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It shouldn’t happen to a pilgrim

Paul and I were unlikely pilgrims, but we thought that a pilgrimage would give us the time out we needed for making our big decision – how best to spend the rest of our early-retirement lives together.  Then, just to make the experience  that little bit more challenging, we also brought horses into the equation, which if you are an experienced rider and have enough money to buy appropriate mounts, is probably not such a bad notion, but with Paul and I nothing is ever quite so well thought out. Paul had never ridden before; we had no horses, no money to speak of and no one to look after the cute mongrel puppy (Vasco) we had just bought from a local market.  Fortunately, we both work on the principle that ‘if I’ve started I’m sodding well going to finish’ so three months later Paul and Vasco had learnt how to ride and we had found our horses – though admittedly our budget only ran to Lubie, a burnt-out French Trotter, and Gwendolyn whose bizarre shape and demeanour is the living proof that equines can be fruitfully mated with camels.

Easily said

Our first pilgrimage along the St James Way was the perfect introduction because it is a relatively gentle route and well supported.  Of course it was tough at times, but we made it to  Santiago de Compostela in Spain and enjoyed the experience sufficiently to want to have another go, though this time on a less well travelled route: the via Francigena to Rome.

There are highs and lows in every journey and fortunately the human memory has a tendency to edit out the really bad parts, or at least put a humorous edge on them.  In fact, without this most people would probably only ever travel once in their lives and NEVER AGAIN, which would put an end to the travel business and a lot of funny stories too.

Our story is amusing and occasionally even HILARIOUS, which you can read in whatever way you like. But more importantly we are still here to tell the tale, we have become professional pilgrims and we are happy to be the subject of some light-hearted schadenfreude, which is always good for the soul. So now picture the scene. July 2007, the third day of our pilgrimage across France and on our way to pick up the via Francigena on the Swiss border.  We – Paul, Vasco, the horses and I – are relaxed and happy afters hours of truly exquisite riding through the Forêt d’Ecouves, a dense mix of spruce, pine, oak beech and masses of wild mushrooms. 


Then, just before tiredness sets in, we find the perfect camp-site at the base of a secluded valley.  Unusually (because I hate camping), I am looking forward to this night under the stars and  am just about to immerse myself in a crystal clear, babbling brook, when Paul shouts over from where he is grazing the girls, as we collectively call our horses.  His precise words pass me by, but only because they are drowned by a cacophony of fleeing hooves.  The horses have done a runner and I am standing knee-deep and naked in water.

My nightmares come in all shapes, colours and versions, but none of them compare with the horror of this reality. Our horses have gone, their hoof prints intermittently visible and confused by the hoof prints of other horses we know nothing about.  Instinct tells me that they will stick to the paths and are probably simply heading back the way they have come; the closest approximation to going home they can manage in this unfamiliar environment, but there are main roads to cross on the way.  In my despair, I tell Paul that when and if we find them I want to quit, then I stomp off to get some clothes while he is left to keep on searching and shouting.

An hour later we meet up again and walk five kilometres to a village called Radon, where we phone the police.

‘Erm, has anyone reported seeing two loose horses, somewhere between here and St Malo?’

‘Have these horses got bells on?’  A voice asks in rapid French through a distorted signal.

And where’s our stable?

In any other situation I would have laughed, but having recently lost the will to live, laughter is the last thing on my mind.  Yes, the bells sent by my brother who lives in Switzerland, are indeed attached to their headcollars.  They are supposed to help us find our horses should they ever decide to leave, though I swear I can’t remember hearing a single clang or ting when they hurtled up that hill. 

Apparently, Gwendolyn and Lubie have been found by a woman about ten kilometres from where we lost them. She has put them in a field and told the police that she will meet us at a cross-road nearby so that she can take us there.  I want to ask if they are all right, but the phone has already gone down at the other end.

190km to go..

Twenty tortuous and knackering minutes later, we pull up on the edge of a ten hectare field of towering grass, where two horses are grazing nonchalantly at the opposite end.  I feel sick with relief and bellow their names, but there is no reaction, not even a raised head, though why should our horses worry about us when they have got so much to eat?  Paul and I struggle through the undergrowth, the last remnants of our energy sapped by this final rebuke, but then Gwendolyn snuffs a whisper of a whinny. An apology as I like to think, or at the very least a sign that she recognises us.

How do you thank someone for saving your horses and restoring your world?  We make the mistake of trying to offer a monetary reward, but the woman’s curt reply tells us that calling her a whore would have been only marginally more offensive. 

‘I help your horses, not you.’

Then it’s down to the practicalities. Not to put too fine a point on it, Paul and I are exhausted.  We have probably walked about ten kilometres and now have the prospect of walking ten more.  I weigh up the situation.  We have two ropes we can tie to their head collars as reins, but Paul has never ridden bareback and Gwendolyn has made it clear to me that I shouldn’t.  The last time I tried, her spine bunched like a spring and I got off before she launched.  But ten kilometres is such a long way and I know that providing Paul can stay on top, Lubie will take care of him. 

‘What do you think about riding bareback?’

‘Fine, if I can get up there.’

We tie the ropes to their headcollars and then look for a piece of raised bank to launch ourselves from. I jump first and hold my breath.  Gwendolyn’s ears twitch, but when I ask her to move forward she does not object. Perhaps she senses that this is not the time to be over-sensitive.  Paul goes next and Lubie stands quietly while he tries to find a comfortable position. 

‘Do all horses have backbones like this?’ 

‘No, just worse and more so.’  I tell him.  ‘Now you know why I begged my father to let me ride with a blanket and surcingle.’  Here, I should explain that as a child I was not allowed to ride with a saddle until I received my second pony at the age of twelve.

The horses retrace their steps with confidence and a good thing too, because I have only the vaguest idea of where we are and the light is failing.  On leaving the road, we are plunged into dense woods on tiny paths.  Gwendolyn, never terribly stable on her gangly legs, stumbles but remains calm.  Paul, on Lubie, a.k.a the mountain goat, copes like a pro’.  As we weave through drooping branches and slither along patches of muddy marsh, I can’t decide whether we are supremely stupid or impressively brave, but when we reach our camp-site at ten thirty and in the pitch dark, I am just plain relieved. 

With the help of torches, we tie a tether line and secure them for the night, then I finish my interrupted wash while Paul turns his attention to our food: one packet of cashew nuts and a melon. Meanwhile, lightening has been flickering overhead and there has been some vague rumbling in the distance, but when it still has not materialised into anything storm-like an hour later, we go to bed and settle in for a much-needed night’s sleep.

The heavens were just waiting for our sleeping bags to get warm.  After all, what’s the fun in dumping on people who know what’s coming?  First, we get the burst of light brighter than a laser show.  Then the ear-crashing clap of thunder and finally the rods of rain with eyes for every dodgy seam.  We are soaked within seconds, an unpleasant sensation, but infinitely less unpleasant than the drenching dashes we have to make every ten minutes to calm our poor horses who are tethered outside.

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