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Mum on the Run

Posted by Mum About Town
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on Wednesday, 30 September 2015
I was chatting away on the phone to a client who lives up in Scotland. She was wondering if any of my blogger friends might want to visit her business and learn more about the great Scottish tartan tailoring. And right then and there, I saw my chance to plan a 48-hour escape.

Because the reality is that this mum doesn't really business travel. My work is always within a tube journey of the Smalls and often needs to be completed before the end of school bell sounds.

So a small bag was packed, minutia arrangement made and some train tickets booked before six of us travelled into a land of chequered colour. We visited a mill, learnt how to make a kilt, picnicked by the Tweed, drank good wine and laughed. Really really properly laughed until our tummies hurt.

And as I'm now travelling home and already excited to cuddle those Smalls, I've realised just how much we all need to escape from time to time.

Every day is Earth Day.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 23 April 2014
Tuesday was Earth Day. I’m never quite sure what all these special days mean, or who invents them. For me, every day is earth day. This takes a literal form, since I spend a vast amount of time with bits of mud adhering to various parts of my body. (I still rue the day when I went round the whole village, smiling at the lady in the chemist, having a good chat with the butcher, only realising when I got home that I had a large smear of Scottish earth across my forehead.)
Tania Kindersley

Things of the earth are of particular immediacy at this time of year. There is of course the intensive tracking of the progress of the spring grass, for the horses. It is slow to come, and even this far into April, hay is still required. There is my own private springwatch. This morning, my heart lifted to see the first of the cherry blossom out. The sticky buds of the horse chestnuts have just exploded into stinging green leaves. The pied wagtails have arrived, and are flirting shamelessly, no better than they ought to be. As we groom the horses to get rid of the last of the winter coats, and great clumps of bay and chestnut hair fall to the ground, I think the birds’ nests will be very soft and colourful this year. Horse hair is one of their favourite ingredients, and by the time I go back for evening stables, it will all have been collected.
Tania Kindersley

It is the earthy things which also provide consolation. We have suffered a sad loss in the family, and hearts are sore. When mortality strikes, I find myself staring very hard at leaves and moss and lichen, as if the trees and the green grass and the old granite stone which is so much a feature of this part of the world can anchor me and keep me safe. The blue hills console too, with their ancient perspective. I look up at them and think they were here for millions of years before puny humans arrived, and they shall stand for millions more as the generations pass away. It may sound a little doomy, but I find it reassuring.

A friend had to go to stay in a city for the last couple of weeks. I was once a very urban creature, and loved the hard pavements of Soho with a burning passion. Now, I need the things of the earth. My friend said, as we were walking past the hills and along the beech avenue: ‘You know, there were no trees. I missed the trees.’ She paused, and we contemplated the arboreal magnificence. ‘We are so lucky,’ she said. ‘Some people have no trees.’ Of course there are trees in the cities. I remember always being astonished by how verdant London was, with huge old plane trees pushing up through the asphalt. But it’s not quite the same.
Tania Kindersley

I think the idea of Earth Day is to remind humans to cherish the planet, and understand its daily marvels. That surely must be a good thing. My own private resolution is never to take the growing things for granted. I am in very real danger of getting a bit Hello sky, hello clouds, and the old hippy in me is coming out and singing her song. But nature is a miracle, and I shall never be blasé about that.

A day of contrasts.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
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on Thursday, 10 April 2014
There is a tendency to think of life in the country as monolithic. The country living magazines tend to focus brutally on baking and gardening and crafty things, as if nothing else went on outside of the cities. There is oddly little about animal husbandry, except for the occasional chicken feature, which is curious, since so much of country life revolves around livestock. Only this morning I stared into the implacable face of a very splendid highland cow.

Life in the country is very different to life in the city, there is no doubt about it. There is much less emphasis on buying expensive coffee and much more emphasis on the weather. I check the weather forecast five times a day. For me it’s a question of which boots to wear and which rug to put on the horse and how much hay we need; for the farmer up the road, it’s a matter of his very livelihood. But it’s not quite as simple as it seems. In our small village, for instance, you can get a double espresso out of a real Gaggia machine. This never ceases to amaze me.

Tania Kindersley

I was thinking about this today, because there were some interesting contrasts. I did stump down to the red mare in my very muddy boots, and I did go to the feed store and stock up on Calm and Condition. (They really should make this for humans, as well as for equines.) I did, in true countrywoman style, yell at the dog, not because I was cross with him, but because he was hunting for the last of the pheasants, two fields away. The raised voice was necessary on account of the distance. On the other hand, within ten minutes of each other, I heard two sentences which had no rural stereotype. The first came from a small gentleman of four years old, my great-nephew by marriage. The daffodils have finally come out and he is in ecstasies over them. ‘Oh,’ he cried, as if he were in a florist in Mayfair rather than in a wide Scottish field, ‘masses and masses of lovely flowers.’ The second was from a war veteran, just up the road. I was walking past and I caught a snatch of conversation. ‘I felt as if I were back in Iraq,’ he was saying. I looked up at the blue hills and thought how strange that phrase sounded, hanging in the bright air.
Tania Kindersley

Then I drove out to look at the blue hills. I do this quite a lot at the moment, because they are so glorious in the changing season. The colours are growing vivid and the last of the snow is finally leaving the high peaks. I stared at the beauty with my usual feeling of slight surprise. It never ceases to amaze me that it is all there, on my doorstep, freely available to my eager eyes. I watched the gulls fling themselves across the landscape and the sheep gather at the base of the hills and some tremendous ducks comport themselves on a makeshift pond, left over from the wet weather.

Tania Kindersley

After that rather Wordsworthian moment, I went into the shop to pick up supplies. In the magazine rack, the face of Kim Kardashian stared out of me, from front cover after front cover. I don’t really know who Kim Kardashian is, but the mags love her. I sense that she would not be quite as excited as I am by a highland cow.

On the radio, on the way home, people were talking about Maria Miller and the machinations of Westminster. I looked at the hills, which were now a low shade of violet. I wondered what I thought of the whole political farrago and could not quite frame a good conclusion. I stopped to take some daffodil pictures instead.

Tania Kindersley

I loved the city once, with a wild, passionate love. I could not go back there now. I am bucolic to my fingertips. But rural life is not always as expected as it might seem. Not all of the clichés are true.

A different kind of spring.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 26 March 2014
My obsession with spring continues, as the season shifts and a galvanic feeling of possibility seizes me. At the moment, this has moved from the mere fact of daffodils and oystercatchers to the human world.

The charity I volunteer for, HorseBack UK, is dependent on the weather. It runs courses for veterans and servicemen and women who have suffered life-changing injury or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, using horses as part of the recovery process. In the hard Scottish winter, the course work stops, and the herd goes out for its winter break, and the time is used for planning and organising and building new partnerships. There is a lot of activity, but much of it happens inside, in the office.

Now, as spring springs, the main work of the organisation gets back into its stride. The herd has come down from its winter hillside, and the horses are reschooled for the serious months to come. This week, there is a gathering of veterans who have come to learn to assist newcomers on the courses. This is a central part of the HorseBack ethos. Once someone has come on a course, they then become part of the rolling voluntary programme, and return to help their comrades in turn. Many of our veterans may never again have regular employment, due to severe mental and physical challenges. This work restores to them a sense of mission and purpose. It is very powerful and very moving to watch.

The returning veterans.The returning veterans.

