Saturday, 17 May 2014

Post 34 The Mediterranean.‏

22nd April. I'm in a wild mediterranean landscape between the hills of the Cevennes and the Camargue. Fig trees, grape vines, olive trees, scrubby Holm oaks, Acacia and Thyme thrive here. I stopped at St. Hippolyte du Fort and fixed a shoe back on the horse, they've done 300 miles and the nails are starting to  break. I'm stopped on some grass near a supermarket and a busy road, it's ages since l've stopped somewhere noisy. The ground is hard and it's difficult to bang the tether pin in. The people are friendly and stop and chat to me. In the morning l stroll over to the supermarket and get a few bits, l don't need much. I'm out of practise at shopping.
Noisy stop, handy for supermarket
I carry on to Pompignan. On the way a young Frenchwoman stops to chat, invites me to lunch and organises a field for me to stop in, really kind. She cooks a nice Canelloni for lunch. After lunch I'm tired and have a siesta and don't wake up until 2am! Heavy rain wakes me and lasts for an hour, afterwards the scent of the flowers is beautiful. The sound of crickets and frogs croaking is incredibly loud. This is another somnambulant village but it does have a cafe and a bakery.While l'm at Pompignan, l hear of some people near Lasalle, who have two mules, but need help to learn how to use them, so l go there.
Nr Pompignan, 22 April.jpg
It's a smallholding and about ten enthusiastic young people in their twenties are living there and trying to learn how to live off the land, most of them, l think come from cities. It's really nice to have their company and help them with the mules. One mule has an injured leg, so we leave him to recover. The other mule is pushy and ill-mannered at first, but soon learns to behave himself. We make good progress and the best mule is soon learning how to pull things around. They are lucky to have found such a good mule.
The hills here are full of sweet chestnut. In the autumn, harvesting the chestnuts is an important part of the year. Pedro the mule will be able pull large quantities of them back down the hill to the farmhouse. The chestnuts are sold by the kilo to a cooperative. The mule will also be able to bring back large quantities of firewood. Most of the houses in rural France appear to be heated by firewood, in the colder parts the carefully stacked firewood is impressive. A lot of people in France work as wood cutters.
Pedro was ill-mannered, but he's getting nice now
8th May. I've been stopped at the smallholding for two weeks and been showing some of the people here how to train the mule each day. The mule has really improved and can now be used for a variety of jobs. [It's not hard to train an equine to do simple jobs around the place. Ponies that have been 'outgrown' can easily learn to pull a cart or drag back firewood].

Xavier, Pedro and Sara and Leon
Yesterday we used the mule to 'harrow' a piece of ground. That was a real success. The fields are tiny, terraces carved out of the steep hillside. We have got no suitable bridle or bit for the mule and because of the small fields and inexperience of his handlers, it is easier to have one person leading the mule and another one steering the implement for cultivating the ground. Although this is a bit inefficient, it's still a lot quicker than digging the ground by hand and the two people have to work as a team and  help each other. It's more about quality of life here than being very efficient, but as they learn more they will improve.

Panniers are good to carry things
In southern France much of the land was cultivated using one or two mules and there are quite a lot of suitable implements lying around that are still serviceable. In Britain the available horsedrawn equipment is generally only suitable for heavy horses. It is possible in France to buy new equipment too, which is handy and some vineyards and farms still use mules.

Leah and Xavier using a harrow

Yesterday we prepared some ground to sow some maize, it was hard work for one mule, so we finished the job with my horse. As well as maize they are growing chick peas, vegetables, fruit, some barley for beer and some oats. The farm has a good spring and a good stream, the ground appears to be very fertile and l don't think the young people will have too much trouble managing. They are resourceful. They killed two goats this morning and a ram to eat.

We have improvised some of the harness, using car safety belting. That works well for the traces. I'm really pleased how the young people are now getting on and using the best mule to do various jobs. They are pleased too, so tomorrow l shall head south down to La Camargue. It's been a real pleasure to stay at the farm and l feel like the horse and l have had a good rest.

