Tuesday 7 September 2010


We drove home to Scotland overnight, stopping only to refuel the Discovery, the ponies and ourselves, and to swap drivers when the adrenalin wore off and the lack of food and sleep caught up. The torrential rain in which we left London abated only when we got north of Manchester. How fortunate were we that it had held off until I reached Smithfield rather than putting a damp squib on my last day.

We pulled up our track in bright moonlight at 2.30 a.m. Micky and Magic bounced out of the trailer as though they'd been in it for 5 minutes, and then galloped around the field kicking their heels in the air. Sadly I cannot claim to have done the same.

To be back among the hills of home without having to worry where we're going to sleep or what the ponies will eat is a relief, but in every other way, coming home is more difficult than any other part of my ride from Skye to Smithfield.

Buck and Humbug, my giant Alaskan malamutes, are pleased to have me home to take them running along the River Annan at the start of the day; Yeti, my ginormous tabby Maine Coon, is delighted to be able to lie spreadeagled across my desk again; and the rest of my gang of Fell ponies come charging enthusiastically over to see me when I approach their field. But there are so many responsibilities to resume, so many things clamouring for my attention, and all of a sudden life becomes so complicated again. I realise that no matter how tough it has been at times, what a luxury it has been to be away with my ponies.

Perhaps as well that there has been little time for contemplation. After cleaning out the fridge and chucking out the grapes and cheese which had been malingering there since I left 8 weeks previously, I had less than 48 hours to get Elsa sorted out for college before we had to drive south again down M6 to deliver her to De Montfort University at Leicester. Jake returned to Bath University the next day. You may scoff that I can say this having been away all summer, but after 19 years of life being dominated by kids, if not being with them then worrying about their care, it comes as a shock to the system to find myself childless. Which also means there are no extra hands to help stack all the hay made while I was away, or to catch up on the endless jobs.

Nearly two weeks on and I have just about managed to find my desk amongst the piles of paper, to do all the washing, properly dry out my tent and sort out my tack.

After 24 hours restoring their waistlines, Micky and Magic stood at the gate looking lost, totally unable to understand why we weren't on the move again. I promised them before we got home that they could rest now for the next few months, but both they and I are itching to ride again.

Tonight I could not help but laugh at Micky, who never misses a trick. When we were riding through the Highlands, Elsa said she was glad she had parents who knew about fencing and gates because otherwise we would have been scuppered when confronted with padlocked gates on drove roads and other tracks which we had every right to be riding along. Although he appeared to be innocently dozing, Micky clearly took note while Elsa and I lifted the gates off their hinges, and is now busy teaching Magic the same trick. No matter that there was still more grass than anywhere else he has been for the past two months, having decided tonight that he had done enough mowing in the stack yard,he'd lifted the gate off its hinges and taken Magic and himself off to the hayfield (which the gates are still off after bringing in the haylage last night) where I found them happily grazing.

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?"

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.

Monday 23rd August 2010

No doubt there is some mechanism to over-ride it, which I have yet to find, but the automatic dating on blogspot means that it only shows the date something is posted, rather than the date I want it to say, so apologies that this is somewhat out of synch, and that there was a hiatus towards the end of my ride when there was so much else to think about.

I'm beginning to think I'm a rain fairy (given that I can hardly lay claim to being a god or goddess of anything). It seems that wherever I go I bring a month's rainfall overnight, or in <24 hours, as fell overnight around Stanstead on Sunday 22nd August. Earlier this summer everyone in East Anglia was crying out for rain but now it's not good news for those trying to finish harvest. Regardless Jill Perry could not have made Micky, Magic and I more welcome. We have spent relatively little time together, but apart from Jill's very generous hospitality, I have much enjoyed opportunity to compare notes about different ways of doing things. I prefer the independence of carrying everything with me like a snail with a home on its back, which meant travelling with a pack pony to carry the tent and rest of my gear, whereas Jill had two large suitcases, one for her and one for her horse (complete with rugs, supplements etc.), which she got transported each day to where she was staying next. And while Jill had a highly organised schedule with pre-booked accommodation, which is how I've explored different parts of Britain on horseback for the past 20 years, I was determined this time to free myself from the rigidity it imposes. When all's going well, it's great to know that you have a bed and grazing or a stable booked in advance for every single night, and there's times when I have wished this time around that had been the case, but it doesn't allow you the flexibility to adjust your plans if a horse goes lame or gets sick. As I know only too well from our ride form John O'Groats to Lands End four years ago when Elsa and I had no choice but to substitute ponies in order to keep to our schedule. In an ideal world one could just stay put until the horse recovered, but real life doesn't always allow time for that, and given a choice between going off on a long ride within a restricted timescale or not doing it all, it's obvious which I choose.

Having said all of which, I was so relieved to have sorted out over the weekend accommodation for the ponies and me for the last two nights of our ride - far from easy in central London - that I was pulled up short to be confronted on Monday morning by Magic with puffy eyes streaming yellow gloop. I had glibly ignored Jill's warnings on arrival that the flies were bad and concluded her gang must all need fly fringes because they were posh horses or southern wusses. Coming from Scotland insects are par for the course, and I couldn't believe that anything in Essex could begin to compare to the midges of Glen Garry or Kielder or the horse flies coming over from Glenelg with which Micky and Magic had contended. What I hadn't taken into account was the fact that the previous week Magic had come up in lumps all over her face from harvest mites in the grass she'd been on overnight, since when there had been swarms of flies around her head, and although I'd put various lotions and potions on the bites before I headed off for the weekend, the pesky flies had gone in her eyes. With her halo shining, Jill nipped off to the chemists to buy chloramphenicol eye ointment, which within hours brought dramatic improvements, and dear Magic didn't allow the fact that her vision was blurred by the ointment to detract in any way from her prowess as pack pony. I'd concluded it wasn't wise to ride her along roads if she couldn't see 100%, and Micky was only too chuffed to be back under the saddle leading the way.

Had both Jill and I not been so 100% convinced that flies were the cause of Magic's eye problems, I would have had no choice but to reschedule the end of my ride. You can just imagine how well that would have gone down with Boris Johnson had his office not let me know he was otherwise engaged so wasn't available to greet me on my arrival at Smithfield. So while I knew that there was less likely to be media interest without a celebrity involved, it was also a bit of a relief.

Many of my books and references on droving refer to cattle being driven in through Epping Forest, but there is very little information about the routes immediately north of there by which they reached Epping. The route I chose to take from Jill Perry's near Hatfield Broad Oak down to Epping was therefore the most direct I could find along bridleways and quiet back lanes, via Manwood Green, Little Laver and Moreton. My ponies may be bombproof, but the heavy traffic on the A414 west of Chipping Ongar made me glad I had also based my route on the most direct crossing of major roads from Lower Bobbingworth across to Toot Hill, from where we turned west to Garnon Bushes.

When I stayed with Sally Bell near Bellingham weeks ago, she had Zoe had warned me about Epping Forest, and others I have met along my route have mentioned past incidents of riders having been dragged off their horses and attacked. The Daily Telegraph photographer who met us near Moreton reassured me that Epping Forest was more of a gangland graveyard than rapist risk, but I still felt a lot more uneasy walking through Epping Forest than ever I have on remote mountains. So much for being told to stay away from the bushes, the bridleway I was following over the M11 led me directly through some very dense vegetation. I hope the lone cyclist I met in his lycra shorts wasn't too offended by the suspicious looks with which I greeted him.

It says a lot for how unappealing I look in my jodphurs that not one person jumped out of a bush or tried to flash at me as we rode through the forest in the low evening light, and the many joggers and mountain bikers we met never gave us a second glance, but when I said this when I arrived at Woodredon Equestrian Centre, they said I'd be wound up for nothing and Epping Forest was now a much safer place than it used to be.

Wednesday 1 September 2010

Nearing the end

Call it divine providence, call it what you will, but it was just as well I'd arranged a few days off as I can't say I was in a fit state to climb back on either pony on Friday morning. All the walking the previous day had yet again turned the side of my foot into raw meat where my boots had rubbed my ankle which had swollen badly after spraining it weeks ago way back on a hillside between Hawick and Hexham. And while neither Micky nor Magic showed any sign of tenderness, better by far to be safe than sorry and to allow their backs to heal before the last bit of our journey to London.

