The truth of it, simply, is that the winter has been long, the riding has been limited (and mostly not photogenic), and I've had a lot of work on. Time has flown by. Now - as if suddenly - the clocks have changed, evenings are lighter, and I'm getting out more. Even if rain is lashing the windows as I write.
We enjoyed one nice ride a few days ago, about an hour to the south by truck and trailer. There's a quiet area tucked amongst the hills, little known despite some lovely trails for walking and riding.
I parked at the top, and rode through woodland down to the valley bottom. The mix of grassy glades and woods down there seem almost foreign, and remind me of places I knew in Middle Europe. I felt as if we were penetrating a hidden, nearly mythical place. Daydreaming, I imagined a figure springing forth to request a secret password before kindly directing us along a track that I'd not previously noticed. There are paths like that in these woods, scarcely trodden and mysterious.
The way back climbed, then dropped into a tiny narrow valley. In a sunken lane by a medieval church I climbed down and helped Brena to negotiate a fallen tree. Recent storms had left their mark. Then through an ancient hamlet and back uphill to the parking area on the edge of a prehistoric fortification.
This is an old area, cultivated and traversed by roads long before the Romans arrived. As elsewhere in southern Britain, ditches were dug in a fruitless attempt to repel Saxon invaders. A little to the north crocuses bloom, a plant brought here - so legend tells - by the Knights Templar. And now the hills are almost silent, less peopled than for many centuries, leaving a vacuum for imagination to spread upon and fill through the summer of riding that beckons.
Of riding in wind blowing 25mph and gusting 40mph. Getting pushed about in the saddle, Brena's heavy mane blowing across my hands.
Penetrating a grey veil drifting damply across a sodden landscape, outer clothes sparkling with a mist of miniscule droplets.
Slithering on muddy trails. Hooves leaving long streaks where they have slipped. Splashing through puddles.
When will it end?
Before every ride I remove Brena's muddy rug, brush her happily dry body, and try to clean the wet earth from her legs.
At the end of each afternoon ride I clean her, and return her to a welcome dry stable where water, hay and a bowl of feed await.
It's a simple but hard business, and rewarding after toil in an office.
But I long for sun and warmth.
I was made for bright spring mornings. Days where the sun warms my face and a gentle breeze slips through my hair. When the long grey months are banished to the folds of memory. Days of clear blue sky and waving green grass. Those are my days.
It's a grey winter, the ground sodden after weeks of rain. Dips and ruts are full of muddy water. We splash and slither along the trails. It feels as if winter has been here for a long time.
The woods are mysterious as ever. In mist or occasional low rays of sun, woodland delights. One afternoon rare sun shone straight down the trail back to the barn, silhouetting Brena and I along the grassy ribbon.
Deer flit about in furtive herds of a few dozen. This is their land, not mine. I am the traveller passing through, here one moment, gone the next.
Woods exert a peculiar and complex role upon the English psyche. The trees provide building materials and firewood, of course, and food for some. They provide a hiding place for the outlaw, and a refuge for the disposed: think of Robin Hood. As a haven for the lawless, woods threaten the traveller. At least we don't have wolves or bears to provide further danger. But woods provide employment for the craftsman and labourer too. And, for the sportsman, woods mean game. Myths spring from woods, enhancing their mystery. Elves, after all, are unworldly: neither entirely good, nor bad, and not behaving quite as humans do. Mystics and ascetics lingered in woods, perceiving beyond the purely material.
I saw neither Elf nor outlaw, but I relaxed in the woods, appreciating the tranquillity. Here's a place away from machines, largely away from people too. A spot where imagination can take over. A trail where one may become engulfed in privacy. Somewhere to dream of a different ending, at a quiet cottage or a camp, with no-one or anyone.
Greetings to all my readers and friends! Another year nearly over! It’s been interesting. How so, you ask?
May saw me off to Bosnia and Serbia for a week, mainly to see the last working industrial steam locomotives in Europe. There are still half a dozen operating, the newest left behind by retreating German forces at the end of the Second World War. What a sight they made, history still rumbling across the grubby coalfields of central Bosnia. A day in Sarajevo gave me the opportunity to see the very spot where the First World War started – a nondescript side-street where (for a fee) tourists can pose in an old car whilst a student theatrically glares and points. In Visegrad I saw the famous and tragic medieval Bridge over the Drina. In Serbia I rode a short stretch of restored narrow-gauge East Bosnian railway, a remarkable figure-of-eight winding uphill through steep mountains. A non-railway highlight was a private film show (of Underground – a sort of Serbian ‘Apocalypse Now’) in Emir Kusturica’s personal cinema.
