Sunday, 30 August 2009

A Good Scare is Worth a Fistful of Advice (1)

Bill told me this once, and I believe this saying comes from the world of National Hunt racing, where you have to learn quickly to survive!

I am always open to advice (I hope). NOT FROM ME, YOU'RE NOT - DOOGS. Stalkers are invaluable for this: not only do they know their ground intimately, they are up to date with the latest weather and river conditions.

I do have to factor in that they are usually braver, tougher and-alas- often younger than me; so "you'll get through there no bother" may not mean exactly what it says!

The other difficulty is that all too often potential problems come well into the day, so you've already covered 20 miles or so before you discover that the river is, in fact, impassable. This is one of the reasons I like a packhorse, so if the need arises I can camp and hope water levels drop significantly overnight, as they will often do (provided it's stopped raining, of course.)

Having spoken to the stalker at Glen Kinglass, then, and been told that one of the rivers was 'very difficult' at the moment, and having heard the weather forecast predicting the tail end of Hurricane Whatever, is was with some mild trepidation that I set out eastwards from Taynuilt.

I took the decision to go anyway, because the difficult river was close to Glenkinglass Lodge: if it really proved to be impassable, I thought I could probably get permission to camp near the lodge, where there would possibly be a bite of grazing for the boys. Even with a corral, grazing can be sparse in this area, with areas close to the track offering only soggy impenetrable bog.

However, one hurdle at a time. First up was negotiating a couple of miles of the A85 to access Inverawe and Glenkinglass beyond. The amount of water coming down the Awe made fording it an impossibility, so we had to find a bridge, meaning sharing a main road with timber lorries, buses, White van men and motorcycles - never a good start to the day!

However, no problems today with a vehicle escort from Frank and Helen, and we trotted down to the junction and crossed the Awe.

The track then wound on through woodland as far as Glen Noe, where it takes to the shore of Glen Etive, in places clinging to the hillside high above. This is very beautiful, with dramatic views up moody Loch Etive. I had considered riding all the way up the loch: on particular I was keen to see the remains of an old church ( no houses around) which I had been told used to be for the spiritual benefit of the itinerant woodcutters and charcoal burners who used to work on the shores. Well, I like stuff like that.

However, yesterday's advice was that Glen Kinglass would be more sheltered and straightforward, than riding up Etive, given the predicted weather.

So we 'hung a right' at Ardmaddy Bay to follow the river Kinglass. The foot of the glen is very sheltered and beautiful, with mixed woodland above a woodland floor of glorious moss, lichens and ferns.

Today the Kinglass was roaring - hard to believe I have forded it, almost dry shod, on a previous ride! Not today, you wouldn't.. From the bay at Ardmaddy to the lodge is about 8 miles, all on a good landrover track. We wandered up, not seeing a soul today, although I expect we were spotted by others: climbers on the ridges (this is a popular 'Munro' area) or stalkers out looking for stags.

From the point of view of estates, we cause little disruption by sticking to tracks and established paths: this doesn't interfere with stalking- and in any case, where possible, I speak to them first...although we were to cause some disruption later on in the day - but I'm getting ahead of myself...

After the lodge, the landrover track ends, to be replaced with a beautifully-constructed stalker's path, partly using natural rock outcrops and partly careful cobbling with river stones.

We went up as far as 'tricky river' to have a look. Mentally I had been prepared to be stopped here, but as it turned out, it was fine: plenty of water, yes, but as an established ford we didn't have to scramble about among boulders, which can be hard on the ponies. So, onward...

You used to have to ford the Kinglass a mile or two further on, but there is now a solid bridge, luckily! Unfortunately it now crosses into boggy ground which the boys had to carefully negotiate before we picked up the path again to Loch Dochard. This area wins the prize for the midgiest place in Scotland, definitely! (NOT THAT YOU'RE ONE TO COMPLAIN OR ANYTHING: DOOGS) a flat area of boggy ground beside a river, coupled with still, claggy conditions and low cloud- yecch. Normally keeping moving is enough to deter them, but not here, not today!

Anyway, we weren't disposed to linger: the boys had done really well today and it was only another few short miles to the safety of Clashgour. What could possibly go wrong?

Friday, 28 August 2009

Loch Awe

We rode on from Bill and Alfie's up the side of Loch Awe, mainly following forest tracks along the shore. The level of the loch was very high: halfway up the alder trees which fringe it.

There is a feeling now of autumn creeping on: the bracken is starting to turn gold; the rowan berries are ripening; lots of brambles now (yum) - it seems like only a few days since we were munching on wild strawberries!

On telephone wires the swallows gathered briefly and were gone, showing no inclination to linger longer and who could blame them?

More wood ant nests along Loch Awe: I do hope for their sake the water levels don't get any higher, although water can be discharged from the barrages into the river if necessary.

Taynuilt is where we were now headed, through Glen Nant. There is a hill track via Loch Nant but by now the weather was atrocious: pouring rain and high winds so we stuck to the relative shelter of the woods.

I wanted to get in touch with my hosts Frank and Helen in Taynuilt to let them know about the hill track (they were planning to unlock a gate for me).

My mobile didn't work ( as an aside to anyone travelling in the west who is, like me, on 02 which is rubbish over here) - get yourself a cheap mobile on Vodaphone or Orange. I wished I'd had one as the service is much better. Yes, yes, I know all about 'never rely on a mobile phone.'

Instead you can rely on phone boxes (marked on OS maps). Hahaha. The one marked at Inverinan could only be accessed by crossing a deep ditch and scrambling up a bank. I tied the ponies to the village notice board while I discovered a) the box didn't take coins; b) it refused to read my credit card; c) it wanted to charge £3.90 for a reverse charge call to Taynuilt, about 12 miles away. C'mon BT, not exactly a service to be proud of, is it?

As I was encouraging the boys back down the steep bank and over the ditch (Badminton, here we come) a kind soul came past and offered me the use of her mother's phone across the road - problem solved. She even held the ponies for me.

We followed the River Nant down to Taynuilt, riding beside the boiling torrents all the way. Luckily we didn't have to cross it, but admired the swirling powerful waterfalls from a safe distance. A bit of a surprise to come across - a ballet school! Ballet West is a thriving dance training centre supported by Billy Connolly, I was told, although picturing him in a tutu made Doogs feel quite ill.