Micky and Magic couldnt' believe that I didn't want to catch them when I went to check them in their field, and were more than happy to stay put and swap travelling tales with Jill's Welsh cob mare, Gem. I convinced myself that being in close proximity to Stanstead airport would help acclimatise them to what was to come riding into Smithfield. Changing trains in London and negotiating the underground on my way to Gloucester was certainly an unwelcome culture shock for me after weeks out in the open countryside, and gave me chance to begin to get my brain in better gear for the last few days.

Other than that, perhaps the less side about the weekend the better. I arrived too late to see Jake swim his fastest ever, but I was there to do my dutiful mother bit mucking out and grooming Charlie (in case I was feeling deprived of equine contact), to walk the cross-country course and watch him and Charlie safely round, and to cheer him on when he ran. Whether I would have been better spending the weekend organising publicity for my finish at Smithfield, or catching up on sleep, is a moot point. Only by chance did I learn over the weekend that no-one had ever thought to tell me that Elsa now had to be in Leicester to start college 5 days earlier than anticipated, that Jake had to be back in Bath by 1st September, and that coming to London to walk the last few miles with me and help with the ponies in case of difficulty was somewhat less of a priority for Jake than it had been for me to support him at his competition. Such is the appreciation you get for trying to do your best by your children.

On the way back to Stanstead, instead of writing my press release I contemplated why it is that competing in any sport, whether it be running a race or jumping a horse, rates so much more highly than anything I or anyone else might ever set out to do. Perhaps it is because I am so uncompetitive by nature that I fail to understand. I have tried, but failed. Perhaps the same is true in reverse and those who are so cut-throat competitive suffer similar inability to appreciate why anyone would want to follow in the foosteps of the drovers on horseback, or what it takes to do so.

It was a relief to get back to Magic and Mikado, who may do dastardly deeds, but who I find far less demanding (and dare I say rewarding?) than humans, and with whom after eight weeks on the trail together, I have a unique bond. I dread the thought of finishing, not because of the traffic through Central London, or wondering whether Micky's brakes will work at traffic lights, but because of the thought of having to resume the responsibilities of normal life.

Monday 30 August 2010

Trampling and leafy lanes

Finding myself on Thursday morning a lot further south than I'd anticipated prompted the hatching of a new plan. As Chris couldn't collect me from London until Wednesday 25th August, and there was nowhere to stay if I got there any sooner, I had the weekend to spare. I rung home and asked Jake whether it mattered to him if I was there to cheer him on at the UK tetrathlon championships. He said he understood if I couldn't be there but would far rather I was. I knew that the bites or lumps which Micky and Magic had developed on their backs all those weeks ago at Yarm would benefit from a few days off, but I needed to get a bit closer to London if I was still to get there for Wednesday. So I rung Jill Perry, who I had helped organise a ride from Biggar to Bangor last year, and asked if I got to her by Thursday night, whether she could then be persuaded to have my ponies for the weekend so I could go over to Hartpury, near Gloucester. Absolute credit to Jill for being totally unphased at the lack of forewarning and for being so ready and willing to accommodate us. She even suggested coming and collecting us and boxing us down to her if it helped, which was very generous but not my way of doing things. If we're on a ride, we're riding, or leading, and if I can't do either, then we stay where we are until the ponies and I are ready to go again.

Fatal words. I should have realised that feeling smug at having got things organised, albeit very last minute, is a surefire prelude to disaster. There am I calmly leading Micky and Magic in from their field on a balmy morning, feeling all is well with the world, we're nearing the end of our journey and are still in one piece, etc. etc.

Next thing I know Mikado's full 500kg is bowling me over sideways and trampling on top of me as he flees from .... wait for it ... a completely innocuous miniature Shetland pony who he has been in a field next to all night but who is now in a tiny enclosure next to the stable, and who Micky didn't notice until his beady eyes suddenly spied it behind the fence. Why oh why Micky took such fright or offence I have no idea, particularly given how unflappable he has been at so much else along our journey, but as he galloped off across the lawn with Magic in hot pursuit, I was left spreadeagled on the gravel, unable to move, and all I could think was that I was damned if my ride, or my life, was going to end like this, when I wasn't even on a horse.

My back hurt, big time, and my neck felt like it had been wrenched, but thankfully nothing seemed broken, I was just seriously shaken. After staggering to my feet and catching the ponies, I rung home and after describing to Elsa what had happened, burst into tears. Me, that is, not her - forget the doting daughter. All that Elsa said was "You'll be right mum" and put the phone down. Thanks a bundle. A sharp reminder that in the end I'm on my own. Don't expect any sympathy from anyone for the consequences of setting out to follow your own dreams.

Tacking up was even slower than usual, hampered not only by stiff, sore fingers from where I fell off Micky weeks ago, but now struggling to bend down to pick anything up as well. Magic, my friend, at least showed some concern, but also reminded me that when she fell on her knees on our way to Lincoln I told her that keeping moving would stop her seizing up, on which basis I'd better get moving. Mounting wasn't an option, so I set off leading both ponies.

Half a mile down the road we met Ali, whose farm I had been staying at, out driving her pony, and her friend Julia riding another of Ali's horses. They were surprised to see me leading. Fatal to ask if I was OK, which simply prompted more tears from me. What a drip I have become. They suggested I turn back with them and stay an extra night but then I would miss Jake competing. Ali very kindly offered to trailer the ponies down to Hatfield Broadoak instead, but while I have no problem with anyone else doing so, to me it would have been tantamount to giving up. For goodness sake, if John Labouchere got back on a horse after his near-fatal injuries riding through South America, and so many other long riders have contended with far worse, it surely only came down to mind over matter.

I may be determined to keep going, but clearly I am less strong willed than others. I walked more than I rode, reminding Mikado (who'd been demoted to pack pony) that it was totally his own fault that I was on a zero tolerance campaign. He'd had all his verbal warnings on Monday and was now on his final notice of impending dismissal. At last he got the message and tucked in behind or alongside Magic. Butter wouldn't melt in his mouth.

When my back hurt too much and I needed a break, I took the opportunity to telephone City of London mounted police to discuss my route into the city. So many people have asked whether I'd got permission to ride through the city, which I knew I didn't need, but at the same time I don't want to wind anyone up and asking for suggestions about my route seemed sensible all round. Full credit to Inspector Chris Rowbottom, who is in charge of the mounted police, who could not have been more helpful, if somewhat incredulous when he learned that my ponies were tied around a telegraph pole alongside the road as I spread my maps out to talk nitty-gritty with him. It seems police horses don't get subjected to such things!

No doubt the woman who stopped on her horse and who insisted she could tell me where to go if I were lost thought I was very rude to ignore her, but it was just going to take too long to explain why I was sorting out a route into London, and I wasn't in the mood for yet another person telling me I was mad to even contemplate it. Easier to smile sweetly and urge her on her way before Micky decided to prove he was faster than her horse twice his size.

My racism is such that I had thought riding through Essex would be a matter of grin (or grimace) and bear it, but it just goes to show how wrong you can be. In fact Essex has a whole network of really nice bridleways, RUPPs and byways, which either link together or do so easily with short sections of quiet lane. Better still, when we came down to Takeley we found ourselves on an old drove road with its broad verges either side. And then south of Takeley we rode through somewhere genuinely named Bullocks before riding across Cow Common. Who would have thought we'd be back following drovers footsteps on our way to Hatfield Broadoak?

Wednesday 18th August

Without any mobile reception, I left Ousden in the same predicament as I had set off the previous morning, without knowing where I would stay that night, and therefore unclear exactly which route to take. Elizabeth Barrett had kindly sent me before I set off various route descriptions, including a Dick Turpin ride and various others around Saffron Walden, which I had marked up on my maps, and weighed up in relation to their droving relevance. However I was now east of these, and reluctant to go west of M11, having previously identified the best route down into London as being through Epping Forest. As Chris couldn't come to London to pick me up until the following Wednesday, either I needed to slow down to a snail's pace, or hole up somewhere, both of which depended on finding suitable grazing for the ponies, which is the most challenging aspect of being away.

I hadn't fully appreciated until I was on this journey just how much the eastern part of England is now arable, with the majority of the fields no longer fenced or enclosed, and what little grass is left fully occupied by horses, whose owners do not necessarily want or need any visitors. Coupled with which, even though I've seen more than my share of rain this summer, prior to my arrival East Anglia has had a summer of drought, so what grass there was has now become a desert.

