English Long Rider Grant Nicolle rode his horse, Marv, along the historic trail that stretches from John O’Groats in Scotland, across England, to Land’s End in Cornwall. The following article describes the first week of Grant Nicolle’s journey with his horse, Marv. However the photos were especially chosen to show special moments and places encountered during the entire 1100 mile ride across England and Scotland.
Day 1 (John O’Groats to Mybster – 23 miles)
Mark joined us for breakfast in the B&B and soon after it was time to get the show on the road. Marv seemed quite relaxed but alert. The weather was overcast and windy, but at least not raining. We drove the last few miles to John O’Groats and parked the large conspicuous horse box in the deserted car park. There was to be no grand send off today. I was feeling quite nervous and impatient to start on the trip. I knew we had to mark the start with some photographs, so I quickly saddled up Marv and attached the saddle bags and dry bag behind the saddle. Marv was now getting restless as he picked up on my tension. I felt guilty that shortly I was going to leave Fi and Mark behind, as they had spent so much of their time and effort getting me and Marv to the start and on the trip in general. They had to spend the day driving the empty box back to Edinburgh.
Frustratingly the dry bag would not sit straight behind the saddle. I would somehow have to sort this out later, but I didn’t have the patience right now. Photos were taken with the John O’ Groats ferry behind and I quickly said my goodbyes. Marv and I rode off southwest and the adventure had officially started. I had only gone 1km before the annoying dry bag had slipped round and was hanging off again. I could see the horse box just leaving the car park so I called Fi and asked if they could drive over. Embarrassingly, I got off and took out a heavy horse blanket from the dry bag and threw it in the horse box. Far more relaxed as the kit now sat better, we said our goodbyes again and this time they drove off and I started the long slog south.
The first day’s mileage was a reasonable amount. Strategically I had planned to try and be in Aberfeldy (near Pitlochry) by the second weekend to ensure we got some days off and this could coincide with Fi being able to join us. To achieve this goal we had to manage some long mileage days in the first fortnight.
The next day was fairly straightforward. Marv kept looking round to where we had come from in a slightly mournful and longing way. There was not much to see as the land is quite flat and featureless in the north east corner of Scotland. We made good time and reached the first night’s destination by 1600. We were both tired as much emotionally as physically. First thing was to pick up the hard feed drop we had prepositioned the day before. Next was to get a field or stable sorted for Marv. I had nothing booked for night one. The location I had picked was just a small hamlet on the map. I asked at a bungalow which had fields attached, and the friendly occupant not only offered Marv a field, but also offered a bed for me. Result! We turned Marv out and he got his hard feed for the day. I was carrying several kilos worth of Dodson & Horrell Staypower muesli mix in freezer bags, but these would only last a few days. I could only hope that we could source enough food (grass) en route for him. I carried a small stove, some noodles, muesli and dried milk, which could also sustain me for a few days. Re-provisioning for both of us would be something I needed to think about daily.
|Grant Nicolle served as a Captain in the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery. In 2003 he rode Able, an 18 hand high charger, at Edinburgh Castle in honour of Queen Elizabeth. “This was the occasion when the seed of the idea of the ride started,” he later wrote.|
Day 2 (Mybster to Fosinard – 23 miles)
After an overcast and unremarkable first day, we were rewarded with a bright sunny outlook on day two. I welcomed the proffered cooked breakfast and then packed up my gear to go and see how Marv was. It seemed he had already made friends with the owner’s Clydesdale mare and was not too keen to be saddled up to head off. We bade farewell and headed southwest towards the Fosinard Hotel. The scenery was particularly spectacular as we passed a large wind farm to our left on the horizon. The road ended abruptly at Westerdale and we then followed landrover tracks across increasingly heathery terrain. I was beginning to be concerned that there might not be enough grazing for Marv in the next few days, and also a lack of fencing to prevent him wandering off.
