Tuesday 7 September 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me take you on the hoof and ride you through the streets of London

The last night of my trip I couldn't sleep. I lay in bed looking out at the full moon, my heart racing, a mixture of excitement that I'd nearly made it, and a sinking feeling that my time with my ponies on the trail of the drovers was nearly over. I must eventually have drifted off, but by 5 a.m. was wide awake again, wondering whether I was right to have so much faith in Micky and Magic's ability to cope with anything, or whether I should have paid more heed to the police warnings of how it takes them months and months of training before they dare walk their horses through the middle of the city on a weekday, and only then after brief visits on a quiet Sunday to acclimatise them. Bit late to worry about that now, and I was resolute Micky, Magic and I were going to walk to Smithfield come what may, and if we got splatted by a bus along the way, at least we'd lived our dream.

What was really worrying me was my route. Ida, the lovely owner of Aldersbrook Riding School where I was staying,had insisted as soon as I arrived that she knew exactly which way I should get to Smithfield from Wanstead. Little had I realised when I rung Ida out of the blue 4 days previously begging for somewhere to put my ponies overnight that I could not have chosen a more appropriate place to stay on my last night, nor a more welcoming kindred spirit. Not only was Ida all too familiar with the route she wanted me to take having driven regularly to Barts Hospital (next door to Smithfield) for cancer treatment, but she assured me it was also the way the drovers had gone. I wonder how many people living in Wanstead or elsewhere in London are such founts of relevant knowledge about drovers, and much else besides.

Anyway, having assured me that she had it all sorted and only needed to show me on the map, what with one thing and another it was well gone midnight before we got around to looking at the street map, by when it was too late to go and check out whether horses were actually allowed on the sections marked on my map as dual carriageway. Having thought I would be coming in from Lee Valley, I'd discussed an entirely different route with the City of London police, which they had said was justs as well as the one road I should avoid was the A11, which was the very route Ida was suggesting I take. Ida reckoned that if there were restrictions, they'd just have to be persuaded to make an exception given the circumstances, but with the total mental block attitude of the Met still all too fresh in my ears from yesterday morning, I didn't see them being too sympathetic. If I couldn't get over or under the flyover, along the dual carriageway, or contend with the most ginormous roundabouts imaginable, then there was no choice but to detour right the way round Leyton and Lee Bridge, a detour of up to 9 miles if I only found out when I hit Stratford. Shame on the Olympic Village designers for failing to take into account in their planning how horses would get across to Hackney Wick or Stratford Marsh with all their mess in the way.

As it was, I need not have worried. Chris, Jake and Elsa drove down to walk with me, and with Ida directing us from her jeep for the first mile or so, we set off across Wanstead Flats, the most southerly bit of Epping Forest, before joining Romford Road, which Ida assures me is the old drovers route into London.

Micky and Magic behaved impeccably, never missing a hoofbeat as police cars raced past with sirens blaring, or as bendy buses wiggled their way along beside us. The only thing Micky objected to was the revolving adverts on the end of bus shelters, which he insisted weren't in his repertoire, nor were they going to be added, but even then the most he did was snort in derision and keep walking calmly on, the best advertisement for any breed of horse you could ever have. How many horses can say they've "done" Tower Hamlets, Stepney,and walked in past Whitechapel and Aldgate through the very heart of the City of London, without flinching an inch, batting an eyelid or acknowledging that they were born and bred high on the Cumbrian fells, little knowing what the future held in store for them.

On we went, through all the roadworks, keeping to my promise to the City Police of not holding the traffic up or causing any problems. Eat your heart out you posh police horses, it's obvious they're using the wrong breed if they need so much training to deal with this.

Walking through the banking district, numerous people stopped and said hello, recognising us from the article and picture in the Daily Telegraph the previous day. One man in his suit came across to shake my hand, saying it was an honour to meet me. For once I was dumbfounded.

Prompted by my press release, The Scotsman had telephoned earlier and asked if they could send a photographer to meet me, who was keen to take pictures of us riding past St. Paul's Cathedral and arriving at Smithfield. Micky gave a few snorts at the pigeons, but neither he nor Magic paid any attention to the umbrellas which sprung up as it started to rain, nor to the people lunching on the benches around the cathedral who looked somewhat taken aback at two ponies riding past, but in typically English fashion neither smiled nor spoke. The problem for the photographer was trying to get the necessary perspective to include two relatively small ponies in the same picture as the cathedral.

