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. 

Untitled design (8)

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.

Untitled design (8) copy

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. 

Untitled design (8) copy 2

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.

Untitled design (8) copy 3

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.

Untitled design (8)

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. 

Useful Links:

http://biglandhall.com/

https://www.facebook.com/Biglandhall/

Disappearing Dreamscapes 5

Continuing memories and reflections of an equine obsession 1968-2018

Chapter 5: Pastures New 

untitleddesign28829-1In the summer of 1997 we took a holiday in Cornwall. Poldark country…. Heather-clad moorland, ancient mine workings and a turquoise sea adorned with rolling, foaming white horses. It was a week of ponies, coastal walking, body-boarding and discovering the surf, and remembering the cast of Baywatch – well, Second Draft did, not so much the rest of us. The horsey highlight for my son and step-daughter happened at Wheal Buller Riding School in Redruth, Cornwall. The children chose the pony they wanted to ride straight from the fields (supervised) and the riding was proper off-road stuff in a small, bespoke group as opposed to pony trekking in a long line. The whole experience got three thumbs-up. My son’s beautiful little pony, Mini, was even up for sale and on our final day the hints fell like incendiary bombs. Oh, if only… the dreams of youth never quite go away, even though as adults we propose to know better. But we lived in Wilmslow, Cheshire, and had no resources financially or otherwise to consider owning a pony. Inevitably, Second Draft marched us all kindly but firmly in the opposite direction. Just as well someone in the family had immunity to such ethereal things, even if Pamela Anderson and a wet suit had easily over-fired his imagination earlier.
Untitled design (8) 13.43.12-1But then something happened which fired all of our imaginations. We’d taken a weekend break in Conwy, and the existence of twenty or so new-build houses springing up on Sychnant Pass didn’t escape our attention. The aforementioned Pinewood Stables epitomised much of my teenage dreamscape, and this familiar yard was just half a mile down the road. I knew the area intimately, in particular the medieval town of Conwy, the local mountains, the wild Carneddau ponies, and the beach beyond the marina. Noses pressed against the hoarding surrounding the building site, we allowed a good deal of mostly unspoken what-ifs to dominate the homeward journey. The location was without any doubt, heaven on a stick.
And then a curious thing. Second Draft received a work-related phone call about a colleague’s imminent retirement in North Wales, and less than a couple of weeks later we were speeding back to take a closer look at number twenty-three. Afterwards, we drove up to the car park by Crows Nest to ‘think’ about it. It was a really drab November day, the best kind of day for considering a job relocation and buying a house. A day when Conwy Mountain seemed entirely enveloped in scudding cloud and mist. A day when the wind bent the trees double and the dark, brooding mountains rearing beyond Pensychnant looked enticingly wild and inhospitable. And we knew there was no real need to discuss anything further. I easily recall the chain of events that day because the assistant in the sales office – also called Jan – apologised for listening to the radio while we signed on the dotted line but her daughter, Lisa, was in a band called Steps and they’d just broken into the charts. It felt like a good omen and by February 1998, we’d sold our Cheshire property and moved into the new house. And the dog came a couple of months later.
img_5154Riding lessons for my son continued at Tynllywn Riding School, Bryn Y Maen, Colwyn Bay. Teaching was excellent here (until inevitably, they too changed to a livery yard). Hacking out was restricted to the roads but this didn’t matter, since we had Pinewood Stables two minutes away from home. Snowdonia Riding School in Waunfawr also obliged with riding out onto the hills, but unlike Conwy with its gentle coastal tracks the landscape above Caernarfon was harder and steeper and more suited to pony trekking. I loved that Renee Thomas, the owner, was still riding and working horses into her seventies and I liked the ‘old-school’ feel of this yard. It was a bit like stepping into an old pony book, but the riding wasn’t quite right for me. A couple of times we went up to Penmachno Forest and rode with a yard there but again, the hard forest tracks (and a few other issues) were less than desirable, despite stunning snow-peaked views of Moel Siabod rising above the fir trees, and the smell of Christmas. Tal Y Foel Riding School (now operating under different ownership as Anglesey Riding School) was a great setup for children and novice riders, with something like five miles of private grass bridleways. However, these bridleways weren’t in use unless the ground was dry, creating only a small window of opportunity for somewhere like North Wales. Understandable that they wanted to keep these tracks in good condition, but more often than not, riding was confined to the indoor school. On the one occasion I did ride on the beach with them some years later, the experience was disappointingly lack-lustre. Likewise with another yard on the coast by Talacre beach, a yard which promised lots, delivered nothing. And this after the most rigorous of assessments in the school prior to a ‘beach ride’ which amounted to a novice trot along the beach on a mostly unfit pony. It was expensive, too!
