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.

Easy rider

A day's rest did the ponies the world of good, so much so that they were (almost) willing and eager to get going again. Whether the inexplicable lumps and bumps are still due to the Spot-on I treated them with against ticks weeks ago, whether they are insect bites or what, I don't know, and to be honest they don't bother them at all, unless they are under their saddle or girth. Had the skin ever broken on Micky's back, we would have stopped dead in our tracks, but it was more a matter of rubbed fur, which never seemed to cause him any pain or sensitivity, and the raised bit which came up on Magic's back at Yarm, disappeared and then reappeared on Tuesday likewise seems not the least bit sore. There is no sign whatsoever of either my saddle, which was tailor made for Micky and Magic, or my pack saddle, causing any pressure anywhere for either of them, but I check religiously numerous times a day, and no matter how tedious it can become, I'm still sticking to a walk to avoid any risk of increased friction from trotting. I also try and get saddles off after we've been going for a few hours, which wastes a lot of time tacking up again, but I know from past experience is worth it to let the ponies' backs breathe and make sure there's no restriction on circulation. She may be very fit, and I check with my spring balance every morning to ensure my packs are perfectly balanced, but Magic remains so utterly round and witherless than unless she is girthed really tightly, the saddle or packs are inclined to lurch sideways at the least provocation.

At risk of sounding once more like I'm stating the obvious, riding through Lincolnshire is a wholly different experience to riding in Scotland. Here there are miles and miles of green grassy bypways, bridleways and other tracks, all clearly signed, waymarked, easy to follow, and if I weren't trolling along with a pack pony more than a trifle tired after 5 weeks on the trail of theh drovers, for much of the time you could bomb along at whateved speed you want. What a doddle in comparison to Scotland where there are glorious hills and mountains, very few people and blissful solitude, but no (or very few) legally recognised bridleways, and where the only way of finding out whether you are actually going to be able to get through with a horse is to spend hours in advance ringing people up, or taking the risk and then finding yourself in a bog, stuck the wrong side of a deerfence or padlocked gate. Which isn't to say that there isn't fantastic riding in many parts of Scotland, but it is hardly "Easy Rider" stuff, and unless you are on a promoted route, you can't just set off on your horse confident you will be able to reach your destination on the route you've identified - not unelss you've done an awful lot of homework first. Which of course why I had no time left to organis the latter parts of my ride because all the available time had been taken sorting out the Scottish bits.

So from Oasby, we rode cross country following ancient tree lined tracks and wide which I'm pretty sure the drovers used, linked together by wide paths through cereal fields. Where the barley has already been harvested is no problem, but for Micky one of the most challenging aspects of this whole trip has been following a bridleway up the tramlines of a crop of wheat, where he seems to think he has died and gone to heaven, or at the very least is compelled to mow a broader route for anyone who chooses to follow. Magic, being female, is much more polite and restrained. At the edge of one such field we hit a patch of wild oats, which reminded me of the wild oats my mother painted on my wedding certificate 20 years ago. I'm not sure what she had in mind at the time, perhaps links to Chris' farming background, but from her comments before I set off about how irresponsible I was being abandoning my husband and teenage children, I don't suppose she had envisaged me ploughing through fields of corn in East Anglia with two ponies.

When we met tarmac road again, the wide verges and rich flora which flourishes on them could easily be argued as reflecting droving history, but then I wonder if most lanes in Lincolnshire were this wide and perhaps I've just become so absorbed with droving that I'm deluding myself.

Folkingham has a handy shop on the side of the village green, about the fifth shop I've pssed in as many weeks with a handy lamp post sufficiently close to which I could tie the ponies, outside what was once the Greyhound Inn. It's disappointing that people don't seem to appreciate our mowing services. No sooner had I found something for lunch in the shop than there was a disapproving woman looking out from the Greyhound, presumably the officionado for the apartments into which this former coaching inn is now being converted. Perhaps it was really that she was disappointed the ponies had left her nothing for her roses.

Heading out of Folkingham, in the middle of the impressive earthworks of a motte and bailey or former castle, there were huge iron gates and a stone facade saing "House of Correction". The ponies were too busy snatching for grass to let me decipher the date, but it looked like 1820 something, which meant it would have been here during the peak of the droving days. I wondered exactly who and what it was correcting, and whether any of the drovers ended up there. Presumably not, given how they built their trade on being men of high repute.