It's a lovely notion being entirely footloose and fancy free, never knowing where you are headed or where you will stay that night, but not necessarily so easy in practice. When we've travelled with my gypsy caravan in the past, we had tether pins which we knew were 100% secure, which enabled us to stop anywhere with a wide enough verge to peg out Lancer (and sometimes Rowan too), but tether pins are too heavy to carry when I'm riding. After their escapades (or perhaps I should say escapology) in the Highlands, I have no faith in Micky and Magic staying reliably within the electric fence I'm carrying, even with their front feet hobbled. And there's also the issue of my own safety. Many of the people I've met clearly expect or want me to have slept in hedge bottoms, but even I have some sense of responsibility and I can just imagine how quick people would be to criticise me had I met any bother sleeping alone by a roadside. And truth be told I am dog tired, I have no wish to court unnecessary hassle, nor to add needless miles to my journey.

So after leaving Julia's, I concluded that the first priority was to climb onto higher ground (we're talking Cambridgeshire here so think pimple, rather than hill)to try and find mobile reception to sort out somewhere to stay. Micky and Magic had spent the whole night stuffing their bellies but were only too happy to do so again while I worked my way through the list of every possible place I could find to stay between Brinkley, Saffron Walden and Haverhill. Having exhausted all of those, and the onward contacts they suggested, I rung home and asked Elsa to go on the web and see if she could find any livery yards, riding schools in an ever-widening radius. Eventually, after nearly two hours, and with my phone battery nearly dead, I struck lucky with someone suggested by someone who had been suggested by someone else. Further than I'd hoped to ride today, but beggars can't be choosers.

So Micky, Magic and I headed south-west on a mixture of quiet roads, bridleways and tracks via Kirtling, Carlton, and West Wickham to Horseheath, where the volume of traffic zooming along the A1307 was unbelievable. The bridleway which led on south towards Bartlow was a welcome contrast, sunken in a hollow from years of past use, with over-arching bushes and trees. I know nothing (yet) of it's history but it was a delight to ride, enough to distract me from lack of food and how much I really wanted a cup of tea and to put my feet up.

Emerging onto a broader track, I met a tractor driver who'd stopped for his tea. When he asked where I'd come from I couldn't resist singing 'I've just come down from the Isle of Skye'. "Never", he said. Oh yes. "You must be doing it for charity then?" So I explained how my friends dying from cancer inspired me firstly to do what I really wanted while I still had chance, and also to raise money for Cancer Research. Which prompted him to tell me about his wife who had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma many years ago, for which the radical radiotherapy, which was all that was available at the time, had caused all sorts of secondary health problems, quite apart from the other forms of cancer she had since developed.

I was so inspired by his story, by his resolute cheerfulness despite all he and his wife had gone through, and so totally preoccupied thanking my lucky stars, that I completely forgot to look at my map, and for the first time on this trip, realised only when I heard the roar of traffic again on the A1307 that the track I was on was not as marked on the map and the bridleway I wanted had turned off a mile before. I could have done without an extra couple of miles when we still had plenty more to do before dark, but I could only think how lucky I was that all I had to do was walk a bit further and cope with blistered ankles, stiff fingers and sore hips, a mere nothing in comparison to what so many people with cancer contend with.

Micky and Magic shared my cheerful mood and were happy as larry trolling along with me through Ashdon to Redgates Farm near Saffron Walden. Little did we know before we got there that we would receive such a warm welcome, with a bucket of feed each for the ponies while I untacked them, and a fluffy omelette for me instead of my crumbled oatcakes. The riding from Ali's is fantastic and I would recommend anyone who fancies a break with their horse to pay her a visit.

Near Newmarket

Away in a manger pictures always feature animals, but I'm quite sure Mary and Joseph had more sense than to choose a stable which didn't have a cockerel roosting on one of the rafters. The good news was that thankfully I didn't lay my sleeping bag directly in the line of fire underneath it. The bad news was that said cockerel started crowing at 4.15 a.m. but ignored all my suggestions that he might like to go and crow somewhere else, or rise and shine himself, rather than devote himself so religiously to waking me up.

Karen set me off on a lovely path through The King's Forest, just a shame the next section was closed for timber extraction, that it was raining hard, and that having spent the previous evening chatting convivially with Karen in her caravan, I had failed to arrange where I was going to stay tonight. The Icknield Way accommodation list I had includes any number of places for horses to stay around Newmarket, and a lot of time and effort has been invested into devising a safe alternative for horse-riders to the pedestrian only or road sections of the Icknield Way, but I had grave misgivings about taking Micky anywhere near racehorses in training for fear of him getting any ideas about proving who was fastest. I had already decided on a more direct route, albeit mainly on roads, some of it along the Icknield Way, via Gazely and Dalham. With Micky and Magic tethered around a couple of trees and me trying to spread out my maps without them getting too soaked, I telephoned any number of places from the accommodation list further on from Newmarket, but without success. Some had changed hands since the list was produced, others gone out of business, stopped accommodating horses or I could get no reply. In this part of the country it's not as though you can just pitch your tent and set up a corale for your horses wherever you like, and nearly all of the fields are unfenced cereal fields, so I wanted to try and sort something out in advance rather than rely on finding somewhere late in the day, which can so easily mean walking further and further. Yet again I found myself pledging eternal gratitude to Phyl Buxton for having given me several contacts, one of whom agreed to put my ponies in a field at her yard, and insisted I stay at her house.

To find myself staying with someone with virtually the same name as my sister - Julia Woods - and just as nice was more than I could hope for. Julia is currently eventing a lovely Connemara, but in the past has produced and shown Fell ponies, amongst many others. Wish that she lived nearer to sort out my unruly gang, and to keep in closer touch with.

Along the Icknield Way

I've concluded it's a mistake to ever give Micky a day off. When he gets going again he is just too full of himself, and far from showing any signs of tiredness on this trip, the further we've gone, the fitter and fitter he has got, which means he has even more capacity for pranks than usual. Within a mile of leaving Rachels' at Hockham Hall on the morning of Monday 16th August, Micky was snorting with glee at the smell of pigs, and dancing about all over the place at any excuse whatsoever. With the fingers on my right hand still far from right, so to speak, I was struggling to keep him under control one-handed at the same time as holding Magic's lead rein but in such a way that I could drop it quickly in emergency. At which point Jake (my son) telephoned to say that a lorry had run into the back of the car during his driving lesson in Dumfries and although he thought he and the instructor were OK, he was clearly shaken, and it wasn't what he needed two days before his test. Particularly given that the car was now off the road. Ho, hum, the trials and tribulations of everyday life, which serve to remind me how lucky I am to have dipped out of it all for the summer.

The B&B I stayed at on Sunday night had said goodbye full of good cheer about how I would never manage to ride anywhere within 10 miles of Thetford without getting blown up or fired at, and even if they weren't using live ammunition on the MOD ranges, then it was inevitable that I would be accosted, or the ponies spooked, by squaddies in camouflage jumping out of a bush. And if I survived that far, I'd never get across the A11 in one piece. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to find that my map, and the information I'd carefully gathered in advance, was more to be trusted than his advice, and that the southern end of the Peddars Way riding route includes a fantastic new underpass so there was no need to dodge the traffic on the A11. Having planned my route carefully, the bridleways I followed were well clear of any military activity. And even the voice at the end of the phone at the level crossing who asked if I could get across the railway in less than a minute turned out to be a wind-up as no train appeared until 5 minutes after Micky, Magic and I had successfully negotiated the railway crossing.

Roudham was an unexpected surprise, welcome compensation for the lack of any historical interest at many of the places I'd visited over the weekend. The information boards in the millennium shelter next to the remains of a previously thatched church told me all about the rich history of the village and the drove road which runs through it. Whoopee. Who cares that Micky and Magic stood stuffing their faces while tied to the church fence, and still fein disinterest in my historical musings. Roudham was enough to reinspire and revigorate me.

The lovely sandy track lined by ancient trees which led down to West Harling Heath was another unexpected treat, such a contrast to the cabbage country we'd ridden through only a week before. Only afterwards did I learn that Riddlesworth Hall School, which we rode through (well along it's drive and in front of it rather than through the buildings) was where Pricess Di was educated.

