|Photo by Freeimages.com/Kate Wanless|
Fiona Bruce, The Daily Telegraph, November 16, 2015
"A horse is the projection of peoples’ dreams about themselves – strong, powerful, beautiful – and it has the capability of giving us escape from our mundane existence,” wrote the author Pam Brown.
After two idyllic days on horseback, making my way through a landscape unchanged since the mid-18th century, I could only agree. It felt as though I’d entered a charmed existence where I could dream of living another life – that of a Jane Austen heroine. The expedition had been organised by Stately Rides, a small company which offers riders and non-riders alike the chance to see Britain as it once was and – in small pockets – still is. We crossed miraculously unspoilt countryside latticed by an ancient network of bridleways and drovers’ paths, gentle hills folding one into another, dense woodland and no sound other than the birds overhead and the rhythmic clop of the horse’s hooves.
My teenage daughter Mia and I had chosen to saddle up in the Cotswolds and our journey started at the house of the master of the Heythrop Hunt, Christopher Cox, just outside Stow-on-the-Wold. This is where the “stately” part of Stately Rides comes in. Throughout the ride, you stay in grand, private country homes, some Georgian manors, others large and extremely comfortable farmhouses. As Mia and I approached the turn-off for the Cox home, we speculated that the longer the drive, the more splendid the house would turn out to be. And as a rule of thumb throughout our two days, it was spot on.
After half a mile, we drew up to a large honey-coloured stone farmhouse with stables for up to 12 horses and rolling farmland all around. Christopher’s wife, Annie, welcomed us into their comfortably chintzy living room with freshly made cake and tea. As we settled by the log fire, patted the dogs and looked around the room at the many paintings of horses and the mementos of Christopher’s years in the Coldstream Guards, I began to feel that this little trip might turn out to be more Jilly Cooper than Jane Austen.
And when one of the Cox children called up in great excitement with news that the Beckhams were rumoured to have bought a £30 million country estate nearby, I couldn’t help speculating whether David Beckham would be the new Rupert Campbell-Black. Can Posh ride? She’s so thin, she might snap. Would Brooklyn be a barista in the coffee shop in nearby Chipping Norton and be seduced by a flame-haired cougar working for a global media mogul? I mentioned this to my daughter, who at 13 had never heard of Jilly Cooper or the Chipping Norton set and she looked at me with quiet disdain. Still, I was enjoying myself. Our host Christopher was more preoccupied with whether he’d need to have a word with Goldenballs to persuade him to let the hunt continue to ride over his land. I’d love to earwig on that conversation.
The following morning, after a huge breakfast provided by Annie, Mia and I walked out into the stable courtyard to inspect our horses. I was feeling a little nervous. Would I be able to control my mount? Was I up to five or six hours in the saddle? Would I make a complete idiot of myself and fall off? Well, too late to back out now. Our hosts from Stately Rides had arrived, Zara and Charlotte, along with fellow guest Nicolas, a charming Frenchman who it later transpired could ride like a god.
The horses looked magnificent, manes brushed to a silky smoothness and hooves gleaming with oil. I sat on my steed, Marble, who ominously put back his ears as I tried to give him an ingratiating pat. As we set out across Annie and Christopher’s land, the sun glittered in a bright blue cloudless sky on one of those glorious late autumn days that feel like a present, all the better for being unexpected before the dank and gloom of winter.
We rode north along Happy Valley, a long sheltered cleft in the hills with glowing golden beech woods on either side. This was the moment to let the horses have their heads and get up some speed. Marble had been prancing impatiently, snatching at his bit, lowering his head and then tossing it back, sending green-flecked spit back over me. Lovely. I gave him a timid squeeze and we were off, all of us cantering side by side across the valley floor like something out of a spaghetti western. I stood out of the saddle and let Marble have his head. It was for moments like this that I began riding lessons four years ago.
As the wind rushed past me and Marble surged on across the lush pasture, I was close to heaven. Reassuringly, not only was my horse fast, he also had brakes, and as we slowed to a walk I was able to look around me and admire the English countryside at its most heart-burstingly beautiful. We crossed woods blanketed in a thick layer of apricot and russet leaves, alongside ploughed fields of deep chocolate which turned from dark to milk as the undulating curves caught the light.
We journeyed for hours without seeing another soul along paths that had been used over the centuries to drive the sheep whose wool brought prosperity to the Cotswolds in the 18th century. We trotted along Roman roads straight as a dart, past meadows still showing the distinctive ridges and furrows of Saxon strip farming.
