FORMER soldier Grant Nicolle will never forget his journey from John o’ Groats to Land’s End with Clydesdale cross, Marv
I learned to ride when I served as a captain in the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery, a ceremonial mounted unit of the army, then based in London’s St John’s Wood. After the army, I moved to Edinburgh and in 2005 began work as a project manager in the construction industry. It was a time of transition in my personal life as well as workwise, and I frequently reminisced about the exciting challenges I experienced during my military career.
I still hankered after adventure and came up with the idea of a long-distance journey in the UK by horse, in an effort to recreate the mostly forgotten experience of long distance travel pre-20th century. With my affinity with horses, passion for exploring new places and understanding of logistical planning, I thought I had the relevant skills to undertake the challenge of traversing the length of Britain with a horse.
With the decision to complete the trip made, I was lucky enough to secure a three-month sabbatical from work, to give me enough time to plan for and undertake the journey.
I bought Marv, a cross, from a farm in East Lothian in the January and soon started the fitness training and logistical planning required. We set off from John o’ Groats on the last day of April, as this was when I thought it would be warm enough to be able to travel without rugs for Marv but also early enough in the year to escape the dreaded midge when traversing the Highlands.
Keeping away from the main roads, Marv and I explored the fascinating byways, tracks and minor roads through rural Scotland and England, with me often sleeping in the same field as my horse. The generosity and genuine welcome received in every village we visited was uplifting. My Scottish highlights included having to construct a makeshift enclosure next to a remote bothy in Sutherland; crossing the stunning and remote Strath Vaich; the high-level crossing of the Corrieyairack Pass from Fort Augustus to Laggan, and cantering along a grassy former Roman Road (Dere Street) just south of Jedburgh deep into the Cheviots towards the border with England.
When passing through the industrial north of England, we used canal towpaths where we could, as well as the newly created Pennine bridle path. Later on, it was only good fortune that we kept just ahead of the terrible flooding which hit the south of England that year, needing to divert from our planned route only once, near Evesham.
We averaged no more than 20 miles a day, with at least every Sunday taken as a day off.
I rode Marv daily for a limited time in trot and canter (if the ground was suitable), also frequently dismounting and walking with him for longer periods each day. The rationale behind this was that riding Marv in walk would have been no faster and, by walking, the daily pressure on Marv’s back was substantially reduced. Marv would therefore be more likely to remain healthy for the duration and a sound Marv was paramount to the success of the trip.
Although I hadn’t originally planned to raise money for charity, we did collect £10,000, split between the International League for the Protection of Horses (ILPH) and Cancer Research UK, with many donations from people we met on the road.
This adventure was a great opportunity to test and combine my military-endurance experience and navigational and equestrian training, whilst also seeing parts of the country that so often get missed.
With no back-up or replacement horse, we arrived exactly on the planned completion date at Land’s End, some 1,100 miles and just over 11 weeks later. ■
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