Candida Lycett Green developed a passion for horses and The Ridgeway as a child and now, in her late sixties, she is finding her way back to the beginning again. The Way Home is the continuing story of her journey.
The cloud which ran across the downs a few evenings ago was unlike anything I have ever seen before. It looked like bonfire smoke blown sideways by a fast wind and it seemed to emanate not from the sky, but from the land. It ran for miles, thin, wild and disparate. Sideways rain came with it. Tonight the willow trees along the stream are waving to and fro in the wind and making a sound like the sea, the undersides of their leaves showing almost white. There must be a thousand shades of green all around in the hawthorn hedges, the meadow grass, the ferns, and the apple trees in the orchard – Hookers green, Chrome, Sap and Cadmium and names I know not.
The geese are splashing under the bridge on the stream and the sheep lie under the cover of alders to shelter from the mizzle The Jubilee flags and bunting are being taken down all through the village and I am jealous of the blood red lupins in the front garden of the red brick house on Broad street. Our leeks are planted and the sweet peas still refuse to climb their carefully constructed tripods. Swallows are dipping and swooping near their nests in the tin roof of the barn. There are fat clumps of blue and chalk pink comphrey opposite Bridge Cottage in a small and secret patch of hedged in wildness. Seven beehives lurk among the comphrey and there are cream saucers of elderflower on the high bushes all around. The yellow of the oil seed rape in the field beyond has faded to almost nothing in the bluish green expanses of stinking brassica. Long spires of dog rose arc over the stream towards Woolstone and there are Red Hot pokers in Mione Cottage garden which look as though they belong in South Africa. This evening the willows are bending sideways in the wind and the rain is slashing across the attic windows: I feel I am in a ship on the high green sea
The wind rattled the windows relentlessly all night. I woke at dawn in the half darkness and could hear the blackbird trying to sing against the roar of the wind. His song was faint.
I ride through the early morning rural rush hour towards Bridge cottage. Head high hog weed dominates the roadside verges with its hairy hollow stalks and pale cream umbrels. Sometimes there are dusty pink heads among the cream. I have always felt sad when the hog weed takes over from the cow parsley: it means that summer is on the wane. The saucers of elder flower are going over and the pasture waiting to be cut for hay up the long field towards Stockholm Farm, is pink with waving heads of grass. It feels monsoon -ish. Warm and damp and tiny drops of water from last night’s rain, hang on every leaf, petal and blade of grass. On the Longcot road beside Oxleaze farm I saw some meadow cranesbill struggling through the hogweed and nettles as well as patches of rest harrow. I thought how triumphant that these flowers not given up the ghost against all odds. Perhaps it is because the oil seed rape beside which is now gone to seed, was left untreated. There were no wild flowers atall down the long straight from Woolstone, just ten foot nettles springing up from the hedgerows. They relish the nitrogen, and are impervious to the weed killer which is forever spread across the silent stretches of cereal. Lily shies violently at a new Garden Open sign and I lose a stirrup. I love her no less and we amble home past the Hams where the dog roses are redolent of Rupert Brooke and, in their wild simplicity, are far more beautiful than the tamed roses in all the gardens I have passed this morning. “A cold harsh solstice, “wrote Gilbert White on this day in 1792 “…. The rats have carried away six out of seven of my biggest bantam chickens…”
There are good views from the saddle, far better than from a car. I can see groups of gold finches mucking about along the hedgerow tops on the way to Woolstone. Further on ,where the deep cut stream disappears behind buildings , I can see right into the heart of every garden I pass . Flush with the lane., chalk built “ Mione” Cottage with its cluttered plastic conservatory bulging from its side has three large and elaborate summerhouses packed into its small patch. One of them looks like a beach house in the Hamptons, with pale blue clapbaording and white sash windows. There is also a small trampoline, a laden washing line, several blue plastic bags of rubble, sudden patches of crazy paving, overgrown shrubs,weed filled pots and a dead van. The modern