The lovely thing for me is seeing the good work go on, and also greeting many familiar faces. It’s been a revelation, over the last eighteen months, meeting people who have seen and experienced extremes that I can hardly imagine. I now make jokes about being blown up by IEDs. (Service humour is famously dark.) I no longer feel embarrassed and distanced by my own feeble civilian existence, and the gap between my soft life and their incredibly hard one. Spending time with veterans is a privilege and an education, and it has widened my horizons in a way I can hardly put into words.

Mikey, doing a join-up with a Para.Mikey, doing a join-up with a Para.

Quite apart from that, it is a simple human pleasure. They are so funny and so stoical and so interesting. They josh and tease and make those jokes which I once found shocking and now take in my stride. At the beginning, my admiration for them made me shy. They had shown courage and fortitude which I would never know. They were a class apart. But now, I am part of the gang. I may never know what hand to hand combat is like, but they graciously allow me to enter the group. I do not have to loiter on the sidelines, fearful of saying the wrong thing.

Rodney, one of the HorseBack stalwarts, with his very own Royal Marine, doing a demonstration in the round pen.Rodney, one of the HorseBack stalwarts, with his very own Royal Marine, doing a demonstration in the round pen.

It’s interesting, working for a charity. I did it out of a rather clichéd, mid-life guilt. I wanted, in the hoary old way, to put something back. If you tell people that is what you do, it does sound awfully pious and worthy. But in fact, I get far more out of it than I can ever put back. You could say it is one of the most selfish things I do. Most of all, and perhaps most unexpectedly, it is tremendous fun. I get to see people who should, by any standards, be broken, coming back to life under the blue gaze of the Scottish hills. I get to watch beautifully trained Quarter Horses at work. I get to feel part of something bigger than myself, which is a profound human need. Mostly, I get to laugh and laugh and laugh.

Spring, redux.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 19 March 2014
Out in the world, strange and alarming events fill the news. The inexplicably missing aeroplane, the Russians continuing their imperial ambitions, the ongoing tragedy of Syria bombard the mind. Here, in the contained, small, rural world in which I live, I concentrate hard on the turning of the seasons. When everything is uncertain, the things of the earth are soothing to a baffled mind.

The elegance of the crocuses.The elegance of the crocuses.

Spring comes late in Scotland. Our snowdrops are only just starting to fade. This morning, I see, with outrageous triumph, the first two daffodils of the year. Pearl the Postwoman arrives, smiling. She looks up at the sky, which is an improbable blue. ‘I thought winter would never end,’ she says. ‘It was so wet and muddy I had trench foot.’

We laugh. I think, for the hundredth time, how splendid it is that we have a postwoman called Pearl. I think: perhaps I can really believe in spring, at last.

Even as the sun shines with serious conviction, there is still snow on the high hills.Even as the sun shines with serious conviction, there is still snow on the high hills.

The first harbingers arrived a couple of weeks ago – the oystercatchers in from the coast, the pied wagtails doing their little dance, the woodpeckers battering away at the trees. But there is always a moment when one thinks it is a great joke, and that the winter will reassert itself, and everything will return to a defensive crouch.

The simple joy of rooting out the first of the spring grass.The simple joy of rooting out the first of the spring grass.

Now, though, it seems as if the matter is in earnest. There really is some warmth in the soil, and the growing things are growing, and the horses relax and bloom, unfurling themselves to the new warmth in the air like flowers themselves. Horses deal with weather much better than humans. They shut up within themselves, hunkering down for the duration with a slow stoicism. Now that the rapier chill has gone out of the weather, they open up, as if they are forming their very own welcoming committee. It’s an enchanting thing to watch. They also get a bit of spring fever, putting on their own little rodeo in the field, bucking and leaping and kicking up their heels and showing off with a few fast canters around the place.

Everything takes on a hopeful aspect. It will still be many weeks before we see a leaf on a tree. The blossom is still a distant dream. But the cold land is waking after its winter sleep, and there really is something magical in that.

Spring.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
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on Tuesday, 11 March 2014
As world events get very gnarly, and Russia rattles her sabres, the shouting about Scottish independence seems to stop for a moment. The headlines in my little field are all about the changing of the season. Every year, this takes me by surprise.

Crocuses.
We have not had a bitter winter as we did last year, when snow and ice lay on the ground for three weeks at a time. It’s been quite mild, with hardly any of the glittering hoar frosts that usually run through January and only a little snow on the hills. But it has been wet and stormy and we have been hock deep in mud. The thing that wears away at the spirit is the lack of anything growing. At first, in November and December, this stark minimalism can seem quite delightful. The trees look dramatic and sculptural; the single robin stands out like a star actor, because there are hardly any birds around.

But by March, one’s very soul is weary of the nothingness. I suddenly crave green grass and leaves. I stare doggedly at the horses’ paddocks, willing something verdant to begin.

Snowdrops.

The grass is not yet arriving, and the mud still reigns, but, just as I can’t stand it any more, there are growing things. My hellebores are in their pomp, and the brave little winter viburnum is putting on a show. The snowdrops came two weeks ago and are particularly dramatic this year, bigger and bolder than ever before. The first daffodil shoots, which are only just arriving, are starting to poke through the thin turf as if they really mean it. Tiny, delicate, acid-green leaves have come out on my philadelphus. There will not be a leaf on a tree for a long time yet, but if you look closely, you can see the minute buds filling with life.

Viburnum.

Birdsong has returned. I do not realise how silent winter can be until the birds begin to sing again. There is a proper chorus now, so that even the questing lurcher lifts his head to listen. Yesterday, I saw the first pied wagtail of the season. She flew low over the horses’ heads and came to a dramatic landing in the west paddock and preened and flirted about, as if delighted to be back. They go south in the winter, not to Africa like the swallows, but just over the border, perhaps to somewhere charming like Northumberland or the Lake District. The oystercatchers, who take themselves off to the coast, are also back, singing their gaudy songs all night like drunken sailors. They come here to nest and breed each year, and they are the official harbingers of spring. I also saw a perfect gang of black-faced gulls yesterday morning, milling about as if they were at a cocktail party.

It is not quite yet serious spring. But is the promise of spring. And it is like being given a present.

Between perception and reality.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 26 February 2014
On Monday, the Minister for Government Policy came to visit HorseBack UK, the charity for which I work. The whole thing was a great success. As the shouting about Scottish independence grew more raucous, here, in this quiet blue stretch of Deeside, under the benign gaze of the hills, a politician was doing something practical, on the ground.

It was a fascinating reminder of the perception gap. There is the famous old saw that when the public is asked about politicians as a class or government as a whole, it grinds its teeth and tears its hair and rends its shirts, despairing of the whole shower. The very idea of the Whitehall bubble makes people want to throw heavy objects. When they are asked about their own constituency MP, they are often full of praise. She actually got the council to do something about the potholes; he sorted out my benefits muddle. The approval difference in percentage terms, between the individual and the generality, is consistently wide.

With Peopleton Brook, the ex-sprinter who is starting a new life at HorseBack UK.With Peopleton Brook, the ex-sprinter who is starting a new life at HorseBack UK.

The Minister, Oliver Letwin, was absolutely charming. He was quick, intelligent and polite. He got the point at once. He asked all the right questions. He was self-deprecating, making jokes at his own expense. It is not only politicians who have a bad reputation; the civil service is not much better. But his civil servant was delightful too: thoughtful, courteous, and clearly blindingly clever. For one morning, it was just two human beings, who happened to stalk the corridors of power, with a bunch of other human beings and some lovely equines, in the Scottish mud. Everyone stomped about in gumboots and looked hopefully at the sky, where the sun was struggling through the clouds.

