up for it with a night of dinner, drinking and diddling at The Carter’s Rest in Jedburgh. The Irish trio were actually late, turning up halfway through the starters, still in grubby riding gear and holding each other up with leery grins. All of this attracted the attention of the next group of riders assembled in the bar. Barry made a makeshift sling from a couple of big white napkins, and began to hobble towards them. ‘Are you here for the Cheviot trail? No, don’t be put off by the bandages. We all really enjoyed it.’
‘Don’t listen to his tall tales,’ Tough said.
jans-horses-005Once upon a time, John Tough bought a rundown mill on the River Jed and restored it. Then he bought horses, some of them with problems, both physical and otherwise, and nurtured them to full health. His reputation for riding the Cheviots, grew. In 1980 he built a lodge on his land, for rider accommodation. I returned – of course I did – from 1979 to 1986, riding in many different seasons, including colourful autumn trails and once, during the heavy snow of early spring. Tough retired at the end of the eighties due to ill health. Did I set out to write a book about John Tough, and Beryl, the young interior designer from London who never went home after her riding holiday? Surely, this was the stuff of fiction! Not that I was aware of, but I guess it’s an example of how more than 30 years later, the subconscious finds a story somehow, pulling together characters, historical facts, impressions and experiences… one I’ll never forget.