This photo came to light last week after lingering eight years in my email inbox. How remiss of me not to archive the images that a guest kindly sent. (Thank you Wayne & Cec.) We were traversing a rare section of trail, one that I took only a handful of groups along, above the former border between the Austrian and Russian Empires. We were riding our regular one-week trip. For some reason I must have doubled back from the valley to the ridge, ascending the track we'd ridden down the previous evening. Usually we cut along the valley for a couple of miles then took a different track upward as I didn't like retracing my steps. To do so seemed like short-changing guests. There I am, riding the second horse, the Lipizzaner gelding Pintea who now resides in England. Who knows why I broke habit? Sometimes curiosity got the better of me. Or perhaps we'd come into the village in the valley, Ciocanesti, by an unaccustomed route? Whatever the reason, we traversed a high airy meadow. Like so many former military roads in the Carpathians, the trail sliced across a long and moderately steep slope attempting to maintain a relatively even gradient. I'm not overly fond of heights however I got used to these byways. A good steady horse helped, of course, and my horses were all reliable. The views were fabulous, as you can see. If I could go back now, I'd take food and drink, then I'd sit up there all day taking it all in. One cannot get too much of the mountains on a fine day. I'd slip back down to the cozy guesthouse in the gloaming, no sooner, ready for dinner and good company. That location, between Transylvania and the Bucovina, offered it all: lovely scenery, friendly people, reliable horses and nice places to stay.
Back at the yard after a ride. Soft light, fading. Quiet. A horse wandering beyond the gate, pale moon beyond the trees. Ansell Adams would have made this into a lovely black and white image. I took a quick snap, and the horse wandered off.
I'm the last one here, past nine o'clock. Twilight carried us back, down the silent village street, past houses where people ate dinner or watched television. Ever the outsider looking in, I rode. Evening sensations abounded: cool, quiet, a little hunger, tired limbs. Nostalgic, all of them.
Somewhere distant a combine harvester hummed. I wasn't the only one out. At least I wasn't working. So many evenings I rode homeward trailing a string of chattering guests amazed by the peasant trappings of our rustic surroundings. But that was another place. Another life. A place of memories.
I washed Brena, creamy sweat cascading from shining flanks. Splashing foamy puddles I dried her with a sweat scraper. Then out to the field where the mare rolled luxuriously, coating herself with a thin brown film. She does that every time I wash her. Then she shook, flinging dust and droplets. What an atmospheric photo that would make. I expect that Ansell Adams could have captured that too. But I saw it, and that was enough, life and joy presented to me by a relaxing horse.
At its best the English countryside exudes a sense of mystery. It's the trees that do it, obscuring just enough detail that the mind has to get to work. Cloud and mist add to the atmosphere.
The ridge east of the barn provides a lovely view to the south. Villages nestle amidst a flurry of copses, their positions signalled by church towers and a few barely visible thatched or tiled roofs. The impression is one of nature dominating, of settlements put in their place by the broad green canopy.
But how to reach those settlements? Via tracks winding below leaf and bough? Navigating sinuous ways between hedges? Actually that's how it is, by motor road and by riding trail. No way is straight or direct, and each stretch yields glimpses of a mysterious, undulating land, peculiar in its granularity.
Sometimes I like to stop and dream. In those moments Brena gets an extra snack of the lush grass. What if we were travelling long ago? What if there were a border to cross? Perhaps the far hills lie in a different land? That's a favourite dream, one in which I am descended from both peoples therefore able to cross at will. The others aren't interested in what lies beyond, and I am regarded with curiosity and sometimes a little suspicion. The real world can be like that too.
I spotted this delightful group whilst out riding a few days ago. The mares and foals enjoy a lovely long field by the road. The space and varied terrain are good for the foals, which have lots of space to run and play, and plenty of passing traffic to get familiar with. The five ventured down to the fence to look more closely at Brena and I. She picked at the grass whilst I took a few photos.
Lovely scenery - the hills of Wiltshire a few miles west of Stonehenge;
Nice trails - offering good views, varied terrain, only short stretches stony, though as usual for Wiltshire trail marking is poor. We got a little off trail once, but some exploration and directions from a helpful farmer put us right;
Good company - my friend K and her gelding. Not only do the humans get along well, our two horses are glad to meet;
Simple travelling - other than some congestion in a place that is always bad on Saturdays, which mostly we avoided via a handy diversion, the seventy-mile journey was straightforward;
Food - a favourite trail repast, a pie from the farm shop, good as ever;
Parking - Downlands Equestrian, a smart and delightfully situated facility offering many miles of off-road trails; and
Details - a new CD, Alison Krauss and Union Station recorded live in Austin TX, perfect road music, played on every journey since I bought it a week ago. It'll take a while to tire of that music.
These rolling, silent, somewhat arid hills, their fields broken up by copses and woods, remind me of many miles ridden abroad. Central Transylvania was rather like this, the stretches between the villages anyway. Wiltshire villages are quite unlike the red tile-roofed settlements of Transylvania, timber-fenced homesteads with stout gates, though both nestle around churches. Wiltshire churches aren't fortified, though, thankfully Tatars and Turks never were a threat this far west. Still, it was peculiar how the similarities came to mind, and most of all the freedom to ride through an old, rather rustic, varied and slightly melancholic landscape.
