My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park.
A fly-tipped fridge at the side of the road has Her Little Ladyship slowing to an uncertain halt. His Little Lordship masterfully takes charge, although he still needs encouragement and backup from both of his field-mates. Fortunately, early Bank Holiday traffic is pretty much non-existent on Hendre Road and the sky promises sun, and light, summery winds. It feels too soon to be thinking of cooler times, but all things flowering are dying off to leave small green buds and berries. From a distance the heather across the mountains remains a sea of purple, but like the bracken it’s already starting to brown at the edges. The hedgerows, especially the blue-black berries of the blackthorn have me in mind of harvest festivals, sloe gin, and Christmas jam. The rest of the countryside looks either hopelessly overgrown, or shorn to within an inch of its yellow life as final hay making gets underway. We push on to reach Parc Mawr Woods, grateful for the shade, and by the time we’ve tackled the steep bridleway up to the old church we’re thinking longingly about the aforementioned fly-tipped fridge being full of cider, strategically placed in a hollow somewhere and magically hooked up to the National Grid. Perhaps next time we should think ahead and lower some bottles into the nearby holy well of St Celynnin.
On the mountain, there’s a welcome breeze to clear the air of biting insects and we canter over the undulating ground, Storm heading-up our small group and taking a strong hold for a while, but when the incline increases he drops back to a walk. And then a strange sight as long, horizontal skeins of sea mist obscures our view and cools the air temperature. Sheep and ponies appear ghost-like and it seems surreal to look down on the sun-filled valley below, and yet not be able to see much beyond a few feet ahead of us.
Back on the yard, His Lordship appreciates a wash-down with a big car sponge, at least I assume he does. Hey, I’m not an old Vauxhall Viva! Any perceived indignity is instantly forgotten as I fill his bucket with a scoop of pony nuts and a handful of chop – this described as soft grass and alfalfa with a molasses coating. It smells divine. Rather less so Storm’s sweaty saddle pad, which sports a thick furry layer of loose hair. The previous time I washed a saddle cloth in the washing-machine my husband had to suffer a week of hair shirts, so I set to with a stiff brush and hang it on the line to air. We turn out Ellie and the two ponies, and Lady chooses a slightly uphill spot to roll. This looks slightly incongruous, like a precursor to misadventure. I hope they don’t get up to too much mischief in this field which is bordered by a variety of trees, and sections of less conventional fencing. Storm likes to explore – probably in an effort to breakthrough to the orchard, recent evidence being telltale scratches at chest height, and a shifty look. On occasion, he has been allowed to graze beneath the apple trees – minus any early windfalls – being the only pony small enough to fit beneath the low, gnarled boughs. One time he wouldn’t settle and I crept back to spy on him, like secretly peering through the school window after leaving a fractious child at nursery. And he stared right back at me, head lowered through the hedge. Hey, I’m not wet behind the ears, you know. All the apples have gone!
My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park.
Summer brings unwanted elements to our rides. Flies, youths on scramblers, moorland fires, speeding ice cream vans… if Mr Cool passes me again at that speed, his 99’s may well be shoved somewhere unpleasant… but the Welsh heather is beginning to flower, foxgloves stand like sentinels in the now profuse bracken and swallows dip and dive above the land like miniature kites. Our typically unsettled weather creates horizontal rainbows down to the strange mix of humidity, mist, drizzle, and intense sun. We canter up the track alongside the road at Pensychnant House, its bone-dry surface pitted by the movement of sheep and ponies. Storm runs out of puff halfway up and we trundle to the top with us both swatting flies, before gradually dropping back down to the Sychnant Pass; and a section of the road which winds between ancient walls covered in moss.
The walls mark the boundaries of the Pensychnant Estate, now a nature reserve covering almost 150 acres. It was created in Victorian times around the country house of Abraham Stott, famous for his association with the Lancashire cotton mills. Since Storm’s visit to Pensychnant House for afternoon tea the previous summer, I still imagine Storm and Lady (aka His Little Lordship and Her Little Ladyship) rudely scoffing a selection of meadow-sweet, dandelions, and clover, served by grooms in silver buckets. The ponies are still an item. They groom each other with gentle nibbles, sometimes increasing the bite until one of them squeals and they break apart. But Her Ladyship doesn’t get away with as much bossing these days and will politely wait until His Lordship has finished eating before moving in to hoover up his scraps.
Along the road, the enormous variety of trees bordering the walls form a dense golden green canopy. I don’t often ride along here as it feels enclosed and narrow. Approaching traffic can be scary if it’s big and fast, especially motorbikes and farm machinery, since the engine noise creates a thunderous echo. Today the road feels quiet and inviting and I make a last-minute decision to trot on. Thanks to the absence of traffic, the old walls, the sound of Storm’s hooves, the birdsong, and the sun dappling through the trees easily transports me back a hundred years. It’s less than a mile to where the road opens out again at the base of Conwy Mountain, and then it twists and turns rapidly downhill towards Dwygyfylchi and the coast.
I jump off here and scramble up to the gate leading onto the Pensychnant bridleway, just as a tanker roars past and spoils all the imagery. Once on the other side of the gate, it’s the most lovely amble up through the estate onto the open Carneddau. We canter where the grass tracks even out before facing the temperamental iron gate at the top. I jump off, loop the reins around my arm. At the point of dragging the gate open, Storm makes a sudden lunge for some grass and I almost stumble into a sea of stinging nettles. But he stands patiently for me to remount, chewing furiously, and is forgiven. A moderately fresh, full-on wind has us turning sharp left, before ambling down towards the lake at Gwern Engen. (I set my first novel here, Wild Water, and called my imaginary property Gwern Farm.) Lots of Carneddau mares and foals are grazing or sunbathing by the water, and Storm stands like a rock when a mare and two curious foals come within nose-touching distance.
Despite my mottled hand and the lack of Victorian manners, summer brings some beautiful elements to our rides.
Cantering over Canny Hill, Cookie, and the Cartmell Fells.
Who knew we’d need to learn how to tie a boating knot and trust an ex-car mechanic – someone who’d only sat on a horse some three years ago – to escort us on an 80-mile circular trek across Lakeland. I’m always up for an equine adventure, and I was ready to accept that being five foot nothing with short legs and on the wrong side of 60 might carry certain limitations. Or so I thought. I thought I didn’t want a big cob. Physically, big cobs and I don’t always get on. The width and the rolling gait can leave me feeling compromised. No, I wanted a small, slender beast I could manage without assistance. A horse who’d wait patiently outside the pub without feeling the need to untie himself in order to send my hat rolling down a steep bank towards a stream. A horse that didn’t feel considerably taller than 16 hands towards the end of the day, when jumping off onto hard ground felt increasingly perilous on tired legs.
But I got Cookie. The Cookie Monster. The mighty Cookster. My feet dangled somewhere behind his immense shoulders, and his special treeless saddle initially felt as if it offered little in the way of anchoring. My toes nudged the saddlebags slung across his withers; fixed by straps through the girth and balanced out by two bags of hard feed – his substantial lunch. Once up top, I couldn’t even reach the girth straps and his massive head felt an awful long way out in front. This was going to hurt. My riding fitness was mostly based on hacking out a pony belonging to my good friend and travel companion, Sue. Fortunately, thanks to her nursing background Sue possessed impressive medical supplies, including some black-market Voltarol – a potion apparently strong enough to handle the pain of childbirth. It all sounded good until we learnt it could only be administered via suppository. A thoughtful silence descended as we headed out across Canny Hill and up through the forestry at Simpson Ground Plantation. Maybe we’d make do with gin, heat pads, and ibuprofen after all.