Further east, following a bridleway we came across the former abbey at Sempringham, which now sits in the middle of a field. It was an idyllic spot to stop for lunch, with ponies tied to a tree. A sad sign of the times that the church was locked so I couldn't go in, but I enjoyed poking about the graveyard and reading various boards about how this was the home of Gilbert, Lincolnshire's only native patron saint, founder in the 12th century of a religious order for men and women. At the end of the track leading up to the church was a memorial to Princess Gwenllian, the last Welsh Princess. Amazing what you learn along the way.

The lane east from Sempringham was without doubt a former drove road, with a house at the far end built much more recently but aptly named "Long Drove House", although to by honest my appreciation of such things was by this time diminished by the blisters from my boots, the fact that I'd reached the point where my hips were too sore to ride but everything else was too sore to walk and lead, and worrying about farriers.

In my fit of organisation on Monday evening, I'd pinned down a farrier who I'd persuaded to re-shoe Magic where I'd arranged to stay on Friday morning. Except having had an unanticiapted, if very welcome, day off, I wasn't going to be there until Saturday nmorning. When I asked if he could possibly be persuaded to shoe her where I was going to be instead, he texted back saying he didn't shoe at that yard, and was very understandably unimpressed by my suggestion that perhaps he might possibly be able to shoe later Friday or early Saturday at the original place. Instead he suggested another farrier whose forge I would be riding past, who I'd spent the afternoon chasing and leaving messages for, but to no avail. Which just goes to show the real price of taking a day off and not sticking a schedule, but the bottom line was that I knew I had done what was right for the ponies' backs, if not their feet.

All of which was preoccupying me as I trudged along through Westhorpe, and when Elsa rung to tell me her exam results, a reminder of a parallel life I have on some other plants, far removed from that in which I am travelling with my ponies. While I was on the phone to Elsa, Chris' Aunt Mary and her husband Michael, to whom I was heading, pulled up in their car, and Mary offered to walk with me: welcome company at the end of a long day. I'd just finished telling her about my farrier dilemma when a van pulled up in front of us. Out gets a man who says "You must be Vyv", and there is Chris Bignell, the farrier I've been trying to get hold of all afternoon, a saint in disguise, who has come to find me,and magnanimously offers to shoe Magic right there and then on the driveway of an unsuspecting couple who came out to see why three strangers and two ponies had stopped outside their house. Once again we are able to carry on with our ride thanks to the generosity and goodwill of a superb farrier, I can only hope his wife and young baby were not too put out by his delayed return home.

Cow Common

Finding somewhere safe to stay overnight, ideally with grass for the ponies, has been one of the hardest parts of this trip. There are parts of the country - such as Exmoor and the North Norfolk Coast - where there seem to be umpteen horse and rider B&Bs or farm B&Bs which can be persuaded to put up a pony as well as humans, but the route I've been travelling seems to miss them all, and given that I set out to follow the footsteps of the drovers rather than just go for a plod around Britain, I've wanted to stick as close to the right route as I can. In an ideal world I would have had it all planned before I set out, but hey, ho, we don't live in an ideal world, and when Elsa and I did that riding from John O'Groats to Lands End four years ago, it put a gun against our heads the whole way to keep to schedule. There just wasn't time to get it all together before I set out: fulfilling work commitments and satisfying my conscience that I had done right by my kids and the rest of the menagerie before deserting them for the summer necessrily took priority,and I trusted that I could sort the rest out along the way.

