Over the Hill: 12

My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park.
P1000024-1‘Exmoor ponies ride like solid 14.2 cobs with a short neck, and once you’ve got over the lack of bonnet upfront, you should have a good ride.’ I thought this quote from an online forum was a fairly accurate description of Storm’s moorland pony heritage. Occasionally, I also get to experience what I imagine it might feel like to sit astride an alarmed alpaca. It begins with slowing to a firm halt, head up, everything on red alert. There’s a widening of the eyes and nostrils, ears pricked, maybe a snort of disbelief. His neck draws in to an almost vertical rigidity and a sense of flight or fight prevails. Any suggestions from me to relax and move forwards meets a wall of indifference. It’s a reaction usually reserved for miniature ponies pulling carts or other works of the Devil such as brass bands, clusters of red toadstools, drones, or donkeys.
Despite the approach of Halloween it was a friendly sort of day, at least to begin with. A dry October morning, golden and windless, enhanced by a low sun in a bright sky. A day made for ambling around the countryside in the manner to which we’ve become accustomed. Simple and natural is always our mantra of the day. Not for us the pressure of competition, a complicated plethora of tack and equipment, or the need for clipping and specialist rugging. His Little Lordship’s fluffy coat is now the colour of beech leaves and aged bracken and by the time we’ve trundled up to the top of Parc Mawr Woods, we’re both warm.
I always walk part of this route as it’s so steep, and at 8 stone I reckon I’m Storm’s top weight when one considers the extra weight of his tack plus my riding clobber. The same equine forum explored rider height and weight restrictions for native ponies and I did feel uncomfortable with the suggestion that someone over 5’ 5” at 10 stone would still be an acceptable passenger. I’m sure lots of small ponies could carry 10 stone for half an hour in an indoor school but maybe unfair to expect that same pony to carry the same weight over hills and dales all day. And one must consider the long-term ramifications, the age and condition of the pony, and the capabilities of the rider. Whilst the rider might be skinny weight-wise, height matters too, especially leg length. Lots of riders with long legs on small horses tend to ride with short stirrups to avoid looking under-horsed but this can push them too far back in the saddle, leaving the poor pony to carry the weight across its loins.
His Little Lordship stops for a long drink on the stone-strewn stream bed up to the old church. On the open hillside there’s a mild breeze and Storm feels ready to canter at every inviting stretch. He shoots up the incline to the roller-coaster path as if propelled by a catapult. We turn left and pass by the lake – distracted then by clear, sparkling views of the Irish Sea and Anglesey’s coastline – before heading into the Pensychnant Estate and meandering down to the Sychnant Pass. A brisk trot between the ancient walls and then we take a right up the long canter track parallel to the road. And then it happens. In this case, an innocent clucking pheasant breaking cover. We are in mid-canter but Storm spooks and throws in a dead stop. Trick, or treat? I almost pitch over his shoulder. But not quite… I’m saved. Saved by my Moorland Alpaca pony, and his amazing pop-up bonnet.

 

Over the Hill: 11

My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park.
P1000024-1A sunny Sunday afternoon and it seems everyone is out and about. Some glide along via immaculate thoroughbreds and smart cobs. Then there’s us – the British comedy version pelting across the grass verges. It’s good to have a sense of humour about these matters, especially when it seems we’re faced with every conceivable hazard from the get-go. Glamorous horses aside, we’re faced with huge, rattling trailers and noisy motorbikes along the Sychnant Pass. But we negotiate these without incident other than a nervous scuttle and a rolling eye, only to round the corner and discover builders throwing slates off a roof into a skip. At the same time we’re faced with a flock of sheep swarming towards us like an arrow-head, herded along the lane by a Land Rover and a couple of loose dogs. screen-shot-2018-11-14-at-10-31-27-pmHis Little Lordship isn’t too concerned by all the extra curricular activity, but Her Little Ladyship is easily offended and Sue decides to take her up onto the adjacent grassy slope. Of course the situation isn’t directly comparable, but our chatter reminds me of the French and Saunders horse-riding episode where they do battle with the loves of their lives; Peter Pan, and Jigsaw. French is the middle-class girl, the classic all-the-gear-and-no-idea rider, and Saunders is the ubiquitous farm-girl, a length of binder twine holding her coat together. But it’s the endless, breathless commentary that makes me laugh.
She was frightened of something there, wasn’t she? Come on, Peter Pan, you can do it…
As we meander past the tabernacle, Sunday service is resumed to the point of foraging as we go. Blackberries for us, anything going for Peter Pan and Jigsaw. The previous ride in this direction was incredibly windy and His Lordship and I were severely pelted by hazelnuts and acorns, but today it is positively serene with just a golden hint to the trees against an azure sky. We begin the climb up to the sheep-pens above Henryd, where the single-track lane gives way to the open hillside, and then we’re on the grassy tracks of Tal Y Fan. We test Peter Pan and Jigsaw’s brakes with a short canter and suitably reassured, we head up over the track we call the roller-coaster. As the name might suggest, the undulations here can sometimes stretch the definition of fun.
A couple of wild Carneddau ponies lift their heads in mild interest as we set off at a brisk canter. We take a left past the silvery pond, hitch open the old iron gate and enter the estate. Pensychnant are re-wilding one of their hay meadows alongside the Pass, and a band of helpers are busy scattering hay. Traditionally, upland farmers in Wales always had a fenced-off wildflower meadow. They called it the hospital field – essentially using the herbs it contained as medication. The preparation looks hard work but what a wonderful sight it will be once established. We pause to offer an encouraging wave but Peter Pan and Jigsaw are in sight and smell of home ground, and are more than ready to pelt back across the naughty grass. The aforementioned fly-tipped bags are still in situ and Her Little ladyship balks at the plastic monsters lurking in the undergrowth. But much like Peter Pan it seems equine chivalry hasn’t aged one little bit, and His Lordship bravely takes the lead.
Come on Peter Pan, you can do it… the British Team are depending on us!

