Continuing memories and reflections of an equine obsession 1968-2018.
Chapter 3: Autumn
Higher House, Mottram-St-Andrew, Alderley Edge. Shorter, darker days meant woodsmoke and bonfires, drifts of leaves, bottled damsons in the farmhouse, and a bite to the air. Clay-pigeon shoots; and the horses would be momentarily startled into a dead-stop, heads thrown up, ears pricked, nostrils wide. Or they chose to dance and prance, crab-like, snorting. Being a densely wooded area, Alderley Edge was especially spectacular through the autumn and my hours in the saddle tended to increase once the school holidays came to a close.
Grey Filly’s pale coat was good for dark days, not so good in a mist. Although I didn’t go out of my way to ride on the roads, I never really worried about traffic and our visibility. Sometimes we’d head up Mottram Road towards Alderley village before taking a tight left into Swiss Hill; a narrow, cobbled lane winding some 200 feet uphill between a variety of individual properties. Some of them, like Frog Palace, were positively mansion-like. Looking at recent footage on YouTube, this tough ascent seems to have become a rite of passage for local cyclists, despite it being cluttered with parked cars at the top; something I never encountered back then. This conservation area used to be a haven of Sunday solitude, like most country lanes. At the top, I’d turn onto the main B road, the mare blowing slightly by then, with The Edge and our off-roading playground less than a mile away. The main Macclesfield Road out of Alderley village was perhaps the busiest section on this circuit, but I never ran into a problem. The increased volume and speed of traffic along the B5087 now is not something I’d care to experience on the back of a horse, and Sundays have become like every other day of the week – busy.
I began to read the Poldark series by Winston Graham and then, looking for something lighter, enjoyed the early books by James Herriot. Although Herriot’s books were set in an era before my time, I felt a deep wistfulness for the freedoms and values Herriot’s way of life represented. Herriot used his own life experiences in the books, adding a rich believability to the narrative, something I like to try and do with my own material. In contrast to the plain honesty of Herriot’s easy style, Jilly Cooper’s Riders hit the shelves in 1985. My copy had the modest show jumper on the cover. Novels containing this much sex are everywhere now, although the BDSM culture has overtaken Cooper’s original handsome, controlling male character: the infamous Rupert Campbell Black. Of course, commercial publishing is all about money and this book has sported a few different covers to reflect the times. Curiously, on Riders 30th anniversary edition in 2015, the hand on the female behind was moved higher, but you can also see more of the riding crop – a shameless and unnecessary nod to Fifty Shades?
In the mid-seventies I also rode with a yard attached to a place I only remember as Montebello, at Bucklow Hill, Knutsford. Some of the characters wouldn’t have been out of place in a Jilly Cooper novel. The property was a rambling, crenelated building up against Chester Road. Some of the livery owners allowed their horses to be hired out by individuals like me, no doubt as a way of keeping their horses fit for late autumn-winter hunting fixtures, taking full advantage of 2,000 acres of nearby parkland at Tatton Hall. The riding was fairly reckless when I think about it now, but then, I simply viewed it as a super-charged adrenalin run, and every man – or woman – for themselves. We’d set out from the yard on a selection of pumped-up, grain-fed horses who’d likely been stood-in for a few days. Champing at the bit took on a whole new meaning. Crossing the Chester Road would be unthinkable now, but the traffic actually stopped for us. We’d continue along quiet country lanes through picturesque Rostherne village to arrive at the main entrance to Tatton Park, with fully warmed-up horses, raring to go. Basically, we galloped from the Rostherne gates to the Knutsford gates, and the pace was furious from the off. Within seconds we were at a flat-out gallop between a wide avenue of beech trees on a beautifully firm surface which felt tailer-made for the experience. During late autumn these trees were vivid with colour, the horse-chestnut trees always the first to surrender to cooler temperatures. Rapidly swirling leaves and the sounds of rutting stags added to the charged atmosphere.
Only once did I feel out of my depth on one of these rides and the perpetrator was a stocky, dun-coloured horse called Shadrack. Ridden in a cross-over noseband and a pretty severe bit, I should have spotted the warning signs early on. After a mile or so, the avenue of trees end and the parkland opens up to herds of red and fallow deer, huge lakes called meres, botanical gardens, families walking dogs, uneven ground. All of this flashed by at breakneck speed. Galloping is one thing, experiencing a brake fail when the ground begins to veer downhill, is quite another. Shadrack must have bolted with me for at least a mile – I even considered throwing myself off – until I faced him towards Tattonhall Mere, where he bounced to a reluctant canter before finally stopping, snorting like a dragon and pawing the ground. No one came to my rescue.
Despite the romanticism of the famous Tudor hall in the distance, not a single hero materialised. There was nothing for it but to pull up my big girl pants and carry on. My arms felt like they’d been wrenched out of their sockets from holding this horse steady for an hour, the reins slick with sweat. How we managed to find the other riders was a miracle, but we did. And we both survived intact, eventually locating the rest of the party under the trees by the Knutsford gate enjoying a cigarette break and gossiping about Cheshire life. After an additional ten-minute breather – presumably for my benefit – we galloped the two-and-a-half miles back to the Rostherne gate. Shadrack, a pure galloping machine, easily kept pace with the thoroughbreds and the bigger hunters, and I could have been a sack of spuds for all the difference I effected in the saddle. I tried to take heart in the belief that certain horses come into our lives at certain times for a reason. Shadrack certainly taught me how to dig deep, and as I’ve reiterated before, there’s always more to be gained from those horses who defeat us one way or another, or test our resolve.
Although Montebello is no longer in operation, horse riding is still permitted in the park, although galloping is now prohibited.