All good things inevitably come to an end, and before I knew it, we were all too soon riding into Smithfield market, the end of our journey, the culmination of my dream. There waiting for us was another photographer from the Press Agency, and people from Smithfield Market. Including John Brewster, OBE, past chairman of the Smithfield Tenants Association, whose greeting was that I was 130 or more years too late, the last horse fair having been held at Smithfield in the late 19th century. To my absolute delight, he went on to tell me that his ancestors were drovers from Aberdeen who had for many years made a similar journey to mine. How appropriate is that? Just a shame that there wasn't more opportunity to talk as by then it was pouring with rain, we were in danger of blocking the traffic outside the market, and the photographers were getting fed up with me failing in my attempts to get Micky to stand still, or to persuade him and Magic to put their ears forward simultaneously. After 8 weeks on the trail, neither of them seemed any keener than me to end our journey. Or perhaps they were just keen to distance themselves from Butchers Hall, or the pub named The Hook and Cleaver across the road!

Riding through London is not something I would recommend on a horse which isn't rock steady in traffic, with which you wouldn't trust your life, or if your own resolution or nerves ever threaten to waver. With Micky and Magic, my trusted travelling companions, it was such a doddle going through London, so much easier than I'd anticipated or anyone could have envisaged. As they have done throughout this trip, and many times before, Micky and Magic well and truly came up trumps, showing their true colours as the real troopers they are, capable of anything and everything. Perhaps I should have gone on and done a few laps of honour around Hyde Park for good measure, but perhaps that would have been tempting fate, and I could push my luck only so far.

There comes a time to call it a day, and after we'd cracked open a bottle of champagne, which Micky and Magic thought was much tastier than the bucket of water someone thoughtfully provided,Chris and Jake went off to retrieve the trailer from where they'd left it at Aldersbrook, leaving Micky, Magic and I in a state of stunned surrealism under the arches of Smithfield market. There have been times in the past few weeks, when my back or my fingers have hurt, when I've been so dog tired I have struggled to stay awake, when I've worried about Micky and Magic, where we're going to sleep, what my kids were doing back home, or any number of other things, that I thought it would be a relief to finish. Instead I wanted to put the clock on hold, or better still turn it back a bit, eek out my trip for as long as I could. It's all very well basking in a sense of achievement at having done something you've dreamed of for 20 years, but then comes the question "now what?"

Thursday 2 September 2010

Tuesday 24th August

Another Monday night sleeping in a stable, this time in a bed. It's a sign of the times that each of the stables at the former riding centre at what is now Forest Lodge motel has been converted into a motel bedroom, and the indoor school is now a kids' ballpark and cafe. I stayed up late trying to e-mail press releases and generate media interest in the completion of my ride, with the sole purpose of raising more money for Cancer Research, but although I had mobile broadband within my motel room, there was no O2 phone signal and it was more than a little tricky trying to co-ordinate phone calls standing out in the car park with mailing press releases and looking at maps to sort out exactly where I might be when.

Having set things in motion, the phone calls continued when I got to Woodredon. Magic and Micky were tacked up and ready for off but every time I went to lead them out of their stables, the phone rung again. GMTV said they were very keen to include me on Wednesday morning's show, provided I rode into their studios on the south bank while they were live on air between 6 and 8.30 a.m. My pleas that I was riding down to Wanstead on Tuesday and could not possibly ride from Wanstead into Central London by that time the next morning, and that actually their studios on the south bank were not exactly on my route to Smithfield market, fell on deaf ears, as did my suggestions that they come out to Wanstead to film me instead. So then they hit on the idea of using previous footage, but couldn't use what BBC Scotland had filmed before I set off because they were a competing network, and as I couldn't supply my own footage (with what, my dear Liza?), after endless to-ing and fro-ing, the only way it was going to happen was if I completely shelved all my principles and plans for the last day of my ride to accommodate their schedule and demands. I haven't ridden 900 miles to be dictated to by something which would undoubtedly raise the profile of my ride but was not necessarily guaranteed to do anything to raise more money for Cancer Research. It may sound mercenary, but I know from when we rode to Lands End, and from riding through Scotland this time round, that unless you have a whole support team of fund raisers shaking buckets, have organised your licence in advance for street collections, and are either prepared to put in a hell of a lot of effort to get a few coppers or to stop and talk to each and every person you meet for half an hour to explain what you're doing and why, riding through towns on horseback with a bucket on your arm is not the most cost effective way of charitable fund raising.

