THE QUESTIONS EVERYONE ASKS …
How long did it take? 8 weeks - 54 days riding, which meant we averaged 25 miles a day, each and every day
When did we reach Lands End? late afternoon Saturday 19th August (2006, in case you’re in doubt)
Was there ever any question of you not completing it? (actually no-one dare ask this but we know they think it) It was tough, very tough at times, and each day something new tested us, but we didn't let failure ever enter our minds. We just focused on one day at a time and dealing with whatever problems we came across along the way.
Did it ever seem like you’d taken on too much? Elsa says not, but when the ponies lost shoes, late in the afternoon, I’d missed lunch, was very tired and still had 20 miles to go before sleep, I have to admit to the odd wobble (and tears). The only way through was to concentrate on one day at a time.
Did you enjoy it? Yes, but not the bogs through Scotland, the heat wave south of the border, or the stiles on the Sabrina Way. And it was really demanding physically and mentally, even tougher than we thought, and the pace we set ourselves allowed very little respite. But in the end our whole trip felt so much as though it was what we’ve always meant to be doing that we were sometimes at risk of riding along taking it for granted without remembering just how epic the whole journey was on every level.
Was it like you thought it would be? No! Somehow those picnic lunches in the sun writing our diaries while we dipped our toes in a burn just didn't happen. But equally so many people were more generous than we could ever hope in supporting us and Cancer Research.
What did you enjoy most? Elsa says “just being with Roly and Micky” (note the focus on her pony, not her mother). For me it was the fantastic landscapes, the endless skies, the people we met along the way, being outside all the time so conscious of the weather, the wildlife all around us, hearing the birds, smelling all the flowers, feeling frogs hop over our toes in meadows moist with morning dew, pushing ourselves to the limit with our ponies, feeling so independent with all we need in our saddlebags, with life pared down to the bare essentials. Sounds naff but that is genuinely how it is.
Have you got lost? What, with my map reading?
Did you fall out? “Not bigly” said Elsa after 3 weeks through Scotland, I think as we neared Lands End she might have said differently - if I dared ask! There were days of at least four hours stony silence from Elsa - particularly the day she offered advice on how I could get on better with her and Jake (let them do what they like without any criticism ...) and Elsa enjoyed the opportunity to gang up with Sarah against me when Sarah was riding with us but generally we got on remarkably well, probably better than when we're at home.
Didn't you get sore bottoms? No they were just fine thank you, must be all that training and how supremely fit we were! Hips and knees are a different matter, but apparently only if you’re over 40. Blisters, on blisters, on heels and toes finally healed up, boots finally moulded to our feet, toe nails which have fallen off will presumably regrow.
What were the biggest challenges? In Scotland, bogs, bogs and more bogs, with a few very dodgy bridges and river crossings thrown in for good measure. On peat bogs it can take 2 hours or more to cover a mile and tested our nerves to the limit. We can’t forget a horse which had to be shot because it got stuck in a bog, and hate to see the horses wallowing in peat, so we are very cautious.
Finding farriers - particularly when we unexpectedly had to change horses and the one going home was newly shod.
Meeting impassable stiles/fences/padlocked gates on a promoted riding route late in the evening with another 15 miles left to go and having no choice but to backtrack.
And finding somewhere for us and ponies to stay. Because a tent meant too much extra weight, or taking a pack pony with us, we were reliant on staying with friends, finding a farmhouse B&B, bothy or persuading anyone else to put us up. Although it’s reassuring knowing we have accommodation booked, it puts a lot of pressure on us to keep to a schedule, whereas if you are driving with a horse in a gypsy caravan, you can stop pretty much where and when you want, provided there's a wide enough verge to peg your pony out on and somewhere safe to pull over.
What was the big rush? To get Elsa back to school in time for the new term on 22nd August put a huge pressure on us to keep moving. And if we fell behind schedule, it meant changing all the arrangements we'd made for accommodation, farriers and everything else for the rest of our trip.
Did you get lonely?I'm really glad we did this together and Elsa's true grit at 13 was remarkable, but when things go wrong and Elsa was reading a book or listening to her music, I longed for someone to share the responsibility and to talk through logically how to get out of a fix. Thanks to everyone who rung, sent a text , e-mail or otherwise conveyed their support, it really helped.
How did the ponies cope? Brilliantly, particularly Mikado who just kept on going and going, seemingly indefatigable, and Lancer who rose from near-death to rejoin us and who reached Lands End against all the odds. Elsa's only complaint was that the ponies became “all solid” when she cuddled them because after weeks of endless riding they were so ultra-fit (just like me really).
Why did you have to swop ponies? We never thought we'd have to, but basically it came down to a choice of stick to our schedule and get Elsa back to school on time on different ponies or rest whichever pony, which meant it would take us far longer.
After Lancer was invalided out from Balquhidder two weeks into our trip, having been such a hero up untnil then, Chris brought Mikado for me to ride instead. Although he had been very fit from Elsa riding him while Rowan was off at stud during April and May, Micky had done nothing for about 4 weeks before joining us on the trip, but never showed any sign of lacking fitness, energy or enthusiasm, from the day he joined us to when he reached Lands End.
Rowan had an infected cleg bite on her back and after riding so well through Scotland for 3 weeks, on the day we were due to set off again south from home lost a huge patch of fur directly under her saddle so she stayed at Shortrigg, hugely frustrated to be so fit and out of the picture for the rest of the journey through England but it was the only humane choice.