Before any galloping fun was stopped, I had occasion to ride another headstrong beast in the park, this time with Tatton Hall Stables. The yard was situated on site and within the park boundaries, so no roads to cross. As part of my ten-year-old son’s riding experience in the mid-nineties he joined a small group of intermediate riders to sample riding across open countryside. Satisfied his quiet pony was suitable, I left them to it. My husband (the improved, second draft) and I, donned walking boots and followed the second party of riders – the advanced group. I did fight a certain measure of nostalgia following in their wake on foot, but I reminded myself how rusty my riding skills were, having ridden considerably less through the nineties as family and financial commitments had combined together to temporarily defeat me. The group of maybe five riders cantered ahead in single file, skirting a large field as a warm-up. A horse in the middle of this group let fly with a playful buck and raced up to the front of the line, unseating his rider easily. There was a commotion at this and since we were on hand to help, my husband and I became drawn in.
The fallen rider wanted to limp back to the yard and I offered to accompany her and lead the horse. But then someone suggested I actually get on the horse and join the ride. Never one to turn down an opportunity, I borrowed a hat, and received an energetic leg-up onboard. Straight away, I knew this horse and I were probably at odds with our level of strength and fitness. The hat was too big and my walking boots were not the best thing to ride in. When I understood we’d be jumping, I was a bit less sure about how things might pan out, but I ignored husband’s rolling eyes and adjusted my stirrups accordingly. Memories of Shadrack popped into my mind but then so did all the other glorious rides in the park which had happened without incident. Fortunately, this horse seemed to know his job well enough and we flew over several fallen tree trunks at a strong gallop without me putting too much guidance in. These tree trunks were big, in girth as well as height but the horse had a humungous leap and we gained ground very quickly. Barging past some of the other riders isn’t the safest thing to do, and I spent much of the first twenty minutes shouting apologies to the left and right. Initially, it felt pointless and possibly fatal to fight my equine partners’ enthusiasm for running with the ‘herd’ but once he realised I wasn’t going to hold him in too tight, or, God forbid, hold him back, the horse settled down and even began to listen to his pilot. We remained friends, and both of us stayed in one piece for the duration of the ride.
I guess riding in the park back then was comparable to the thrill of the hunt – but without the dogs, or a fox. Prior to the ban hounds only contributed to the deaths of 6.3% of the 400,000 foxes killed annually. Foxes will always be shot in rural areas by farmers to keep the numbers under control, since they have no natural predators. Shooting a fox is notoriously difficult and not always a clean kill. Our desire for free-range and organically reared chickens and other birds, is severely compromised by Mr Fox. I have friends with small holdings who struggle with these issues and see no alternative but to shoot those foxes who consistently come onto their land and are quite capable of killing up to thirty or more birds in one fell swoop.
Conflict between fox hunting and saboteurs has grown in violence – and there’s been ugliness on both sides – at times directed just as aggressively towards the horses and hounds as much as the riders. This is often out of context as to what is actually happening. Often, these meets are drag hunts ie: no fox, merely an artificial scented trail. Obviously, ‘accidents’ do happen if hounds come across a live fox and I’m sure this woolly boundary is probably exploited. For the vast majority of modern rural communities, the hunt is a social day out. It’s about the challenge of riding across countryside normally denied, since farmers will only open up land to allow fox hunting, and for no other reason. This access to open land is more of a big deal than non-riders might appreciate, especially in modern times. I’m a bit of a sucker for tradition, and I admit to enjoying the historical pageantry of it all, but the idea that people who ride to hounds are bloodthirsty ‘toffs’ lends significant fuel to the theory that the surrounding conflict is often about a class war. Some saboteurs don’t seem to be nearly so worried about the shooting or snaring of foxes, and yet the sight of a group of well-turned out horses and riders nearly always evokes an extreme reaction. So, although I don’t especially like fox hunting per se, I have to balance it with the viable alternatives, and how communities exist in rural areas. Those who are interested in farming, horses, and country life do feel increasingly ostracised in our urbanised world. A world which understands less and less about farming and food production. For the most part, fox hunting is well down on my personal list of animal welfare concerns. I feel more aggrieved about the transportation of live animals, what goes on in some abattoirs, and the production of halal meat, veal, and pate.
I came across a couple of opportunities to participate in drag hunting through the eighties but it never came about due to a combination of foul weather and the right horse never being available for hire. Then, bad news around 1983 when access onto my beloved hacking-out area, The Edge, was denied to horses. After some ten years this news was a terrible, terrible blow. Undefeated, friends and I began to travel fortnightly to the aforementioned Glyn Ceiriog in North Wales: a 130 mile round trip to the Welsh hills or when I could afford it, an even bigger trip to Ferniehirst Mill in the Cheviots. Since the hacking in both these places was so good, it went some way to appeasing the disappointment over the local riding ban on The Edge, despite the distances involved. It also had me elicit something of a U turn on my avoidance of indoor schools because in 1985 not only was the situation becoming Hobson’s Choice, but I suddenly decided to consolidate my random riding experiences and begin training towards the BHS (British Horse Society) exams. The exams covered care and handling as well as riding to a standard recognised by the BHS.
Practice of the riding element happened during the evening after work at B1st Riding School, Higher Fold Farm, Windlehurst Road, High Lane, Stockport, where I rode Kestrel. This funny little horse wouldn’t have won any shows for looks or conformation but he could complete a tight, indoor jumping course like a gazelle, and he taught me the finer points of balance and control – without relying on stirrups. It’s easy to underestimate the technical and physical effort that goes into riding a perfect circle at working trot without stirrups; let alone the precision and discipline of the most basic dressage test. It’s a brave and foolish man who thinks the horse does all the work! Back then, I don’t think we even described it as dressage, it was simply advanced riding or schooling. I learnt the basics; shoulder-in, leg-yielding, extending and collecting paces through trot and canter, and how to canter a 4-loop-serpentine – to a reasonable standard. To perform classical dressage it used to be assumed one needed a suitably supple and responsive, classical sort of horse but the boundaries have softened over the years and this discipline has become more accessible, which is a good thing. And although some of these exercises might seem nonsensical to the uniformed, they do demonstrate how important it is to get the basics right first before going on to bigger things.