Post 33 Tethering Horses.‏

Unless l'm offered a field with a good fence for the night, l need some way to secure my horse, so that he doesn't wander into the road, so l have to tether it. In the old days when armies had cavalry, when they were on a campaign, all the horses were tethered or picketed, even expensive chargers belonging to generals.
Some people might think it was a bad idea or cruel to tether a horse. Done well it is very good for a horse, it makes them much safer and calmer, prevents them getting injured.
l get him used to the feel of a rope around his legs, then a piece of plastic hose pipe and then a chain. This is a great thing to do, even if you never tether your horse, because when your horse feels something strange around its legs it is less likely to panic. If your horse is in harness it will not worry if it gets its leg over a trace, or if it gets its leg caught in some sheep fencing, it will wait for you to come and help it, if it isn't used to things round its legs, it may well break its leg as it frantically tries to release itself. A horse that is good on a tether learns to stand still and wait, it's also better at being shod.
Many young horses are put straight on a tether, without any preparation and after a struggle they learn all this themselves, without you doing anything, but there is a small risk. Until they are good on a tether, l tether them on level ground and not near anything that will injure them. I tie them up first in a yard for a few hours, until they are hungry, then tether them on some nice sweet grass, they soon get the hang of it and look forward to it. I keep an eye them.
After a while horses love their tether, they learn to use it to rub and massage themselves.
Tether pin and tether chain
To tether them l have a length of chain about 25 feet [8m] long, it has three swivels in it, otherwise the chain will go solid when the horse rolls, and that's one way they can injure themselves. The peg, or tether pin, is 25mm in diameter,[1"] and about 600mm [2'] long, with a point on one end and a small head on the other. I may need a longer one on soft ground, on sandy ground l have to fix the chain to a shrub or tree.
Swivel and clip on tether chain
To the end of the chain you need a neck strap, [l use a length of car safety belt], to which l fix a clip, or l can fix the chain to a head collar.
Neck strap made from car safety belt
When l stop on the sides of roads there often isn't enough grass for the whole length of the chain, so l may have to move the tether several times, it depends on the quality of the grass. The grass near the hedge will normally be coarse and long and the horse will prefer the shorter sweeter grass near the road. I try to tether the horse near the back of the wagon at night time so that l can see it out of the window and make sure it's ok. It's lovely hearing the horse crunching grass at night time. The horse is glad to be near the wagon too, it feels safer. I'm careful not to tether the horse so close to the wagon that it can rub its bottom on it. He'll wait until 3 am to do it and wake me up.
Horse tethered on Blackheath, London
Sometimes at horse fairs, children like to go round at night letting horses off their tethers. The  younger horses will run around but the older more experienced horses tend to just stay near their own wagon. I remember one morning at Stow horse fair, in the Cotswolds, waking up and my old mare was lose, but she was just standing between the shafts waiting for me to get up, and that was lovely.
Belle rolling by Soulby Bridge, whilst tethered
Other advantages of tethering a horse is that it learns to cross its legs over to move sideways and sidepass, a very good thing for a driving or riding horse. A horse that has been tethered alongside a road soon gets used to lorries and cars. A horse that ties up well and tethers well is more valuable. It's also possible to use pieces of grass that are not fenced.
Horses tethered at Appleby

Friday, 9 May 2014

Post 32. Les Gorges du Tarn et Les Cevennes

14th of April. 12 miles, [19km]. Hot and sunny again. I went through the village of le Messegros, bought some food and sat outside a cafe and had a coffee. I chatted to the secretary of le Marie and she let me use le wifi to check my emails. It's really nice to get my emails and sometimes  people make kind comments about my blog, which l appreciate. The villages in this part are very old and interesting. A Flemish couple invited me to lunch, I enjoy having nice food with people and while we're talking often learn useful information about the locality and the route I'm taking.

It's a 1,450 feet drop down to the river
I carried on and stopped at Le Point Sublime, which has really great views of the gorge and river Tarn, 1,450 feet below [442m]. In the morning it was cold and when the sun came over the hill l stood warming myself and watched some birds of prey rising on the thermals and no doubt warming themselves too. I'm 700 miles south of Calais.
15th April. I descended the gorge to the village of La Malene. The road was steep and winding.

Roads are quite winding
I had to wind the brake on hard.

Gorges du Tarn. 15th April
The horse can hold the wagon back a bit, using the britchin of his harness. If you didn't have a brake as well, the weight of the loaded wagon, 850kg, would push the horse too much and he'd lose his footing and you might have an accident.
Down in the gorge it's really hot and sunny.

