“I just thought you might be crazy enough to consider it,” said my friend Jo on the phone when she called to tell me her latest cunning plan. And it seems I was.
The idea was to ride across Wales from the Shropshire border to the Welsh coast and back over the course of a fortnight in September 2016 on our own horses. My first reaction was “Wow, what an amazing idea,” swiftly followed by, “But impossible.”
My horse may be a pure bred Welsh section D with detailed pedigree going back several generations, but as an Essex born and bred version, I think his longest journey in a horsebox alone was when I bought him four years ago. He’s also not the bravest of horses, quite capable of spooking at a shadow or leaf in the wrong place, so taking him to face such a vast unknown landscape seemed daunting to say the least.
Two things really made me go for it. One was my lovely husband suggesting that he would come with me to drive Jack there, then come and pick me up on the Welsh coast so I could go one way. The other was the thought that I wouldn’t get offers like this very often, and I would always regret not giving it a go. Part of my “get on with living for today” approach to life.
Buying saddle bags was the first step to properly committing to the adventure and then starting to train Jack to travel alone came next. One little thing that seemed to make huge difference was buying some kids’ mirrors in IKEA to stick up inside the horse box so he could see some horsey companionship (I never said he was the brightest horse!). Much to my relief, when it came to the big day, he travelled calmly for the full 4 hours plus of journey to Powys.
The route had been planned out by our host for the first night (Medina at Brandy House Farm), with a variety of bunkhouses, bed and breakfasts and traditional pubs (for ‘traditional’ read “a throwback to the 1980s and looking distinctly shabby for it”), but most importantly with paddocks for the horses.
Me, Maike and Jo ready to go
Monday morning came, and after much fuss over kit and tack, we set off to lead our little group of three horses up the first steep hill. Needless to say, as we were now in Wales, there were lots of sheep and Jack did not know which way to spook first. While I was busy trying to hang onto him, I failed to notice that Jo’s mare Freckles had decided that she needed to put Jack in his place though it was my knee that got in the way. Expedition nearly done for before it started, but luckily only colourful bruising.
I pride myself on being a reasonably competent navigator, but reading a map attached to your horse’s saddle is not so easy. Route instructions were a bit haphazard too – not terribly helpful in terms of distance between turnings or catch features in parts. And for good measure, Welsh hill farmers seem to like removing all traces of way markers on bridle paths and right of way. Luckily for us Jo’s husband had volunteered to be support crew so I felt much better about being in the right place when I could see him waiting at our first road crossing. Just in time to watch Jack’s terror at the idea of passing close by a herd of curious bullocks.
Heading up on some quite wild fells next and rainwear came out. I decided I needed to get my head round actually navigating, not helped by small tracks turning into what looked almost like motorways since the map had been produced.
Getting anywhere fast proved to be impossible – very few gates were in good enough condition to be opened from horseback – even with a superstar like Pedro. Another moan about Welsh farmers who seems to feel that rusty collapsed hinges, cow chains and bailing twine are suitable for public rights of way. So each gate we met took up to ten minutes to negotiate – one particularly bad bit had about a dozen gates in couple of miles and deeply rutted, waterlogged tracks (it turned out it had been used for an off-road motorbike event).
I rather wished I’d put on my GPS tracker on my watch as our planned 19 miles did seem to go on and on towards the end, but eventually the bunkhouse that was our stop came into sight. Jack doesn’t normally get feed at this time of year but after so many miles I think he deserved it. Our hosts here were very welcoming, cooking up a large pan of pasta accompanied by a nice bottle of Vacqueyras that I had sneaked into my luggage – muscle relaxant of course!
Day two took us along parts of Glyndwr’s way, and our host from the bunkhouse was keen to show us a bridlepath that had just been re-opened. “A bit boggy in places,” was his slight understatement.
