Saturday 31 July 2010

World champion farriery and goodwill

I'm not a religious person, and it's not to say there haven't been some very tough times, but the further I get on this trip, I really do wonder if someone or something is smiling over me.

To find a farrier who is prepared to come out at no notice to reshoe Micky was more than I could ask or expect of anyone. For that to be one and the same person who has just won the world championships for shoeing horses is beyond belief. But that's exactly what happened. Undeterred by my phone call on Saturday night interrupting his night out, Steven Bean agreed to meet up with me and sort Micky out by the roadside on Sunday afternoon. It seemed more than a coincidence that the place we coincided was called Black Horse Lane, a good omen if ever there was one.

Anyone less skilled would have struggled to find any hoof to nail into, but within half an hour Micky had two new front shoes, securely nailed and perfectly shaped to avoid any risk of him pulling them off. For which Steven would not accept a penny. All I can say is that Steven's farriery skills are obviously matched by world class generosity, and it is only thanks to him that we were able to continue along our way.

Saturday 24 July 2010

Trials and tribulations

Yesterday was a long, tough day. The second day since I set off nearly 4 weeks ago that it hasn't rained, which you would think would be something to rejoice about, but the ponies and I aren't used to the heat, or the black bugs which smothered my arms and t-shirt and crawled inside my hat and clothing. We were on road nearly all the way - not that there weren't any bridleways, but we had far enough to travel and if they added too many extra miles, road seemed preferable.

The biggest challenge was crossing the A66. There were three options: a minor road which goes underneath it near Sadberge, which would have left me the wrong side of endless loops of the River Tees; down through Redmarshall, which was directly on the old drove route south from Durham but involved two big roundabout interchanges; or a middle route which appeared on my map to cross direct over A66 and appealed to me because it was bang on the old drove route between Whinny Hill and Coatham Stob. The first half of the dual carriageway wasn't too bad, but Micky, Magic and I stood for ages waiting on an island in the middle of the dual carriageway for a momentary lull in the westbound traffic which continually roared past. When eventually there was a break, Magic trotted gamely across. Micky stopped dead in the middle and I thought our time had come. I also thoguht how very glad I was not to have a herd of cattle with me to try and get across.

Inspired by a sign to "Drovers Way" caravan site, I took a risk that we'd be able to get through along the old drove route past Coatham Stob, but the former track now ends in a brickworks with a locked gate, so we had to backtrack, having added several needless miles to our journey in pursuit of authenticity, which drained ponies' energy and my enhtusiasm.

Actually flagging morale was as much an issue yesterday as crossing the A66, a rare admission, and usually not a problem, but compounded by insufficient sleep, worrying where I was going to stay, and about Micky's back, which is no worse, but not clever. It was a huge relief when Jen at Kirklevington Riding School agreed to put the ponies up and I found a B&B up the road in Yarm. Even more so when she said we were welcome to stay longer to rest the ponies if I wanted. The miles between us means that although they've had a good rest, I've still walked a fair distance to and fro several times a day, but it's been great just to catch my breath before heading on up over the North Yorks Moors tomorrow.

But just when I think things are looking up, I found tonight that having only been reshod on Wednesday, which should have lasted him another 3 weeks, Micky has somehow trodden on one of his front shoes and half wrenched it off. Trying to find a farrier at 6pm on a Saturday night isn't funny, and after spending the afternoon trying to fix next week's accommodation, I've no idea whether we are going to have to stay put for a few days at Boltby where we're headed tomorrow while I sort out yet anothetr farrier. And who thought this was fun? I am reminded of my father who delighted in saying "life isn't supposed to be easy",and I've no doubt whatsoever that the drovers found the same.

Drove roads in disguise

Heading south along the road from Hexham past Slaley, a man came across the road exclaiming "Well there's a sight, you don't often see that any more". when I told them what I was doing and why, his wife thought it looked great fun. I must remind myself of that when the going gets tough. He also told me that he thought the main drove road south went through Slaley woods and over the grouse moor, which is the way Bob had suggested I might go, but I know from all the research I did earlier this year that the drovers took several routes south from Stagshaw Bank: a westerly route down to Wolsingham, Raby and Thirsk, the latter part of which is now the A1, an easterly route down through what is now Consett, and a middle route via Muggleswick to Waskerley, which is the way I'd chosen to go.