Something inevitable happened when my son began his secondary school years when any interest in horses became lost to other things. But I always thought if one could swim and ride a horse, you were pretty set for most adventures in life, so the boy did good. I still can’t swim with any great conviction and only if the pool is devoid of all other activity likely to make a dangerous swell. I did try swimming lessons in later years and managed to – not drown, exactly – but to stub my toe on the bottom of the pool, thereafter it contorted into a black and purple toe twice the size it should have been. Dad did try his best to get me to swim as a child but if there was a choice between Wythenshawe Swimming Baths and riding in the rain, the pony always won. I hated that chlorinated pool; the smell, the noise, the changing rooms and the feeling of being confined in a building. And then in 2001, to further compound the lack of riding opportunities, North Wales was hit with the Foot and Mouth outbreak and the movement of all animals ground to a halt. Many rural businesses were compromised. The virus doesn’t actually infect horses, people, or dogs, but they can spread it, and as a result Conwy Mountain and other places were closed. Grass began to grow across the well-worn paths, dog walking was confined to the beach, and it wasn’t until the following spring that the countryside was opened-up again.
untitleddesign28829The beach rides with Pinewood took larger groups of riders than I remember in the earlier years, although I never experienced a problem. I recall enjoying Nero, the lightweight black cob, and the freedom of galloping along a beach has to be up there with one of the best riding experiences. Getting down onto the beach at Conwy is easily rideable from Sychnant Pass; the long stretch of hard sand at low tide interrupted only by mussel banks and deep rivulets of seawater. Most horses would take the water in their stride, some would slow to plough through, occasionally one would come to a dead stop before taking a wild leap of faith. There are also some areas of deep, muddy sand which are to be avoided, or at least only taken at a walk. But on a dry day with not too much wind, the beach affords miles of space to canter, or merely amble in a daydream disturbed only by chattering oyster-catchers and soaring gulls. Or, if the tide is close enough, a paddle, although cantering through even shallow surf can result in a good soaking, especially if you happen to be riding behind a set of big feet! But Nero and I managed to stay afloat, and there was never a time when I thought I might sink or stub my toe.
compensationWhen they were short-staffed I worked a couple of times for Pinewood, riding tail-end-charlie on rides across Conwy Mountain. In 2003 another inevitability when Pinewood changed their status to a livery yard. And that was the end of a very significant and happily revisited era of my childhood. Like many other yards the closure was down to a combination of timely retirement plans and other family matters, but it was also about being worn down by the blame culture. There was a max height barrier at the entrance to the beach. I was chatting to my friend riding behind me. I didn’t see the barrier and you didn’t warn me in time… A family run trekking centre from the sixties and through the generations, the original Pinewood represented those riding schools which perhaps epitomised a way of life, rather than a business model.
And so, it was back to the increasingly shrinking drawing-board. A board which represented hundreds of miles of accessible open countryside, but with no available horses in the vicinity, other than those privately owned and kept on livery yards. I began to look further afield, and although some riding schools advertised the fact that they catered for experienced riders, I more often than not found that this wasn’t quite true. It wasn’t so much as they couldn’t cater, it was more the case that they didn’t really want or need to. Unaccompanied riding is a thing of the past, and mixed abilities on hacks can be the stuff of nightmares. (If one member of the party doesn’t want to canter, then no one else can down to the nature of the beast, in all respects.) Occasionally, the riders making bookings are not without blame and for some unaccountable reason people do exaggerate their level of ability. But then if there’s little choice, the onus is very much on the riding school. Perhaps they’re looking to fill a lorry to take horses to a venue and make it financially viable, and a couple of less able riders may then slip through the net.
I’ve been in situations where I’ve travelled an hour to get to a yard and paid something in the region of £65 (2016) for a three-hour ‘experienced’ hack, but down to a couple of riders coming off at the first hurdle so to speak, the remainder of the time has, by necessity of safety, been given over to the novice riders. But where did that leave the rest of us who’d paid for an advanced ride? Dissatisfied, and unlikely to recommend or return. These problems are compounded as horses are used more and more in indoor schools. The behaviour of a normally quiet, compliant horse can easily become excitable in open countryside if, for example, this sort of riding is only scheduled once a month. In the end it becomes easier – and cheaper insurance-wise – to keep horses and riders on site.
