Wild life

Back to Exmoor, scene of prep-school rides on rough ponies

24 October 2020

9:00 AM

24 October 2020

9:00 AM


I am heading to Exmoor for the first time since I was last there in 1977 — and as the train pulls into Tiverton Parkway station my childhood rises back up at me like ground rush.

We head north and pass Ravenswood, the gothic building where I spent six years of my life when it was still a prep school. And suddenly I am back on the same road we’d take on Thursdays, in a van heading up to a farm on the moor’s edge. Back then, 43 years ago, a shaggy-haired farmer’s boy called Kevin would lead us out hacking on rough ponies across the heather and marshes.

In winter months, mists and rain hugged the pagan landscape, and even in summer, curtains of cloud swept across the gorse and granite. As we rode, our guide would tell us ghost stories about phantom riders, about Jack-o’-lanterns — the souls of dead, unbaptised children that lured you towards boggy drownings — and then there was the Hairy Hand, a disembodied thing that lurked on remote moors, waiting to leap on lonely dog walkers.

The cold mists of winter were more of a threat than wild rides and Kevin was clearly superstitious about getting lost in them. ‘Bain’t right to stay out in this yer crewdling. Time uz get off the moor or we’ll get the chillbladders!’ Which was to say, it was time to get out of the cold and go home.

At other times, Kevin would boast about his drinking escapades. ‘I was sham’fered up and puggle ’eaded,’ — which was to say he had got drunk on cider. He boasted about his sexual conquests with ‘trapers’ and ‘rubbacrocks’ — as he called the young women he met at barn dances and cinemas — and the ‘purty lil’ maid’ who took his fancy most. He had a repertoire of dirty ballads and these he frequently roared out:

She was so pretty and only sixteen,
When I ups and I shows ’er my threshing machine,
I ’ad her, I ’ad her, I ’ad her I ’ay
I ’ad her by night and I ’ad her by day,
And I ups and I shows ’er
The West Country Way.

As we improved in the saddle our rides became ever more reckless. We’d sometimes take the saddles off and go bareback, or turn backwards, or cut withies that we’d throw like spears.

With a whoop Kevin would shorten the reins and we were off galloping across the hills. We occasionally took a fall but the heather and peat were soft to land on and we were excited — as thrilled as when we were blooded for the first time at the end of a hunt and carried away the fox’s brush to preserve in methylated spirits. In my mind those happy memories always remind me of the images of photographer James Ravilious.

One Thursday while out with Kevin, we saw across the heather a green Ford Cortina, parked some way off the lonely road. We approached to investigate and as we got closer, Kevin exclaimed that the windows were all ‘smeeched up’, and by that he meant all steamed up.

The car was rocking from side to side. When it became clear what was happening, Kevin ululated like an Apache and cantered in circles around the Cortina, with us behind him making similar caterwauling noises. From inside the car we now saw that there was a woman in the back seat with a blonde perm and exposed breasts. She was struggling to get up from under a red-faced, bald–headed man and both of them were in what looked like a panic.

‘Woo! Woo! Woo! Woo!’ we all whooped as we cantered in circles around the lovers in their car. The man looked shocked and then very angry as he clambered off his mistress and then opened the door and stumbled out with his trousers half down around his ankles. He shook his fist at us and shouted but we just kept riding around and around him as he yelled, until he got back into the Ford Cortina and they drove off.

Back at Ravenswood after that day on the moors and still in my riding clothes, I went straight into a science lesson to see a locust being dissected.

With the smell of horse sweat and shit and the steam rising off my sleet-wetted jeans I thought about the day. I had witnessed something that was entirely new. I wondered how many such affairs were conducted in the backs of cars on the misty moors as the Hairy Hand lurked, lying in wait to pounce.

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