This blog takes a break from the theme of horse-riding-holiday preparations and introduces a new topic of exploring at home. The explore at home theme is about the local rides you have always wanted to do. The rides that don’t break the bank like a horse riding holiday and are easy to fit into our busy lives. The type of rides you go on when you’re on a family vacation.
Note: This is a longer blog than I usually write as I want to present a detailed account of this experience.
As a treat for my birthday, I finally booked myself on to a two-hour beach ride that I have wanted to do for years. For as many summers over the last decade, I have had the intention to go on this beach ride. But I never got around to it for whatever reason. A few months back I decided this was going to be the year and a week before my birthday I booked a 10:00 am Thursday morning two-hour hack through Penhale Sand Dunes and on Penhale Beach located on the North coast of Cornwall. The host for this ride is Reen Manor Riding Stables, Perranporth (19 miles and a 40-minute drive from where I live).
Here I’m going to own up to not entirely being a novice explorer in Perranporth. For me, this indulgence is more of a reminisce than an exploration. The reason is three months before my sixteenth birthday, I moved to the town of Perranporth and spent two wonderful years there. Since then Perranporth has always had a special place in my heart.
That was back in the late 1980s, and in the years between then and now, Perranporth has grown to be a popular tourist destination with a large bar, The Watering Hole, on the beach. The Watering Hole is a venue that has expanded from a one-room hideout for the locals that only opened for the summer season to an open all-year-round bar and restaurant where international bands play. Perranporth’s popularity and the draw of The Watering Hole mean the town and beach are always vibrant and busy throughout the spring and summer making it difficult to park. So, I rarely get to visit my temporary hometown of old.
I’m up early. So, I leave early. It’s a lovely morning when I leave home: breezy but dry. The forecast is for light rain later, so I appreciate the early sunshine. The route I take is one I had been on countless times during the two years I lived in Perranporth. The drive seems to fly by as I’m soon approaching Goonhaven village two and a half miles east of the town. I’m an hour early, so I decide to drive through Reen Cross and drive pass where I used to live. I can’t help but smile as I turn down a narrow lane with high Cornish hedges, through Reen Cross, past my old home and take a right at the bottom of the hill to go along New Road from Bolingey into Perranporth. I didn’t drive when I lived here, which meant I walked this route of over a mile to get into town. I also used to walk over a mile to catch the college bus at Goonhaven.
My smile gets broader as I roll over the speed bumps on St Piran’s Road, Perranporth’s main street. There is still the same collection of surf shops, eateries and takeaways. Ownership and names may have changed, but it all looks familiar. Memories are flooding back: the laughter, the tears, young love and carefree days. After I turn right onto Beach Road, I go by the Twywarnhayle public house, beach cafes and the large carpark on the promenade. My journey ends at the top of a steep incline on Cliff Road where there is another carpark, and an on-road parking bay that overlooks the southern end of one of Cornwall’s flagship beaches.
Stretching out in front of me is the three-mile expanse of sand that is Perran Beach and Penhale Beach (aka Perranporth Beach) that ends at Ligger Point to the north. Beyond Ligger Point is the headland of Penhale Point and the distant Gull Rocks. This morning there is an off-shore wind, which is usually great news for the surfers. Unfortunately, the Atlantic Ocean is feeding the Celtic Sea a serene swell with small waves. Despite the lack of height, there are still a few surfers trying their luck. The surfers aren’t the only beachgoers this morning. Perranporth Beach is dog-friendly all year round; already there are quite a few dog walkers wrapped up in their jackets. It may not be the best conditions for surfers. But underneath a fractured blanket of high white cloud, it is perfect conditions for horse riding.
Located on the east side of Perranporth, Reen Manor Riding Stables is down a narrow lane of the B3285: A one-and-a-half-mile drive from the centre of town. At about 9:25 am, I pull up in a level gravel carpark at the side of a post-and-rail sand-covered arena. In front of me, is a bottle green and silver horse trailer and a fantastic view looking down over the south side of the town.