As I write this in 2019, it does often feel as if many riding schools – or Equitation Centres – are about making money first, and providing the experience second. Beware those misleading on-line sites with stunning photography of riders cantering carefree along beaches, where the eye-watering price list is more about children’s parties, dressage competitions, ladies’ coffee mornings, and even ‘training’ sessions to take the BHS Road Safety Exam for something in the region of £130. Concentrating on the indoor school or changing to livery only seems to be the only way forward for many equestrian yards trying to stay afloat. I understand. But in some ways this feels as if we’re playing into the hands of insurance companies and those who seek monetary gain from what has already been established as a medium to high-risk sport for a very long time. And what of our bridleways? These are already under serious threat, and combined with a growing fear of riding along the roads – in some cases, purely to access those precious bridleways – we’re allowing ourselves to be pushed out of the countryside altogether.
41X4BSN6YFL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_Despite my sporadic riding through the nineties and the early Millennium years I did rediscover a passion for books again, in particular, a series by retired racehorse trainer, Jenny Pitman. Not surprisingly, these books were about a racehorse trainer trying to make a living out of a falling-down farm in Wales. The Welsh landscape certainly kick-started my stalled interest in writing in a very positive way. Although Cheshire has its history and pretty rural surroundings aplenty, Wales is far more abundant in both aspects. The castles and the rugged hillsides strewn with stone settlements, druid circles and Roman roads brought out the historical muse in me. To think that I’m treading the same path as someone who lived in the Iron Age, is both fascinating and humbling. This makes me sound as if I write historical-based fiction. Far from it. Much as I admire many other genres I tend to be very much rooted in current times and, much like Pitman, my material reflects a lot of my own life experiences set in a Welsh background. Typewriters a thing of the past, I began to dabble on a word processor with Wild Water.
But the sun seemed to have set on the sort of riding comparable to any of my old dreamscapes – until the spring of 2008. We were taking a walking break in Cumbria and I was sifting through the usual pile of tourist guides in our cottage, when I came across a leaflet about Mike Myers and Biglands Hall Equine Group, Brow Edge Road, Ulverston. The ride descriptions looked and sounded promising, so we went to take a look. The visit resulted in arranging a three-hour fell ride. I’d actually thrown my riding hat in the car – always hopeful – but forgotten my boots, but no matter, light walking boots it had to be. My calves suffered that day, but it seemed I’d hit a pot of riding gold, finally.
Mike Myers, someone who’s ridden at competition level in endurance riding and time trials, remains one of the best ride leaders I’ve ever come across. My horse for the afternoon was Spirit, a speckled grey Connemara mare. We soon left the Cumbrian lanes and rode up through a sprawling forest and eventually onto the open fells above Cartmel where the challenging terrain allowed a faster, albeit more technical pace. Spirit was sharp; dancing expertly over the undulations, ditches, streams… tail flying behind, ears pricked forwards. And then we headed towards Cartmel, clattering through the village with its imposing priory and the famous sticky-toffee-pudding shop, before crossing over a section of the local racecourse. Beyond the village, the woods were sprinkled with bluebells and wild garlic, a breath-taking gallop along the edge of open land, then ancient bridleways draped with heavy spring foliage and noisy with birdsong. We continued over part of the Holker estate – distant views of Morecambe Bay – and bounded back over Canny Hill.
The variety of the terrain, the mare herself, and Mike’s active pacing made this ride pretty special. Since I’d not ridden seriously for a good while, I suffered for the pleasure for several days afterwards, but I was hooked. I returned every occasion we travelled to Cumbria enjoying as well as Spirit, a cob called Jacob, Rhey, Stanley, the ex-racer, and the tall, dark thoroughbred-cross Indy. I don’t usually enjoy big horses so much now, probably down to being five-foot-nothing and I sometimes feel compromised by my lack of leg, but Indy was an exception and nothing much beats an open space combined with the smooth power of a gentlemanly horse.
At home, the situation was less exciting and I began to cast the net ever further. On a cold, sleety day in January, 2010, I travelled to Coachman’s Riding School, Hall Lane, Sychdyn, Mold, on the borders of Denbighshire, where I signed up for a riding assessment on Penny. Thereafter, I rode out with Coachman’s every three weeks for a couple of years. The destination was always Halkyn Mountain – around an hour’s ride away along country lanes. Halkyn Mountain is something of an anomaly. Scarred with the remnants of limestone quarrying, plus lead and copper mining, Halkyn rises gently to a summit of just 290 metres, with views across the Dee Estuary and the Clwydian Range. The open landscape has never been enclosed and is still mostly common land grazed by sheep. It allowed plenty of freedom to roam, and this worked pretty well as a three-hour route especially in the early days when the group consisted of experienced riders only. It was a miserable winter’s day when I first rode Penny to the mountain, with thick mist on higher ground and not much of a view. But there were a good few places to canter along grassy tracks and a penultimate gallop up to the trig point. Thereafter, I rode Dublin, Mal, and Charlie; all strong, forward-going cobs, and the handsome, athletic thoroughbred, Ted.