From what I could gather, the numerous groundsmen working on the "international" golf course were oblivious to the historical interest of the track which runs straight through the middle, but when you climb up the hill, the old stone walls are still there either side of a wide grass swathe. the original route which continues on from there to Muggleswick is now lost under the Derwent Reservoiur, which we diverted round by road. Bit of a dodgy time on the A68 when I found myself in the turn right lane sandwiched between huge lorries going in either direction, but Magic and Micky were totally unphased. Similarly by the car which shot past us a few miles further on virtually clipping Magic's bottom and sending stones flying in its wake. Stopped for a brief respite to regather my composure, I fell asleep leaning on a gate, and only then realised just how tired I was.

Sally Bell had very kindly offered to try and sort out my next night's accommodation at an endurance event she'd been at, but neither she nor I knew the person who'd been persuaded to provide a field for my ponies and somewhere for my tent. To say we landed on our feet is an understatement. Once again I was overwhelmed by the generous hospitality extended to a complete stranger - thank you Margaret and Jim for making us so very welcome, feeding me so well, and packing me off the next morning with a flask of home made soup, which was a welcome change from oatcakes, and enough to turn any drover green with envy on a cold, wet, windy day.

Climbing up the hill from Waskerley, the broad grassy track walled either side (or with remnants of the former walls in places) told its own story and confirmed that we were right on the trail of the drovers. The cattle at Oxen Law are now foreign imports, the farm recently modernised, but there's no doubting the significance of the site. A few miles on, we found ourselves at a major cross roads of four different drove roads - even in the rain I couldn't help but be excited, but also confused as to why the former pub, Drover House, is over half a mile from here on the A68 instead of at the cross roads. No matter, you can't get down the drove road any more anyway, so we diverted to A68, where we met the owner of Drover House who used to breed Fell ponies under the Drover prefix. Wowee. However she said the black and white horse she was riding isn't as placid as a Fell which made me wonder if we were actually talking about the same breed. She also said I shouldn't (or couldn't) ride down the A68 and it was only a mile down the side road, but it was a mile in the wrong direction, and another three miles to get to where we could reach in 2 miles down the A68, so off we set along the verge, Magic excelling herself, Micky following angelically behind. Who would have thought these were the same ponies who had galloped off over Gypsy Glen, or cantered down the A7?

Through Tow Law, not a smile or a wave, just a profusion of chip shops and bored horses and ponies who wanted to join us.

Branching off to Staqnley Crook, a swallow swooped repeatedly across Magic's chest. I'm not sure why, but it was welcome distraction from biting wind and rain.

Stopped on a bit of grass to give the ponies a break, a Fell pony breeder pulled over and asked if I needed anything or if he could help in any way. He'd come to a talk I gave about our ride to Lands End,and had heard I was off on another trip. As we road down through Willington, he popped up again, with a welcome invitation to a cup of tea. If only that happened every day.

By now, we were cutting across between the middle and eastern drove route. As with the drovers, to some extent our route is determined by where we can find somewhere suitable to stay overnight, as well as how we can get through during the day. I'd rung John Stevenson at Crawlees, east of Bishop Auckland, where Jake and I stayed for a tetrathlon last year, at lunchtime from Tow Law. He thought we'd be 10 minutes, little realising we were travelling on the hoof. I'm not sure that the ponies realised how honoured they are to have been stabled in what was once Arthur Stevenson's racehorse training yard - Micky was just miffed he was too vertically challenged to see over the door.

Chris met us in the pub at Middlestone after driving through on a mercy mission to return my laptop after yet another attempt to sort out the mobile internet access and e-mail functions before he gets embroiled in haymaking.

Dicing with death on Hadrian's Wall

Everyone warned me that both the A68 and the old military road which runs parallel to the A69 are lethal, but there was no way I was going to miss visiting Stagshaw Bank, second (or third?) only to Falkirk and St. Faith's as being amongst the most important droving trysts or fairs in the trade between Scotland and England. And without going to a whole load of bother to get special permission from the landowner, I could see from the map that there was no alternative off road access.

Perhaps they have different road traffic rules in Northumberland, but until last week I thought solid white lines were not to be crossed. Evidently not driving along Hadrian's Wall, which appears to be a racetrack for the foolhardy, not just one but many of whom totally ignored my fluorescent tabbard and zoomed past way over the speed limit when there were others doing the same coming in the opposite direction. Just as well M&M are so bombproof in traffic.

After all that, Stagshaw Bank was as much of a non-event as Falkirk Tryst, and just as wet. I rode along thinking of "Tributes to Trysts in monsoon rain". There's a sign saying no metal detecting, and Ian Roberts had told me that the owner won't allow any excavations, which would provide invaluable insight into what happened here, so we can only imagine how busy this place once was. I was pleased to see a belted Galloway grazing where once the cattle were traded, but Magic took exception to it and spun across the main road, nearly enough to make it my last birthday but thankfully the only gap in the traffic for all the miles we rode down the main road down into Corbridge.

