Friday 16th July, and we've reached Hawick in the Scottish Borders, having covered nearly 350 miles since we left Dunvegan 19 days ago. Which means we're just over a third of our way to Smithfield. Another day and a half should see us across the border to England.
By our previous standards, or any endurance rider's, that's pretty slow going, but much more in tune with the pace of the drovers, and a much more sustainable pace for me and the ponies travelling alone day after day than the pace Elsa and I set riding to Lands End together, or others set themselves out competing for one or two days. Equally important, it means there is enough time to ponder exactly how things looked in days gone by,to wonder who built the drystane dykes which enclose some of the old drove roads, and when; to speculate whether the birds I'm watching really are ospreys (which they have been, on several days), to indulge my passion in following in the foosteps of the drovers. And - just as I wanted - there's time to stop and talk to people I meet along my way.
The luxury of a day off with my every need catered for at Sheila Shell's superb farmhouse B&B at Wiltonburn, just outside Hawick, has given me, Mikado and Magic time to catch our breath, recharge our batteries, to dry everything out. And to appreciate just how lucky I am to spend this summer on the trail of the drovers (even if it has rained nearly every day). I can't pretend it's felt like that all of the time. I haven't always had a quick and easy answer for friends who have asked "but are you really enjoying it Vyv?" Particularly when the rain has been driving horizontally into our ears (and through the handy ventilation in my riding hat), and we've found the drove road we were following has disappeared into a bog, and so have we. But all in all, it's a great privilege to have the time and opportunity to travel the length of Britain with my ponies.
The ponies are happily stuffing their faces in a field through which runs an old drove road, and I am in my element hearing from Sheila's husband John about how his (great?) grandfather drove sheep to and from market, and fathoming out which of the umpteen drove roads which criss-cross the farm were used for what, when. Tonight Sheila has invited someone to supper who used to drive cattle in Australia, so as ever time to tap at a keyboard is limited, but in brief, the verdict so far is as follows:
I know I said I wanted to try and emulate the drovers, or at least the routes they took, within reason, but at times the past three weeks have been a lot more authentic than I planned for. I hadn't bargained on actually having to play drovers in the middle of the night when the ponies have escaped, nor to sleep under corrugated tin on the side of Ben Nevis in a monsoon. And while I haven't been making black pudding, there have been nights when tea has been limited to a crushed packet of oatcakes salvaged from the bottom of my saddlebags, not so different to the oatmeal the drovers survived on. But it all adds to the experience and makes me much more appreciative when I have a comfy bed and a proper meal.
When I dropped down off the Highlands, I felt a real sense of loss that I was leaving behind the most spectacularly wild and beautiful country which Birtain has to offer, but it comes at a price, particularly if you're travelling with horses. If you're not climbing up or down near-vertical rock faces, there are bottomless bogs and rushing rivers to contend with. Finding overnight grazing is a nightmare - not just sufficient grass for the ponies, but ground sufficiently dry to hold a fence pole or which ponies won't sink into. Shops and amenities are few and far between, and you can forget mobile reception, which adds a whole new layer of complication when horses wear through their new shoes at twice the rate I anticipated.
Magic lost 4" off her girth in the first week, which is more than can be said for Micky and I, and after the first week Magic looked a bit tucked up which is hardly surprising after slogging over the Highlands and then wandering off at night instead of catching up on sleep or grazing, but a few nights of good grass saw her right and everyone we've met says how fit and well the ponies (and I) are looking. M&M are literally gleaming, and were so amazed to be turned back out again this morning after the farrier had been that they galloped off up the field. If they've got energy to waste on that, or charging off up a hill the other night, then I don't think we'll have a problem reaching London.
The past couple of days in particular have been really tough going as the drove road marked on the map has disappeared into a bog, as have Mikado, Magic and I. It's no fun wallowing around in deep peat with your ponies heaving themselves in and out of sphagnum. I'm sure their hocks hurt as much as my hips, but they plough on, and it makes us surprisingly appreciative of tarmac or at least to be back on terra firma.
To the many people who have texted asking how the ponies are coping with the heat wave, I can only answer "what heat wave". Despite wearing a thermal vest and all my remaining dry clothes, I was freezing in my tent a couple of nights ago, with a howling gale blowing outside. How the drovers survived wrapped only in their plaids I can't imagine.
I freely confess that I seem to be much better at route planning and riding than I am with technology. The immense frustration of Magic having lugged my new ultra portable laptop all this way and only to persuade it to work, or to connect to the internet, twice so far has to be experienced to be believed. I felt like I spent more time in PC World at Stirling last weekend than I did riding, but all credit to them, they were hugely supportive and have promised that my third new dongle will work much better once we're south of the border. Here's hoping!