Four mature ladies, five days in the saddle. Sue and I were joined by Lydia from Manchester, and Wendy from Virginia. We were following mostly ancient bridleways across the fells, through forests, villages and fords, calling at predestined pubs for lunch and overnight stays. The route would take us along the east side of Windermere as far north as Kentmere, before circuiting both Ambleside and Grassmere across central Lakeland, and then heading back via Conniston and over the top of Walna Scar. Basically, it was a massive pub crawl on horseback, starting with the Hare and Hounds at Bowland Bridge. Cookie had proved himself eminently reliable through the morning and waited patiently for me to untack and tie him to a suitable bit of fence in the car park, before I emptied the saddlebags and tipped up his lunch onto the grass. An hour in the pub for us meant plenty of time for the horses to digest their hard feed. Cookie would invariably be resting one hind leg and snoozing in the sun on my return. Mostly. If any of the horses were going to get tangled in their own lead rope, sit on a car bonnet or get loose, it would be Sue’s Lusitano-cross mare, Gaia. We began to call her Princess Gaia for good reason. Probably more a testament to her fitness, but she didn’t even sweat.
Throughout the morning we’d glimpsed the long shivery stretch of Windermere in the distance from the considerable height afforded by forestry tracks and the open hillside, but the afternoon saw us crossing lower ground as we headed up the valley towards Ings. Cookie felt fortified after his lunch and we picked up the pace with some steady canters through fields and along little-used bridleways. This horse knew where to take on water and how to pace himself, and exhibited the same stoic sensibility whether crossing the deep ford at Winster or trotting along a short stretch of busy road to the next bridleway. We meandered through open pastureland to arrive at Ings by late afternoon. Six hours in the treeless saddle, and although I felt tired I was more relieved to discover that not only was the saddle a good fit for both Cookie and I, the horse was a gentleman to handle.
The horses stayed overnight at an international showjumping yard, and our billet for the night was an old-fashioned guest house run by the lovely Mrs J. Our rooms were an eclectic mix of floral, flock, and frills, a blend of historical styles which stopped somewhere around the seventies. A crocheted mat for every item, a pile of Reader’s Digest circa 1999, china knick-knacks, faux flowers and brass beds, patterned rugs on swirly carpets, snake draught excluders, and the radiator in the hall set to scorch level. It felt reminiscent of visiting Nan as a child or seaside holidays with Mum and Dad. And sharing with Sue took us both back to school trips when mild exhaustion and forbidden drink took the form of giggly hysteria. But then things took a sinister turn when we decided to Google the meaning of the Latin scrolls on the wallpaper. The best we could come up with translated to the iron hand of blackest terror… Safely cocooned in nostalgia, the discovery of this felt mildly disturbing and for some unfathomable reason we thought it might be prudent to check inside the wardrobe. We grabbed a handle each… tugged. It lurched, then suddenly toppled towards us and a hundred mismatched hangers flew out. Trying to push the thing back upright against the wall and replace the innards made a considerable racket. Likewise the litter bin which seemed placed for musical impact rather than practicality, since the lid bashed the party wall with a resounding boom-tish every time the pedal was depressed. Sensing we might already be unpopular with our fellow companions, we retired early to our flowery beds and stifled our inner schoolgirl.
Sticky Toffee Pudding, the Troutbeck Valley, and Trotting On.
Another day promising sun! Mrs J had already taken our breakfast order the previous evening, but lost the list. When it came down to it, any variation on a full English had her in the iron grip of blackest terror; so we all pitched in. By the time Mike arrived in the pickup to collect us and our bags, we’d cleared the table and said a fond farewell to Mrs J. Back at the showjumping yard, we collected the horses from their overnight grazing and began preparations for day two of the trail. A quick groom, a fresh saddle pad (all of them washed at the end of every day) saddle, saddlebags, breastplate, and the halter left on under the bridle for convenience, with the lead rope secured out of the way using Mike’s special boating knot. I loved day two, perhaps because I was already familiar with much of the area, and as we drew closer to central Lakeland the countryside developed into the classic, rolling English countryside the Lake District is famous for, inspiring not only Wordsworth but also Ruskin, Arthur Ransome, and Beatrix Potter. Plenty of sun and a warm breeze kept light cloud scudding across the fells, highlighting miles of drystone walls and some of those iconic Wainwright summits.
After a sharp incline, we meandered down a long bridleway towards Kentmere and across open countryside before dropping down to a cluster of properties. An old gent stood by his garden gate, his hands held out, his expression rapturous. I’ve been watching you, coming down off the hill along the old bridleway. What a sight! What a wonderful, wonderful sight… We waved as we clattered past, heading through the hamlet and onto the Garburn Pass, an ancient byway which took us over the fells and into the pretty Troutbeck Valley. Much of the going was rough at the start with huge rocks and boulders forming some of the climb but the horses never hesitated and rarely put a hoof in the wrong place. Cookie needed no directional assistance whatsoever and the lightest contact through the reins. All I had to do was to stay in balance and make his job as easy as possible. Mike, Sheila, and Zara Myers had done an impressive job with their horses, especially since many of them have been acquired from less than satisfactory beginnings. Although the pace on the trail was very much dictated by the terrain – and lots of the time it was rough and slow going with the horses scrambling over rocks and on one occasion, steps – this isn’t pony trekking. Experience of riding a fit horse across open country is a priority, as is general fitness and stamina. Bracing against severe inclines and staying in balance with the movement of the horse over uneven ground is deceptively tiring for the uninitiated. And riding continues across five consecutive days, with care of your horse at the end of each day coming well before dinner. Heaving off the tack and the saddlebags and then heaving your own bag up to a hotel room had us all ready to eat and fall into bed before 9pm most evenings. The mantra was very much eat, sleep, ride, repeat. Since I’m happy doing all of these things the routine suited me quite well.
Lunch was at the Mortal Man in Troutbeck and we secured the horses in a small yard close to the pub. During our substantial repast, Cookie saw fit to untie himself and bump my hat off the post where I’d left it. Fortunately for him, it had stopped short of a deep stream, and who could be cross with a horse that enjoyed his head being cradled and stood like a rock to be cuddled, whenever required. On our way again, and the horses burst into action the second Kieron glanced behind to check all was well before upping the pace. Trotting on! We clattered briskly through the village towards Robin Lane Bridleway, instantly regretting the rather excellent two course lunch with sticky toffee pudding and pints of cider. And then we were cantering. Low branches! We grew to love and hate Kieron’s sense of humour. And we soon grew wise to his response whenever we asked how much longer to the pub/hotel/yard because it was always 40 minutes, regardless of where we were. But we laughed, a lot.
Robin Lane to Jenkin’s Crag is a beautiful bridleway which meanders for some five miles over Low and High Skelghyll. The scenery gradually opened up towards Lake Windermere and the Langdale Pikes, before dropping down through Skelghyll Woods into Ambleside. Then a long, long power trot around the outskirts of the town, over the Rothay Bridge and onto a single-track lane following the River Rothay virtually all the way towards Rydal Mount – Wordsworth’s famous residence. Kieron advised us to keep right on the steep, slippery lane (only slippery to shod horses) in order to avoid wheel spin. It seems you can take the man out of the garage but you can’t take the garage… The Coffin Route into Grassmere allowed us to peer over the walls into Wordsworth’s garden. I couldn’t see his writing hut but then the glittering expanse of Rydal Water came into view and hundreds of geese took flight. We cantered along a smooth stretch before the terrain of rock slabs and enormous tree roots had us back down to a considered walk. In places I had to hook my left leg over the top of the saddlebags to avoid getting my kneecaps bashed on the wall as the path was so narrow. A truly arduous task it must have been to carry coffins along this route to the main church in Rydal.
We were booked into a hotel at Grassmere. First priority was to buy two large gins and sit in the sun. Bliss. Back in the room, which had a gorgeous view of Helm Crag right outside the window, the second bliss moment was a deep bath. Too tired to wash my hair separately I soaped my tresses in the bath then reached for the shower head to rinse. Maybe it’s just me but I can never get hotel showers to run at an even temperature especially with soap in my eyes, so I suffered a short blast of stone cold instead. It dried looking no different to the original ‘riding hat helmet’ I’d finished the day on, and thanks to all the soapy residue and no conditioner, the sweetitch started during perusal of the dinner menu. I loved that there was Waldorf salad as a side though, and combined with a lovely East European waiter who had little grasp of the English language beyond I go check, it didn’t take much for Sue and I to lapse into sit-com territory. And another thing. Why do we look fat and rippled when we walk past the mirrors in this place? Er… Funhouse mirrors? Sticky Toffee Pudding?