At Knettishall Heath we picked up the Icknield Way. Even if there wasn't a sign to tell me so, and even if I hadn't read a lot about the many different people who had used it over the centuries, no-one could be in any doubt that this is an ancient route of incredible interest. In places the long distance Icknield Way Path or trail diverges from the historic track, but for much of the way through to Euston and on west to the 134 you can walk or ride right along the Icknield Way, imagining the cattle being driven along it in one direction and sheep or pigs in the other.

We diverged from the official route to cut through the forest on bridleways and forest tracks down to where I'd arranged grazing for the ponies overnight and somewhere for me to pitch my tent. Delayed by a few stops to sort out the slipping pack saddle, and having taken our time enjoying what we saw along the way, it was gone 8 p.m. by the time Micky, Magic and I reached Wordwell, tired and hungry after a long day of over 23 miles. As a result of which I really hadn't a clue what the farmer meant when he said "There's another one of you around the back". I don't suppose Karen, who used to live locally and was staying at the farm for the summer, would be particularly flattered to be likened to me, nor her Arab to my rotund Fell ponies. But how lucky for me that she was, and that I was yet again spared eating my now very beat-up oatcakes or a packet of tortilla chips for dinner by her invitation to join her for supper in her caravan.

By the time we'd eaten and talked, and talked some more, it was late and I really couldn't be bothered putting my tent up when there was a perfectly good stable to sleep in, with Micky and Magic electric-fenced and hobbled directly outside. In comparison to a tin sheep hut on the footslopes of Ben Nevis it was comparative luxury, even if the shavings on which I laid my saddle blankets and sleeping bag weren't exactly clean, but if you're used to sleeping in a proper bed, perhaps not. When I spoke to my friend Helen she seemed shocked at my sleeping in a stable, which she described to her husband as being "like Jesus". If only!

Sunday 15 August 2010

In search of the drovers

As I don't have to nip back to Scotland for work, and it's less far to London than I thought (but still more than the milestone said if you go the way I'm going), I could easily be in Smithfield at the end of next week. Except there's no point me getting there until Chris can come and pick me up, and as he's driving Jake and his horse Bonnie Prince Charlie to the tetrathlon championships at Hartpury in Gloucestershire next Thursday, they can't come to London to get me until the following Wednesday. Pah. Which just rubs salt into the wound about the fact that had things been different, I could have ridden to St. Faiths and several times around Norwich and still been there by the 25th.

Inspired by a pep talk from my sister Bea, I realise that I shouldn't be whinging about lost opportunities, and oh woe is me, but making the most of the extra time I find I have. When I get back home, there'll be precious little chance to do anything I want, and here I am, with time on my side, doing exactly what I want.

I hatch a plan to find somewhere to leave Micky and Magic at grass for two days, while I hire a car to go back to St. Faiths to poke around and see what I've missed, and to visit all the other places which I'd marked on my map as potentially of droving interest but which I couldn't hope to include in one single trip on horseback. Having failed to find anywhere else for them, Rachel Wilson who had so kindly been persuaded by Phyl to put me up on Friday night, agreed to keep the ponies over the weekend while I took off behind the wheel of a hired Toyota, which is not dissimilar to my ponies but with six gears. It's brakes, like Micky's, are not as sharp as I would like, and like Magic it is prone to intermittently and inexplicably stalling.

For the past two days I've driven around Norfolk, and back around Lincolnshire, in search of the drovers. It's been an interesting contrast to travelling on the hoof. So easy to cover the miles, but so much more detached from what I'm driving through and what is going on around me.

At Horsham St. Faith's I laid my demons to rest by proving to myself that there really was nothing more to see than the roadsigns for Bullock Hill and Calf Lane, which I've now satisifed myself by walking along. I was pleased to see that the village sign has a drover and two cattle on one side, but there is no other sign or mention of the village's significance in the history of droving. The village pub is called not the Drover's Lad or Highland Coo or whatever else I might have expected, but the Black Swan. And on a sleepy Saturday afternoon, no-one in the village was the least bit interested, or aware, of bygone happenings.

South of Norwich, I have visited all the villages which my research identified as featuring on the drovers' onward route to London, or which had markets and fairs at which Scottish cattle were sold: Long Strtaiton, Tivetshall St. Margaret, Dickleburgh, Scole, Wortham, Botesdale, Brockdish, Hoxne. The pubs, which many suggest are a good way of tracking droving, are called irrelevant names like the Dolphin, the Mermaid (why, so far inland?) or the Blue Boar; the attractive village signs bear no relation to droving and there is no whiff or sign that the drovers were ever here. Only in Harleston, where my mother's great grandfather was a butcher in the 1860s, presumably butchering Scottish cattle, do I find Bullock Fair Close, now the home of Budgens supermarket. The only other thing I notice is that in villages such as Walsham le Willows, another at which Scottish cattle were once traded, there is no longer a village shop yet there is a large butchers.

Today, Sunday, I've spent the day tracking back up the Harling Drove which runs up through Hockwold cum Wilton to Southery and Downham Market, which always seemed offline for the Scottish cattle which purportedly were driven east from Spalding to Wisbech and Setchey. I wonder if it was more important for cattle from other sources, such as the Midlands, headed for the rich East Anglian grazing.

I felt when I rode east from Gosberton that I had come too far north, and perhaps should have been further south, closer to Spalding and Wisbech. Rachel's son, an engineer who works for the Environment Agency who is responsible for many of the sluices and drainage controls on the Fens, told me on Friday night that he thought they might have had to come that way to stay on the higher ground as so much of the ground to the north would have been under water. So today I have driven all around the routes the drovers might have taken, and through the many villages which hint at past droving history, including Parson's Drove, Holbeach Drove, Whaplode Drove. Each had plenty of roads with interesting names such as Dog Drove East, Drove Road, Chapel Drove etc., but other than that there was no more sign of droving there than where I had ridden through, and many of the old drove roads I'd identified on early maps now had plain boring road names, with nothing whatsoever to differentiate them physically or in any other way from any other road, modern or old.

Coming over the Highlands, and down through the Borders, the sound of the drovers and their cattle was still on the wind, the remains of the drystane dykes and the places they stayed all adding to the picture. Here on the flatlands, so very much has changed that it's hard to get any sense of who has gone before, and I find myself somewhat like a fish out of water, longing for the hills of home. The somewhat incongruous picture of Highland cattle grazing around a sea loch which hangs on the wall over my bed in the faceless B&B in which I am staying tonight near Wymondham serves only to remind me where my heart lies. I wonder if the drovers felt the same.

I'm sure there's plenty more I could find out given time to dig deep into records, but for now at least I've satisfied myself that I lost nothing by taking a more pragmatic route slightly north, which in places was in fact only a mile or two from where I've searched today.

And I've proved that it was a wise decision NOT to have diverted miles out of my way on horseback just to take in Black Horse Drove because I liked the name. What a disappointment. I arrived in my car to find no sign of black horses, or anything to do with droving, just a ribbon of houses sandwiched between fields of wheat, linseed and sugar beet in the middle of the Fens.

Tomorrow we head onwards, to pick up the Icknield Way, the oldest route in Britain. I'm looking forward to being back on a real ancient track again.

On the last leg

The Scottish cattle were sold at St. Faith's in the same way store cattle are sold today, being bought by local farmers who then fattened them on the marshes between Norwich, Beccles and Yarmouth over winter before either selling them locally or paying drovers to drive them on to Smithfield market in the spring. We, however, are pushing on, on the last leg of our journey through to London.

I didn't dare mention to Phyl and Ron Buxton, who had been persuaded by John to have me to stay at Kimberley Hall, that there had ever been any doubt as to whether I arrived with them on Thursday evening, having decided it better to keep the dilemmas of my day to myself. They had enough else to think about, and I welcomed Ron giving me food for thought as he showed me the pictures of his three week ride through Kashmir in the 1950s during his time with the Indian army, which he proclaimed the best ride he had ever had, following the "government bridleway" constructed to reduce the number of fatalities previously experienced getting the post through Kashmir. Another reminder of how tame my little ride is in comparison.

I also thoroughly enjoyed reading an account by their son Peter, who 30 years ago set off without any preparation on his in-foal grey Connemara mare to ride from Norfolk to Devon. His route south from Bath coincided with much of Elsa's and my route from John O'Groats to Lands End.

Before I set off again from Kimberley on Friday morning, I e-mailed Boris Johnson to invite him to meet me on arrival at Smithfield, although I've since heard he may be on safari. Perhaps that's what I am?