A fit and healthy young couple are behind their black Renault Clio putting on black half-chaps and riding hats. They are holidaymakers from Brighton who are here for the beach ride. The young woman’s excitement and joy at being here lift my already inflated happiness at being back in my old haunt. That said, I am in exploring territory now because although I lived less than a mile away from the stables, I’ve never been here before. The carpark overlooks the yard, where I can see two young women with long hair tied back in ponytails consulting with their mobile phones. They are by an open gateway signposted as the way to the reception. One of the young women has a borrowed black silk less helmet. Her companion has her own black chaps and a hat. With my half chaps and riding hat on, I follow the young couple’s path down from the carpark into a cleanly sweep yard where there is a line of weight carrying feathered cob-type horses tacked up and tethered to the north side whitewashed wall. I continue through the gateway opposite where I’d spotted the pair of mobile phone consulters stood earlier.
I find the young couple stood outside an open doorway in a courtyard of outbuildings. Inside the doorway, a young woman is seated at a desk. She is on the phone taking an enquiry. A few moments later an even younger woman with long blonde hair and a Reen Manor Riding Stables Staff strappy top on appears with forms and pens on clipboards. She politely hands a clipboard and pen to each of us and requests we complete a form.
As we hand our forms back, the other young woman ends her phone call and starts to takes our payments. Though she is the eldest of the young women working here this morning, she is still fresh-faced enough to be in her twenties. She then allocates us a horse by giving us a name. When she looks my way she says, 'You can ride Dan.' We’re then told to go back to where the horses are tethered out on the yard and wait behind a short post-and-rail fence. Our horse will be led up to a long mounting block so we can get on with ease.
The first horse’s name to be called out has been given to one of the mobile phone consulters: A pretty long dark-haired young woman with the borrowed hat. Her mount is a large bay cob with a blaze and two white socks. Now separated, her friend walks over to wait beside me. She comments: ‘I don’t know why I feel nervous.’
I try to reassure her with my usual comparison of liking it to a first date. Will I like the horse? Will the horse like me? She tells me she is an experienced rider who has always ridden thoroughbreds. However, a few months ago she fell off and broke a rib. She is only just getting back into the saddle with a few rides under her belt before this one. Her horse's name is the next to be called. She has been allocated a black horse with a white star called Guinness. With the two friends on their horses, the female half of the young couple has her horse's name called out. A smaller bay with a large star is led over to the mounting block for her to get on. The bay’s pink saddle cloth matches the bright-pink socks the long-blonde haired young woman leading him has on.
Then Dan’s name is called. Being led over is a piebald cob tacked up in a three-ring snaffle bridle put on over a sky-blue headcollar. Dan is approximately 15.2 hands high. He has a growing-out black and white mane that lays equally on both sides giving him a middle parting. ‘This is Dan. Dan is great. His walk is a bit slow but he moves in trot and canter.’
I give Dan a pat and mount. Dan is led back and re-tied to the wall. My stirrups are adjusted ready for canter work and the saddle girth is tightened. There is another similar looking piebald tethered next to Dan. The difference is Dan’s dominant colour is black with a black tail, the other piebald’s dominant colour is white with a black and white tail. A slim American woman wearing aviator sunglasses is on the piebald. She tells me she arrived yesterday from Texas. This ride is the first activity of her holiday. Although, her mother owns a horse she hasn’t ridden much herself.
With everyone mounted, stirrups adjusted and girths tightened, the two members of staff get on their horses and position themselves so everyone can hear a briefing. Now on a small skewbald (small relative to the size of the other horses in the ride), the young woman who took our money introduces herself as Elaine. Elaine then introduces us to Rachel, the polite young woman who has been helping us to get on our horses, who is on a small black horse. Both have pulled on a high-visibility layer. Elaine has a first aid bag around her waist.
As Elaine briefs us she comes across as quite serious. I suppose you have to be to keep everyone safe and in order. The first part of the ride will be mostly over the Penhale Sands Dunes. She will then brief us again before we go down to the beach. Elaine will ride at the front and Rachel will ride at the back. There are a couple of roads to cross that require Rachel to ride up to the front so she can hold the traffic while the rest of us follow Elaine across. We’re not to let our horses eat. On a furrowed section of trail, we’re to make sure our horses pick their feet up, so they don’t trip. The ride on the dunes will be used to assess us in trot and canter. Anyone not experienced enough or those of us who do not want to canter can go with Rachel at a slower pace. Elaine will take everyone else in the canter group in the opposite direction. The final instruction is to stay in single file and in the order that we are put in for this is where the horses work best.