house next door is the polar opposite.. Around the large sweep of tarmac there are weedless,bark mulched beds planted with rigid rows of hybrid tea roses., an off the shelf arched bridge over the stream and a pair of perfectly functioning electronic gates, through which emerges, at exactly 8.45, a pristine, silver jaguar which heads in the Swindon direction. I follow at a walk up the steep hill out of the village where , all over the banks, there are white dog tooth violets looking like drifts of wind thorn blossom. The chemical sprayers are out in the spring barley fields, looking like alien monsters. Their thin arms stetch out in a fifty foot span from the gigantic cottage sized body of the tractor . But for the crop, nothing in their wake survives. There are no bugs and no birds as a result. Its dead country.. Where do the field mice go? There is an unnatural , dry cleaner’s smell in the air . The high hedge up to the Ridgeway half safeguards the roadside verges from chemical drift but still there are far too many nettles and docks. There are a thousand or so seagulls in Marcella’s pasture land high up beside Uffington Castle. Each one is spaced five yards from the next . More seem to be plaining down and finding an empty spot. I do not know what they are waiting for. A cheery man wearing royal blue trainers and pushing a bike up the steep chalk gully says “Good Morning”. This is unusual because fellow Ridgeway travellers usually say “Hiya” which is a strange word in itself, or they look down as though they haven’t seen you and say nothing atall.Read more
As a child, at about this time of year, I used to go to sleep praying for a hoar frost. It never worked. Instead I would wake to a pale yellow January sun hanging just above the downs, mist rising from Letcombe brook and my mother’s excited cry , “Get up, get up we’re going hunting.”. With a leaden heart I trudged across the sloping field beside Lock’s Lane in pursuit of my thirteen two hard- to -catch “all rounder” .At a certain point, usually after twenty minutes, he would decide to give in. Then I would be standing on an orange box in the stable trying to scrape the thickly caked mud off his back with a curry comb.
Until I was thirteen and was described as being “difficult” I accepted the fact that hunting was obligatory. (Today I would have been able to ring up a childrens helpline). It wasn’t just that I felt sick with fear but also that I was in a constant state of toe- curling embarrassment . For instance my pony had a very low trace clip. Smart children had clipped out ponies or certainly high up trace clips. Smart was all I longed to be.
My pony was strawberry roan. Officially called Silver Flame, a name I loved and longed to hear read out coupled with my own over the tannoy system at local gymkhanas. It was never to be. His previous owner with whom my mother was slightly in love because he was the director of the Tate gallery had literary pretensions. He had chosen to re name the pony Dirk, not after Dirk Bogarde which might have been acceptable but after the Dirk in Browning’s boring poem “How they brought the good news from Aix to Ghent”. To make matters worse my mother would explain the reason for Dirk’s name to people who had never even heard of Browning. My friend Janey Dryer’s pony was called Flikka, Peter Baring’s Wonder and Nigel Baring’s Pippin: proper pony names.
I was embarrassed too about my brown velvet riding hat. I longed for a navy blue one. My mother had a thing about brown. Her bowler and tweed riding coat were brown, her hog maned trace clipped cob Romany, skewbald. Other mothers rode chestnuts and greys but never coloureds. Together we jogged through the back streets of Wantage out onto Ormond road and sometimes through the market square where we could see ourselves in the reflection of the shop windows. I felt uncomfortable to the hilt in my ramrod stiff jodphurs (my mother pronounced them “Jode- poooors,” with the accent on the last syllable. This led to complications at the local outfitters, Collards of Swindon ,when shop assistants failed to understand what she was talking about). By the time we reached Baulking Green or wherever the meet was (sometimes eight miles away) Dirk was in a muck sweat and I had already eaten the grease –proof- paper -wrapped brown sugar sandwich bulging from my pocket. My feet so cold that I could not feel them and my hands, trapped icily in the dreaded yellow string riding gloves designed to encourage frost bite I would watch other peoples’ shiny horses and ponies clattering out of horse boxes in pristine perfection. Jealousy swept through me.