Then a pants-peeing dart across the main road (yikes) and the relative safety of a minor road to the village of Brochroy. Our timing was slightly out, ducking under the railway bridge just as a train was going over it: the sudden acceleration of the ponies down the road at least meant we didn't suffer from plodding lastmileitis, about which I have written before. Doogs and Yeoman were turned out in a silage field (mown!!) courtesy of the local farmer, while the next day ('rest' day) was spent trying to separate - and dry out - mouldy soaking items in my packs. I've never excelled at housekeeping and pack-keeping seems to be the same. I'm with American comedienne Joan Rivers: "Housework? Doncha just hate it? Make the beds , do the dishes, and six months later you've just gotta start over..."
'Then catch the moments as they fly
And use them as you ought, man
Believe me, happiness is shy
And comes not aye when sought, man.'

Robert Burns

I am a keen reader, and it was a challenge to select just one book, Desert Island Discs style, to carry round with me.

Eventually I settled on the rather appropriately-named 'Wherever You Go, There You Are' by Jon Rabat-Zinn.

It's a thoughful little book about mindfulness and meditation, which stresses the value of living 'now', rather than projecting forward into the future or wallowing about in the past, which (like most people) I am rather prone to do.

It also has nice short chapters (!), perfect for tent-reading by torchlight.

The reason I mention this is one of the recent reporters who caught up with us said, 'your trip sounds quite contemplative'. And yes, it is: mile after mile on tracks with nothing much to do EXCEPT contemplate. Sometimes I practice my navigation: at the moment I am practising
contours, visualizing what a hill or other feature depicted on the map will look like when I get there and seeing if I'm right. But often I have the luxury of just 'being'.

I know I'm fortunate in currently not having the daily clamours of most people: late for work, get the kids' tea, find time for Tescos, renew the car insurance, blah de blah...

Idyllic really, as long as you don't confuse ' idyllic' with 'easy'. What I notice is a changed attitude to time. I don't wear a watch; I rarely feel hurried; and increasingly I DO 'catch the moments as they fly.'

Many things I notice: the subtle changes as the year wears on; the dart of an electric-blue dragonfly across our path; which direction the wind is coming from; a nest of wood ants beside the track (did you know the queens remove their wings after a brief mating whirl? Like a
pretty bride removing her party dress and putting on an apron and rubber gloves, I always think); the huge array of fungi which are starting to appear...

Well, you get the idea- nothing earth-shattering or uncommon and yet very satisfactory. We're pretty content, most of the time, and each day has its own quiet rhythm. Occasionally I catch a snippet of news on a tv somewhere - it all seems to come from a fairly far-off and not very relevant place!

Of more interest is the sun setting over Dunadd near Kilmichael Glassary (pictured), the original crowning place of ancient Dalriadan kings. Or watching (from above) an efficient sheep-gather in
Kilmichael Glen. Or being invited into a kids' party in Kilchrenan Village Hall for a cup of tea, just when it wasn't possible to get any wetter. Or meeting the lovely Heather, aged about 13, who stood with us in the rain and told of her longing for a Highland pony...

Although I do try to be reasonably organised (don't like running out of coffee- or food!), I don't attempt to manage every detail...I often don't know where we will spend the night, and on the whole don't worry about that as it always seems to work out somehow.

Which was the case at Loch Awe, where, just about lousing time we got the offer of an excellent field from the quietly efficient and interesting Bill (and Alfie the cat). Yet better, I was also able to sleep in the porch of the house Bill is renovating, rather than pitching my tent. Lying snug and warm, listening to the rain battering off the roof and windows: is that not happiness?

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Weather or Not...

OK, I KNOW I wasn't going to mention the subject, but it's hard to avoid, as it affects just about everything we do.

The principal benefit of heavy rain is that it drowns the midges, so it's not all bad. Yesterday saw 58 mm (not that I'm becoming obsessed or anything) the last time that happened was January 11th!

The THOUGHT of getting going in the rain is generally worse than the reality (just). It's good for mental discipline: packing up a wet tent, getting rained on all day, and then unpeeling it, still sopping, is not the most fun I have ever had without laughing.

Occasionally a little voice fantasizes about going home: after all, we've been a VERY long way, it would be so nice to get home, it's not fair on the ponies, blah de blah...

And then - something happens, or I meet someone special, or see something extraordinary, and I'm reminded of why I'm doing this, and know that if I'd wimped out because of a 'wee droppie rain' I'd have missed that.

In all fairness, the ponies don't seem to particularly mind - they eat and sleep just the same. At least they're clean! So we squelch on, gently rotting. I do have a foot problem developing - I think it's trench foot, as experienced by soldiers in WW1 on the Somme with permanently wet feet.

There have had to be route changes, as I've mentioned already: rivers are dramatically swollen here on the west.

So it was by rainy chance that I ended up at Brenfield, home of Argyll Trail Riding. A great place, full of enthusiastic trail riders (staff and clients) and excellent riding all around.

A big box for the boys with yummy haylage, and a bed in the bunkhouse for me, sharing with competitors taking part in the National Championships of Le Trec, which happened to be on. Sounds like a great sport - I'm definitely keen to have a go! (WELL I'M NOT - Doogs).

From the welcome haven of Brenfield we rode on a track over the hill to Ardrishaig, where we rode along the Crinan Canal. Well, the towpath anyway.

This was a new experience for us - and simply gorgeous. The boys enjoyed it too (NO BLOODY HILLS FOR ONCE - Doogs) although uncharacteristically both whipped round and ran for it when a BOAT appeared! By the time we got to Cairnbaan though, they were both getting thoroughly nautical and demanding yellow wellies.

At Cairnbaan Locks a small problem: only a tiny gateway to squeeze through, far too narrow for the laden Doogs(& probably the unladen Doogs, too...)

There was a wider gateway though, with a cast iron gate padlocked to a stone gatepost. I asked the lock-keeper if he had a key? "erm, not sure", he said, fumbling with a giant keyring with about 50 keys on it.

None of them fitted (by this time the boys had dozed off.) The lock-keeper called over a mate, who repeated the procedure with HIS giant bunch of keys (by which time I had dozed off too.)

Just then, an ancient mariner came hobbling down the street. "Hey Hughie," shouts the lock-keeper, " do you know where there's a key for this gate?"

With a sigh, the old salt tottered over to the gate and lifted the chain OVER the stone gatepost, swinging it open wide. He hirpled off without a word while the rest of us just looked at one another... and burst out laughing, waking Doogs and Yeoman up. We were off again!

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Knapdale Knotes

Tarbert is overlooked by a Robert the Bruce ruined castle, (he didn't half get about round here) which gives fine views over the harbour and town. I hope it's not TOO cruel to say that Tarbert is possibly slightly better viewed from that sort of distance?

It has one of the highest rainfall averages in the UK (Missing it Already: DOOGS).