Tolkien, Teddy’s Tunnels, and Tourists at Tarn Hows.
In the cold light of day I was pleased to find that I still had no need of serious medication. In fact, other than the discovery that the shampoo-induced sweetitch had spread to my withers, I felt pretty good and ready for the day. While we ploughed through scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, Kieron had been busy bringing in the horses and tacking-up, for which we were incredibly grateful. Our day began with a long canter alongside Grassmere lake and a paddle, before heading up Red Bank bridleway bordering Loughrigg Fell. It had become apparent that when Kieron and Jigsaw dropped back, Cookie was no slouch when it came to heading-up the group and I often found myself out in front. Sooner or later though the mares, Princess Gaia and Wendy’s chestnut, Moody Milly, would see to it that Cookie was put back in his place – usually the minute Kieron and Jigsaw took up the lead again, and they’d skillfully manoeuvre themselves back up the pecking order. Until it came to passing through gates. Neither mare would entertain going through first and would mince and prance. Oh no, it might be dangerous! Get the cob! Only then would they allow Cookie to take the lead again. Cookie absolutely knew this was his dutiful job and walked manfully ahead, ears pricked forwards, his pride fully intact again until the girls decided his leadership was no longer required and barged past him with a snicker. At least he had moments of glory. The horses took no notice whatsoever of Lydia’s mount since Micky was the new bloke on the block, and firmly relegated to the rear at all times.
We were en-route towards Elterwater and the Great Langdale Valley, wading through a deep ford at Little Langdale. Cookie ploughed through, his huge feet setting off a tidal wave. And then Kieron surprised us all by issuing baler twine so we could tie up the horses to the trees. Since there wasn’t a pub in sight, we were puzzled but duly obliged and followed him up a steep incline to a cave. Cathedral Cavern was the location used in the Bear Grylls episode with Warren Davies. Not my favourite thing, crouching in the dark beneath tons of rock, but I was encouraged by a group of schoolkids carrying candles, and therefore persuaded to stumble down a long tunnel. I was even less happy when the light from the entrance disappeared, but then blinding daylight ahead and, after a scramble down some rock slabs, the Cathedral revealed itself; a cavernous space above a dense pool of black velvet. I fully expected Gollum to come crawling out and I was happy to take the exit at that point and continue our Lord of the Rings adventure above ground, and with the horses. Hopefully they were still tied to the trees where we’d left them. True to form, resident drama queen, Princess Gaia, had managed to wind herself round and round some saplings until the length of her lead rope was down to strangulation point at three inches. Where have you been? Look what happened to me! Cookie hadn’t moved an inch, one hind leg at rest, eyes half closed in the sun-dappled copse.
Another nod to Tolkien then after a short hack to the Three Shires pub, and another tie-up for the horses right outside. Patrons were amused to see five horses hooked up to the railings on the road, especially when Kieron carefully positioned the ice-cream boards at either end of the equine hazard we’d created. Fortunately, traffic was very slow at this point and refreshingly, the vast majority of people seemed happy to see the horses and interested in our adventure. After a substantial ploughman’s lunch – a glimpse of a truly hobbit-style piece of engineering in Slater Bridge, before picking up the old quarry road to Hodge Close. Myriad deep ravines and underwater tunnels were not something I wanted to linger alongside and I was much happier when we’d left the quarry sites behind and entered the maze of coppice at Holme Ground, to eventually arrive at beautiful Tarn Hows, the most visited spot in Lakeland. Thanks to some very obliging Chinese tourists we managed a good few group pics here until Princess Gaia declared she’d had enough posing, and put in a few playful bunny jumps. On to Conniston then through mature, ancient woodland beneath increasingly cloudy skies, and our thoughts turned to climbing Walna Scar the following day – the highest point of the trail climbing to 2,000 feet. Given the torrential rain elsewhere in the country we didn’t hold out much hope for staying dry.
Horses turned out, fed, and rugged up against the promised rain, we clambered into the pickup for a short drive to our guest house for the evening; Oakland, a traditional Lakeland property featuring plenty of local slate. Comfortably elegant and with enough en-suite rooms for us all to enjoy solo residence. Views from my dual-aspect room were overlooking the cricket pitch, with the dark bulk of Yewdale Fell beyond. I soaked away the grime of the day listening to the many garden birds on the feeders below, and the mellow sound of leather hitting willow. The rain began as we walked to The Crown in Conniston, but we had the best of meals here and in the true spirit of helping Wendy sample the local cuisine, we tested yet another sticky toffee pudding – and this one easily took the top pudding of the week slot.
High Winds, War Horse, and Walking Walna Scar.
My sweetitch problem fixed, plus scrambled eggs and a jar of homemade lemon curd on the breakfast table promised a good start to the day. A significantly better start than the resident garden birds, since our exasperated host reported the plunder of several very large bird feeders by a gang of young squirrels. She cast an eye towards the long barrelled shotgun above the door frame. We made a sharp exit. No rain; but a strong wind was in force, with ominous clouds moving slowly across the summit of Conniston Old Man. Fair to say, the track to Walna Scar is uphill all the way. A long pull against the wind towards the open fell, but we managed to enjoy some breathless canters on the undulating grassy track by the bridleway, before the terrain necessitated a pace closer to scrambling. Boulders, and steep slabs of rock at seemingly awkward angles for a horse posed no problem for our herd of professionals.
Cookie powered up, down, over or through everything in his path; bogs, scree, streams, bridges. He thought nothing of slowly sinking both front legs down a bank at a 90 degree angle in order to drink from a sunken stream. The only show of hesitance came when he had to go first through a busy farmyard, where he’d wait then for Jigsaw to head up the group again. Some powerful crosswinds at the summit of Walna, with far-reaching views to the west of the Irish Sea. Too much low cloud to see The Isle of Man but great views of Scafell Pike and Bowfell. And then it was a long, slow amble down Walna Scar Side by a foaming stream towards Seathwaite, and our lunch stop. I love a genuinely quirky pub, and the Newfield Inn didn’t disappoint. Net curtains, coat hooks fixed into the wood-panelled bar, and since it was only early June – a roaring fire and bowls of hearty lentil soup. A friendly, unpretentious place which likely represented the heart of the village. The sort of tiny rural place where all community problems were still referred to the vicar.
Lifting Cookie’s saddle above my head in order to get it on his back again was beginning to feel arduous, but Kieron threw it in the general direction for me and then once everything was buckled-up and belted-in, hoisted me on as well – although his energetic leg-ups sometimes had me halfway over the other side. I did love his excuse, though. You don’t weigh anything! We picked up the trail again across the Dunnerdale fells before entering Broughton Moor Forest and in places I had to crouch low over Cookie’s neck as we inched along dark forestry paths through dense, dense trees. Then we were out onto wide roads affording us plenty of canters where the gradient levelled out and the surface softened. Once out of the forest, the road down to Torver was impossibly steep and my limbs began to feel tired with both knee joints aching a little, and our overnight stop was a welcome sight. Sue and I complained that getting off at the end of the day with buckled legs was the worst thing ever. We both perched side-saddle and held out our arms, damsel style; and Mike came to our rescue for the second time that week. We’ve looked forward to this all day! we chorused.
So have I, Mike quipped, and lifted us down in a (mostly) gentlemanly fashion.
