Sunday, 20 July 2008

Bridle Paths by A.F. Tschiffely

This recent acquisition is in the nature of a historical document since it describes a countryside that, even in the Highlands, had disappeared before I was born. I count myself lucky to be able to remember a local farmer ploughing with horses, while one of the great treats of childhood was the arrival of the smith to shoe a horse, which he did using the equipment in the smithy that we owned (we bought the property with resident elderly blacksmith, who lived out his days brewing tea at the forge and chatting to his elderly cronies; we inherited the smithy cat, too). In Bridle Paths, my childhood hero, A.F. Tschiffely, set off in the early 1930s to ride round the rural byways of England and Wales. He made the journey with a bay mare Violet, "of no particular breed" who, coincidentally, since he borrowed her for the occasion, shared her name with his wife.

My admiration for Tschiffely began when I was about 10, and read his book A Tale of Two Horses. This recounted the story of his famous ride from Buenos Aires to Washington (1925-28), from the point of view of his two Criolla horses, Mancha and Gato. Pony-mad, I absorbed every word of their story in countless re-readings. So this later book was irresistible.

I said that it is a historical document – this is true not only in its depiction of Britain, but also in the author's opinions and writing style. His habit of surrounding with quotation marks anything "slangy" nearly drove me "mad", though happily he stopped doing it with "Violet's" name after the first chapter (possibly because he came up against the same punctuation difficulty that I have just done!) Anyway, "pub" is treated so throughout and, as he stayed in many, it was pretty irritating. The following passage is representative of his writing (both here and elsewhere):

Let poets write about balmy tropical breezes, waving palms, silvery moons and myriads of [sic] bright twinkling stars reflected on tropical seas with their phosphorescent flashes, in their fits and spasms of "inspiration," or owing to total ignorance of facts, omitting to glorify mosquitoes, gnats, sand-flies, suffocating heat, poisonous plants, fever and disease. Let them forge words and juggle with them, but give me the cool breezes and clear streams of temperate zones, fields of green and gold; the only paradises fit for gods, and the men who made them.

Actually, I can't argue, though I wouldn't express it quite like that. The photographs, incidentally, are wonderful – six tiny black-and-white images to some pages, showing virtually indistinguishable features of English countryside (my particular favourite is three bands of grey, indicating foreground, distance and sky, captioned The South Downs). There is an account of a local carnival in Evesham, attended by 'Char-à-bancs filled with thirsty people from the "Black Country"' and a considerable number of complaints about the increasing traffic on roads and through villages – Tschiffely was generally very conscious that England was undergoing rapid change. At times, though, he underestimates just how fast:

Here I must remark that if road engineers took the trouble to study the question carefully, a great deal of unnecessary animal suffering could be avoided if roads were built of suitable materials.

Thousands of horses are still hauling loads over roads throughout England. Since most of the pavement is very hard and slippery, the unfortunate animals' tasks have not only been made extremely difficult, but also a veritable torture.
I remembered, reading this book, that I had preferred A Tale of Two Horses to the book commonly published as Tschiffely's Ride, precisely because it focused on the horse's point of view; while commentary on human characteristics is ever-present, it is quirkier in its expression. I would have liked more about horses and the countryside in Bridle Paths, though there's a good passage on Fell Ponies – he would have been delighted to see the work of the Fell Pony Society in keeping the breed going today. In case his readers would care to emulate his journey, at the end of the book there is a list of the equipment he took, and an exhortation to pony clubs to produce maps of local bridleways and back roads. I don't know whether this was ever done, but a bit of googling tells me that there is an organisation which promotes long distance riding.

Bridle Paths was a diverting – and quick – read, and I thoroughly enjoyed the sense that I was renewing an acquaintance with an old friend. While I don't think such a dated piece of writing would be everyone's "cup of tea" (oh dear, sorry, I'll stop doing that now), I think visitors who return to this blog – and therefore must share some of my interests - might be amused.