One result of this is a HUGE area of native 'rain forest' - an SSSI which boasts over 600 species of plants, animals and invertebrates.
Much in the way of moss, ferns and lichens, as you would expect, in thousands of acres of ancient woodland. Even in the rain it is stunningly lovely.

We stayed with the hospitable Duncans in Knapdale (the next 'lump' round from Kintyre). While the boys had a day's rest I was shown round part of the estate, including the deer farm.

The size and quality of the stags was impressive: well over 20 stone (in the wild they're more usually about 13.) After Ileene's cooking I was heading the same way - time to move on perhaps!

We rode on round the Knapdale peninsula: even the usual soaking couldn't detract from how utterly delightful this corner of Argyll is: lots more woodland, opening on to well-tended grassy farms - stock rearing mainly.

We holed up with David, the local animal welfare officer. He didn't impound Doogs and Yeoman- in fact he thought they were in great order! He told me of the problems faced by farmers this year: with silage rotting on the ground unbaled they are having to buy it in for the winter. Added to already high prices this year is the cost of delivery to this remote corner, which raises prices by about a third.

It's hard, although not entirely bad news with lamb trade fairly brisk right now. Here as elsewhere a problem is few young people coming forward to farm, most preferring a more lucrative career in computers or some such.

We didn't manage any hill riding in Knapdale: one look at the swollen rivers (see pic) showed the stupidity of THAT idea! So we just dottled round the (charming) coast road - very little traffic and gave us the chance to watch dozens of seals - much to Yeoman's utter astonishment who thought the rocks had come alive! Poor Yeoman!

I promise not to go on any more about the weather (that WILL make a nice change- Doogs) but with yet another thorough soaking today and an inch of rain forecast for tomorrow please note I am now signing myself - Kate Moss.

Friday, 21 August 2009

The Viking Isle - Kintyre

The longest promontory in Britain, immortalized by Paul MacCartney, Kintyre (Gaelic: ceann tire - land's end) is only by geological chance not an island.

A1.5 km isthmus is all that joins it to the mainland: it was in fact claimed as an island by the Norwegian king Magnus Barelegs, by dint of an agreement allowing the Norseman to claim all parts of the Hebrides which could be navigated by boat.

Old Barelegs sat in his boat while his warriors hauled it over the narrow neck of land. As a consequence, many of Kintyre's place names are Norse in origin, including Claonaig where the ferry landed us (just).

There is a long distance path (the Kintyre Way) but due to the high blanket bog much of it is not suitable for horses (as several riders have discovered).

I rode from east to west via Loch Lussa, which despite the appalling weather conditions (surprise) is a lovely ride, taking in Saddell Glen.

Saddell is reputed to be the final resting place of heroic Somerled, who freed Kintyre from Norse domination on the twelfth century.

I rode across the 'spine' of Kintyre, passing close to its highest point (with ubiquitous windfarms). These are lovely forest tracks, well graded and not too steep although you climb quite high . I know this is for the benefit of the timber lorries, but we appreciate it too!

The going underfoot - which can be so variable on forest tracks depending on how recently they were constructed- is good, with a huge sandy strip down the middle for much of the way. On a good day I'm sure there would be some stunning views too!

We exited on the west side at Bellochantuy. Sadly not possible to ride along the beach, so we rode south along an A road which was pretty scarey...although the traffic wasn't too heavy, it was extremely fast.

A reporter from the Campeltown Courier caught up with me, pretty cross just after a 'nearie' with a tourist caravan so heaven knows what they'll print- lots of asterisks, I bet.

But we made it to the Lalargarve Highland pony stud - wonderful location to see the mares and foals high up with the sea as the backdrop. Some of the ponies are in their 30s, testament to Sue's care...although I suspect her goat kids Butch Casserole and the Sunday Lunch kid may not enjoy the same longevity somehow...

Doogs and Yeoman just look better and better - I on the other hand feel, look (and probably smell) more & more like Gollum from Lord of the Rings. Will it ever stop raining, one wonders? Sharp eyed readers will notice the photo was taken with me standing INSIDE this old barn
looking out - it's bloody wet out there!

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Island Hopping

As well as being reunited with Yeoman, who appeared to have thoroughly enjoyed a day or two off, we also met up with Bill and trailer, come to shift us on to Arran (Caledonian Macbrayne won't travel animals loose on the ferry).

The ponies were billeted with the hospitable Macqueens in Brodick, in a fine grass park with glorious views of Goat Fell.

For a treat, Bill and I had booked into a local B&B. We were slightly nonplussed by the reaction when we asked for directions from a local, who went slightly pale and gasped, "you're not staying there, are you?"

Well, (almost) anything has to be better than a tent in the rain, but we were in turn slightly surprised to be met in reception by a plump hen.

Mein host was only slightly less odd, in Highland dress and an is it/isn't it wig. It seemed we had stumbled into a parallel Arran universe, especially when he addressed us in a broad Yorkshire accent. I really thought I might be getting overtired...

However, the place was comfortable and clean, seemingly almost entirely dependent on the services of a rather overworked Australian ex-zookeeper who did everything .

We had a rest day on the island, visiting the rather excellent Heritage Museum, where I hoped to find out more about Donald McKelvie. As well as being the breeder of the 'Arran' strains of potatoes (Comet, Victory, Pilot, etc), he was also a renowned breeder of Highland ponies, and indeed exported stallions to Palestine to breed mules. (As an aside, I was told recently the British Army were using Highland ponies during the Bosnian war - can anyone verify that?)

The forecast was dismal for the next day - and so it proved to be, with the tippiest of tipping rain and high winds . Although the boys were well rested after some good Macqueen grazing, it was not a day for riding to Lochranza -on safety grounds. There are no through tracks on Arran, so I was restricted to sharing the road with cyclists, pedestrians, lorries and tour buses: bad enough on a fine day with good visibility.

As it was, trailering the ponies the dozen miles to Lochranza to catch the small ferry to Kintyre we were forced off the road onto a ditch by an aggressive tour bus - luckily only minor damage: a rear light housing (the trailer) and a fuse (Bill's).

Boy, but it can rain and it was a sodden party which drew up at the Lochranza ferry terminal to read the notice: Sailings Suspended Due To Weather Conditions. Oh no - stormbound on Arran!

Well, there are worse places to shelter than the Lochranza Hotel. The barman fielded my worries about grazing for the horses, should we have to wait until the next day. "Oh just park them up anywhere: the farms round here are all managed from the mainland and it takes at
least three days for the police to move tinks on anyway". That's all right then!

After a few hours the wind died down some and the ferry was going to try the crossing- no guarantee of being able to unload at the exposed Claonaig though. (I was to learn later that there hadbern a tragic accident at that slipway a couple of years back, when two elderly ladies died trying to disembark in stormy conditions - lucky I didn't know it at the time.)