Halkyn-colour-map-Eng-edited

Ted was a speedy, sporty sort of chap with amazing suspension and could launch himself effortlessly over most obstacles as well as standard fences. On the occasion I rode him onto Halkyn, we’d already popped over a few random boulders and I was enjoying his athleticism to the point where we were flying over rows of gorse bushes at a speed rather faster than I would have liked, but he had brakes, so all good. Then our group split into two. The majority of the ride disappeared elsewhere whilst Ted and I followed Helen and her horse down a long slope to a wide flat area split by a watery ditch. Ted flew over this at a fast canter. Great! There was nowhere to go then, other than to turn in a wide circle, leap the ditch again and gallop back up the hill. I suspect that was the plan, anyway. Ted, pretty pumped-up by then, anticipated this a lot sooner than me, and although I’d got a firm hold of him, his slowing-down-canter was a thing of great bounciness and then the mother of all potential downfalls – I lost a stirrup.
It was at that point when Ted spun round, seemingly on one foreleg in a matter of seconds, when I lost my balance completely with no chance of recovery and I kissed the ground. Unhurt, I looked up in time to see Ted describing a beautiful arc over the ditch, before galloping up the hill and heading for the horizon, stirrups flying. My co-rider cantered off in hot pursuit while I walked in the general direction of… well, I wasn’t sure really. Is there nothing more embarrassing than a mud-splattered menopausal woman wandering about the moors dressed to ride with not a horse in sight? Ramblers and dog walkers smiled and nodded, eager to explain they’d seen a galloping horse some miles back. Great! Meanwhile, my right hand turned a ghostly shade of blue. (Months later, my little finger formed a funny bump on the bone, but much like the stubbed toe, that’s all I had to show for it.) Ted was soon recovered – a bit sweaty from his exertions – and we joined the rest of the party, although my shocked and shaky blue hand refused to cooperate in grasping the saddle in order to haul myself back on, so I swapped with Barry and rode Sky home instead. An active participant as part of the Coachman’s Polocrosse team, the mare was easily ridden with one hand and the ride home passed without further incident.
Sky, the grey Irish mare was probably my favourite horse on the yard and when Coachman’s finally closed and changed to liveries only in 2012, (yes, another one) I was glad when my riding buddy, Alison, bought her. For a while, thanks to Alison’s generosity, I continued to ride Sky. I even took her out solo onto Halkyn one sparkling, frosty morning in January. There are not many horses I’d trust to be sensible along frozen roads and white, misted hills, but some horses just inspire confidence from the get-go. Sky was one of these, and we clicked. Although she shied and started at tiny things, there was somehow a familiar pattern to this and in all the ways that mattered, she was generally cautious. The only problem was putting her bridle on in the first instance – there was clearly something in her past which niggled away at her, some rough treatment maybe. The bit itself, a plain rubber mouthpiece was never a problem, but I always struggled to slip the headpiece behind her ears and I usually had to summon help from someone much taller.
Sadly, the livery business also came to a close, the horses were moved elsewhere, and as is the nature of these things, the original crowd lost touch. And as is the nature of other things, my son moved to London, and we said a rather more permanent, sad goodbye to our family dog in the summer of 2012. By 2013 we’d downsized and moved a short distance out of Conwy. Meanwhile, a bit further away –halfway around the world, in fact –  an unknown horse was waiting for me.

Continue Reading: https://janruth.com/2019/04/02/disappearing-dreamscapes-6/

About this Series

The first four chapters of Disappearing Dreamscapes represent 30 years from 1968-1998 and are split over four seasons based on diary entries through 1979. Chapters 5-8 represent 20 years from 1998-2018 and are recorded chronologically.

Disappearing Dreamscapes 2

Continuing memories and reflections of an equine obsession 1968-2018.

