As a child I believed the Lake District was truly wild. The territory performed a brilliant mind trick. It escaped definition, and escaped Cumbria, even though on maps – I loved those rutted relief maps of peaks and sunken lakes – it was held firmly within the county line. A metaphysical place. Narnian. Lakelandian. On our eastern side there were no pleasure steamers, no gingerbread cottages. There wasn’t poetry; Wordsworth’s skates were in a cupboard elsewhere. There were mountains, moorlands, high farms, gorse bushes and steep black waterfalls. There were sheep, sheepdogs, vermin, hounds. There were storms and difficulties in winter, agricultural gatherings, torch-light processions, as of another era. There was landscape without Romance; I thought it unmade. There were rocky coffin roads that corpses were transported over, up and across passes to consecrated ground. Drowned churches, bracken burnings. My parents had come up from London as the Sixties ended; they wanted out of city, they wanted rustication. My brother was eight weeks old. My mum couldn’t drive. The bus stop was several miles away, across a swing bridge over the river, bogs, and what turned out to be ram-rutting ground. Wild it was, in one form or another – water, weather, animals.
In our valley there were golden eagles, badgers, deer, hawks, plenty of beasts of the northern kind. I was used to the non-human population. But there was one embodiment that seemed especially wild: that dark, equine, outline on the hilltop, an unmistakable form. Curve of the back and loin, long head, narrow legs, mane as coarse as moor grass. The solitary form would become three or four, six. Something in the primal brain alerts when beings surround and look down from above. It’s a clear outmaneuver. But these creatures were just travellers, passers-through. On the signal of the leader – the dominant mare – they’d crest the summit and canter down the fellside, hammering the ground, a spectacular certainty of speed and tread. The heft and strength of the herd coming could be measured under foot. They might pass close by, and it was then the quality of evolution became apparent. Industrial amounts of muscle near the skin’s surface. A driving force envied and emulated by man. Seeing them contour and camber the valley bottom was like watching machinery perform ballet.
The ponies would arrive unnoticed too. In the early mornings, they’d be seen standing down by the river outside our cottage, stock still in the rain, rain-hushed. Monolithic. They had a unique, big-animal variety of stillness. Only their long lashes would be blinking. You could approach them, softly, up to a point. Dark sorrel eyes, too small, too mild for such big, hard, facial bone, and all that body power. Tails blowing like loose ropes, wind-gauges. An aroma of horse hops – chaff, shit, sweat. In summer, they loved the valley’s grassland and would linger at low altitudes. They were impervious to winter, frequently snow covered, their north-facing flanks whitened. They would break ice on the river and clop noisily across, unshod, dragging weed off their forelegs. They’d kick through the frosted thorn and thistle of the moor, pick up speed, and climb the far mountainside as if steepness was just more flatland. They owned the land, it seemed, and existed independently.
Truly wild equines across the world are rare, I now know. I also know Lakelandia is cultivated, it’s parkland, however raggedy some spots remain, however much art and literature and children’s brains create a fantasy out of it. Our mountain ponies were, in fact, owned and bred by someone over in the Howgills. Semi-feral was the official term. They were vetted, monitored, sometimes fed, but they were free roaming, significantly so, covering many miles of common land. To the mind of a child that is wild. And they looked wild. They looked torn from the moors, peaty and uprooted. Shaggy dreadlocks of fur hung on their torsos and bellies. Mud-knees. Tatters and burrs in their hair and good tawny land colours, black, bay, shale. They fitted the environment, aesthetically and dynamically, in a country of ever increasing domestication, ever diminishing wilderness. If a spirit of place was wanted, they were it.
The pony’s history is one of native congruity, admiration and labour. They’ve been around since fuck knows BC and by the Iron Age humans had at least mounted them. They were, it’s believed, ‘broken’ at Hadrian’s Wall by Romans. The Vikings fitted them with ploughs and sledges – they carried fleece and food. They were sheep herders. They were used to hunt wolves before wolves were rendered imaginary. Generations of Cumberlanders and Westmorlanders worked them in mines, pits and quarries, hauling copper, iron, lead and slate: heavies. They were dutiful farm animals, versatile, good-hearted. They were trusted for getting precious stuff over rough terrain, reliably and safely, hence the coffin roads – ponies were the ferries of the dead. Strength disproportionate to size. Endurance. Intelligence. Agility. Steadiness of hoof and temperament. Excitingly, for the budding republican Cumbrian, when raced at the local driving trials they usually beat the Duke of Edinburgh’s horzes. Git-up, lile pony. Git out, nivver king. By the 1920s pedigree had been established, and there was a move to keep the breed pure. Some have always been left to run loose. But with few young breeders taking over, there are now less than 250 semi-ferals, in twelve herds, countywide.
Semi-feral, of course, is what Cumbria really is. The Lake District is that great paradox – nature managed. What seemed so untame to me has been reconstituted and contextualized in my adult mind. Once you understand environmental history, once you’ve clapped eyes on the real wildernesses of the world, the confines of those gentle relief maps seem summarily right. But the fell pony is no lesser – the indigenous beauty and suitability remain. They can still be seen high up on the hillside above the spooling motorway, cropping the harsh grass, dark shapes curved like the withers of the mountains, disappearing under sleety cloud as they ascend. They come over less frequently to our valley, but when they do I’m like a child again. Awe-struck, believing in an untrammelled world.
Photograph © Richard Thwaites