Riding through Kimberley Park, the thunder was so deafening I thought a bomb might have dropped. Whether excited by that or spooked by some other odd rumbling, Micky yet again had to remind me there are other paces than walk with a brief unscheduled canter up the road before we turned off to Wicklewood. My fingers are much improved after Mary sent me to bed on Wednesday night with a pad of cotton wool soaked in witch hazel wrapped round my fingers, then wrapped in a sandwich bag, but I still can't bend my little finger properly on my right hand so I'm still not as adept with my hands as I usually am. My next finger is blotchy white instead of the purple it was, which I'm taking as a turn for the better.

Heading up the road towards Deopham, Micky and I were taken aback by a white painted stone milepost which said London 100 miles - much less than I thought, and enough to inspire panic at the thought of our fun being nearly over. Which is Micky's excuse for why he spun round and set off at a gallop in the other direction with Magic wondering what was going on because she couldn't see any problem with the milestone in the first place. Later in the day we met a traction engine pulling a giant roller along the road, on its way to a rally. I quickly pulled off the road onto a ploughed field, but needn't have bothered, neither Micky or Magic giving two hoots about something any other horse would go ballistic at.

On we headed past Great and Little Ellingham, along a lovely old byway and bits of track where we could, with it raining harder and harder as the day went on. At least skin is waterproof and there comes a point when you can get no wetter.

Just as well as there were other things to dampen spirits on Friday. Much as I don't want to think about life after this trip, reality (and particularly finanaces) dictates otherwise, and for the past week I've been waiting for word about the outcome of the tender I submitted last week. It was mid-afternoon before I got a phone call saying I'd been pipped at the post, having come a close second, which is always disappointing, particularly this time when I felt that had I spent the time I'd put into the tender sorting out accommodation, I could have made it to St. Faiths. And although it's a relief not to have to find somewhere to dump the ponies and scurry back to Scotland for an inception meeting on Monday afternoon, had I known that morning that I didn't need to do so, I would have retraced my steps and gone to St. Faiths. Too late now, but not too late to spend the rest of the day beating myself up about what with the benefit of hindsight I should have done.

Slip Sliding around Norwich

The flip side of finding someone (i.e. John) who talked exactly the same language as me was finding myself the following day totally incapable of instilling any sense of understanding of what I am currently doing in the people I spoke to at Norfolk College of Agriculture at Easton.

My plan from North Elmham was to continue east, via Horsford, to Horsham St. Faith's, just north of Norwich, which was where so many of the Scottish cattle were headed. Apparently there's been a cattle and horse market at St. Faith's since the priory was established there around 1100. By 1720 there were over 20,000 Scottish cattle a year passing through the market, which started each year on 17th October, and went on for up to three weeks. During the 1800s the numbers increased much further, until the market closed in 1872 - quite why, I don't yet know, as this predates the demise of the Scottish fairs and trysts which coincided with the coming of the railways.

Since that time, much has changed around Horsham St. Faith's, not least the construction of the airport immediately south of the village, and the development of many of the surrounding villages as dormitories for Norwich. Partly because of this, I had really struggled to find anywhere for me and the ponies to stay, and because it is now so built up, I felt I was really pushing my luck to ride through without having fixed something in advance, particularly if at the end of >20 miles in a day I found we had no choice but to push on much further. John and Mary rung everyone they could think of, without success, not least because so much of what usd to be grass is now cropped for cereals. I concluded that in the end I might just have to accept that I couldn't actually ride across to St. Faith's, and would have to make do with visiting it on foot instead. To which end John drove me through there, and I got terribly over-excited finding Bullock Hill and Calf Lane, one and the same as the very site where the fair was held for all those hundreds of years.

I really did convince myself that was enough, and went to bed exhilerated by tales of riding through South America, by visiting Bullock Hill and having such a good time with John and Mary. It was only after I set off again from John's the next morning that doubt set in. With each mile that passed I felt more and more like I was cheating. Any rules for my ride, such as there are any, are set by myself, and there was never anything hard and fast to say I had to ride to St. Faith's itself. However as I rode along the pretty little lanes east of Swanton Morley, as each mile passed, it hit home more and more how much it mattered to actually ride to St. Faith's. Surely that was why I'd ridden across Norfolk, to follow as closely as possible in the footsteps of the drovers? There may not have been anything left to show for it, but Micky, Magic and I have ridden across what is now the golf course at Falkirk Tryst in the pouring rain, we rode right alongside the site of Stagshaw Bank, again in the pouring rain, and now having come all this way, I felt that if I wasn't actually going to ride up Bullock Hill then I'd failed. But equally that if I didn't keep going and turn up at the friends of John and Mary's who they had very kindly arranged for me to stay with tonight, then I risked offending everyone who had been so kind and helpful. It wasn't that John had tired to scupper my plans. Far from it, he and Mary could not have been more helpful and encouraging. It was me who had said that I'd be happy if I got within a few miles of Horsham St. Faith's with my ponies and then had to do the last few miles on foot then I would be happy. Except now I definitely wasn't. Call me fickle, call me Jekyll and Hyde, call me what you want. More fool me for having got so wrapped in the everyday trials and tribulations of a long distance ride that I had lost sight of what mattered most to me.

Wracked by inner turmoil, I stopped alongside a signpost on a triangle of grass at Elsing and rung to regale Chris with my predicament. He was on his lunchbreak walking up the high street in Dumfries - bet he was really glad to have to wait to buy his sandwiches. Chris told me not to give myself a hard time and to accept that it wasn't as though I hadn't made it to St. Faith's at all, and that if I'd tried but failed to sort out anywhere to stay nearer St. Faith's which allowed me to ride there, I should stick to what John had arranged. So I plodded on, but for someone who lives very much by intuition and is wholly committed to doing what I believe to be right, I was not a happy bunny.

Once I'd got over the A47, I knew I was getting to the point of no return. I'd already strayed well off the route I would have taken had I gone straight from North Elmham to St. Faiths, but there was still a chance of cutting back across, if I could find somewhere to stay midway, but once I went any further south, then I would already have started on the last leg of my journey to Smithfield. The ponies were glad of the opportunity to graze the verge while I dug out all my maps again. Only then did I notice that Norfolk Agricultural College was not far from where I was, and my spirits lifted as I hatched a plan to stay there tonight, and then ride to St. Faith's in the morning, and down to Kimberley the next night, which I hoped wouldn't offend anyone too much and would appease my conscience.

When I rung the college to explain what I was doing and ask if they could possibly put the ponies up for the night at grass on in a stable, the very helpful girl on reception said that as it was the vacation there weren't many people around so it would be better if she asked around and got someone to rung me back. Credit to their efficiency that 10 minutes later I got a return call from another girl who sounded helpful but was on a different planet. The conversation went like this:

"I'm sorry but we can't possibly accommodate your ponies here tonight (no reason given, but mine is not to question why, and I have already reinforced the fact that they are in prime health, vaccinated etc.). However, I have two other suggestions for you" (Not that I said so, but I was thinking, oh well, that's helpful).
"I ride at a riding school out on the Yarmouth Road and I think they might put your ponies up".
Hang on, isn't that on the east side of Norwich and wouldn't it involve riding through Norwich city centre? Which I try and say as politely as possible.
"Oh no, you just keep going on the A47"
But as I explained already, I'm riding one pony and leading another and the A47 is a dual carriageway which I can't ride miles along .... even if the riding school weren't another 20 miles away in the wrong direction and by the time I got there, if I ever did alive, I'd be worse off than I was now.
No matter what I said, no matter that she'd already commented on being able to hear the clip-clop in the background, I couldn't get her to understand that I was on horseback rather than in a trailer (drrrr... that's the basis of riding from Skye to Smithfield ...)and that the whole point of asking to stay at the college was because I could only travel so many miles in a day etc. etc. And yes it was in aid of Cancer Research and it mattered so much to me to go to St. Faiths because I was following drovers etc. etc.

I suppose if you've only ever ridden around in circles in an arena, then perhaps you can't begin to imagine that someone might actually be riding through the countryside, or that riding around the Norwich ring-road is a non-starter.

Her other suggestion was the Redwings Horse Sanctuary at Horsham St. Faith's. I was surprised I'd never found anything about it, but she insisted that's where it was and only when I rung Redwings did I confirm that no they didn't have any facility near there, nor had there ever been one.

