Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Things My Mother Taught Me

A few years ago, I cared for my mother and my aunt at home, both of whom had Alzheimer's. For anyone who has been in this situation, well YOU KNOW. If you haven't, it is one of the hardest things I've ever done (as well as one of the most worthwhile).

Indirectly, they are responsible for me doing this trip, at least partially. During those years, there was little time for horses, and I watched them growing fat and sleek in the field. Each day I would hang out the washing from incontinent old ladies. From my washing line, I can see the foothills of the Grampian mountains, and I vowed that one day I would again ride those hills, (and every other one I could find). So here we are.

I have thought about the 'grannies' frequently on this journey. They would, I think, have been quietly proud, although in best east coast farming tradition wouldn't have said so of course! Although neither of them were particularly 'horsey', they were of the generation which knew about keeping going even when things got difficult, about appreciating the small things in life, and about doing what you said you were going to do - all lessons which have come in useful over the last while...

Now we had to get to Aboyne, and the World Horse Welfare Centre at Belwade. Those who have patiently stuck with this blog - an amazing number of you - will guess that following the road would be a bit tame - how much more interesting to cross the Hill of Coull, don't you think?

And it was interesting: delightful woodland tracks with expansive views over the howe (pictured) - helped of course by stunning weather. Leaving the forest, we picked up a track through waist-high bracken which I thought would lead us in the right direction to Belwade.

Sneaky track - although it started out in the right direction, it soon began to curve round too far west - at this rate we would land plump in the middle of Aboyne - not what we wanted. However, we might as well follow it and see where it came out.

After dismantling a gate (we 'mantled' it back together again of course), picking our way through the bracken, along the side of a golf course and round the loch, we found ourselves in a compound - our progress blocked by a locked gate. Yeoman's expression clearly expresses just what he thinks of my navigation.
Water ski-ing? She's even madder than we thought...
Ha, but the crack team were not to be defeated - not having come all this way! The country club lawn next door offered an escape route (sorry, we did tiptoe) and we were on our way to Belwade - now only a couple of miles away.
Spirits high, we scooted on, only to meet - another locked gate blocking the track. Would we make Belwade in time (or indeed, ever?)

Monday, 28 September 2009

The Beginning of the End

In defence of the gloomy Cabrach, at least it was a lovely day. So when we saw a tempting hill track over Clayhooter Hill - well, just worth a little look! And it WAS lovely - with expansive views over the Correen hills. Yet another area to explore further at a later date!

Oh, great. - Doogs.

Mind you, it was a little rough in parts (probably due to the unseasonable rainfall we have all been


Still fairly easy going, though. There's always the slight fear when you're stravaiging that you're going to come across a locked gate or some other insurmountable obstacle, or get shouted or shot at - but it doesn't happen very often. The track eventually came out at a rather smart house - Clova - so we tiptoed down the front drive, trying not to leave prints or droppings anywhere. Well, you might have been trying - Doogs.

We knew we were starting to get closer to 'oor ain country' as, for the first time on the trip, we saw fields of barley - and as they were being combined we could smell that oh so familiar scent. Such mixed feelings about getting close to our journey's end - especially as the weather was now absolutely gorgeous. We meandered down a quiet back road, fetching up for the night at the charmingly-named Honeybarrel Farm, where Kenny kindly allowed the boys and me to have a corner of a silage field.

As night fell, I lay in my sleeping bag and watched the ponies. Each night, after they'd finished eating, they would come and stand as close to my tent as possible. To me, it showed what a close team we had become during our adventure together.
Actually, we were just wondering if you had any more of that muesli stuff.

Abrada - cabrach!

From Dufftown, I decided to follow the Cabrach hill road, with an intended diversion down Glen Fiddich. We had left ourselves quite a lot to do in order to get to the World Horse Welfare Centre at Aboyne in time for media stuff which had been organised: in addition GMTV were wanting to film us on the move and needed to be able to find us hopefully!

Although a tarmac road (not our favourite), the Cabrach is very quiet - we only saw about half a dozen vehicles. There are some charming haughs beside the Fiddich but the rest of it is pretty bleak: partly because of the windswept location, but also due to the number of derelict small farms and houses. In fact, much of it smelled of quiet abandonment. I met a PhD student from Aberdeen conducting a heather study: 'Where are all the people?" he asked.
Certainly there were a few keepers driving about, but not many other signs of life. In my imagination there seemed a sadness over the area somehow, too many years of trying to make a living on this unforgiving ground. A historical record which I looked at suggested a good year was when only the bottom half of the barley ears got destroyed by frost...