July brought a beach holiday to Sardinia, in the midst of a heatwave. Well, it was delightfully hot, encouraging boat trips and swimming. For the first time I got to jump from a small boat into the sea and swim in clear water. I am developing quite a liking for Sardinia. Friendly people, pretty scenery, good food (and wine), space, light and warmth. I could retire to a place like that!
In October I travelled back to Sardinia to ride on the extensive narrow gauge railways which tenuously remain, mostly for occasional tourist trains. It’s quite impossible to travel all of them on a regular holiday, which called for a special trip. For days I travelled on trains winding amazingly across lovely hill and mountain terrain. The final journey followed a route taken by D H Lawrence almost a century ago.
So I am crossing off bucket list items. There’s always that tension between being a stone forever rolling, and gathering moss. To keep travelling, or to hole up in some tranquil spot? For now, there is a plethora of new places to see, and too few places to rest.
At work I am leading an expanding team which is developing the proposals which will allow Brunel’s Great Western Railway to carry ever more passengers in the years ahead. It’s a difficult but fascinating role, and the sort of opportunity that falls into one’s lap once in a lifetime if one is lucky. I’m glad to be able to do a job that will make lives better and help people to live more sustainably.
There has been plenty of horse riding. Brena, my Slovenian mare, is in the prime of life. We’ve enjoyed some splendid rides across the hills of Berkshire and Wiltshire, and through the New Forest too. The Western saddle acquired last year has proven a great success as it fits she and I very well indeed. Riding in open spaces still gives me thinking space and connection with the real world.
Music has proven rewarding too. Guitar and singing has improved to the point where I perform regularly at open mic events locally. It’s not especially easy as I have no particular talent, but it’s a lot of fun, and a great expressive outlet. I’ve also been fortunate to hear a variety of artists perform in London and elsewhere, including: Bellowhead, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Bella Hardy, Diana Jones, Neko Case, Alela Diane, Joan Baez and Judy Collins.
D has been quilting, and has produced some pretty and imaginative (and well executed) quilts that are now hung on various walls. I am very impressed by her workmanship and creativity. Next year D and I will have known one-another for a decade. How time flies.
The cats and dogs are well, though the two oldest cats have a few medical issues to contend with – but nothing that stops them from being lively and content companions.
I wish you a Happy Christmas and a rewarding 2016,
A band of rain passed, revealing the last rays of bright sun. Shadows lengthened by the minute, dark fingers exploring stubbly fields.
The rain had driven away all other wanderers. Brena and I tramped the muddy trails alone. Light after rain's grey veil seemed appropriate for the mid-point of winter. From now on the days will lengthen. Imperceptibly, then with spring's welcome rush.
For now, the season of muddy feet and manes. Of snipping the last few inches from Brena's tail. Drying wet rugs. Seeing her steam in a sheltered stable. Smelling her drying body whilst she voraciously devours hay.
A good day to return to a cosy home. But strange for one such as me who loves to spread out in the sun. To camp without having to put too many things away. I am a peculiar creature, fated to travel, but making the most of this rainy isle.
Looking forward to a week off work. (I need to rest!) Not looking forward to Christmas. (Where has the spirituality gone?) Hoping for decent weather, enough to cover some miles on the trail with sun on my face.
Dreaming of next summer. Of Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. Brightness and space as much as I can imagine and more. Friends and fresh adventures. We need dreams, some of us. How we need them.
A ride through the misty muddy winter countryside set me thinking.
Isn't it amazing that this great big creature exists simply so that I can enjoy a relationship with her, expressed through caring for her and going for rides.
I travelled to another country to meet her, took a liking to her, paid for her and brought her to my green hills. What a journey all that was!
And now her purpose is to bring me fulfilment. It's an odd life for a mare whose ancestors were bred to work. She's happy, of course, living in a herd. But she gallops across the field when I appear at the gate, and puts her head forward to receive a halter. She walks quietly beside me, accepts a saddle, and lets me get up.
The rides she appears to enjoy. There's a measure of compromise. Sometimes she wants to stop and stare at something, out of curiosity rather than alarm. Some days she is keener than others when it comes to fast work. That doesn't matter. A good gallop is fun. But a slow ride allows me to see more. And most rides include a pause to graze.
We don't go out to win things. Riding isn't a matter of trying to show that Brena and I are better than some other people and horses. I'm happy with a pleasant ride together. Enjoying ourselves is a success in itself, and getting around safely is a good thing. Exploring new places is nice when we're able to.
Actually I think that Brena brings out the best in me. Concern for her welfare. Discovering harmony in our activities together. Finding ways to interfere with her less, including no shoes or bit. Enjoying simple things, including that affectionate look in her eye. Coming to a realisation that I am very fortunate indeed to have her in my life. Gratitude for this.
Brena finds a little colour amongst the overwhelming grey of a blustery November day. A little bright red amidst a day defined by sweeping veils of rain wind-driven to sting. Hawthorn berries which crunch in contract to the squelching, splattering mud.