As Monday was quite a short day, I had the evening to myself to organise the week ahead. Having decided on my route (most of which I had marked up on my OS maps with highlighter pens before I left home) I worked out 20 miles from where I was staying south of Lincoln, which would take me to Oasby, and then searched on the internet with my laptop for suitable accommodation. After half an hour searching first under farm B&Bs, then livery yards, riding schools, and eventually for any accommodation whatsoever within a 10 mile radius, the only place I could find was a holiday cottage to rent, which mentioned it was on a farm. So I glibly rung to ask if they could suggest anywhere with some grass I could put the ponies. How lucky was I that with barely a second's hesitation, the owner of said cottage had not only offered a field for the ponies, but agreed to me putting my tent in his garden, adding that he would have invited me to stay in the house but he thought it was perhaps improper with his wife away. But whether it's because Micky, Magic and I arrived looking quite so exhausted or because he is one of the most chivalrous gentlemen I have ever met, Nigel insisted that I must stay in the house, reassuring me that I would be completely safe as he would be the other end of the house. And that we dine at a local pub instead of my sitting in my tent eating the squashed packet of oatcakes I had planned for tea. And as the lump which had mysteriously appeared on Magic's back at Yarm 10 days ago looked a bit tender, perhaps I might consider staying over an extra day to give us all a rest.

There can't be many people who are prepared to welcome complete stranger sinto their house and horses into their paddocks, and then go off to work leaving the stranger with the run of the place. The fact that it was pouring down on Wednesday morning just reinforced the fact that it was like a haven in a storm, welcome respite, opportunity not only for ponies to enjoy a day at good grass, but for me to write a tender for work which I hoped to secure for my return home, which I freely admit had been defeating me when I'd tried to write anything suitably inspired at midnight after a long day in the saddle. The collusion certificate I e-mailed through with my tender for Chris to print and post did not declare that I was helped in preparing my tender by Michael Jackson, a gorgeous young tabby cat, who purred to me all day and helped tap the keys with me.

With my tender out the way, time to think about droving again. It was only when I looked closely at my map to plan my onward journey that I found my ponies and I had been staying at Cow Common, from what I can work out, bang on the route of the drovers. Whoopee.

Friday 6 August 2010

Marching south down Ermine Street

It's not exactly clear whether the drovers went through the middle of Lincoln, or skirted around the west and south of the city, as I did, from my farm B&B at South Hykeham, over the River Witham to Harmston. M&M and I laughed at the steep hill we'd been warned off and wondered how Ordnance Survey could justify putting an arrow on the map when it was hardly even a slope in comparison to what we've come up (and down) further north.

South-east of Lincoln, RAF Waddington has been built right over the top of Ermine Street, presumably in the days when national security was considered more important than preserving our heritage. Perhaps it still is. Anyway, we were glad that the horrendous roar of a plane taking off lagged so far behind the plane itself that it was miles away by the time we heard the noise it made, allowing the ponies no excuse for a tantrum.

I hadn't held much hope for the rest of Ermine Street, in a racist way assuming that Lincolnshire was flat and consequently boring, so it was a very pleasant surprise to find that Ermine Street has just as much character and appeal as The Ridgeway in Wiltshire, the oldest road in Britain, which Chris and I rode along a few years ago to celebrate our 40th birthdays. In parts Ermine Street is tarmac road, but there are long sretches where it is a grassy track, and all the way between Waddington and Ancaster it has wide grass verges either side which tell of its past history as a drove road, long after the Romans marched along this route on their way to York. In fact it dates back long before the Romans to prehistoric times, when it was known as High Dyke. I defy anyone who walks along Ermine Street not to sense something of the history of this route, and not to think of the thousands of people, and cattle, who have walked this way before.

As if that wasn't enough in itself, my enjoyment of Ermine Street was even greater thanks to a man who I am pretty sure came out to move me on, thinking I was one of the many travellers who have caused him bother over the years, but realising I was a different kind of traveller, insisted on bringing me a pot of tea and a Highland stoneware mug, and then kneeling down in the grass alongside me telling me how he'd bought the mug during his time as a Wallace Arnold coach driver. When I'm back home again racing around to keep pace with life, I shall treasure the chats I have had with complete strangers over a cup of tea sipped sitting on the grass in different parts of Britain. I think the drovers were more fond of a pint or wee dram, but there's nothing like a cuppa after a long walk.

From Ancaster,south of the cattle carried on south direct to Smithfield, but the majority turned east, as I did, skirting south of Sleaford, towards the traditional fattening grounds on the Lincolnshire and Norfolk fens.

Pony Power

I realise that I've wittered on about how well everyone says I look, but actually what everyone's really more interested in is how the ponies are doing. So a quick update.

Everyone, but everyone, who meets us, says with some incredulity that they are surprised just how well the ponies are looking. And it's true - they are.