Those men, I thought, will have to drive away and go back to the battlefield, where they must wrangle with impossible policy decisions and take flak from the papers and the opposition and every single keyboard warrior who has an opinion, which seems to be pretty much everyone, just now.

In the good old Scottish mud.In the good old Scottish mud.

Of course politicians have to take it. It is right that they do. Their decisions affect actual people in the actual world. They sometimes get it catastrophically wrong, and must be held to account. But I sometimes wonder whether the blanket condemnation and the endless tribalism help anything. The kneejerk negativity may not have much utility, and I am all about utility. Whatever the rights or wrongs, it was oddly pleasurable to see someone step off the public stage, out of the general herd, and just be a person. It might sound an odd thing to say, but I think it is often forgotten that politicians are people too. They have families and friends, hopes and dreams, griefs and joys. I admit it might help if they answered the question and did not speak jargon or hide behind weasel words, as some of them do. But they are as real as you and I are.

How standards have slipped.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 19 February 2014
My mother looks at me quizzically. ‘In my day,’ she says gently, ‘we did not ride in gumboots.’

This is what it has come to. The rain is so relentless and the mud so deep that I cannot put on my lovely brown suede riding boots, but have to keep on the old wellies. Luckily, the kind of riding I practice is a sort of Western hybrid and does not require much leg on. But even so. The Derby-winning ancestors of my red mare would be horrified.

What my mother does not mention, but what her beady eye doubtless takes in, is that the grand horse is also covered in mud. The moment the rain stops, the rugs come off, and the mare takes the opportunity to open her own day spa. Often, when I return to the field, she looks as if she has taken some kind of extreme mud bath. The earth is caked so deeply into her coat that even the sternest brushing will not remove it.

She may be scruffy, but she is as happy as a nut. And that is all that really matters.She may be scruffy, but she is as happy as a nut. And that is all that really matters.

Must be good for her skin, I tell myself. Still, this means that on top of her winter furriness, there is now a regular dose of dirt which I can never quite banish. I look at my mother. I remember the days when she would wake us at five in the morning so we could get ready for shows. She was the mistress of the best turned-out. My grey pony was washed using Reckitt’s blue bag, so that he was whiter than white. Vaseline was applied around the eyes, to make the dark skin there shine. Our boots were polished to such a shine that they really were like mirrors. We did win an awful lot of silver cups.

Now, it’s gumboots and a gracious thoroughbred who looks more like a donkey than someone who can trace her bottom line back to the Byerley Turk. I do feel a bit sad for my poor old mum. She must wonder how I can have let her standards slip to such a catastrophical degree.

I take the mare up to see her, once or twice a week. My mother is not very mobile, so she cannot come to us. Instead, we trot up to her front door, and my stepfather comes out and gives the good mare apples, which he carefully cuts up into nice, elegant pieces. He is the only person who is allowed to feed her by hand. The whole thing makes my mum smile, and cheers her up as the horrid osteoporosis gallops through her body. (Eat your calcium, I want to shout at every young female I see.) I think that she forgives me for having a bit of a scruffy horse, and for riding her in a rope halter instead of a double bridle. I explain that I think about horses in a different way now, and imbibe cowboy wisdom rather than dressage rules. The most important thing is that the horse is allowed to be a horse.

All the same, as winter drags on, scuffing its feet on the floor, I do dream of light days, and green grass, and a moment when the red mare loses her teddy bear aspect and her coating of mud, and grows sleek and smart once more.

More on the Scottish question.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Thursday, 13 February 2014
As the argument about independence really gears up, and Scotland is suddenly front-page news, people are still not talking about it in the shop.

What they are talking about is poor, drowned Somerset. This is a rural community. You can see the men who work the land in the Co-op, with their muddy boots and their earth-covered overalls, and the distant look in their eyes that comes from worrying about cows and weather. Perhaps people here may more easily imagine what those fellow farmers in the south are going through, with their stranded herds. This is a place where people know about mud fever and foot rot.

But still, apparently that is not what the village is supposed to be talking about. A fairly well-known Scottish woman was on the radio at the weekend. She was asked about the floods. She said, not quite joking, with an odd, hard note in her voice: ‘Oh, we don’t talk about what is going on in Somerset.’ I think, the moment it came out of her mouth, she realised it was rather a brutal thing to say, so she laughed, to take the sting out of it. The only problem was that it wasn’t very funny.

This time, we have been lucky enough to miss the worst of the weather.  Just a little bit of snow and sleet, but nothing to frighten the horses.  Literally and metaphorically.This time, we have been lucky enough to miss the worst of the weather. Just a little bit of snow and sleet, but nothing to frighten the horses. Literally and metaphorically.

It also illustrated the perils of the universal we. This is one of my particular bugbears, especially when people use it to mean all Britons, or all women. Don’t speak for me, I think crossly. In this case, I think the woman was referring to all Scots. Unless my little part of the north-east is a complete freak, she was empirically incorrect. It was such a strange thing to assume, as if everyone in Scotland is so blinkered and parochial that they would remain blind to a natural disaster happening in the same landmass.

There is an ugly strain of this kind of assumption in the independence movement. The die-in-a-ditch crowd seem to be working off the negative, not the positive. It is not so much that they think Scotland so glorious that she must stand alone, it is that they seem willing to do anything to get perfidious Albion off their backs. This then falls into the inaccurate cliché of bitter Scots, with their long memories, and their refusal to forget Butcher Cumberland. Then the English themselves get chippy, and start banging on about how dour Andy Murray is. And the two old neighbours get very cross and scratchy and nobody can say anything right and the whole thing falls into a mess of resentment and misunderstanding.

It may be that during sporting events many Scots feel very Scottish indeed, but in testing times, many of them can also feel British. I have English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish blood, in true mongrel fashion, and I feel connected to all those places. The kind lady in the shop shakes her head sorrowfully, as we talk of the rising tides and devastating storms in the West Country. ‘Those poor, poor people,’ she says. I have absolutely no proof for it, but I like to think that she is more representative than the cross person on the radio.

Searching for Scottishness.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 05 February 2014
Over breakfast, my mother and stepfather and I speak of Scottish independence. Although it is whipped up into the stormiest of storms in the newspapers and on the radio, it is not something that people round here talk of much, in regular conversation. If it does come up, people tend to state their position and then change the subject. The auld wifies are not discussing it in the village; the farmers do not seem to be pondering it as they check their livestock for foot rot. Yet it hums away in the background, like a discordant orchestra tuning up. Those who are for independence hold steady at around a third of the population. Of that third, I should say there is a small minority willing to die in a ditch, whilst the rest wish for the thing in a gentler, more philosophical way. (I have absolutely no data for this; it is merely an impression.)

Morven, my favourite hill, three miles to the north.Morven, my favourite hill, three miles to the north.

What interests me in all of this is the very nature of Scottishness. The morning discussion got me thinking about what Scotland is, and how it differs from England. There is no doubt that Scotland is another country. When I first came to live here, after almost twenty years in London, I felt it was very foreign indeed. I did not know Scotland well; my part of the Celtic fringe was Ireland, where my father grew up. I knew the winding west coast of Connemara; I had heard the songs of the hunger; I could recite much of Yeats by heart; I knew every play O’Casey had written. It was not just the place but the culture that was stitched into me. Scotland was other. We had never gone there on childhood holidays; we had only one set of distant relatives way out in the Hebrides, whom we never quite got to see.

Glen Muick, twelve miles to the west.Glen Muick, twelve miles to the west.