I was definitely by now picking up a new level of admiration for the sort of tracks that my rather pampered horse could tackle, though I did have to check he had kept all his horseshoes on. Having shown us some lovely scenic forest tracks, our host then pointed to a looming thundercloud and announced he was off home. We stopped to put on heavy duty rain gear and it turned out that trying to get into my brand new chaps was an interesting challenge while the lightening and thunder got closer. Hopping back on, I discovered the downside of pinching my daughter’s lovely fluffy seat-saver. It may absorb shocks, but also soaks up rain like a sponge so dry legs and wet butt was the order of the day.
Lunch stop in the pouring rain – we had ridden over those hills behind Jack
Fords, bogs and forest tracks took us on across the Welsh countryside in a part of the country where sheep and even red kites outnumbered people.
Jack wasn’t keen on this narrow bridge but eventually realised that the alternative was either sinking into bog to become mummified as “Peat Jack”, or being left behind by his new friends.
The next huge challenge of the day was a very steep hill, fallen tree and ancient track that headed into someone’s overgrown back garden. Can’t say I enjoyed this bit and realised that I have some horse training to do as Jack doesn’t like getting his feet wet – he hasn’t worked out that hooves are waterproof. Then it was supposedly onto a “way-marked grassy bridleway” straight in front of us. Welsh farmers doing their worst again and we spent sometime looking for the non-existent way marks. Eventually I realised I actually needed to read the map and match the landscape to the contours and we were back on track.
The Bluebell pub was our overnight stop, and thankfully support crew (aka Jo’s husband) had checked out where the field was, though the sheep peacefully munching in it seemed surprised by our arrival. Cold wet horses got rainsheets on tonight after parking up in the pub car park.
And we were grateful for a reviving pint of refreshment. Sadly the pub was clearly suffering from tough times – holed sheets and no shampoo or mugs in my room, though luckily a long day in the fresh air overcomes a lot.
In spite of so much grass Jack was still happy to see me next morning.
Day three took us back out on an eerily misty morning, past yesterday’s lake and on into seriously boggy woodland, though as Jo pointed out the trip was called “Your Horse Adventure”, not “Your Horse Walk in the Park.”
But also some beautiful farmland – until we headed across another soggy field complete with bull guarding a couple of girlfriends. Jack is not good if large quadrupeds head in his direction, but luckily Pedro the superstar came to our rescue, chasing off the bull like a proper cow horse, though that didn’t stop Jack panicking about being bogged down, having to squeeze past a narrow gate, and that bull. Amazingly we survived and had a relatively calm walk leading the horses down the hill. I hopped back on to face the next herds of cows and sheep, though by now only black sheep were worthy of note in Jack’s mind, and thankfully these cows stayed put.
I hadn’t accounted for meeting Oscar, a donkey with attitude. Donkeys are just the wrong side of the uncanny valley for many horses – like a horse but not quite. And actually I thought Jack could cope with donkeys as he lives next door to a small herd – who sound like the souls of the damned when they set off in chorus. I’ve never heard a horse whimpering in terror – till this point – and the donkey seemed to know exactly who to menace, chasing us along hedge after hedge. Then just for good measure there was a narrow bridge over a river with a gate at each end – where Jo decided a photo shoot might be in order, though quickly realised that getting out of the way was a better plan.
Very grateful to see support crew for a break soon after this!
The amazing Pedro, Jack saying thank you (I think), and Freckles showing off gate skills.
Somehow everything seemed less scary after this incident-filled hour, and after reviving tea and cakes we set off again, with the sun making a welcome appearance.
The day’s riding eventually led us through some just stunning scenery into Hafren forest heading for an overnight stop at the incredibly peaceful Cwmbiga. This amazing place has only had 8 owners since the thirteenth century and it was fascinating to read the history of the cottage. It seems to be a place that would repay visiting with more time to explore as there are pine martens, otters and ospreys in the area.