And in truth, a turn-on-the-forehand, reining-back, or a nifty leg-yield (lateral movement) is an everyday occurrence when riding out and about, for example, when passing through a gate. Ah, the power of gates and the joy of spotting a rider-friendly handle! Some gates are in the downright awkward category with not a chance of getting through them safely – regardless of reasonable riding skills and a calm, helpful horse – without dismounting. A particular ‘favourite’ of mine collapses the second one slides the bolt back. Lifting this heavy metal contraption to open it wide enough to pass through, also happens to take down half the barbed-wire fencing to one side. And then once through, it’s necessary to repeat the entire farce in reverse and rebuild the damned thing. Not an easy manoeuvre with a horse in tow, reins looped over one arm.
Some of my training also took place at the Manchester BHS exam centre at Carrington Riding Centre, Nursery Farm, Isherwood Road. I acquired a second-hand copy of The Manual of Horsemanship… You will be assessed in your competence to ride a variety of school horses showing walk, trot and canter, change of direction and correct pace through all school movements. You will be able to show an understanding of respecting other users while applying aids to work the horse. You’ll be able to ride outside in an open space, jump single fences and a small course. You will be starting to evaluate your own riding and the way the horse goes both in flatwork and jumping…
I found all of the elements well within my capabilities. My only concern was jumping the previously unseen course at the end of the day. It wasn’t something I’d had the opportunity to practise much, and I worried about remembering the order because the examiner only gave us this information once. I made it my business to watch the other candidates and pray I didn’t get picked to go first. There were eight pool horses for the exam, a couple of them I knew from training sessions such as the handsome warmblood, Tulsar, and the lovely sparky Sunshine, but we weren’t allowed to pick and choose our partners in crime – we had to draw straws. Somehow, I knew I’d get the one and only big stubborn Dobbin – and I did. When my turn came to ride the heavy cob, I gave up trying to get a warm-up canter out of him and decided to go for an energetic trot instead. We managed a trot of sorts, but I can’t honestly say we achieved much in the way of lightness and forward movement! The three British Horse Society judges watched from behind the paddock fence, po-faced, clipboards in hand while the cob huffed and puffed towards the first obstacle. He bunny-hopped awkwardly over it, and I knew I had to get tough if I wanted to complete the course in reasonable time, so I resorted to growling at him, and then by fence three had to give him a hefty whack with the crop. By then, I imagined my lack of style and my less than eloquent vocal ‘encouragements’ had amassed so many negative points I was a sitting duck to fail.
Somehow, we finished the course without a refusal, or without demolishing anything. At the finish one of the judges actually broke into a grin and slow-clapped. At first I couldn’t decide if she was being facetious, but she shook my hand and told me well done for persevering. So I passed all the required elements and received certificates for Grades One and Two. I even began training for Grade Three, which would have opened up possibilities of becoming a BHS AI (Assistant Instructor). But then, somewhere along the way I lost interest, partly down to facing some facts as an adult with a mortgage and coming to realise that the financial prospects for working with horses remained pitifully low. And, if I was really honest, my dreamscape remained one of cantering into the wind with a map stuffed in my pocket, and with no one passing comment on my leg position. And then, the following year I was excited to discover another development – I was expecting a baby.
So… no more riding for me?
Continue reading: https://janruth.com/2019/03/02/disappearing-dreamscapes-4/
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 2: Summer
Higher House, Mottram-St-Andrew, Alderley Edge, Cheshire. During the summer, or when Dad moaned about his car never being available, I would cycle the seven miles or so to Dawson’s and ride for two-and-a-half hours, before cycling home again. This was never a hardship. I’d set off around 7.30 in the morning, beating the heavy traffic (or what we used to perceive as the rush-hour) around the suburbs, before arriving on the outskirts of Mottram-St-Andrew. This wouldn’t be a pleasant experience now, but in the seventies and early eighties, these country lanes were mostly empty. I’d be leaving the yard by 9. a.m. and trotting up towards The Edge. Grey Filly, a favourite, may have been one of Mary’s failed racehorses. Her strides were long and powerful, as one might expect but she never gave me cause for concern, even when we cantered along the flat stretches around the sand hills and up through Windmill Woods, or across the top of The Edge, where she could easily have got the better of me. Although I enjoyed all the early Dick Francis novels, I never cared for horse-racing or anything mildly competitive. I tended to shy away from gymkhanas as a child and became bored and restless if I had to ride in an indoor school for longer than half an hour. I much preferred – still do – to spend all day happily bumbling round the countryside. I liked to think Grey Filly agreed with me.
Early summer and the cottage gardens were ablaze with colour, Bradford Lane shining like a snake where the sunlight caught wet cobbles from an earlier shower. The first cuts of hay stacked beneath old barns, hedgerows laced with wild flowers. The rhythmic nod of Filly’s head, and the four-time beat of her hooves. The long flick of her tail, the creak of the saddle, and the distant drone of farm machinery. Then slow cantering, the ground too hard to gallop, the unclipped mare too hot to care; clouds of dust in our wake. We cooled off beneath the trees on The Edge and ambled to Stormy Point to take in the view. An artist, perched on a rock with a sketch pad. The sound of summer: a cuckoo, plaintive and repetitive. Rising heat obscured the distant scenery other than Jodrell Bank observatory, lying on the horizon like a giant’s discarded spinning top.
The Edge is a red sandstone escarpment rising above the village of Alderley Edge, 110 metres above the Cheshire Plain, and shares an uncanny resemblance to Nutwood, although I read that much of Rupert’s landscape was inspired by the Vale of Clwyd. The northern side of the Edge is shaped like a horseshoe or hough (pronounced huff, and appropriately, this also happens to be my maiden name). The red colour of the rocks is due to the presence of oxidised iron. It’s mostly a woodland area, owned and managed by the National Trust, and a site of geological interest spanning back to the Triassic period – that’s 250 million years ago. Shrouded in folklore and history, there’s magic in this place. It’s well known for inspiring Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (based on the legend about a wizard, a milk-white mare, and a farmer from Mobberley) and The Moon of Gomrath. I think I probably drew a lot of early inspiration from the area myself although I didn’t begin to write novels until much later, and never fantasy. But in hindsight I can see how my love of landscape, and character, has evolved from some of these experiences. I began to pen stories and describe my rides in diary form. My English teacher would encourage me to enter competitions, and then at secondary school I made it to the finals of the East Cheshire Books for the Children Essay Competition. My prize was a signed book from author Joyce Stranger. Stranger claimed that most children’s books about the countryside were inaccurate, too sentimental, and humanised animals in an unrealistic way. Back then I didn’t realise quite how much I would come to agree with this statement, not only in fictional terms but in other areas of my life, especially concerning horses.