November drags. Summer lies far behind, and memories of colourful autumn trees fade. That brief respite from drudgery, Christmas, is still weeks ahead. Yes, November can be a dull month. A little sunshine, that's what we need. But clouds roll in from the ocean, clouds and more clouds, trailing sheets of rain. Wind buffets, and long hours of darkness sap at the soul.
This is the month to hide. To hide behind the busy-ness of work. To shelter within the broad realm of music and literature. To slip past seasonal greyness with food and drink. To sit with friends before a flickering fire, glass in hand, song or tale upon tongue. I find solace in all these.
And it's the month to open the taps upon a good horse, tearing across sodden turf, leaving trouble behind with the rushing air. I've done that too. Today Brena wanted nothing better than to travel as fast as she could, and that was just what I needed.
That's the snowy scene in Colorado described by my good friend B. Several inches covering the meadow, more in the mountains. They're proper mountains too, large and intriguing. The sort of vista that begs exploration. Just looking at the photo sends a wintry chill through me. I can imagine the crisp air, how the warmth of sun on bare skin contrasts with bitter cold in the breezy shadows. And then there is the swish of sleigh runners.....enough! Stop, or I shall become nostalgic for my erstwhile life amidst other mountains.
My snowfall was less. Much less. Here's what remained by mid-afternoon.
It was a cold day even without snow. I parked at the top of a hill for a ride that loops down into the valley, through the woods and back through a pretty valley. The parking areas are located at the top because it's the most scenic spot. The view is lovely, but scenery doesn't keep the traveller warm. The wind cut into several layers of clothes. But, having lived in a land with bitterly cold winters, I know how to dress warmly. I regretted not being able to find my gloves, then discovered them in the pockets of my fleece vest. Right where I left them when I rode from this spot last winter. Every ride on this hill seems fated to be windy. It's a bleak place. No wonder the nearest village lies far below, deep within a sheltering valley. It wouldn't be much fun living up here.
Cold days are quiet. Only a handful of vehicles were parked, mostly in the service of a few lucky dogs brought up there to run. It's a great place for dogs. Despite the wind Brena wasn't unduly energetic. On the very crest of the ridge, she stood nicely for me to get on. Having grown up in high and windy places, there was little to make her excited. Just some lush grass to lunge at. The mare has her priorities right.
Chill wind rushed through bare beech woods, beautiful and inhospitable. How nice it was to be there, and how reassuring to imagine a warm home. I love the authenticity of these raw days, when it's just not possible to pretend that nature is smiling upon us. No, she is real and powerful, challenging, energising. I emerge from rides like this stronger and more confident. I dream too. Of building a hut by a meadow in the valley, storing firewood, and spending winter between vigorous outdoor work and comfortable fireside time. Of journeys, and of rest. Solitude, then cheery welcome. How the landscape stimulates imagination.....even if I have to go back to work on Monday!
November is a time to experience the hills supine, naked, cool. To watch shadows invade their curves.
November is a month to ride fast through rain that isn't yet so cold as to be uncomfortable.
It's the time when we splash through puddles, kick up fallen leaves, drag through wet vegetation and return home to sit in the warmth with a nice glass of wine.
All of these things happened today.
We had new companions this afternoon, Brena and I. A new boarder came out on her horse, a nice bay gelding with some Arabian in his breeding. She's a bold rider keen to explore, but he's still new to trail riding. A horse like that benefits from a calm companion. However Brena is keener out and about when she's with another horse. And I enjoy interesting company.
It's a curious business taking out a horse that isn't familiar with trail riding. The first time Brena cantered away across a wide field, he didn't realise that he was being asked to asked to canter with her. There was some bucking and prancing. But the next time he followed more readily. It probably helped that we were on a narrow trail, with nowhere else to go but forward. Pheasants flapping about in the undergrowth caused some shying, but nothing serious. Underneath he's a sensible horse, not wanting to rush off in a panic.
'Brena has quite a turn of speed,' I was told after a long canter through the woods. She has, over a short distance. I've ridden just a couple of other horses over the four years that I've owned Brena, and none of them fast, so I haven't much in the way of recent comparison. But I know that she can accelerate hard, and likes to be in the front. Besides, she is a trail horse, not a dressage horse or show-jumper. Brena thinks about moving horizontally, not vertically.
And then a thick grey veil spread about the land. The rain streamed down. We were travelling homeward and it was no hardship to ride fast where the trail permitted. Along a land, along a field margin, through a gap in a hedge, and up a bare slope. All the way, the rain spattering our faces. It was raw, authentic and strangely exciting. There we were in open spaces, in the real world, travellers depending upon good horses. Riders like those through the ages, penetrating November rain on a wet hillside. For a few minutes our lives came to be vested with timeless reality.