So Scotland was all new to me, and different and surprising in ways I find hard to put into words. And that is the thing: hardly anyone seems able to put it into words. My stepfather says he watched a programme last night about what it is to be Scottish, and despite vox-popping until their ears fell off, the poor producers could not find a single Scot who could tell them.

I wonder if it is because, for such a tiny country, it has an amazingly various character and culture. Here, in the north-east, there is a flintiness which is easy to mistake for rudeness. People here think that saying please and thank you is absurdly gushy. They actually have very proper manners, but there is a restraint, especially with words, which can feel excessively brusque until you get used to it. The cliché-merchants would call it dourness, but it is much more nuanced and subtle than that. The people here are like the land from which they and their ancestors spring: they have a streak of metaphorical granite in them. They also have a very particular and vivid dialect called the Doric, which is liltingly beautiful, completely incomprehensible to an untuned ear, and so alive that the local schoolchildren put on entire plays in it.

The island of Colonsay, where I go on my summer holidays, looking across to Jura.The island of Colonsay, where I go on my summer holidays, looking across to Jura.

This strong and delineated character is completely different from something you would find on the west coast. When you drive from east to west, you can almost feel yourself crossing some kind of international date line, where the entire complexion of the country changes. That’s before one has even started on the islands. The people of North Uist are not like the people of the central belt. And once you get to the far northern reaches, you are in another country again: Orkney and Shetland are like little realms of their own, absolutely other and of themselves.

In a way, because of this variousness, Scottishness cannot mean any easily identifiable thing. Scotland herself is a very different lady from England. She is wilder, emptier, lonelier, more savage, more ragingly beautiful. (That last is a subjective opinion, and I do occasionally miss the boskiness of an English hedgerow, or the glorious Norman church spires, which do not exist up here. But for sheer aesthetics, the untouched glacial valleys and deep lochs are hard to beat.) There are very few places in England where no engineer could build a road. There are great swathes of land on my doorstep which cannot be navigated by humans. If you look on the map, they are merely blank spaces. To get to my friends in Glen Clova, so close that I can almost see its peaks, I have to drive an hour and a half, the long way round, because there’s a socking great mountain range in the way.

I feel, in some strange way, closer to the elements here, and more conscious of being surrounded by sea. I feel the sense of history which emanates from the very landscape itself. But can I tell you what it is to be a Scot? No. I cannot even come close.

Lost in the dreich.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 29 January 2014
I have now entirely given up my tragical attempts not to complain about the weather. Last week, I heard something I thought madly wise. ‘Experience the rain,’ said a clever man; ‘don’t wish it away’. Ah yes, said my inner hippy, who only wishes to be at one with the universe. That’s the ticket.

This blissed-out, Zennish acceptance of the weather lasted about 36 hours. Then the sloppy sleet started. With gales.

The thing about weather is that it is fine if you only have to go to the shop in it. In that case, the old saw about no such thing as wrong weather, only wrong clothes holds true. The trouble comes when you have to stay out in it for extended periods. Because of my work at HorseBack UK and looking after my own horse, I am outside for about three hours a day. This is nothing compared to the doughty farmers, but it is time enough for the right clothes to become laughable. The wet and the cold insinuate themselves, no matter how carefully one does layering. And I am quite proud of my layering. The chill gets into the bones and will not leave. My coat never entirely dries out, even though I leave it on top of the radiator. (Please don’t tell me to get an Aga, or I shall lose the will to live.)

Tania KindersleyThe determined red mare, wading into the shallows and striking out towards the deep water.

The other trouble is that it is relentless. It’s not a matter of a couple of days of storm and then a new front blowing in. Every day, the sky is the colour of despair. Every morning, my beloved hills are obscured in a dour, beige murk. Because of the horses, I have to check the weather forecast about five times a day. (Weather means discrete actions, in this house, mostly to do with rugging decisions.) Usually, this checking is just a matter of form. Now, it is like reading a Russian novel. It is an old-fashioned forecast, with little suns and fluffy clouds and a short description. For the next seven days it says: light rain, light sleet, heavy rain, snow, light rain, sleet, cloud. The heavy rain symbol is the most threatening: a black cloud with three fat blue drops falling from it.

And then, this morning, I go down to the paddocks to find a loch where my lovely fields once were. The water is so deep and comprehensive that it has a life of its own. It has a current, for heaven’s sake. It is actually flowing to the west, as if it wants to get to the Atlantic ocean.

I stand for a while, nonplussed. The horses watch me patiently. They have found a small piece of high ground, and are waiting there for me to tell them what to do. The friend whose Paint filly lives with my red mare arrives. She has got the whole right clothes thing to a high art. She is wearing a sort of cross between chaps and waders, lined with sheepskin. I regard them with envy.

There is nothing for it. We set off into the water. We are foiled twice, in places where it gets too deep for humans to navigate. We finally find a channel where it only comes to the knees, and wade on. The water is over the tops of my boots and I feel the gloomy squelch as my feet are drenched. We reach a stretch of field which is not under water, by the western boundary, and set up a relay system to get hay and food there. We have let the horses out into the set-aside, and they gaze at us from across the water. Just as we are discussing how we can lead them across, my brave mare makes her own decision. She puts her head down and strikes out into the deep flood, leading her little Paint friend behind her. She’s coming to me, and some absurd water is not going to stop her.

Tania KindersleyPart of the loch that now exists where our fields should be
When she arrives, I congratulate her as if she had won the Oaks. I’m not sure I was ever so proud of a horse. ‘You have the frontier spirit,’ I tell her. ‘You are the kind of horse who would have led the wagon trains to settle the west.’ This is what the weather does to my brain.

‘Well,’ says my friend, looking out over the drowned land. ‘We are lucky. This could be our houses.’

We pause and contemplate the horror of a flooded home. People in the West Country have been going through that; they must be drawing on a stoicism beyond the call of duty. My friend is right. We are lucky. We could be in Australia, where forty-three degrees of heat is baking the country. Huge swathes of America have been entirely frozen by the terrifying polar surge. It could be so much worse.

I think of the look on my thoroughbred’s face as she stalked through water that came over her hocks. It was a dauntless look. As always, I take my example from her. We are British, after all. We shall keep bailing.

In which, quite by accident, I solve Christmas.

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Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 11 December 2013
I am not feeling at all Christmassy. This is not due to any Scroogish bah humbug tendencies. I love Christmas and refuse to get cross about it. I don’t even mind that it has become too commercialised, which is the general contemporary complain. The wail is that Christmas has become all about presents and shopping, when really everyone should be sternly contemplating the Baby Jesus. A lot of people get furious bees buzzing in their bonnets and talk crossly of the ‘true meaning of Christmas’, whatever that is.

Usually, by this stage, I would be decking the halls, but the halls remain resolutely undecked. This is partly because I’m running up to another deadline, and I can think only of character arcs and plot development and tightening up my paragraphs. It is partly because my red mare has taken a glorious leap forward in her education and so when I am not thinking about work, I am contemplating the beauty of a soft cue. It is also because dear old Scotland, after a vicious storm which blew in from the west, has reverted to her most benign and gentle state.

Morven, my favourite mountain, usually bright white with snow at this time of year. This morning, it remains resolutely unfestive.Morven, my favourite mountain, usually bright white with snow at this time of year. This morning, it remains resolutely unfestive.

The sun shines every day, and the turf is green and springing, and the temperature soars to an absurd thirteen degrees. We do the horses in our shirtsleeves and each morning I ride up to the top of the hill and look out over the rolling mountains, which are blue and serene in the light. It looks more like October than December. There are no glittering hoar frosts to get the Christmas spirit stirring, no holly berries traced with silver, no hint of snow.

