Riding free in the Welsh Marches
2:10pm Tuesday 12th March 2013 in News
It may have seemed odd to onlookers, for a huddle of three riders dripping puddles onto the flagstone floor of the Roast Ox Inn at Painscastle, soggy and cold from a soaking up on Llanbedr Hill, planning to do the same again and bigger and bolder next year.
Yep, as holidays go, this was not a sunlounger and sundowner relaxation option. But it was definitely something else, and that something else we were clamouring to do again.
‘Freedom!’ might have been a rallying cry for Nelson Mandela as well as Mel Gibson’s William Wallace, but it is also an apt word to describe a holiday with FreeRein, an unique riding adventure in the Radnor Hills.
What FreeRein do from their base in Clyro on the Welsh borders near Hay-on- Wye, is to give you a horse; a map and instructions of how to get to the country pub or B&B where you will rest up for the night; and then let you get on with it.
There is an efficient helpline telephone number to help you if things do go wrong, and the bonding between map reader and interpreter of the printed instructions gets a bit unstuck. But otherwise all decisions are up to you.
For anyone who has been on horse riding holidays or been horse trekking before, this is remarkable.
You have the freedom to choose when to trot, when to canter, when to stop for a picnic or pub lunch.
There is no-one else’s agenda to run to, so you have time to admire the dramatic panoramas of the Black Mountains, the Brecon Beacons, the Carmarthen Fans, Malvern or Shropshire Hills, depending on where you are looking at the time, when you want and where you want.
As a family, we have been sucked into the vortex of my daughter Leila’s enthusiasm for riding.
This has meant that me and my wife have re-learned skills we had from our childhood, and have taken lessons to brush off the rust of our riding joints, to go on treks, hacks and riding holidays.
There must be many parents in the same situation, and this is probably the best way to enjoy a daughter’s obsession, and transform it into a dashing adventure.
And you do dash. We spent three days feeling on top of the world with the wind in our face cantering along wide paths across the peat moorlands of the open commons of the Radnor Hills.
But in between those exhilarating dashes, are times to just stop and stare at the Kestrel quiver-winged hunting in the bracken ridges, or the red kites that swooped and soared as they shadowed us across a green bowl high grazing pasture, before we chose a picnic spot, and they got bored and went off for other entertainment.
We took our Old Drovers three day break at the start of their season – which runs from April to October. It is just one of hundreds of different routes which vary from two days to six day trips to the coast that FreeRein have researched, plotted, and organised.
If you like a bit of history, there are castles, battle sites, Offa’s Dyke defensive ditch, and stone circles and Iron Age remains scattering the countryside, while from the recordings of Victorian local life in Kilvert’s Diary, to the setting for Bruce Chatwin’s On The Black Hill, and the Conan Doyle connection with FreeRein’s HQ being cloistered in the stable block of Clyro Court, the ancestral home of the Baskervilles, friend to Sir Arthur, with a legend of a demonic black dog.
But the real joy of the holiday is being out in the open air, travelling as people would have from medieval times up to the end of the 19th century.
And in a sense this was a holiday from modern life, as there was just you and your trusty steed, with only the digital camera to capture the memories linking to the modern world and wired electronic lifestyles.
The Old Drovers route, was a tip of the hat to the paths over which the Welsh cowboys of the 1700s used to drive their young cattle from West Wales to the English markets of Oxford, London and the South East.
The planned routes has us up onto the Begwyn Hills, for exciting canters, and then a steep descent where we had to dismount to exercise our knee joints, and give the horses a rest. At the end of an long day’s ride, we reached the imposing greystone Old Rectory, at Bryngwn – our B&B for the night – where once we had fed our trusty steeds, we could enjoy the relaxation of a hot bath, as Leila excitedly bagged the room with the fourposter bed to sleep in.
Day two saw us refreshed and bushy tailed, and eager for more of the same, as we headed through open country speckled with bright white bouncing lambs, winding through lanes with high hedgerows and meandering through hamlets to join a stretch of the Offa’s Dyke path.
For lunch we romantically tethered our horses outside, cowboy style, at the back of a stone barn next to the Royal Oak at Gladestry.
The Royal Oak is exactly as old country pubs ought to be – fire blazing, well used dart board, dark but avoiding gloomy, friendly inn keepers, and no sounds other than us, and a couple of Auzzie walkers.
After lunch, and back in the saddle, threatening rain clouds scudded by missing us, and we are up on Llanfihangel Hill, and then among the dark pools on the peat of Black Yat, with dotted stone circles and standing stones, but also marvellous springy tracks for energetic canters.
By the end of the day, we are only to glad to fall into the hospitable hands of the Red Lion, near New Radnor. Cosy and accommodating, we take the option for a packed lunch on our final day, as planning our route for the next day, we examined the options, and opt for the most scenic route.
Rested and refreshed, we set up onto Glascwm Hill. We saw three pairs of red kites in the morning, and they kept us company as we made our way guessing at paths, and tied up for lunch at cattle feeders amongst a bleating flock of sheep, and sat with our sandwiches admiring the view to the Malvern Hills.
After lunch there was a discussion solved by my horse as to which path to take up onto the heather uplands of Llabedr Hill. As we started the slow descent off the hill towards Painscastle and a pick up back to FreeRein HQ, the clouds above us turned a nasty shade of grey, and it was time for the waterproofs.
The rain dampened the spirits, made worse by a wrong turn through a couple of farmyards not on the route. But we were soon able to leave the horses in barns at Painscastle , and tramp with following puddles into the Roast Ox Inn to wait to be taken back to FreeRein HQ.