But if the hunting field was where I first became politically motivated, hovering as I did between envy of and disdain for some of the people out, it was also where I discovered the joys of people watching : waiting interminably on the edges of coverts like Knighton Thorns down by the railway line, hoping beyond hope that nothing would happen, I used to study Lady Walker who lived high on a hill at Ringdale Manor, the venue for the Pony Club dance. She wore navy blue of course and a lot of lipstick which I admired terrifically. Her husband owned the garage in Faringdon which I imagined made millions of pounds. I longed for parents like the Walkers. Expensive parents.. As Lady Walker lifted up her hand to greet people her gloved fingers waved like wind rippled grass as she coo-ed Hellooooo. Tuffy Baring and I used to imitate the wave when she wasn’t looking . We called it “doing a Lady walker”. By eavesdropping I learnt that Mrytle Barclay and Major “Chattty” Hilton Green were living openly “in sin” which was apparently considered shocking by the Old Berks Himt committee, that Betty Berners owned a lot of the land we hunted over but also most of Berners Street in London , that men who needed hirelings for the day preferred to hire them from Liz Metford because she was beautiful rather than from poor Miss Meikle who wasn’t, that several people boasted about jumping the infamous Rosie Brook when in fact they hadnt and that our doctor, Doctor Squires from Wantage and his friend Mr Morphew from West Hendred were generally drunk by the time they got to the meet.
If the hounds found, my heart went into my mouth. I looked around desperately for Doris Bean who rode a show hack called Matches which she pronounced “Metches”. She was a safe bet to follow because she didn’t jump, knew the country backwards and trotted sedately from gate to gate. The trouble was, she was never on hand at the critical moment, neither was my mother who was usually gossiping with her friend Molly Baring and so Dirk and I inevitably took off with Mr George who farmed at Longcot or Mr Adams who farmed at Fernham . They both went like the clappers. So did Mr Mason but thank God I never galloped in his wake. Nigel Baring used to. It involved taking a straight line and jumping barbed wire. Mason would ping the wire with his crop to show the horse, turn him and then take off over it. If that failed he would hang his coat over the wire.
At no stage, during the whole of my hunting career did I have any idea of what was going on concerning the catching of a fox . Hunting was simply a terrifying test of survival which ,as though that wasn’t enough , involved being shouted at to boot for barging through gateways or galloping on seed. How could I help it if I was out of control? Dirk would streak past admonishing field masters at the speed of light. “Drop a rein, drop a rein,” called Mr baring “Make him go in a circle” . There was no hope, Dirk had to be at the front. I may have won the Old Berks Hunter trials challenge cup two years running (non swanks)but that was when I was in control. The real thing was not the same. .Once , when I was carted along the main road from Kingston Lisle to Sparsholt under the great cathedral of beech trees , I actually lay on Dirk’s neck , got hold of his bit with both hands and yanked it from side to side. It had no effect. I ended up galloping past the master down Star lane and Dirk only stopped when he reached the old canal. I was mortifed not least because the master lent us his box for the Horse of the Year Show at Olympia, the annual highlight of my life, and I imagined he would now put a stop to it. In fact he never did.
Something stuck. One evening a few years ago I was driving through Goosey a tiny village with a scattering of farms, cottages and a small church encircling its enormous green . It was just before the hunting ban and I was remembering that this was one of my mother’s favourite meets. Suddenly out of the gloaming came the Old Berks huntsman, whipper in and hounds on their way home from hunting. Steam rose rose from the group in the cold air and the beauty of the scene made me stop. How could this possibly be obliterated from English life? The timelessness of it was total and I burst into sobs of tears and everything about hunting all those years ago came welling up: Lady Walker’s wave, Molly Baring’s horse Sinbad who could jump a house and the slow-trotting home with my mother along Portway under the dark, looming line of downs when Dirk had finally stopped pulling and my arms had gone back into their sockets.Read more
Seventeen years ago a friend and I were riding through Wales when, by chance, we came upon the remote church of Patrishow. As always at churches, we tied our horses up in the shade of the lych gate and walked up the flagstone path to the south door. On entering, we weren’t prepared for the shock of its beauty . It was a moving and unforgettable experience. Driving through Crickowell this week I suddenly remembered Patrishow wasn’t far away and couldn’t resist another glimpse . I tried to remember the way I’d ridden but after twenty minutes of being lost in a maze of pencil-thin, deep cut lanes I lost my nerve. (On a horse you can see where you are above the hedgeline, in a car you can’t).My husband, ambivalent about the diversion in the first place, was grumbling. On the edge of tears and a row ,I began to doubt that Patrishow was worth this painful