It seemed much investment had been sunk into our stopover at Torver; the ladies loos being the most surprising. Incorporating the use of slate and wood to such a rustic degree must have been eye-wateringly expensive, to create what I can only describe as something Barney Rubble might design. Eye-catching, but not terribly practical, and I wasn’t sure I enjoyed the intimate narration of War Horse echoing around the cubicle as I went about my business. Our en-suite room was light, clean and modern, if a tad bijou. Fortunate that Sue and I are so petite, so it didn’t pose a problem. But in the spirit of continuing observation, we did laugh at the blue ‘mood’ lighting and the over imaginative use of decorative panels, extra-large lamps, and mirrors hung for those over seven feet tall. In my tired clumsiness I found it awkward to avoid trapping my fingers between the shower screen and the wash-hand basin. And then filling the kettle from the sink tap wasn’t possible due to the angles of the sink and the size of the kettle. Both bottles of complimentary mineral water went to make the tea.
We’d arranged to meet Lydia and Wendy for pre-dinner botanicals at 6.30, but in our disorganised fuddle managed to land in the bar at 5.35, only to then wonder where the hell they were. This despite both of us glancing at several plus-size clocks, iPads, and phones. A couple of drinks later, we were ravenous and had already eaten the best part of a tasty hotpot by the time Wendy and Lydia arrived. Our faux pas forgiven, the evening passed with recollections of the week to date, the exchange of email addresses and the victorious realisation that our stash of drugs and support bandages had mostly gone unneeded. We hit the hay at a sensible hour, taking careful note of the mood lighting switch, should we accidentally need to illuminate our passage to the loo in the night. The sound of cars swishing through hard rain lulled me to instant sleep.
Bridleways, Bullocks, and Homewood Bound to Backbarrow
Phone calls home the previous evening had revealed the most awful weather conditions in North Wales and a similar horror story from my son in London; so I wasn’t too surprised to see rain continuing to stream down the windows. Since it was the last day it didn’t seem quite so depressing to run into bad weather since we’d enjoyed three gloriously sunny days and only one cloudy, windy day, which is pretty good for somewhere as wet and green as the Lake District. We dressed ready for action in waterproofs and yet, by the time we’d saddled-up the rain had dissolved to an intermittent drizzle and it was a difficult decision then whether or not to remove the waterproof over-trousers. They certainly compromised grip in the saddle but then the thought of maybe trying to put them back again on top of the fells in pouring rain made it a tough choice. Everyone opted to keep them on but Sue, ever the optimist and resident weather expert stuffed hers in the saddlebags and declared it wasn’t going to rain properly until 3.55pm. Thus cheered, we took the old coffin road across the Woodland Valley and Lowick Common to arrive at Spark Bridge for lunch. While Kieron was busy checking the horses and tacking-up again (before the rain started at 3.55pm) we organised a whip-round. Our guide had looked after us royally and we felt bound by the laws of decency and appreciation to present him with a roll of notes and, for no other reason than it was us – wrapped around a Voltarol suppository. I like to think it expressed our combined experiences and wrapped up the morning rather well.
Although tired, our spirits remained high through the final leg home with Sue stuck in a strong northern dialect for most of the afternoon, and Moody Millie suddenly realising she was on the outskirts of home and taking up an active walk in the lead. We passed through some pastureland inhabited by bullocks who decided to follow us all the way to the gate at the far end, and we worried then about the logistics of getting five horses through an awkward gate without 50 head of cattle barging through with us. But Jigsaw was fearless in facing the snorting beasts head-on and Kieron herded them back up the field with a whoop, cowboy style.
And then it was quiet country lanes and hamlets as the countryside softened towards Backbarrow. The rain never did take hold and the experience of damp hedgerows heavy with cow parsley, wild honeysuckle, and rose, wasn’t unpleasant. At Low Wood, a long uphill track allowed us a final opportunity to canter. Only Sue and I elected to go ahead, the other horses happy with a steadier pace. Gaia and Cookie obliged, albeit none too energetically, although we waited ages for the others to catch up. Sue thought she might jump off and lie flat in the undergrowth while I explained to Kieron that the horses had bolted and Sue had been dragged for half a mile at least, and I was too scared to check if she was still breathing. And, although we laughed at the joke we could have played, the bottom line was we were just too damn tired to get off and back on again. And, we reasoned that Kieron really didn’t really deserve any more of our tasteless humour.
We turned up the familiar lane to the yard and for a moment it felt out of kilter that the horses were taken from us, untacked, and showered by a band of willing helpers, while we drank tea. Unable to put off the moment much longer, we loaded our bags into the car and tried to come to terms with driving home. Human farewells done, we had one last goodbye to do and wandered to the stable block where our faithful comrades were already in their pyjamas. A good finish to the trip to see our horses nestled in deep straw beds, and it felt especially gratifying that they nudged us for a final selfie, even Princess Gaia.
But it was a bitter-sweet end to five amazing days. Five days where at times we’d ached to get off our horses, but then ached to get back on. Five days of living in an almost fictional bubble, where real life stayed on hold somewhere far away. A cosy world where Hobbits and Potter’s Peter Rabbit felt more real and immediate than our lives back home. A world where Wordsworth and Wainwright had far more interesting and important visions to share. To be able to ride miles of ancient bridleways across such achingly beautiful countryside instilled in all of us, I feel sure, a deep sense of privilege. We’d explored a piece of old England the way it should be explored. And something magical happens when out-of-comfort zones are pushed together through circumstance, and instant bonds are forged with complete strangers – both human and equine.
Ok, let’s plan the next one. Ten day equine coast-to-coast, anyone? We’ll need more supplies… ibuprofen, chocolate, gin. And a torch. We’ll need a torch, for going down caves and checking wardrobes.
Welcome, Anna Rashbrook
How would you describe your writing style in only three words? Anna: Light, gripping, enjoyable.
If you could have a relationship with one of your fictional characters who would it be and why? Anna: Mollie, because we think alike!
If you had to exist for a week in one of your books … which one would it be? Would you be a central character or simply watch the story unfold from the sidelines?
Anna: I would watch Chaos unfold from the sidelines, like a real fly on the wall. That way I might find the ending!
Dead or alive literary dinner party: who would you invite, and what would you serve?
Anna: Elizabeth Goudge, Monica Edwards and Beverley Hughesdon. Traditional English roast beef as they are all older ladies!!
If you had to write in a different genre which would it be and why?
Anna: Autobiography, I’ve kept diaries all my life and it would be fascinating to see how I viewed things at other times in my life, and maybe some of my adventures might be interesting to readers
What do you dislike the most about being an author?
Anna: Lack of time to write and interruptions!
Favourite word? Anna: Grießenk! Local dialect for hello
Anna Rashbrook was in the chair, author of: Challenger and Compromise.
Continuing memories and reflections of an equine obsession 1968-2018.
Chapter 7: Home Ground
Springtime in Parc Mawr Woods. Snowdrops first, then maybe a few daffodils poking through the leaf mould and all around the insistent drilling of a woodpecker. But when it’s time for the wild garlic and the bluebells to flower, the fairy grotto effect is in full force. At the main fork in the path, the lower track returns walkers or riders to the lane. Alternatively, another ten minutes of climbing elevates one beyond the tops of the fir trees to reveal far reaching views of Conwy valley and the river. Pass through the rider-friendly gate and take the steep bridleway – usually studded with primroses by the close of March – and sheltered by ancient, gnarled trees, to arrive at the old church. Progress is slow as it’s a rocky route, often gushing like a healthy brook through the winter, during a wet spring, or after snow. Drystone walls border the way, forming a narrow passage to the church of St Celynin – a sixth century saint. One of the oldest churches in Wales, horses would bring coffins along this way to their final resting place. Beyond the church the open countryside is much as it was thousands of years ago, predominantly inhabited by Carneddau ponies, sheep, and birds of prey.
I’ve known this area for a long time. I’ve admired it in bright sunlight, and in the chill dusk of winter. And I’ve seen it sprinkled with snow and bathed in moonlight beneath the stars. I’ve also looked with longing at the hoofprints pitted along these tracks, thinking how wonderful it must feel to be able to observe such ancient wildness from the back of a horse, but I’ve had to accept that the public riding school as I used to know it, was pretty much finished. Other than my short list of places which meant long-distance travelling and an overnight stay to make a riding trip viable, there was nowhere to ride beyond an indoor school.