The day was hot by English standards. It was just breezy enough to create the illusion that sun block isn't really needed. I soaked up the heat, so welcome in a land of long, damp winters. On such a day I was glad for drinking water, two bottles attached to my saddle. And we moved slowly in the heat on baked ground, for a day like this merits patience.
Our circular trail led through a deep old wood, the sort where trees of mixed age grow wherever a seed or acorn happened to fall. It was far more interesting than a plantation laid out in lines on a grid.
In the wood we lost and found the trail. Logging tracks and riding tracks mingled, indistinguishable from one-another. Each was wild and tending towards the overgrown. Once I stopped to take a compass bearing, for it would have been a long way around had we emerged on the wrong side of the wood. At last a bit of proper navigating to find our way.
In the midst of a spell of hot weather even the woods weren't cool. The horses had drunk from a trough in a field and we had water bottles. But for the buzzing whirling flies, a siesta would have been welcome. But there was the pressure of time. I'd driven a couple of hours to get here, and had the return journey to contemplate. I should have started earlier, allowing time in the middle of the day to rest.
Or even set out shortly after dawn - a challenge for one so nocturnal as me - so as to start in relative cool. I'd better get more sleep during the week so that I can rise earlier at weekends. As it is, weekends have become a time to catch up on sleep, the more so in a busy summer.
Here's the second part of the Surrey riding trip recorded. It's taken a while to post anything, with a lot of work, plenty of riding, a conference and a music festival.
The festival was lovely: nice weather, good friends to camp with, and even a slot to perform a couple of songs. Music is a new excursion in my life, and such a wonderful opportunity to grow. A seed has been nurtured after long dormancy.
Riding was an experience. I used to live in those parts, almost twenty years ago. It was interesting to explore trails that I used to ride almost daily. How the vegetation has grown in two decades! I've not lost my sense of the topography, however the detail of tree and shrub has changed over the years. A few new trails have been cut, one has become too overgrown to traverse. As ever it was nice to ride for a couple of hours beneath a shady woodland canopy. This is a rarity in England. I did enjoy the sense of intimacy and mystery, though of course my imagination played a part.
Staying at a heavy horse centre, we had the good fortune to have a companion rider on a great big gentle Percheron. Pleasant company makes a ride so much nicer, and I did enjoy talking to a German rider who visits England every month to ride her adopted draught horse.
Unlike my home area we were riding on sand. Some trails were soft, others surprisingly stony. There's a continuous weathering process underway creating new sand. These trails actually seemed harder for a barefoot horse than chalk, perhaps because Brena was a little hesitant at times on the unusual ground. That said, her feet are robust and coped very well. The heat probably had more effect on her than the surface. It was hot out in the open!
We rode through a mixture of woods and occasional open land. Once these open spaces provided pasture for the local people's animals, and we did come across a few cows grazing. Nowadays, however, this is mostly leisure land. On a weekday it was quiet: at weekends these trails swarm with people escaping the city.
These trails are dry, even more so than the chalk. However in the valley we found a stream, into which we rode the horses to drink. Though unfamiliar with one-another, the pair were tolerant. I do like working with draught types, usually so calm and sensible. Brena can be lively, however her outbursts of energy tend to be predictable and restrained. She is a great horse for exploring new places. How good to be able to explore without worrying about silliness.
On a hot afternoon she stopped and reached down to partake of this puddle. Though muddy it must have proven refreshing for she drank deeply. Even in summer there's usually a little water out here somewhere that's good enough for a thirsty and unfussy horse. I've never seen the woods other than damp.
Above the ridge paragliders soared on a convenient updraught fanned by an unusual northerly summer breeze. They described leisurely circles, and occasionally one landed or another took off. A first distant sight of them made me think of Tolkien's black riders aloft. Well, I had just driven past two villages with Hobbit-names: Archet and Coombe. However Brena didn't think the aviators evil, merely casting a few glances in their direction before renewing her interest in the grass. Levitating so simply and silently looked like a fine activity for a summer afternoon, and I expect that they enjoyed wonderful views from up there.
Above Brena flies swarmed. This is proving a most insect-ridden summer. Despite the breeze bluebottles and horse-flies congregated. The former were annoying, the latter a real pest. Mostly the horse-flies landed on the areas of brown coat, imagining themselves invisible. They were not: I must have swatted dozens, leaving Brena spotted with blood. Meanwhile the mare twitched and shook her head. A few times we cantered, losing one swarm only to gather another. Why so prolific? It must be the weather, for there isn't much in the way of livestock out here.
It was a pity that the flies occupied so much of our attention, for this was a lovely quiet green valley. It reminded me of lowland Transylvania, the most exotic place where I've ridden, close by my former home. Of course flies throve in those distant valleys and woods too, but there were sheep, cattle and buffalo to draw and nourish the little blood-suckers. How I miss those horseback journeys across a hot wild landscape. Today's trip seemed like just the right thing to be doing on a summer's day. Simply travelling with a good horse, free to ride hither and thither, immersed within authenticity, intoxicated by the sheer experience of the journey. Despite the flies it was a wonderful ride.