By lunch, we’d been riding non-stop for three and a half hours. I’d worn blisters on my knees, and my ankles felt as if they were locked into my stirrups. We stopped at the home of David Parker, just outside the picture perfect village of Snowshill. He was the most welcoming of hosts and treated us to a delicious lunch of Portuguese fish stew and bramble jelly in the kitchen of his former coach house. Like all the people I met on our Stately Ride, he was gloriously posh and seemed to spend most of his days hunting. I’m surprised there’s a fox left in Oxfordshire. He thoughtfully provided me with some “Vetwrap” for my blisters, a self-adhesive crepe bandage that is used to wrap and protect horses’ fetlocks. It was Day-Glo green but I was past caring and wound it around my sore knees.
This was the kind of place that I often visited for the Antiques Roadshow but rarely had the privilege of staying in
We set off at a canter across David’s land and up high on to the Cotswold Way, past the Broadway Tower, a folly that stands out like a chess piece on the horizon. The view stretched across the hazy blue Malvern Hills all the way to Wales. By the end of our day we had ridden some 17 miles. I took my feet out of the stirrups and let my aching legs hang free as we turned into a long, imposing driveway flanked by two tall stone columns. Dappled polo ponies pranced around us as we trotted towards Wormington Grange, a magnificent Georgian manor house.
As I slid off trusty Marble, I wondered if this might be the only time in my life I might legitimately be able to call for an ostler. Sadly, none materialised but instead the ever helpful Zara and Charlotte insisted that they would untack the horses, feed them, brush them down, put their blankets on and do all the other tasks one usually has to perform after riding. Mia and I walked though the grand hallway of the house and into the kitchen where our hosts, Annie Dowty and John Evetts, were waiting with tea, home-made brownies and toasted teacakes. I was exhausted but utterly content – and I hadn’t fallen off!
After a hot bath, we met for drinks in the library, where John filled us in on the history of the house. It was bought in 1920 by his great-grandmother, a wealthy American heiress, for £2,000. With it came 2,000 acres of farmland, three farms and the entire village of Wormington. When John inherited four generations later, all that was left was an empty house and a generous amount of farmland. He made it his mission to restore the interior of the house, and has spent 30 years acquiring 18th-century antiques and portraits to fill it. The house is too large for John and Annie, so they live in one wing and let out the rest.
Over a three-course dinner in the dining room, we were joined for lively conversation by Tom, one of the tenants, who is making an entrepreneurial living as the Mr Fixit for money-no-object Arabs who require such essentials as a vintage Bugatti. As Mia and I tucked up in our large and chilly bedroom later (these grand old houses were never designed with heating in mind), I reflected that this was the kind of place that I often visited for the Antiques Roadshow but rarely had the privilege of staying in.
We woke the next morning to the sound of rain dripping down the tall bay windows of our room. I peered out over the grounds to the lake, the croquet lawn and clipped yew hedges; not another house in sight. My heart sank. I did not fancy riding in this.
Luckily, neither did anyone else and we lingered instead over breakfast in the cosy kitchen, tucking into eggs, bacon, toast and several slices of Annie’s banana bread with many cups of tea. While we waited for the downpour to ease, Annie showed us around the rest of the house, one large grand room after another, full of the most beautiful antiques but dark and cold behind closed shutters. It doesn’t lend itself to the kind of life most of us now lead, and Annie confessed that she and John would probably be the last in the family line to live there.
By late morning the rain had stopped, I strapped on my Vetwrap and we set off for another day in the saddle. We trotted through the enchanting village of Stanton, unchanged since the 1750s; no modern road signs or street lights, bright lichens clinging to the mellow gold Cotswold stone walls and the roof tiles of what were once estate workers’ cottages. I felt as if we were extras in a BBC period drama. Once more we journeyed across the most gorgeous landscape, coming upon families of deer and fauns who paused to gaze at us unafraid, reassured by the presence of the horses. Past deep badger sets we rode, across pastureland unturned since the middle ages, down steep chalk escarpments, negotiating our way around fallen trees.
We tied up the horses behind the village pub in Snowshill for a quick lunch stop before making our way back to where we started, the home of Christopher and Annie Cox.
I felt a deep pang as I dismounted from Marble for the last time. He had been the most reliable and trusting of companions and I didn’t want to leave him. I wanted to carry on riding him across the English landscape, revelling in a pace of life so different from my own – one where I had time to think, to stop, and really to look around me. Mind you, it was all very well having such wistful, romantic thoughts. After two long days in the saddle, my legs were totally wrecked – if I’d ridden another day I think they might have dropped off. But once they’ve recovered, I can promise you, I’ll be back on Marble to explore another part of our wonderful landscape.
Stately Rides takes groups of two to six guests on rides through the Cotswolds, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire lasting from two to five days. Accommodation in private homes, all meals, riding and luggage transfers are included in the price of £650 per person per day. New rides in the Welsh borders will be introduced in 2016, as will equestrian weeks in Warwickshire combining tuition and treks. Riders should be able to walk, trot and canter before signing up, and should bring a suitable riding hat and boots. There are horses available for all levels of rider from novice to advanced (07590 456714; statelyrides.co.uk ).
This article was written by Fiona Bruce from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.