So it was with heavy heart that I turned south, too soon in my book, instead of carrying on east, having got very close, but with no-one but myself to blame for having failed to reach Horsham St. Faith's on horseback. Whether it was because my mood rubbed off onto them or the type of tarmac I do not know, but Micky and Magic dragged along, hind feet slipping and sliding, which I felt is what I'd let happen to my hopes and dreams.

High Horses

Micky is determined to ensure there is never a dull moment on this trip. I'd only been going a mile or two on Wednesday morning, up the road from Beeston, when my attempts to take arty-farty pictures of the shadows of the ponies were rudely interrupted by Micky spinning around, jumping up a bank, and careering off at flat-out gallop across a field of sugar beet. (Just as well the farmer wasn't watching, and yes I do feel embarassed, but it's Micky who should be doing so really.) Whether he was determined to prove that he is still capable of going much faster than a walk, or wanted to prove his point at the Give Way sign, i.e. that he doesn't agree with giving way, I don't know, but I wasn't too impressed. Thankfully after last week's little incident I had the sense to drop Magic's lead rope immediately so that I wasn't yanked off when she went the opposite side of a tree. And although it could easily have done quite the opposite, proving to myself that I was not easily unseated no matter what Micky did, and could eventually pull him up even with a duff hand, helped restore the confidence I lost last week. I've also since realised that it wasn't so much Magic to blame for stopping that pulled me off last week, but Micky's refusal to stop. Riding one pony and leading another I feel I've got my hands full enough without anything else to hold, but there's no doubt whatsoever that Micky behaves much better with a stick in my hand, even if I rarely have to use it.

After a few strong words about being old enough to know better, and threats to return him to pack pony status if he couldn't behave himself under saddle, Micky settled down again, allowing me to marvel at the bounty of hedgerow fruit this year. I'd asked Barley yesterday whether it was normal for East Anglia, where I'd already noticed that sloe berries clearly grow much better than in Scotland,but Chris tells me that at home near Lockerbie our wild cherry trees are literally dripping with fruit, and it's all to do with the spring and how much seed was set. The old lane I rode along would have made rich pickings had I had time or inclination to stop. the hedgerow trees were heavy with yellow and red cherries, cute crab apples and big fat sloes.

The lane past the old church at Bittering wasn't the most direct route, but I'd been told was much older and more interesting than the bigger road. The bridleway which linked through to Beetley certainly had an ancient feel to it, a nice change from tarmac, even if it meant hanging around Micky's neck to get under the low branches. From Hoe we followed the disused railway north to Worthing, past another fantastic round towered church in a field before crossing the River Wensum into North Elmham.

Not sorting out accommodation in advance has many down sides, not least worrying how and when I will find somewhere safe for me and the ponies to camp or stay overnight, but boy was it worth having left things flexible last Wednesday. If I'd had the luxury of more time to get organised in advance before I set off, then perhaps I might have realised that I'd be passing near one of the Godfathers of long distance riding, John Labouchere, who nearly 20 years ago rode 5,000 miles through South America following in Tschiffely's footsteps. I first heard about his trip when I saw John on a video made by Dylan Winter, "The Travelling Horse", which included interviews with some of the UK's great long riders. It was only on Monday evening that I'd clicked that Elizabeth Barrett, another one of the founders of the Long Riders Guild who has also done more than virtually anyone else to promote and reopen riding routes in East Anglia, had included John on the list of contact's she'd given me. I'd rung to ask if by chance he knew exactly which way the drovers went through Norfolk, and he'd suggested I ring the following day when I reached Beeston and he would come through and meet me. By the time I was able to ring, he concluded we didn't have enough time to talk (he hadn't even met me at that point, nor had any warning ...) but invited me to stay the following night.

It was one of the highlights of my trip, all the better for being so unexpected, to meet one of the horses with whom he did his trip, now aged 28, and to be able to see first hand all of the equipment he used: the pack saddle John made himself on arrival in South America, his cooker, the dictaphone from which he sent home tapes to his wife instead of letters, which Mary then transcribed and which later provided the basis for his wonderful book "High Horses". It was really interesting comparing the packs he had made in the UK before he left with those which I designed and had custom made for my trip. And to meet Mary, his lovely wife, and to ask her how it was for her when John was away travelling on horseback.

My travels pale into insignificance in comparison to John's epic trip, but as he described how much his trip had proved to have in common with Tschiffely's, I realised how much my rides through Britain had in common with many of those more daring and through more exotic countries. I don't have to deal with altitude sickness, temperatures dropping to -8 at night or rising so high during the day, bandits or many of the other challenges unique to foreign countries, I (supposedly!) speak the same language as everyone else in the country I'm travelling through, am never more than a couple of days away from mobile phone contact and have detailed maps with which to find my way. But through our different travels, we nevertheless share a unique understanding of what it is like to set off on horseback with all you need carried in your saddlebags or on your packhorse. And we found that over the years we have ridden many of the same routes in this country in the past, but at different times. Oh the joys of comparing notes about riding the Ridgeway, through Scotland and the north of England. It would be fascinating to plot where we've ridden on a map and see how our travels overlap.

Pigs in muck

Tuesday 10th August we set off again from Abbey Farm refreshed from our day off, and with Micky in his element - a belly full of good grass, and oh so chuffed to find that for the first few miles we were riding through the most massive outdoor pig unit. We've met the odd pig or two along the way, but in his wildest dreams Micky never imagined he was going to meet so many thousands of other animals who snorted just as loudly and happily as him. Magic, who was pack pony, took it all in her strideand kept whatever she was thinking to herself.

From West Acre we picked up the Nar Valley Way which follows old tracks and quiet lanes through to Castle Acre. I'd like to think they were one and the same the drovers used, but there's no way of knowing. At least they were picturesque, with fords across the river from time to time to add a bit of a variety. I'd confidently told my friend Barley that fords weren't an issue for us because riding from home my ponies ford a river without batting an eyelid virtually every time they go out. Typical therefore that having happily waded through various earlier in the day, it was only when we had a large audience and Barley was waiting on the other side on her Dales mare Ruby that Micky decided it wasn't safe to step down the concrete step on our side of the ford and with my right hand still stiff and sore from falling off and my left hand fully occupied with Magic, it wasn't as easy as it might usually be to persuade him otherwise. So we trit trotted over the rickey bridge instead, which most ponies would have considered far more scarey.

A real luxury to have Barley to keep watch over the ponies in Castle Acre while I went into the post office to send home my used maps. Perhaps just as well given the mentality of the shopkeeper who insisted that he couldn't accept my envelope for another 10 minutes until 1 o'clock precisely, even though he was selling everything else over the same counter.

The castle from which Castle Acre gets its name was really impressive and well worth the detour to admire it, a welcome interjection of some alternative history. This is Barley's home patch and her own family history, as well as her knowledge of the area, enriched our day considerably. The huge girth of the oak trees which lined the roads, the delightful stone churches with their squat round towers and parkland around the hall at Lexham are all so different to what we've ridden through previously. And then another windmill to compare with the stone windmill tower we have at home at Shortrigg. Time, and the miles, really fly when you're having fun, even when you're going no faster than a walk. And after so long riding alone, no matter how much I have appreciated having only myself to answer to, it's been great to have some company. Micky wasn't complaining either at having Ruby to show off to.

Various people have asked why I haven't syndicated sections of the route to offer other people the chance to ride with me part of the way, and to raise more money for Cancer Research, but it would have added a multitude of extra layers to the organisation, and just because I am an anorak about ancient tracks and droving in particular, it doesn't mean it's everyone else's cup of tea. And I know only too well that the distances and speed I'm riding at don't necessarily suit everyone. So yes I have forefeited the pleasure of company, someone else to share the enjoyment and to buck me up when the going gets tough, but there's no-one to get exasperated about my quest to follow in the footsteps of the drovers instead of taking the easier or prettier bridleway, no-one (other than me) to whinge that they are tired or sore, or that they think we should be cracking on instead of stopping to chat. And equally I am well aware that travelling alone you meet far more people than you do when you're riding with someone else. So on balance I'm really glad I've done it my way.

Monday 9 August 2010

A day's respite

Magic is having an identity crisis because she is in a field next to Jimmy the donkey and as I frequently call her Donkey, she is now confused as to what she is and what Jimmy is. Micky, being male and immune to any self-doubt, just keeps his head down and concentrates on maintaining his impressive waistline. The paddock the ponies are in at Abbey Farm is ideal for a day off: shelter if they want it from the bright, baking sun, plenty of grass, and visible from the windows of my spacious bedroom, adjacent to a former abbey.