I'm not sure whether people think I'm some kind of tyrant and will push my ponies so hard they will turn into skin and bones or whether people forget that not so long ago nearly all horses worked hard most of their lives, and thrived on it. Mine certainly seem to be like me: daily exercise and being outside in the fresh air all the time suits us well.

There's no doubt that the first week of my trip was tough going, and no surprise therefore that Magic lost 4" off her girth - she wasn't as fit as Micky and to be honest she could stand to loose some weight. Micky's girth has changed not a millimetre in the past 6 weeks (or months), he's just a very good doer, and the more he does, the happier he is.

At the end of our first week, Elsa and I spent an unscheduled night in a tin sheep hut with the ponies in a sheep pen without a lot to eat (they weren't the only ones who went hungry that night). The next day was really tough, riding through Kinlochleven to Glencoe through monsoon rain,only to find when we reached Kings House that the promised grazing didn't actually exist and we had a choice of either ride on another 15 miles, still in driving rain, over Rannoch moor in the hope of finding some grass ad Bridge of Orchy, or taking up the hotel owner's offer of putting the ponies in his mother's pocket handkerchief garden which had not a lot of grass but at least offered some shelter from the wind and rain. Hardly surprising therefore that Magic looked a bit tucked up, but a few nights of good grazing and a day off at Thornhill Wigwams sorted her out, and since then she hasn't looked back. Most nights the ponies are out at grass, without any corn or hard food, but sometimes they get lucky, and if they're stuck in a stable, they have unlimited hay or haylage.

It's not just the ponies' healthy weight that people comment on, but how super-fit the ponies look and how gleaming their coats are. Micky has brown dapples on his posterior and belly, but Magic, who is true jet black, has these funny black zebra stripes around her ribs.

In fact the most frequent thing people say when they meet us is "what a lovely pair". And yes, they are talking about my ponies!

Wednesday 4 August 2010

Troublesome Trent

Yes you do get a lot of typos with my fumbling fingers on my mini-computer, but if I delayed to correct you'd never get to read anything of a blog, so sorry that's the way it is, but I did mean to type Trent, not tent. My lovely pea-green Coleman Aviator tent is brilliant, if smelling a trifle mouldy from constantly being stuffed away wet, and although it says it's a 3 man, I wouldn't wish to share it with anyone else thanks all the same. There's just enough room for me, my saddle, my pack saddle, my panniers and saddle bags to spread out comfortably.

However the River Trent has caused me real problems. Unlike the rivers we crossed in Scotland, it is not in spate. Far from it, everyone down here is bemoaning the lack of rain (I could easily have brought them some) and the grass is parched dry. But while in a car, or even on a bike, a few extra miles to cross a river is no big deal, on a horse, on a journey of 1,000 miles or so, at walking pace, then finding there are only a couple of places to cross the Trent, which are endless miles apart and don't coincide with where I would like to cross, is a big deal. Crossing at Gainsborough meant a sizeable stretch of dual carriageway and despite the appeal of visiting the Drovers Call pub between Gainsborough and Lincoln, which is apparently the real McCoy as in a one-time drovers inn, from the web it seemed to now attract people who liked karaoke, which isn't my scene, and meant a long, long way on a busy A road with little option to off-road. So we opted instead to carry on down the west side, and cross at Dunham on Trent.

Just before the bridge Micky determinedly went his own way, the other side of a lamp-post to Magic and I, at which point I thought he might tank off and cross the river alone, but thankfully he stopped and waited for me to pick up the rope againef so we crossed the bridge together.The man in the booth said there was no charge for horses, and I find it hard to imagine how 30p/car pays the wages of 2 men in each direction, but mine is not to question why. I was just grateful that they very thoughtfully lifted the barrier as soon as they saw me so Magic was spared the dilemma as to whether she had to jump it, limbo underneath or spin round and head for home again when she saw it waving in the air.

