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.
Continue the ride: mybook.to/MyLifeinHorses2
A great mountain walk in Central Lakeland with far-reaching views and described in minute detail by Alfred Wainwright in one of his famous walking guides – first published in 1952 and still going strong. The Langdale Pikes are one the best-known features of Great Langdale and consist of: Pavey Ark, Thunacar Knott, Pike of Stickle, Harrison Stickle.
Loved and despised in equal measure, the annual Appleby Horse Fair in Cumbria describes itself as an annual gathering of Gypsies and Travellers in the town of Appleby-in-Westmorland in Cumbria, England. A fair has been held every year in early June since 1685 when King James II granted a Royal charter allowing a horse fair by the River Eden. The tradition of washing the horses in the river prior to the sales, is one which attracts huge crowds. Some aspects are fun and the scene is certainly colourful, but like most events which have grown too big and too modern beyond the original concept, Appleby Horse Fair doesn’t always showcase the best examples of horsemanship… or mankind.
After the angular acrimonious ramblings of letter A, I thought a more optimistic post was in order and letter B is altogether a softer, more rounded individual. A week of bumbling across Cumbria under bright blue skies and lurching from pub to pub was a rare tonic.
I do love the Lake District. We stayed at The Plough in the luxurious Redman Room, not too far from a village called Nook so I’m not sure the week worked as an escape from books. In fact, I could easily set a series in Cumbria, although if I were to believe something a publisher said to me about locations, I’d never write anything set in my native Snowdonia again, let alone anywhere so inconsequential as the Lake District. I wonder what Wordsworth would have thought about that, or Arthur Ransome?
In terms of books, the area is a wonderful literary blend of Wordsworth, Ransome, and Potter. It even boasts Wainwright for the non-fiction section. Apparently though the top British settings in fiction are Cornwall and Scotland. Clearly, I need to get Jack Redman out of that spa bath and into a kilt.
B is also for Bullshit, and Birthday!
April 2016 coincided with the Queen’s 90th, Shakespeare’s 400th and most appropriately for Cumbria, the 150th birthday anniversary of Beatrix Potter. Her legacy of 23 children’s books lives on.
Interesting to read that Potter originally self-published the famous Peter Rabbit story after a host of rejection letters from publishers. In 1901 she printed 250 copies herself. It was so successful that within a year she was approached with a deal from one of the original publishers who had turned her down. But in 1903 she took matters into her own hands again when she failed to reach an agreement with Frederick Warne and self-published The Tailor of Gloucester. Potter was reportedly dogmatic about what she wanted the book to look like. Warne wanted cuts (that old chestnut) and she didn’t; so she self-published 500 private copies. In the end, Warne gave in and their subsequent partnership – both commercially and romantically – saved his publishing house from bankruptcy and revolutionised the way children’s books were marketed and sold.
Has anything changed in the industry? Other than Kindle, no!
Prior to my Cumbrian bumblings I met with Gillian Hamer of Triskele Books to discuss our next bookshop event at Hinton’s of Conwy. Thanks to Storm Desmond on December 5th our previous event was literally a whirlwind, but we aim to do bigger and better the next time around. We chose a coffee shop in Conwy in which to discuss the finer points – such as which wine to serve – but I admit to being heavily distracted. I think it must be a writer thing, people watching and dog watching. Where else can you buy Welsh tea bread from the same rack as a selection of dog chews? It was a busy venue with an eclectic queue of customers, obviously, some of them canine and suitably attired for the occasion with designer neckerchiefs. When it came to my turn, the barista charged us a hefty price for fancy drinks. Gone in fifteen minutes and with no real lasting impression, this had us somewhat downhearted when we compared the inflated cost of a cup of coffee to a novel which had taken maybe 12 months to write and produce. Should readers expect to pay more than 99p for a novel? I’d like to think so but reality dictates otherwise.
Royalties or any kind of profit are especially poor with regard to paperback sales (a retail price of £8-£10 can still mean less than £2 for the author). The bulk of the retail price is of course dictated by the printing and production costs of the physical book.
And yet, from a satisfaction point of view, book signings allow a one-to-one audience with the reader and sometimes, this is priceless. Have we devalued material by publishing on Kindle? Probably. Without that physical copy in their hands, it’s not immediately apparent to the reader where the cost of producing electronic material comes from, and I think there’s a high expectation now for free or 99p novels.
