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When I first came across Over the Hills and Far Away I was immediately enchanted by this magical mixture of a book. Ostensibly it tells of a long-distance ride through the north of England, made to celebrate the author’s recovery from illness; but in fact it is a kind of autobiography, lit up by continual flashes of wit, high spirits and keen observation.

The opening sentences set the tone. ‘I suppose I am happiest of all with the long road in my eye,’ the author writes. ‘I love the thrill of the journey and setting off up unknown tracks with ever the hope of finding heaven knows what over the horizon or around the next bend.’ She reckons she must have ridden 3,000 miles back and forth across England, and finds that her journeys ‘affirm my existence as no other way of life can’.

There is no mystery about the origins of Candida Lycett-Green’s wanderlust and love of horses. Both come from her mother, that formidable traveller and author Penelope Betjeman, who brought up her family at the foot of the Berkshire Downs, and ceaselessly drove her children about in a small trolley-cart pulled by a pony, or led them on rides along the Ridgeway, the prehistoric track that follows the crests of those chalky hills.

Candida inherited an attractive streak of eccentricity, partly from her mother, partly from her father John, the Poet Laureate. Camping out for the first time at Seven Barrows, supposedly a haunted spot, at the age of 8, she and a friend knelt by their beds and under her mother’s direction sang ‘Oh come to my heart, Lord Jesus’ to dispel the ghosts. Needless to say, they ‘didn’t sleep a wink’ that night. In the summer of 1999, in her fifties, she was suddenly diagnosed with breast cancer. Her description of how she faced the nightmare, bolstered by the love of her husband Rupert, is most moving. A year later, after an operation and chemotherapy, she bounced back with characteristic resilience and, as a form of ther

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When I first came across Over the Hills and Far Away I was immediately enchanted by this magical mixture of a book. Ostensibly it tells of a long-distance ride through the north of England, made to celebrate the author’s recovery from illness; but in fact it is a kind of autobiography, lit up by continual flashes of wit, high spirits and keen observation.

The opening sentences set the tone. ‘I suppose I am happiest of all with the long road in my eye,’ the author writes. ‘I love the thrill of the journey and setting off up unknown tracks with ever the hope of finding heaven knows what over the horizon or around the next bend.’ She reckons she must have ridden 3,000 miles back and forth across England, and finds that her journeys ‘affirm my existence as no other way of life can’. There is no mystery about the origins of Candida Lycett-Green’s wanderlust and love of horses. Both come from her mother, that formidable traveller and author Penelope Betjeman, who brought up her family at the foot of the Berkshire Downs, and ceaselessly drove her children about in a small trolley-cart pulled by a pony, or led them on rides along the Ridgeway, the prehistoric track that follows the crests of those chalky hills. Candida inherited an attractive streak of eccentricity, partly from her mother, partly from her father John, the Poet Laureate. Camping out for the first time at Seven Barrows, supposedly a haunted spot, at the age of 8, she and a friend knelt by their beds and under her mother’s direction sang ‘Oh come to my heart, Lord Jesus’ to dispel the ghosts. Needless to say, they ‘didn’t sleep a wink’ that night. In the summer of 1999, in her fifties, she was suddenly diagnosed with breast cancer. Her description of how she faced the nightmare, bolstered by the love of her husband Rupert, is most moving. A year later, after an operation and chemotherapy, she bounced back with characteristic resilience and, as a form of therapy, planned an expedition through the Yorkshire Dales, County Durham and Northumberland. Because she was not yet strong enough to ride on her own, she chose as her companion Mark Palmer, ‘a pioneer New Age traveller with an Oxford degree’, endowed with ‘a golden-eyed glamour that was a magnet to his peers’ and an exceptional affinity with every type of equine. To reach their starting-point, they towed their horses in a trailer – Mark’s fine-looking skewbald White Boy, and Candida’s heftier Bertie. When they began the ride, at Bolton Abbey near Skipton , Candida turned out in black jeans and black T-shirt, slightly ashamed that she was not wearing the kit which her mother had considered de rigueur and always referred to as ‘jode poors’. Her hair after chemotherapy was still only half an inch long, and in her saddlebags, besides spare clothes, large-scale maps and a copy of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, she carried ‘requisite quantities of cancer combatants including selenium, beta-carotene, enormous quantities of buffered Vitamin C, maitake mushroom essence and aerobic oxygen’. Away they went, over bleak moors, down into sheltered valleys, through villages with ‘pearl grey cottages clustering up to one another for maximum shelter’. Having crossed Wensleydale and Swaledale, they pressed on through Barnard Castle, followed the Tees upstream, climbed the hills again and dropped down into Weardale, with its abandoned lead mines, heading ever northwards until their route ended in ‘the kingdom of the Dukes of Northumberland’. Whenever she traverses terrain that I myself know, I am struck by the evocative power of her descriptions. Just as, in talking of earlier years, she picks up the ancient vibrations of Wayland’s Smithy and other monuments on the Ridgeway, so in Yorkshire she catches the ‘bleak melancholy’ of the Dales. Coming down off Marrick Moor:
Soon we pass into remoter country along a walled track called Goats Road. A deep tree-lined beck cuts its course between two rounded, bracken-covered hills, and we ford it where it runs wide and shallow.
‘Travelling a new track under a clear sky fills me with boundless hope,’ Candida declares, and her mind keeps ranging back over earlier episodes in her life, often described in present-tense extracts from old diaries: being rowed slowly up the stripling Thames by her father; acting in amateur revues with Willie Rushton at Oxford; working on the first issue of Private Eye with Richard Ingrams; meeting Rupert and driving half-way round the world with him; producing five children; being ‘swept up by the universal love’ which her father inspired, and which overwhelmed her when he died; finding she had cancer; fighting the disease and the terror it created. In less deft hands such multiple flashbacks might have become confusing, but she handles them so crisply that they serve to enliven the duller stretches of the journey. It quickly becomes clear that she has an amazing range of social contacts. Classy names drop into her narrative like showers of rain: Amanda Hartington, Harry Orde-Powlett, John and Tory Oaksey, Paddy Leigh Fermor, John Piper , Debo Devonshire, the Prince of Wales. No wonder Mark once snaps at his companion, ‘The trouble with you, Candida, is that you just know too many toffs.’ She herself is anything but toff-ish: on the contrary, she is funny, down-to-earth, self-deprecating, and made endearing by a streak of off-hand fatalism. Besides, she writes exceedingly well about the landscape, evoking its colours and textures with the touch of an artist, and she responds strongly to anything old, be it tree, building or road. Discerning an ‘ancient way’ through grassland, she feels ‘a calm reassurance in following its direction. It was once well worn, perhaps leading to some place of vanished importance, and its travellers’ spirit remains.’ Whenever they could, the riders stayed with friends, or friends of friends, though they sometimes took refuge from storms in friendly pubs. Looking back from the end of the trail, Candida concludes that just as confronting the prospect of death through cancer helped her go ‘deeper into life’, as though she were ‘refreshing reality’, so the ride brought her closer to the land than ever, and banked up new images of England in her mind. ‘I do not ride to get away,’ she writes. ‘I ride to get closer.’ Anyone who travels with her will finish the journey uplifted by her courage and originality.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 1 © Duff Hart-Davis 2004


About the contributor

Duff Hart-Davis lives in a seventeenth-century farmhouse on the Cotswold escarpment. Having spent almost all his life in the country he views any visit to the metropolis as a major expedition. His two most recent books are Fauna Britannica and Audubon’s Elephant.

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