During this week the previous year my phone rang just as I approached Llangelynin Church, a call to inform me that my mother had passed away. I knew the instant it rang. I don’t really believe my mother hovers along with me as I ride through life, saving me from falls on the hillside and keeping my feet in a position of safety at all times, but I do like the idea of it even if only in symbolic terms, because this is exactly what mothers do. And then there was an occasion the previous winter where I actually did lose a stirrup and found it again in the strangest of split-second circumstances, so I feel entitled to the odd whimsical thought during this time of summer rain, rainbows, and humid mist.
Mum was cremated more than 70 miles away, and it’s a place I don’t really wish to revisit for the sake of remembering her as that would feel not only a worthless chore, but insincere. I’m not sure riding to Llangelynin church with a bunch of hedgerow flowers on the anniversary of her passing is especially more apt, because towards the end of her life Mum’s feelings about religion were gradually worn down to an angry indifference. But consecrated places are not always about the constraints of religion. More importantly she loved Wales, and all things flowering, despite her absolute refusal – towards the end – to believe she was ever knowledgeable of plants and once upon a time cherished a large garden. Remembering her at this peaceful, historical spot in the Welsh hills is surely the greatest symbolism of freedom after years of suffering the emotional and mental prison of dementia. Those years when the shadow began to move across her memory until the disease finally swallowed it whole, were the hardest years of all. I realise that collecting flowers on the way to the church whilst astride Storm, might prove problematic. As well as a lot of dismounting I imagine His Lordship might presume I was collecting some of these delicacies on his behalf. So I gathered the bouquet a couple of days before, from the ancient, abundant hedgerows by the church. Before too long I had a small bouquet of natural beauties; Harebells, Foxgloves, Heather, Valerian, Cranesbill, Rosebay Willowherb, Campion; Bracken for greenery, and for fragrance, my own Lavender and Jasmine.
The day of the symbolic gesture – the day I choose to ride to Llangelynin with my bounty – is heavy with low cloud and drizzle. I tie the flowers to the saddle with a length of pink string. Storm is remarkably respectful and gives it only a cursory glance. Undeterred by the worsening weather, we set off at a smart pace, fired by the importance of our quest. On the small rise of Craigfedwen where the landscape would normally roll in front of us for as far as the eye could see, visibility is reduced to a thick wall of mist, and the only sounds are those of muffled bleating. I think about the song my brother and I chose for Mum’s service, by Enya: So I Could Find My Way. Before too long I admit defeat – I genuinely cannot find my way today. The heavens burst wide open and progress across the open mountain is made not impossible, but miserable and uncomfortable. Saturated, I turn for home. The pony gives me some tremendous heart-lifting canters through the wet bracken, raindrops and an array of petals flying in his mane. Does he know? As a symbol of freedom and a nod to the joy of wild Welsh foliage, I reckon we still completed our brief. And I suspect Mum had the last say.
A book to read simply for the joy of the English language! Laurie Lee’s prose is poetic and deeply moving. His pen manages to lend a surreal beauty to everything – including poverty and cruelty – I was mesmerised. Set in 1920’s rural England just after the first world war, this memoir documents the rich, idyllic Cotswold landscape as seen through the eyes of young Laurie Lee, and not simply in physical terms but emotional ones, too. It’s a kaleidoscope of village life; the changing seasons, his family, the fascination and acceptance of death, and the close, always powerful proximity of nature.
It even had me think about my grandparents and wonder at the relationship ties and those of love which bind us and remain the same throughout generations, regardless of circumstance and time. How the perception of events we remember from childhood depends on a multitude of factors, but are instantly recognisable in others. Lush prose and full of character, Cider with Rosie is an intense, vivid glimpse into a slice of timeless village life. Sometimes funny, insightful, or sad, but never seen through rose-tinted spectacles or dressed in sentimentality.
I’ve sped past Gwydir Castle many times and, because it’s local, tend to fall into the trap of thinking I can go anytime I wish. But then one never finds the right time. When a friend lent me Judy Corbett’s book, Castles in the Air – an account of the restoration of Gwydir – I quickly became hooked. And I had to see for myself the result of many years of struggle to bring Gwydir back to medieval life. Passing beyond the boundary wall is stepping back into history, and there’s an instant cloistered atmosphere. The property is described as ‘… an irregularly planned house in late Perpendicular Gothic style with some late 16th century Renaissance detailing. It is of roughly J-shaped plan, constructed of slate-stone blocks with sandstone dressings and slate roofs. Many of the building materials came from Maenan Abbey.’
