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February 21, 2014 7:06 pm
It was almost a year ago that a friend sent me a copy of England on Horseback by Zara Colchester and Charlotte Sainsbury-Plaice, a book about the romance of riding through England – through aristocratic estates in the Cotswolds, along the beaches of Norfolk, across the Yorkshire moors, through Shropshire hills and Welsh borders. It was the beauty of the photographs taken by Charles Sainsbury-Plaice (Charlotte’s husband) that stopped me in my tracks. They conveyed the sense of freedom on horseback that one associates with another century. Impossible to believe such riding could still exist in England.
A couple of months later, by chance, I met Zara Colchester. I told her that I loved her book but had one problem with it: I did not want to read it, I wanted to ride it.
Zara has no airs, lots of graces and an impulsive warmth: “But you can!” she said, and told me how she and Charlotte had started a small riding company called Stately Rides. They offer what is almost unheard of in England (though such rides exist almost everywhere else in the world): meticulously planned, guided riding weeks and weekends. Based in the Cotswolds and Warwickshire, they provide a way of seeing a hidden England. Groups of between three and six riders are guided by either Charlotte or Zara (and often with a second guide), staying in private country houses along the route, their luggage transferred by car. The concept has already attracted riders from America, Mexico, France, even a Spanish duke. I told Zara that I had always had a fantasy about riding like a figure in a costume drama (minus the fancy dress), cantering through parkland up to a great house as if with an urgent message to deliver.
And this is how I find myself on a weekend that begins not far from Stow-on-the-Wold, at Banks Fee Farm, owned by Christopher and Annie Cox. Christopher is a convivial gentleman farmer, Annie an accomplished cook. The farm, in Cotswold stone, is set far from the road and we approach with a low, pink afternoon light shining through fields of barley. Wood pigeons are cooing as we sit down to a late tea involving intense homemade chocolate cake and look out on to a formal garden of lavender and roses. I quiz Zara and Charlotte about how they met. Charlotte had been trying to sell a horse, Zara to buy one. In the event, the horse did not work out but the friendship did. The two women are wonderful company – and have the same idea about riding: to escape into landscape on horseback.
Stately Rides do not, thankfully, proceed at too stately a pace. They involve a nicely judged mixture of walking, trotting and cantering. And although you spend about four or more hours in the saddle each day, the weekend could not be more luxurious: the catering throughout is sensational and Banks Fee farm is kitted out to the standard of a first-rate country house hotel. My bedroom has splendid beams, an old brass bed and windows looking out on to fields on every side. The place is so peaceful that I flirt with the idea of skipping the riding altogether and staying put.
As it is, one does not have to stir far in the morning: the horses are brought almost to the door. All one need do is eat as much breakfast as possible while keeping in mind the need to still be able to heave oneself up into the saddle. Otto is the name of the handsome piebald waiting for me outside the farm’s Georgian stables. And Otto soon proves as kindly as he looks – a sensible, sprightly gent.
Our two-day ride is through north Cotswolds hunting country. For the non-hunter, this is a treat, and a way of seeing how the other half rides. The route follows old bridleways and private roads and there is a lovely canter through the aptly named Happy Valley. Much of the land is owned by the Stanway estate and has never been ploughed, which explains the feeling of being in a timeless England. We ride through ancient beech forests and fields and the feeling is of a deep peace that comes from being, if only temporarily, part of an undisturbed landscape. The views are marvellous: of the Vale of Evesham, the Malvern Hills and the Welsh Marches beyond. But the weekend’s highlight is Wormington Grange, a gem of a Queen Anne house, where we spend our second night. We ride up to its façade alongside sheep who baa scornfully at us as we pass. Scornful they may be – but we are elated. This is the moment I’ve been imagining, the approach to a stately home on horseback.