Still quite nervous with regard to our daily routine, I stopped for lunch on the shore of Loch More. There was plenty of grass by the bank and I decided that I would try to let Marv have an hour without his saddle. To facilitate this I clipped him onto a long lightweight lunge line and sat down for a breather whilst he happily munched away. After a very pleasant hour I packed up and tried to re-saddle Marv. Instantly I realised there was a fundamental problem that there was nowhere to tie him up to. Predictably he wouldn’t stand still, and it took me 30 minutes to wrestle on the saddle and saddle bags whilst spinning in a circle. This lunchtime experiment was not to be repeated, but we were starting to learn what worked and what didn’t. Nevertheless, slightly flustered we headed off past the remote Altnabreac railway station, across country and through forestry blocks making good progress. Marv discovered puddle slurping. As well as my general concern for grazing, I carried a collapsible water carrier. We had tried in training to get Marv to drink from this, but to no avail. Today saw him drink his fill from any number of the muddy puddles we passed. I thereafter knew he would be fine for water consumption and ditched the water carrier after the first week. We managed many long trots on the tracks, alternating with me walking with Marv. Finally, we dropped down onto the A897 single track road and completed the last few miles to see the welcome sight of the remote hotel. I had prearranged a field for Marv with the owners. Once introduced to the landlord, I found Marv his field and put up my bivi for the night. I had my first night’s meal cooked by stove, a nutritious noodle and tuna mix. After supper I headed into the pub for a relaxing pint. In the bar there was only me, two contractors (who were working on the overhead pylons) and a gentleman eating on his own. The two contractors and I shared a few jars, and just as I got up to go, they very generously gave a £50 donation towards the charities I was raising money for. My first night in the bivi was very comfortable, lying on long soft grass under my sleeping bag and having completed two longish days, I was soon asleep dreaming of the days to come.
|Thanks to his military training, Grant was able to carefully plan his route in advance so as to keep off busy main roads. What the journey required he accurately wrote was “A sensible older horse with strong legs and good weight carrying ability.” Marv, a 16 hand 12 year old Clydesdale cross gelding was perfect for the journey. After obtaining the proper saddle and equipment, Grant and Marv began a strict training regime prior to departure. As a result they were in excellent physical and mental shape when they set off. They are seen at South Queensferry and the Forth rail Bridge.|
Day 3 (Fosinard to Gearnsay – 19 miles)
We were up early and off south on another bright blue sky day. We had a few miles to do on the quiet A897 (single track A road) before heading west across country again. I was now relaxing into the trip and Marv was settling nicely too. He still looked round for the first few miles every morning as if to check the location of his last field in case he needed to return. It was only half an hour after departure when I was overtaken by a small convertible car and the chap at the wheel introduced himself as the ‘other’ man in the bar last night. It turned out he was a freelance reporter for Radio Scotland and was up north working. Would I mind being interviewed? “Not at all”, I said, “as long as we could do it on the move”. I was keen not to lose any time. He then parked up and walked alongside us for 15 minutes whilst we chatted away into his Dictaphone. He said farewell and I carried on. Apparently the piece did go out on air soon after, as my uncle heard the interview one morning.
After Kinbrace we headed west on the B871 and then turned off onto tracks heading towards Ben Klibreck. We stopped for lunch at Loch Badanloch which had a glorious sandy beach and postcard views all around. I had made no plans for this night’s stop as there was no settlement anywhere near the 20 mile marker, and so I was concerned as to where we would spend the night. I had seen a bothy on the OS map and decided that this was to be the place. We reached the bothy mid-afternoon and my fears were realised as there were no fences to be seen. There were the remains of a stone wall surrounding some short grass on one side of the bothy, which was a start. The local ghillie came up on his quad later on as he had heard that I was planning on passing through the area. He luckily allowed Marv to eat some of his deer feed (sugar beet pellets) which he had stored in the bothy. For the first 2 hours I tied up Marv to the one tree and set about rebuilding as much of the wall enclosure as I could, by moving stones and using lengths of para cord to help secure the gaps. It certainly wouldn’t stop a determined escape attempt and if Marv got out he had thousands of acres of heather to explore with no fences to stop him. As the weather was still warm, I stripped off and went down to the nearby clear mountain stream for a proper wash in the clear cool water. The next 24 hours were to be my most memorable of the trip.
You could see no other settlements or signs of life from the bothy and the views were spectacular. A herd of deer came over to have a look at what we were doing. Marv instantly spotted them and was transfixed. I thought that he might jump out and join them at any minute. As it was a clear night, I risked not putting the poncho up and just used the bivi bag option. I decided to sleep across one of the gaps in the wall so I could at least keep an eye on Marv during the night. Once in my sleeping bag sleep proved difficult and I kept waking periodically to see if he was still there, until about midnight when I finally fell asleep.
|After travelling for more than a month, Grant hoped to ride along the canal towpaths designed a hundred ago for horses such as Marv. While they were able to travel alongside some of the canals, unfortunately officials of British Waterways said, “they would not open the gate for horses.” This image shows Marv studying the Shropshire Union Canal.|
Day 4 (Gearnsay to Rogart – 21 miles)
At dawn, I woke up and cautiously looked out of my sleeping bag over into the homemade enclosure adjacent to me to check that Marv was still there. Yes he was! He was still asleep, and he was lying down right next to me. I was quite touched by this and managed to get a few photos before we both got up.
