Dispatches From The North

Tania Kindersley lives in the North East of Scotland with two amiable lab collie crosses and one very grumpy Gloucester Old Spot pig. She co-wrote Backwards In High Heels: The Impossible Art of Being Female, with Sarah Vine.

Dreams of green, green grass

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 24 April 2013
The talk of the village is the continuing non-arrival of spring. Even the vet is fed up. The vet is a very dazzling sort of professional indeed. He is a horse specialist, and has more spiffy kit and 21st century technology than you can shake a stick at. He can talk you through a scope like nobody else. When he is not being a vet, he rides and breeds polo ponies. He has a beautiful thoroughbred stallion, whom I am going up to photograph the moment the sun comes out. (This occasions about twenty-seven emails, saying things like: forecast suggests there might be watery sun around 4pm.) This gent is not a moaning Minnie or a negative Nelly. He is usually smiling, under his stockman’s hat. But even he suddenly exclaims: ‘I am fed up with this weather’.

The moment the weather is mentioned, the floodgates opened. We mourn the plight of the farmers, who roar around in their old Landrovers with bleak faces. Tales are told of entire crops having to be ploughed up because not a single sown seed sprouted. The ground is still so cold that even the potatoes have not put out a shoot.

At least the dear old blue hills still look stately under the threatening spring sky.

I met a grass specialist last weekend. In my old life, when I was running round the Groucho and those nice transvestite clubs in Soho which I preferred (best lipstick tips in London) I would have fallen on the floor laughing if you told me I would be riveted by a grass specialist. As it is, when I see him and he mentions, rather diffidently, his interest in grass, my eyes light up like those of a maniac. ‘Oh please,’ I say, trying not to sound too keen and crazed, ‘tell me about grass. It’s all I think about, aside from American politics and who will win the 5.30 at Punchestown.’

So then we talked about grass for an hour. It was one of the best conversations I’ve ever had. I’m not inspired to broadcast a wild meadow mix for the horses. But that is still a dream, since the coldness of the ground means that the little green shoots are still stuttering and debating and wondering whether it is all right to come into the world. I tiptoe round the field, bent double, my nose on the ground, searching for the verdant signs of life. There was a bit of jubilee yesterday, when I went down for evening stables to find the horses actually grazing. They were ignoring their fabulously expensive pile of hay, and had found some pasture. I whooped into the still evening air.

This is what such long periods of weather do to you. You become a grass detective. You tell endless stories of farmers in Wales pulling lambs out of snowdrifts. You study the two-hourly forecast until your eyes give out. I wonder sometimes if meteorology is character. No wonder the people of North-East Scotland are so tough. They deal in brevity; there is no floweriness or spurious charm here. By contrast, the easy-going Mediterraneans may be as they are because they knew pretty much every day would be a sunny day, and they never had to go and rescue the sheep from twenty feet of snow.

I refuse, unlike some people I know, to throw in the towel and fly away to find some warmth. Besides, I have to look after the horses. But I do dream of blossom, and leaves on the bare trees, and green, green grass.

Looking for spring

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 17 April 2013
Usually, by this stage, there are wild signs of the Scottish spring. The earth stirs from its dormant slumber and all the portents are of life and growth. This year, everything is still cold and dark. The oyster-catchers have come in from the coast, for their annual visit. This is usually a moment of hat in the air celebration, as I hear them singing like drunken sailors all night, but even they are subdued at the moment. They wander dolefully about by the burn, looking at each other in bafflement, as if to say: Where is the joyful April sun? The other birds, who would normally be singing their heads off, are silent.

I pick my way through the muddy paddock, trashed after the hard winter, looking for tiny green shoots of grass. The horses, still on hay, dream of verdant pasture. The daffodils resolutely refuse to come out and the snowdrops, which are flowering, lower their heads apologetically. I stare very hard at the garden, looking for signs of hope. The geraniums are poking their green leaves up from the black soil and the cheering hellebores are blooming, but everything else is still shut up for the duration.