I suspect it is also because I do not watch commercial television. This is not a famous last stand against the kind of cheap entertainment which rots the brain. It’s just that I grow old and fogeyish and prefer Radio Four. So I do not see all the advertisements which want me to rush off to the shops and buy festive items and appropriate foodstuffs. I see no comedy reindeer, hear no sleigh bells, observe no laughing Santas. The nearest I get to anything remotely Christmassy is Linda rehearsing her pantomime in The Archers.

I’m also on a bit of an economy drive. I like shopping for Christmas. It is not just the choosing of clever presents which I enjoy, it’s the getting of a ham, or armfuls of eucalyptus, or delicate silvery jangly things to hang on the mantelpiece. This year, in the new austerity, I am going old school, and making most of my presents, and relying on the old decorations which live in the Christmas cupboard, and next week I shall go out into the hedgerows and gather my own greenery.

The red mare, unbelievably muddy and furry and scruffy. It is too mild for rugs, so she takes the opportunity to indulge in a daily mud bath. I suppose I could brush her up and put some tinsel in her mane, but I almost certainly won't.The red mare, unbelievably muddy and furry and scruffy. It is too mild for rugs, so she takes the opportunity to indulge in a daily mud bath. I suppose I could brush her up and put some tinsel in her mane, but I almost certainly won't.

The funny thing is that, without meaning to at all, I have denied that commercialism which makes everyone so cross. I do admit, it is rather restful. There is not the usual stress and challenge, the annual drive to make this Christmas the most Christmassy ever. It’s all very calm and low key, and leaves my mind free to contemplate vague things like goodwill to all men, and women too. I’m not going to get so pious as to give everyone a goat for Africa instead of an actual wrapped present; I shall impose no self-denying ordinance to ignore the festival altogether. It’s just a rather quiet, bare bones thing this year.

It is amazingly soothing. I wonder if, quite by chance, I have cracked the thing. Perhaps I shall never again have to read one of those strict articles about how to survive Christmas without resorting to strong liquor or having a nervous collapse. I shall ride my dear mare and look at the old hills and feel vaguely benign towards my fellow humans. Perhaps, in a few days’ time, I shall push the boat out and go a buy a nice stollen cake. And that really will do.

The mysterious call of the country.

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on Wednesday, 04 December 2013
Not long ago, I was talking to my mother about a man we both know. There was something, something we could not quite put our finger on. At last, my mother said, ‘He’s not a countryman.’

That was it. They mystery was solved.

The odd thing about this is that the gentleman has lived in the country for twenty years. I don’t know where he was born, but he certainly spent some of his childhood in the countryside. He does a few country sports. And yet, my mother is right. We both knew it instantly. He is not a countryman.

The hills, all misty and frosty in the winter sun.The hills, all misty and frosty in the winter sun.

I, on the other hand, think of myself as a countrywoman. This is equally odd. I left the rolling downs of the Lambourn valley far behind me at the age of fourteen, and dived into London, where I swam happily for the next fifteen years. At one stage, I grew so urban that I refused perfectly nice invitations to leave the city. I much preferred Soho on a Saturday to Suffolk. I liked dodgy transvestite clubs where you could get a drink after hours and those members’ gaffs where they would lock you in the back with a deck of cards and a couple of famous comedians for illicit poker games.

The gentleman, on the face of it, has much better rural credentials than I. Yet the countrywoman exists deep in me, in my bones. What does it even mean? I’m not sure I could tell you. It’s something to do with the rhythms of the land, understanding the ebb and flow of the seasons, being rooted in the earth. A real country person can tell when it is going to snow by merely sniffing the air. (It’s the scent of metal.) They mark the years by harvests and lambing and the movement of the cattle. They know where the weather comes from and appreciate lichen. They are attuned to the small changes in a vast landscape.

But I think it is more than this. Any fool really can learn those things. I’m very sorry to do this to Lady readers, but I think it’s a soul thing.

Deer in Glen Muick.Deer in Glen Muick.

There are lots of people who live in the country but are not country people. They like it when the grass is green and croquet may be played and tea taken on the lawn. They love it when the bluebells are out and the lambs are frolicking. But when it gets dirty and muddy and tough, in those bleak days at the end of winter when it seems the leaves shall never return to the trees and the land shall remain forever barren, they fly away to hot places abroad, or rush off to have lunch at the Ivy. They need comfort, finding the bare views too cheerless.

I think the real countryperson is so dug in that they love the place even when it is at its most awful. There are days when I stomp through sucking mud and dirty rain to look after my cross horse (she is prone to grumpiness in the wet), or risk turning my ankle on frozen rutted ground as I break the ice on the water troughs when I sometimes think ruefully of that sophisticated urban life. When every article I own is covered in smears of earth I do ruefully remember the days when I used to brush up quite well. But the love that keeps me here is too strong for flight. You have to winkle me out with a spoon, these days. I can’t leave my hills, because I am stitched into them. If I must go away, I pray it is not at a crucial point in the seasons, so I shall not miss the last leaf fall, or the first snowdrop flower. I once almost wept on the M6 because I was not going to see my little apple trees blossom.

Beech and birch.Beech and birch.

Countryman or countrywomen is more of an insult than a compliment, these days. The sharp urban creations are the clever, polished ones, the shakers and movers, the ones who come on the radio and pronounce. Only last week I heard a young city fellow mock Matthew Parris, because he was broadcasting down the line from Derbyshire, where he could see his livestock grazing. I’m not sure Matthew Parris is in fact a countryman, but he was taken for one, and it counted gravely against him.

But it’s a little bit like handedness; you are either left-handed or right-handed, and there is nothing you can do about it. I am a countrywoman, for worse or better. I have metaphorical and sometimes literal hayseeds in my hair. I wear them with pride.

Country Life

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on Wednesday, 16 October 2013
For a while now, the thought has been scratching away in the back of my head that so few people live in the country. I keep thinking I should draw a conclusion from this, but I can’t quite scrabble around to find out what it is. Simon Jenkins, who has just published a rather wonderful book about the great views of England, has been lately mourning the lack of feeling that politicians have for the countryside. ‘I doubt whether Ed Miliband would recognise a blade of grass,’ he wrote, crossly.

I am conscious, as I contemplate all this, that I am in a very small numerical minority. I live not only in countryside, but in a wild Scottish landscape. I’m not one of the really hardy sorts, who are two miles off a metalled road, and for whom a journey to collect a morning newspaper is a trek of epic proportions. I have a delightful village half a mile away, where I may buy flowers, get a hair cut, stock up on basil and broccoli, or find a really proper double espresso, with dark rich beans from Columbia.

But still, if I get in my car and travel fifteen minutes to the north, I find myself in a landscape so untouched by time and technology that I can go for thirteen miles without seeing a human or a habitation. There is just mountain, and some incurious sheep.

Stanley the Dog, a country canine to his paw-tips, taking his ease on the autumn leaves.Stanley the Dog, a country canine to his paw-tips, taking his ease on the autumn leaves.

As I think of all this, the scratching thought returns. It transforms itself into a suspicion that country people are traduced or misunderstood, simply because they are such a small number. In 1950, the number of Britons living in cities was 79%; it is estimated that by 2030, that will rise to 92%. I shall be the eight percent. I am shrinking.