A meek slip of a girl with long blonde pigtails, who can barely be out of the school years, appears to assist with getting everyone in line. When Elaine calls out a horse’s name, the girl takes off the headcollar or unclips the lead rope (some of the horses keep their headcollar on under their bridle) and lines them up ready to go. Dan is keen. He turns himself in the direction of travel as the line starts to form. First in line behind Elaine is the female of the couple on the bay with the pink saddle cloth. Behind her is her partner. He's on the biggest horse in the ride, a handsome dapple-grey called Dublin. Dublin is at the least part shire horse. I am next with Dan. The thoroughbred rider on Guinness is behind me, followed by her friend on the larger of the two bay horses. In penultimate place is the Texan on the piebald with the black and white tail. Rachel takes up her position at the rear.
We take a left up the hill passing the carpark and outdoor school then turn left and proceed northwards up the high-hedge lane that I had driven down. Though it is warm enough to ride without a light waterproof jacket on now that the breeze has dropped, we all have this layer on in anticipation of the forecasted rain. The horses make slow progress up to the main road going by the cricket club and football club grounds. To make friends, I give Dan encouragement and pats. At the same time, his constant urge to eat keeps me vigilant. Thankfully the farmer has been down the lane recently with his hedge cutter. So, there isn’t anything too tempting sticking out for a horse to snatch. Though the walk is slow, we don’t drop behind as the skewbald, Elaine is riding up front is equally as slow. Elaine does have to stop a couple of times to wait for the horses behind me to catch up. It is apparent that Guinness is a very slow walker and a gap opens up between him and Dan.
Elaine halts at the junction of the B3285 and waits for Rachel to join her at the front. We're reminded of the protocol for crossing the road. While Rachel holds the traffic, Elaine will lead us straight across the carriageway to a footpath on the other side. When the coast is clear, Rachel gets into position in the centre of the road on our nearside. Elaine leads the rest of us safely across.
Our route continues on a short muddy footpath with furrows. Dan is tested here as the warm showery weather over the last couple of days has made everything grow in abundance. In places, he has vegetation practically touching his nose. I keep the contact that I had taken up to cross the main road to assist him with the temptation. He makes a couple of half-hearted attempts to eat when I have to let the reins out so he can see where he is going over the patches of particularly furrow or sticky ground.
Elaine halts the ride again at the end to allow for Rachel to ride up ready to take up her position on another road. Before we set off, Elaine explains that we’re going to take a right and briefly ride down the road until we reach a gateway. We must take care not to catch our stirrup irons on the parked cars and watch our knees as we ride through the gateway onto the Penhale Sands Dunes. Dan is again as good as gold and listens to me as I keep away from the cars and go through the gateway that Elaine has opened.
Penhale Sands Dunes are said to be Cornwall’s largest dune system (around 650 hectares) and the highest in Britain. This rolling grassland and wetland have been designated a Special Area of Conservation and a Site of Special Scientific Interest. At the north end is the Penhale Army Training Estate. At the south end is the oratory and church of St Piran, the Patron Saint of Cornwall. I’m back in familiar territory happily down in memory lane. The parked cars are where my friends at the time parked their cars when we came to the dunes to walk their dogs. With a pair of Rottweilers, a Borzoi and sometimes a miniature Dachshund, we’d walked the network of sandy tracks to St Piran's Cross, which marked the place of the then buried ruin of St Piran's church. Because the dunes were so close to home, it was the most frequented walk that we went on.
Elaine tells us that we will have a few short trots and canters on the dunes to get used to our horse before we get to the beach. We are to keep on the path that she walks and watch out for rabbit holes. All the horses are used to dogs; however, we will take care when we approach any dog walkers and their canine friends. In trot and canter, Elaine will make a signal by raising an arm to tell us we are going to slow down a gait. When we canter, we will always trot and then canter. When Elaine raises her arm, we will return to trot and then walk.
Our course continues northwards to navigate around the east side of Perran Sands Holiday Park. Elaine proceeds at the same leisurely pace as before giving us the opportunity to enjoy our ride across the dunes. To start the sand trails, go through a rolling lush-green grassland of inland dunes, which is kept cropped by rabbits. As you progress closer to the sea, the dunes heighten, there are large bunkers of sand, and marram grass becomes widespread.