No matter how difficult GMTV may have been, they were a doddle in comparison to talking with the Metropolitan police, who City of London police had urged me to consult with about my route. Unelievable. One can only hope that they respond better to emergencies than they do to calls to their general switchboard. After 45 minutes being redirected from one person or police station to another, each claiming they were now putting me onto the right person, I eventually found myself on the phone to Paddington, or somewhere equally irrelevant. 15 minutes later, still on premium rate lines, I was losing the will to live and my ears and phone battery were nearing total exhaustion. The final straw was some righteous official shouting in the background to the person I was speaking to "You can't ride a horse down a road". Oh really? Is there a different version of the Highway Code in London? Then "No-one can ride anywhere in London". The contrast with the very friendly, helpful and constructive advice from the City of London mounted police had to be heard to be believed. In the end I gave up. I'd done my duty and tried to consult them but if after over an hour they still couldn't even decide who I should speak with, I'd go my own way.

Reassured by Paula and others from Woodredon about our personal safety, and with generous offers from the proprietor of a rescue service should I meet any problems whatsoever on the rest of my journey, riding south through Epping Forest surpassed all my expectations. Had I not ridden through it, I would never have appreciated what an incredible green lung Epping Forest is, particularly so close to London.

The information boards along the Green Ride and Centenary Walk told me about the wildlife I might meet and how the Green Ride was created for Queen Victoria to ride along, even though she never did, but (as I have found throughout my journey) made no mention of the former significance of Epping Forest to the droving trade. There was a sentence about how the right of commoners to graze cattle was fundamental to resisting moves to enclose or develop the forest, but nothing to tell anyone of the thousands of cattle who once walked this way on the final leg of their journey to market. Just as well I'd read up all about it in advance, as a result of which I swooned along revelling in the knowledge that the ancient oaks anad other trees which lined my route were one and the same as the drovers had walked between, and the open areas of grass where Micky and Magic snacked along our way were the last halt for cattle on their way to Smithfield all those years ago.

We met lots of dog walkers, few of whom knew anything about Epping Forest's history, and for a mile or so a jogger walked with us telling me about the Race for Life runs she has done for the last few years in aid of Cancer Research. The people we met out picking blackberries, and foreign nannies taking the children in their charge for a breath of fresh air, were surprised to meet a pair of black ponies in the south of the forest heading for London. I was even more surprised by them to find how many people said they had never seen or touched a live horse before. Micky and Magic were only too pleased to oblige requests for strokign and patting, lapping up all the attention and admiration.

At Upper Walthamstow, the paths on the ground bore little relation to those marked on my map, and having determined we would carry on the way we were going rather than retrace our steps to the main path, Micky, Magic and I found ourselves for one last time confronted with a seemingly impenetrable mass of branches. Even now, I never cease to be amazed by my ponies' nimble agility and stoicism, negotiating their way through narrow spaces and under impossibly low branches, waiting patiently for me to clear the way when they knew that pushing through risked damaging their cargo. The people we met when we emerged from the morass were more than a mite surprised, but would have been even more so had they realised how far we had come and all we've encountered along our way.

Riding up Wanstead High Street at 5 p.m. on a hot Tuesday afternoon attracted similar looks of surprise, not least how unperturbed Micky and Magic were by the double decker buses, the trains, the traffic, the people sitting drinking outside cafes and pubs, and the hussle and bussle of London. I'd planned my route for the easiest crossing of the A12, and when the traffic lights changed, the cars behind us missed their turn because they were so amazed to see Micky and Magic trotting smartly across a very wide main road without batting an eyelid as though it was what they did every day of their lives.

Wanstead Parks had signs saying no cycles without mention of no horses, other than some very small print about the byelaws. Presumably it's not something they usually have to worry about. The last thing I want to do is make life difficult for other riders, so we dutifully rode around the edge of the golf club instead to take us to Aldersbrook Riding Stables, where Ida had very kindly agreed to put us up for the night.

Monday 23rd August 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 1 September 2010

Nearing the end

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

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

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

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

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