Miniature ponies – maximum fun!

Top to bottom: Eros the baby donkey, getting hands on with a tiny foal, Professor Bumble in action, a pony ride – of course! – and the pony drive at the end of the day.The school summer holidays will soon be upon us and it’s always tricky to think of ways of keeping children and grandchildren amused. If you are fortunate enough to be visiting this part of the world, then I can highly recommend a trip to the Miniature Pony Centre, just outside Moretonhampstead.

I took my eldest daughter there, many years ago now, and she loved it so much, she wanted to move in! I recently visited again with a friend and her eight-year-old… and I can confirm it is just as much fun as I remembered!

Small or baby animals are always going to be a hit with children, but at the Miniature Pony Centre, they seem to have a knack of making it extra special. Children (and parents) can have lots of ‘hands on’ time with all sorts of animals, from foals to lambs to pigs and more. ‘Eros’ the baby donkey was an absolute delight, utterly cuddleable and with the softest fur (do donkeys have fur?!) you can imagine, and so gentle! The children can get right in among the donkeys and ponies in the barn area, or out in the fields. A pony ride was also on the agenda and the staff are all friendly and knowledgeable.

An added bonus was an excellent children’s entertainer, Professor Bumble, who kept around 30 children utterly enthralled for over half an hour… which left plenty of time for we adults to enjoy a coffee in the very pleasant café! I’d give the Professor a gold star as he juggled, rode a unicycle, made animals out of balloons, performed magic and told jokes endlessly, with all the children ranging in age from about two to 12, genuinely captivated. Talented chap!

We didn’t manage to get to the bottle-feeding session as we were too busy petting a lamb, but instead ended up in the ‘Fort Bovey’ – a sort of indoor assault course that meant going up a climbing wall, down a slide and through various tunnels again and again and again – you have so much energy when you are eight!

At the end of the afternoon, as ice creams were being consumed, we all lined up and shouted and clapped to drive the ponies out of the field and up into the main barn for feeding. This was great fun as the ponies (who know perfectly well where they are going!) all go cantering past at speed to the delight of the watching, and squealing, children!

When asked what she had enjoyed the most, our eight-year-old guest said simply ‘Everything!’ Now you can’t ask for any more than that, can you?

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The gentle giants of Dartmoor

As many of you will know, Dartmoor is famous for its ponies. Small and hardy, whenever you drive over the moor you will almost certainly see them. Imagine my surprise then when I recently saw what looked like huge medieval jousting horses charging across the heather, with long manes, flowing fetlocks and mud flying in all directions! No, I hadn’t been on the Sloe Gin, I had come across a group of horses riding out from ‘Adventure Clydesdale’ based up on the moor.

These magnificent Clydesdale horses can stand up to 18 hands high, that’s a good 6ft, at the shoulder. They were bred for their strength and were extensively used in agriculture and haulage. Dating back to the mid-18th century, the breed was developed from Flemish stallions imported to Scotland and crossed with local mares. 

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, thousands of Clydesdales were exported from Scotland and sent throughout the world, including Australia and New Zealand, where they became known as ‘the breed that built Australia’. However, during World War I, their numbers began to decline due to increasing mechanization and, sadly war conscription. This decline continued, and by the 1970s, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust considered the breed vulnerable to extinction. Things have improved slightly since then, but they are still considered vulnerable.

So what are they doing dashing around Dartmoor?

Adventure Clydesdale has its origins on the Isle of Skye but, after a number of years, one of the leading lights, Tim Ancrum, decided to leave and find a more ‘riding friendly landscape’ to help his business flourish. After much searching, he settled on a farm in the Lake District. Rather than load up the horses and move everything south, he came up with the idea of riding 12 of the horse all the way to Cumbria! The journey of 450 miles, covered closely by Scottish television, confirmed to Tim the horses’ ability to tackle long trails, giving their riders a safe and comfortable ride. The TV coverage did the business no harm at all and it went on to be featured on the BBC Countryfile programme and became a top tourist attraction.

Always one for a challenge, Tim decided to move on again, this time to Cornwall with six of the Clydesdales, and established Adventure Clydesdale, concentrating on this magnificent breed and its ability to take on the challenges of the rugged terrain of the south west of England. In early 2013 Tim and his partner Aileen Ware moved their business to Dartmeet, in the middle of Dartmoor, an outstanding location for long distance trail rides.

So, if you are visiting this area, don’t be too surprised if you see something rather larger than a Dartmoor pony coming towards you! It is a magnificent sight, I can assure you, although I personally won’t be hopping on board anytime soon – my appreciation will be from the comfort of the car!

You can follow the Clydesdales on Facebook.