The house’s history is straight out of Henry James. We are welcomed by owner John Evetts (who masterminds the furnishing of Landmark Trust properties) and his partner Annie Dowty. The house, extended in the late 18th century and again in 1827, was bought, for £2,000, in the 1920s by Evetts’s great-grandmother, an American heiress (herself a consumer of Henry James – his complete works are in her library). She installed an Arts & Crafts garden (which sadly has not survived) but John and Annie have boldly got to work on the landscape. They had to fell 400 trees to reclaim the view of the lake. They also boast the oldest swimming pool in Gloucestershire. Discreetly positioned, it is painted black to avoid it being a vulgar turquoise eyesore. I had a blissful swim in it (wonderful after riding) and loved surveying, from the water, the house’s yellow stone, the silver lake below, and the handsome clock on the old stable block. Wormington once had 34 gardeners and 18 house staff. Today, it is John and Annie serving the cream teas and they assure us the house only really comes to life when Stately riders arrive to fill it.
Inside, it is full of light, old rugs and calm. I rejoice in the magnificent serenity of the bedroom at the front, with its idyllic view of English countryside, tempered by dark greens and copper beech. You can see in the distance the tallest fountain in the county, in the gardens of Stanway House, where Peter Pan creator JM Barrie once stayed.
Over another mighty supper, John tells a ghost story about a servant girl murdered at Wormington. Pregnant out of wedlock, she was run over by a horse-drawn carriage. Sometimes, at dusk, she is said to tweak horses’ reins and bring them to a halt.
Fortunately, she does not delay our departure on Sunday. We are following the White Way, the ancient road that runs from Droitwich to Cirencester. In the morning, we inspect Stanway’s splendid gatehouse. Halfway through, we break for a delicious picnic at Snowshill and, in the afternoon, Charlotte points out the ruined cottage where Ben Kingsley filmed Silas Marner. She tells me about her life: she grew up in the country and always rode. She also worked as a PR to screenwriter Richard Curtis, which somehow figures. She is great at organising people – and horses. Her horses are not nervy aristocrats, they are sensible, lively and still going strong at the end of the weekend.
And now the ride comes full circle and we find ourselves back at Banks Fee Farm. The weekend is over and it has been like a dream. There is only just time for a steadying of ourselves – a final swig of tea and a second crack of the whip at Annie Cox’s chocolate cake – before getting back into the car and the 21st century.
Saskia Burgess was a guest of Stately Rides (statelyrides.co.uk), which offers riding trips of two to five days, from £395 per person per day, including the horse, accommodation, guides, all food and drink, and luggage transfers.
England on Horseback is published by Clearview Books, £25
Global gallops: More equine adventures
Mongolia Horses are an integral part of daily life and Mongolian culture, as well as being the best way to explore much of the country. Ride World Wide offers trips from 10 to 16 nights (as well as to 26 other countries), with between four and seven hours per day on the small but agile native horses. Riders stay mainly in tents or traditional felt gers. From $2,125 for 10 nights; rideworldwide.com
Iceland In the Saddle offers a range of Iceland rides, including the chance to help farmers as they round up sheep and horses from mountain pastures at the end of the summer. A six-night trip in September costs from £1,198; inthesaddle.com
Georgia The mountainous region of Tusheti in north-eastern Georgia can be explored on a nine-day horse trek with Wild Frontiers, an adventure travel company founded in 2002 by Jonny Bealby (whose experiences of riding the Silk Road were recounted in the book Silk Dreams, Troubled Road). Participants meet in Tbilisi before riding through the wild-flower meadows in the foothills of the Caucasus, staying in guesthouses in remote villages. From £1,425; wildfrontierstravel.com
Argentina Riders can get a taste of life on a South American estancia with a week’s trip with Caballadas, an equestrian tour operator based on a 55,000-acre ranch in northern Patagonia. Participants cover about 24 miles per day through the valleys, forests and mountains of the Lanín National Park. From $2,750 per person; caballadas.com
US For more than a century, “dude ranches” have offered city slickers the chance to live out cowboy fantasies, but Mustang Monument, which opens this June, brings a new twist. As well as offering conventional riding experiences through the wild landscapes of north-eastern Nevada, guests can ride out to see the herds of wild mustangs, which the enterprise is dedicated to preserving. Tepees for two cost $1,000, including food and activities. mustangmonument.com
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