Chapter 2: Summer

Higher House, Mottram-St-Andrew, Alderley Edge, Cheshire. During the img_5068summer, or when Dad moaned about his car never being available, I would cycle the seven miles or so to Dawson’s and ride for two-and-a-half hours, before cycling home again. This was never a hardship. I’d set off around 7.30 in the morning, beating the heavy traffic (or what we used to perceive as the rush-hour) around the suburbs, before arriving on the outskirts of Mottram-St-Andrew. This wouldn’t be a pleasant experience now, but in the seventies and early eighties, these country lanes were mostly empty. I’d be leaving the yard by 9. a.m. and trotting up towards The Edge. Grey Filly, a favourite, may have been one of Mary’s failed racehorses. Her strides were long and powerful, as one might expect but she never gave me cause for concern, even when we cantered along the flat stretches around the sand hills and up through Windmill Woods, or across the top of The Edge, where she could easily have got the better of me. Although I enjoyed all the early Dick Francis novels, I never cared for horse-racing or anything mildly competitive. I tended to shy away from gymkhanas as a child and became bored and restless if I had to ride in an indoor school for longer than half an hour. I much preferred – still do – to spend all day happily bumbling round the countryside. I liked to think Grey Filly agreed with me.
158331_24a7d9b3Early summer and the cottage gardens were ablaze with colour, Bradford Lane shining like a snake where the sunlight caught wet cobbles from an earlier shower. The first cuts of hay stacked beneath old barns, hedgerows laced with wild flowers. The rhythmic nod of Filly’s head, and the four-time beat of her hooves. The long flick of her tail, the creak of the saddle, and the distant drone of farm machinery. Then slow cantering, the ground too hard to gallop, the unclipped mare too hot to care; clouds of dust in our wake. We cooled off beneath the trees on The Edge and ambled to Stormy Point to take in the view.  An artist, perched on a rock with a sketch pad. The sound of summer: a cuckoo, plaintive and repetitive. Rising heat obscured the distant scenery other than Jodrell Bank observatory, lying on the horizon like a giant’s discarded spinning top.
untitled design (8)-1The Edge is a red sandstone escarpment rising above the village of Alderley Edge, 110 metres above the Cheshire Plain, and shares an uncanny resemblance to Nutwood, although I read that much of Rupert’s landscape was inspired by the Vale of Clwyd. The northern side of the Edge is shaped like a horseshoe or hough (pronounced huff, and appropriately, this also happens to be my maiden name). The red colour of the rocks is due to the presence of oxidised iron. It’s mostly a woodland area, owned and managed by the National Trust, and a site of geological interest spanning back to the Triassic period – that’s 250 million years ago. Shrouded in folklore and history, there’s magic in this place. It’s well known for inspiring Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (based on the legend about a wizard, a milk-white mare, and a farmer from Mobberley) and The Moon of Gomrath. I think I probably drew a lot of early inspiration from the area myself although I didn’t begin to write novels until much later, and never fantasy. But in hindsight I can see how my love of landscape, and character, has evolved from some of these experiences. I began to pen stories and describe my rides in diary form. My English teacher would encourage me to enter competitions, and then at secondary school I made it to the finals of the East Cheshire Books for the Children Essay Competition. My prize was a signed book from author Joyce Stranger. Stranger claimed that most children’s books about the countryside were inaccurate, too sentimental, and humanised animals in an unrealistic way. Back then I didn’t realise quite how much I would come to agree with this statement, not only in fictional terms but in other areas of my life, especially concerning horses. 
1962-ae-bestallHigh summer, through July and August, tends to be my least favourite time of the year to ride. Heat, humidity, and an increase in traffic and flies doesn’t combine well with horses. And then there’s the school holidays… Since Surprise couldn’t be trusted in fancy dress, and since he tended to misbehave around children, Nicola and I were always allocated this fiery, headstrong horse for riding out while Mari, the head girl, supervised activities on the yard. I enjoyed Surprise, and he did have a few. Suddenly moving backwards at speed into thick shrubbery – was one of his less desirable traits, and I always made sure I carried a short crop in case I needed to remind him that this wasn’t such a great idea. We often rode the brothers together – Victor and Surprise – and like most brothers they could be competitive when it came to open ground. There was a cinder track by the sand hills which Nicola and I liked to frequent. We’d amble down then turn at the dead end – horses barely restrained as they knew full well what our intention was – and then we’d race back, hopefully executing the tight left-hand turn without incident, before plunging through Windmill Woods where the track was only wide enough for one horse. It might sound as if we were forever galloping about irresponsibly, but it’s always the exciting bits one remembers. We took care to always have a long cool-off on the homeward journey, and we never returned with a sweated-up horse. Over the course of ten years, nothing untoward happened.