The ponies didn't seem to particularly mind swaying about on deck but I was relieved when the short 30 minute crossing was over though.

We had arranged to put the ponies up next to the local games pitch overnight. We'd intended to camp, but given the weather conditions were offered the option of sleeping in the pavilion instead - yes please! The games haugh is sited next to a Forestry Commission car park. Through the lashing rain I was amused to read its name: 'Port na Storm'. I was very tempted to graffiti the word 'Any' at the beginning of that!

Monday, 17 August 2009

One Man Down...

Unfortunately the heavy rain in the night resulted in a muddy field for the boys which in turn resulted in a lost shoe for Yeoman. His shoes were already holding on merely through force of habit - a farrier booked for a couple of days' time, but what to do now? Rather amazingly, there is a farrier who lives nearby in the forest (!) but attempts to contact her came to nought, so Yeoman was trailered back to Straiton by the amazing Colin and I rode Doogs instead.

Today's route took us through Galloway Forest Park. The overnight rain meant that the colours and scents were really intense as we rode through the forest, past Lochs Bradan and Riecawr to Loch Doon. Doogs was most intrigued by a charming kids'adventure playground on the shores of Loch Riecawr! We were following a route called, appropriately enough, Forest Drive - good footing for the ponies and lovely riding.

Loch Doon (or Loch Doom as the predictive text on my phone insisted) is very scenic, but suffers from two things: good road access and a proximity to some ex-mining areas, now with lots of social deprivation. These twin factors have resulted in a major littering problem, as the yoofs hold frequent lager parties down by the shore.

The problem is being addressed by the Dalmellington partnership created by local people and agencies, which has at least stopped the frequent burning-out of caravans etc. I was shocked by the amount of litter (abandoned tents and bedding, lager tins etc) but was told by the farmers that this is a 100% improvement on years gone by. What a pity, since it is a stunningly scenic area. Don't know quite what the answer is - education I suppose (or hanging). The 'banks and braes o' bonnie Doon' are rather challenged right now. Camping overnight, we could hear a party going on nearby (but we weren't invited).

We stopped to look at the 13th century Loch Doon Castle on the shore: (a ruin) - interesting architecturally as it is 11 sided; rubble built at the bottom, then dressed stone, then rubble. It was moved to its present position, stone by stone, from its original site when the loch was dammed in the 30s - amazing! Hard to imagine that happening today.

This was the first time on the trip we had come into proximity with an industrial area, and the next day we were to ride close to coal handling yards and an open cast mine. First, though, we visited Craigengillan estate, originally built for the Macadam family (as in tarmacadam) - now privately owned with much recent restoration, conservation and path work being done.

The stable block is a beautiful example of its type, now housing a local riding school and livery yard. Really good to see it having such a useful life these days.

Then over a lovely hill track and road to Straiton (and Yeoman). Here we had arranged to meet John Scott MSP who is also a local farmer, and who is a major supporter of World Horse Welfare. We had had some trouble over the previous week contacting one another to arrange a meeting place, due to lack of phone signal etc. Over coffee, I discovered I had practically ridden over his ground (when I crossed Beneraird)...if only we'd known....

Thoroughly enjoyed this section and huge thanks are due to Carol, Colin and the girls, who were great company and much help - thanks to you all.

Next challenge...over the sea to Arran!

Sunday, 16 August 2009

The Map is not the Territory

Numbers are becoming meaningless. How many miles have we covered today? Covered altogether? These are the questions asked by many folks we meet.

I don't know the answers- I'm relying on the GPS Traakit people to ultimately tell me, or I can of course retrace my steps on the maps and calculate it out.

Of much more interest is the state of the map when I've finished crossing that bit of territory. Depending on how creased, dirty, wet (pulped in the case of dear old Wigtownshire) I have an instant visual aide-memoire of the fun (or otherwise) we had there.

Yes, I have a fine map case (disintegrating though, due to my unathletic mounting and dismounting especially as the day wears on). But the nature of maps is such that you can guarantee in any day that it needs to be taken out, refolded, or worse- move onto another map altogether- all on the back of a moving horse and often in the rain. The current record is four maps in one day. No, we don't move at the speed of light, just happened to be lurking around the corners!

I haven't really experimented with electronic mapping so am not qualified to offer an opinion (DOESN'T USUALLY STOP YOU -DOOGS) but I would definitely miss my dog-eared, torn, damp and stained record of where we've been. Plus it's a handy place to jot down telephone
numbers, people's names and other memos to self...

It is a fundamental rule of horse travel, as in life, that 20% of your route will cause you 80% of your problems - and so it proved for Carol & I.

Being diligent sorts, Carol and husband Colin had checked out many of the routes we were to ride. Pressure of time meant they had to delegate one short section, a 'footpath' through Carrick Forest.

'it's fine' came back the report, 'we went through on the quad'. This has been added to the Long riders' Lexicon, along with gems like 'it's a bit soft' or 'a wee bittie steep'...! Quads of course move over the surface of the ground on broad tyres: ponies don't!

Doogs was running loose behind us when we came to this section, following us on April and Yeoman. We set off carefully down this section. Doogs was reluctant to follow, pacing first left, then right, but refusing to set foot on the 'path'.

He's such a wily old codger that when I saw what he was up to I immediately jumped off Yeoman, seconds before he sunk up to his belly in a bog. It took two or three goes for him to get himself out (and he's a strong horse).

Time for a rethink then, and an about-turn...due to recent forestry extraction there were a number of new tracks not marked on the map, but which ran out or abruptly changed direction, as they do.

At last we hit upon a track which led us down into the Stinchar Valley (through a field of donkeys - a complete surprise to all parties!) and we followed the river up to the charming village of Barr, which unlike most of the villages I have ridden through on this trip still has a shop, an excellent pub (we took over their car park) and a functioning phone box.

We also acquired a pilot through Changue Forest, young Daniel, who insisted on showing us the way on his bike in return for a couple of hunks of cake...had more cake been forthcoming I think we'd have him yet.

We don't half land lucky with our hosts: tonight we made it to Pinvalley and the charming Ann. As the skies were beginning to threaten she offered us the use of her trailer to sleep in (which is
housed in a large barn, along with her smart horses.)

We had reason to be more than usually grateful as we listened to the rain hammering on the roof that night. The only disturbance was the snoring of Lovely Horse no 3- I'd definitely be sewing corks onto HIS pyjamas...

Friday, 14 August 2009

I can't say I had the best night's sleep ever at Lagafater: the year must be moving on as it's the first night I've been cold in the tent.  I was also slightly concerned that the ponies might break out of their corral and simply disappear into the wild reaches around us!

