Naddle Farm is fast becoming our tried and tested base camp and it’s great to be back. The rain had been threatening to come for a few days but once I’m past Tebay Gorge on the M6 heading North, the clouds part and by the time I arrive to set up camp the sun is scorching my neck and back.
I am here with four of our best ponies, old faithful Hades Hill Fairmile (23 years old), her cousin Hades Hill Pat II (18) and Pat’s daughter Hades Hill Lucky Pearl (12) and Hades Hill Boo (12). Boo has come back to us on loan after selling her 10 years ago to our friends Katherine and Hamish. Boo is out of a line of mares whose bloodline I decided to let go a few years ago (partly to cut down on numbers and partly because that line that tended to produce smaller ponies - just a bit too small for what I was after) but Boo is just what I look for in how a Fell pony should be put together and with such a good temperament - ideal for a working pony. Although I have been taking her out for the last few weeks, this is the first time I’ve taken her out on a wild camping trek but she fits straight back into the herd as though she’d never left 10 years before.
When the Sunday Times got in touch asking if they could come on a trek and write about us in the Travel section we obviously said “Yes please!”. So Megan Agnew and her friend Eva have just arrived on the train from London along with freelance journalist Joanna Eede and her son Alexander who is 4 years old. The first day is about settling in, meeting the ponies and sharing a meal. I like to think of basecamp as a decompression chamber where the stresses of daily life start to be forgotten and the digital detox begins as we share stories around the fire.
There will be 8 of us travelling as we have arranged to meet our photographer Graeme Wynne en-route on the far side of Rosgill moor. Clare has brought along her dog Finn and we also have with us Janine who has come along to give us a hand with the ponies. We stop for a breather and re-adjust the breast collar and breechin’ on the new packsaddles and I get chatting to a man with a dog who recognised us from our trek over High Street back in April.
We have stopped for lunch by a ford crossing Swindale beck. The ponies are tethered close by and I’m sitting on a rock with my feet in the cool water when I see a huge dragonfly caught in a pool. My hand is underneath it and as I lift it up out of the water, I can feel its claws gripping onto my palm. It’s still alive - just. I once held a dragonfly before when I found one stuck in a glass tunnel walkway at a motorway service station and managed to catch and release it and had only just recounted this story and now a few minutes later, I have a beautiful yellow and black Golden Ringed Dragonfly in the palm of my hand. I set it down on a warm stone to dry and hope it lives to see another day.
Life abounds in the long grass. At times the sheer number of butterflies and moths is breathtaking.
The ponies are rested and watered, and we have had our fill of bread and cheese and a hot Turkish apple tea, so we wade across the beck again and are grateful for cool breeze. What I love about this valley is that it doesn’t take long to feel like you are out in the wilderness. Within half an hour of hitting the bridleway we are under Nabs Moor and make camp. This is the first time we have come with all 4 ponies carrying the Custom Pack rigging saddles and bags and what a difference it had made. Much less faffing around with all the kit and only stopping occasionally to tighten a cinch (girth).
We make camp under Nabs moor. Eva says its the most beautiful camp site she’s stayed at and we all agree.
The next morning there’s barely a dew on the grass. There’s nothing like waking up on a warm summers morning next to four contented ponies basking in the sun. We breakfast on porridge with blueberries and slowly break camp. I was once told that one of the true meanings of the word “Yurt” (meaning a central Asian nomadic tent) was that it didn’t refer to the tent itself but the space that was left after the tent had moved on. I think of how that relates to our own camp and how we aim to leave no trace and have as little impact as possible.
We have got away early so we take the route home over the Corpse road, treading again in the footsteps of countless pack ponies over the hundreds of years before us. If you’ve seen any of the films I’ve made about my travels with horses you’ll know that there’s always a curlew in there somewhere. They instantly give a sense of place, a barren and open wild place. But the last 2 years the skylarks have started to take over that feeling of wildness and freedom, and here on Swindale common, the skylarks sing and fly fast and free.
It turns out Boo loves attention and nothing more than chilling out with her new friend Megan.
After a couple of days travelling everyone is starting to get to know the ponies on a more intimate level. The more we have eaten the lighter the (some of the) packsaddles get and up on the fell tops the ponies always appear relaxed, comfortable - at home in their natural environment.
We stop for lunch with the skylarks still singing and follow their call to a viewing point of High Street to the West and the Dales to our East. The weather has been kind to us but we feel a few drops on our faces and decide we’d rather walk i the rain than hang around so we pack down and follow a sheep trod over the last bit of the fell to Naddle farm.
The Swindale valley keeps giving more and more special moments. Can’t wait to return. But in the meantime look out for the feature in the Sunday Times travel section on Sunday 28th July!
If you’d like to join us on a Swindale valley trek, get in touch and we’ll take care of the rest.