Thursday 2 September 2010

Tuesday 24th August

Another Monday night sleeping in a stable, this time in a bed. It's a sign of the times that each of the stables at the former riding centre at what is now Forest Lodge motel has been converted into a motel bedroom, and the indoor school is now a kids' ballpark and cafe. I stayed up late trying to e-mail press releases and generate media interest in the completion of my ride, with the sole purpose of raising more money for Cancer Research, but although I had mobile broadband within my motel room, there was no O2 phone signal and it was more than a little tricky trying to co-ordinate phone calls standing out in the car park with mailing press releases and looking at maps to sort out exactly where I might be when.

Having set things in motion, the phone calls continued when I got to Woodredon. Magic and Micky were tacked up and ready for off but every time I went to lead them out of their stables, the phone rung again. GMTV said they were very keen to include me on Wednesday morning's show, provided I rode into their studios on the south bank while they were live on air between 6 and 8.30 a.m. My pleas that I was riding down to Wanstead on Tuesday and could not possibly ride from Wanstead into Central London by that time the next morning, and that actually their studios on the south bank were not exactly on my route to Smithfield market, fell on deaf ears, as did my suggestions that they come out to Wanstead to film me instead. So then they hit on the idea of using previous footage, but couldn't use what BBC Scotland had filmed before I set off because they were a competing network, and as I couldn't supply my own footage (with what, my dear Liza?), after endless to-ing and fro-ing, the only way it was going to happen was if I completely shelved all my principles and plans for the last day of my ride to accommodate their schedule and demands. I haven't ridden 900 miles to be dictated to by something which would undoubtedly raise the profile of my ride but was not necessarily guaranteed to do anything to raise more money for Cancer Research. It may sound mercenary, but I know from when we rode to Lands End, and from riding through Scotland this time round, that unless you have a whole support team of fund raisers shaking buckets, have organised your licence in advance for street collections, and are either prepared to put in a hell of a lot of effort to get a few coppers or to stop and talk to each and every person you meet for half an hour to explain what you're doing and why, riding through towns on horseback with a bucket on your arm is not the most cost effective way of charitable fund raising.

No matter how difficult GMTV may have been, they were a doddle in comparison to talking with the Metropolitan police, who City of London police had urged me to consult with about my route. Unelievable. One can only hope that they respond better to emergencies than they do to calls to their general switchboard. After 45 minutes being redirected from one person or police station to another, each claiming they were now putting me onto the right person, I eventually found myself on the phone to Paddington, or somewhere equally irrelevant. 15 minutes later, still on premium rate lines, I was losing the will to live and my ears and phone battery were nearing total exhaustion. The final straw was some righteous official shouting in the background to the person I was speaking to "You can't ride a horse down a road". Oh really? Is there a different version of the Highway Code in London? Then "No-one can ride anywhere in London". The contrast with the very friendly, helpful and constructive advice from the City of London mounted police had to be heard to be believed. In the end I gave up. I'd done my duty and tried to consult them but if after over an hour they still couldn't even decide who I should speak with, I'd go my own way.

Reassured by Paula and others from Woodredon about our personal safety, and with generous offers from the proprietor of a rescue service should I meet any problems whatsoever on the rest of my journey, riding south through Epping Forest surpassed all my expectations. Had I not ridden through it, I would never have appreciated what an incredible green lung Epping Forest is, particularly so close to London.

The information boards along the Green Ride and Centenary Walk told me about the wildlife I might meet and how the Green Ride was created for Queen Victoria to ride along, even though she never did, but (as I have found throughout my journey) made no mention of the former significance of Epping Forest to the droving trade. There was a sentence about how the right of commoners to graze cattle was fundamental to resisting moves to enclose or develop the forest, but nothing to tell anyone of the thousands of cattle who once walked this way on the final leg of their journey to market. Just as well I'd read up all about it in advance, as a result of which I swooned along revelling in the knowledge that the ancient oaks anad other trees which lined my route were one and the same as the drovers had walked between, and the open areas of grass where Micky and Magic snacked along our way were the last halt for cattle on their way to Smithfield all those years ago.

We met lots of dog walkers, few of whom knew anything about Epping Forest's history, and for a mile or so a jogger walked with us telling me about the Race for Life runs she has done for the last few years in aid of Cancer Research. The people we met out picking blackberries, and foreign nannies taking the children in their charge for a breath of fresh air, were surprised to meet a pair of black ponies in the south of the forest heading for London. I was even more surprised by them to find how many people said they had never seen or touched a live horse before. Micky and Magic were only too pleased to oblige requests for strokign and patting, lapping up all the attention and admiration.

At Upper Walthamstow, the paths on the ground bore little relation to those marked on my map, and having determined we would carry on the way we were going rather than retrace our steps to the main path, Micky, Magic and I found ourselves for one last time confronted with a seemingly impenetrable mass of branches. Even now, I never cease to be amazed by my ponies' nimble agility and stoicism, negotiating their way through narrow spaces and under impossibly low branches, waiting patiently for me to clear the way when they knew that pushing through risked damaging their cargo. The people we met when we emerged from the morass were more than a mite surprised, but would have been even more so had they realised how far we had come and all we've encountered along our way.

Riding up Wanstead High Street at 5 p.m. on a hot Tuesday afternoon attracted similar looks of surprise, not least how unperturbed Micky and Magic were by the double decker buses, the trains, the traffic, the people sitting drinking outside cafes and pubs, and the hussle and bussle of London. I'd planned my route for the easiest crossing of the A12, and when the traffic lights changed, the cars behind us missed their turn because they were so amazed to see Micky and Magic trotting smartly across a very wide main road without batting an eyelid as though it was what they did every day of their lives.

Wanstead Parks had signs saying no cycles without mention of no horses, other than some very small print about the byelaws. Presumably it's not something they usually have to worry about. The last thing I want to do is make life difficult for other riders, so we dutifully rode around the edge of the golf club instead to take us to Aldersbrook Riding Stables, where Ida had very kindly agreed to put us up for the night.

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