Although Beatrix Potter did well from her royalties, including the purchase of Hill Top – her beloved farmhouse at Sawrey – would she believe that today, an original copy of Peter Rabbit attracts a price tag of £35,000?
John Ruskin, a Victorian artist known for his Cumbrian landscapes and a prominent social thinker from Potter’s era, gets this into perspective: When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece. Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of intelligent effort. There is no wealth but life…
Okay, press on… B is for brewery, Border Collie, beef and ale pie…
Wandering lonely as a cloud and looking at spent daffodils is no great hardship in Cumbria when the sun shines, although there was still clear evidence of Storm Desmond. It may have hampered our book signing in Snowdonia, but Cumbria got the full force. Many foot bridges were either washed away or partially collapsed in the National Park, and it was pretty incomprehensible to see roads closed because of huge sinkholes and massive subsidence on such tranquil, sun-filled days. The trees bordering the River Lune – those still standing – were extensively decorated with debris from the riverbed, like dirty lace. The volume of water surging along the Lune had virtually carved out new banks, taking down huge trees, stiles, and miles of fencing. It was the stuff of fiction, faintly unbelievable and morbidly fascinating to see how high the water level had reached. In various places around Cumbria we had to find an alternate path, and found ourselves walking miles off the original route.
We did find Ruskin’s steps though and climbed to the famous viewpoint in Kirby Lonsdale, hot and exhausted and tempted to bring out the emergency food supply, but not quite. Who needs a black banana when there’s beef and ale pie just a bit further on? The bar at The Watermill Brewery is mostly for dogs, children rather less so. The ales are straight out of someone’s active imagination: Collie Wobbles, Shih Tzu Faced and Wruff Night. Our dog used to love visiting because there was always some sort of canine action and plenty of tidbits on the floor.
Inspired by Potter, I should really write a book based on our dog’s adventures, illustrated with abstract line drawings. There’s nothing like the body language and facial expressions of a Labrador to raise a smile. And Pringle had a lot to say. There was that time he dragged a full picnic table across the camp-shop entrance and everyone was trapped inside. My husband yelling, ‘Pick up your balls!’ on a Cornish beach in August. The seven popped beach balls we had to pay for…
A couple of trips to Scotland and we’ve got the location covered.
The Dead Dog Diaries: Adventures of a Spooky Bounder. I wonder what Beatrix would have made of a paranormal dog? Ruskin would be ashamed of my commercial plotting but just think, in 150 years’ time it might be worth a few quid.
William Wordsworth lived at Dove Cottage, Grassmere, with his sister Dorothy from 1799, where he wrote much of his famous poetry. When his sister married he moved out of the cottage and eventually into Rydal Mount near Ambleside, not only to accommodate his growing family but to receive his many visitors. Both Grassmere and Windermere lakes can be seen from the grounds. William designed the layout of the gardens at Rydal, and it’s said he often claimed that the outside space and his special writing-hut in the garden was his office, as opposed to any of the spacious rooms inside the house. Wordsworth lived at Rydal Mount until his death in 1850.
The property was actually acquired in 1969 by Mary Henderson (née Wordsworth), William’s great great granddaughter. It remains in the ownership of the Wordsworth family, and has been opened to the public since 1970. It is currently operated as a writer’s home museum.
We love walking slightly out-of-season in Cumbria. Elterwater/Little Langdale Round is a favourite easy, low-level walk – ideal for when the weather closes in and the summits are shrouded in low cloud. It’s a well-used, popular circuit beginning at Elterwater, taking in Colwith Force and Slater’s Bridge at Little Langdale.
Cartmel lies on the outskirts of the Lake District National Park in Cumbria – a village with a colourful and interesting history underpinned by the imposing Cartmel Priory, which was founded in 1190. The racecourse circling the village must be the smallest, most scenic course in the country; although it often has the third-highest average attendance of any jumps track in Britain after Aintree and Cheltenham – the largest crowds can be just over 20,000 on one day. Cartmel is also famous for its Sticky-Toffee Pudding shop, and boasts more than one Michelin star restaurant.