Meanwhile, writing had been extra productive, including two sequels in the Midnight Sky series. Aspects of these books represented how my equine obsession developed by exploring areas which not only appealed to me as a writer, but reflected an interest in alternative training methods and therapies. It also opened a variety of different doors which not only drew me deeper into my community, but affected a subtle change in me, too. One of the early triggers for this came from watching Guido Louis Leidelmeyer on a couple of occasions back in 2016. A stunt rider, and an equine behaviourist, Guido’s methods come from that broad spectrum described as Natural Horsemanship.Once upon a time the British Horse Society was the only equine reference on the shelf. Everything one needed to know would be laid down in black and white, somewhere. There were rules. There were standards. These inflexible, uncompromising ways are becoming old-school. Every horse, every person, is an individual. How any one combination of horse and rider works together, is not always black and white. I think we’ve always known this, but it’s never been quantifiable. Real equestrian skill comes with understanding what works for one, might not work for another, and how to apply that knowledge. Sometimes it’s only a feeling, but instinct can be more powerful than any how-to manual. Guido suggests we train in silence. Our gibberish means nothing to horses. Body language is how animals read us much of the time. After all, it’s how they survive in the wild and communicate with each other. Understanding more of this language, or engaging whispering techniques, can teach us not only about the relationships we have with our horses but much of the time a good deal about ourselves, too. You might be able to fool a stranger with a fake smile, but a horse will know the real story. And in essence, the horse remains the most truthful of teachers since his agenda is never compromised by incongruent behaviour.
As with any relatively ‘new’ subject which comes along to challenge the old ways, there will always be extreme versions and there will always be con-artists, but if the desired result is achieved without distress for the horse and no one gets hurt, then it’s good enough for me. I’ve watched Guido manage to clip a nervous horse he’s never met before in the space of twenty minutes. The owner had tried everything. As West Taylor (science-based horsemanship) also reiterates, it’s not always about the stuff, it’s often about us. It’s about our perception of the problem and not allowing it to manifest into something bigger than we can handle. At times though, outside influences are so strong we literally dabble with life and death.
More on Guido: https://janruth.com/2015/01/25/sweet-nothings/
A road traffic meeting in Conwy’s Guild Hall in the spring of 2017 only came about after a tragic accident – much like closing the door after the horse had bolted. A driver ploughed into the back of a horse and rider in broad daylight, and although the rider only sustained severe bruising it resulted in a broken leg for the horse which had to be destroyed on the spot. The driver didn’t even stop. That rider could have been me. She was experienced, mature, wearing hi-vis, and riding a quiet horse. The Sychnant Pass is mostly single-track, winding, and with variable visibility. Sheep and wild ponies roam loose across the area and common sense should dictate speed and behaviour. I’ve watched children trying to remove their ponies from Pinewood’s fields with traffic whizzing past at 60mph… The guild hall was packed, standing room only, and the debate was heated. Some of the stories were hair-raising, and in some cases the ignorance, the sheer disregard for someone’s life, quite breath-taking. The conclusion was that the speed limit on the Pass should be cut from 60 to 40 mph – other than where it already dropped to 25 – and large hazard signs employed. On the whole traffic is pretty calm in this beautiful, scenic place, but I’m aware at all times that it only takes one careless driver working to an impossible schedule, or someone under the influence of drink, stupidity, ignorance, or drugs, to change that.
Our world is often one of fear and disappointment and reading or writing fiction is good escapism, or at the very least a powerful medium to channel thoughts and emotions. But I also needed to escape the isolation and unhealthy aspects of writing, sitting, and thinking. Then I came across a mobile phone number and some scant information about trekking pinned to a supermarket notice-board. The yard was in Henryd – a couple of miles away from me at Merchlyn, a beautiful old forge with Victorian stables and stone barns. And so in the spring of 2017 I found myself cantering between those banks of bluebells in Parc Mawr woods on Debbie Youngson’s thoroughbred, Trudy, aka The Intruder. Not in the first flush of youth, the mare was still an eager accomplice whenever we rode up to the old church and back down the steep, winding lanes where a short cobbled bridleway brought us back round to the woods again. Or we’d loop through Rowen village, past the pub and the telephone kiosk – which is now home to second-hand books, plant cuttings, business cards, and a defibrillator. Then a left turn brought us past the Dutch Pancake House and the Water Gardens. The horses sometimes spooked at the Water Gardens. During busy times there could be a long line of fisherman behind the hedge and we had to be aware of sudden movement, or the sound of whipping and plopping lines. I wasn’t so keen on the road riding despite the scenic nature but the kinder, drier weather of late spring promised longer mountain rides, so this was something to look forward to. And it was undeniably lovely to ride through those woods.
Riding circuits around the local villages it didn’t go unnoticed that there was a schooling area by the entrance to Parc Mawr, attached to Tanrallt farm. I’d been researching disabled riding for a theme I’d introduced into Strawberry Sky, only to discover that this very locality was used by Conwy RDA group – and they wanted volunteers. What better way to research a subject than to be actively involved in it? Not only this, it would place me into a familiar environment, a situation which I hoped could produce mutual benefits. And so one spring morning I walked from home across the fields, through Rowen Woods and up to the top of Henryd village to watch a session in progress and meet the team. Straightaway, I felt there was something real and organic about this upbeat, positive community. Above all, it was run for the benefit of the people who used it, rather than for the sole purpose of making money. It’s much how I’d begun to approach producing the books I wanted to write, because much of the time ebook publishers are about trends and making cash rather than producing something of substance and quality, so this parallel ethos appealed to me and I committed to Wednesday mornings with ease. Getting involved with people who are disabled or disadvantaged in some way is a great leveller. Curiously, I began to feel less stressed, able to concentrate for longer, and generally experienced a better frame of mind. Was that down to the horses, the environment, or the people? I like to think it’s down to the unique combination.
More on Conwy Gogarth RDA: https://janruth.com/2018/10/26/rda-our-conwy-community-collage/
When the weather improved, Debbie and I – often joined by Gill who had a horse on livery at Merchlyn, and Angharad, Debbie’s business partner, rode longer circuits of Tal Y Fan. Bessie, the black cob mare reminded me of Kirby and she was probably my favourite, although the mare was nervous if not following another horse. I really liked Storm, too, the small pony with the big personality, and Martha. Sadly, just as I was settling in to the possibilities of adventure, Debbie’s personal circumstances changed into one of an uncertain future and despite sporadic rides through the summer, I had to accept that yet again there was some familiar writing on the wall.
But as my involvement with the RDA grew, so did my connections to local equine people, and the secretary for Conwy Gogarth RDA, Carol Moore, soon introduced me to her three cob geldings Snowman, Freddie, and Fergus. Carol’s yard was tucked away in Rowen Woods, part of the estate known as Glyn Parc. Formerly a tourist attraction, Glyn Parc used to be a rare breed farm prior to the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001. Some of the original sheep have been retained to cross-graze the pasture, but the place is now primarily a livery yard and a holiday cottage. I wasn’t unfamiliar with the area as it’s criss-crossed with public footpaths amid an idyllic setting – lush with flora and fauna, orchards, peacocks, and doves.
Fergus, the rather Rubenesque coloured gypsy cob with a classic apple-shaped bum, reminded me of my unease riding the aforementioned Paddy. His rolling gait and the tendency to lower his head in canter wasn’t the best physical fit for me and my short legs. Snowman, adopted by Carol and previously owned by a riding school, was less forward-going than his step-brothers but essentially a sensible, genuine sort. A stoic character in excess of a portly 16 hands, mounting and dismounting was always going to be a major problem for me, but generally he was a gentleman to handle, even dipping his head low enough for me to pass his reins and the martingale over his head, although fastening his girth wasn’t quite so easy! Adept at escaping his loose box, one always had to ensure both bolts were rammed home and the feed bin out of sight.