After our fracas with the police in Peebles, I daren't ignore the one way system but it was worth it to find that we were trotting down Watling Street, which despite the torrential rain impressed me. It's not just Drovers' Footsteps but Romans' we are following in.

Light was fading by the time we reached Linnel Woods south of Hexham, birthplace of my first Fell pony Lancer, and home of Sarah and Bob Charlton, renowned Fell pony breeders. Soaking in a hot bath, sipping a G&T, before a lovely meal in good company with ponies happily grazing outside was a really good way to end my birthday.

Another Country, A different world

Saturday night and the pub I was encouraged to go to for tea has a special deal with the B&B I'm staying at in Yarm offering a main course and drink for £6.95. Great, except without asking how big a drink I wanted, they served me a pint of cider, which even though I failed to finish it may not bode well for what I write!

It's a week since we crossed the border into England, so to say that Magic, Micky and I are in another country may sound like stating the obvious, but it really is a world apart from where we've ridden through Scotland for the previous three weeks. Having left the orchid strewn verges and ditches lined with yellow flag iris some 400 miles behind us in the Highlands, this week we've ridden down narrow country lanes lined with bushy hedges studded with gooseberries, and instead of the mountains and moorland we've trogged over, we've been riding between cornfields fringed with poppies. If all that sounds too idyllic and easy-going, then perhaps I should point out that the down side to England (even relatively remote Northumberland)is the volume and speed of traffic. And the fact that whereas in Scotland everyone, but everyone, waved and smiled, for the last week most people have driven past stony-faced and refused to acknowledge my waves. Whether it's because so many people in Scotland were aware what I was doing from TV, radio and press coverage, or just that south of the border so many people seem in such a rush to get who knows where, I don't really know. It's certainly not that there aren't warm and welcoming people here - it's been my good fortune to meet and stay with numerous already.

Tuesday was my birthday, which Zoe and Sally got off to a wonderful start by opening all the gates for the first few miles. I could get used to that, but once we hit the disused railway through to Wark they couldn't get through in the car so we were back to our own devices and Magic's masterful gate opening. From Wark we followed the minor road which the drovers used to travel, along the north (or east?) bank of the North Tyne, through to Barrasford and Chollerton. Every mile I expected Chris to appear with the picnic (and Jake, Elsa and my beloved dogs) he'd promised to bring to celebrate my birthday but as time ticked by and there was still no sign of them, my temper deteriorated in direct proportion to my growing hunger, and by the time they eventually appeared well after 2 pm I wasn't in the mood for conviviality. However it did mean that by then I'd turned off the road and we picnicked on an old drove track, ponies tied either side grazing where the cattle once snatched a bite on their way south. Which for a sad anorak like me is as good as it gets. (And once I'd blown out the candle on the cake Elsa made and porked out a bit, I was able to appreciate seeing my family for a brief while.)

Jake's card was signed "Your son". Whether he thinks because I was away for his birthday the previous day I've completely given up on being a mother, I'm not sure. It was a shame to have to send my cards home again but other than Elsa's suggestion of stringing my cards along my reins, I couldn't really see what I was going to do with them on my way to London. And by then it was chucking it down again anyway.

Tacking up to hit the trail again, we found Micky had a lumpy bit on his back. As Lancer nearly died with tick fever on our ride to Lands End, I couldn't risk not treating Magic and Micky this time, so after talking with the vet, before I left home I treated them both with Spot On, which isn't licensed for horses and some can have an allergic reaction. I did Magic first on the basis that she was more expendable, and as she was still standing after 24 hours, then did Micky, with apparently no ill effects. For a week. Then he came up with lumps all over his back only days before we set off. If I'd treated him earlier, then it would have worn off before we were through the worst tick infested areas, so I felt like there was no option. Whether the lumps we found on Tuesday are more of the same, whether they are from the different saddle Maggi was riding in, uneven stirrups or the incessant rain which has allowed little chance for ponies' backs to dry out, I don't know, but I set off again with heavy heart knowing that if his back isn't right, I can't continue with Micky to London. Even though it felt like cheating, logic dictated that I let Chris take the pack saddle and drop it off for me where I was staying that night.

Monday 19 July 2010

South of the border

We left Hawick on Saturday morning, ponies a mite too refreshed from their day off - cantering down the A7 with Micky and Magic racing two horses galloping around in the adjacent field wasn't on my agenda, particularly not with two motorbikes trying to overtake and an oncoming coach.