Over the Hill: 9

My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park. 
P1000024-1A 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!

 

Over the Hill: 5

My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park.
P1000024-1Summer 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.
38218251_2002084286483178_3871159813224267776_nThe 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.
P1000311Along 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.

 

The Lakes Trail, Bigland Hall Equine, Cumbria 2019

Day One

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

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

Day Two

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

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

Day Three

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

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

Day Four

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

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

Day Five

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

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

Useful Links:

http://biglandhall.com/

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

RDA: Our Conwy Community Collage

Proving that the power of community spirit can change lives…

44821228_1962430440507923_5440474218175135744_o2019 will see the 50th anniversary of Riding for the Disabled and by way of celebration a campaign called 50 Faces will comprise 50 portrait photographs of people within the entire UK organisation who have challenged the perceptions of disability, volunteering, or equestrian sport. More on the project here: http://www.rda.org.uk/rda-seeks-50-faces-for-anniversary-project/

In small, relatively unknown RDA communities across the country, there will be more than one face who qualifies for inclusion but of course, not everyone will make the final 50, so it seems an appropriate time and place to bang our own small but very significant drum here in the wild Welsh hills of Henryd, Conwy, North Wales. We’ve created our own special collage: an acknowledgement of each and every individual, including our riders, all the volunteers, the teaching staff and of course, the horses.

Conwy Community Riding Centre. The team of horses – loaned and managed by head instructor Wendy Tobias-Jones at Conwy Community Riding Centre – are of course, key to the entire operation. The mental and physical benefits of horse-riding are far-reaching and it would be impossible to list all the attributes here. And it’s not all about winning rosettes and the more obvious success stories – although there have been plenty of those too, with some of our disabled riders reaching both the regional and national finals in dressage –  it can be as simple as participating in something which provides a broader scope for less inward thinking. For some riders their enjoyment can simply be down to enjoying close proximity to the horses and perhaps feeling more aware of the environment. It’s no secret that the companionship of a horse can engage the senses and heighten a feeling of wellbeing in both able-bodied and disabled riders. And for the latter, the physiological affects are doubly beneficial purely by encouraging a different range of movement.

Conwy Community CollageFounder Member of our RDA group Liz Futyan, herself the parent of a disabled daughter, is our longest-serving member. She is currently the safeguarding officer as well as organising many yearly holidays; often taking on all the catering requirements herself (I can vouch for her goat’s cheese tart – in fact, I did hear that one child thought the food was the best part of the holiday. Sorry horses, you’ll have to try harder!)

“I have been involved with RDA since 1985. All the local groups have merged from that period into the present Conwy Gogarth, ” explains Liz.

IMG_4806“There were originally two groups. I started an RDA Group for the children of Ysgol Wern y Wylan, where my daughter Hannah went to school and where I worked as a physio. Hannah was already riding at Bwlch Mawr, where Wendy Tobias-Jones ran a pony club. She loved riding there and I was very keen to get other children with learning disabilities to learn to ride, so I started the Wern y Wylan Group at Glanwyddan. There was already a group there for physically disabled from Ysgol Gogarth which diminished as the disabled moved into standard schools, and Ysgol Wern y Wylan moved into the present school amalgamate with Ysgol Gogarth (and I moved my job into Ysgol Gogarth too) and our corresponding RDA groups also merged. The West Clwyd Group was for adults and that was started at Pinewood, and later changed the name to the Aberconwy Group. When Pinewood closed, we merged the two groups to form the Conwy Gogarth Group we have today at Tanrallt Farm with Wendy Tobias-Jones.”

Do you remember any of the previous groups? Have photos and stories to share? Send them to our Facebook page! 

