Thursday 2 September 2010

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.

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