I've ridden many drove roads in different parts of Britain over the years, but since I first learned when I moved to Scotland 20 years ago about cattle being walked all the way form the Highlands to market in London, what I've really wanted to do is ride the whole way, following in the footsteps of the drovers from Skye to Smithfield Market in London. It's all very well dreaming and talking, but in the end what matters is doing it.
So on 27th June 2010 I set off with two of my Fell ponies from Dunvegan on Skye, where the cattle came across from the Outer Hebrides. My final destination was the same as it was for the cattle: Smithfield Market in London, for centuries the greatest meat market in the world, which we rode into on 25th August 2010. My route followed as closely as possible the main routes taken by the drovers (more about that on the next page).
Travelling on hoof at the same steady pace as the drovers (other than when Micky and Magic decidedotherwise!), allows me time to see how much has changed since the days of droving, and to find out how much remains of the former drove routes, of the inns, stances and trysts which were fundamental to the droving tradition which was for so many hundreds of years central to Britain's economy. The remains of the drove road network are an integral part of our cherished landscape, offer tantalising glimpses of days when the only way to transport livestock to market was on foot. We know that droving laid the foundations for banking. On my journey I've found out more about how our countryside and culture has been influenced by droving, and the significance of droving and drove routes to Britain both in the past and present.
In keeping with the drovers, I carried everything I needed with me rather than having an accompanying support vehicle (as I told someone along the way, to their embarassment, my only support is my sports bra). As there is no-one else to split the load of maps and other essentials, I rode one pony and led the other as a pack pony, with Mikado and Magic taking it in turns in both roles. It enabled me to carry a tent and portable electric fencing to corale the ponies if necessary overnight, which allowed me much more flexibility where we stayed (at least that was the theory, until the ponies proved themselves such adept escapologists immune to electric fencing). It also meant that I travelled more slowly, and generally covered less miles each day, that we did on our ride to Lands End. Negotiating gates, precipices, traffic lights and traffic with two ponies but only one pair of hands is testing at times, particularly when you're trying to open out the map and the phone rings, but there is something very special about travelling with a pair of ponies, and the bond which develops between them and you.
I was really worried how I was going to nip into a shop, or do many other things, with no-one to hold the ponies, but people have been so generous in their hospitality that I didn't exactly starve, and most of the time ate a lot better than the drovers who survived on oatmeal and onions, enriched from time to time by blood from the cattle they were droving - Micky and Magic don't realise how lucky they are to be spared that fate! The ponies lost weight going through the Highlands, but soon put it back on when we hit better grass and they occasionally got offered hard food. As great an achievement as making it intact to Smithfield is the fact that after 900 miles, Micky, Magic and I may arrived no thinner, albeit a lot fitter. Testament to my ponies and my ability to thrive on very variable and at times meagre rations, and their capacity to adapt to very variable diet and circumstances.
I spent months and months planning my ride, but still met some major challenges. Not least ponies wearing out horse shoes twice as fast as anticipated coming down through the Highlands, not because we were on roads but because the hard granite mountains and rocky river crossings took their toll, which then necessitated finding farriers at impossibly short notice. Paths marked on the map which don't exist and disappear into dense conifers or peaty bogs, crossing rivers and burns swollen by an awful lot of rain, and drying out my tent, clothes and ponies were serious issues north of the border.
Riding down through Northumberland and Durham, people asked where I was during the downpours the previous week, but they were nothing compared to a month's rain in a day coming down into Glencoe via the Devil's Staircase (which could more appropriately be called Devil's Waterfall). There was one particularly dodgy night huddled in a tin sheep hut in a monsoon on the footslopes of Ben Nevis, woken at 4 a.m. by the sound of voices of walkers trying to get off the mountain at first light before they too were washed away. Elsa might think otherwise, but I could not have been more glad that she rode with me for the first week. My friend Maggi rode with me down the West Highland Way through to Stirling, after which there was just me and my two ponies. What more could you ask for?