High summer, through July and August, tends to be my least favourite time of the year to ride. Heat, humidity, and an increase in traffic and flies doesn’t combine well with horses. And then there’s the school holidays… Since Surprise couldn’t be trusted in fancy dress, and since he tended to misbehave around children, Nicola and I were always allocated this fiery, headstrong horse for riding out while Mari, the head girl, supervised activities on the yard. I enjoyed Surprise, and he did have a few. Suddenly moving backwards at speed into thick shrubbery – was one of his less desirable traits, and I always made sure I carried a short crop in case I needed to remind him that this wasn’t such a great idea. We often rode the brothers together – Victor and Surprise – and like most brothers they could be competitive when it came to open ground. There was a cinder track by the sand hills which Nicola and I liked to frequent. We’d amble down then turn at the dead end – horses barely restrained as they knew full well what our intention was – and then we’d race back, hopefully executing the tight left-hand turn without incident, before plunging through Windmill Woods where the track was only wide enough for one horse. It might sound as if we were forever galloping about irresponsibly, but it’s always the exciting bits one remembers. We took care to always have a long cool-off on the homeward journey, and we never returned with a sweated-up horse. Over the course of ten years, nothing untoward happened.
Grey Filly, Skippy, Surprise, Carousel, Fernando, Victor, Herbie, Romany, Babysham, Pepsi, Jason… All of the horses were forward-going, never bolted, rode out solo, rode in a group in any combination, and tolerated the school holidays. On our return to the yard that day we discovered Skippy draped with a white bedsheet, a pair of makeshift wings somehow attached to his flanks with string and Sellotape. Carousel sported hairnets and curlers in her mane and tail and Grey Filly was backed by an Indian chief, her tack whittled down to a single length of rope. Babysham pulled a flimsy looking chariot made of orange boxes. This procession wound its way along the road to the place of judgement in the paddock, wings flapping, curlers bobbing, the chariot threatening to part company at any second. These horses were fit. Of the finer types, their ribs were often visible, just. Comparing my old photos with current times, evidence of our national problem with obesity now applies to many of our horses and ponies too, especially show ponies. A horse-trekking business in Dartmoor is having to close, in part because riders are getting too fat. It comes after a study by the Animal Health Trust into the impact of riders being too heavy to ride. Numbers of people turned away from Babeny Farm on Dartmoor because of weight restrictions, has increased by about 30%. Nowadays, this is a common problem for riding schools. Weight restrictions used to be unheard of, now it’s the norm. It also explains the popularity of riding ‘heavy’ horses: the Clydesdales and the Shires, those old-fashioned breeds originally bred to harness for ploughing and other weight-pulling tasks. These horses are obviously up to carrying more weight than the average riding horse and although this is good news for our old breeds under threat of dying out, the overall message is worrying.
I don’t ever recall feeling concerned about the weight-carrying ratio between horses and riders, not even during holiday times at trekking centres. Blackpool was a popular day trip when I was learning to drive, or if Dad had acquired a new second-hand car and wanted a test run. A couple of times we’d end up at The Lido Riding School, somewhere not too far from Blackpool centre, although I can’t imagine where this may have been located. It certainly wasn’t surrounded by any green fields but I remember riding along bridleways on the outskirts of Blackpool, the rattle of the rollercoasters from Blackpool Pleasure Beach still in earshot. Chico, the skewbald thoroughbred-cross was pretty fleet of foot on the beach, where we could gallop on the hard sand at low tide, away from the crowds. Riding on the beach at Blackpool is banned now during the summer months between the piers.
More beach rides, but longer and more picturesque, happened in North Wales. My most influential long-standing love affair with riding on holiday was with Pinewood Stables, Sychnant Pass, Conwy. My parents loved North Wales, and as a young teen my discovery of the Welsh countryside took over my holiday dreamscape through the early seventies and beyond. Conwy Mountain, the beach, and the foothills of Tal Y Fan had limitless possibilities for adventure. This was down to the open accessibility of the hills and beaches. The terrain was far more challenging than Cheshire with its gentle woodland paths and sandstone trails. In comparison, the Carneddau rose like a vast, crumpled carpet of rock, heather and stone. And there was miles of it – reaching far into the rugged national park of Snowdonia. It was pony-trekking heaven, and although that wasn’t my bag, Pinewood organised more ambitious rides for those above novice level. Anything too finely bred or those horses with poor feet would struggle on such flinty tracks and unexpected bogs. Cobs and ponies fared best, and Pinewood had around 40 of them in their heyday. I’d invariably get dropped off there while Mum and Dad did their own thing. There were arguments though when I wanted to ride and Dad wouldn’t drive to Conwy again. This was before the estuary tunnel which opened in 1991 and completely bypassed the centre of town – before which the queues of traffic through Conwy were legendary. When Dad put his foot down, I would sulk and sit it out with another Dick Francis or a Jilly Cooper or, inspired by the Welsh castles maybe a Gothic romance by Victoria Holt. I had favourites at Pinewood and of course they changed from year to year. I especially remember Lady, and Sinbad, both greys. Sinbad was always ridden in a Hackamore (bitless bridle) and he wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I loved his jousting-style bursts into action. He had a sizeable dent in his neck down to a collision with a car, and I seem to remember he shared some historical association with Gwrych Castle. Maybe he’d belonged to one of the legendary Gwrych knights!