Life is never dull travelling with two ponies, and feeling smug that you've negotiated one obstacle there always seems something else waiting in the wings to pull you up short and remind one (i.e. me) that disaster is never more than a hair's breadth away. 10 minutes after crossing the Trent, ambling happily down a lane, Magic suddenly and for no apparent reason, other than that she wasn't concentrating properly, fell onto her knees with her front hooves between her back legs and her chin flat on the floor, and me precariously balanced on top with my heart thumping so loudly and fast I was competing with Msgic for who would have first heart attack. I got off as quickly as I could,she picked herself up, both of us wondering what had happened and why, and with a large tractor coming up behind and a combine heading towards us from the opposite direction, having checked there was no serious damage there wasn't much option but to rally ourselves, keep calm and carry on. When we found a gap on the verge, I stopped and checked again that she was OK. Aren't I just SO glad I am riding Fell ponies with such hairy legs and whopping big knees that she'd done nothing more than mark the fur on one leg, there's been no swelling or heat whatsoever, and her soundness has never faltered. I was also very grateful for my riding mac strapped across my front saddle D rings which together with my knee rolls and front saddle bags (and of course my perfect poise) helped keep me in place.

At the end of a bridleway, who knows if it was a drove road, we had planned to go along a lane for a bit but the new cycle track along the disused railway seemed a welcome break from farm traffic, so we headed off along there for a mile or so towards Lincoln until the sanitised surface and prescription specification bored us to tears and we decided we were happier on the road checking out windmills, eyeing up all the pretty gardens we passed and enjoying the tiny new acorns and hazel nuts growing on the trees.

I've got the latest OS maps, but even they didn't show that the bridleway which skirts around the south of Lincoln now goes through a major housing development, which is a bit of a tip because I learned later that night that all work has stopped due to the credit crunch because they haven't sold a single house for >18 months.

When we reached South Hykeham, Micky and Magic thought they'd landed in heaven. More grass than they've seen since Redesmouth Mill, lush regrowth since it was cut for hay in June, which Carol worried would give them instant laminitis, but for ponies working so hard was just what the doctor ordered. I too had a luxurious night in a comfy bed in a farmhouse B&B where fresh raspberries and blueberries for breakfast compensated for the stale sandwich I insisted on eating in my martyrdom for tea the previous night. Eat your heart out you drovers with nothing but oatmeal and onions three times a day!

Happiness is a manner of travelling

Friday got off to a good start with Mike,on whose farm I had camped the previous night, insisting he get out his barbecue and feed me Lincolnshire sausages for breakfast. with a lace tablecloth on the picnic table in the garden, no less. My sense of self-indulgence at enjoying good company and a lazy breakfast was made all the more so when Mike told me about his wife's death from cancer 8 years previously. Like so many of the people I have stayed with, he wasn't aware I was raising money for Cancer Research when he agreed to let me pitch my tent. I left feeling just how lucky I am to be doing something I've wanted to for so long, while there's still chance, never knowing what tomorrow mgiht bring.

We rode down quiet lanes, between fields being cut for turf, and others of carrots being irrigated, of linseed and wheat, wondering how different this part of the country was several hundreds years ago. Sitting by the side of the Trent while the ponies had 5 minutes grazing some lush grass, I asked the man who came over from a neighbouring house if he knew when all the drainage had happened. Late 19th century, pretty much at the end of long distance droving, so the drovers had only the River Idle to cross, not its wonderfully named "mother drain" and all the other tributary drains which make it possible to farm this area so intensively. Sitting on a wall chatting over a cup of tea he had generously brought over, we were laughing at the Environment Agency warning sign which said "Danger, steep drop", when the wall was about 18" high, and the drop into the River Trent some yards distant was so obvious it was hard to understand why anyone would put a sign up. Anyway, our discussion about litigious societies, court cases and exposure to risk led onto discussion about how many of the most worthwhile things in life involved some risk - in his view (perhaps my mum had been onto him) my riding alone from Skye to Smithfield, which he put in the same category as him sailing around the world, which he'd done alone many years ago. Riding through Britain could hardly compare, but what a fascinating man, and what a fantastic way to pass half an hour, hearing about somebody else's life and passions. And how his last wife died of cancer and now his new wife was too ill, also from cancer, to come across and chat with us.