So it was around 5 am when I rose to a scene of surreal beauty...the golden sunrise lighting up the deerbent grass all around to create shimmering acres stretching to the horizon.  Quite stunning (and not an ant in sight). It was one of those times when the universe seems to be holding its breath.
I let the ponies out of their prison to graze where I could keep an eye on them, while I gloried in the magic of the sunrise.

Still, you know what granny said: "too bright too soon" and by the time my friend Felicity arrived at eight, it was already starting to drizzle. Felicity had arranged to ride with me to Pinwherry with her husband James acting as packhorse for the day (er, with his vehicle, lest you have visions of us whipping him, fully-laden, over the hill.)

The track leads up from Lagafater Lodge over Beneraird Hill to drop down into the Stinchar Valley.  We had hoped for some great views (I'm told you can see the Isle of Man, as well as Arran and the Kintyre peninsula) but today it was not to be: a steady drizzle and although there was reasonable visibility, it was all rather hazy.  The track is clearlt defined, though boggy in places; the surrounding land rather bleak peatland.

It took us about three hours to pick our way into the Stinchar Valley : not only were we in another county, we could have been in a different land altogether.

Neatly tended houses and farms, glorious mixed hedgerows and sleek-looking cattle. We rode along the banks of the Stinchar (beautiful river)for some miles, thoroughly enjoying the day.

As we approached Pinwherry towards the end of the afternoon and dismounted for a gate, a figure appeared running towards us...who should it be but Saint Annie, who had just 'popped over' to meet us with beet pulp for the horses and coffee for us.  Thank you yet again, Annie (think I'll have a record made of that.)

Thus sustained, we made our way up the final leg from Pinwherry to Bellamore Farm, where I had arranged to camp for the night.  This is such a pretty minor road, following the burn, with yet more luxuriant hedgerows.

There is a feature of riding long distances called lastmileitis: where the time taken to cover the last mile seems to take as long as the previous twenty...So it was this afternoon, when Bellamore seemed as remote as Brigadoon.

Finally though, we were there - just in time to meet James, too.  We pulled into the yard to be greeted by a pack of dogs of every description barking furiously - big 'uns, little ' uns, middle uns all clamouring at our arrival.  Some of the dogs were running loose, although there was no-one about, so I waded through the mob to the farmhouse door and knocked on it, setting up yet more barking from inside the house.

Eventually the farmer came to the door.  Looking surprised to see me, he yelled over the barking, "I didn't realise there was anyone there" (!) Presumably the canine cacophony is quite normal, then...

He then used a phrase I have come to dread: "I've put you in one of the hill parks - it's only another couple of miles up the road..."

Back in the saddle then with a very dirty look from the ponies (by now it was raining heavily) and up the hill for the night.  He warned me about the Bellamore midges: all I can say is - he wasn't joking.  I'm not proud to tell you I cowered in my (relatively) midge -free tent, listening to the ponies pacing and stamping outside.  I'm always painfully aware that I chose to be here - they didn't - but very little I could do, other than plaster them with every midge repellent I had and put on their face masks.

Early morning and the tent flap was black with midges: I put on my best deterrent gear and led the ponies up a boggy track to the top of the hill, about a kilometre away, where they benefited from a few hours' grazing in a relatively breezy spot.  In hindsight I should have put them there the night before, but the march fence could have been ten miles away for ought I knew! Sorry, boys...

By the time I brought them back down to the campsite to tack up, the sky had brightened and there was a breeze, so definitely better. We were almost ready when vet-friend Carol came trotting up the track to meet me on her Highland mare April - ready for the next stage of our adventure...

Journey to the Middle of - erm- Nowhere

Annie decided to accompany me to my next campsite, riding Doogs - so her husband John agreed to transport the packs.  Bless him, he also opened some of the gates for us - a job I feel you have to be born to in Wigtownshire!

The weather had relented and we had a smashing day's riding through mixed forest, back roads and over a glorious old hill track to just below Lagafater Lodge, close to Beneraird Hill, which I was to carry on over the next day. The track winds over this moor, presumably avoiding cow-swallowing bogs - one of those evening where you can see your destination (but it takes a very long time to get there).

This was our campsite outlook (pretty much the same in all directions - hooray for a fine evening with little wind or you may never have got to read this blog post.)Here we were greeted with the most extraordinary swarms of flying red  ants (non-biting, thankfully) which rapidly covered me and the ponies.  The farmer Norman told us they only appear for about one week in the year (how lucky were we?) and come out of the road (where presumably they lurk for the other fifty-one weeks).

Here we had to bid farewell to dear Annie and John (who had been so very kind) - not before she'd produced beet pulp for the ponies and sandwiches for me.  Annie - it will be a very long time before we forget how very well looked after we were in Wigtownshire.  But ever onwards - tomorrow Ayrshire beckons...

Wet Wet Wet!

"Welcome to Wigtownshire", said the smiling postie I met on the hill road from Bargrennan, "famous for two things, rain and midges." Erm, thanks.

It didn't take me long to see what he meant: I have never been so wet. The soft Wigtownshire rain makes a nonsense of the old saw 'Once you're wet, you can't get any wetter.'  OH YES YOU CAN! The rain came in on pulsating grey sheets from the Atlantic, thoroughly defeating my waterproof (haha) jacket and trousers, boots, panniers - everything.

By the time we were coming to the busy main road near Kirkcowan, I swear we were starting to rot gently. Smiley postie had warned out to 'watch out for the boat on the main road' (eh?) but it was so wet I wouldn't have been surprised to see a flotilla of yachts tacking up the road. (Turned out he meant the road gets very busy when the Stranraer ferry unloads, but still...)

Luckily for us we had the safest of safe houses waiting: Annie Walker - galloping granny, endurance rider and eternal mother hen (as well as the most creative user of baler twine I have met thus far!)

Within half an hour, both the ponies and I were stripped of our wet things and steaming gently towards comfortably dry (and eating).  Thank heavens we weren't supposed to be camping that night.

I shouldn't have been so surprised: one glance at the map of the Machars gives the game away immediately - all those fells, moors and mosses and the large number of lochs does hint at high precipitation!

As always in damp country, track finding (and following) is best not left to chance and local knowledge is essential for information about marked tracks which run into blind bogs - lots of that!  Local tales of drowned cattle and missing tractors abound (eek).

Much of the area is forested, so the forestry tracks are generally a better, safer option.  The area is also criss-crossed with little-used tarmacked side roads (often with grass growing up the middle.) Much of the forestry actually makes for pleasant riding: the trees are often well back from the road and attractively fringed with birch and wildflowers, so you don't get that feeling of being a rat in a maze which can happen in heavily forested areas.

