By Horse

I am lazy by nature. I’ve always disliked walking further than I have to and the thought of climbing a steep hill fills me with dread.  In order to pursue my passion for exploring the landscape of England, the horse has long been my favourite vehicle.  I love a horse’s steady strength and the mutual trust which comes to the fore when  you steer him through the tangled undergrowth of a disused bridleway, up the precipitously rocky path at the top of the Long Mynd or through the knee deep mud of a Somerset hollow way. I like the easy change of pace from a slow amble through some straggling hamlet to  the fast trot along a boring bit of road to the liberating gallop on top of  the downs. Besides, from a horse I can see over the hedge tops and sometimes a yellow hammer will follow along at eye level, settle a little ahead and as soon as we catch up, fly ahead again as though he is leading the way. I can also peer, often in awe and wonder, into front gardens along a village street.

Vale of White Horse-20120621-00423About twice a year I take off on a journey. I spend hours poring over ordnance survey maps spread out across the kitchen table. They have such magnificent detailing with their feathery markings of barrows and earthworks and the medieval lettering denoting ancient sites. I plot my route along tracks, lanes and small roads – no other country in the world has such a prolific network of bridleways. I must have travelled around three thousand miles in my time, criss-crossing almost every county in England – either on a horse (together with my mum’s old Spanish saddle bags packed with hoof pick, horse wound powder, spare underclothes,  t -shirt and jeans, a dress, flat shoes, requisite amounts of toiletries decanted into small plastic containers and maps), or driving one (with a terrier or two on the seat beside me and the same luggage plus a lot more bird, wildflower and tophographical books ).

The journeys I make affirm my existence as no other way of life can and anchor me to England, my past and my future. They are not grand explorations of unchartered territory but ordinary voyages of discovery and they are much easier to carry out than you’d think. The only bore is that sometimes you have to go miles out of your way to find a safe place to cross over a motorway, a dual carriageway or a flying main road. Once, on a week-long journey with one of our daughters from East Sussex to our then home in Wiltshire, the map revealed a brilliant short cut along a private road. It meant saving four miles. Dusk was gathering and we were desperate to get to our billet in Ashampstead. We braved it and, with our hearts in our mouths, cantered for a mile and a half along  a beautiful avenue at the back of Highclere Castle, long before it became the star of Downton Abbey. We felt emboldened being on horses and although we were seen by several people we weren’t ticked off. We are a nation of horse lovers. I have never felt stranded at the end of a long day because I know  the local pub will always know of a farm or stables nearby where my horse can stay the night.

Making a journey on foot may give you the same sense of belonging to the countryside, but for me, the camaraderie of a horse is an added bonus. When I pass a church I haven’t seen before I will tie up at the lych-gate and disappear into the cool silence. On coming out again my horse will lift his head and prick his ears. No such heart-warming welcome comes from any other parked vehicle.

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