February 2010

Down in the vale it’s a grey nothing of a day, the stream running high and the ditches along the road through the village like little rivers with dead nettle stalks tangled across and everyones’ rubbish out.  Distressed looking mothers with children strapped onto back seats drive through the puddles in four by fours.  The snow has  melted and exposed our garden again in its dreary reality. The bank behind the cottage, down which  a mill race once crashed ,is strewn with bits of  torn milk carton which our terrier Star has left. A  huge, predictable  sadness floods over me.: a slow , hollow wave of melancholy.

The poet Laurence Binyon died a year after I was born. His ashes are scattered in Aldworth church yard,  a stone’s throw from where I shall begin my ride along the Ridgeway if ever I find a horse- “ Earth cares for her own ruins, naught for ours/ Nothing is certain, only the certain spring.”- and come what may I shall ride into the certain spring along the old road.  If age and melancholy turn me to poetry there is a reason. It clarifies and inspires like nothing else.  I had always wanted Rupert to love “the pilgrim soul”  in me evoked in  Yeats’s poem “When you are Old and Gray and full of sleep” (even though I am not gray but, dyed blond instead).

I have had an ad on a horse website for three months now.

“WANTED”. it reads, “Full up 14.2  to 15hh gelding (Not TB)  for taking on long rides on the downs on my own and sometimes through the odd market town on the way from A to B.  The essential qualities I seek are these.Must be responsive, sensible, , forward going and eager to go all day if necessary but easily stoppable and must be  a good fast walker with not too short a stride . Must also be handy at doing gates, jumping the odd small fence , utterly unspooky and most importantly must also be bombproof in traffic. Preferably between 8 and 12 years old.  Am in my sixties and can’t afford to fall off too much,  please no nappers, rearers, plungers, buckers or bolters.”

So, with my pilgrim spirit about me  , I  simply replied , “Yes” to the text from Tess , a glamorous young mother from the Chilterns asking me if I was still  looking for a horse.  I travel under the long line of downs through  Blewbury and  Goring and wind through the back of Pangbourne until  I find the lost paddock , islanded by back gardens . There she stands, an iron grey Conemara  who wins my heart within seconds. I choose to overlook her  drawbacks  – its almost impossible to get a bridle on her and also its extremely hard to mount her as she  swivels her bottom away at the strategic moment .  Once I am on her, I feel inexplicably right. I have not felt like this on any of the other horses I have tried. I agree to buy her . Even  if she doesn’t pull a cart, perhaps she can learn.

I am singing all the way home, past the the line of lavish Victorian villas called the Seven Deadly sins which overlook the Thames , past Goring Heath woods across the water , side lit  by the low evening sun as though they were part of a theatre set. I glimpse the  Ridgeway dipping down to the spring line and the slope beside it  where my mother once  took me to find the pasque flower which used to grow there in an isolated and secret place , big purple  splashes of it in spring. I am completely happy.

From the saddle her ears look as though they are made of Carara marble.

I shall build the archaic companionship with Lily which man and horse have had for thousands of years. It was only our grandfathers and  fathers who sold the horses and carts and bought cars, who sold the heavy  horses and bought tractors. The smithies became garages, the stables were converted into houses., the carriage lamps sold as door lights, the horse brasses hung in pubs. Only the travellers and gypsies hung onto their horses. That utter dependence on the horse was a part of our lives. Now , for the most part, it isn’t.

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