The region is rich in history: one of the earliest known inhabited areas and Whithorn itself is considered the cradle of Christianity on mainland Scotland. Here today, as in other areas I have visited, local talk is of falling stock numbers, disappearing dairy herds, and the unworkability of the proposed electronic tagging scheme for sheep. I saw many abandoned and derelict farmhouses and cottages, the indigenous population replaced with several vast caravan and holiday this to be the final crop for Wigtownshire?

PS Smiley postie - should you ever read this - your summary of Wigtownshire needs to include the guinea-a-minute most novel cattlegrid gates yet encountered: either you untie the piece of baler twine and the whole edifice collapses around you with a splintering crash - or it gets the prize for the most creative use of building materials for any gate - anywhere!

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Yet another quick update!

Due to the difficulties in getting mobile phone signals (although we did momentarily log on to Manx Telecom Mobile - how international is that?) you'll have to wait just a little longer to read of our many adventures in Wigtownshire and Ayrshire - hopefully in the next day or two.

But just to let interested parties know we're heading onto Arran today, having been successfully re-shod this morning - many thanks to Jim Ferrie and Co. One of Yeoman's feet didn't need a hammer - it needed a magic wand after losing a shoe and a bit of foot (but luckily the farrier had one .)

Back soon - but ponies (and me!) all well.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Pause for Thought

As we approach the halfway stage, and inspired to consider matters by the visit to Samye Ling, I thought it was a good moment to give a general update!

The ponies are in great form, well muscled, sound and (apparently) enjoying themselves...I am very proud of the way they will happily settle anywhere and cope with each day's challenges so calmly.

Staying at the welcoming Brigton Farm at Bargrennan with the delightful Fiona and Ian McCall, I had the opportunity to go over every inch of them. The ponies, I mean - not the McCalls!!! Feet in good order (although Yeoman will need shoeing in the next few days (arranged - thanks to Carol, we're meeting up with Jim Ferrie, the farrier we last met at Balfron. I'm sure he thinks we're stalking him - but wow, he doesn't half cover some territory). The shoes are holding tight although clenches are now up and the shoes are paper thin...but still a tribute to Jim Balfour's shoeing all those weeks ago!

Much to my surprise (and pleasure) the boys have NO injuries, scrapes or rubs - and our tick defences seem to be holding out so far. The ponies have had no additional feeding but I have paid attention to allowing them good grazing during the day (no chance of me forgetting, even if I wanted to, eh boys?) They have definitely lost some weight but nothing to worry about and they are full of going - they covered 17 miles yesterday, much of it trotting as it was so damn wet and are in good fettle after a night's rest. Both are now very settled in the daily routine, and -for once- they are allowed to eat however much they like!

The gear is holding well together so far: the saddles still fit well (Barefoot and Ideal) and Trailmax panniers are simply excellent and have withstood rough treatment and the odd gatepost assault. Only minor problem is a burst girth keeper but duct tape is a wonderful invention.

For myself, I feel fit and well and definitely toned! Mentally I feel relaxed and still enjoying it all. So far, no blisters on feet or bottom! The hardest things have been coping with poor weather at times (and by the looks of things, we'd better be prepared for more for the next couple of days) and fatigue at times (long days and not always sufficient sleep).

The best things have definitely been the people we've met (and the many generous donations for World Horse Welfare) and the sights we've seen. My relationship with Doogs and Yeoman has just got better and better - we are operating very much as a team - although Doogs is certain he always knows best at key navigation points and has been known to march off without consultation or even looking at the map.

Over the next few days we will reach our last southerly point and then take the momentous step of changing direction and heading North! (well - westish - northish -westish. Looking forward to paddling in the sea!

Thanks for all the messages and emails folks - I really value them all so much and try to respond to everyone...signal permitting - which it isn't very much, at the moment - very unstable here but hopefully will be better soon. We have been interviewed by some local papers and are hopefully to be interviewed by the BBC, (once they find us!) so all good publicity for World Horse Welfare.

Samye Ling Monastery

YEOMAN: Why are all these men wearing those funny robes?
DOOGS: Because they're Buddhists.
YEOMAN: But I thought Kate said we were going to see some nudists!
DOOGS: Bit midgey for that in Eskdalemuir.

The local builder told us we couldn't possibly miss the Samye ling Monastery. Quite right: the prayer flags, huge white stupa and statue of the Buddha certainly catch the eye in this remote Scottish glen.

It's a feast for all the senses: from the bright colours and patterns to the sounds of Tibetan chanting, crashing cymbals and horns coming from the temple, to the scents of the incredible vegetable gardens and the odd waft of incense.

You are free to wander round as you will - there are notices here and there explaining the significance of the buildings and icons: the butterlamp house, with its hundreds of little lamps which are ceremonially lit; the prayer wheels; the 'clootie' tree with many rags, ribbons and prayers tied to it - as they disintegrate in the weather the prayers on the cloth are released into the atmosphere. (To my knowledge, this is one custome shared by Buddhists and Celts - I have seen a Celtic version near Fortrose).

Bill and I attended prayers in the temple - as it was in Tibetan it was impossible to follow the chanting, the drums and cymbals and those glorious horns, but hugely satisfying. (I have always enjoyed religious services in a language other than my own - it gives a different perspective somehow.)

The community at Samye ling is a thriving one, with many followers, students and people on retreat as well as the monks themselves. It is also clearly a popular place to visit.

I was very impressed: by the industry and the sense of peaceful wellbeing. The monks themselves appeared very happy and friendly.

There were charming touches: the abandoned Brasso tin on its side in the butter lamp house where I imagined some novice monk had scotted off, late for meditation practice; the spade abandoned in the potato patch, watched over by a statue of the Buddha; the handwritten notices; all of it contributing to a grounded charm which demonstrated this was a working, living community dealing with practical daily matters, as well as aspiring to universal compassion. 'Keep sweeping' as the great Buddhist mantra has it.

We stayed at Fingland nearby with Jo Rose, who has lived in the area all of her life. We stayed in very comfortable self-catering accommodation for the night, sharing with a charming Danish customs and excise officer who visits the area regularly for the stalking.

I was asking him about his job: "There are only two certain things in life," he told me in his lugubrious Danish accent, "death and taxes". After a moment's thought, he added, "I prefer the taxes."

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Dere Street Plus

I knew we wouldn't be able to ride all the way along Dere Street (part of it is now under the A68, for example) but thought we would try to follow it as far as Newtown St Boswells. Mostly this part goes through woodland, a change from yesterday's open moor.

