Saturday, 11 June 2011

Day 34, 8th June

Wet, wet, wet!
It had been such a lovely afternoon and evening with not such a bad forecast as far as I remembered that I left the ponies without their rugs on for the night – not the nicest thing to do. It was warm and there was no wind, but it did start to rain in the early hours of the morning and was not just a little bit. I woke up just before the alarm rang at six o'clock to the sound of the rain and it became more rather than less, so I lay in bed reading a little more Jane Austen till it stopped at just after six and I jumped up all in a hurry to get ready before it might start again.

There were some National Trust toilets just round the corner, so they made for some almost civilised physical care in the morning, even with a mirror to plait my hair, which I normally just did by feeling. It was quite strange to see myself in a mirror again, something that did not happen particularly often. I had two colours in my face, extremely brown lower down where I spent all day exposed to the light and white where my cap always covered the skin. I should have gone without the cap every now and then, but that would only have been possible maybe on the day I washed my hair, but not otherwise. Also, the only hair style I could do on the way was a one sided plait as it was the easiest thing to do and kept it all under control; otherwise I would have ended up tearing out half the hair every day from brushing out the knots.
I had been invited in to have breakfast at the pub at 9 o'clock when they opened, but already had the ponies so far ready that their baggage could go on before half past eight, so I opted to miss breakfast in favour of an early start. It did not seem sensible to have the poor animals waiting around for half an hour till I got my breakfast and then leaving surely a whole hour later than we did.

The day started off with a little shock, first the rain started again with seemingly no intention of it being a short shower, then we went onto the bridleway straight behind the pub and almost immediately encountered rocks that had to be climbed. The ponies had no great problem with that, but Artax showed his dislike and had to be persuaded that we really meant to cross them. Afterwards it continued better, but I ended up walking very soon in order to open the gates more easily. We saw that some other people had wild camped in the same spot that we would have chosen had we not ended up on the field by the pub – it was a beautiful location with a crystal-clear stream running through the middle of the valley, very cute Lake District sheep all round and just about sufficient grass for horses to feel satisfied with.

As we almost got to the end of the valley, a young man who worked for the National Trust caught us up and told us a bit about the path – very steep and, though technically intended for horses, none ever went along it and it was not really especially fit for them. We soon saw why; We had to climb to the top of the mountain by the almost direct way, which was covered in rocks and stones that had been laid down obviously to make it easier for hikers. In addition, all the earth around was extremely wet and slippery from all the rain. Dazzy was of course off the lead and Dino was on the longest lead I could give him.
Besides Artax's clear trouble negotiating he mountain with his long and not especially sure legs, we had another problem – shoes. Dazzy wears the smallest size Easyboots make – one too big for him, so he had lost two boots in no time. I put them back on, but the next time one came off, gave up on the idea of wanting to keep the back ones on for the climb and put them in the saddle bags. Imagine all this on a zig-zagging path up the steep side of a mountain. Artax also had a little trouble – one of his back boots had only the top end of the clip left after a different rock climb in the Peak District and was not as tight as it could have been, so it came off a few times, too. On one occasion, while I was doing Artax's boot, Dino tried to stand on a bit of grass that would have seemed like a good place, but it was so extremely slippery from the rain that his legs just slipped away from under him and he went down on his side. But Dino, the little hero, just got up again – he had actually been well caught by his pannier – as if nothing had happened and waited patiently a little more on the path. We continued the climb. In various places there were streams crossing the paths where the planners had made a more than foot deep and half a foot wide hole for the water to flow through and these, again, caused Artax some trouble. The ponies just stepped over them, but Artax tried to step in them a couple of times and tripped often. I had never thought that mountain climbing would be something he would learn at the age of 19. He has always been a very good horse for riding, but sure-footedness has never been one of his strengths and he had not had to practise much for a long time.

We finally made it to the summit from where we would have had a beautiful view but for the low clouds. Now we had some bogs to deal with. The planners had laid a few stepping stones across them for hikers, but the horses had to go through them and were not very happy. Dino decided to leap one with all his baggage – quite impressive. A man having his brunch up the top said we had a steep way down to go, though I was less worried about it as another person had told us it was less steep than the way up – and so it was. There was more grass and a lot less rock. The National Trust people had done a lovely job of making a real little path in some places – with sheer drops in some of the hairpin bends – but the boys did it perfectly. The problem started with the path disappeared or was their building site and we had to take the direct way through the grass which the ponies, maybe excepting Dazzy just slid down with Dino going into Artax's backside while I held onto Artax's headcollar to support him. What a sight! Shortly after I looked more closely at Dino only to find his pack saddle was right on his shoulders! Oh no! We stopped off at the next more or less flat and just wide enough place so that I could correct things. Dazzy ate, Artax was clearly in no mood to go anywhere he did not really have to and stood still without being held – thank goodness! - and Dino was almost completely unsaddled and repacked in no time; this time with the back harness a lot tighter, which worked a treat, but somewhat damaged a couple of the holes in the harness.

We soon got down to the valley again, but still had a lot of small path with quite a lot of rocks to do. In one place with all rock, there was simply no space to get past an enormous rock by going along the path; probably not even Dazzy could have got past it well, but it was clearly impossible for the bit ones with luggage. We had to rethink and searched for another way – one would be to cross pure steep rock directly; not a chance. And the other was to cross an even steeper, but therefore smaller piece of rock, so we chose that as, even if they slipped on the rock, they would be braked by earth within two feet – it seemed like the safest option and down we went surprisingly well while I was especially proud of Dino for how well he managed everything, above all because he was just forced to follow with dead weight from the baggage and a lot less time to see the path ahead than the others had.
We finally made it to the end of the “bridleway” and went back onto the roads for the continuing journey to Keswick. It was a good experience going through the mountains, now we know we can do it, but it is not easy and I would not recommed that anybody take the Cumbria Way by horse unless they have a lot of experience and a good unshod horse to do it.

We found a place to stay near Keswick when I met a farmer as we came through a village in search of the farm that all the fields around had to belong to – apparently I wouldn't have been lucky as they were all quite spaced out with fields being used by many farmers from all around. We could use a freshly cut field where there was plenty of grass around all the sides and some poles in the middle of the field and I even got an invitation to dinner in the house, which was very welcome.

Maggie and I spent the night in our tent hoping for the rain to stop so that we could maybe pack up in the dry in the early morning.

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