If I am to make a go of this, I need to do more than eat pease pudding while I watch the cavalry engage in outwitting the enemy in the front line of the class struggle. I need to stop smiling nicely at other mothers in the hope they might want to make me their bestest friend. Up here, they were born in the same maternity ward as their bestest friend, they went to school with her and they probably married her brother. I need to get on a horse. That is what everybody else seems to do round here - ride. A ticket to ride might be my very own ticket to paradise. I could "get with the programme", talk tack and "trot on". In fact, if it works out, the horse could be my best friend - it's been done before.
The first stumbling block in waving a fairy wand to transform me from an East End Cinderella into the Princess Royal was the fact my head is too big. Apparently, we city girls have bigger heads than country gals. Much bigger. The word "freakish" may have been banded about. I arrived at my riding pal's farm all panting expectation; it might have looked like cold-palmed terror, it was merely the way we city types anticipate a close encounter with something that has bigger teeth than ours. Hopes of a rapid mount were soon dashed. My head was too big for all four of her hats; my riding pal phoned a friend. No joy. Just me then with the really big head. We don't just sit around in the country though; we take action. We jumped in her 4x4 and drove to the local market town, snacking en route on the horse's Polo mints. I only had one or two in case the horse could smell them on my breath later.
I have to say, I like country shops. They are much more interesting than city shops. You know what you are going to get in a city shop - it is going to be expensive, beautiful and a little predictable. They don't do predictable in the shops up here. The shop looked like it sold handbags and tops. As we climbed the stairs, I said to my riding pal: "I like those big wide leather belts." She may have snorted. "They're girths," she said. Still no idea what a girth is but I laughed along with her and went: "Oh right, girths." There were also saddles. I have never been in a shop that sold saddles before, along with bridles, bits and crops. I could go on. It was also some sort of mecca for equine grooming products. A bizarre "Hair Today" shop for the horse in your life. There was Plaiting Gel "for a truly professional finish", Horse and Pony Polish with an "extra rich shine formulation" to give "a speedy boost to the coat's natural bloom", Dark Horse Shampoo for the "dark horse in your stable.". It went on like this for shelves. I kept expecting to see a horse sitting in front of a mirror getting a blow dry while it caught up on Britney in Hello.
Luckily, it also sold freakishly large hats and away we sped again back to the farm. My hat is black velvet with a peak, large padded button on the top and cute taffeta bow on the back. It is padded (although it gave me an excruciating headache after half an hour) and disconcertingly, it has not one but three pictures inside it of a horse attempting to buck a rider. Whose idea was that? It also has a complex strapping arrangement around the back of your head and under the chin which feels like small hands are wrapped around your windpipe. I often feel like that. I am not sure I need to buy a hat for it. The hat weighs slightly more than a plant pot but would, I was assured, offer more protection.
Luckily my horse was short (12 hands) but then I am short so that was fine with me. She was an Exmoor pony, a breed I was told which is rarer than the Giant Panda. I have never ridden a Giant Panda so I am not sure which of them would have the advantage in a Darwinian head-to- head. They are a brown, shaggy sort of horse which usually roam wild on Exmoor. I was in the saddle by the time the word "wild" was used. "She can be a bit nippy," I was told. "Great," I thought. "My feet are far too close to her teeth." A Northumberland enthusiast for the breed uses them to graze down scrub and grasses on the dunes to let the wild flowers come through and encourage butterflies and birds. I did not think of butterflies the entire time I was gripping on to the horse with my knees and buttocks. Once I was strapped in, instructions started flying about - sit upright, press down with your heels, the balls of your feet in the stirrups, your elbows in, the reins held "like coffee cups" in your hands. (Latte or espresso? I wanted to know. You would hold them differently wouldn't you? What if you are thinking "latte" and the horse is thinking "espresso"?) The only thing that stops the horse are the reins. There was no brake pedal. I checked.
My riding pal ambled on with her immaculate seat and immense Irish horse of 17 hands - I could not see them but apparently they are there somewhere. The shaggy pony and I came to a working joggle; an arrangement whereby she agreed to carry me without throwing me to the hard ground and stamping on my velvet-hatted head and I agreed to go to mass every week for the next year. I even managed to look up long enough at one point to admire the wrap-around blue grey sea, the Farne islands, their lighthouses and the magnificence of Bamburgh Castle as we trotted round the green fields and I tried to persuade my horse not to tread down too many wheat shoots. I was worried the farmer might shoot us. Halfway round, my riding pal starts telling me how my shaggy pony bolted across the same field with its rider the last time she had been out. I am looking at her, thinking: "Why are you telling me this story?" Luckily, she saved her tales of a broken arm, a broken foot, her teeth through her lip, her black eyes and various other injuries sustained from horses until we made it back to the kitchen for tea and aga-toasted bagels. Before we got to bagels though, I had to dismount.
You would think if you had managed to get on a horse and then sit on a horse, you would be able to get off it. I think there is a fault in the design because there appears to be nothing to hold onto while you take your feet out of the stirrups and swing one leg over to join the other. Neither do I know how you swing your leg over when you have lost the use of both knees. Only the incentive of getting off the horse persuaded me to attempt the manoeuvre.
I used my hat to take away half a dozen eggs from my riding pal's chickens. I am not sure what else I can use it for. I am wearing it as I type. Maybe I could just wear it around and about. It might help me blend in.