James (last night's historian) had told me that the Romans cleared away trees well back from the road: not only for building purposes, but because trees could so easily hide marauding ancient Britons!

These days, though, Dere Street passes through lovely mixed woodland - much beech and oak. In places it has been very badly damaged by 4x4s and trail bikes, leaving extremely deep ruts and these were challenging for the ponies, especially combined with the clay soil which today was slippery after a night's heavy rain. Still, I was able to identify lots of different original layers of construction. I know it's a little bit sad.

We picked our way along it to Monteviot House in Teviotdale, -well almost, we could see it across a very deep and fast-flowing Teviot! The little swingy pedestrian suspension bridge was of little help to us - time to play today's 'angel card'.

As usual, up it popped - today in the guise of Marie who came jogging along on her handsome elderly thoroughbred. I showed her the alternative route I'd been plotting on the map. 'Oh no,' she said, 'you'll get lost'. I forbore from pointing out we'd managed to get this far!

'I know,' she added after some thought, 'we'll go and see Andrew Crow. He'll know, cos he's a racehorse trainer.'

I didn't quite follow that logic, but sho 'nuff, Andrew gave me precise directions to get where I wanted to go. (He turned out to be an old jump racing acquaintance of Bill's, too). I was relieved when he said the Teviot was probably 'a bit high to ford' (my sentiments exactly - Doogs). So he rattled off directions including a potato field, the back of some cottages, a track and a drainage ditch (and a bridge, hooray). Just before I left he added " your dapple grey'll need shod soon..." - turns out he's a farrier as well (if only I'd known!)

That's how we ended up picking our way through the policies of Monteviot House (still on the remains of Dere Street, too.) I'm fairly certain they don't actively encourage horses there (and we're truly very sorry about the plank in the little bridge,too) but we were egged on by Annie, owner of a garden centre we visited, lured in by their 'cafe' sign (very hot thirsty day, y'know).

We lurked around in her car park and drank ginger beer with me telling her customers that we were the weekly bulk manure delivery for the garden centre - I think some of them them may have believed us! A good whip round on behalf of World Horse Welfare too.

Much to my disappointment after these adventures, we were foiled by a couple of ladder stiles from getting all the way to Newtown St Boswells on Dere Street. But this was a memorable section of the trip - and one of the garden centre customers told me it was now August! Who knew?

Dere St

What a wrench to leave the Bowmont Valley. I had tried to persuade Angela to adopt me, but she wasn't having any of off we went (slowly, with lots of looking back). We followed a hill track from Belford to Hownam (pron: Hoonum). A beautiful day: warm, but with enough breeze to keep the flies away. Sorry to go on about the weather - but it has assumed a major importance to me!

The track climbs slowly to about 1000' - high enough to get some stunning views (and pick up a load of missed calls on the phone - we were 'communicado' again.)

It was definitely not a hurrying day and we meandered on gently, thoroughly enjoying the day and stopping to graze for a while at Horseshoe Wood and soak up some sunshine.

Then down to Hownam...a pretty village, where the Post Office marked on the map is long gone, to be replaced by posters fighting to save the Post Office in neighbouring Morebattle a few miles away...can this really be progress? We stopped to chat to an extremely elderly lady on the main street (well, the only street) who had lived in the village all her life - I expect the loss of the Post Office was only one of the many changes she has seen. Her old eyes did light up when she was describing Hownam during the war with soldiers billeted nearby, but with respect I don't intend to reveal any more about that.

Leaving Hownam we again climbed steeply up - now we were on the Roman road Dere Street, built c.AD74. Unsurprisingly it's very straight! It crosses rough moorland here, again climbing to about 1000'. According to Rob and James who I met later, it was built by 1000 Roman soldiers over a 2-year period - an astonishing feat.

We camped for the night at Upper Samieston Farm in the valley (I had been tempted to camp high but feared the weather would turn- which it did). The farmer provided Doogs and Yeoman with a Grade A ++ field - their classification - which luckily for me was right next to the cottage inhabited by potter Clair and her family: husband Rob, and children Molly and Jessie. They provided me with a delicious supper, all produce from their own garden - a lucky find for me and the ponies! It's always interesting approaching strange farms on spec - we might be welcomed with open arms - or shot. We had a great evening - also with Clair's sister and brother in law who were staying - definitely a lucky guess, that one. Molly was delighted by the ponies who had unexpectedly come to live 'next door' and helped me with all my chores - thanks, Molly. In return she rode Yeoman up the track for a little way the next morning as we set off - actually I'm sure she would cheerfully have ridden the rest of the thousand miles with us, too. Best ask Mummy first, though...

We Go Abroad! (Well, England)

The track we followed to Harbottle leads up through Calroust to join 'The Street' - an old Roman way through the Cheviots. It starts of gently, following the burn, and climbs steadily up.

There has been a lot of recent investment in this estate: new fences and tracks and a fishing lake (as well as the ubiquitous pheasants).

Doogs thought he might get an easy time of it with no packs (we'd arranged to stay overnight with Jan Hall at Well House Farm near Harbottle) but tough, I rode him and led Yeoman instead.

At the top of the track, before you go on to open moor, stands a once-derelict house, now being renovated as a shooting bothy. The views back down the Calroust Valley are breathtaking - had we really climbed so high? But lots more to come!

From the bothy comes a stiffish climb past a large cairn up to join The Street, shorly before it intersects with the Pennine Way. For almost the first time since I left I saw a walker - no wait, it's a runner! (Running the Pennine Way? What fresh human madness is this? - DOOGS)

Not just one, either, but another, and another and they drew nearer (by now coming from all directions - we could see that they were soldiers in full combat gear. For one horrible moment we thought we'd strayed onto the MOD Otterburn Range, famous for its live ammunition (eek) - but no, this was an exercise.

The soldiers kept appearing from all airts and pairts: Shonagh's poor young Dougall thought that the War of the Worlds was upon us. As an ex-stalking pony, he knows what guns are for!

Third world war notwithstanding, it is stunningly spacious up there - despite the odd heavy shower, the views were breathtaking in every direction. The track on the whole is easy underfoot, though very rutted in places, and navigation is easy. Well, we just followed the sound of the bombs...

They brought us out in the Coquet valley, right at the boundary of the Otterburn firing range. The bombs had now been joined by machine gun fire and helicopters, although the ponies by now were much more interested in lunch. I got a faint nervous feeling of what it must be like to live in occupied territory with enemy soldiers (even though the ones we met were mighty cheerful, if rather tired and soggy) and gallantly held gates open for us.

