Tuesday 7 September 2010

Let me take you on the hoof and ride you through the streets of London

The last night of my trip I couldn't sleep. I lay in bed looking out at the full moon, my heart racing, a mixture of excitement that I'd nearly made it, and a sinking feeling that my time with my ponies on the trail of the drovers was nearly over. I must eventually have drifted off, but by 5 a.m. was wide awake again, wondering whether I was right to have so much faith in Micky and Magic's ability to cope with anything, or whether I should have paid more heed to the police warnings of how it takes them months and months of training before they dare walk their horses through the middle of the city on a weekday, and only then after brief visits on a quiet Sunday to acclimatise them. Bit late to worry about that now, and I was resolute Micky, Magic and I were going to walk to Smithfield come what may, and if we got splatted by a bus along the way, at least we'd lived our dream.

What was really worrying me was my route. Ida, the lovely owner of Aldersbrook Riding School where I was staying,had insisted as soon as I arrived that she knew exactly which way I should get to Smithfield from Wanstead. Little had I realised when I rung Ida out of the blue 4 days previously begging for somewhere to put my ponies overnight that I could not have chosen a more appropriate place to stay on my last night, nor a more welcoming kindred spirit. Not only was Ida all too familiar with the route she wanted me to take having driven regularly to Barts Hospital (next door to Smithfield) for cancer treatment, but she assured me it was also the way the drovers had gone. I wonder how many people living in Wanstead or elsewhere in London are such founts of relevant knowledge about drovers, and much else besides.

Anyway, having assured me that she had it all sorted and only needed to show me on the map, what with one thing and another it was well gone midnight before we got around to looking at the street map, by when it was too late to go and check out whether horses were actually allowed on the sections marked on my map as dual carriageway. Having thought I would be coming in from Lee Valley, I'd discussed an entirely different route with the City of London police, which they had said was justs as well as the one road I should avoid was the A11, which was the very route Ida was suggesting I take. Ida reckoned that if there were restrictions, they'd just have to be persuaded to make an exception given the circumstances, but with the total mental block attitude of the Met still all too fresh in my ears from yesterday morning, I didn't see them being too sympathetic. If I couldn't get over or under the flyover, along the dual carriageway, or contend with the most ginormous roundabouts imaginable, then there was no choice but to detour right the way round Leyton and Lee Bridge, a detour of up to 9 miles if I only found out when I hit Stratford. Shame on the Olympic Village designers for failing to take into account in their planning how horses would get across to Hackney Wick or Stratford Marsh with all their mess in the way.

As it was, I need not have worried. Chris, Jake and Elsa drove down to walk with me, and with Ida directing us from her jeep for the first mile or so, we set off across Wanstead Flats, the most southerly bit of Epping Forest, before joining Romford Road, which Ida assures me is the old drovers route into London.

Micky and Magic behaved impeccably, never missing a hoofbeat as police cars raced past with sirens blaring, or as bendy buses wiggled their way along beside us. The only thing Micky objected to was the revolving adverts on the end of bus shelters, which he insisted weren't in his repertoire, nor were they going to be added, but even then the most he did was snort in derision and keep walking calmly on, the best advertisement for any breed of horse you could ever have. How many horses can say they've "done" Tower Hamlets, Stepney,and walked in past Whitechapel and Aldgate through the very heart of the City of London, without flinching an inch, batting an eyelid or acknowledging that they were born and bred high on the Cumbrian fells, little knowing what the future held in store for them.

On we went, through all the roadworks, keeping to my promise to the City Police of not holding the traffic up or causing any problems. Eat your heart out you posh police horses, it's obvious they're using the wrong breed if they need so much training to deal with this.

Walking through the banking district, numerous people stopped and said hello, recognising us from the article and picture in the Daily Telegraph the previous day. One man in his suit came across to shake my hand, saying it was an honour to meet me. For once I was dumbfounded.

Prompted by my press release, The Scotsman had telephoned earlier and asked if they could send a photographer to meet me, who was keen to take pictures of us riding past St. Paul's Cathedral and arriving at Smithfield. Micky gave a few snorts at the pigeons, but neither he nor Magic paid any attention to the umbrellas which sprung up as it started to rain, nor to the people lunching on the benches around the cathedral who looked somewhat taken aback at two ponies riding past, but in typically English fashion neither smiled nor spoke. The problem for the photographer was trying to get the necessary perspective to include two relatively small ponies in the same picture as the cathedral.

All good things inevitably come to an end, and before I knew it, we were all too soon riding into Smithfield market, the end of our journey, the culmination of my dream. There waiting for us was another photographer from the Press Agency, and people from Smithfield Market. Including John Brewster, OBE, past chairman of the Smithfield Tenants Association, whose greeting was that I was 130 or more years too late, the last horse fair having been held at Smithfield in the late 19th century. To my absolute delight, he went on to tell me that his ancestors were drovers from Aberdeen who had for many years made a similar journey to mine. How appropriate is that? Just a shame that there wasn't more opportunity to talk as by then it was pouring with rain, we were in danger of blocking the traffic outside the market, and the photographers were getting fed up with me failing in my attempts to get Micky to stand still, or to persuade him and Magic to put their ears forward simultaneously. After 8 weeks on the trail, neither of them seemed any keener than me to end our journey. Or perhaps they were just keen to distance themselves from Butchers Hall, or the pub named The Hook and Cleaver across the road!

Riding through London is not something I would recommend on a horse which isn't rock steady in traffic, with which you wouldn't trust your life, or if your own resolution or nerves ever threaten to waver. With Micky and Magic, my trusted travelling companions, it was such a doddle going through London, so much easier than I'd anticipated or anyone could have envisaged. As they have done throughout this trip, and many times before, Micky and Magic well and truly came up trumps, showing their true colours as the real troopers they are, capable of anything and everything. Perhaps I should have gone on and done a few laps of honour around Hyde Park for good measure, but perhaps that would have been tempting fate, and I could push my luck only so far.

There comes a time to call it a day, and after we'd cracked open a bottle of champagne, which Micky and Magic thought was much tastier than the bucket of water someone thoughtfully provided,Chris and Jake went off to retrieve the trailer from where they'd left it at Aldersbrook, leaving Micky, Magic and I in a state of stunned surrealism under the arches of Smithfield market. There have been times in the past few weeks, when my back or my fingers have hurt, when I've been so dog tired I have struggled to stay awake, when I've worried about Micky and Magic, where we're going to sleep, what my kids were doing back home, or any number of other things, that I thought it would be a relief to finish. Instead I wanted to put the clock on hold, or better still turn it back a bit, eek out my trip for as long as I could. It's all very well basking in a sense of achievement at having done something you've dreamed of for 20 years, but then comes the question "now what?"

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