We have a short taster trot not too far from the gateway. A squeeze with my legs gets Dan going. He comes back to walk when asked. His trot felt bouncy. We don’t trot again until Elaine has moved us through some semi-bogy ground that isn’t suitable for anything other than walk. She also has to consider the dog walkers. Although they keep their distance, they still have to be passed respectfully. Back on the more suitable ground, there is another short trot. A short canter follows not long after. Dan is willing to go and has a smooth canter. Unfortunately, it is me who brings the ride back to walk when I lose my stirrup. Elaine gently reminds me to keep my heels down.
On the other side of a second gateway, there is a steep dune to go up and down. Elaine reminds everyone to lean forward going up and to lean back going down. Dublin, the big dapple grey takes his time on the climbs, which means Dan keeps getting right up behind him and I have to halt to open a gap so Dan can see where he is going. Thankfully, Dublin and Dan seem to like each other as there are no objections from either horse when the gap gets repeatedly closed. I’m now back in explore territory as we have passed St Piran’s Cross, the turning point of my past dog walks, and we’re closing in on the beach.
At the end of our final descent, we join the southwest coast path. It is a level stretch that has a short drop down onto the beach. This drop is demonstrated by a beagle dog that inquisitively comes towards the horses on the path. Elaine dismounts as her skewbald isn’t too keen on dogs. She waves her arms in the air to get the attention of the beagle’s owner, who is closer to the shoreline than the dunes. He’s too far away to call the dog back. Luckily, the owner has a whistle. On this recall, the beagle shoots down the drop and sprints across the sand to his owner’s side.
Elaine again halts the ride at the north end of the level path, just before we drop down onto the beach. We’re asked to check girths and make sure we are happy with our stirrups. Dan’s girth is tight enough. However, when I glance over to look at Guinness, I can see his girth is loose. I let his rider know, and she tightens it up. Elaine and Rachel have decided to split the ride. Elaine is going to take the young couple, the two friends and me. Rachel is going to take the Texan in the opposite direction on a slower paced ride. We’re reminded to keep in a single file. Elaine repeats her instructions on how to react when she raises her arm. If there are any issues, we are to shout, and Elaine will stop the ride. We will always trot first and then canter and then trot again to come back to walk. Elaine comments that because the tide is coming in the sand may be too soft. She will see for sure when we get down there. With the briefing over, we drop down a sandy bank onto the beach.
Elaine waits for Rachel to peel of with the Texan on the other piebald, who turn southwards in the direction of Perran Sands Holiday Park and the town of Perranporth. She leads us across powdery sand onto a band of semi-wet sand exposed earlier by a retreating tide. Where I parked this morning on the cliff top in Perranporth is now one and a quarter mile to the south as the crow flies. We are at the quiet and less used north end of Penhale Beach on a section I had never been to before. Most of my previous visits were at the southern end. The farthest, I have ever ventured northwards is to the Perran Sands Holiday Park beach entrance, which is over half a mile away.
On the wet sand close to the sea line, we turn northwards to face Ligger Point. Elaine calls back we are going to canter. Dan responds to my leg aids. He is enthusiastic. I have to give him a half halt to get him into a rhythmic canter behind Dublin. His canter is comfortable. I don’t lose my stirrup this time as I find my soft seat. When he starts to slow, I squeeze with my legs to keep him going. When Elaine’s arm goes up to bring the ride back to trot and then walk, he responds straight away. We’ve covered most of the distance between the point where we rode onto the beach and Ligger Point at the north end. Elaine checks back that we’re all okay. I’m not sure what went on behind me. It looks like Guinness and the large bay at the back weren't too keen to canter as another large gap has opened up between Guinness and Dan. Dublin and the smaller bay behind Elaine were like Dan, responsive and kept up. The young couple riding them have big smiles on their faces to match mine. Smiles that are lit up further by sunrays breaking through the white cloud.