There is however, rather surprisingly, a pub! Adherents of the Kate Godfrey School of Wilderness Trekking will have learned by now not to ever pass a pub (or toilet), so we duly stopped for refreshment at The Grouse Inn. The boys were given carrots (but I really wanted a pint of bitter - Doogs).

Suitably fortified, we had got a bit bored of the road and started to look for other options. Luckily we stayed on the tarmac long enough to see these extraordinary signs:

Slightly sinister and added to my uncomfortable feeling, especially the Bank Farm one. I did try to find out a little more about them, and who had put them up - the general concensus was that it was during the fifties, by a fervent religious farmer - but if anyone knows any more, I would be very interested... the houses now appear abandoned.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Our media frenzy meant it was lunchtime before we set out from Archiestown. First challenge was to recross the Spey (preferably avoiding the busy A95.) We wiggled down through the woods to cross via the old 'Telford' Bridge opposite Craigellachie (pictured) , attracting cheery waves from fishermen in the Spey. I thought they were cheery waves anyway - Yeoman thought they were waving lunge whips so we clattered across it in fine style!

You can then go along a narrow walkway beside the Spey (eek) under the road bridge (very noisy!) and sneak across the playpark in Craigellachie, which brings you out onto the Speyside Way. Phew, made it. But what's this? A warning notice from Moray Council, stating that due to landslides the path is now suitable 'for walkers only' (underlined and in capitals). Oops.

No immediately apparent alternatives, so we - I - decided to give it a go anyway. My enjoyment of the pretty path was slightly overshadowed by worrying about the landslide bit (which naturally enough was at the Dufftown end, a couple of miles further down. Old railways can sometimes be very difficult to get off (they were naturally not designed with crossing places) and I could see from the map that this section was steep on both sides. The worst that could happen was that we would have to retrace our steps but infinitely preferably not to have to!

A chat with a passing cyclist about the fearsome obstacle (well he wasn't walking, was he - Doogs) allayed my anxieties slightly. What he actually said was, 'if you've ridden nearly a thousand miles you'll know exactly what to do.' Thanks, mate. Visions of belaying Doogs over the edge on a leadrope?

Eventually we came to further warning signs. Somewhat unbelievably (but much to my relief) the track doesn't really get much narrower than what you can see in the photo. Admittedly, you wouldn't want to fall over the edge (wasn't planning on it - Doogs), but it does seem extreme health and safety paranoia on behalf of the Council. I suppose they are frightened of getting sued, but really!

We followed the Speyside Way which ends - on a railway platform in Dufftown. A surprise for Yeoman - and the railway guys - who kindly gave us directions for getting safely through Dufftown. This must be one of the few areas where every direction given pertains to a distillery "you'll pass a distillery on your left -when you get to the next distillery, turn right..." Yup, we can do that!

Monday, 21 September 2009

More Speyside Way

When I was planning this trip, in my imagination I saw a succession of sunny days (with a light breeze to keep the insects away, naturally). As we all now know, that was not the reality. Just why did I feel it necessary to lug sun protection round Scotland?

However, notwithstanding the appalling weather of the previous days, suddenly the sun had come out and it was just as I had imagined it. Still a lot of water about though, so we took the decision to cross the Spey by a tried and tested method. This meant a few miles along a quiet and rather lovely B road before rejoining the Speyside Way (again an old railway here) at Delnapot. The countryside here is lovely beside the Spey - the only detraction being the extreme proliferation of 'Strictly Private' and 'Keep Out' signs along this stretch - are they totally necessary, one wonders, particularly at what are clearly the entrance to private houses?

Riding along old railways can be a mixed bag: long and straight (of course), they can sometimes be rather dull, especially if you go through many cuttings with no view. Sometimes the going underfoot can be flinty too. This is a good section though, with nice footing, and excellent views of the Spey. Just one minor obstacle - this suspension bridge (too narrow for Doogs with his packs on) which, though well-constructed and perfectly safe, it doesn't half get a fair wiggle on when you're half way across! I landed lucky with a passing walker, who, having seen me unload, picked up ALL Doogs' packs (not quite in one hand, but you get the idea) and manhandled them across the bridge for us. Show off - and where was he when I was labouring over those mountain passes, eh? - Doogs.

