And did those Feet…..?
Riding from John O’Groats to Lands End in the hoof-prints of past generations
by Vyv Wood-Gee
Everyone has their dream. Mine, for as long as I can remember, has been riding from the tip to the toe of Britain, a dream shared by my 13 year old daughter Elsa. We saw it as the ultimate challenge for us and our geriatric Fell ponies, but somehow there never seemed enough time in between work, school, looking after the menagerie and trying to make our house habitable. This year, the death of another close friend from cancer reminded us yet again of the need to live your dreams while you can.
|Vyv Wood-Gee (left) and her
daughter Elsa (right) rode from Scotland's John O'Groats (the furthest north
and east of the British Isles) to Lands End (the furthest south and west).
Click on either image to enlarge it.
So on 18th June 2006, we set off riding from John O’Groats. Eight weeks and 1,335 miles later, we reached Lands End, having raised over £10,500 for Cancer Research UK. On foot or by bike the most direct route would have been 860 miles, but we chose to ride off-road as much as possible, zig-zagging on tracks, bridlepaths and minor roads through Britain avoiding the major conurbations. We picked our way through some of the wildest parts of the Scottish Highlallnds along stalkers paths, old drove and former military roads. Historic thieves’ routes led us south over the Southern Uplands to our home near Lockerbie, from where we struck east again to the Pennines, continuing south on a maze of Roman roads, old tracks and bridleways through the Yorkshire Dales and Peak District to Staffordshire. We missed Birmingham by cutting west across Cannock Chase to Wenlock Edge, from where we rode south over Clee Hill and the Malverns to skirt north of Cheltenham, up Cleeve Hill onto the Cotswolds, which we followed through the centre of Bath to the Mendips. On the Somerset Levels we were back onto old drove roads, across to the Quantocks and Exmoor before heading cross country to Bodmin Moor, from where a maze of old tinners’ tracks led us across wild and windswept moors to Lands End.
Throughout Britain, we followed in the footsteps of our ancestors. Elsa groaned at my constant commentary on the ancient tracks we were riding along, the remnants of ancient woodland and dykes. At the slow pace we were travelling, we had time to wonder how much things had changed, to ponder whose feet had passed this way before us in days gone by. To talk to people we met along the way, see the sun rise and set, to notice how the local hedgerow fruits and flowers change every few miles as well as materials and style of vernacular buildings. Without radio or TV, or any means of controlling what happened, we stopped worrying about weather forecasts and took life as it came. Young frogs hopped over our toes as we walked barefoot through a field full of orchids where the ponies had grazed overnight at Kinloch Laggan (known to many through the TV show Monarch of the Glen). Riding through Derbyshire one afternoon in hazy heat along the Tissington Trail, butterflies fluttered past my face, landing momentarily on my nose. When did that last happen to me or you?
We’d meticulously planned most of our route in advance, endless winter evenings spent pouring over maps, writing letters and ringing people. The Land Reform Act confirms a legal right of responsible access for walkers, cyclists and riders through most of Scotland, but that’s little consolation if you’ve ridden 35 miles and find your way blocked by a padlocked gate or 5’ deer fence. All but one of the estates, landowners and organisations we so painstakingly contacted in advance to identify and confirm our route through Scotland were helpful and supportive.
South of the border, there was no need to contact landowners before or during our ride and only once through England did we meet a real problem with our route which meant a lengthy diversion, as a result of which we never made our destination that night before darkness fell. But don’t be deluded that it was all a breeze.
We knew when we set off that we were pushing the limits, not least because of the age of our ponies: Lancer (aka Mr. Horrid), aged 20 and Rowan, 16 and in foal. Based on years of past travels together, our faith in them was unlimited, but we could never have imagined before we set off that Lancer’s life would be threatened not by any accident but by the hundreds of ticks we picked up riding through the Highlands. Or that an infected horse-fly bite on Rowan’s back would mean that much to everyone’s regret, not least hers, once we reached our home near Lockerbie she too would have to be invalided out. Thankfully, by then Lancer had made a miraculous recovery courtesy of umpteen vets, injections and copious TLC, and another of our Fell ponies, Mikado (Micky), was only too happy to become part of the team.