Elaine turns a curve to point us back down the beach. We walk for a short time, splashing through the warm shallows to let the horses get their breaths back. There are a few dog walkers out. However, because the beach is roomy and sparse of people, nobody gets in anyone's way. Elaine gives the call again to say we are going to canter. This time I have a very different horse. Dan has warmed up, and he loves the beach. Dan, Dublin and the smaller bay in front of Dublin all want to go. They have slight staying in line issues because they want to gallop. Though, he gets close up to Dublin and sometimes at Dublin’s side, he listens to my half halts and never goes pass Dublin’s quarters. With constant half halts, he drops into a rhythm that is easy to ride. After we are brought back to trot and then walk, I laugh with the young couple about our horses staying in line issues. Our horses all seem to get on so it’s not a problem, and for the most part, they were in single file.
Another walk in the shallows takes us up to the point where we had dropped onto the beach. I can see Rachel and the Texan further down close to the Perran Sands Holiday Park beach entrance. Because the tide is coming in, it is nearly at the point where the 3-mile beach is temporarily split into two smaller beaches at high tide by the protruding cliffs between Carn Clew and Cotty’s Point.
Another canter is instigated still going south towards Rachel and the Texan. Dan is vibrant and fully channelling his inner thoroughbred. Again, the young couple's horses and mine are bunched up behind Elaine’s skewbald. Guinness and the large bay have livened up. The reason is the large bay is now in front of Guinness. I hear the large bay clomp up behind Dan. Dan wants to run on, yet he listens when I ask him to go behind Dublin. Finding himself at the rear, Guinness puts a spurt on to keep up.
We return to walk when we reach Rachel and the Texan. They are on their return trip heading north back to the place where we dropped down onto the beach. To give them the time to get there, Elaine leads us on southwards. The next canter is a short burst as we are not far from the Perran Sands Holiday Park entrance. When we turn to face north ourselves, Elaine tells us that the horses aren’t allowed go any further south during the summer season.
We have a long canter back to catch up with Rachel and the Texan. Dan is still channelling his inner thoroughbred, and I have to apply half halts for most of the way. He keeps to a nice rhythm. This time when the large bay and Guinness canter up behind, we keep our half a horse length behind Dublin. I'm enjoying my ride too much to ascertain what is going on with the horses behind. I think the two friends have to apply some strong aides to get their horses cantering nicely. I hear one of the friends tell her horse, ‘Get back in line.’ It is only momentary, and soon all the horses settle into their stride.
Everyone is jubilant with smiles as we regroup as a ride and leave the beach. We return to Reen Manor Riding Stables using the same route we had ridden on to get to the beach. The horses have all benefited from the fast riding. They stride with purpose now with the added incentive of being on the way home. Dan appreciates the long rein I give him that I have found makes him walk quicker than a tight contact. Despite their new-found energy, Elaine gives the horses a short halt at the top of the dune coming off the beach as it is quite long and steep. Dan gets right up behind Dublin, who doesn’t seem to mind at all. I comment, ‘Is that your buddy?’
Elaine calls back, ‘Dan and Dublin do get on. I think it’s because they came to the stables about the same time.’
For the rest of the ride, the horses continue with gusto, buoyed on by a couple of bursts of trot. Where I can, I keep Dan on a long rein, which he continues to appreciate with an active forward walk. With midday almost upon us, nature has come out in force across Penhale Sand Dunes. The songbirds serenade us with their sweet tweets. Butterflies flutter by, and rabbits hop a hasty retreat if the horses come too close. Dan gets a lot of pats on the way back. He’s been such a good boy. He even waits to be told he can have something to eat when all the other horses already have their heads down.
Back at the yard, I halt and wait for the meek girl to lead Dan over to the tether ring and clip his lead rope back onto this head collar. I dismount roll up my stirrups and loosen Dan’s girth. While I reward him with more pats, Rachel comes over and loosens Dan’s girth some more, 'How was he?'
‘He loves the beach. He really wanted to fly.’
‘Yes, he does get going.’
Elaine and Rachel have been great guides always ensuring everyone has heard instructions. They carried radios so they could keep in contact with each other. Elaine had checked throughout that everyone was okay and enjoying themselves. We’re all exhilarated having had a fabulous ride.
The next blog post will return to the horse riding holiday preparation theme and the safety consideration of riding in a helmet or sunhat. To be notified of future blog posts and publications, you can follow me on facebook and twitter.