Happy pony with lots of grass
It’s so peaceful here, I had to use an old-fashioned landline to phone home, but somehow being cut-off from the modern world is surprisingly relaxing. A warm welcome, tasty meal and reviving bottle of cider slipped down all too quickly.
Another misty morning and we set off up a welcoming forest track, chatting away and enjoying the scenery … and failing to read our route instructions. Until after couple of miles we met a track junction that just didn’t fit. I hate forest nav because there are always so many tracks that are not rights of way, and therefore not on the map, but I’ll hold my hands up and admit the screw-up was totally my fault for not actually trying to read the map either. GPS back-up on Jo’s phone (her husband had pre-programmed the route maps in) showed us we were way off course, so back we went. It was a very scenic detour though!
You can see why we weren’t concentrating on reading instructions
And this is where we should have gone.
Then it was much more open country with fantastic sweeping views but some very steep and stony tracks which meant quite bit of walking to take the weight of the ponies’ battered hooves.
Jack looking back after a scare with too many motorbikes – he coped with the first two but four was two too many.
And cake and grass stop outside a church.
Our destination for night 4 was a farmhouse B&B called Brynllwydwyn, but as we got close we suffered our only real sense of humour failure. I had put my GPS tracker on this day and our supposedly 15 mile day was more like 17 plus so no wonder we were all little tired. Instructions to keep a line of trees on our left made no sense faced with three lines of trees and no obvious route markings (and as two of us have multiple biology degrees a description of the type of tree would have helped). Eventually Jo spotted a horse she thought she recognised so we just headed down the hill and kept our fingers crossed. Sense of humour soon recovered as our destination came into view. Ponies always get fed, washed down and turned out first, but tea and homemade scones were then very welcome.
In spite of many hours in the saddle, and many more leading up or down steep hills, and even more feeding, grooming and prepping horses, I don’t reckon I lost any weight this trip. Our host here laid on a very tasty three course meal of broccoli and blue cheese soup, fish baked with spinach and then a rich chocolate mocha dessert, thanks to Mary Berry’s words of wisdom. Light it wasn’t, though funnily enough it all disappeared.
Day five began with trek back up the steep hill and back onto Glyndwr’s Way. All useful hill training for my upcoming mountain marathon that I actually hadn’t really done any proper preparation for at all.
Jack likes making friends, even if they are a lot smaller than him. Photo from Brynllwydwyn.
There was a shorter option, without the hill, but this was my last day on the trail so I was keen to make the most of it and the description promised spectacular scenery. And so it proved. We even risked some cantering today now the horses were used to each other and probably too tired to try and race off.
We got our first glimpse of the sea in the distance too. Jack had seemed pretty tired at the end of day three but his fitness seemed to pick up again quite quickly after that. Lots of stony tracks on day 5 were not great for his feet though. He only wears front shoes so his back feet should be fairly tough, but we don’t have to cover much hard ground at home and the stones definitely took their toll. I’m pretty sure he would have been fit enough to do the return leg but his back hooves wouldn’t have coped. Next time I do something like this it will be horse shoes all round.
Before this trip, I would have insisted that tracks like this weren’t passable by horse.
We had got the hang of navigating more or less by now, though cavalier attitudes to signposts caused a couple of minor hesitations. And it was another longer than advertised day according to my GPS, though to be honest the long days weren’t a problem – not even a little bit saddle-sore. Finally our destination and the end of my ride came into view along with so much grass I think Jack thought all his birthdays had come at once.
Jo and I had been craving gin and tonic for several nights by now. Strictly muscle relaxant of course!
Happy and nicely muscled up horse, enjoying hard earned grassy feast. He wasn’t pleased to be separated from his new friends to go home.
I’m so glad I overcame my fears and went on this amazing adventure. I learned so much about what Jack and I could do together, as well as catching up with a very long-standing friendship and making a new friend in the ever-cheerful Maike. And huge thanks to my riding companions for putting up with my pony’s quirks and fears, and mine too.