Heading south along the road from Hexham past Slaley, a man came across the road exclaiming "Well there's a sight, you don't often see that any more". when I told them what I was doing and why, his wife thought it looked great fun. I must remind myself of that when the going gets tough. He also told me that he thought the main drove road south went through Slaley woods and over the grouse moor, which is the way Bob had suggested I might go, but I know from all the research I did earlier this year that the drovers took several routes south from Stagshaw Bank: a westerly route down to Wolsingham, Raby and Thirsk, the latter part of which is now the A1, an easterly route down through what is now Consett, and a middle route via Muggleswick to Waskerley, which is the way I'd chosen to go.
From what I could gather, the numerous groundsmen working on the "international" golf course were oblivious to the historical interest of the track which runs straight through the middle, but when you climb up the hill, the old stone walls are still there either side of a wide grass swathe. the original route which continues on from there to Muggleswick is now lost under the Derwent Reservoiur, which we diverted round by road. Bit of a dodgy time on the A68 when I found myself in the turn right lane sandwiched between huge lorries going in either direction, but Magic and Micky were totally unphased. Similarly by the car which shot past us a few miles further on virtually clipping Magic's bottom and sending stones flying in its wake. Stopped for a brief respite to regather my composure, I fell asleep leaning on a gate, and only then realised just how tired I was.
Sally Bell had very kindly offered to try and sort out my next night's accommodation at an endurance event she'd been at, but neither she nor I knew the person who'd been persuaded to provide a field for my ponies and somewhere for my tent. To say we landed on our feet is an understatement. Once again I was overwhelmed by the generous hospitality extended to a complete stranger - thank you Margaret and Jim for making us so very welcome, feeding me so well, and packing me off the next morning with a flask of home made soup, which was a welcome change from oatcakes, and enough to turn any drover green with envy on a cold, wet, windy day.
Climbing up the hill from Waskerley, the broad grassy track walled either side (or with remnants of the former walls in places) told its own story and confirmed that we were right on the trail of the drovers. The cattle at Oxen Law are now foreign imports, the farm recently modernised, but there's no doubting the significance of the site. A few miles on, we found ourselves at a major cross roads of four different drove roads - even in the rain I couldn't help but be excited, but also confused as to why the former pub, Drover House, is over half a mile from here on the A68 instead of at the cross roads. No matter, you can't get down the drove road any more anyway, so we diverted to A68, where we met the owner of Drover House who used to breed Fell ponies under the Drover prefix. Wowee. However she said the black and white horse she was riding isn't as placid as a Fell which made me wonder if we were actually talking about the same breed. She also said I shouldn't (or couldn't) ride down the A68 and it was only a mile down the side road, but it was a mile in the wrong direction, and another three miles to get to where we could reach in 2 miles down the A68, so off we set along the verge, Magic excelling herself, Micky following angelically behind. Who would have thought these were the same ponies who had galloped off over Gypsy Glen, or cantered down the A7?
Through Tow Law, not a smile or a wave, just a profusion of chip shops and bored horses and ponies who wanted to join us.
Branching off to Staqnley Crook, a swallow swooped repeatedly across Magic's chest. I'm not sure why, but it was welcome distraction from biting wind and rain.
Stopped on a bit of grass to give the ponies a break, a Fell pony breeder pulled over and asked if I needed anything or if he could help in any way. He'd come to a talk I gave about our ride to Lands End,and had heard I was off on another trip. As we road down through Willington, he popped up again, with a welcome invitation to a cup of tea. If only that happened every day.
By now, we were cutting across between the middle and eastern drove route. As with the drovers, to some extent our route is determined by where we can find somewhere suitable to stay overnight, as well as how we can get through during the day. I'd rung John Stevenson at Crawlees, east of Bishop Auckland, where Jake and I stayed for a tetrathlon last year, at lunchtime from Tow Law. He thought we'd be 10 minutes, little realising we were travelling on the hoof. I'm not sure that the ponies realised how honoured they are to have been stabled in what was once Arthur Stevenson's racehorse training yard - Micky was just miffed he was too vertically challenged to see over the door.
Chris met us in the pub at Middlestone after driving through on a mercy mission to return my laptop after yet another attempt to sort out the mobile internet access and e-mail functions before he gets embroiled in haymaking.