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.

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