The other lovely thing about this stretch is passing all the distilleries - the boys simply loved these! I assume it was the smell of the malting barley and not the thought of a large dram. Doogs insisted on posing next to this one at Knockando.

We left the Way, somewhat reluctantly at Carron, to locate friends of friends who lived nearby - somewhere! I got directions in the village from a woman - we were somewhat humphed to find there was about another four miles to go following her complicated directions - not what you want to hear at the end of a longish day.

How wonderful then, to find, on asking again, that my first informant was clearly some sort of escaped lunatic, and our destination was in fact only a mile or so - oh joy! That mile was one of the quickest we've ever done, notwithstanding that we were tired and it was all uphill, as passing a stud of ADHD galloping Shetlands didn't half get the boys fired up.

The Scotts at Archiestown were kindness itself and made us so welcome. The boys were given extra time in a hayfield too, while I did a couple of interviews with the BBC and Horse and Hound. We were all mightily reluctant to this stage of the journey, packing up routines were beginning to slow down altogether. Today though, we were to turn our last 'corner' and start heading south - towards home.

Friday, 18 September 2009

You ARE Joking!!!

A couple of reasons why we continued to head east, rather than explore Moray which had been the original intention....the photos do not capture the roaring noise of all that water after freak rainfall. Normally I love extremes of weather, but this was getting to be far from funny. Bill suggests we're now paying for all those cheap aeroplane flights, packaging and driving cars about - maybe so. But I walk everywhere - Doogs.

No, we didn't attempt to cross these: the ponies will cope with deep water - they are good swimmers - but the force of the current here made it far too dangerous, in my opinion. (And mine.)

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Good Gates, Bad Gates (and Oh Bloody Hell Gates)

I'm really very sorry about many things in life. One I'm particularly sorry about is not keeping a tally of the number of gates we opened (or in some cases dismantled completely) on the trip - I'm sure we're into the thousands! Some regions seemed to have a gate a minute.

Here are some examples: the well-hung, self closing variety which is easy to open on horseback. Unfortunately I usually have to get off for them too, not because the ponies aren't good at gates - they are - but sadly the self-closing mechanism doesn't take account of a packhorse and tends to quickly swing shut on Doogs' nose. And not just my nose, says Doogs in a high-pitched way.

Generally they are just wide enough to get a (careful) loaded packhorse through. Those utterly stupid 'chain gates' (pictured) are not - in fact it is pretty dangerous to try to get an untacked horse through. The centre posts are fixed at the bottom while the top swings apart: they need to be tied open at the top, in which case you can just get a slim horse or pony through, but a pretty good way to have an accident, I'd say! A really dopey design, common on parts of the Speyside Way, which I hope is no longer being put in. Quite apart from horses, even getting a large dog or rucksack through would be a pain.

The third option is a gate (or preferably several old ones lashed together with barbed wire) that hasn't been opened since the dawn of time and which appears to have grown organically from the earth - at least it seems that way when you try to move it. This is the time when I am so grateful to have ponies with built-in parking brakes (aka teeth) who will happily wait while I wrestle with the wretched thing.

There is a fourth option - the locked gate - which riders dread. I met surprisingly few of these ( although lots of 'locked' gates which if you search around, you can find a key, usually on a nail on a nearby post, or you may find that the chain has an open link at the back, the lock being for show). Sometimes you can find a way around, by going across a field or two. I know the locked gates are not there to stop me (well, rarely) - more to stop trail bikes, or 4x4s loaded with poachers, but a nuisance all the same. I only came across two VERY locked gates, both on publicly-funded tracks and both of which had been locked by - horse owners. "We don't like horses going past, as it upsets our own animals in the field," was the excuse on both occasions. I expect it does, if they never get the chance to get used to it!

Crossing the Haughs of Cromdale was a bit of a gate-a-thon. The Haughs of Cromdale (scene of a battle in 1690 which marked the effective end of the Jacobite uprising) meant a detour off the Speyside Way for us, due to a severe rash of 'bad' gates. The Way also runs between two sets of barbed wire here, in places about 4' apart. Yuk, no thanks. I can appreciate the sense in keeping walkers to a clearly marked track across farmland, to help people find the track or stop them disturbing stock but barbed wire? Welcome to the countryside (or Auschwitz).