It's been great to have a day off without having to work. All the better for being taken out to lunch by Helen and Mark, good friends from Leicestershire, who I'm honoured took time out of their unbelievably busy lives to coincide a visit to see me with a visit to Helen's mum and aunt staying up on the coast. Mark has done all sorts of impressive long distance marathon bike rides in the past so knows what it's like to push yourself hard. And how important it is to eat the right food, often. So this afternoon they took me shopping in Kings Lynn and restocked my saddle bags with dried apricots, nuts, cereal bars and bananas. If energy and enthusiasm start waning again, it won't be due to lack of calorific input.

I had intended spending the rest of the day sorting out accommodation and arrangements for the rest of my ride, but I really don't want to set myself some tight schedule that I am then obliged to stick to, without time to make the most of who and what we meet along the way, so I'm just going to play it by ear.

Into Norfolk

By the time I got out to the ponies on Sunday morning, Micky and Jake had decided they were inseparable soul mates, which they could well be, given that they look virtually identical, bar 4" difference in height. Having danced about on his hind legs while I was tacking up, I can't exactly say I was feeling confident when I got on Micky, but my fears proved ill founded, and it was a real treat to have Mouse and Jake riding with us through to Tottenhill, due south of Setchey, which my research before I set off told me was where the drovers went. Why, I'm not too sure. Perhaps there was a bridge across the river then, or a fair.

Mouse had to turn back to prepare for her next guests, leaving Micky, Magic and I to carry on alone again through Wormegay. Mouse had suggested a route she had previously driven which crossed directly over the A47, but I had previously marked up a route east along part of the Nar Valley Way, through a forest which my map told me used to be a rabbit warren. Whole flotillas (if that's the plural) of dragonflies flew lazily around us as we rode along the sandy rides in glorious sunshine. Very different to the flat fens we had crossed the previous couple of days, we now found ourselves in a much more wooded landscape. In contrast to the heavily canalised rivers and drains we have ridden along and over, the River Nar was beautiful, slow flowing and crystal clear. A text from Jake (as in my son, rather than Mouse's horse) who is in San Fransisco competing at international tetrathlon, telling me he was about to do his swimming competition, made me wish I too was stopping for a dip. Which is what the man I met at the bridge over the river told me he was about to do, and suggested I join him, but I wasn't quite sure if I trusted him, and with my mother's words of warning ringing in my ears, I wished I hadn't admitted quite so quickly to being on my own and that he hadn't made such a point of saying what an isolated spot it was where no-one else ever came.

I needn't have worried: either my jodphpurs put him off,or he was just a genuinely nice man after my own heart inspired to swim in the river, which to me was infinitely more appealing that the lakes (presumably artificial after gravel working) on the road to Pentney.

Having been warned that I really, really was stupid to ride along the A47 for any distance at all, I had found a bridleway on my map which led straight across from the road through from Pentney. The good news was that there was a fingerpost and a gap around the barrier on the far side of the A47, and the first part of the track had been recently cleared. The bad news was that after a few hundred yards, there was no sign of the bridleway which my map said carried straight on, and after a short way, the cleared track under the power lines stopped. So it was back to ploughing our way through trees and scrub, at which we had quite a bit of practice coming through the Borders. Magic who was being pack pony kept looking at me as if to say "I'm telling you that those branches are too low but I'll do anything you ask, provided you take the blame". More than a few times she came out with broken branches stuck across the pack saddle, blinking beningly at me "Told you so". Micky, being a good few inches smaller, without a pack, and with much less manners, just barged through regardless. It was a reminder that not all bridleways in England are necessarly passable, and yet again that you need to keep your wits about you all the time. And your eye on the map so that when you've been forced to deviate off the path you think you should be on, you can still find your way through.

We were headed to East Walton because that's where I'd located a paddock for the ponies and somewhere for me to stay for two nights to try and overcome the awful tiredness which has crept up on me, and to allow my hands and body to recover from my close encounter with the tarmac. I wasn't too sure if this meant I was off the track of the drovers again - not least because no-one can tell me exactly which way they got to Horsham St. Faiths, north of Norwich, other than that they were north of Downham Market, Swaffham and Dereham. Then suddenly there's a roadsign saying Wilson's Drove. Except it was so short and relatively narrow that it seems it was a much more recent drove road used to drive cattle to a local railhead, rather than part of the longer distance droving network from Scotland to Norfolk.

Across the Fens

Sam at Meadowbrook Stables kindly suggested I sleep in their mobile home rather than bother putting my tent,which was very generous, but didn't stop me balking when I learned the next morning that I was being charged £25 per night, per pony, for a stable without any hard food. It's the first time I've been asked to pay anything for the ponies since we set off - not that I don't always offer, but even commercial livery yards have refused to charge us, or asked me to donate the equivalent to Cancer Research. Comfortable though the stables might be, I'm unconvinced about the viability of a horse hotel which charges more than what you pay for most of the human accomodation in Scotland.

From Gedney Fen we rode east along the banks of the South Holland Main Drain, knowing full well that it probably didn't exist in droving days so we weren't being as authentic as we could, but it was the safest, easiest way to get to Sutton Bridge where I had decided to cross the River Nene. The alternative was to go south through Wisbech, which numerous people had advised me against,and not just because of the traffic and very busy roads. Magic once again excelled herself clattering over Sutton Bridge, with Micky following dutifully behind, but well out in the middle of the road as we crossed the bridge to stop the caravan right on our tail getting any silly ideas about trying to squash past and overtake. The A17 was even busier than the day before, and the parallel cycle track had barriers too narrow for a horse, so we opted for a track along a field headland. Even away from the traffic, and making comparatively good time, spirits started sinking again with the ponies only too ready to take advantage of my stiff, sore fingers which were still struggling with the reins, and both arms not a lot better. Having missed tea the night before and eaten only a few oatcakes for breakfast, I wasn't sure if I was also suffering from a crash in sugar levels, but was too tired to feel hungry, or to bother stopping to see what else I could find in my saddlebags to restore energy.

Riding into Walpole Cross keys I spotted a garage, which immediately raised my hopes. I asked the man at the petrol pumps if he sold anything but fuel, such as drinks. "Nope" came the reply. Oh well,said I, trying to be cheerful, there's a pub marked on my map just up the road. "It's shut" he said, helpfully. So is there a shop, I ask. "Nope". Thanks a bundle.

With hopes falsely raised and now dashed, I felt even more dejected than I did before, so decided to sit down for a few minutes on a bench with a convenient lamp-post and grass for the ponies. There am I on the phone trying to arrange where to stay and a car stops, out get two women and two girls, intrigued to know where I'm going, and before I know it I am back at their house being plied with a cup of tea,a cheese sandwich beautifully garnished with apple and cherry tomatoes, all enjoyed form the comfort of a camping chair which they thoughtfully produced. Thank you Sue and co. for revigorating me and for your interest and enthusiasm. I couldn't have met you at a better time.

Having sorted somewhere to stay near Wiggenhall St. Mary Magdalen, Micky, Magic and I cut south on quiet roads down to St. John's Highway and Tilney St. Lawrence, where to my great relief the roadsigns and wide verges suggested I was back on the trail of the drovers again. Which cheered me up enough that I really didn't care when the heavens opened and in the half hour torrential downpour we got utterly drenched. Our skin is waterproof, and there are things rain cannot dampen. Nevertheless it was a relief not only for it to be warm rain, but to arrive at Strawberry Fields to find a warm welcome and a lovely paddock for the ponies. And having thought I might well miss tea again, instead I sat and enjoyed a very welcome meal hearing about Mouse's past exploits with her lovely Dales pony Jake, including a coast to coast drive from the Solway across to Northumberland which coincided with part of my route.

Cabbage Country

Friday morning Mary and Michael set me off to a wonderful start, fortified with a good breakfast, armed with a packed lunch and a bottle of rosehip capsules to ease the aching joints, and a lot of encouragement. Sadly none of which persuaded the fingers which had been mangled in Micky's reins the previous evening to work, which did nothing to ease tacking up (particularly doing up girth straps - you try doing it between first finger and thumb). Bernard, around whose showjumps Micky and Magic had been happily grazing lush grass all night, generously offered to stick me and ponies in a trailer and leapfrog us forward, but it's not something I could entertain, no matter how wobbly I felt. Perhaps just as well that I had an audience while I was tacking up and my pride is such that I was determined to put on a brave face and hide the misgivings which might otherwise have prevented me getting back on.