11-15-2011_14 2Grey Filly, Skippy, Surprise, Carousel, Fernando, Victor, Herbie, Romany, Babysham, Pepsi, Jason… All of the horses were forward-going, never bolted, rode out solo, rode in a group in any combination, and tolerated the school holidays. On our return to the yard that day we discovered Skippy draped with a white bedsheet, a pair of makeshift wings somehow attached to his flanks with string and Sellotape. Carousel sported hairnets and curlers in her mane and tail and Grey Filly was backed by an Indian chief, her tack whittled down to a single length of rope. Babysham pulled a flimsy looking chariot made of orange boxes. This procession wound its way along the road to the place of judgement in the paddock, wings flapping, curlers bobbing, the chariot threatening to part company at any second.  These horses were fit. Of the finer types, their ribs were often visible, just. Comparing my old photos with current times, evidence of our national problem with obesity now applies to many of our horses and ponies too, especially show ponies. A horse-trekking business in Dartmoor is having to close, in part because riders are getting too fat. It comes after a study by the Animal Health Trust into the impact of riders being too heavy to ride. Numbers of people turned away from Babeny Farm on Dartmoor because of weight restrictions, has increased by about 30%. Nowadays, this is a common problem for riding schools. Weight restrictions used to be unheard of, now it’s the norm. It also explains the popularity of riding ‘heavy’ horses: the Clydesdales and the Shires, those old-fashioned breeds originally bred to harness for ploughing and other weight-pulling tasks. These horses are obviously up to carrying more weight than the average riding horse and although this is good news for our old breeds under threat of dying out, the overall message is worrying.
50695630_2344041445876794_8673327287631872000_n-1I don’t ever recall feeling concerned about the weight-carrying ratio between horses and riders, not even during holiday times at trekking centres. Blackpool was a popular day trip when I was learning to drive, or if Dad had acquired a new second-hand car and wanted a test run. A couple of times we’d end up at The Lido Riding School, somewhere not too far from Blackpool centre, although I can’t imagine where this may have been located. It certainly wasn’t surrounded by any green fields but I remember riding along bridleways on the outskirts of Blackpool, the rattle of the rollercoasters from Blackpool Pleasure Beach still in earshot. Chico, the skewbald thoroughbred-cross was pretty fleet of foot on the beach, where we could gallop on the hard sand at low tide, away from the crowds. Riding on the beach at Blackpool is banned now during the summer months between the piers.
untitled design (8)More beach rides, but longer and more picturesque, happened in North Wales. My most influential long-standing love affair with riding on holiday was with Pinewood Stables, Sychnant Pass, Conwy. My parents loved North Wales, and as a young teen my discovery of the Welsh countryside took over my holiday dreamscape through the early seventies and beyond. Conwy Mountain, the beach, and the foothills of Tal Y Fan had limitless possibilities for adventure. This was down to the open accessibility of the hills and beaches. The terrain was far more challenging than Cheshire with its gentle woodland paths and sandstone trails. In comparison, the Carneddau rose like a vast, crumpled carpet of rock, heather and stone. And there was miles of it – reaching far into the rugged national park of Snowdonia. It was pony-trekking heaven, and although that wasn’t my bag, Pinewood organised more ambitious rides for those above novice level. Anything too finely bred or those horses with poor feet would struggle on such flinty tracks and unexpected bogs. Cobs and ponies fared best, and Pinewood had around 40 of them in their heyday. I’d invariably get dropped off there while Mum and Dad did their own thing. 11-16-2011_14 2There were arguments though when I wanted to ride and Dad wouldn’t drive to Conwy again. This was before the estuary tunnel which opened in 1991 and completely bypassed the centre of town – before which the queues of traffic through Conwy were legendary. When Dad put his foot down, I would sulk and sit it out with another Dick Francis or a Jilly Cooper or, inspired by the Welsh castles maybe a Gothic romance by Victoria Holt. I had favourites at Pinewood and of course they changed from year to year. I especially remember Lady, and Sinbad, both greys. Sinbad was always ridden in a Hackamore (bitless bridle) and he wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I loved his jousting-style bursts into action. He had a sizeable dent in his neck down to a collision with a car, and I seem to remember he shared some historical association with Gwrych Castle. Maybe he’d belonged to one of the legendary Gwrych knights!