So we had to take to the hills - shouldn't be a problem, but I had a rendezvous with Robin Pape, friend and farrier. Luckily (for once) there was mobile reception, so I was able to contact him to say that, although I was nominally only half an hour or so away, I had had to divert up hills, through pastures, through burns and round woods - and still couldn't see a clear way down to him. Eventually I had to retreat and follow a track down to where I had been a couple of hours earlier, bugger it. (The main difficulty was avoiding the very busy A95 nearby - and of course, all that barbed wire.)

Anyway, finally we met up at the new rendezvous: Robin came waving wine and lots of carby goodies - yum. After a good yarning (no surprise to those who know and love Robin) he prepared to leave. 'Where will you stay tonight then?'

'Oh I'll get somewhere to camp'.

'What about asking at that house there?'

'That house there' would not have been my first choice. I flatter myself that after years of camping I can pick likely-looking houses to approach, and this just didn't tick the boxes: electric gates, a lovely garden with specimen shrubs, and in the conservatory, I could just see some folks gathered for what looked like drinks and nibbles. Still, not many to choose from in this neck of the woods, so perhaps worth a try. We couldn't go up the drive (electric gates don't seem to recognise horses) so I stood on the road and waved at them until the guests came piling out.

'Blah blah blah Kate Godfrey..blah blah thousand mile ride...blah blah looking for grazing overnight.

'Oh no problem - why don't you tether them on the lawn overnight?' said the charming hostess, Carol. (Shows you can't judge by appearances).

'Er, thank you' (glancing the immaculate grounds and having an instant mental picture of how Somme-like it would look after two 600kg horses had been on it overnight). 'I'm not sure that's totally suitable - I would hate you to remember us for ever for all the wrong reasons...perhaps you know the farmer who has the fields opposite?'

'That's James. I will go and ring him up at once.'

And so, thanks to Carol's intervention, the distant James provided us with a barn (with water and light!) which was fenced all around, with plenty for the boys to munch on. Luxury, after tenting it in the rain.

But...the evening wasn't over - just as I was settling in for the night, there was a knock at the door (!) The delightful David and Jackie, guests at the drinks party, were heading home, and 'couldn't bear to think of me all alone there with the rats'. So, at their insistence, a bed and breakfast at their house, and a chance to admire their handsome pointers (David flies falcons over them for grouse.)

What lovely people ... and it just goes to show - yet again - how little I know (about anything, really...) They absolutely didn't have to do that, yet this was the kind of hospitality I met over and over. I suspect that what helped me was a) the horses (people being more likely to approach you than if I was, say, on a bicycle) and b) travelling alone.

For whatever reason, I'm grateful.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

In Praise of Velcro

Most distance riders I know like Velcro: easily adjusted, easy to do up with numb fingers (!), generally holds firm but in a real emergency will give way (you hope).

I, too, am a fan - indeed have lots of it on my kit and person: pannier closures, saddlebag straps, hi viz waistcoat, glove fastenings, saddle pad fasteners etc etc. It's good stuff.

The only down side to this miracle material is that it's not in the least choosy as to what other piece of Velcro it will mate with. So, if you're not careful, within moments you can find yourself trussed up in bondage like a Christmas turkey, attached to all sorts of things in the manner of that Twister game so popular in the seventies. Still, it's a step up from baler twine.

Leaving Grantown to ride east along the Speyside way through the forest is very pretty. For us it was marred only by our eyes being assaulted by an impossibly bright light from the sky - what could it be? Aliens landing? No- for the first time in over a month, the sun had come out!!

We were heading east to catch up with Mark Stephen from Radio Scotland's 'Out of Doors' for an interview ( on iplayer for the next few days, if anyone's interested). First up though, a more important rendezvous...

Thursday, 10 September 2009

We Get Company

After a couple of days' rest to be on the safe side for Doogs, we were ready to move on. Well, sort of- with absolutely no let up in the weather, it was getting harder to feel enthusiastic. My intended route east was blocked by rivers in spate with little likelihood of them going down enough to cross safely any time soon.

Enter my friend Vyv, an indomitable Long Rider who doesn't consider a little drop of rain (or even a month's rainfall in one day which we were to experience) to be any kind of barrier to having a great time.

Together with Vyv and her Fell pony Micky, we rode together into Speyside and through Rothiemurchus and Abernethy estates and on to Grantown on Spey. And we DID have a great time, just the boost the boys and I were needing!

