Living in Wales – a country defined by rural rolling hills, coastal sea towns, deep valleys and the birth place of the industrial revolution thanks to rich coal deposits in the valleys – Michael Sullivan promised himself he’d ride a horse before his 80th birthday. There are many horses and ‘pony trekking’ operations all over this country of 300,000 people. And we are a random group people at one of them.
Today is Mr. Sullivan’s 79th birthday and for the first time in his life, he’s astride a mount. He’s joined our small group of horse enthusiast who, like me, believe the back of a horse is the best way to tour new landscapes when travelling.
We’re at the Ogmore-by-the-sea riding school, a family farm outside of the country’s capital city Cardiff, and adjacent to the Merthyr Mawr Warren National Nature Reserve near stretches of beach, steep cliffs, sand dunes and forest. I’m on a sturdy, obedient, multi-coloured Irish Cobb who’s done this route many times. Yet I’m concerned my weekly riding training isn’t up to British standard.
Turns out, I’m right.
We start off slowly, a light walk and some trot and I handle this stride comfortably and easily. Mr. Sullivan is keeping up, and his friends are driving along the edge of the park far in the distance waving and encouraging. Then, he and a guide turn back and head to the barn, promising to come back another day.
It was like the pace car leaving the Indy 500 race track.
We were off – the remainder of the group cantering across the beach, trotting through narrow winding paths through the forest and, at my insistence, walking up the side of a hill to stand for a moment and take in the surveyor’s eye view of one of the many sea-connected straights that seem to spray this hardy country with a coating of chill vapour.
This is the most vigorous, demanding, almost reckless trail ride I’ve ever been on with the owner riding ahead showing off horsemanship skills and racing up the mountainside, and a new young trainee along for the ride trying to satisfy her boss’s demand to get the animals moving.
The adventure is invigorating. But I chose, or demand, to walk back to the barn along the beach then beside and across a tiny slow moving stream. This is the meditative pace I want to drink in at the end of an exhilarating ride during which I learned I have no English riding skills, by British standards.
And British Wales is uniquely Welsh.
Accessed via London’s Heathrow airport then a train ride to the capital Cardiff (two hours from Paddington Station), Wales fiercely holds its own next to the dominating England. It’s a country defined largely by landscape and language (some still speak the original Welsh along with English). Now that the mining industry has all but ceased and the sheep and wool industry struggles to break even, tourism is being heralded as the contender for the new economic engine.
For those who love coastal towns, cozy pubs, castles and of course the great outdoors, you have arrived. Wales has more castles, or castle remains, per capita than any other European country; Cardiff is a contemporary city built on two millennia of history, the Big Pit mine is a national museum and the city of Swansea celebrates its prodigal son, poet Dylan Thomas. Welcome to Wales – or Crymus, which is derived from the Welsh word for comrade or people.
Cardiff, Swansea, even Blaenafon, are a short driving distance from each other and many visitors make the latter two separate day trips from Cardiff. Between these places, north to south and east to west of the country in fact, are miles of country roads winding past expansive sheep farms, deep valleys leading to former pockets of rich minerals, and crumbling stone castles that to locals are as common as barns, highway roundabouts and harbours offering buoyed boats safe haven from the sea raging along two thirds of the country’s borders.
Primarily rural, horses and riding opportunities dot the landscape. So many, you could do a Wales riding vacation here, travelling across the country and riding at each stop – definitely the best way to traverse the peaks and valleys that define this scenic, but still rugged, countryside. That’s on my bucket list and, inspired by my riding companion, I promise to do it before I’m 80.