untitled design (8)-1

I did go to watch the jousting when the castle was still open to the public through the seventies and early eighties, operating as a tourist attraction for medieval re-enactments. In 1946, the castle was purchased by Leslie Salts, who opened it up to tourists as a medieval entertainment centre featuring jousting and banquets. After a run of almost 40 years, the castle then entered a period of slow decline leading to the entire site closing in 1985. New Age travellers moved in and gradually, the castle was asset-stripped and vandalised. Thereafter, it stood as a ruin for a good few years; but then Mark Baker happened. Baker passed the castle every day on his way to school and decided that he was going to fight to restore it. And he did just that, going on to found the Gwrych Castle Preservation Trust, at the age of 12. The castle was finally purchased by the Trust in 2001 – on behalf of the nation. It might sound like a fairy tale, but Baker made his dream become a reality and restorations have already made inroads, restoring the impressive Gardener’s Tower and lighting the stove and the main fireplace for the first time in 100 years. Reading Baker’s biography and the historical works he went on to write, it was interesting to note that once upon a time we shared the same Welsh publisher. (An era of publishing history I’d rather leave behind!) Gwrych has an increasingly strong atmospheric presence thanks to Baker. Walking through the woods which border the emerging castle grounds, it’s not difficult to imagine how life might have been 100 years ago. More horses, certainly.
34e2ae16c2a32c27d31bf65781eb2996-460x293In the mid-seventies, Barbara and I booked a week of riding at the Tarn Hows Hotel, Hawkshead, Cumbria. We shared a twin-bedded room above the stables, although breakfast and dinner was provided for in the main hotel and I can still recall the five-star meals, none of them representative of standard riding holiday fodder. I suspect we possibly ate our own body weight in smoked salmon and raspberry bavarois. The rest of the time I was partnered with a native black Fell pony called Heather, and sometimes Goldie the palomino. Barbara always rode Foxy. On the downside, the actual riding was a little sedate, perhaps more akin to pony trekking – but the countryside was stunning. Cumbria, home to Beatrix Potter, famous for the Wainwright fell tops and loved for its quintessential English villages, also has its fair share of hauntingly beautiful, desolate places. We’d stop at a predestined pub for lunch, tying up the ponies in the pub car park and crowding round the picnic tables with pints of shandy, before heading up onto the fells – riding for full days through Grizedale Forest, to Conniston, Tarn Hows, and beyond.
11-15-2011_13The hills were baked brown through the legendary heatwaves of ’76 and ’77 and at the end of each day we’d discard our riding gear in order to ride the ponies back down the lanes to the field in just rope halters, bareback, and often leading two alongside. We didn’t bother with riding hats, sometimes wearing only t.shirts, shorts and sandals, but the delicious feel of warm pony against bare legs as we meandered down sun-dappled lanes was all part of the experience. And the hotel pool was a great finish to those long, hot days in the saddle. But the Lake District is generally a watery place and on one occasion we were faced with high winds and torrential, heavy rain. The hotel loaned us some huge voluminous capes – the sort of attire one might wear to stalk grouse on the fells. Once on higher ground, I thought it entirely possible we could take flight. When it rains in the Lake District, it can be relentless. And despite the Super Woman image in the cape and boots, I remember suffering with mild hypothermia after that experience. It didn’t stop me finishing the rest of the week.
The Tarn Hows Hotel currently operates as a B & B. No horse-riding available. 
11-15-2011_1 3Through the summer of 1978, I owned a horse. I bought him from Holly Tree Riding School, Plumley. Out of a short list of two, I chose the rising five-year-old bay thoroughbred-cross, rather than the steadier, older, coloured cob mare. Naturally. I called him Strider, after the character in Lord of the Rings. This was a huge tome of a book I’d read more than once through my teen years, despite not really enjoying much of the fantasy genre. Arguably, there’s plenty of similarities between the cosy patchwork of the Cheshire countryside – after all, Alderley Edge even boasts its own wizard – and Middle Earth; and then the quest was facilitated by an adventure on horseback. I kept Strider on some land in Cheadle Hulme owned by a mostly unhelpful farmer. The lack of facilities soon had me move to Wendy Thexton’s place at Hall Moss Lane, Woodford, previously known as Moorfields Riding School. Opposite the yard on the corner of Blossoms Lane, George Best had an architect-designed house built in 1969, and we were always peering over the hedges to take a closer look – something one could do on a horse without attracting too much attention.
11-15-2011_5 2I parted company with Strider and befell more accidents than was good for me. I never told my mother of these incidents but it ranged from being chased by the park warden for galloping in Bruntwood Park to having a horrible fall on the road (tripping over a sunken manhole) just before dusk, and having to walk the poor horse home on darkening roads. Proof that most accidents with horses tend to be freakish and entirely unpredictable. Given the number of occasions over the years I’d been catapulted elsewhere at short notice – I never suffered a single bruise, but tripping on that manhole cover left Strider with cut knees and myself with a rather large veterinary bill. Sometime after this I came to realise that not only had I bitten off more than I could chew, but the expense of encroaching winter, the logistics of toing and froing to Woodford with Dad fed up of his car being unavailable and full of mud… forced me to face some painful home truths, the most pertinent being that I was working so many hours to keep the horse, I didn’t have time to ride the horse! Eventually, I did the sensible thing and returned him to Holly Tree. I beat myself-up about this experience for many many years, (if only I’d done this, that, or the other) but that old cliche about learning more from failures is a cliche for a reason. And on the upside, after this experience I was cash-rich to the tune of £300. So I booked a week of trail riding at Ferniehirst Mill, Jedburgh, Northumberland, in June of the following year. The week restored my flagging confidence, and I enjoyed writing-up the experience of my trail ride through the Cheviots: https://janruth.com/2016/10/07/what-i-did-on-my-holidays-37-years-ago/
glynceiriogI penned my first novel in the early eighties on a succession of second-hand typewriters. Since I wasn’t allowed to take the typewriter on holiday, I compromised with an A4 sized notebook. I was obsessed. (I can’t recall the title of the book but it took only months to get the first draft down, and then it was so bad I hid it in a cupboard before eventually setting fire to it in case anyone accidentally read it.) Chapter ten (the bit where his sister dies in a bog on the moors after falling from a horse and his evil stepfather tries to kill him, that bit) coincided with a weekend trip to the Golden Pheasant, Glyn Ceiriog, Llangollen. This wasn’t the name of the farm, but the riding was somehow linked to the Golden Pheasant Hotel in the village. Husband (husband one: first draft) and I stayed in the house up at the stables – a typical Welsh farmhouse built of local stone. It was an elevated property, looking down over fields of grazing horses, an exciting cross-country course, and the foaming River Ceiriog at the bottom of the valley. The farmhouse was a beautiful, rambling place, full of the character one might expect with open fires, an assortment of dogs, creaking floors, and a four-poster bed. The countryside at the mouth of the Ceiriog Valley wasn’t chocolate-box pretty like Cumbria, it was far more more rugged and a bit rough round the edges. And, unlike Cumbria, the forestry trails and the hillsides felt distinctly unpopulated, and we enjoyed some rip-roaring gallops across open moorland. 