Volunteer! Our workforce is always busiest behind the scenes. Prue Timperly (Conwy RDA charity shop), Carol Moore (secretary, charity shop-shifter and master cake-baker), Peter Davies (permanent loan of a horse to the group and horsebox transport as and when required), Kerri Rockey (Chair trustee), and many, many more. Several volunteers return each week to brave the Welsh weather in order to prepare the horses for lessons, keep the muck heap in good order, and make the tea. Without this network, the RDA wouldn’t exist in Conwy. We work on very limited funds and rely heavily on volunteers – allowing local disabled riders to experience something that would normally be out of their reach, mostly down to the strict health and safety limitations of ordinary riding schools – lots of them now closed due to spiralling insurance premiums and the very real dangers of riding along the roads – and the significant difference in costs.

So although our collage is a special thank you to our local community, it’s also a shout-out to you. If you have a skill set you’d like to share – general dogsbody abilities always welcome. Fundraising would be most desirable and would likely earn celebrity status and extra cake – or, if you know someone who might benefit from riding with us, please get in touch.

https://www.facebook.com/conwygogarthrda/

 

 

 

Write Your Own Story

3d4ee1db5d3591084c1f57bf8a1bf37d_cool-drawing-idea-drawing-random-shapes-and-colors-coming-out-of-thought-drawing-ideas_498-700Where do ideas come from? Even if I tell myself I’m done with writing for a while – and I do, frequently – something will eventually worm its way out of my subconscious. This mutation of daydreaming is often coupled with observations of other people and happenings in their lives, as well as my own, until eventually all of these considerations are pulled together and mulled over, like some sort of fictional tombola. And for me, it’s those personal stories which add an extra layer of reality to a work of fiction. Write what you know is all about understanding your subject thoroughly, and preferably having experienced some of it first-hand.

I’ve been working with disabled people through my local RDA (Riding for the Disabled) for some eighteen months. Then earlier this year I was offered the opportunity to train as an assistant to a therapist working for WITH (Welsh Institute of Therapeutic Horsemanship). This is all about people with mental health problems, and the astonishing success of equine therapy relies purely upon the interactions between people and horses. I hope my modest experience adds a touch of reality and richness to the story of Gift Horse.

Unique-horse-assistedOf course, I’ve touched on horse-whispering techniques, therapies, and mental health issues in the Midnight Sky series, and part of Gift Horse is a natural continuation of that theme, one which this time connects more directly to my main character. Caroline is a product of her sheltered upbringing. In direct contrast her flat-mate, Niamh, is part of a loud, sprawling Irish family – including the gorgeous but licentious Rory O’Connor; Caroline’s nemesis. Unfortunately, Caroline is intent on pleasing everyone except herself, and there’s a price to pay…

Gift Horse is a contemporary time-slip novel about the choices women make, the healing power of horses, and the devastating consequences of human error.

silhouette-1992390_960_720I tend not to plan too much, other than factual things like dates, and timelines. And I don’t have a messy desk with endless notes stuck to my screen or big notebooks overflowing with complicated scribblings. What I do have is a good instinct for the order of things. I think this comes from reading a lot of good fiction and learning why and how something works; what to hold back, when to reveal, how much to tell, what to show, which scene works best as dialogue, or narrative. This balance will be slightly different for every writer, the literary stamp of personal style?

If there’s a parallel to be drawn between trying to break into commercial publishing and staying true to myself as a writer, then for me it’s the creative freedom to write the books I want to write. So many mainstream books are all following the same trend, and some of them feel like different versions of the same book! This might sound a bit like sour grapes, but I prefer to let a story grow and mature until it’s ready to be picked from the vine, and there’s a tremendous satisfaction in penning a story which is unique to me. 

‘Ruth digs up the bones of what really matters to the human psyche and Gift Horse is no exception.’ John Hudspith, Independent Editor.

Gift Horse Cover MEDIUM WEBImagine living eighteen years of your life around a mistake…
Caroline Walker’s daughter suffers a horrific riding accident. Her distraught parents wonder if she’ll ever walk again, let alone ride. And when Mollie’s blood group is discovered as rare, her husband offers to donate blood. Except Ian is not a match. In fact, it’s unlikely he’s Mollie’s father.

Eighteen years previously, Caroline had a one-night stand with Irish rock star, Rory O’Connor. Caroline fell pregnant. Deeply flawed boyfriend, Ian, was overjoyed. And Caroline’s parents were simply grateful that their daughter was to marry into the rich, influential Walker family.

Caroline turns to Rory’s friend Connor; and although his almost spiritual connection with his horses appears to be the balm she needs, Caroline cannot forget Rory, or her youth – both lost to a man she never loved. Eighteen years on and after surviving cancer Rory lives as a virtual recluse in the Welsh mountains. Through his well-meaning but interfering sister, he is shocked to discover he has a teenage daughter. Or does he?

Someone has made a terrible mistake… someone is going to get hurt…

mybook.to/GiftHorseJANRUTH