Hugh Thomson takes a mule across the country to find that off-road travel on horseback is a mounting challenge
“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.
OLD MOSES TROD
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
“WRESTLING A BIKE OVER A STILE IS ONE THING – 300 KILOS OF MULE QUITE ANOTHER”
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.
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 the Lake District 5 Campaigner Elizabeth Kirk of the Byways and Bridleways Trust
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.