We joined the quiet road down the Coquet Valley (lots of flood damage here too) until we came to a ford which we crossed and followed a steep bridleway above the site of a medieval village - exactly where you would expect a medieval village to be, in the meander of a river - very beautiful. Will post a picture when technology allows! This track brought us out near Alwinton, then it was another bridleway to Harbottle, past a church and some old limekilns along a river valley - and crossing the border!! We'd promised ourselves a pint in the pub at Alwinton, but very sadly, it was closed.

A wonderful welcome from Jan at the supremely comfortable Well House farm: she laughed when we told her of our military manouevres, recounting one day when she had gone out to feed the calves and met two (lost) tanks grinding up the farm road...that doesn't personally inspire me with confidence, don't know about you. (Thanks Jan and Jimmy for all your hospitality!)

Tuesday, 4 August 2009


Time to give the apparently now-sound Yeoman a bit of a test – nothing too taxing, a 13 mile, low-level circular ride from Cliftoncote around a neighbouring property with the slightly unappealing name of Sourhope.

One of the reasons you need a decent map in the Cheviots is because nothing is pronounced as it looks: requests for directions to 'Sour Hope' would be met with blank is of course pronounced 'Sooroop'. There are many 'hopes' (or 'oops') round here (meaning hills ): Shorthope, Auchope, Naehope... Ok, that last one's a makey-up, just to see if you're awake.

But the names round here are fascinating - from whence comes Gloomy Cleugh, Murder Cleugh, Barbarous Stell and Foul Step - not to mention the Hanging Stone? A hard country, this!

The three musketeers (and their riders) set off to have a look round Sourhope, which used to be an experimental farm for the Macaulay Institute, but is now tenanted.

The size of the steadings, remains of a mill, and the number of houses, suggests a past importance. Here, too, we saw much recent flood damage. We picked our way up a path by the Sourhope Burn (which flows into the Bowmont Water).

Well, there was a sort of path, but recent events meant the burn had overspilled, braided, formed pools and little oxbows so lots and lots of fording.

Great water practice for Shonagh's project pony Dougall... A few weeks before I set off they had come over for a training ride and it had taken a good fifteen minutes for him to strop himself over a tiny stream. He's obviously 'manned up' (borrowed terminology from my son Mark) and today he ploshed confidently through it all.

At the top of the burn we paused for lunch at the remote farm of Auchope, cooried right down on a cleft in the hills - a house obviously built to cope with the weather, rather than sited for views!

Here, as elsewhere in the Cheviots, we marvelled at the dykes which rise right up the impossibly steep hillsides - what skilled (and fit) men they must have been.

There was also of course a now-familiar stell - a circular stone sheepfold. The reason they are always round, Bill tells me, is because sheep are driven into them in snowstorms: because they're round, the sheep won't lie down but walk round and round, compacting the snow. If the folds were square, sheep would huddle down on the corners and be suffocated by the drifting snow.

A surprise up here was the large pheasant-rearing operation nearby...I am more used to seeing pheasants gleaning the barley fields back home and these seem harsh conditions for them to survive. But this area is one of the most sought-after shooting areas in Scotland, famous for its high birds. Over the next few days we were to see lots of pheasant activity: blocks of game cover crops on the hillside (looked very odd!) and acres of rearing pens.

We picked our way back to Sourhope along a landrover track past a small weather station ( a Macaulay left-over, perhaps?), past Dod hill ('dod' is fox in these parts and down the Kaim burn. Some frantic silage-making activity as we neared the farm - the wet summer proving a challenge everywhere.

A really interesting ride - and Yeoman was completely sound! Time to make tracks for England, then...

Sunday, 2 August 2009


Gets a whole blog entry to itself. A working hill farm run by the Freeland-Cook family, the emphasis is firmly on the 'working' - they don't often stop! Sheep, cattle, goats and hens, contracting, a digger business, as well as the farm b and b and self-catering cottages. While I was there, Angela was recovering from broken ribs - if that was her at half-throttle, full throttle could be a bit alarming!

The solid farmhouse, parts of which date back to the 1600s, sits in a prominent position with extensive views up and down the Bowmont Valley. Currently those views include the havoc wreaked by the recent severe flooding: fences destroyed, river-borne rubble everywhere on those lovely river haughs and big bale feeders crushed into mangled shapes and tossed aside, as if by the hand of a malevolent giant.

Cliftoncote, sitting high above the river, was spared water through the house and farm buildings- though some neighbours weren't so lucky: with several houses still cut off by the time we arrived in the valley. Heartbreaking, especially as this is the second flood of these proportions within six months. Farmers explained that the river valley is an SSSI, and thus, Scottish Natural Heritage and SEPA are reluctant for them to interfere with the course of the river by building flood protection measures - although it looks as if a compromise may have to be reached before the valley inhabitants are all bankrupted covering their repeated losses.

But nothing can take away from the ancient pull of the land. Everywhere there is evidence of ancient settlement: hill forts, cultivation terraces and old homesteads. The OS map has more antique curly writing than modern Helvetica (or whatever font they use).

I have written elsewhere of the sense of humble excitement and history I get from travelling these ancient tracks: I can so easily imagine early farmers, soldiers, drivers and the like using them before me. In an area like this one, it's not hard to half-close your eyes and feel what it must have been like a couple of thousand years ago. (Except it would I think have been warmer: I understand that's why the cultivation terraces etc were abandoned, as the climate cooled and got wetter - could they really have grown vines here?)

The Cheviot tracks are an intricate maze of cross-crossing byways - in places it's the Spaghetti Junction of its day where half a dozen tracks may intersect. Fabulous to ride on too, many of them springy turf stretching away onto the distance. You do need a good map and compass would be fairly easy to get lost, especially in poor visibility. Your horse needs to be confident crossing water and soft ground, and in some places the tracks are stony. VyvWood-Gee, the trackmeister who has done such sterling work for access all over Scotland, describes the Cheviots as the finest riding in Britain, and from what I have seen (a small sample) I would absolutely agree. But we didn't see one other rider, nor indeed hoofprints or dung suggesting we weren't the first - so it's for riders who like their solitude!

Yeoman's temporary lameness turned out to be a blessing - instead of a quick look before hoofing it over the Cheviots, we were forced to stay nearby for a few hardship that.

I don't think I had really realized how tired I was: well, you don't, when each day is taken up with packing up and moving on. Cliftoncote gave me a chance to let my soul catch up with me and take some rest in a very comfortable home with (very) ample supplies of delicious food...and an excellent pub in the village!

Great facilities for horses too, and those fabulous tracks radiating out in every direction (more about those next time).

It's a good job I don't live any nearer or I'd be down every other weekend- but Cliftoncote, we'll be back...