I think too of the easy assumptions about country folk. We rural rubes are either heathery, tweedy sorts, with the kind of certain, patrician voices that can carry over three fields, who like killing things and going nowhere without at least two black Labradors, or straw-chewing yokels, who scratch their heads and say things like, ‘The Forest of Dean; you don’t want to go there,’ in comedy West Coutnry accents. There are no good rural archetypes that I can think of. As wind farms march across the untouched land, those who object to ruined views, or suggest that this technology might be less about energy efficiency and more about massive subsidies (money, in other words, not love) are depicted as ghastly, backward nimbies, who do not know what the clever people in cities know.

There is a faint, sentimental affection for the countryside itself, at a distance. It is a dim, washy feeling, not related to real life. Not long ago, Toby Young wrote a furious article about how silly north Norfolk is, and how livid he was that he could not get wi-fi, and how relieved and delighted he was to return to Acton.

It seems to me that the country, and the people who live in it, are most often reduced to paper-thin stereotypes. This morning, I marched through the mud in my gumboots to do the horses. We are back in the muddy season now. I shall not know a clean day until April. My clothes, my boots, even sometimes my hair, will bear traces of the good Scottish earth. I had a long conversation with my barefoot trimmer, as she tended to the hooves of my glorious mare, who took the opportunity to have a little doze. (She adores having her manicure done.) We discussed horse psychology, and herd behaviour, and the musculature of the equine. It was very interesting and quite technical.

Then I went up, past the long blue mountains that rise to the south of the River Dee, to HorseBack UK, the charity for which I volunteer. Here, I ran into a Royal Marine who works there. We stood, looking out over the hills, and talked of anthropology, war, the invasion of Iraq, the differences between Sunni and Shia, the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland, and, of course, horses. It was a long and serious conversation, and at the end we had to make a quickfire series of jokes, leavening the whole thing with irony, because we are British, and are required by law not to be earnest for any length of time.

As the Royal Marine and I had our long and intricate conversation, this is what we were looking at: the HorseBack herd up on the northern slope.  What always interests me is the contrast in the hills: the ones to the south are indigo, whilst these northern ones are a motley of green and umber.As the Royal Marine and I had our long and intricate conversation, this is what we were looking at: the HorseBack herd up on the northern slope. What always interests me is the contrast in the hills: the ones to the south are indigo, whilst these northern ones are a motley of green and umber.

I thought about these two conversations. I thought they did not fit the stereotypes terribly well. I don’t really mind that country people are stuffed into small, idiot boxes, are considered to be lacking in sophistication and nuance, because I know that is not the truth. As the farmer roars up in his ancient Landrover to check his sheep, I don’t expect he frets too much about what the urban flâneurs think of him. As the magnificent fencer bashes in the posts for the new paddock with the skill of ages, I don’t imagine he gives a second thought to the limited boilerplate peddled by certain newspapers. But it is lazy thinking, for all that. I think, my most great-auntish self raising her head like a PG Wodehouse gorgon: people really should know better.

Dreams of Wyoming.

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on Wednesday, 09 October 2013
I stand, in the wind and the sun, looking out over the blue hills of Deeside, and talk to a woman from Colorado. Bitter gales have suddenly blown in from the north and after the mildness of early October, it feels like a shock. It is now two-coats weather, if you are working outside, as we are this morning. There is the faint suspicion of snow in the air, although the high mountains are still clear.

I am very excited about the woman from Colorado. She works with horses there, and it feels tremendously exotic to have her in our little valley. She comes from San Francisco, went to university in Utah, and now rides about the great spaces of Leadville, issuing grazing permits.

When I get home, I go and look at Leadville on the satellite map. It is serious hill country. It has singing, evocative names for its places – Turquoise Lake, Mount Buckskin, Savage Peak, Wildcat Mountain, Holy Cross Ridge. My two favourites are the heartfelt and descriptive Hardscrabble Mountain and Fool’s Peak.

Morven.Morven.

As the woman from Colorado and I talk, she tells me she worked for two years in Wyoming. ‘My Friend Flicka!’ I shout, wildly. She looks slightly surprised. I attempt to explain that the great horse trilogy was one of the most vivid and totemic parts of my childhood years. I do not tell her that those books once saved me, when I went on a French exchange, to stay with a family who did not speak a word of English. My schoolgirl French was still rudimentary, and I found myself shy and lonely, caught in the comprehension gap. I remember sitting alone in a dusty music room, watching the sunlight muddle through smeared old windows, reading about the Goose Bar Ranch and feeling a passionate sense of comfort.

‘The Green Grass of Wyoming,’ I exclaim. ‘Is the grass really green in Wyoming?’ ‘Oh, yes,’ says the woman, back on surer ground. She has not read the books that entranced me so, and has no idea what I am talking about. ‘It is green. There’s a lot of it. There is nobody there.’

The River Dee, looking east.The River Dee, looking east.

She pauses and looks up at our own hills, our own green grass. ‘It’s not as green as here, though,’ she says.

As I drive away, I feel obscurely proud. Our grass is greener than that of Wyoming. Who knew? This is huge. Dear old Scotland has scored big on the green grass front. I am so puffed up by this unexpected endorsement that I decide to drive the long way home, and take the looping circuit up towards Morven, my favourite mountain. She stands quite alone, not part of a range, towering over the lesser hills which may be seen round about her. She (and I feel very strongly that she is a she) is like an ancient monument or a druid’s shrine, or so I think in my more magical moments.

On the map, this area does not quite have the spell-binding names of Colorado. There is no Hardscrabble Mountain. There is Glenfenzie Burn, and Loch Davan, and Old Military Road, and Balronald Wood.

The view to the south-west.The view to the south-west.

But in life, the views stretch description. At this time of year, the colours grow strong and singing with clarity. The autumn light is thick and yellow, as if some lighting director in the sky has thrown aside caution and pulled out all the stops. It brings out the purple and sapphire blue of the mountains, the shaved gold of the cut cornfields, the sudden flash of vermilion where the trees are turning. The grass, which I take for granted until I am brought to compare it to that of Wyoming, is indeed the green of emeralds, even so late in the season.

I come back by the south Deeside road, which winds secretly through thick silver birch plantations and pine woods, and runs, for a brief, flashing moment, by the indigo of the mighty river. Then I turn over the bridge, back to civilisation, where there are houses and cars and gentlemen in high-visibility coats mending the telegraph poles.

I have dreamt all my life of Wyoming. Since I was a book-mad child, squinting through dying light to make out the print on the page, being warned that I would ruin my eyes, which I duly did, I have had a picture of that great place living in my head. But as I drive through our own hills and valleys and green grass, I realise that there is an actual daily dream, right here, in my small corner of Scotland.

A time of contrasts; or, the turning of the leaves.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 02 October 2013
Out in the world, this time of year is filled with news from the party conferences, the creak and limber as the political world starts rolling again after the long summer break. In America, there is high drama as recalcitrant Republican members of Congress decide to bring the entire government to a halt. (It’s very hard to know exactly why, since none of the ostensible reasons are the actual reasons; sometimes I think it is just because they can.) Here, the various three-act operas revolve mostly around the arts of darkness admitted by Damian McBride in his oddly revelatory book, and the furious row over the Daily Mail and Ed Miliband’s father.

As my broadband signal winks in and out (possibly due to the gales which are coming roaring in from the west), I follow all this at a genteel distance. From time to time, I get worked up and yell at the radio. Then I fall to contemplating the much more important matter of the exact turning of the leaves.