untitled design (8)

It was a privilege to ride Jane’s stunning mare, Venture, but the little horse who really stole my heart was Vodka. The mare in dancing shoes. She didn’t walk, she danced, jogging instead of walking and bursting into canter at the slightest touch, on the spot if necessary, rocking-horse style. I’d probably find this exhausting now but in my twenties I loved this showy exuberance. Jane assured me she’d jump anything. She certainly had enough natural suspension. To prove a point we followed Jane and Venture around the cross-county course, easily flying over everything in our path, before taking to the open countryside and tackling the drystone walls. Although not especially big, the walls were challenging since they either leant in towards us or fell away, with maybe a ditch on the far side. The mare knew they were solid and we couldn’t afford a mistake, but Vodka cleared everything with feet to spare and it was an exhilarating experience. 106232460I took the mare to Lake Vyrnwy in Llanwddyn for a weekend trip and we stayed at a hotel which provided overnight grazing for the horses. I remember walking up to check on them after dinner, a vodka and tonic in one hand – naturally – and a carrot in the other. Vodka was finally stationary, resting one hind leg, ears pricked and watching the sun set over the lake. Thereafter, we made the trip to Glyn Ceiriog once a fortnight. Afterwards, we’d drop into the Glynn Valley Hotel for soup and a sandwich before starting the 90-minute drive home. But life was changing, my dreamscapes were closing in and by the mid-eighties, the riding freedom I’d taken for granted in Cheshire, looked set to end. Continue reading: https://janruth.com/2019/02/15/disappearing-dreamscapes-3/
*Photo of Chico at The Lido by kind permission of Barbara Atamaniuk.

About this Series

The first four chapters of Disappearing Dreamscapes represent 30 years from 1968-1998 and are split over four seasons based on diary entries through 1979. Chapters 5-8 represent 20 years from 1998-2018 and are recorded chronologically.

B is for Beatrix, Barista, and Banana

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.

DSCN6390I 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.

e5ddac6377fc8aa4692eabc4baa4c630Interesting 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!

13001210_1182904868420469_1182541687761248515_nPrior 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.

12339449_755681737870922_2320413221731760214_oAnd 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…

DSCN6386Wandering 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.

DSCN6399We 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.