Feeling revitalised after managing the memorable night by the bothy, we struck off south heading for Ben Armine Lodge, as the Loch Choire route was deemed to be too boggy by the locals. We faced a strong climb as we rounded the side of Ben Armine, but were making good progress on this long day. We were following a quite distinct and well used track when we came across a fairly nondescript stream. I was on foot at this point, but Marv continued to refuse to cross the stream. We had to get over the other side and continue on our path, so I decided to lead him 20 metres to the left where the crossing seemed easier. We both got across ok and were heading back to rejoin the path when Marv almost immediately sank down to his belly in a peat bog.
Oh fXXX! Disaster. Marv became instantly distressed and tried using brute force to get out, to no avail. I got the saddle and bags off and dumped them back on the path. I clipped on the lunge line to his head collar and tried to take stock of the situation. We were miles from anywhere, there was no mobile signal. I had a ‘heavy horse’ now stuck in peat bog and trying in vain to extricate himself. Then noises coming from his legs as he thrashed around suggested that he may have broken or torn something already, which could be the end of Marv (if he needed to be put down as a consequence). It was fair to say that I shed some tears and cursed myself continually as I dug around his front legs with my hands to aid him getting his feet clear. He was sweated up all over and working very hard to get out. We slowly established a routine, whereby once I had dug out his front feet sufficiently and he had got his breathing back, he then managed to haul himself a metre closer to the track with me pulling on the lunge line. This process was repeated over and over for an hour until he finally pulled himself clear of the peat bog. He stood back on the path and shook himself all over, whilst I couldn’t believe he had done it. I had visions of him having broken his leg or having to be pulled out by a helicopter.
We both got a huge shock and were visibly traumatised. But having got through this event together, I believe it bonded us in such a strong way that from then on we both trusted each other on a whole new level. Marv stood quite still while I saddled him up. There were no indications of a break or tear to his legs. We moved off, now back on the track, so glad that the incident had had a happy ending. My mind was a muddle for hours afterwards, and huge lessons were learnt. We were both physically and emotionally tired and we still had many miles to go. After passing Ben Armine Lodge we were both so glad to be walking on tarmac again. My awareness of suitable terrain for horse movement was heightened and I vowed to always take the sensible route from here on in.
We slogged on and reached the outskirts of Rogart. As we started passing the first few cottages there was a lady outside her front door cleaning a saddle and drinking wine. We stopped and got chatting to Kosie who insisted that she could find a stable for Marv in the village. She gave directions to Rovie Farm, as she knew the local farmer John. Sure enough when we reached Rovie we were met by John and Marv had a deep straw bed ready in a stabled open barn amongst John’s own horses. Marv got a huge feed from John and enjoyed a good night’s rest. John also invited me to stay in the farmhouse, which was very generous. Weirdly, somehow in the short space of time I had been there, John had managed to track down my mother’s cousin who happened to live locally and she appeared with her guitar playing man friend for a surreal gathering. I was far too tired for this, and after a whisky and a short round of conversation, I excused myself to bed.
|Great Britain’s most celebrated ancient route, the winding road that leads from John O’Groats in Scotland to distant Land’s End in Cornwall took Grant and Marv past ancient Stonehenge.|
Day 5 (Rogart to Amat – 24 miles)
Having survived the drama of yesterday I was looking forward to getting our collective confidence back and having a simpler day. Again, the weather was favourable and I looked at my planned route which started by heading up a steep deforested side of a mountain. There was no real route for the first few miles, as I had planned on using some forestry tracks which I thought would get me over to a single track south of Rogart. John agreed that the route was not obvious or easy but was achievable. After leaving Rovie Farm I headed south looking for the track on my map. There was no sign of it to be found. With no real alternative (and acutely aware of yesterday’s incident) I was forced to lead Marv up a steep section of ground, which I struggled to climb. Marv also struggled with his footing in places, as this was mountain goat territory and not suitable for Clydesdales. Marv mistakenly trod on me during the ascent and ripped off one of my half chaps in our mad scramble. Once we had reached the summit, we found a path of sorts, but it ran east / west. We needed to go south. I then took a bearing and headed off across the heather to find the road. We were both nervous as yesterday’s lesson was fresh in our minds. Marv was super cautious and if he was in any doubt as to the firmness of the ground he would stop and sniff for peat. I also scanned ahead looking for the best ground. It was slow progress and I was convinced that off-roading with Marv was not suitable in the Highlands. We finally found the road two hours after leaving Rovie which was a very slow way to cover three miles on one of the longest days. However once on the tarmac we made up good time with long spells of trot (some of which I chose to run to give Marv a break).