pilgrimage. Then by some miracle there it was – the small silver stoned church settled half way up the great shoulder of mountain ahead , its sacred well, hidden in the steep, darkly wooded valley below . No village, no manor : just the church and the vestiges of paths across fields leading to unseen farms and cottages lost in the folds of hills. Beyond it the tiny lane trickled up the mountain into a track. The grave yard is stuffed with lichen covered gravestones of Lewises, Griffiths, Morgans and Rees’s. Inside it did not fail to work its magic and brought us to our knees as it must have brought thousands through the centuries: the simple barrel vaulted ceiling the pale oak rood screen are sublime as is the comforting, encompassing silence and feeling of prayerfulness . Outside it was all birdsong. We felt uplifted, our souls calm.Read more
How is it possible to accept the limitations age dishes out to you? As I ride Lily homewards, the wind, which had been brooding, whips up. The rooks begin swirling and scattering across the sky and the willows on the far side of the field are bending sideways .Its the sort of weather to excite horses. Dangerous riding weather. The brittle branches of the rigid line of cricket bat poplars near the barns are swaying this way and that as though they are mere marestail ferns . The corrugated iron roofs of the barns rattle. Lily begins to dance and then becomes increasingly headstrong . She prances, twirls round and bucks. The adrenalin rushes of fear sweep over me. I have kept sane through the sheer physical performance of being on a horse and keeping my wits about me, but at this point I am powerless and frightened. I think of my expensive new “Oxford” half knee replacement and wonder if my surgeon ,Mr Dodds, will be able to mend it if I fall onto the concrete yard. I may never be able walk again. For the first time in my life I decide to get off before I am thrown off. Mrs Pope , my westerly neighbour, has heard the dancing of hooves and has emerged through a door in the wall, to witness the shaming incident, the ultimate defeat. “Having a bit of the problem are we?” she asks merrily. I lead Lily back home under the short avenue of chestnuts with a heavy heart and turn into our gateway. I am no longer the imagined heroine on a horse I thought I was. I feel as flat and as low as the fens. The bungalow opposite still lies empty, its gate swinging open – a reminder of the gaping hole our friends have left by moving away to the south coast.Read more
Water lies in the bottom of the field dips in shining pools and last week the downs have receded into the uniform greyness of the sky . But today the greyness has lifted and the sun is white behind thin cloud . I ride Lily up the winding lane to Woolstone which follows the Ock upstream in a series of sweeping bends. There are the dead stems of old mans beard criss -crossing around trees in hedgerows and clumps of bulrushes in a deep cutting by Swallows Corner.
The Ock’s source is in the dark shadow of Woolstone hollow below which it collects in a secret lake hidden by trees and then tumbles noisily down beside Waterfall Cottage in the middle of the village. Thatched, half timbered and ridiculously picturesque each time I pass it I remember Hugh Cruddas who lived there in the 1960’s. Out of all my parents’ friends he was my closest friend and confidante. I told him everything and listened to his wise counsel in answer to my constant outpourings of unrequited love. He came to all our moonlight cart picnics at Knighton Bushes two miles away across the downs, stranded and remote. The entertainments were unforgettable. My father used to hit a tin plate with a stick while reciting chunks of The Congo “…. boom ,boom, Boom, With a silk umbrella and the handle of a broom, Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, Boom, ” and Hugh used to stuff a cushion down his shirt and do a perfect impersonation of the Queen mother while sauntering regally through the assembled company doing small fluttering waves : he became her. His time in Waterfall Cottage was unhappy . The war wound in his leg kept him awake almost every night and his heart had been irrecoverably broken. Robert Heber Percy, the love of his life, had chucked him out of Faringdon House where he had lived for years and replaced him with a younger lover. Today I will be bolstered by Hugh’s spirit and bravery.
I head up the steep hill behind his village. The downs are biscuit coloured with dead tufted grass lying across the faded green undulations of the Manger and Lily is calm as I trot along the Ridgeway between the leafless may trees. I am here on the downs as I always was. My body is old but my spirit has never changed. Cantering now, the sound of the wind is thundering in my ears and I am transported to my early teens when all the world was waiting to be won. The mantle of self-preservation wrapped around me as a parent , seems to have fallen away and a sense of recklessness has flooded back. I would be Lizzie in the Eustace Diamonds leading the hunting field over huge fences.Read more
There is a sparse hanging wood on the far side of the little gothic house at Seven Barrows. It looks so frail and spindly, the branches of the beeches spread out like seaweed in a pool, the paths between defined by the remnants of snow caught in the declivities. Deer slots are threaded along them. There’s an overwhelming serenity in the delicate spareness of it all.