 

 

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A sign of the times…

If you live in Devon, you can get a bit obsessed with signposts. We still have lots of lovely old-fashioned white fingerposts at junctions in our narrow lanes displaying what we often refer to as ‘the Devon mile’ – a curious ‘elastic’ measurement. Let me explain. You set off following a fingerpost that says ‘Stokeinteignhead 3¼’ miles and then, after driving a good couple of miles, you’ll find another one that says Stokeinteignhead 2½’ miles. You frown, scratch your head and go on for another two or so until you come to another signpost that says ‘Stokeinteignhead 2¼’. You will get to your destination on the end, but a Devon mile is a funny thing and usually much longer than you expect…

Traditional direction signs, or ‘fingerposts’, are as English as red post boxes and the old-fashioned red telephone box and very much part of the ‘traditional’ English look’ that so many foreign visitors love to see. These days, many fingerposts are falling into disrepair but, where they do still survive, they come in a wide variety of regional and local designs. Some have finials on the top, others have proper pointing ‘hands’ like white gloves, while others even have lanterns on the top. Amazingly, the oldest fingerpost, in the Cotswolds, dates from 1699!

To try and standardise this mishmash of designs, in the 1920s the Ministry of Transport stated that direction signs should use standard black upper case lettering on a white background and specified that the name of the authority should also appear in the design. While following these guidelines, local authorities still had plenty of leeway over the exact design of posts, arms and finials and this led to a wide variety of local styles.

Dorset, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall boasted red posts with white lettering (no one is sure why!) while others had finials in the form of discs, rings, balls and pyramids marked with county names and sometimes even a map grid references. Over the years, further reviews have been carried out to try and standardise the signs, and again, local authorities were encouraged, but not forced, to remove traditional fingerposts. But, as is so often the case in this wonderfully eccentric country of ours, they wanted to maintain their regional identities, so did nothing. And that’s why there are still lots of weirdly designed fingerposts pointing all over the country to this day.

Being an old romantic, I think it will be a sad day when fingerposts eventually disappear and all anyone does is listen to their boring old sat nav bossing them about. In the Westountry we have wonderful, romantic place names – as well as some really funny ones. I still get a thrill when I drive past signs in Cornwall to ‘Demelza’, the name of a village borrowed by Winston Graham for the heroin of his Poldark books – and a steamy TV drama from my teens (Robin Ellis in tight breeches!!)! And on a back road way down in the south of Cornwall, you’ll come across one of my absolute favourite signs pointing to ‘Frenchman’s Creek’, the setting for, and name of, the impossibly romantic historical novel by Daphne Du Maurier.

Long may the fingerpost continue to show us the way!

 

 

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Edam: much more than just a cheese!

Richard and I have had a lovely long weekend this summer visiting Amsterdam and the surrounding area with our American pals Cheryl and Randy. Wow it was so much fun!

Amsterdam is great with lots to see, river cruises, loads of walking (and I mean eight miles a day walking) but all counteracted by wonderful food! As Richard and I had been to Amsterdam before we concentrated on the surrounding areas and just had the best time.

We booked a private tour of Edam and a couple of other towns and this entailed just the four of us and a very nice guide, escorting us on trains, buses and by foot around several little towns. But for me the crowning glory of the entire trip was Edam.

Now we have all heard of Edam cheese and indeed we did find some exciting cheese tastings and attractive cheese shops – see the picture for an example – isn’t it pretty? But more importantly the canal in Edam is lined by the most gorgeous houses, oh goodness I loved them. The feature that captured my imagination the most were the little buildings at the bottom of the garden, close to the canal that were called tea houses (see the round house in the picture). These were like little summerhouses where the ladies drank tea in the afternoon in times gone by (and even now for all I know!) and they just grabbed my heart.

I have a round summerhouse in the garden but it’s very tiny and very full – so no tea drinking happening in there. Maybe in the future, or in another house, I could have a pretty painted summerhouse where we all drink tea? Talking of drinking tea – we did stop later that day and have a great cappuccino and yummy cake at the cafe in the picture surrounded by flowers – gorgeous!

The Netherlands are relatively quick and easy for us all to access, we managed some really cheap flights and I highly recommend the countryside around Amsterdam – pretty, interesting and we had just the best weekend away ever!

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Putting on a bit of a show…

July and August are busy times down here in Devon. Of course, the tourism industry is huge in this area – we are blessed with beautiful countryside and a dramatic coastline – but it’s the strong sense of community and tradition in the countryside that also come to the fore at this time of year.

The rural community is still closely aligned with the farming world and country shows, town carnivals and village fetes are all still important (and popular) events on the social calendar.

Growing giant vegetables, showing your best breeding ram or entering your dog in the agility class are all part of the fun,­ although some people take it very seriously indeed! People go to enormous lengths to build carnival floats, groom and polish their ponies and traps and produce flower arrangements of great ingenuity. It is heartening to see such ‘traditional’ ways of life still carrying on so strongly in this technological age.

My partner in crime writing, Julia Wherrell, took the afternoon off to wander around a show local to her up on Dartmoor, the Chagford Show, and took some fun photos to give you a real feel for what goes on. She spent quite a lot of her afternoon in the produce and craft tents and when not in there, she was admiring the prize sheep and cattle, oh, and chickens of course. She says she most definitely did not go near the beer tent(!), but might have swung by the cream teas!

They always say ‘write about what you know’, so if you happen to be a fan of our Swaddlecome Mysteries series, this sort of rural entertainment will be well known to you! 

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