By the time we set off again from Shortrigg, Lancer had made a dramatic recovery, so I rode him and Elsa Micky. for the next two and a half days Micky was having to trot 10 paces to every 20 of Lancer's to keep up, but the punishing heat was just too much for a n old codger and after another few days Lancer was so unhappy that there was no choice other than to ask Chris to take him home. Rowan's back still wasn't healed sufficiently so we were really lucky to be able to borrow Boffin until Lancer was back on form. Chris brought Lancer back down and took Boffin home from Worcester, and Elsa and I rode Micky the rest of the way
How often do the ponies need shoeing? Based on past experience we hoped their shoes would last three weeks and had arranged farriers accordingly but both Rowan and Lancer trashed a brand new set of shoes in the first 13 days, even though we’d been off road for much of that. So then we arranged farriers more often going through England, only to be thwarted by having to change ponies unexpectedly, and pre-booked farriers failing to appear on Exmoor.
What about the weather? In scotland we had two days out of 21 when it didn't rain at all, after which we spent every day praying for and dreaming of rain which only materialised once.
Were the midges a real problem? So long as it's raining or you keep moving they don't get you, and as it's always late before we get to our destination and often more like winter than summer, there were only a few days when they drove us to distraction.
How do you cope with so little gear? Very careful packing. We used absolutely everything we carried with us, except the first aid kit, which by our reckoning means all the careful thought which went into what we carry with us was worth it. We used our hobbles in Scotland but didn't carry them through England. because it was easier to find places for the ponies to stay, and we weren't staying overnight on mountain tops.
What’s the most valuable piece of kit you carry? Elsa says her walkman. Pah! I’d say up to date maps, a needle and thread, and a very strong nylon lunge line which we use to tether the ponies or to lead them at a distance across bogs or ravines when there is a risk of them jumping onto us. They will also substitute for reins or other bits of tack, straps etc. should anything break.
Do you ride all the way? Definitely not. We get off and walk to ease our limbs and give the ponies a break, particularly on steep hills, on rough or boggy ground. When Lancer was struggling I walked most of the way, and across the dark peaty bogs of Rannoch Moor, walked about 30 out of the 38 miles we did that day.
Do you get bored? No time, there’s always something to look at, and worry about! Apart from which several hours a day disappear taking coats and sweatshirts off and putting them on again, changing maps, and trying to persuade the phone to work.
What do you think about all day? How on earth we’re going to get to wherever we’re supposed to be the next night before it goes dark, how we’re going to make it to the next farrier, and when we might get some sleep. But mostly about what we see, feel and hear all around us: the countryside, the people past and present, how the land is farmed and managed, how it has evolved over time, how it might change in future, the wildlife which it supports. When you’re on, or walking with, your horse you could be in the 21st century or hundreds of years ago, it’s very timeless, and if only we can stop worrying about everything else, the time to take it all in is very precious.
Is it worth the pain and planning? There are plenty of other ways of raising money but we have only to think of any one of our friends with cancer to know how worthwhile the fundraising side of our ride is.
Would you have done it any differently? It would have been great if we could have been more flexible and happy go lucky, but difficult to know how we could. There have been nights when people have stopped by the roadside or called out to us from the garden to offer us accommodation but others when if we hadn’t found and booked somewhere long in advance we would have been scuppered. Trying to keep off road and keep our costs low has added to the miles and problems finding reasonable accommodation.
Through England we were determined to try and keep to a maximum of 25 miles/day, fit in a few rest days, and confirm that accommodation for the ponies really does meet their needs. Sadly easier said than done and we still had some very long hard days well over 30 miles, arriving well after dark.
How difficult was it to plan your route through Scotland? Very. Even where tracks are marked on the map there is no way of knowing if they are passable with a horse on the ground.
Doesn’t the Land Reform Act mean you can go anywhere in Scotland? In principle it confirms a right of responsible access but in practice there are still endless locked gates, fences across old drove roads, cattle grids and suchlike.
Did you approach every landowner along the way? We shouldn’t have had to ask permission but in the end it was easier for the sections through Scotland to ring people up and ask than to meet a locked gate 20 miles into a day. Most were really helpful and positive, only one estate gets a black mark for insisting we write and formally request permission. Presumably they haven’t heard of the Land Reform Act.
Was England easier? In theory at least it’s much easier being able to buy maps and see clearly identified legally recognised bridleways, most of which you can be fairly confident you can get through on. Accommodation is a lot less difficult to find and we were never as far from shops and civilisation as we have been in Scotland which made the everyday practicalities of food and sleep less complicated. So how come lunch and tea still didn't happen every day? And although there are no bogs, the ground was just so dry and hard that grassy tracks were as rock hard as tarmac, limiting our pace (even if we had any inclination in the heat to go any faster).
How did Chris and Jake cope without you? They say very well, which probably means glad for a bit of piece and quiet, but inbetween work, nursing Lancer, looking after the rest of the menagerie, tetrathlons, sorting out hay making machinery and suchlike they didn't have much time to themselves. Which was their excuse for the fridge still having the same food in after 3 weeks as when we left. Ask no more.
When everyone said this as we rode through Scotland, we thought they were joking because it rained every day where we were, but south of the border we learned what everyone was talking about. As soon as we'd had one drink we wanted another, and had to knock on doors to get our water bottles refilled and be constantly on the look out for water troughs near gateways to quench the ponies' thirst. We tried to avoid riding in the worst heat of the day but to be honest it didn't get a lot cooler in the evening. And as Elsa isn't a morning person, and we never got to where we were staying until so late, early starts rarely happened.
How did you plan your route? There are various ready-route-finders if you want to walk or cycle from John O'Groats to Lands End, but not so for horse-riders. Planning our route has therefore taken far longer than it will to actually ride it. The parts of Britain through which we had previously ridden were relatively straightforward, but some sections, such as the far north of Scotland, are relatively uncharted territory on horseback and took an awful lot of research. In fact it took a lot longer to plan our route than it did to ride from one end of the country to the other.