I'd planned to ride down the Waverley Way, a disused railway line, but Sheila's neighbours quite rightly said it had to be worth trying to follow exactly the way the drovers went, even though no-one could tell me how passable it would be. Knowing that I am following exactly in their footsteps has been one of the real highlights of my ride so far. It wasn't straightforward getting there, the path shown on the map no longer existing in places, but well worth the effort to reach Peelbraehope, the remains of a steading in the forest with a plaque on a stone plinth confirming that here once stood the home of the Elliott's, and that this was for many years a key meeting place and overnight stance on the drove route south from the Highlands.

On through the forest, both the drove road and the path marked on the OS map disappeared altogether, not into bog but dense conifers. Magic knew full well that scrabbling under low branches was not what a responsible pack pony should do for fear of losing her load, but there was no other way to get up above the trees, and with a bit more encouragement she trustingly followed me and Micky with her eyes closed. It was worth the struggle to find ourselves on Maiden Paps with fantastic panorama across the Borders.

Just as well it's been so dry, or perhaps we wouldn't have negotiated the deep peat hags beyond that through to Sundhope, which my research before I set off told me was the way the drovers went. Then down the road to Hermitage in a rare glimmer of sunshine, lightened still further by realising that I was watching not a huge buzzard but a golden eagle.

We camped overnight at Hewis Bridge, where Debbie and Peter had been persuaded to provide a field for two ponies and a nutter they had never met before. What a treat to be fed as well as made so welcome before we climbed up to cross the border into England at Bloody Bush yesterday, and down through Kielder Forest to Falstone. The huge reservoir limited just how authentic our route could be, but we enjoyed trotting across the dam (and a surprise picnic provided en route by Sally and Zoe and a wonderful evening with Mary - bet the drovers wished they had met such welcoming people).

This mornin we've followed the twin dykes which mark the old drove road through to Bellingham. I've ridden through Slaty Ford years ago, but it took on whole new meaning now knowing that huge herds of cattle had paddled through the ford and up the grassy track. Stopped at Lanehead to take a photo of Drovers House, just near the crossroads, a man told me that this was indeed another renowned stopping off point for the drovers. whoopee.

Over 400 miles behind us, overnight with friends near Bellingham, on to Hexham tomorrow.

Friday 16 July 2010

Still smiling a third of the way to Smithfield

Friday 16th July, and we've reached Hawick in the Scottish Borders, having covered nearly 350 miles since we left Dunvegan 19 days ago. Which means we're just over a third of our way to Smithfield. Another day and a half should see us across the border to England.

By our previous standards, or any endurance rider's, that's pretty slow going, but much more in tune with the pace of the drovers, and a much more sustainable pace for me and the ponies travelling alone day after day than the pace Elsa and I set riding to Lands End together, or others set themselves out competing for one or two days. Equally important, it means there is enough time to ponder exactly how things looked in days gone by,to wonder who built the drystane dykes which enclose some of the old drove roads, and when; to speculate whether the birds I'm watching really are ospreys (which they have been, on several days), to indulge my passion in following in the foosteps of the drovers. And - just as I wanted - there's time to stop and talk to people I meet along my way.

The luxury of a day off with my every need catered for at Sheila Shell's superb farmhouse B&B at Wiltonburn, just outside Hawick, has given me, Mikado and Magic time to catch our breath, recharge our batteries, to dry everything out. And to appreciate just how lucky I am to spend this summer on the trail of the drovers (even if it has rained nearly every day). I can't pretend it's felt like that all of the time. I haven't always had a quick and easy answer for friends who have asked "but are you really enjoying it Vyv?" Particularly when the rain has been driving horizontally into our ears (and through the handy ventilation in my riding hat), and we've found the drove road we were following has disappeared into a bog, and so have we. But all in all, it's a great privilege to have the time and opportunity to travel the length of Britain with my ponies.

The ponies are happily stuffing their faces in a field through which runs an old drove road, and I am in my element hearing from Sheila's husband John about how his (great?) grandfather drove sheep to and from market, and fathoming out which of the umpteen drove roads which criss-cross the farm were used for what, when. Tonight Sheila has invited someone to supper who used to drive cattle in Australia, so as ever time to tap at a keyboard is limited, but in brief, the verdict so far is as follows:

I know I said I wanted to try and emulate the drovers, or at least the routes they took, within reason, but at times the past three weeks have been a lot more authentic than I planned for. I hadn't bargained on actually having to play drovers in the middle of the night when the ponies have escaped, nor to sleep under corrugated tin on the side of Ben Nevis in a monsoon. And while I haven't been making black pudding, there have been nights when tea has been limited to a crushed packet of oatcakes salvaged from the bottom of my saddlebags, not so different to the oatmeal the drovers survived on. But it all adds to the experience and makes me much more appreciative when I have a comfy bed and a proper meal.

