Xato and the Punchbowl Expedition

For the past two weekends in a row, Ben and I have been enjoying exploring the Punchbowl with our respective steeds. I prefer the Punchbowl over the common at weekends, because it is a lot quieter – few horse riders venture in because there are a lot of gates and very few places to canter, and most walkers start from the cafe and hang around that area. So we often have the place to ourselves. The Punchbowl is one of my favourite places on earth so I like pretending it’s our own personal secret!

The Punchbowl has inspired others. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of my beloved Sherlock Holmes series, wrote the Hound of the Baskervilles while staying on the other side of the valley; and in this photo, we’re heading down to Punchbowl Farm which was the setting for Monica Edwards‘ eponymous series.
And it’s easy to see why it’s such an inspiring place, when you have views like this!
Or like this…
…Or like this!

Xato has quickly learnt what his job is; to carry me serenely around scenic places, and wait patiently while I get that perfect vista photo. I know some people might be shaking their heads and tutting at me for doing this, particularly with an inexperienced mount. But the way I see it, I’m teaching him his job: this is my thing, it’s why I love riding out. I enjoy experiencing the countryside from a unique perspective and I enjoy sharing my view with others – it’s also great to look back on in years to come, and relive a good ride. I am very aware of him and my environment at all times and wouldn’t film or photograph if I felt that there might be an issue.

Doing his job.
Speaking of paying attention – this is me pointing out to Ben that there’s a Landrover behind him! On that ride we met three 4x4s who were enjoying a bit of off-roading. All very polite and Xato was unconcerned.

Our most recent expedition took two and a half hours and involved us circumnavigating the Punchbowl; there is a cafe on the opposite side of the valley and I’ve always wanted to ride to it. Now I have!

Last weekend, Ben led Iris because she was only recently sound again after her altercation with the fence; she is ready to ride again now, but Ben felt that it would be unkind to make her carry him around the Punchbowl on her first day back! So they both walked again. That was no mean feat so I am very grateful to Ben for accompanying us. I do need to get Xato riding out alone, but I’m still building my confidence. These regular rides out with friends are helping a lot, and I am able to practice in a safe environment.

Xato is obsessed with eating bracken, as apparently no one has told him that it’s bad for equines. I like how he has one ear on me as I slide my hand down the rein to block him…
Vista #1.
Ponies! It might be hard to make out, but if you take a diagonal line north-east from the tip of Xato’s right ear, you should be able to see them. The Punchbowl is grazed by a small herd of Exmoor ponies and Highland cattle. We met the cattle last week, but they were in a field; it will be interesting when we meet them out on the trail!
Just doing his thing.

The best part of the ride was being able to go along the very rim of the Punchbowl, on what used to be a major A road. In 2011 they finished building a mile-long tunnel which took the dual carriageway under the hill instead, and resulted in the Punchbowl being a much quieter place to be. As you can see in the photos, the old road has reverted back to nature quickly.

The old A3.
A golden mule strolling past a large amount of birdsfoot trefoil.
Filming, probably. 😉
We had stopped on the corner to greet a trio of small children who wanted to pat the horses – Ben explained that Xato was actually a mule and told them a little about him, and as we rode away I heard the boy excitedly telling his father that Xato was half donkey and very clever. This was a better accolade than one of the girls, who announced that Iris and Xato were smelly!
Talking of smells, Xato finds a good smell to smell.
Then we have a little conversation about how walking through bracken is not the answer to his bracken-eating woes.
Still, all worth it for the view. We normally ride down in the depths, so it was cool to climb up and get a wider view.

We didn’t stop at the cafe; it was Xato’s first time, and leaving one person to hold both equines while the other went to buy drinks was perhaps not the most sensible option. Next time we’re there, hopefully. Xato was a little worried at first – there were a lot of people doing erratic things – but once he realised that it had nothing to do with him he settled very quickly. We even stood for ages while chatting to a lovely family who also posed with him for pictures. Joggers, cyclists, dogs, pushchairs, and small children running around screaming did not phase him; even the untended small boys kicking stones towards us did not bother him. I was watching them out of the corner of my eye and was prepared to go full Scary Lady if they came too close, but luckily they seemed to realise that what they were doing was kind of stupid. Children! Give me mules any day.

The thing that worried Xato most was this rock, and I think it was because of the relief on top – I don’t think he could figure out what it was.
Xato being a damn fine ambassador for mules.

It was a really excellent ride. We even went home via the very steep descent into the Smallbrook valley, which I was terrified about but lived to tell the tale. The photos don’t do it justice, but it is a pretty steep hill with plenty of rocks and uneven steps. Xato used to like rushing downhill but he’s got a lot better since we’ve been traversing the Punchbowl. I think it’s made him think harder about how he handles himself.

What lovely blonde tails we have. 😛
On top of the world.
Posing with Granny’s bench. She wasn’t my Granny but I really wish I had known her.
Vista #2, looking back at vista #1.
The biggest thing I learnt from this ride is holy heck I need to keep my heels down. What are they doing? Where do they think they are going? Damn it!
And the terrifying descent into oblivion … sort of. He’s being so careful.

I love this mule! We had the Red Arrows display team come overhead while we were out, too; and as you probably suspected, Xato didn’t bat an eyelid at them either. He is an extraordinarily good boy.

To finish, here’s a musical montage of video clips from Ben and me.

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