Sunday 15 August 2010

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.

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