We made Bonar Bridge by late lunch and a welcome stop at the Spar. I had a nose bleed in the Spar which was unusual, and Marv got his carrots/apple snack whilst I refuelled. We took a great photo of us with the (Arnhem type) bridge behind us and amazingly still blue sky. The afternoon’s miles were to be heading west up the road on the south side of Glen Carron. I marvelled at the spectacular scenery around us, with great views of the adjacent river with its salmon pools and numerous estate houses and cottages. Again, we managed a good average speed by achieving many trots and runs. As we neared Amat we stopped at a bungalow, and Katie the owner kindly provided Marv with a bucket of water. I enquired about a field for Marv and she kindly said we could use her field located a few miles up the Glen. She also noted that her farrier was coming to attend her horse tomorrow morning, and could possibly look at Marv’s shoes. This was very useful and timely as one shoe was starting to become loose. I duly noted the directions to the field and we headed off up the glen. The field was perfect for us. It had a water standpipe over an old bath which Marv could use for a drink and had great views. I pitched the poncho onto the fence line and did some washing. It was a perfect evening and we could both relax somewhat having regained some composure from the last two days’ exertions. It was nice to have only Marv for company for the night in the field. As I was sleeping in the same field as Marv, once in my sleeping bag, he came over and sniffed my head to check up on me and to see if I had any snacks. I did worry that he might inadvertently step on me through the poncho, or catch his feet on my bungees and run off with my shelter in the night. I felt I was starting to get the rhythm of the trip with five of the hardest days (in terms of remoteness and distance) under our belts. I fell asleep very contented and proud of Marv.
|As Grant discovered, no amount of pre-planning can protect you from the rigours of the road. On the fourth day they stumbled into a remote peat bog, which resulted in Grant saving Marv’s life. As they ventured south they become tired, wet and hungry. They got lost, misplaced equipment and made mistakes. But those experiences only deepened their friendship. Nearing the end of their journey, they cantered along the beach in front of St. Michael's Mount in Cornwall.|
Day 6 (Amat to Inchbae Lodge – 20 miles)
The local farrier stopped off early to put some more nails into one of Marv’s shoes and I realised that he would need a new set of shoes in Aberfeldy in a week’s time. Somehow I had started the trip with one set of new rear shoes and a set of front shoes that were 2 weeks old. This was for a good reason as Marv didn’t have great hoof. By keeping on a set of newish front shoes meant that the hoof wall would retain some strength as new nail holes frequently meant cracking. This meant that the front and rears needing shoeing alternately and so twice as many farrier visits. In hindsight I would not recommend shoeing in pairs. Although as the rear shoes were wearing faster it may be that it was always going to be split shoeing.
It was going to be a remote day today, with no settlements or shops on the route. We were to go up Glen More and pass Deanich Lodge into Strath Vaich. Straight away I started to find issues with cattle grids where deer fences met the road. We would sometimes find no gate alongside the cattle grid, or the gate was locked. I carried a big set of fencing pliers which I used on the odd occasion to allow for temporary access requirements. The track wound past Alladale Lodge, and Marv stopped to say hello to some grey ponies (used for deer stalking) who were pleased to see a fellow equine. Alladale was experimenting with wild boar enclosures and we passed many signs warning us of the dangers they may present. None were spotted, but I daresay that if Marv had spotted any, our average speed would have been quicker! Traversing this long glen surrounded on both sides by 2000ft mountains was inspiring. It was this day when I think that Marv realised what the trip was all about - “20 miles south each day and no going back”. For the first few days I experimented with letting him loose when I was walking with him, but he often stopped and turned around and started heading north. Today when I tried it, he somehow just knew we had to keep on going. We would often walk for miles side by side with his reins tucked up into his head collar. If I stopped for a pee, he would just carry on walking and I would catch him up. This made me feel confident in that we both now knew what we had to do.