Freddie, the lighter, slimmer skewbald horse felt pretty perfect, although this came at a price. Freddie had an unusual personality. Sometimes ticklish, he did his best to avoid being groomed, but much depended on his mood. I guess one might say he was mildly unpredictable and not always the easiest to handle. He certainly had a twinkle in his eye and he did test me initially, but Freddie was great off-road and remarkably athletic, reminding me of the aforementioned Ted. A sporty chap, Freddie was always happier in the lead and occasionally he’d put in a disgruntled buck if he found himself behind one of his stable-mates. And then one fateful July day, Freddie and I parted company. We’d enjoyed a good long ride with Carol and Fergus, and we’d done all the arguably risky bits across open countryside without incident other than a couple of playful bucks, but nothing unseating.
We were on the final sun-dappled canter track along the bottom of Parc Mawr, heading for home, tired, happy and bowling along behind Fergus but steady, relaxed. We weren’t too close to Fergus, nor were we too far behind and our pace couldn’t be considered as excitable. Any spooky outside influences were less than negligible. One second I was listening to the birdsong and wondering what to have for dinner and the next I was on my back looking at the tree-tops. Freddie was nowhere to be seen. One of my stirrup leathers dangled on top of a bush. What the…? Usually under these circumstances there’s a couple of seconds to consider impending doom as one slithers down the right or left flank, braced to hit the soil. But this time… nothing. Once I’d got over the shock, I staggered to my feet without too much creaking but I knew instantly I’d badly bruised my coccyx the second I began to walk.
A concerned Carol materialised from the opposite direction, leading both horses and full of questions but I had no explanation for what had happened. To this day I still have no idea how Freddie managed to evacuate me with such lightning precision, if indeed, that had been his agenda. I did remount (standing on the wall by the scout hut) and rode back to the yard, leaning forward rather more than I should – but driving home afterwards included swear words, especially where too much clutch action had me gritting my teeth. The injury took at least a month to fully heal and the inconvenience of not being able to drive or sit for too long, and the very real fact that my accident could have been so much worse, prompted me to invest in an air jacket. Unlike the old, stiff and restrictive body protectors which I’d resisted for years, the air jacket is the cutting edge in equine protection. It consists of a light tabard style ‘jacket’ which is worn over all other clothing and attached to a D ring on the saddle via a bungee cord. If the cord becomes forcefully detached then the jacket inflates, cushioning any fall to the ground.
A fairly hefty sum to purchase initially at around £400, it’s still a small price to pay to prevent broken bones or another bruised coccyx, and I also had to bear in mind my recent diagnosis of border-line osteoporosis. The only caveat is that it is so light I forget I’m wearing it and therefore forget to detach the bungee when dismounting. I’ve jumped down off Snowman with it still attached and obviously, the taller the horse the bigger this problem can be! Stretched taut, it’s the very Devil to unhook from the ground, in fact it’s easier to remove the entire jacket. I’ve never made so many notes to self… Remember to unhook the blasted bungee cord!
Four weeks after the fall I was back in the saddle. I’d taken to riding Snowman and came to enjoy his predictable, steady pace. We rode for almost four hours one warm afternoon in late summer, taking the route which swings left after the old church and around Craig Celynin before following the lower flanks of Tal Y Fan, and enjoyed some long grassy canters despite the number of uncooperative gates along the way, held up with the ubiquitous ancient rusting wire and frayed baler twine. Then we took the green lane back to the village, plucking blackberries from the hedges along the way. I loved these occasional long rides through the hills, but there were changes in the air. Snowman’s owner talked of taking him back, another young horse came onto the yard and the equilibrium of our small group felt disturbed. A shame also that the close bond of ‘the boys’ meant they wouldn’t ride solo, at least not for any substantial distance and I wasn’t sure if the restrictions created by these various arrangements were going to suit me long-term.
When the offer of riding Emily – a prematurely retired New Forest pony – cropped up in October, I took my leave from Glyn Parc and decided to rise to the challenge of bringing the mare back into work. Em lived on a hill farm at the top of Henryd not too far from the old church, so access to the Carneddau couldn’t have been easier, or more attractive. Driving up to my allotted parking spot, though, was often like running the gauntlet and one needed to be prepared to reverse downhill or uphill, the usual ditches and stone walls running to either side. Wild, and beautiful, the hill farm was perhaps the opposite to Glyn Parc in terms of cosy convenience and ease of execution. But I soon came to realise that none of that mattered. I relished the challenge of nurturing a proper bond with this mare, a mare I knew would ride out without the security blanket of other horses. Already, I felt we were two of a kind. Em wasn’t completely unfit having access to several acres of high ground and typical of Welsh hill farms, none of it was level. The configuration of various field gates was awkward, though, and sometimes it was no mean feat to remove the mare from the field without disgorging her pony companion and several hundred sheep at the same time. However, I set to cleaning her neglected tack with oil and saddle soap. We began with ten-minute ambles down the lane. Because of her change of shape since she’d last been ridden – she was clearly more rotund than she should have been – I did get a few problems with her saddle slipping but a new, rubberised saddle pad and a longer girth seemed to fix this. And it soon became clear that Em wasn’t averse to being put back into gentle work, in fact she felt keen to get going so I began to extend our walks in various directions. Only once did she plant her feet and test my intent. We were up by the old church and she still wasn’t shod so I wondered if her sudden stubborn streak had anything to do with the anticipation of scrambling over the rough stream bed further on. I hadn’t intended to take her that far but it took some insistence from me to have her going forward again. I let her turn for home only when I decided she could, and by way of protest she put in a funny little buck and the sort of canter only a tubby, unfit mare could do.
By the time we’d got into November Em acquired a full set of shoes via Fraser Youngson from Merchlyn and we enjoyed longer rides, building up to an hour-and-a-half every other day. She felt good, and slowly the mare was able to sustain a strong trotting pace up some of the gentler hills so I felt we were well on our way to a future summer of fun. She was sensible through gates, unfazed by vehicles be it farm machinery, refuse trucks, motorbikes. Although she had plenty to say about other horses, maybe down to her being turned out in an isolated spot for a number of years, but every equine we passed in a field had to be commented on in the form of snorts, whinnies, and goggle-eyed stares – as if she’d forgotten there were other horses in the world. But she’d go wherever I pointed her, never shied, bucked, or misbehaved. I could approach a group of ridden horses and ask her to stand while I chatted, and she’d walk away again in the opposite direction without a fuss. And I never had any trouble catching her, despite the acres she had at her disposal. Sometimes she’d be perched on top of a knoll, mane flying in the wind like Black Beauty, surveying the far-reaching views from her elevated estate. She’d watch me toil towards her, halter over my shoulder as I climbed against the wind, eyes and nose streaming with cold. And then one day in December I knew we’d really started to bond when she uttered a deep wicker of recognition and walked towards me, dropping her soft muzzle into my cold hands. It felt mildly euphoric, but sadly this lovely sense of mutual trust pre-empted a truly nightmarish day. The day of the pigs…
Continue reading: https://janruth.com/2019/04/27/disappearing-dreamscapes-8/
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.
Continuing memories and reflections of an equine obsession 1968-2018.
Chapter 6: Midnight Travels
We flew to Auckland in late February 2013, leaving behind an early spring day in Snowdonia, to arrive at the tail-end of New Zealand’s autumn. The 2012-2013 drought affected the entire North Island and the west coast of the South Island.
It was one of the most severe droughts to have impacted these areas in at least 40 years, and in some cases more like 70 years. The trip was in aid of my step-daughter’s marriage to an equine vet, culminating in a beachside ceremony on the beautiful Coromandel. But before all of that, a taste of riding the farm boundaries, Kiwi style. A few days later, a couple of hours’ drive south of Auckland saw us head out through the small township of Huntly in the Waikato district (much like small-town America) and into miles of deserted, tinder-dry brown landscape out towards Raglan Bay. A long, long way from the green green grass of Conwy Valley.The horses were most certainly crossed with a heavy draft type – Clydesdale, Percheron, or Irish Draft – with the infusion of a lighter breed like Arab or Thoroughbred.