In 1994 Peter and Judy left London to search for a house to restore. Drawn to North Wales, partly because Judy grew up there and partly down to Hiraeth – the Welsh word for homesickness – there was already a powerful magnet along with an affinity to rain, the mountains, and ancient Welsh history. They discovered a crumbling 16th century stone mansion hovering on the periphery of the flood plains in Llanrwst. Gwydir wasn’t your average ‘doer upper’. Regarded as one of the finest Tudor houses in Wales, the derelict castle was formerly the ancestral home of the powerful Wynn family. Having fallen foul of previous attempts to ‘modernise’ it, the building had lost its majestic identity to a hideous nightclub along with a makeshift recording studio. Despite this, Peter and Judy’s dream of owning such a place had them pursue a sale, and soon they were sharing the marginally less squalid floor space with rats, bats, and a ghost.
The story related by Judy is one of unwavering obsession, and how the sheer size and magnitude of the task they had undertaken almost emotionally and financially defeated them, in part down to a period of ghostly possession in the name of Lady Margaret Cave – the most compelling and convincing account of a haunting I’ve ever read. And this sets a theme for living in Gwydir, where the constantly blurred edge of real and imaginary, past and present, becomes the norm.
In 1921 some of Gwydir’s historic contents – including two panelled rooms – were sold. The Dining Room was purchased by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (of Citizen Kane fame). Hearst was after purchasing historic interiors to furnish his mock castle in California. The fireplaces, panelling and door cases from Gwydir were crated up and shipped to America. In 1995 Judy and Peter discovered Gwydir’s lost Dining Room in a warehouse belonging to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Following lengthy negotiations, they were able to purchase the 17th century panelling, fireplace and door case, and all were finally returned to Gwydir – six tons of it, in fourteen giant packing crates – after a seventy-five-year American exile. I love how Judy describes this homecoming in her book, the way the very essence of Gwydir seemed to fill the air the moment the lids were eased off the crates…
The restored Dining Room wing, with its reinstated panelling and folded leather frieze was opened by HRH Prince Charles in the summer of 1998. The search continues for the Oak Parlour… Inconceivable then that these treasures should be at risk of flooding, and yet the Conwy River is prone to bursting its banks and Gwydir has fallen foul on more than one occasion. But plenty of locals are willing to pitch in and a band of volunteers are helping to build a sandbank wall.
If you’d like to get involved: https://www.facebook.com/GwydirCastle/
Cantering over Canny Hill, Cookie, and the Cartmell Fells.
Who knew we’d need to learn how to tie a boating knot and trust an ex-car mechanic – someone who’d only sat on a horse some three years ago – to escort us on an 80-mile circular trek across Lakeland. I’m always up for an equine adventure, and I was ready to accept that being five foot nothing with short legs and on the wrong side of 60 might carry certain limitations. Or so I thought. I thought I didn’t want a big cob. Physically, big cobs and I don’t always get on. The width and the rolling gait can leave me feeling compromised. No, I wanted a small, slender beast I could manage without assistance. A horse who’d wait patiently outside the pub without feeling the need to untie himself in order to send my hat rolling down a steep bank towards a stream. A horse that didn’t feel considerably taller than 16 hands towards the end of the day, when jumping off onto hard ground felt increasingly perilous on tired legs.
But I got Cookie. The Cookie Monster. The mighty Cookster. My feet dangled somewhere behind his immense shoulders, and his special treeless saddle initially felt as if it offered little in the way of anchoring. My toes nudged the saddlebags slung across his withers; fixed by straps through the girth and balanced out by two bags of hard feed – his substantial lunch. Once up top, I couldn’t even reach the girth straps and his massive head felt an awful long way out in front. This was going to hurt. My riding fitness was mostly based on hacking out a pony belonging to my good friend and travel companion, Sue. Fortunately, thanks to her nursing background Sue possessed impressive medical supplies, including some black-market Voltarol – a potion apparently strong enough to handle the pain of childbirth. It all sounded good until we learnt it could only be administered via suppository. A thoughtful silence descended as we headed out across Canny Hill and up through the forestry at Simpson Ground Plantation. Maybe we’d make do with gin, heat pads, and ibuprofen after all.