Our idyllic vision of lazy picnic lunches dipping our feet in a stream while our ponies grazed lush grass alongside was rarely matched in reality. Slogging up and down steep mountains and struggling through deep peat bogs north of the border left little time to sit down and admire the view, and finding food was an ongoing problem.
Determined to be totally self-sufficient and travel independently without a back-up team, we carried everything we needed in our saddlebags but with weight and space limited to the bare minimum, we were dependent on constantly replenishing our stocks. In the first week we passed two shops, both of which were closed. Even in England shops are few and far between when you’re off the beaten track, and those which once existed have now all too often closed or been converted to bijou country cottages. Elsa was unimpressed by the trail mix we carried for emergency rations and concluded late one night wandering across the Pennines when tea had failed to materialise yet again with another 15 miles to go that the energy expended picking bilberries was not justified by their calorific benefits.
Every night we had arranged grazing for the ponies, but when we reached a farm B&B, hostel or camping barn at 11 p.m., we collapsed into our sleeping bags without energy left to think about finding something for ourselves to eat. The coldest and wettest June night on record we spent huddled together in a mountain bothy with the ponies hobbled outside, sharing muesli bars for breakfast. At least we didn’t need to worry about water for the ponies that night.
Heading south through England it got hotter, and hotter, the land cracking open. Our sturdy black ponies are bred to withstand wet ground and hard winters on the fells, not desert conditions. We reduced our pace to spare the ponies’ legs on the rock-hard ground, and diverted downhill below the tree line to find shade in the worst of the midday heat. As burns and rivers dried up, water for both us and our ponies became a constant concern. We developed eagle eyes, ever on the lookout for water troughs readily accessible from the road in fields not crowded by sheep or cattle. We rationed ourselves to how quickly we slurped from our own water bottles, only once having to knock on a door near Appleby to beg someone for a refill.
The one thing we were never short of on our trip was food for thought. Travelling slowly through Britain was equally as stimulating as any trip to more exotic places. People marvelled as we rode through housing schemes in Airdrie in search of an ice cream, and through the middle of Cirencester to restock our map supply. Yet not so very long ago, horses were not an uncommon sight in the middle of towns. I smiled as, riding through Bath, someone standing in a shop doorway called out “Rawhide”.
I fear I was born into the wrong age, one where we rush through life without time to appreciate what lies around us, the huge diversity within our own comparatively small country: not only the different landscapes but the different dialects and the subtle cultural variations. And just how generous complete strangers can be. The support and encouragement from those we met along the way, those who accommodated us and our ponies, who never doubted that we would and could succeed in reaching Lands End on an impossibly tight schedule, meant just as much as the money we have raised.
In the past, a week or more riding with our Fell ponies over 30 miles a day over the hills and far away has been well within reason. But an average of 25 miles a day, every day, for eight weeks is a different matter. Some days (far too many) were nearer 40 miles, over the most difficult terrain, pressure forever on us to get Elsa back to school for the new term. It’s easy to say now that every mile and every hour were worth it, but it didn’t always feel that way at the time! Although Elsa remained stoic, I shed many a tear. When the ponies were tired, or my hips hurt too much, I walked alongside, or sometimes behind, the ponies enjoying the independence of leading the way unfettered by reins or ropes, striding out in front of us even at the end of impossibly long days.
Now I dream of what happened between John O’Groats and Lands End, rather than what might. There is so much to think about. I am incredibly proud of Elsa for making it all that way, and of our ponies, who, with ears pricked ever forwards, patiently put up with Elsa’s gymnastics in the saddle when she got bored or the many days she spent reading books while riding along, trusting to auto-pilot. Slowing down to the steady beat of a horse’s hooves isn’t easy, but the rewards are immeasurable, not only for the rider. Lancer, Rowan and Mikado seemed to enjoy our trip as much as we did. Within hours, literally, of returning home, rather than revelling in the lush grass, they were looking over the gate apparently wondering why we hadn’t set off and asking where next.
We always knew this trip was going to be tough, that was part of the appeal. It proved even more demanding than our wildest dreams, and perhaps because of this we learned so much about ourselves, about life as well as about our country. My only regrets are having had to return to the rat race back home, and the technological breakdowns which prevented us maintaining a daily web diary. The bits and pieces we did manage to get through to our web-site (www.ride-for-research.org) give something more of a flavour of what happened along the way. Perhaps one day there’ll be time to commit the tale to paper.
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