My allotted beast, a well-muscled bright bay, was as sensible as he was strong, calm, and sure-footed. In looks at least, he had me in mind of the Cleveland Bay, an old-fashioned Yorkshire breed used mostly for driving or fox hunting. Hunting of all types is commonplace in New Zealand. Much of the traditions and protocol of English fox hunting applies, although it’s more likely that the quarry will be hare or wild boar. Farms and indeed many homesteads are so remote life is pretty much reliant on farming and self-sufficiency, although hunting is equally enjoyed for recreational purposes.We had no trouble eating and enjoying all of the home-produced beef, and the fish and shellfish caught, gutted, and cooked by our Kiwi hosts. In the rural areas there is less reliance on shops, less choice of commodities, and much of the country has a feel of how parts of the UK probably functioned in the fifties. I found this deeply appealing but the one aspect which did surprise me was because the country is so young compared to the UK, the lack of history had me feel strangely homesick for our ancient heritage and those miles of drystone walls. As is the case for our own corner of Wales and the farming communities, historical backgrounds are what shape the people as well as the country, and I hadn’t realised quite how much I was emotionally rooted in my adoptive country. North Wales is astonishingly compact compared to New Zealand. There are vast, vast acres between properties and roads, much of which is featureless. The countryside is generally not as accessible as the UK and any boundary fences up for jumping out hunting with horses, will almost certainly be constructed of wire. After all, New Zealand is the real Mordor, the land of extremes, and outdoor adventures are not for sissies.
I’d left the UK in the midst of writing Silver Rain and later, much of the New Zealand landscape and character found its way into the story. I did intend to write a travel blog too, but that never happened and many of my impressions manifested themselves as short stories instead in A Long Way from Home. In other book matters I continued an email conversation with my new cover designer about Midnight Sky. It was a difficult book to pin down, image wise. The two professional bodies I’d dealt with at the time of writing were conflicted. The agent who was half-interested in this novel suggested less equestrian references in order to ‘sell’ it as a straight romance, and the other, in a more advisory, editorial capacity wanted more, believing it better placed as a niche product. Both believed their versions to be more commercial. The agent declined the book in the end as is the nature of the publishing beast. My original homemade cover didn’t really sell the book, but then my branding hadn’t developed by then, either. The cover we settled on whilst I was in New Zealand did relatively well, but the third cover – once I’d extricated myself from a bad publishing deal in 2016 – was the one which really worked for the material. So much so I wrote the sequel, Palomino Sky, with a lot more confidence, perhaps because I wrote the book I wanted to write. And I included as much equine detail as deemed necessary to enrich the story.
After four weeks away in New Zealand with flying visits to Australia and Singapore en-route, we were tired and ready for the cooler temperatures of North Wales. Exhausted by the time we finally reached Manchester International Airport, I just about had the wherewithal to call the taxi firm to confirm our ride back to North Wales. The driver warned us that we might not be able to get to Conwy because of the snow. We laughed. It was March, springtime! We imagined not only did our body clocks need time to readjust, but after 90% humidity in Singapore, our temperature gauges probably did too. Forty minutes later and we hit crawling traffic around Chester, aghast at the volume of snow piled-up at the side of the roads and smothering the fields. Once finally home after a slow journey along slushy roads, we were devastated to learn the full impact of a sudden, massive snowfall across the Carneddau. Sheep and new lambs, and half of the wild ponies from Aber and Llanfairfechan were buried beneath drifts. Local farmers had spent days and nights digging out animals. Over half of the ponies had frozen to death. Natural disasters are part and parcel of farming and rural life, but the cruel prettiness of our mountains had never felt quite so brutal.
Spring eventually arrived in a guise we all recognised and I resumed my quest for a horse to ride. Occasionally, through 2012 and 2013 I rode with Willington Hall Riding Centre, Tarporley, Cheshire. Close to Delamere Forest, Kelsall Hill Farm Ride, and the Sandstone Trail, the drive over was worth the journey if there was a forest ride in the running but more often than not, the farm ride seemed more popular. Farm rides are a man-made equestrian leisure complex with cross-country fences, gallops, and training areas. I’ve no objection to popping over the odd natural obstacle whilst out and about, but the artificial nature of farm rides don’t really tick my boxes. On the occasions we did venture into Delamere Forest I enjoyed the company of Charlie, a robust very forward chap (sometimes a bit too forward) and Penny, a particularly agreeable grey mare. The forest is the largest area of woodland in the country and provides plenty of scope for long rides. We regularly became lost in the maze of tree-lined paths, bridleways, and dense forestry and it was always a great mini-adventure, but the combination of travelling and pinning down the right ride at the right time (the forest rides were very much restricted to dry ground) began to feel impossible and infrequent. And then in April of 2013 I came across Pennant Park Riding Centre, Whitford, Holywell.
This yard had inherited some of the horses and ponies from the aforementioned Coachman’s, and Whitford represented an easy forty-minute drive into Flintshire. In terms of bridleways and quaint villages – and Mostyn Farm Ride, should you be so inclined – this hidden gem of an area had a lot going for it. The yard itself was maintained to a very high standard, but my suspicions were mostly confirmed that the riding itself was geared very much towards novice riders and children, and their mix of cobs and ponies reflected this. However, I really enjoyed Simona and once, the rather handsome Tom. During the school holidays there was a trip to Mostyn Farm Ride, a pub ride, and a beach ride to Talacre but with nervous, less-able riders in the mix these trips didn’t really work. And I much preferred the natural countryside around Whitford with its historical buildings, country lanes and criss-cross of old bridleways.
The name Mostyn has strong connections to Flintshire and Llandudno, the family name going back some 500 years. Despite the strong presence of the Pennant family, Mostyn Estates remain the oldest landholding institution in Wales and soon took stakes in Whitford through marriage. Opposite the lodge house to Mostyn Estates Sawmill, lies a long grass slightly uphill bridleway – perfect for a canter – and a likely route the family from the ‘big house’ would take to the village church. An impressive area of managed estate land sits in-between this bridleway and the village, and affords plenty of attractive off-road riding. The proprietor always accompanied me on these hacks and initially, seemed keen to oblige with two-hourly rides and even explore new territory across Halkyn Mountain. This all sounded promising but I noted with some trepidation that there was an indoor school under construction and sadly, any commitment seemed to fade rapidly as the summer progressed. By the time daylight saving hours had crept in at the end of October, the hacking had politely tailed off. I certainly wasn’t new to this pattern of events, in fact I almost expected it, but this time around I did feel especially cheated and defeated.
I was running out of options. Someone suggested Cae Hic Livery and Riding Centre, Ffordd y Blaenau, Treuddyn. This meant over an hour of driving for me so not worth the trip unless riding for at least two or three hours. I took a private riding assessment on a black cob mare called Kirby. Thereafter followed three years of three-hourly rides every three weeks. Initially, I didn’t take to the black mare at all, but arranged a ride on Seamus. Smooth, with a big stride Seamus ate up half a mile of bridleway in a strong canter. Great! The Coed Talon bridleway was a former railway line and the long, level track bordered by trees and streaking across part of a watery nature reserve proved pretty good for riding through all seasons. The first occasion was late autumn and especially scenic down to the variety of trees. In summer-time it was like riding through a green tunnel, wild garlic so profuse it lay like snow drifts along the edge.