Looking on the bright side: the great advantage of there being no grass yet is that there is at least some delightful mud in which to have a really good roll.Looking on the bright side: the great advantage of there being no grass yet is that there is at least some delightful mud in which to have a really good roll.

Spring is having to be internally generated this year. There is no actual blossom, so there can only be the metaphorical kind. I start a new project, dream of the tree-planting programme which is growing in my head, and plot for the summer riding with my mare. I go up to HorseBack UK, where a group of Personnel Recovery Officers are visiting, to see the work at first hand. They shrug off the Scottish dreich, caring not a jot for the rain and high winds. They are so excited and delighted by what they have seen that a bit of weather cannot dampen their spirits. This kind of rampant positivity is contagious, and I come away heartened.

Our one moment of blue sky, with the last of the snow finally coming off the mountain.Our one moment of blue sky, with the last of the snow finally coming off the mountain.

The sun will return eventually. The birds will sing and the flowers will flower and the grass will grow. The heavy winter rugs will finally come off the horses’ backs and they can kick up their heels. In the meantime, I have my sturdy boots and my most excellent rainy day hat. There is no such thing as wrong weather, only wrong clothes.

Admittedly, the sun did come out on Monday. As if embarrassed by its own exuberance, it ran away again pretty quickly, and crazed western winds blew in to threaten the Wellingtonias. But at least it reminded us what it is capable of. There is blue sky in there somewhere, behind the dour clouds. In the meantime, I’m going to generate internal sunshine by having a little bet the lovely Hunt Ball in the 3.55 at Cheltenham. Spring springs for all of us in its own way.

The Western Way

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 10 April 2013
One of the things I like most about the work I do for HorseBack UK is that I get to meet a dazzling variety of people. One day, I may find myself talking to someone who served in the dangerous streets of Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles; on another, I may discuss all aspects of the art of farriery. Today, I met a remarkable woman who is a Western riding champion.

Western is not a discipline I know anything about. I was brought up with racehorses and show ponies. Western was something I saw in old films with John Wayne in them. It was as distant from the wide downs of the Lambourn Valley as science fiction.

They use Western riding at HorseBack for many reasons. One is that, for a beginner, or someone with serious physical challenges such as prosthetic legs, the saddles are amazingly comfortable and easy. They are big, raised fore and aft, so that they cradle the body, giving a wonderful feeling of safety. On a very basic level, it’s much easier for someone with no knowledge to get on and go.

HorseBack UK instructor Jess March shows off the Western styleHorseBack UK instructor Jess March shows off the Western style

This can give the impression that Western is somehow cheating, the mimsy province of the phoney cowpoke wannabe and the rank amateur. According to my riding champion, other disciplines like dressage can be very snooty indeed about the Western way. It’s not considered proper.

Proper be damned. I grew up with a bit of dressage and eventing, and know all about those. But my new exposure to Western has shown me that it is as delicate and nuanced as anything the English have produced. It may have its roots in ranching instead of the military, but there is nothing inferior in that.

The other thing that is enchanting about it is how relaxed and sensitive to guidance the horses are. They respond to the merest shift of the body, and move along gracefully on a loose rein. It is instructive that instead of talking of the canter, Western riders speak of the lope.

The Western saddle, in all its gloryThe Western saddle, in all its glory

I love the idea of loping. It opens whole new horizons of delight for me. I am seriously considering re-training my thoroughbred mare in the discipline. I think: how glorious it would be for her, after her years of racing and polo. We can become cowgirls together, and ride the trails of Scotland as if we were in the green grass of Wyoming.

Where the heart is

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Monday, 08 April 2013
Only ten days after returning home, I have to get on the road again. I am not a sling-a-bag-in-the-back, take to the high road kind of person. I used to get on aeroplanes in the old days with a change of shoes and a paperback book, not thinking twice. Now, the very idea of going away from home fills me with dread. I am not proud of this. It is too much clichéd middle age, the awful clank of the closing mind.