Four mature ladies, five days in the saddle. Sue and I were joined by Lydia from Manchester, and Wendy from Virginia. We were following mostly ancient bridleways across the fells, through forests, villages and fords, calling at predestined pubs for lunch and overnight stays. The route would take us along the east side of Windermere as far north as Kentmere, before circuiting both Ambleside and Grassmere across central Lakeland, and then heading back via Conniston and over the top of Walna Scar. Basically, it was a massive pub crawl on horseback, starting with the Hare and Hounds at Bowland Bridge. Cookie had proved himself eminently reliable through the morning and waited patiently for me to untack and tie him to a suitable bit of fence in the car park, before I emptied the saddlebags and tipped up his lunch onto the grass. An hour in the pub for us meant plenty of time for the horses to digest their hard feed. Cookie would invariably be resting one hind leg and snoozing in the sun on my return. Mostly. If any of the horses were going to get tangled in their own lead rope, sit on a car bonnet or get loose, it would be Sue’s Lusitano-cross mare, Gaia. We began to call her Princess Gaia for good reason. Probably more a testament to her fitness, but she didn’t even sweat.
Throughout the morning we’d glimpsed the long shivery stretch of Windermere in the distance from the considerable height afforded by forestry tracks and the open hillside, but the afternoon saw us crossing lower ground as we headed up the valley towards Ings. Cookie felt fortified after his lunch and we picked up the pace with some steady canters through fields and along little-used bridleways. This horse knew where to take on water and how to pace himself, and exhibited the same stoic sensibility whether crossing the deep ford at Winster or trotting along a short stretch of busy road to the next bridleway. We meandered through open pastureland to arrive at Ings by late afternoon. Six hours in the treeless saddle, and although I felt tired I was more relieved to discover that not only was the saddle a good fit for both Cookie and I, the horse was a gentleman to handle.
The horses stayed overnight at an international showjumping yard, and our billet for the night was an old-fashioned guest house run by the lovely Mrs J. Our rooms were an eclectic mix of floral, flock, and frills, a blend of historical styles which stopped somewhere around the seventies. A crocheted mat for every item, a pile of Reader’s Digest circa 1999, china knick-knacks, faux flowers and brass beds, patterned rugs on swirly carpets, snake draught excluders, and the radiator in the hall set to scorch level. It felt reminiscent of visiting Nan as a child or seaside holidays with Mum and Dad. And sharing with Sue took us both back to school trips when mild exhaustion and forbidden drink took the form of giggly hysteria. But then things took a sinister turn when we decided to Google the meaning of the Latin scrolls on the wallpaper. The best we could come up with translated to the iron hand of blackest terror… Safely cocooned in nostalgia, the discovery of this felt mildly disturbing and for some unfathomable reason we thought it might be prudent to check inside the wardrobe. We grabbed a handle each… tugged. It lurched, then suddenly toppled towards us and a hundred mismatched hangers flew out. Trying to push the thing back upright against the wall and replace the innards made a considerable racket. Likewise the litter bin which seemed placed for musical impact rather than practicality, since the lid bashed the party wall with a resounding boom-tish every time the pedal was depressed. Sensing we might already be unpopular with our fellow companions, we retired early to our flowery beds and stifled our inner schoolgirl.
Sticky Toffee Pudding, the Troutbeck Valley, and Trotting On.
Another day promising sun! Mrs J had already taken our breakfast order the previous evening, but lost the list. When it came down to it, any variation on a full English had her in the iron grip of blackest terror; so we all pitched in. By the time Mike arrived in the pickup to collect us and our bags, we’d cleared the table and said a fond farewell to Mrs J. Back at the showjumping yard, we collected the horses from their overnight grazing and began preparations for day two of the trail. A quick groom, a fresh saddle pad (all of them washed at the end of every day) saddle, saddlebags, breastplate, and the halter left on under the bridle for convenience, with the lead rope secured out of the way using Mike’s special boating knot. I loved day two, perhaps because I was already familiar with much of the area, and as we drew closer to central Lakeland the countryside developed into the classic, rolling English countryside the Lake District is famous for, inspiring not only Wordsworth but also Ruskin, Arthur Ransome, and Beatrix Potter. Plenty of sun and a warm breeze kept light cloud scudding across the fells, highlighting miles of drystone walls and some of those iconic Wainwright summits.
Continue the ride: mybook.to/MyLifeinHorses2