The turning of the leaves, with a rather black Scottish sky behindThe turning of the leaves, with a rather black Scottish sky behind

Every year I try to work this out and every year I fail. Is it a hot summer which means the more vivid colours, or is it a wet one? Shall this long spell of dry mean that there will be no wild display, but autumn shall give way to winter with a sense of weariness and anti-climax? Is the changing of the season late this year?

I examine the trees with scientific interest and aesthetic hope. The beeches are still, in some places, as green as if it were July. There are one or two trees, too distant to identify, which have already gone a singing scarlet, and some, the chestnuts mostly, which are in an indeterminate state of yellowy nothing. The rosehips are the colour of rubies and the elders have their full complement of indigo berries. The sheep, who have no interest in leaf action, lie down crossly in the west meadow, as if they are staging a sit-in. The horses, ahead of the game as usual, are developing their teddy bear winter coats.

The elderberries.The elderberries.

I have an odd push-me pull-you life at this time of year. My desk work is demanding; I spend a lot of time at the computer, wrangling with words. I have a deadline coming and I squint furiously at the screen, willing myself to think faster.

Then, in complete contrast, I pull on my muddy boots and take Stanley the Dog out for his walk, where he hysterically chases pigeons and digs up perfectly enormous sticks. I stomp down to the field to see to the small equine herd, and everything is very earthy and about as far away from technology as you may imagine. It is then that I become acutely aware of where the weather is coming from, of the exact state of the leaves, of the direction of the wind, of all things elemental. It is then that the political bickering and the state of world events seem as distant as if I were living in 1913, not 2013. There are even moments when I gaze at the elderberries and think I should make them into cordial. (I think this every year, and I am never enough of a domestic goddess actually to do it.)

The beech avenue.The beech avenue.

And then I go back inside, where all the 21st century machines hum and blink at me, and the miracle of the internet turns me from parochialist to citizen of the world, and the external reality comes back with a rush, and I remember that there is a whole other parallel universe going on, where nobody much gives a damn what colour the beeches are. I quite like that I maintain a faint obsession about the leaves. It’s a bit hello clouds, hello sky, but it feels like a rooted sense of reality in amidst all those shouting voices on the radio. The voices come and go, but the trees endure.

Walking the Horse

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on Wednesday, 25 September 2013
This morning, on a gloomy, dreich Scottish day, with a lowering sky and the suspicion of rain in the September air, I took my horse for a walk. She was galloping round the field in the high winds of last week and managed to pull a little muscle in her shoulder, so she’s a bit too tender to ride. Instead, it seems perfectly logical to me to take her for a walk each morning.

Out of the paddock we go, through a high stone archway, past the mighty Wellingtonias, over the burn, and down the long line of beech trees to the south. Here, there is an excellent stretch of flat drive, good for conditioning her hooves. (I keep her without shoes.) An occasional car or van drives by, but there are fine wide verges where we may get out of the way, and, despite being an ex-racing thoroughbred, and so supposed to be mad in the head and skittish and spooky, she does not blink an eye even when the most rattly of lorries rolls past.

The red mare, on a sunnier day, having a good graze out in the set-aside with her friend Stanley the Dog, before we set off on our morning amble.The red mare, on a sunnier day, having a good graze out in the set-aside with her friend Stanley the Dog, before we set off on our morning amble.

This morning, a gentleman I know screeches to a halt in his big black truck. He is rocking with laughter. I wonder if I have hay in my hair or mud on my face, both of which are fairly usual occurrences. ‘I’ve seen people take their dogs for a walk,’ he says, in high merriment. ‘But I’ve never seen anyone take their horse for a walk.’ And he drives off, still laughing. My grand mare stares after him, with a de haut en bas look, as if she is Maggie Smith playing the Dowager Duchess of Grantham in Downton Abbey. (She can do dowager duchess better than any horse I’ve ever met.)

We carry on. She walks kindly on a loose rope, with her head down and her ears in their relaxed donkey position and her lower lip wobbling into a dreamy equine smile. We go through the Scots pines and the silver birches, back over the burn again, along the beech hedge, which is just starting to turn as autumn begins to get into gear, under the biggest and most venerable of the horse chestnuts, and back to the gate, where the little grey pony whickers in greeting, glad to see us back.

Part of our route, complete with dashing caninePart of our route, complete with dashing canine

I could make a fairly sensible case for walking a horse. Teaching an equine to lead politely, without pulling or barging or pushing, is a foundational pillar of horsemanship, in my view. This kind of simple daily routine builds trust, deepens the relationship between horse and human, and is a nice, relaxing thing to do. I think it’s quite important not always to ask them to do serious work, but to mix it up a bit. Sometimes, I just go and sit in the field and read a book, so that the red mare does not only associate me with action and demands and doing things. Sometimes, I think, it’s good merely to be present.

But really, it’s not what people do. The laughing gentleman is right. Most people go out and school their horses seriously, do lunging or flatwork, teach them to do side passes or flying changes, practice dressage or jumping. They have serious goals. They enter competitions. They win rosettes and shiny silver cups. I see their pictures all over the internet and wonder at their accomplishments. But the funny thing is that I get as much profound pleasure from slowly walking my grand duchess past the old oak trees, under the benign gaze of the blue hills, as I would from any number of glittering trophies. Just watching her happy face is my prize.

The official arrival of Autumn

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on Thursday, 19 September 2013
This moment in September is an odd time, a kind of limbo in the natural world. Everything here is still green, although the greenness has taken on a rather tired, dusty aspect, as if the very chlorophyll is getting creaky after a long, dazzling season. Despite a gloomy weather forecast of low skies and mean cloud, the Scottish sun is dancing about the place as if there is life in the old girl yet. My swallows have gone, but I saw a gang of swifts yesterday who have still not set off on their epic journey south.

Yet, there are some subtle signs of the shifting of the season. I wake to improbably golden sun, but when Stanley the Dog and I step outside it is properly cold for the first time. It is put on your gloves and scarf cold. It is almost wear a hat cold. In these northern parts we have not yet seen the first frost, but there are heavy, silvery dews, a gentle harbinger of the freezes to come. The beech hedge is still verdant, but the very first leaves are beginning to turn, and some, jumping the gun a little, have already begun to fall when the wind blows.

tan 01The limes just starting to turn.

It was a glorious, long, hot summer. It was a real treat, after the endless cold and rain of last year, when summer never really pitched up and all the farmers looked fraught and sad as they battled to get in the harvest and cut the hay. Even the cows looked demoralised. (Cows, it turns out, really object to the wet.) There is a faint melancholy to see it go, and it is going, for all the late sunshine. At the same time, I have that back to school impatience for the season to turn properly. I want the metaphorical sense of sharpening my pencils for the new term.

tan 02Meanwhile, up at HorseBack UK, just along the river, the Deeside hills are still as vivid as ever in the September light.

This morning, down at the paddock with my mare, I was mooching about with her when suddenly her head went up and her ears pricked and she was at once on full alert. Horses, being prey animals, are amazingly sensitive to the slightest noise or movement, often ones which are completely beyond human senses. I looked about, trying to see what she could see. I heard nothing. The field seemed quiet. The woods were drowsing in the morning light and everything was still. She gazed fixedly to the north. There was something there.

tan 03View of the set-aside this morning, with a happy pair of mares enjoying a free graze. You can see the greenness just starting to fade. The two equines, however, care nothing for that as they still find the good grass.