I did go to watch the jousting when the castle was still open to the public through the seventies and early eighties, operating as a tourist attraction for medieval re-enactments. In 1946, the castle was purchased by Leslie Salts, who opened it up to tourists as a medieval entertainment centre featuring jousting and banquets. After a run of almost 40 years, the castle then entered a period of slow decline leading to the entire site closing in 1985. New Age travellers moved in and gradually, the castle was asset-stripped and vandalised. Thereafter, it stood as a ruin for a good few years; but then Mark Baker happened. Baker passed the castle every day on his way to school and decided that he was going to fight to restore it. And he did just that, going on to found the Gwrych Castle Preservation Trust, at the age of 12. The castle was finally purchased by the Trust in 2001 – on behalf of the nation. It might sound like a fairy tale, but Baker made his dream become a reality and restorations have already made inroads, restoring the impressive Gardener’s Tower and lighting the stove and the main fireplace for the first time in 100 years. Reading Baker’s biography and the historical works he went on to write, it was interesting to note that once upon a time we shared the same Welsh publisher. (An era of publishing history I’d rather leave behind!) Gwrych has an increasingly strong atmospheric presence thanks to Baker. Walking through the woods which border the emerging castle grounds, it’s not difficult to imagine how life might have been 100 years ago. More horses, certainly.
In the mid-seventies, Barbara and I booked a week of riding at the Tarn Hows Hotel, Hawkshead, Cumbria. We shared a twin-bedded room above the stables, although breakfast and dinner was provided for in the main hotel and I can still recall the five-star meals, none of them representative of standard riding holiday fodder. I suspect we possibly ate our own body weight in smoked salmon and raspberry bavarois. The rest of the time I was partnered with a native black Fell pony called Heather, and sometimes Goldie the palomino. Barbara always rode Foxy. On the downside, the actual riding was a little sedate, perhaps more akin to pony trekking – but the countryside was stunning. Cumbria, home to Beatrix Potter, famous for the Wainwright fell tops and loved for its quintessential English villages, also has its fair share of hauntingly beautiful, desolate places. We’d stop at a predestined pub for lunch, tying up the ponies in the pub car park and crowding round the picnic tables with pints of shandy, before heading up onto the fells – riding for full days through Grizedale Forest, to Conniston, Tarn Hows, and beyond.
The hills were baked brown through the legendary heatwaves of ’76 and ’77 and at the end of each day we’d discard our riding gear in order to ride the ponies back down the lanes to the field in just rope halters, bareback, and often leading two alongside. We didn’t bother with riding hats, sometimes wearing only t.shirts, shorts and sandals, but the delicious feel of warm pony against bare legs as we meandered down sun-dappled lanes was all part of the experience. And the hotel pool was a great finish to those long, hot days in the saddle. But the Lake District is generally a watery place and on one occasion we were faced with high winds and torrential, heavy rain. The hotel loaned us some huge voluminous capes – the sort of attire one might wear to stalk grouse on the fells. Once on higher ground, I thought it entirely possible we could take flight. When it rains in the Lake District, it can be relentless. And despite the Super Woman image in the cape and boots, I remember suffering with mild hypothermia after that experience. It didn’t stop me finishing the rest of the week.
The Tarn Hows Hotel currently operates as a B & B. No horse-riding available.
Through the summer of 1978, I owned a horse. I bought him from Holly Tree Riding School, Plumley. Out of a short list of two, I chose the rising five-year-old bay thoroughbred-cross, rather than the steadier, older, coloured cob mare. Naturally. I called him Strider, after the character in Lord of the Rings. This was a huge tome of a book I’d read more than once through my teen years, despite not really enjoying much of the fantasy genre. Arguably, there’s plenty of similarities between the cosy patchwork of the Cheshire countryside – after all, Alderley Edge even boasts its own wizard – and Middle Earth; and then the quest was facilitated by an adventure on horseback. I kept Strider on some land in Cheadle Hulme owned by a mostly unhelpful farmer. The lack of facilities soon had me move to Wendy Thexton’s place at Hall Moss Lane, Woodford, previously known as Moorfields Riding School. Opposite the yard on the corner of Blossoms Lane, George Best had an architect-designed house built in 1969, and we were always peering over the hedges to take a closer look – something one could do on a horse without attracting too much attention.
I parted company with Strider and befell more accidents than was good for me. I never told my mother of these incidents but it ranged from being chased by the park warden for galloping in Bruntwood Park to having a horrible fall on the road (tripping over a sunken manhole) just before dusk, and having to walk the poor horse home on darkening roads. Proof that most accidents with horses tend to be freakish and entirely unpredictable. Given the number of occasions over the years I’d been catapulted elsewhere at short notice – I never suffered a single bruise, but tripping on that manhole cover left Strider with cut knees and myself with a rather large veterinary bill. Sometime after this I came to realise that not only had I bitten off more than I could chew, but the expense of encroaching winter, the logistics of toing and froing to Woodford with Dad fed up of his car being unavailable and full of mud… forced me to face some painful home truths, the most pertinent being that I was working so many hours to keep the horse, I didn’t have time to ride the horse! Eventually, I did the sensible thing and returned him to Holly Tree. I beat myself-up about this experience for many many years, (if only I’d done this, that, or the other) but that old cliche about learning more from failures is a cliche for a reason. And on the upside, after this experience I was cash-rich to the tune of £300. So I booked a week of trail riding at Ferniehirst Mill, Jedburgh, Northumberland, in June of the following year. The week restored my flagging confidence, and I enjoyed writing-up the experience of my trail ride through the Cheviots: https://janruth.com/2016/10/07/what-i-did-on-my-holidays-37-years-ago/
I penned my first novel in the early eighties on a succession of second-hand typewriters. Since I wasn’t allowed to take the typewriter on holiday, I compromised with an A4 sized notebook. I was obsessed. (I can’t recall the title of the book but it took only months to get the first draft down, and then it was so bad I hid it in a cupboard before eventually setting fire to it in case anyone accidentally read it.) Chapter ten (the bit where his sister dies in a bog on the moors after falling from a horse and his evil stepfather tries to kill him, that bit) coincided with a weekend trip to the Golden Pheasant, Glyn Ceiriog, Llangollen. This wasn’t the name of the farm, but the riding was somehow linked to the Golden Pheasant Hotel in the village. Husband (husband one: first draft) and I stayed in the house up at the stables – a typical Welsh farmhouse built of local stone. It was an elevated property, looking down over fields of grazing horses, an exciting cross-country course, and the foaming River Ceiriog at the bottom of the valley. The farmhouse was a beautiful, rambling place, full of the character one might expect with open fires, an assortment of dogs, creaking floors, and a four-poster bed. The countryside at the mouth of the Ceiriog Valley wasn’t chocolate-box pretty like Cumbria, it was far more more rugged and a bit rough round the edges. And, unlike Cumbria, the forestry trails and the hillsides felt distinctly unpopulated, and we enjoyed some rip-roaring gallops across open moorland.
