Hugh Thom­son

Hugh Thom­son takes a mule across the coun­try to find that off-road travel on horse­back is a mount­ing chal­lenge

Countryfile Magazine - - Editor’s Letter -

“It is quite a thing to wres­tle 300 ki­los of mule over a stile,” says Hugh of his tri­als fol­low­ing blocked bri­dle­ways with ‘Jethro’.

Over the years I have taken many ex­pe­di­tions to Peru and have of­ten used mules as pack an­i­mals. There’s some­thing very ro­man­tic about a long line of mules cross­ing a moun­tain pass with their bells tin­kling. And of course, if a pack an­i­mal is car­ry­ing your stuff, the good news is that you don’t have to.

So I thought it would be in­trigu­ing and fun to do the same along the rough line of the CoastTo-Coast route across the north of Eng­land – al­though ob­vi­ously I’d need to take bri­dle­ways, not the of­fi­cial foot­path. After a bit of search­ing, I found a friendly mule called Jethro at an RSPCA res­cue cen­tre and set off from St Bees, the tra­di­tional start­ing point of the walk.

On reach­ing the Lake District, I wanted to take Jethro along the old pack-pony path that wound from the Hon­is­ter quar­ries to­wards the ring of moun­tains of the West­ern Fells,

cen­tred on the domed anvil of Great Gable. That was the the­ory at least.


The path was called Old Moses Trod, after a 19th-cen­tury quar­ry­man who de­signed the route to con­tour beau­ti­fully around the moun­tain slopes and ar­rive at Raven­glass for the ships. But al­though Old Moses Trod had al­ways been a bri­dle­way in the past, con­structed for pack-ponies, it had re­verted to foot­path sta­tus; so when we came to a boundary fence, there was a quite le­git­i­mate – and im­pass­able – stile. It is one thing try­ing to wres­tle a moun­tain bike over a stile. But it’s quite an­other to heave 300 ki­los of mule. I had to turn back and find an­other route.

I be­gan to re­alise that tak­ing a pack an­i­mal like Jethro across Eng­land, which once would have been so nat­u­ral as to at­tract no no­tice, was now work­ing against the lie of the land. The route was bi­fur­cated with ev­ery­thing from stiles to boundary fences to the six lanes of the M6. The con­tro­ver­sial process of en­clo­sure, be­gun in the 18th cen­tury, was still con­tin­u­ing.

By the time we got to the York­shire Moors, 150 miles later, the scale of the prob­lem had be­come ap­par­ent. I was con­stantly thwarted – not least by bri­dle­ways that sud­denly, for no ev­i­dent rea­son, turned into foot­paths. What did lo­cal coun­cils ex­pect you to do? Pick up a horse – or mule – and carry it over your shoul­der?


So I went to meet Elizabeth Kirk, a stal­wart of the By­ways and Bri­dle­ways Trust. A most re­mark­able per­son, Elizabeth farmed for many years on the Moors in her youth. Now in her 80s, she has rid­den over much of Eng­land and ded­i­cated her­self to open­ing up old bri­dle­ways that have been closed. In North York­shire alone, she and her friends have man­aged to get a hun­dred miles of bri­dle­way added to the ‘de­fin­i­tive map’, the le­gal doc­u­ment that ev­ery county coun­cil has to keep about rights of way. She ex­plained how some of these prob­lems had oc­curred in the first place. The ‘de­fin­i­tive maps’ now in use were mainly drawn up in the 1950s. At the time, the Ram­blers or­gan­i­sa­tion was strong, hav­ing built


up mo­men­tum since the mass tres­pass on Kin­der Scout in 1932. They lob­bied for foot­paths to be in­cluded on these new ‘de­fin­i­tive maps’.

How­ever, the or­gan­i­sa­tions rep­re­sent­ing the na­tion’s horse riders were less ef­fec­tive; per­haps be­cause rid­ing in the coun­try is not such a com­mu­nal ac­tiv­ity. More­over, rid­ing was at a low ebb after the Sec­ond World War when lo­cal au­thor­i­ties, as now, were keen to min­imise the per­ceived main­te­nance bur­den of bri­dle­ways.

As a re­sult, some 65% of cur­rent foot­paths in the North York­shire Moors Na­tional Park were orig­i­nally bri­dle­ways; a stag­ger­ing pro­por­tion, mir­rored else­where in Bri­tain and one about which the wider pub­lic – like me up un­til this point – are of­ten blithely un­aware.

By 1979, the sit­u­a­tion had be­come so bad that con­cerned riders such as Elizabeth set up the By­ways and Bri­dle­ways Trust to pro­tect our net­work of an­cient mi­nor high­ways. “We got a lot of stick from peo­ple for ‘mak­ing a fuss’ – but we were right!” she told me. A few years ago, she rode with friends for 300 miles around Devon and Dorset to draw at­ten­tion to the way many a bri­dle­way had an elec­tric fence slung across it, or was so over­grown it was im­pass­able.

“What gets me so an­noyed,” she said, “is this as­sump­tion that horse-rid­ing is an aris­to­cratic pas­time. Which is why coun­cils can ig­nore bri­dle­ways. But there are plenty of shop-girls on their ponies and nurses after work who want to ride as well. And it’s just not safe on roads. If we’re not care­ful, we’ll end up with a gen­er­a­tion of riders who are too scared to go out of the sta­bles and the train­ing ring.”

Elizabeth has an air of quiet de­lib­er­a­tion about these is­sues. She is not a tub-thump­ing, bossy horse­woman – in­stead, it is her pa­tient and rea­son­able ar­tic­u­la­tion of the sorry state of af­fairs that I sus­pect makes her such an ef­fec­tive cam­paigner. And hav­ing tried to get Jethro across the coun­try, it is a cam­paign with which I now have ev­ery sym­pa­thy.

It is also a cam­paign with a dead­line. Any fi­nal re­vi­sions to the de­fin­i­tive maps have to be in place by 2026. Then all “un­recorded pub­lic rights of way” will be ex­tin­guished by statute.

Ten years may sound like a rea­son­able win­dow of op­por­tu­nity, but given the gla­cial speed with which county coun­cils re­act to le­gal chal­lenges, and the es­ti­mated 20,000 bri­dle­ways and by­ways that need to be re­claimed, Elizabeth and her col­leagues have their work cut out. So if you want to save any lo­cal bri­dle­way that does not have of­fi­cial sta­tus – or bring back one that was tra­di­tion­ally used – now is the time to do so.


2 3


5 1 Part of the Pen­nine Bri­dle­way in the York­shire Dales, near Stain­forth 2 Hugh Thom­son cross­ing the York­shire Moors with Jethro 3 Pub­lic bri­dle­ways may be sign­posted as such, but can sud­denly trans­form into foot­paths 4 Jethro sur­veys the scene in...

Hugh Thom­son is a British travel writer, film maker and ex­plorer. His book The Green Road Into the Trees won the 2014 Wain­wright Prize. His lat­est book, One Man and a Mule: Across Eng­land with a Pack Mule (Pref­ace, £20), is out now.

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