Finally, I heard it. It was a distant call and chatter, as if someone were having a cocktail party over the other side of the hill. It couldn't be, I thought, not so early. I scanned the sky. (We must have made an odd picture – the horse and the human, both staring up into the blue.) It was. It was the geese. The very first skein of the season, making their migratory path out of the north-west. They tracked a sure line, flying on a perfect diagonal to the south-west, calling as they went. I wondered, as always, at the twenty-seven avian mysteries. What do those calls mean? How do they organise their clever rotas, so that everyone takes a turn at the sharp end? How do they keep that wonderful formation? Where do they hone their astonishing navigational skills?

The mare, having ascertained that the noise was not that of a predator, lost interest and fell to grazing. I, still fascinated, oddly delighted, as happy as if I were greeting old friends, went on staring at the sky, watching the miraculous group until it went out of sight. There we are, I thought. That's it. Autumn is official. I can go back to school.

The departure of the swallows.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 11 September 2013
The swallows have gone. I did not see them go. I am inexplicably regretful about that.

I am not a twitcher or an ornithological expert. I was far too busy thinking about ponies as a child to take any interest in birds, although I do remember the larks singing on the wing as we rode out on the wide Lambourn downs. Then I went to London and spent most of my time in the dodgy bit of Westbourne Grove, before it became a hedge-fund playground, and in the darker corners of Soho. No birds there, except for some grumpy pigeons outside St Anne’s church.

The bird thing is new, and happened only when I got to Scotland. The first year I noticed the swallows arriving, I felt as if someone had sent me some great cosmic gift. I was oddly overcome by a child-like sense of wonder. These tiny, delicate creatures had flown all the way from Africa, to my old shed. Every part of their lives seemed slightly miraculous. Not only did they make that great journey, over thousands of miles, but when they got here, they had the talent to make nests of the most exquisite, precise construction. Muscle, navigation, and engineering skills; it seemed too much for one bird.

The swallows' low-flying training groundThe swallows' low-flying training ground
I began to become fascinated by their daily rhythms and their dedicated programme. After the arrival of their young, they would fly about each morning gathering food. They also posted guard: if they perceived any threat, they would do excellent diversionary tactics, screaming away in the opposite direction, calling wildly, to draw whatever predator they feared.

When the fledglings were ready for action, the parents would bring them out and start the flying lessons. At first, they kept very close to the nest. Short, educational journeys were essayed. Each week, they would go a little further, until the young birds were ready for serious training. Then they would go out into the open hayfield. It is a long green stretch of open ground, in the shape of a shallow bowl, with sloping banks on each side. It was here, in this perfect environment, that the adult swallows taught their growing chicks the art of low flying. They would skim the earth, making sharp manoeuvres where the ground banked upwards. As soon as the hay was cut, the manoeuvres could become more precise, as the contours of the earth were revealed. They made me think of Spitfires, in that ironically dazzling summer of the Battle of Britain.

Then, as August came to its end, they would begin the serious fitness work. They would fly very fast and very long, for hours and hours, clearly doing distance training. Each year, when I watched this, I would marvel afresh at their sheer physicality, their dogged determination, their excellent work ethic. I would also feel the faint flutter of melancholy, because I knew that soon they would be gone.

Last summer, there was a tremendous muster the night before they left. The quarrelling gang of swifts from my sister’s house came roaring up for a last hurrah with their avian cousins before the great trek began. I knew this meant that they were off, so I could make my farewells and wish them good journey.

The view south from the shed where they nest. I presume this is the direction in which they will have flownThe view south from the shed where they nest. I presume this is the direction in which they will have flown

This year, I’ve been preoccupied. I have the new work with HorseBack UK, the new mare to school, one book to write and at least two secret projects. I hardly know what day of the week it is, so this year I did not have the time to map the swallow timetable.

This is all a little bit nuts, I do admit. But I love those birds. I am used to the glorious, joyful trilling of their daily song. It is the soundtrack to my day. And now there is – silence. And some strange part of me is properly sad that I did not get to wave them off.

The beauty

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley has not set their biography yet
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on Wednesday, 04 September 2013
I bang on a great deal about the trees and the hills. When I go to the south, after about a week, I find myself missing the mountains like you would miss a person. I get quite tearful when I drive back north and pass the Welcome to Scotland sign.

All the same, when you’ve lived in a place for fifteen years, you can start to take it for granted, just a little. When I first moved here, I was so amazed and entranced that I used to get in the car and head into the wild spaces. About twenty minutes north-west of my house, the country opens up like a book, and there is nothing but hills and sheep and heather. The road spirals up above the treeline, and there is a section of thirteen miles without a human or a habitation. Old granite bothies sit, gently crumbling in the weather, abandoned by the soft moderns, who need to be nearer to a shop and an internet connection, who cannot afford to be snowed in for days at a time as the older generations were. This is the road which is the first to close in the winter. You will hear it on the national traffic reports. ‘The snow gates are shut at Cockbridge,’ the presenter will say. (The name Cockbridge always used to make Terry Wogan giggle, in the old days.)

I used to drive up there just to look at the emptiness and the wide skies. I could hardly believe that so much wilderness and beauty still existed on this crowded little island. I would drive just for the sake of driving, and look just for the sake of looking.

The empty spaces, thirty minutes from my house.The empty spaces, thirty minutes from my house.

Now, I don’t take those wild journeys any more. It’s a two hour round trip, and I have books to write and my voluntary work to do and my mare to ride. There is no time. Even so, every morning, as I speed along the valley to HorseBack UK, I pass the long line of indigo hills which rise to the south of the River Dee. In the distance, I can just catch a glimpse of the proper mountains to the west, the ones which are so high that their peaks are still white as late as May. That is my daily commute. I always look at it, but often my mind is busy with other things, all the tasks that must be done that day, the enduring lack of time. (Too many things; too few hours.) I don’t, I realise, always take in the fullness of the landscape as I should. I’m too used to it.

This morning, for some reason, I was suddenly struck by the great good fortune of having beauty, at my door. It was a couple of tiny, insignificant things that did it.

Since I went back to horses, I look at a lot of equine videos on the internet. I am interested in the new school of horsemanship, and like to see other people working their animals. I watched one such clip last night. It was a woman in a dusty, dirty round pen, with a few dilapidated buildings in the background. There were no trees, no hills, no verdant pasture. It made me rather melancholy for some reason; it was all so arid and loveless. I thought how lucky I was that I get to work my own mare in an emerald field, surrounded by Scots pines and old oak trees, with a thickly wooded hill gazing down on us, and the swifts swooping, low and joyful, over the ground.

And the hill I can see from my front doorAnd the hill I can see from my front door

And then, this morning, I heard someone on the Today programme speaking in that bland managerial jargon that a certain sort of official operative is prone to use. For some reason, it conjured up an entire office environment: with those pale neon lights and thin cheerless carpet and pages of serious documents written in that same bland prose. The first half of my working day is spent outside, in the good Scottish air. Even when I am back at my desk, as I am now, tap tap tapping away at my keyboard, and staring furiously at the computer screen, I may still gaze through the window and see a long line of beeches beyond a dry stone wall built of the lovely local granite, by craftsmen whose skill has been passed down from one generation to another. I may see the wind move in the trees and, if I am lucky, the lone heron making his stately progress over the cut hayfield.

Of course, not everyone needs natural beauty. Some find loveliness in brutalist architecture; some get their aesthetics from a magnificent cityscape. Some people perhaps do not need beauty at all. But I do. And even though there are days when I don’t quite appreciate it as keenly as I should, I remember now why I must lift my eyes to the hills. It is a crazy privilege to have them here, at my front door. They go back at the top of my list of Things Not To Take For Granted, like opposable thumbs and electricity.


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