It was a privilege to ride Jane’s stunning mare, Venture, but the little horse who really stole my heart was Vodka. The mare in dancing shoes. She didn’t walk, she danced, jogging instead of walking and bursting into canter at the slightest touch, on the spot if necessary, rocking-horse style. I’d probably find this exhausting now but in my twenties I loved this showy exuberance. Jane assured me she’d jump anything. She certainly had enough natural suspension. To prove a point we followed Jane and Venture around the cross-county course, easily flying over everything in our path, before taking to the open countryside and tackling the drystone walls. Although not especially big, the walls were challenging since they either leant in towards us or fell away, with maybe a ditch on the far side. The mare knew they were solid and we couldn’t afford a mistake, but Vodka cleared everything with feet to spare and it was an exhilarating experience. I took the mare to Lake Vyrnwy in Llanwddyn for a weekend trip and we stayed at a hotel which provided overnight grazing for the horses. I remember walking up to check on them after dinner, a vodka and tonic in one hand – naturally – and a carrot in the other. Vodka was finally stationary, resting one hind leg, ears pricked and watching the sun set over the lake. Thereafter, we made the trip to Glyn Ceiriog once a fortnight. Afterwards, we’d drop into the Glynn Valley Hotel for soup and a sandwich before starting the 90-minute drive home. But life was changing, my dreamscapes were closing in and by the mid-eighties, the riding freedom I’d taken for granted in Cheshire, looked set to end. Continue reading: https://janruth.com/2019/02/15/disappearing-dreamscapes-3/
*Photo of Chico at The Lido by kind permission of Barbara Atamaniuk.
About this Series
The first four chapters of Disappearing Dreamscapes represent 30 years from 1968-1998 and are split over four seasons based on diary entries through 1979. Chapters 5-8 represent 20 years from 1998-2018 and are recorded chronologically.
Memories and reflections of an equine obsession 1968-2018.
Chapter 1: Spring
Higher House, Mottram-St-Andrew, Alderley Edge, Cheshire. 1976. Since I was the new girl, I was invited to join the regular Sunday morning crowd. Most of them were hungover, but the guy with his foot in plaster assured me that this wouldn’t be a problem. This same guy elected to ride Specky, the one-eyed hunter. No one questioned whether this was a wise combination, or not. No matter, spring was in the air along with the peal of church bells, and the day was full of promise. Masses of daffodils and crocuses, every shade of dark emerald green through to the palest of jade, chocolate-brown fields wet from heavy showers. I followed cautiously on a quiet bay mare called Babysham, which felt entirely appropriate on all counts. We turned off the road after some ten minutes and began to ascend a steep, sandstone track partially formed by huge boulders. Crouched low over Babysham’s neck, the climb presented a challenging scramble for four hooves – but all the horses took it at speed, experienced at keeping the momentum going and knowing exactly how and where to lunge around the rocks. Once the horses had caught their breath at the top of this escarpment, we would wind our way through ancient woodland, sometimes cantering along a criss-cross of tracks and leaping small logs along the way. The mare was light and forward, the company funny, and a whole new riding experience looked set to unfold. I was hooked…
Mary Dawson’s kitchen at Higher House was invariably a wonderful chaotic jumble; pans of boiling barley and sugar beet, wet jodhpurs steaming over the Aga, something in a bucket covered with a wet cloth. A chewed laundry basket full of puppies, a three-legged lamb in a box under the kitchen table. On the windowsill, a row of gin and dry martini bottles containing milk and fitted with huge rubber teats. Dogs, always dogs.
Bee the greyhound dropped a size eleven shoe on my foot and looked up expectantly. Naturally, I hurled it as far as I could across the muddy garden. The dog merely tilted her head enquiringly until eventually, I was forced to go and retrieve the thing myself. I was less amused when I discovered the shoes belonged to Big John. I understand now that Big John may have been mildly autistic, but mental health wasn’t really acknowledged or talked about much in the seventies. Verbally, he was pretty non-communicative – but his favourite story, when he felt so inclined, was the one where he cycled to Macclesfield on a bike with no gears in less than twelve minutes. He was freakishly strong – which had its merits on a stable yard, but on the flip-side he was often in trouble for over-tightening things and once, for teaching Midnight Prince how to smoke his pipe.
Big John found great amusement in trying to pair-off my friend, Nicola, and I with the local vicar; engineering timings so that we rode out together. We always tried to get mounted up and off before the local reverend arrived, one eye on the driveway as we fiddled with girths and adjusted stirrups. The vicar drove an extremely flash sports car. I can’t recall the exact make and model but it was sleek and low slung, and he invariably struggled to climb out of it. He was an archetypical country vicar too, with buck-teeth, a loud voice, and a receding hairline.
I loved all of this mild eccentricity, and stored it away for future use, for reasons unknown to me at the time, but anyone who has read my novels may well recognise my fictional roots starting to form.
