Monday 30 August 2010

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.

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