Around midday, we reached a lodge where three glens meet. There were people staying there and we got chatting. This was a guest shooting lodge for the Alladale Estate (coincidentally where a friend of mine, Barclay, ended up working a few years later). They were very generous to us and shared their packed lunches which meant many apples for Marv. Into the afternoon we were still making good progress as we passed Loch Vaich and headed down the Hydro Electric track to the A835. Today was exciting as Fi and Maisie were heading north to see us and would meet us at Inchbae Lodge.
The Grants (no relation) farmed at Inchbae, and provided us with a lush field through which flowed a clear stream. After ensuring Marv was ok, I was offered the luxury of a superb shower and to join the family for their evening meal. Fi was still en route north so after supper I offered to go with Sandy Grant to check on the sheep. When we got back Fi and ‘the mooch’ (Maisie’s nickname) had arrived and it was fantastic to see them. We put up the tent Fi had brought and I recounted the first week’s adventures. Marv also did well as Fi had brought a bag of Dodson & Horrell mix to keep his strength up. Maisie enjoyed the mix too and so the little and large animals were munching side by side out of the same feed bucket.
|Someone who is a genuine Long Rider doesn't spend his time bragging about his triumphs. He is too busy dealing with the realities of life on the road. For example, a real Long Rider, like Grant, discovers on his first day out that the bag slips off. A real Long Rider, like Grant, discovers that he has to swallow his embarrassment and knock on a stranger's door in search of a pasture and a bed. A real Long Rider goes to sleep worrying about how he is going find grazing the next day. Those are the marks of a genuine equestrian travel tale. This photo shows Grant and Marv at their final destination, Land’s End.|
Day 7 (Inchbae Lodge to Muir of Ord – 19 miles)
Fi had brought some great food with her in a cool box and we had a tasty camper’s breakfast before packing up. It was now Saturday and we were due to meet my Mother and Ken for lunch at Contin. I left with Marv taking Maisie for extra company, and headed off alongside Loch Garve through some stunning woodland tracks. Maisie loved the exercise and the tracks were great under foot, so we managed several miles of canter. Marv enjoyed the variety of going faster on good ground and stretching his muscles. We arrived at the hotel and managed to persuade the hotel owner to allow Marv to graze the adjacent field, which had nice long grass. It was great to see Mum and Ken too and to share with them the news of week one. During lunch Maisie got stung in the eye by a bumble bee whilst outside on the patio, so she then looked like a boxer with one eye closed.
Having had a pint for lunch, it was hard to get back on the road and do the last miles to Muir of Ord. Mum, Ken and Fi all left by car and I headed off with Marv to do the last half of the day. Marv and I plodded on crossing the River Conon and passing through Marybank on the A832. ‘The team’ had helped us out by scouting ahead and securing a stable for Marv at Chapelton Farm equestrian centre. When we arrived at the yard, in the next door stable to Marv was a sick horse which was very unwell. Its owners were doing a sitting vigil in the barn as we left Marv for the night. There was nothing that anybody could do to help, the vet had been and it was a question of time. Mum and Ken had generously booked Fi and me into the local hotel for a proper bed (and my first bath). The long soak was restorative and morale boosting. I sorted all my kit in the hotel room, ditching the fly rug, as I had only used it once, and it was very heavy. After a great pub meal I got an early night as there was to be no rest day tomorrow, that was still a week away.
This Story and Grant’s book deliver a message which the modern horse world would do well to heed and emulate. It reinforces the need for equestrian ethics. Grant thanked his sponsors and made certain that donated money went straight to the charities he had championed. He acknowledged the generous mentoring provided to him in advance by Scottish Long Rider Vivian Wood-Gee. In turn he later passed on his own hard-won knowledge to William Reddaway, who then rode 2500 miles to 30 English cathedrals.
But most important of all – he never failed to protect his horse. Grant emphatically states in the beginning of the book that despite having risked losing his job to take time off to make the journey, and disregarding all of the financial investment required to purchase Marv and the equipment, “What was uppermost in my mind was that if the horse became ill or injured the trip was over.”
As a result, Marv completed the journey in superb health.
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