Back home, the church bells are filling the sky again. I am standing by the gate and calling “ coop coop” to the grey mare in the field. Time evaporates and I can hear our children calling out the same strange mantra to their ponies in the field beside the river Marden when they were my whole world. Now the children are gone and have made new lives for themselves. I am left in the field alone calling “coop coop” like the abandoned heroine in Princes in the Land. I seem to have come full circle back to when I was nine years old and standing in the drizzle trying to catch my pony Dirk. Lily ambles towards me . I am looking forward to the familiarity and the trust I shall build up with her. This is an infant relationship. More and more I am my mother. I nestle my face against Lily’s neck.
I ride her up past the barns to far off fields where deer are liable to jump out from the hedge and the London to Cornwall trains streak by on the embankment. We stand and watch one. Sometimes when I am on a train, I see a rider like me, stranded in a field, and get taken into another world. It feels good to be here alone with Lily, talking to her and trying to create a companionship.Read more
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.Read more
A hundred years ago the pastoral writer Alfred Williams described our old mill cottage as a desolate place, “shorn of its machinery and now used as cottages for farm labourers. The brook has been cut off and diverted from the mill: several large poplar trees with the tops blown away stand around and add to the dilapidation of the scene..” I feel part of that ancient dilapidation. I have to face up to the fact that I am old. “All that ‘Golden years’ stuff is nonsense” says David Bailey, “Life’s not better at the end of the road.”
Then the real snows came and there is longer time enough to mourn our youthful bodies. Rupert had gone abroad. Eight inches of snow fell in one night leaving an unearthly silence. The landscape frozen, blindingly clear and beautiful; the low sun hitting the willows and turning them orange. I couldn’t drive out of the gate for two weeks. I become demonstrably more necessary to and more needed by the livestock, with no psychological strings attached. The moment I set foot in the field the ewe lambs crowd around, the geese and chickens half fly towards me. Usually they merely amble. It’s a good feeling. Everything is equal, there is only survival. Each day I crunch the mile across the frozen field behind the barns and along the lane to the Hams with as much hay as I can carry. I am flattered that the muntjacks are following the deep path I marked out with my boot prints on the first day. Every morning I see more slots and droppings along my wavering course. The vestiges of the Ock along the old hedge line which hardly ever freeze are rock solid under the dark cover of may trees and I hack out a channel of muddy water with a seldge hammer so that the sheep can drink. The watertrough pipe is frozen and the layer of ice is lower in the trough each day. I shovel out the slippery slabs and make a drinking hole for Sweeny. After four days my back packed up and I had to summon up the courage to ring someone I hardly knew with a four by four and ask them to drop some hay into the hams. But I still walk the same route for the daily ice breaking ritual and I am happy. I watched a black bird demolishing the last of the red crab apples which are still hanging on the trees outside the stable. The gold crests have at last found out about the black niger seed I hung out for them and have arrived in gangs.
Nell, my circus horse riding god daughter has had twins, a boy and a girl called Cecil and Red and now they are on the brink of the world and safe on the stranded Cotswold hills because Totti her strong armed husband has a JCB and can battle through any drifts. I am safe too, I have no need to leave the village. When it snows the line of downs is no longer there ,it merges with the white sky. I am closed in on myself beside the fire. The village footpaths come into their own -the shortcut across the fields to the pub another to the village hall - and the daily walk to the shop feels inexplicably right and fitting . The world is monotone. I feel as though I am moving through a black and white photograph..