Elm brakelock, almost worn out
The road that winds its way along the gorge is narrow, there are huge, intimidating overhangs of rock, that almost touch the wagon roof, narrow low tunnels, that thankfully are not very long, just high enough to get through, l'm glad l have a good horse, a spooky, erratic horse would be exhausting to drive along here, there is little margin for error. After 15 miles the horse and l are getting tired, l'm really glad when l pass a campsite and they say it's fine for me to stay. It's 13 Euros, well that's fine, it's a lovely place, l'll have a good shower and sit on the terrace of the cafe and use le wifi. The people are very kind and l'm glad to be stopped. In all the years l've travelled l don't think l've ever stopped in a campsite before and l don't think many would let me. It's the first time l've paid to stop somewhere. I had a lovely nights rest and in the morning, the lady, Emilie, who runs the place took photos and gave me a bottle of the local wine.

Tunnels through gorge, just higher than wagon
16th April. I carried on up the gorge another 11 miles, [17km]. The gorge is so dramatic and imposing it tires me. Again there was nowhere to stop so I asked at the municipal camping of Ispagnac. They were also very friendly and welcoming, 'pas de problem.' They charged me 9 euros, which is fine, l'm glad to stop, the grass is good and l don't have to look for water and l can go up to the village on my own without the horse. I'm the only person at the campsite! Usually the weather isn't so good at this time of year. This year is unusually warm. I've been very lucky to be able to stop at these campsites and it's only possible because there is no one about.
Tarateeno still has remnants of his winter coat.l pulled some long  soft and downy bits off his belly, l measured them, 8 inches long [200mm]. That's how he keeps warm in winter.
17th April. Went through Florac, a small town, climbed 500 metres, [1,640 feet] to an altitude of 1020 metres, [3,346 feet]. [It's almost as high as Ben Nevis in Scotland, the highest mountain in Britain]. It was a long old pull, 13 miles, [22km] in hot sunshine, the horse was tired and dripping with sweat from the exertion, but at the top of the hill we pulled onto a big piece of rough ground and after 10 minutes his flanks had stopped heaving and his breathing was back to normal, he's fit. That's the toughest hill we've had so far. There is a great sense of achievement getting up a hill like that. About a mile from the top l got 6 gallons, 30 litres of water from a spring. When we got to the top l unyoked the horse and put a little water in the bucket, just to wet his lips and rinse his mouth, then when he'd cooled down l gave him a whole bucket.
I'm on a ridge, called the Corniche des Cevennes, it's dry like a desert, scrubby pine trees and rough stony grazing, inhabited mainly by lizards. This bit is a desolate lonely place; with a bit of luck a beautiful shepherdess will turn up with some goats and l'll share some wine and food with her and see how it goes on from there, it gets cold at night up here.
I did read a book once by the writer Robert Louis Stephenson; he described coming up here with a donkey, an anesse, called Modestine, he had trouble to get her to go. Happily my horse walked up here quite willingly without any encouragement with a stick or goad. In the old days all sorts of methods were resorted to, to get up a hill, if your horse laid down in the shafts and refused to go on, you might try lighting a fire under it, we still have the expression today,  'light a fire under it,' but people have forgotten its origins.
I woke up in the morning refreshed, l looked out the window and the horse called a cheery greeting, that's good enough for me. It's quite cold in the mornings, l lit the stove and made tea, scrambled eggs and toast.
Despite his exertions yesterday, the horse looks great and l'm really pleased with him.
After breakfast, l went back to bed and read a book for the whole day, l thought we'd have the day off, the horse didn't mind. I moved his tether a couple of times, gave him some bread and he's drunk most of the water, so l'll head off in the morning. I wonder what l'll find down the road?
I set off at 8am, it's cold and my hands are a little numb, the horse walks along briskly for a while to warm up. In the night a chilly wind got up, reminding me l was 3,400 feet up and the weather can change suddenly.This is really lovely wild country, huge ranges of hills as far as the eye can see. l get to the village of le Pompidou, the villages have a wild remote feel about them too.  l water the horse at the spring. These villages only exist because of the spring, there are no streams in this part . At 3,400 feet the weather can be bad even in April, you wouldn't want to be in a tent. The farmers don't bring their livestock up this high until later in the year. I've been very lucky with the weather, it's been a gamble.