With a long way to go on busy roads, I decided to ride Magic on the basis that she is even more bombproof in traffic than Micky, there's no risk of the pack slipping on Micky, and if I'm riding her she will not get chance to think twice about stopping to do a poo. Equally important, there are times when it's hard to hold Micky-no-brakes with two hands, let alone one with duff fingers, whereas Magic stops immediately I say "whoa" or press down into my stirrups. She flinched not an inch as the biggest tractors in the world drove past us on narrow lanes, and I consoled myself that all would be OK after all. 5 minutes later and she'd stopped and decided to head back towards Bernard's, knowing full well that my left hand was fully occupied holding Micky's rope but without looping it around anything, and my right hand was too stiff and sore to force her back in the right direction. No choice but to get off, whereupon she is docile as a lamb and says of course she will do whatever I ask. But feeling feeble already, the prospect of either walking all the way or dealing with the tantrums of two stroppy Fell ponies just didn't amuse. And once you start slipping down the slippery slope of self-pity and defeat ....

I said to Chris before I set off on this trip that it was something I so much wanted to do that I really didn't mind what happened along the way, and that if I died as a result, so be it, I would die happy. Nearly 6 weeks later, I found I had changed my mind, and had no wish to have my fun cut short or interrupted. Equally, since I fell off, I seemed to have lost my bottle and wasn't sure I had what it took to make it through to Smithfield. Which is when you really wish there was someone else there to give you a hug, lead a pony for you, or just offer some moral support.

So I rung Elsa who I knew would understand better than anyone, who said simply "You'll be fine, mum, you always are, just keep going". But I'm not, said I, my fingers won't work, I'm stiff and sore all over, and I'm feeling really wobbly and worried I can't control two ponies any more. "Oh don't worry, you know they'll be OK, they're always like that and think what you've done so far". All very well, but when two weeks before we set off Micky reared up on his hind legs and bolted for home with Elsa on board, she wasn't too keen to get back on him, which was why I ended up riding him (and two hours later got thrown off).

All those well-meaning people who've said how brave I am would not have thought that on Friday morning as I walked along a river bank with tears streaming down my face, full of self-doubt (and self-pity). Elsa's solution was to ask if I'd like to speak to Chris, who'd taken a day off to plaster the kitche and was apparently far more concerned about that than me. No suggestion that I'd chosen to do this ride so why didn't I shut up whinging, but equally no semblance of any concern nor recognition that perhaps all was not as it should be. Nothing new there. I should perhaps be glad to be married to someone who has such undying faith in me, and who is more than happy (relieved?) for me to wander off for weeks at a time, but there are times when it might be nice for them to realise that I am not infallible and for them to do more than deny that there's a problem. Oh well, nothing's going to change that between here and Smithfield, so the best I could do to stop my wobbles was to sit down on the riverbank for 5 minutes and trough the sandwiches Mary had packed for me, just in case it was hunger that was making me wobbly. No point trying to ride down the A17 with a glucose crash.

I'd debated before I left Gosberton whether I should head north to cross the River Welland at Fosdyke Bridge or south through the middle of Spalding, and concluded Fosdyke Bridge was preferable to contending with the A16 and miles of civilisation. To her credit, Magic batted not an eyelid riding over the bridge, or along the horribly busy A17 for a mile or more until we could turn off towards Moulton Sea End. Sods law that no sooner had we turned off than the traffic stopped moving on the A17 and everyone diverted down exactly the same roads I was going.

The lack of any hint that this was the way the drovers came was a disappointment, but instead I learned a lot about cabbages. To say this is cabbage country is under-statement. All day we rode past fields of cabbages - red ones, purple ones, green ones, new ones being planted, young cabbage plants growing, mature cabbage being harvested by gangs of Eastern European labour, cabbages being slung up into crates and then towed away. I never knew that enough people ate cabbage to justify growing so many, and it would be very interesting to know more about the economics, given the low value per head of cabbage. The volume of traffic, tractor and machinery movement, all rushing around tending and cropping cabbage was unbelievable. A friendly white van driver pulled over to ask where I was going and suggested I help myself (something Micky had thought of doing hours ago)but there's no way my teeth were going to be able to munch through raw cabbage.

An hour or so on saw us strolling into Holbeach, which I thought was included on my list of places through which the drovers passed. Just over the roundabout, a police car pulled in front of us. I was in no mood for a repetition of my unfortunate run-in with the police in Peebles, where they'd given me a really hard time about riding the wrong way up on a one-way street (and did not appreciate my justifying myself because there were no cars coming, there was plenty of space for me to pull over had any appeared, and for everyone concerned it seemed preferable to riding around three sides of a square and then holding up the traffic on Peebles High Street). At least this time I knew I had done nothing wrong (unless someone had reported me for whacking Magic with a twig when she was throwing a bit of a tantrum earlier on), so I smiled sweetly and when the police lady asked where I was going, just said London. She turned out to be very friendly and seemed to have stopped as much as anything to show me a picture on her mobile phone of her newly acquired driving pony, the Artful Dodger, and having confirmed I wasn't going to set up camp in the swing park or similar, wished me well on my way.

Finding somewhere in Holbeach safe to tie ponies while I went in the post office to send redundant maps home wasn't easy. The driveway next door said no parking but I reckoned my ponies weren't the same as parking a car, so I made use of the railings, thoughtfully tying them up alongside an elder bush which they could usefully trim rather than alongside the ornamental conifers or climbing plants. Before I got chance to run into the post office, out came the owners ready to move me on, but once I explained what I was doing and agreed to let their kids sit on the ponies, they raised no objection and went inside to fetch pears and apples for Micky and Magic, who unable to chew them properly with their bits in, slobbered all over their little girl.

Miles and more miles to Gedney Fen, where I'd arranged to camp overnight at what advertised on the web as Horse Hotel, still no sign of the drovers having come this way, and I realised I was perhaps too far north. Had I come south via Spalding across to Whaplode Drove and Holbeach Drove I might have done better, but then to the north of me alongside the Wash is Gedney Drove End, so there was no way of knowing, and at least we'd got safely over the Welland.

Whatever comes before a fall

Perhaps I shouldn't have called that last bit Easy Rider. Perhaps I shouldn't have been so smug that Magic was reshod, we had only a few miles to go to the livery yard the ponies were booked into overnight, that I had not long to wait before a warm welcome at Mary and Michael's in Gosberton. And no, I shouldn't have been chatting away on the phone to Chris telling him all this as I rode along, but you get to trust and know your ponies so well that when you are very tired, very hungry and a bit complacent, things can take you unawares.

As did Magic, when she stopped dead and refused to move until she'd done a poo, but Micky had other ideas, which definitely didn't involve stopping, for anyone, for anything, at any cost. I've read my manual of pack transportation, I know better than to attach my pack pony's lead rope to any part of my riding horse or saddle. And I fully appreciate that using a lead rope with a loop on the end is dangerous if you loop it over your hand or wrist rather than simply hold onto the end of a plain rope, but equally there are so many occasions where that loop makes the difference betwen holding onto the pack pony or accidentally letting their rope slip through your hands, particularly if you have arthritic hands, as have I. I also know that looping my riding reins around my hand isn't necessarily safe, but on a quiet lane, with bombproof ponies, I didn't stop to think.

Until with Magic refusing to move and Micky refusing to stop, I found I couldn't drop Magic's lead rope, nor could I unravel my hand from Micky's reins, and in horrible slow motion I was being pulled back by Magic, whose strength was such (as was that of my hold on him) that for quite a few seconds he was literally being pulled over sideways, until eventually my saddle went over instead of him, and I unceremoniously fell off onto the road.

Things could be a lot worse. I'm well padded, so nothing broken, there was no traffic coming, I had only a mile or two to walk to where the ponies were staying, and as fortune would have it, it was a night I wasn't faced with crawling into my tent but was able to soak in the hot bath Mary had so thoughtfully run for me, but I felt like I'd been run over by a steamroller.

I'm not in the habit of falling off - four times in the past 10 years - and at most the same again in the previous 10 - but as I've got older, what hits me most is not just what it does to my body, but how it dints my confidence. Never more so than a long way from home with hundreds of miles yet to go. Alone.