Under her main hat, Mary Dawson bred racehorses as well as running a riding school. None of the hacks out were ever accompanied, she was too busy teaching and training. After a couple of visits and once I’d proven myself to be trustworthy, I was pretty much allowed free rein of the school horses. I bought a 1:25000 map and plotted dozens of routes, often riding out solo and I continue to do so now, although my dreamscape these days belongs to the Welsh hills – a significantly more remote playground than the cosy Cheshire green-belt I frequented then. My solitary riding across the hills here often attracts more than a raised eyebrow but this was how I learnt to ride well, and in hindsight how I learnt to fix problems of my own making. Back in the seventies and eighties, we never envisaged falling foul of an accident, and we never experienced anything we either couldn’t fix at the time, or learn from. We simply took responsibility for ourselves.
Now, we live in very different times, governed by a whole plethora of health and safety rules. Common sense and trust aren’t allowed to develop and prevail. But the domain of the public riding school has changed beyond recognition – access to suitable land has become more and more restricted, many bridleways have gone, country roads have become racetracks, and crippling insurance costs reflect our blame culture. The artificial world of the indoor school has obvious advantages, but its rise in popularity through the eighties and nineties has also produced a generation of horses, business owners, and riders nervous of the real world. Does this combined social baggage add to the mass of anxieties we have become? I think it might. Of course, riding schools find it physically easier and more financially lucrative to allow one member of staff to teach ten riders or more in a confined indoor space rather than venture off-site and risk an ‘accident’. And in this decade there’s been a boom in children’s parties, coffee mornings, and ‘educating’ children having them learn how to fill hay-nets and muck-out. This is good, but only up to a point.
I’m glad I learnt to ride more than fifty years ago. For me, it was a time when those personal dreamscapes felt real because we were allowed to experience them. Now, we seem to have lost a wealth of respect on our roads, and the ability to trust our own risk assessment of any given situation. Above all, we’ve lost a wealth of freedom.
Booths, Shaftesbury Avenue, Timperley 1968. The birth of an obsession. My new Australian friend regaled me with stories of her ponies ‘back home’. She owned the biggest collection of horse books I’d ever seen and The Observers book of Horses and Ponies, published around the year I was born, immediately went onto my Christmas list. I still have it. My imagination was further captured by Australian author Elyne Mitchell whose books – an unusual equine series set in the Snowy Mountains region of Australia – began to feature heavily in my teenage years. In direct contrast to my friend, I grew up on a quiet, leafy council estate in south Cheshire, with non-horsey parents. I was an outdoor child, fuelled by books and maps. Rupert Bear, and Nutwood, the fictional idyllic English village. Enid Blyton’s Brer Rabbit and the Secret Seven books all helped to inspire an active interest in animals, the countryside, and the idea of setting out on an adventure. I liked to be on the move. Around the age of ten, my father would cycle 6 miles or so with me from where we lived in Cheadle to Booths place, where Pamela Rigby taught me the basics on a ‘yard’ consisting of a few acres of fields and a couple of caravans. It was open and flat, and despite the road running alongside, felt like a different world to a child with a good imagination. Not surprisingly, this entire area is now under concrete and the road is a roaring, incredibly busy dual-carriageway.
Mr Booth, always seated in his maroon Jaguar, took the money. In 1968, an hour in the saddle under instruction cost ten shillings, aka 50p. Sometimes, Booth would put three-penny-bits between our knees and the saddle, promising we could keep them if they were still there at the end of the lesson. I don’t think I ever managed it! Now of course, gripping with the knees has long been ousted as correct or effective horsemanship. Copper prizes notwithstanding, Dad and I would cycle home afterwards, and my six-day wait would begin again. I started on the steady ones: Twinkle Toes, the grey, and Puffin, the roan, before progressing onto a smaller, albeit far wilier and more challenging Welsh Mountain Pony: Merrylegs. Twinkle and Puffin may have given me confidence and balance, but Merrylegs taught me how to ride. The adventure really began when I was considered proficient enough to leave the confines of the fields and join day rides to exciting places like Ashley, or on one occasion, a holiday in Hope, Derbyshire.
In the early seventies, Pamela Rigby relocated to Mobberley Riding School, Newton Hall Lane; a much bigger establishment with proper stables and an indoor school. I did continue to go as a child for lessons and even a few times in the late nineties when I took my son along for one of Pam’s holiday clubs. She kindly allowed me to hack one of her horses around the Cheshire lanes. The 16-hand middle-weight hunter was wonderfully schooled and a joy to ride, but the restrictions of those Cheshire roads just felt too confined for my roaming soul. Although I wasn’t part of this particular story, I love that Mobberley Riding School survived over 40 years and Miss Rigby enjoyed a long career at top competition level. The school only closed in the spring of 2016 but Pam is still very much in the business and now runs a performance and event venue at New Barn Livery in Knutsford; jokingly referred to as her ‘retirement project’. Pam was awarded the MBE in June 2013 for her lifetime service to people with disabilities. The site of Mobberley Riding school is now under redevelopment.
Once I was considered sensible enough to coordinate a bus ride into Stockport and catch a second bus to Offerton, I began to frequent Forsythe’s place at Offerton Riding School, Holiday Lane. This yard offered more scope in that we could ride – unaccompanied – on private land for something like £1.20 per hour. A horsey haven, nestled in the middle of suburbia. The beautifully kept whitewashed stables and the authentic Victorian buildings complete with iron hayracks and cobbled floors, the smell of the leather – all of these things felt deeply evocative – though I couldn’t explain why. Perhaps the history of those buildings and the thousands of dreams it all represented had somehow soaked into the foundations.
Ken Forsythe kept a big desk diary with all the horses’ names running down the left-hand column, Flikka, Trigger, Sabre, Winston, Brandy, Romany, Charmaine, Piper… It was a foolproof booking procedure, and nothing much ever went wrong or got mixed-up, and nothing was ever cancelled. Ken always wore a shirt and a tweed jacket with his wellies, which seems ridiculously formal but we didn’t have all the purpose made outdoor clothing we have at our disposal now.