When I dropped down off the Highlands, I felt a real sense of loss that I was leaving behind the most spectacularly wild and beautiful country which Birtain has to offer, but it comes at a price, particularly if you're travelling with horses. If you're not climbing up or down near-vertical rock faces, there are bottomless bogs and rushing rivers to contend with. Finding overnight grazing is a nightmare - not just sufficient grass for the ponies, but ground sufficiently dry to hold a fence pole or which ponies won't sink into. Shops and amenities are few and far between, and you can forget mobile reception, which adds a whole new layer of complication when horses wear through their new shoes at twice the rate I anticipated.

Magic lost 4" off her girth in the first week, which is more than can be said for Micky and I, and after the first week Magic looked a bit tucked up which is hardly surprising after slogging over the Highlands and then wandering off at night instead of catching up on sleep or grazing, but a few nights of good grass saw her right and everyone we've met says how fit and well the ponies (and I) are looking. M&M are literally gleaming, and were so amazed to be turned back out again this morning after the farrier had been that they galloped off up the field. If they've got energy to waste on that, or charging off up a hill the other night, then I don't think we'll have a problem reaching London.

The past couple of days in particular have been really tough going as the drove road marked on the map has disappeared into a bog, as have Mikado, Magic and I. It's no fun wallowing around in deep peat with your ponies heaving themselves in and out of sphagnum. I'm sure their hocks hurt as much as my hips, but they plough on, and it makes us surprisingly appreciative of tarmac or at least to be back on terra firma.

To the many people who have texted asking how the ponies are coping with the heat wave, I can only answer "what heat wave". Despite wearing a thermal vest and all my remaining dry clothes, I was freezing in my tent a couple of nights ago, with a howling gale blowing outside. How the drovers survived wrapped only in their plaids I can't imagine.

I freely confess that I seem to be much better at route planning and riding than I am with technology. The immense frustration of Magic having lugged my new ultra portable laptop all this way and only to persuade it to work, or to connect to the internet, twice so far has to be experienced to be believed. I felt like I spent more time in PC World at Stirling last weekend than I did riding, but all credit to them, they were hugely supportive and have promised that my third new dongle will work much better once we're south of the border. Here's hoping!

More anon

Tuesday 13 July 2010

Into the Borders

300 miles down and the IT connections are still not quite doing their job correctly so Chris has been called in to provide a quick update on progress since the 3rd. Vyv is camped out on top of Gyspy Glen to the south of Peebles-timed perfectly for the rainfall promised overnight and ready for a nights sleep after the normally well behaved ponies decided to make a bid for freedom across the Peebles hills when heading through a gate.(thankfully caught by two nurses out for a walk and grateful to find Vyv chasing after the ponies and not lying in a heap on top of the hill)

Since Spean Bridge the trip has continued through Balquidder (many thanks to Ali the farrier who once again rescued Vyv when Magic's shoes had already worn after only 10 days on the road)down to Callandar and Thornhill for a well deserved day of rest for both the ponies and Vyv and Maggie who road with her for the second week. From there Vyv continued to Stirling stopping off with friends near Plean where one saddle was swopped over for a pack saddle and Vyv started on her own for the balance of the trip heading off towards Stenhousemuir where the once famous Falkirk Tryst has now been turned into a golf course. From Falkirk through the central belt and over the Pentlands and down to Peeble before heading on to Hawick and hopefully whilst the trip will be full of drama and adventure, Vyv hopes there will be less rain and a lot less ticks on the next sections.

Hopefully as Vyv heads south the reception for the internet connection will improve allowing the planned daily update to happen and in the meantinme we will get the adress for the blog ammended on the website to allow more people to follw progress and hope that Vyv, Micky and Magic continue to make such excellent progress.

Saturday 3 July 2010

progress so far

Saturday morning,and I'm sitting on my bed in B&B at Spean Bridge waiting for hobbles to arrive by special delivery before I can set off over the mountains again to Glencoe. After a sleepless night at Tomdoun on Thursday disturbed repeatedly by ponies escaping from their corral, I can't risk them wandering off on the mountains - or getting loose on the main A82. Finding them wandering up the road to Kinlochhourn at midnight, and again at 5 a.m., is one thing, but the thought of them meeting all the tourist coaches through Glencoe is another.

So 6 days and approximately 120 miles into my ride from Skye to London. Apart from the miles, behind us lie a ferry crossing between Skye and the mainland, endless bogs, a lot of mountains, a fair bit of rain and some spectacular sights. As well as brilliant insights into the journeys made by the drovers.

Until now there's been no mobile broadband access, and now no time for more, will fill in all the details as soon as we hit reception again.