Real snow happened, too. On this occasion, the ground was on the hard side so we discounted the alternative destination to Nercwys Forest, imagining the heavy shade would further compromise the icy ground conditions. We were a sizeable group. Horses and riders had been cooped up for too long down to poor weather, and we were looking forward to some Christmas fun. I was riding Ernie, the-fastest-milk-horse-in-the-west. An ex-racer, he was tall and sleek with a slightly discombobulated trot. But Ernie hadn’t been trained to trot, he’d been trained to gallop, and it really was his best stride. Cool-headed, he was always chilled when the other horses jostled for position, knowing full well he could outrun the lot. The track looked icy here and there, with random frozen puddles. We set off, carefully. No overtaking. A long line of jogging horses, all of them tail-gating. As we began to canter, eyes peeled for ice, the horses strung out and Ernie found his stride. We skimmed over a big frozen puddle and for a heart-stopping moment he lost some traction. The guy behind me shouted out but I couldn’t stop, didn’t dare look round. Miraculously we all made it to the end, faces flushed, horses steaming.
But it was Little Jack the pure Haflinger who really challenged Ernie’s fleet feet. A pretty chestnut boy with a full flaxen mane and tail, Little Jack stood around 14.2. Pony-size really, so straight away one is lulled into a false sense of security, but I’d witnessed his performance on Talacre beach… Hence, I was a cautious participant when on this occasion we partnered each other along Coed Talon. All good, until we made that fateful decision to simply turn round at the end and gallop back the way we’d come. Bored with waiting whilst we discussed the finer points, Little Jack suddenly burst into action as if catapulted. No polite warning, not even a paw at the ground or an impatient toss of the head. Trees and ditches whizzed by at a rate of knots, the ground a blur, hoof beats a galloping staccato. There was nothing I could do to slow him, let alone stop. Aware of his personality via Colin’s stories, I knew it would be pretty pointless trying to pull him up. I settled-in for the duration and crouched low over Jack’s neck, quickly deciding that going with the flow was the safest option, although I dreaded meeting someone or something, head-on at such breakneck speed. Worst case scenario would be pedestrians walking in the same direction wearing earpieces, and maybe pushing a double buggy with excitable dogs tied to the handle… but no, the track was mercifully clear. Jack shied at the wooden bench to the right, then shied at a bird taking flight to the left, but motored on relentless, eyes bulging like Bambi’s, ears aerodynamically flat against the side of his pretty head. I could hear the others pounding behind me. Someone shouted my name, asked if I was ok? I yelled in the affirmative but warned whoever it was not to come up too close or God forbid, try to pass me! I was determined to stop Jack before he decided he wanted to stop, and I did just about manage it, using my body weight the second he showed signs of slowing. No harm done and we did laugh on the way home but Little Jack changed his name to Little-Tenna-Lady-Boy for a while.
Longer rides happened in Necwys Forest or sometimes Coed Talon was made into a longer loop by incorporating part of Hope Mountain. The forest was some fifty minutes away but there were plenty of rideable tracks once inside. Colin’s routes always made full use of the forest terrain (until the council saw fit to incorporate several tons of hardcore onto some of the main tributaries, making for an uncomfortably hard surface). To break the long ride back along endless single-track lanes, we’d sometimes take a byway which afforded long, fast canters all the way to the top. Our shaky start forgotten, Kirby soon grew to be my favourite for these excursions. The mare was a different character once out of the school – much like myself – and I found a kindred spirit. A trot so smooth one didn’t even need to rise, a strong canter, brakes. But freedom-wise the beach remained the best place to canter and gallop and Talacre fitted the bill for this. Tacking-up excited horses in a beach car park – amusement arcades and a bingo caller within earshot – is no mean feat. 58, make them wait. I was 58 at the time, and Ginger wasn’t up for much waiting.
On another occasion I rode Tyson the slim coloured cob in exchange for Paddy. Paddy and I didn’t get on. This is what happens with age, one discovers weak areas at the most inopportune times. I’d never ridden Paddy before and horses big in the barrel and sporting a rolling gait, often made me feel insecure in the saddle and put a strain on my lower back. As a result I couldn’t get a handle on this horse at all as he ploughed across the sand and leapt through water inlets, but a kind soul swapped with me and I clambered onto Tyson instead. Thereafter we had a magical, sunlit afternoon; cantering through the surf at the edge of the incoming tide and sending up sprays of seawater over each other. Sliding down deep, soft sand-hills and racing across the rippled sand before heading back towards the lighthouse.
One summer, a group of us headed over to the aforementioned Kelsall Hill Farm Ride. We set off in high spirits, the old horse box lurching along at a leisurely pace with six horses swaying in the back. Kelsall is a slick operation, not as pretty as Mostyn Farm Ride, but the acres of clean space is undeniable. As the smart trailers began to arrive, disgorging immaculate thoroughbreds and hunters for training and exercise, we tacked-up our hairy cobs round the back of the manure-splattered lorry. On unfamiliar ground, the horses were all as high as kites and Tyson lived up to his name. A strong horse, he proved a serious handful at being held back when some of the other riders made use of the cross-country instruction from Sarah. The water splash was fun, no casualties. Then a calm interlude through a wooded area before we got to the wide, beautifully managed grass gallops – where all the horses thought they were in the Grand National. Little Jack, and Sarah’s competition horse ridden by Chinese Chris, fronted the group while Colin, our in-house ex-paramedic, ran behind with the first-aid box. We powered up a hill in a tight group, powered down the other side with a few whoops, then executed a tight left-hand turn which came upon us all too quickly and made for much hilarity. Whilst other, more manicured horses went gracefully about their business, we were a bit like an oversized version of Thelwell. It still makes me smile and it’s a reminder of how important it is to push the walls of our comfort zones from time to time.
But then the inevitable happened when Cae Hic acquired an indoor school, and that old familiar shift kicked-in. After three great years, travelling distance and ride arrangements began to feel inhibitive for the first time. Much like my publishing journey, catering for the non-mass market is hard from both sides of the fence and one has to be ready to take the negatives. There’s always a price to pay for individuality and I’d fallen through a gap in the market yet again, trapped in an equine twilight zone. I wanted what I perceived to be the most simple of disciplines; a willing equine companion and some countryside. I didn’t have the resources or especially want the full commitment which came with owning my own horse, but I wasn’t ready to give up on something I’d loved for over forty years. It was a conundrum which alternated between me fearing I probably should give up, and then feeling depressed that I was about to draw such a permanent line. There was fear too, fear that if I stopped for any length of time at this stage of my life, I’d lose something precious. Not so much physically, but mentally. We all know that learning new things becomes more difficult as time goes on, but confidence is also an especially tricky beast to handle. If you don’t use it, you can lose it. For women, it takes a hit when we become mothers, which I guess is part of our survival mechanism but then it takes another, more complicated hit after the menopause. Physical stuff, too. I hurt my foot in 2015. No, not doing anything even mildly risky or interesting. I was hanging out the washing and slipped backwards off a tiny step. And no, no alcohol had been consumed. I continued to drive to Treuddyn to ride Kirby, then because my foot still felt quite sore after a fortnight, I decided to get it x-rayed. The radiographer told me I’d broken my metatarsal bone and asked what I’d been doing to look after this injury because now it was a displaced fracture. Suitably admonished, I admitted I hadn’t felt the need to do anything, not even the need to take a painkiller. I was strapped into a plaster boot on the spot, and diagnosed with borderline osteoporosis a few months later.
Inevitably a new, whiny voice crept in, reminding me that I do in fact have a limit. I’m fit, but I’m not as agile as I used to be, reactions can be a split-second slower and sometimes, that’s all it takes to hit the ground. But rather than be anxious about breaking bones, I was more scared of being forced to take up knitting or deep-clean the cupboards. A lot of women my age and still riding are either confirmed horse-owners, or happy to join those coffee-morning rides to refresh their skills for an hour once a week in a safe, controlled environment. I can’t yet envisage a time when a safe, controlled environment might appeal to me. So I began the search yet again for the missing piece of the jigsaw. A piece of me. Out of ideas but not of energy or enthusiasm, I looked to my community instead and discovered something which challenged all of my equestrian experience to date. Not only did it present something a bit left-field, but I like to think it also offered me a slice of Karma, too.
Continue Reading: https://janruth.com/2019/04/15/disappearing-dreamscapes-7/
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.