It didn't leave me morbid, but really happy with my lot, realising that as the poster I used to have on my office door said, happiness is not a station you arrive at but a manner of travelling. I might not have felt or said the same thing the previous evening, but I realised that as the days, weeks and miles have passed since I set off from Skye, my contentment with life has grown. I don't mean to go all philosophical, but there really is a lot to be said for travelling on horseback, or with horses, at a snail's (or drover's) pace through the countryside, with time to take everything in, to think, to meet people, watch the world go by and put back into perspective all those things which bug me at home. I'm sure it's also to do with paring life down to the bare essentials: carrying everything you need with you, on your back (or your horse's), knowing that you are completely self-suffcient (provided kind people appear every so often volunteering cups of tea or offering unanticipated meals). And realising how cluttered I have allowed life, and my brain, to become.

I knew I was hassled in the few months before I set off, not least trying to get everything organised to take a couple of months out of life, and off work, but I wasn't aware that I was particularly low. More to the point, I set off in pursuit of the drovers, rather than happiness, but I keep thinking of the title of a book lying by my bedside back home, waiting for me to find time to read it "cycling back to happiness" and I realise that without me realising it, a sort of all pevading happiness has crept up on me. Everyone who knows me who's seen me in the past few weeks has said how well I look (which I'm sure means fat, no matter what they say), and that I'm happier and more relaxed than they've ever seen me. Or perhaps I'm just so tired and punch drunk that I'm immune to feeling anything else any more. Whatever, I'll just keep on going the way I am and make the most of it.

South from the Humber

Thursday 29th July travelling south from Selby to Epworth came a rare chance for a real meeting of passions. Totally by coincidence, my elder sister Julia (who lives in Somerset) was on her way north to York to pursue her passion playing her cello in a quartet. It was only the day before that we realised how close we would be, and she agreed to divert off the motorway to meet up with me in a gateway. With ponies tied to a signpost (which is a rare treat in itself - I'm heartily fed up of Micky bossing me into sharing anything and everything I eat and whatever I do having two ponies pulling in opposite directions), it was just fantastic to sit down - on a picnic rug no less - for an hour or more, eating the cake Juj had brought and catching up with each other. Work is truly the weed in the lawn of life, if only life could be like this every day.

There's a price to pay for everything, and the price I paid that day was still having an awfully long way to go once we said our goodbyes. Many of the lanes through to Fishlake had the wide verges so characteristic of drove roads, and Micky Magic and I thoroughly enjoyed ambling along in the sunshine. Once we'd crossed the River Don, as John had warned me the previous evening, we were into different country altogether, through the streets of an old mining town which could just as well have been in Central Scotland. I can't imagine what the drovers would have made of the opencast site we climbed up and over. I reminded myself that you have to take the bad with the good, and if it was glorious open countryside, rather than opencast spoil heaps, all the way, then I might not appreciate the good so much. Bit of a dodgy moment when one of the stallions I thought was pegged out on a bit of rough ground came galloping over and was clearly left free to wander, but thankfully having lived in Yorkshire for many years, he understood me perfectly and after I'd made it clear that neither Magic nor I wanted him mounting us, and no matter what Micky thought to the contrary, he wasn't going to run off and play, the stallion galloped off again bucking and farting.

Magic proved that she was worth her not inconsiderable weight in gold again walking along a really busy road past Hatfield Woodhouse, with combines adding to the rush-hour traffic, which she completely ignored. I thought once we were over the motorway it'd be quieter, but no such luck, and what with traffic roaring past, nothing much interesting to look at, my blisters hurting lots and realising I still had at least another 10 miles to go, by 7 pm spirits started to slump. At which point a motorbike pulled onto the verge in front of me and a lovely young man took off his helmet and came back only because he thought what I was doing looked so much more exciting than I was finding it at the time that he'd stopped simply to ask where I was going and why. His interest and enthusiasm kept me going for another few miles, after which I occupied myself trying to take photos of my silhouetted shadow against the different cereal crops. In my determination to think positive, I told myself how lucky I was that although I've seen a lot of rape, it's all of the type being harvested, rather than the rape and pillage which my mother was so sure I would encounter on my way.

When a smart car pulled up and the driver introduced herself as wife of the friend of last night's friend who had arranged somewhere for me, ponies and tent for the night, I was so relieved to have nearly got where I was going (had she not been in the car and me on a horse)that I could have given her a kiss. Even more so when Dawn said that once I'd pitched my tent and sorted the ponies she was taking me home for something to eat, so I could save my well travelled Doritos for another day.