Despite the weather (rivers bursting banks all over Moray and Speyside) this is a fantastic area to ride in. An excellent network of tracks through attractive forestry (much of it Scots pine, so much lovelier than Sitka), hill tracks and the disused railway track of the Speyside Way, we rode through together as far as Grantown. We can vouch for the excellent drying room at Glenmore Lodge!

Vyv isn't ultra-keen on camping (& certainly not in the rain) so we had a few nights' b & b in various (excellent) establishments. Hmmm, could get used to that...

This is a fine area for riding, with good grazing possibilities for horses (though I'm not sure the boys fully appreciated being put up next to the slaughterhouse in Grantown.) I DARED Vyv to ask directions to the slaughterhouse from the first passerby we met as we rode into town, just to enjoy the stunned reaction.

High point (in more ways than one) had to be the Ryvoan Pass (pictured) but the whole area is delightful. I especially enjoyed meeting a couple on Nethy Bridge whom I'd first met when I was riding through the Bowmont Valley in the Cheviots a couple of months ago - they couldn't believe I was still plodding (or should that be wading) on.

It's certainly somewhere I intend to come back to explore some more. At this rate, I'm going to need more than one measly lifetime (and so are Doogs and Yeoman).

Vyv came along at precisely the right time - although I do enjoy riding alone, it's also great to have company sometimes. And as Granny always said, an ounce of help is worth a cartload of sympathy- and Vyv is nothing if not experienced and practical, (as well as entertaining).

After parting company, the boys and I headed east along the Speyside Way. I HAD intended riding northwards and along the Moray coast, but the flood devestation experienced in that area over the last day or two suggested that might be heading for trouble.

So instead, a reroute and we were off to the land of distilleries, excellent!!

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

A Good Scare (2)

Apologies for long radio silence on blog: contrary to popular opinion, we haven't all been washed out to sea by recent floods OR given up and gone home!

However, as will hopefully become clear, we HAVE had some adventures...

Now where was I? Ah yes, crossing the Black Mount estate...

The stalker's track on this side is not quite as fine as the one in Glenkinglas: bit of a Friday afternoon job in places actually. However, it's serviceable, and infinitely preferable to the surrounding bog.

When I'm riding on tracks I don't generally lead Doogs: he just follows on behind loose. As usual, he was just moseying along behind us, having the occasional munch.

We came to a somewhat dodgy looking bridge. While Yeoman and I were hesitating, looking for a better place to ford downstream, Fatty-I-Know-Best-Doogs barged past us and over the bridge. Well, half over, before it collapsed under his weight with a sickening crash. Good way for a pony to break a leg, and to make matters worse he was now firmly jammed.

I knew the nearest help was at Clashgour, four miles (and three large fords) away. The only tool I had was for removing horses' shoes, plus I found an old fencepost to use as a lever. It took me almost two hours to free him: luckily he stood like an angel. DIDN'T HAVE MUCH CHOICE, DID I? I WAS STUCK! DOOGS

Unbelievably, he didn't have a broken leg- indeed, barely a scratch.

Once I'd got him out (and he was grazing , two hours without food being a bit traumatic for old Doogs), I turned my attention to what was left of the bridge. Oops, it did look somewhat- er - wrecked. I thought at least I might tidy up the sleepers, ready for repair. When I tried to move them I couldn't even lift them: it must have been adrenalin which gave me the ability to get them off Doogs, like mothers who can lift cars off children.

We made our way down to Clashgour: the rivers were high to wade but in retrospect I think all that cold bathing would have been good for Doogs, minimizing swelling. OH YEAH? DOOGS.
With some trepidation I knocked at the door of the keeper's house, to admit and apologise for our wanton destruction of estate property.

The door opened. 'Bloody Hell, it's Kate!' came a voice- which turned out to belong to Calum, who'd had stalking ponies from us years ago, when he worked in Wester Ross.

A small world, and one in which errant vandalism was rewarded by supper and a bed for the night, as well as excellent grazing for the boys. Calum also said that, once he'd repaired it, he would put up a sign: 'Doogs' Bridge'- perhaps it will end up on a future edition of the OS map, along with other local landmarks like Victoria Bridge and Bridge of Orchy!

Now that WOULD be a fitting tribute to a brave (and very lucky) pony.