Riding gear was mostly for show, rather than practicality. Anything other than a hacking jacket was often too bulky, or too long. Hats were not always worn, let alone air-jackets or back-protectors and high-vis tabards. Outdoor gear is probably one of the best improvements we’ve had since the early years – protective, lightweight, waterproof, high visibility, breathable clothing. I had a brown, second-hand riding hat for years, its only anchorage to my head being a loose length of elastic. I remember investing in a buff-coloured rubberised raincoat in the eighties which was the order of the day, but there was no ‘give’ in the material and the coat was so rigid it practically stood up by itself when I wasn’t wearing it.
At Offerton, there was a flat sandy area we were sometimes allowed to canter round, sensibly. Trigger was always especially up for this, and although I was a pretty confident rider by then I parted company from Trigger a couple of times in spectacular style. He was the first young, finely-bred horse I’d encountered. He moved much more quickly than the ponies I’d grown up with, sometimes choosing to leap the pools of sandy water rather than plough through them, and he was especially adept at changing gear and direction. Sometimes, we were allowed to leave the confines of riding school land, cross the stream and venture along the banks of Poise Brook for a long canter, until the track petered out. We were always accompanied for this venture, I suspect because none of us were trusted to stop in time before we ran into the immaculate greens of the local bowling club.
At the beginning of the eighties, the horses and ponies at Offerton were whittled down in preparation for Ken’s retirement – many of them sold privately or to Bank Farm Riding School, Poynton – which is still operating as a riding school, albeit only offering walk and trot rides. I do remember riding there a couple of times and galloping along the Middlewood Way on a horse with only fair-to-middling brakes, trying to slow down enough for the rest of the party who were miles behind. A sad coincidence that in 2017 my mother had occasion to stay in a nursing home just off Marple Road and I drove past the end of Holiday Lane in morbid fascination, lost in the nostalgia of it all and the terrifying march of time. Although in the grip of advancing dementia by then, Mum seemed to remember the day I led her around the fields on Brandy. Offerton Riding school closed at the end of the summer in 1981 and I read recently that the area is being further developed by a sand and gravel company. Sad to see that the stables and the buildings have all but collapsed, including those handcrafted Victorian stalls, now cluttered with rubbish and old shopping trolleys. The land is not built on as yet, but maybe it’s only a matter of time. The end of more than one bygone era…
Still in the early seventies, someone I only remember as Rosemary, set up a small riding school at Bruntwood Park, Cheadle, alongside her boyfriend’s dog training business. This was great news for me as I could walk or cycle the short distance from home to the cottage at the top of Bruntwood Lane. Rosemary had half-a-dozen horses but I only really recall Ebony – a huge black cob, both in height as well as girth. Eric Broadhurst ran a security business retraining failed police dogs, usually German Shepherds. I remember one afternoon running around in one of those padded strait-jackets so the dog could leap at me and wrestle me to the ground. Eric’s career as a dog trainer gained considerable repute, being associated with Crufts along the way and enjoying a long working relationship with Granada Television training dogs for film and TV.
When Eric and Rosemary went their separate ways, Eric retained custody of Ebony. Fearful of the cob’s ever expanding size, I began to ride him at Eric’s request that I keep the horse fit. This was no mean feat. The world was one big smorgasbord to Ebony. He was a wise soul, patient, mostly plodding, and happy to be taken anywhere, if we didn’t rush him. I occasionally rode him home, across Brookfields Park, paddling through the Micker Brook, round the fields at the back of the houses and onto Brookfield Road where we lived. I left him on our driveway once while I nipped to the bathroom. I could hear my mother shrieking downstairs that not only had he eaten a tub of geraniums but he’d come partway into the hall, looking for me. Dad went looking for the camera. Clear evidence here that he always managed to chop our heads off.
Sometimes my friend Barbara would join me on expeditions further afield, and we took it in turns to either ride the horse or pedal the pushbike – our packed lunches in the basket on the front. We attracted some verbal abuse and hilarity out and about through Cheadle Hulme and Bramhall, especially waiting in traffic at the lights where Ebony towered above the cars and peered through the rear windows of stationary traffic. Sometimes he’d choose to pee just as the lights turned green. He’d plant all four hooves, oblivious of honking traffic trying to get round him. And it could take a while, at least until the lights turned back to red – a torrent of foaming urine spreading across the tarmac. All credit to his stoic character, Ebony wasn’t fazed by anything we encountered on the roads. As part of his fitness regime we encouraged him to trot for as long as possible, especially uphill, and he did usually oblige – at least until whoever was on the bike began screaming for mercy. Barbara and I were very fit through those years, not sure how much impact it had on the horse.
During all of this I remember getting stranded in London in the spring of 1975 because I’d gone to see Led Zeppelin at Earls Court (with an unsuitable boyfriend, naturally) and missed the last direct train back to Manchester. The parents were furious. I think I arrived home just as the milkman turned up. A quick change of clothes, a note on the kitchen table and I was straight out again, Ebony’s halter swinging on the handlebars of my bike. I ditched the boyfriend not long after, kept riding the horse. Eventually, all that sustained trotting only produced the required slight sweat (mostly Barbara and I) and we moved on to cantering. Cantering only happened on Ebony’s terms, usually on the way back to his field. This was an idyllic meadow, full of big oak and beech trees – gone now, concreted over by a prestigious housing estate with properties hovering just below the million-pound mark. The park is hopelessly over-developed now boasting a boutique hotel and more car parks sprawling across what used to be an unlabelled open space of almost 100 acres. Another large chunk of this has been swallowed up by various superstores on the periphery.
I lost touch with Barbara, but later heard that she’d bought Trigger from Offerton Riding School. I don’t know what happened to Ebony... continue reading: https://janruth.com/2019/02/02/disappearing-dreamscapes-2/
*Black and white photos of Offerton Riding School by kind permission of Karen Corcoran
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.