I sometimes think that a secret England lies just at the periphery of our experience. If we find it at all, it is there in the old, densely-patterned rural landscape where there is history, nature, beauty and all the signs of a long settled land. Visiting country houses has often given me a feeling of engagement with this historic England, but, privately, I have yearned for a means of getting to know the landscapes that those houses belong to even better, following their stories in the quiet topography in between.
Two enterprising equestriennes, Charlotte Sainsbury-Plaice and Zara Colchester, have come up with a solution: a series of a guided rides, with meticulously planned itineraries along old bridleways and private roads combined with hospitality in country houses and historic farmhouses along the route. With a touch of Noel Coward-ish brio, they have called their company Stately Rides, and it has attracted visitors from America, Mexico and France. Charlotte adds: ‘We even hosted a Spanish duke last year.’
These carefully researched rides, especially in the Cotswolds and in Warwickshire, are a brilliant opportunity to sink into the landscape and spend time savouring a place. The hospitality the hosts arrange is generous and warm; for instance, I enjoyed the stately charms of Wormington Grange, Gloucestershire, a Queen Anne house extended in the late 18th century and again in 1827, which is the family home of John Evetts and his partner, Annie Dowty. ‘We love hosting the riding parties,’ says Annie. ‘Houses such as these were built for entertaining.’
Arrival at such an elegantly placed building is always a treat, but riding down the tree-lined drive on horseback feels as if we are in the pages of a 19th-century novel. Horses are whisked away, and guests are entertained to drinks in the lofty drawing room. We have a delicious supper party
at the polished Regency dining table where the conversation ranges from the Curzon crypt at Kedleston and the future of the English countryside to the joys of Sicily.
The landscape we explore on this north- Cotswolds ride, around Broadway, Stanway and Snowshill, is astonishingly beautiful: an intimate, folded landscape that is both open and hidden, with little sunken lanes cutting through a complex patchwork of fields. The views are matchless: the Vale of Evesham, the Malvern Hills and the Welsh Marches beyond. To ride out from houses such as Wormington and look out on such a view from horseback, as sun and clouds chase each other across the landscape, is an unforgettable, even cinematic sensation.
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Charlotte and Zara prove to be the perfect companion-guides, enthusiastic, passionate about horses, landscape, fine houses and fun, they cater for all standards of rider (including, luckily, rather inexperienced ones such as me) and have sourced well-mannered horses. They know these areas well, having ridden around them, and hunted them, since childhood. They relate the history of all the country houses we pass along the way, including Snowshill Manor and Middle Hill, and point out James Wyatt’s Broadway Tower, built for the Earl and Countess of Coventry and leased for a time by William Morris and Burne-Jones. Charlotte and Zara arrange for lunches in grand houses, farmhouses and cottages with mellow views, and they know all the best stops for picnics, with rugs and chairs draped in green velvet.
The rides have inspired a new book they have collaborated on together, England on Horseback. Handsomely illustrated by Charlotte’s sporting photographer husband, Charlie, it has an enthusiastic foreword by Jeremy Irons, who writes: ‘Make your way into the open air… watch as the shadows of the clouds move across the face of our Earth. And just maybe, peace might creep into your soul. Best of all, if you can, get out on horseback. Being at one with an animal can be the beginning of being at one with all things.’
The book comprises 12 meticulously researched circular rides in different parts of England, of two or three days’ durations, using mostly bridle paths and taking in unspoilt countryside. Areas include the Heart of England, East Anglia, Hardy’s Dorset and Cranborne Chase, Exmoor, the Vale of Belvoir, the Welsh Borders, the Yorkshire Moors, the Surrey-Sussex commons and the Shropshire Hills. Charlotte and Zara have ridden them all over the past year, often in the company of locals.
As we wind our way on horseback through this typical patchwork of fields and drover’s roads, and mellow,æ honey-coloured stone cottages and farmhouses that feel as if they have grown out of the landscape, I am struck by how very few people we have seen-only a handful really, except in Snowshill (or ‘Snozzle’, as it seems to be called locally). We have had all this to ourselves. Our ride has, indeed, been in that secret England.
‘England on Horseback’ is published by Clearview Books at £25. For details of rides, visit www.statelyrides.co.uk