People sometimes confuse this type of travelling with a camping holiday and they think it looks nice and romantic and an easy going free sort of life. Well it can be quite easy if you're used to it, if you know what you're doing, but there can be very tough times too. If you're not used to this way of life you might find it pretty tough, challenging, uncomfortable and at times scary. Constantly moving, not knowing where you were going to stop. There would be times when you felt unsafe and insecure. You have to learn to think differently, sieze chances, be resilient, have the impudence to dare and to leave most of what you learned before behind. If you can adapt to it the rewards are great. It's a life of extremes.
I stopped the night in a big layby in a pine wood, there was enough good grass for one horse. A nice French woman came by and chatted to me and said she had just built herself a wagon and was hoping to train her horse to pull it, it was good talking to her, who knows we may meet on the road one day? I asked her if she could take my water container in her car and fill it at a spring a mile away. This she kindly did, l thought it would be good practise for her too.
My container for the horse holds 25 litres, that's 25 kilos, quite heavy to lift with one arm, and very heavy to carry more than a few yards. If you're 4 stone overweight, you're carrying that all the time, you may feel tired.
Some French people stopped and chatted to me.They asked me where l'd stop the night and were surprised that l was stopping there, 'camping sauvage' is not something most of them would do. If you have a van or camper, stop in the smaller towns, where they have parking for you and a tap, it's safer and more acceptable, l do it myself sometimes if there's some grass for the horse. I like waking in a village and getting a croissant for breakfast.
A bit later some Spanish people came and chatted, they were very kind and friendly, if the people of Spain are like them l would like it there.
Ticks are a problem in the countryside, lt's important to keep your skin covered when walking through long vegetation. Sometimes the horse gets lots of them, especially round his muzzle. I loathe the way they bury their heads into your skin and spend days drinking your blood.
I go past a memorial to resistance fighters who died in the war, interestingly the first three dozen on the list are Germans, anti-fascists,  as well as French names, there are also Spanish and Russians.
St Chely-du-Tarn
I'm often asked how much does a horse drink? This depends on several factors. How wet is the grass, was the dew heavy, is it salty grass beside the sea, how hot the sun is, is there a dry wind, how fit your horse is, the size of your horse, how hard is it working.....? Some horses seem to need more than others. A thirsty horse can drink 3 to 5 gallons, [11-19 litres] straight-away.
A litre of water weighs 1 kilo, it's heavy, you don't want to carry it more than you have to. I prefer stopping places that have water, but if l know they haven't, l get some on the way at a nearby house or farm. Very few people will refuse a horse water, although l have had it happen. When it's raining, horses get enough moisture from the wet grass. One summer it didn't stop raining, l didn't mind not having to find water for the horse, but it was hard to find dry firewood. As much as possible l try to water the horse on the way, it's easier.
How much water does a person need? I generally make sure l've at least one gallon [5 litres], that's enough for washing hands, drinking, cooking some rice and washing up, l can manage on less if l have to, l prefer to have two gallons, then l have enough to have a strip wash and a shave. I'm careful about the water l drink, but for washing most streams in hilly country will do, you usually get a pretty good idea by looking. See what's growing in the stream, is there rubbish in it, is there a farm or village above it, walk up the stream a bit, see if there's a dead sheep in it. If the horse doesn't drink it , it's bad.
Castelbouc, Gorges du Tarn
Sunday, 20th April. I came over the Col St.Pierre and suddenly l'm in a different country, the hill is covered in Holm oaks and l know l'm not far from the Mediteranean. I descend a steep winding hill to St. Jean-du-Gard, l stop and buy some bread then carry on to a bridge over the river Salendrinque, unusually there is access and rough grass to the river, usually there are signs saying keep out, but nothing here, so l pull over and make myself at home. I saw up some dead branches of walnut and light my stove, it's not very cold but it's started to rain. It rains all afternoon, l'm glad, it'll be good for the grass.l get a couple of visitors, nice ones, they chat about horses and as they speak slower here l can understand better, even though they pronouce some words very differently from further north. The people down here seem more forgiving about the way l speak French.
I'm only 600 feet [180 metres] above sea level now, the grass here is 2 months ahead of what it would be in England. There are roses out in gardens, the leaves are out on the walnut, sweet chestnut and acacia, the thyme is flowering and l've seen bamboo with stems as thick as your wrist.

In the last five weeks l've crossed  a range of huge hills, 300 miles of them, and l feel great and elated to be down here. Now l need to find somewhere else to go.