When snow fell across Hereforshire in the winter of 1980 my mum had no village shop to hand,. She was seventy years old and had finally decided to stop riding large dangerous horses . Instead, she bought and broke in a welsh pony for herself and called him Bracken. “ Yesterday I rode down to Hay on wye via the wood near Greenways and onto the lane to Cariad’s home.. It is seven miles to Hay that way but when I got to the lane just below my steep hill the snow plough had been along it and made it so slippery that I had to take to the fields and rode the rest of the way across the Cusop stud farm. Well I filled my saddle bags with goodies BUT the silly postmistress had sent my mail out with the postman so I never got it and he could not possibly get up here in his little mini van. I started back at 1.20pm and rode the same way across the Eckley’s farm, and when I got to the lane below Trevaddock I thought I will TRY to go up it as it is only two miles home whereas if I returned by the way I had come it would have meant a further five miles, so I rode up the hill and Landover tracks made it ok until just past the farm, where there was VIRGIN SNOW. The drifts were not too bad until I got to the top of the hill and the last mile was really exciting as the snow was up to Bracken’s tummy and at one point he stopped and I thought whatever happened I MUST stay aboard as I would find it harder than him to plough through the snow which luckily was soft as it thawed most of the day. So I urged him on with my legs and voice and he nobly went on. It was a great effort but he has great courage and I would not sell him for ten thousand pounds! When I got home I weighed my saddle, saddle bags full of goodies, and myself with all my clothes on and boots and scarves and the total weight was 13 stone 9 ounces!! And he is only thirteen hands high. He is so good because he will go close up to gates or banks and never moves while I climb on, with more difficulty than ever with my weak right arm!” (My mother had fallen off and broken her arm a month before. She felt nothing but annoyance at the inconvenience.)Read more
Then the trouble began: Sweeny started his jack knifing trick. When we got to a T junction and I asked him to go left he would try and turn round the way we had just come. I had to get out of the cart as quickly as I could and rush to his head in time to stop the cart tipping up. It was a close run thing.
Still enormously fat, even after three days trotting, I shut Sweeney in the small paddock on our return home, in an effort to ration his grass intake. Within an hour he has heaved the furniture off the wooden gate and escaped into the big field. I then shut him in the orchard instead which has a metal gate and, presumably out of annoyance, he proceeds to flatten four quite hefty tree surrounds and snap in half three cherished apple trees which Rupert and I had planted ten years before. I decide to try riding him. Perhaps he will redeem himself after all. His stride is short, his response to my aids minimal and at a certain point on the edge of the village he begins to jib and turns on his hocks for home – nothing will induce him to go forward short of dismounting.
Not long after the jibbing incident I looked out of our bedroom window one morning and saw the incisions of Sweeny’s hooves all over the lawn. They are so deep they have clearly been made at a gallop. Sweeny has been out in the night and brought all the ewe lambs with him . They have had a midnight feast on the roses. I find Sweeney in the feed shed with his head in a bin and the sheep grazing in the front garden. On his rampage Sweeney has broken the new fence which replaced a former scene of his devastation. He has also destroyed the fence panel belonging to the neighbours due west of us who so cherish their beautiful garden. Sweeny has now landed me with the dreaded job of owning up to them.
As a picnic horse he has proved disastrous because he cannot be tied up to a convenient fence. He simply tries to muscle in on the food. He is an all round failure. I enter Sweeny in next week’s Reading Sale. With an uncanny sixth sense he makes a break for it by pushing the furniture off a picket gate leading into the garden and, once across the lawn, he trots straight into the village. It is evening rural rush hour time and pitch dark. I can hear his clattering hooves fading away and then crescendo-ing again as he does the mile circuit up Broad street and round High street a. I take a torch, a headcollar and a scoop of nuts and go searching for Sweeny. Several cars have stopped on the side of the road, their drivers are standing in worried chattering gaggles. “ Shockingly dangerous” I hear one say as I walk with my head hung low past Tom Brown’s school.
I spend an hour securing every gate with extra re re-enforcements and thank God Sweeny is still in the field early the next morning when the lorry comes to collect him. At last my troubles are over and he is gone. At end of the day though .he returns in the lorry unsold and with a lot number stuck on his bum with extraordinarily strong fixative. He has failed to reach his reserve of a £1000. Sweeny is not only useless to me but also unsellable.
I have no alternative but to relegate him to the Hams with our flock of Wiltshire Horn sheep , a stranded fourteen acre field we rent half hidden between Uffington and Woolstone. It is surrounded by both thick thorn hedges and a barbed wire fence through which Sweeny will not barge. The sheep treat him as their leader within minutes. Two overgrown hedge lines which fifty years before had divided the field into three have now become sheltering thickets and are laced with ancient may trees under which the sheep gather. There is a reedy damp patch in the middle where wild duck sometimes settle. I turn my back on Sweeny and walk away, leaving him in limbo ,his fate unsealed . Is Sweeny’s bad behaviour my fault?Read more