I fell for the Fells25 January 2019
I fell for the Fells
When I first holidayed in the Lake District, in 1968, I was determined not to like my mother's choice of venue, until she promised that if I accompanied her planned "little toddles" up the fells, she would come pony trekking with me. I actually enjoyed the holiday, plodging in the rain over Catbells and round Stonethwaite and Watendlath, but the highlights were always going to be the pony treks.
I fell instantly in love with my mount. He was a Fell pony, brown, rounded and muscular, with a long black tail and a massive curtain of mane that entirely hid his face. Nonetheless, the eyes underneath were friendly. He carted me up Latrigg with an eagerness I hadn't met before in ponies of his size.
I didn't know it then, but the trek leader was Betty Walker, a leading light of the Fell Pony Society. She rode another brown Fell pony, Angus. She fed me snippets of Fell pony lore at every opportunity. Did I know the Fell ponies had been in the Lakes as long as the Herdwick sheep? No; I was much more impressed by the ponies' strength and willingness and the fact that they were capable of living free, all year round, on the fells where I'd been walking. I was 16, and freedom was a magnet.
Because of those Fell ponies I spent every university vacation in the Lake District, working with them. When I married I moved here permanently (and bought a Fell!).
Over the years since then I've done a lot of background research about Fell ponies, and their spell over me has grown stronger. They are a distinctive part of our farming and industrial history. Until the 20th century they were the mainstay of local transport: hardy and hard-working, they took the shepherd up the fell, carried hay to the stock in winter, pulled the trap to market, or walked hundreds of miles as pack-horses with wool destined for Europe.
For thousands of years we'd have gone literally nowhere without them.
Images by Emma J Campbell Photography.