The Great Trek

‘At first, the glamorous wife of my boss was to have been my riding partner, but whether she fought shy of riding one horse and leading another, or whether she felt she couldn’t stand the company of a callow youth like me for four days, I know not. Instead, the Town Clerk came up with the Borough Librarian, Mr Smetten, who was an ex-cavalry officer. Then a Miss Marie Maconochie also volunteered.

For the next three weeks, I had the horses in the stable during the day, giving them some hard feed and riding them as much as possible to get them fit. It meant that my own riding muscles were well toned too. Needless to say I had many know-alls criticising my training methods. I was cocky enough to bear in mind Aesop, and not follow all their advice.

Miss Mac and Mr Smetten each rode a pony. I had a horse Merrimac, and led a pony as packhorse with our ration of fodder for the journey. Having hunted locally, I knew the moorland tracks and bridleways which I planned to use at the outset. The first day was fairly rough riding and I confess I didn’t give much thought to my companions.

Eventually, we reached Castleton, and I enquired about accommodation. The Station Hotel could put us up, and Tommy Boys nearby could provide for the horses. I knew Tommy. He was a character, always wore breeches and boots, and you could have pushed a wheelbarrow between his bandy legs.

Yes, he would put the horses in a field, but first he had to move a pony that was very difficult to catch. She was obviously very edgy of her owner. Well, as it happened, she had been my pony many years previously. I called her, she pricked back her ears and came to me. I held her head and petted her. ‘Now put the halter on, Tommy,’ I said. Scowling a little, he did so.

The next day, our horses were right at the bottom of a long, steep field. ‘Bah, we’ll have to go reet down theer for ‘em,’ said Tom.

‘No,’ said I, and called. Their ears pricked, and they came cantering up the field. With the precocity of youth I remarked: ‘that’s how you want to have your horses trained.’
‘ Tha’s bin gee’ing ‘em summat,’ he replied. Too true. He was reputed to train by the whip. I had trained by accompanying my call with food. But, as I’d reached the limit of my local knowledge, I was only too pleased to accept his advice as to bridle paths.

At the time, the country lived in fear of invasion. Signposts had been removed so as not to help the enemy and place names obliterated. Everyone was suspicious of strangers – and, come to think of it, we must have appeared strange. Once we were asked if we were a circus. If I ever asked the way, we always had to convince people we weren’t Hitler’s 5th column.

At, I think, Stokesley, I decided we had covered enough ground. Finding somewhere for the horses was the problem. I was told that Sinclair, the butcher, might be able to help. Coming to the door, he shouted to his father that there were folk in the shop who said they were from Whitby.

He watched closely while his father ponderously descended the stairs, looked at me and beamingly said: ‘Why, it’s Bobby Dawson!’ As Station Master at Whitby, he had been friendly with my parents. That did it. The horses were stabled and fed, for which Mr Sinclair would not accept payment. I was glad, as I could not buy rations and had begun to have doubts, which I kept to myself, as to whether what we had would last. Later my companions remarked that we were all right whilst in Yorkshire, as everyone seemed to know me.

The next day’s ride, through Scotch Corner and over the backbone of England, was the worst. It was uphill, against a strong wind and driving rain. Progress slowed. My companions were wet and saddle-sore and did more walking than riding as the day wore on. Somewhere high up in the gloom we came upon a pub. Yes, they could put up us, but had nowhere for the horses and suggested the churchyard. I wasn’t happy, but I had no choice. The horses were tired, and the churchyard had good stone walls for shelter and plenty of lush grass.

That evening, thawing out with a glass of beer, I remembered it was Saturday, with the prospect on the morrow of early morning communion. Enquiries amongst the locals elicited only that they did not think it was the month for communion! Nevertheless, an early start was decreed.

But my call to the horses was disregarded. They simply cantered around the church. They were not minded to have another day like the previous one, nor to leave the shelter and lush grass. Mr Smetten and I had to corral them in a pincer movement. Every time they met one of us, the horses dug in their hooves and churned another patch of grass as though a rugby scrum had been there. They left plenty of calling cards as well.

At length we got away, but my saddle-sore companions still preferred walking to riding. I kept looking at my watch, expecting an irate vicar to phone the Cumberland police. At every junction I was expecting an officer to step out and apprehend us.

Fortunately, it didn’t happen. The sun shone again and, when we stopped for our one o’clock break, I doled out the last of the rations to the horses. We had to get to Penrith by nightfall. How else could I feed them?

Well, we did, and were feted by Mrs Bradley and the children. The four-legged members of our party were cheered like Derby winners. 120 miles in four days across uncharted country. None of us had embarked on a ride like this before and – come to think of it – never have since. Many people pony trek these days, but they have it all planned, and do not depend on retired stationmasters and absent vicars!