I get fretful about missing the oyster-catchers or the arrival of the daffodils, or the first bloom of the apple blossom. I become cross about lost sessions of schooling with my mare or not seeing the vital things which are happening at HorseBack UK. In this mood, I think: if you confiscated my passport tomorrow, I would almost breathe a sigh of relief.

Once on the road, I become fatalistic. The five hundred miles must be driven.  The fury about having to leave recedes and I can look at the hills with pleasure. Every single one, from Perth to Shropshire, is still thick with snow.

I get off the motorway and go a new and winding route. There are sudden woods and banks covered in daffodils and the long rails and high stone gates of stately houses.  England is, in places, staggeringly beautiful. In other places there it holds an air of ancient resignation, as if the seventies never really went away: there are sagging terraces with weed-strewn front gardens and boarded-up windows, and brutalist shopping centres with no-one in the shops. In one storied market town, there is a gold exchange, where people can go and sell random gold items for cash.

On the other hand, every motorway stop now has its complement of lattes and flat whites and the new chic Spanish cortado, kinds of coffee never dreamt of in the days of polyester and Nescafé. Much to my chagrin, you can’t get a nice scampi in a basket any more. In one famous service station, there is even a farm shop, and a section where you can buy artisan olive oils and Charbonnel and Walker chocolates. As I drive through it, England feels as if it has a quiet identity crisis, caught between the gold exchange and the panini. Or maybe those kinds of things have always existed alongside each other and I just notice because I visit so rarely.
Everything in me is Scottish now. I dream of neeps and tatties; even the most glorious Shropshire hills cannot compare with my blue mountains. One must resist chauvinism with every fibre of one’s being. I’m not saying Scotland is better, which is the foolish implication of the Independence advocates. I’m just saying that it is the place which makes my own idiosyncratic heart beat faster. And for the moment, nowhere else comes close.

Snow joke

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Tuesday, 26 March 2013
On and on goes the weather. The snow blows in and out, sullen and relentless. Every single conversation in my village centres around matters meteorological. People spar over their preferred forecast, and make gloomy long-range predictions. (No change till May, I heard someone say yesterday.) An ex-Marine I know who used to fly helicopters does not mess around with the namby-pamby civilian weather maps, with their little cloud and snowflake symbols, but goes straight to the hard-core professional numbers, where he can interpret isobars and barometrics. Even he, a hardened professional who complains of nothing, is a little baffled and battered by this endless bombardment. ‘I’m blood fed up,’ he suddenly shouts.

tania march26 Our brave old telegraph poles, which are staunchly holding up against the weather
The snowdrops have disappeared completely and some puzzled daffodils are just poking tentative green shoots through the icy white. The horses wade carefully through the dirty snow and sucking mud, comforting themselves with the good hay. They are actually staying very calm and fatalistic, although I do think my dear mare must be dreaming of the southern springs she used to know. There’s no question of doing any actual work with them, the ground is too treacherous, so we just feed them and gentle them and hope for better days.

I make a bewildering variety of soups, in a last-ditch effort to stay warm, and feel passionately grateful that the power is still on. The poor people of Arran have been without electricity since Friday, and despite a team of 150 engineers being shipped in to the island, there is no end in sight. Astonishing pictures of buckled pylons and twelve-foot-high drifts litter the internet.

Even with my radiators blazing and my boiler cranking away like a Trojan, my house still carries a chill. I think of the old, fierce winters, the famous freeze of 1947, when snow fell every day from January 22nd to March 17th. There would have been hardly any central heating in those days. I wonder how the poor people of Blighty managed. They would have been exhausted from the war; rationing was still in full force. They must have had to call on every last ounce of Blitz spirit.

One of my neighbours is so beaten by the cold that she finally snapped, got on the internet at midnight, and booked a ticket to Majorca. I look at their forecast. Twenty toasting degrees. I can hardly even imagine what that must feel like.

Still, there is proper British stoicism to draw on. The stoic runs through the character of North-East Scotland like the granite that is so much a feature of the landscape here. I admit that I have been freely resorting to cake. No doubt a little whisky may also be prescribed. But there’s nothing for it but to keep bashing on.

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