Matthew Engel’s account
The aim: To raise part of the £4m desperately needed to upgrade the cancer unit at Birmingham Children’s Hospital.
The mission: For our daughter Vika to ride her ex-racehorse Jack across Wales “from the Bay to Hay” in the week of Vika’s own 15th birthday and what should have been Laurie’s 21st.
The story: Well, it was never going to be straightforward, was it?
Day 1 (Saturday May 25) -The start: Ynyslas to Tal y Bont 9 miles
The first thing was completely predictable: Jack took one look at the shiny new horsebox and exhibited classic Engel family behaviour, deciding he preferred to do what he wanted – in this case stay at home.
It took 45 minutes of coaxing from our expert neighbour Kate Powell for him to change his mind. Everyone was calm and good-natured throughout, including both Vika and Jack, who was merely making a point.
And Jack was contented enough when he arrived on the beach at Ynyslas, north of Aberystwyth, for the start. This is an amazing sweep of sand, hard enough to bear the horseboxes, the sea barely visible around low tide, which sometimes fools drivers who find their car submerged a few hours later.
For Vika, there were two wonderful surprises: the appearance of the Bemand family, including her school friends Millie and Jessica, to see her off; and an early birthday present, the Iphone she had craved. She carefully zipped it in to the pocket of her hi-vis jacket.
And so they set off in the sunshine, to cheers from us and the polite interest of ice cream-eating holidaymakers: Vika and the two experienced adult companions who had sweetly agreed to accompany her – Karen Roberts of Your Horse Adventures, on her Irish cob Mac; and Louise Johnson of Bryngwyn Riding Centre, on her Arab mare Ahla. The horses, as well as the riders, were more mature than Vika and Jack.
They disappeared round the sand dunes, and the Engels and Bemands drove off to meet them again just a mile away on the much narrower beach down the road at Borth. And we waited. And waited. And waited.
The explanation went like this. It was a sunny Bank Holiday Saturday; the beach was busy; and, according to the first one-bar-reception phone call, I understood there was “fighting” going on. Actually it was “kiting”. Not kids playing with little kites but adults with big fancy toys. They were paragliders, paratroopers, whatever. Jack must have thought he was being attacked by giant wasps or pterodactyls. He didn’t like it. As he got agitated, the phone must somehow have fallen out of Vika’s pocket…
Vika was now more worried about her dad being livid than about Jack. But no: “Shortest-lived Iphone of All Time,” is an achievement just as much as riding across Wales.
She recovered her composure. So did Jack, after they had escaped the flying objects. The riders headed inland to their destination, Tal y Bont. And the Engels and Bemands walked back up the beach to follow the tracks before the tide obliterated them. It was still possible to see where Jack’s hoofprints had gone haywire. And, eventually, it was possible to see a small dark telephonic object. Unbroken, unstolen, unwashed-out to sea.
The rest of the day was lovely; the ride to Tal y Bont placid; the night in the White Lion relaxing, helped for Vika by opening birthday presents and more donations, backed up by further fivers for the fund from drinkers at the bar.
Day 2 (Sunday May 26) – Vika’s Birthday, Tal y Bont to Esgair Fochant. 18 miles
The second day’s start might have been calculated to irritate Jack as well: several hundred cyclists on a Bank Holiday jolly were passing through Tal y Bont. Luckily, they only coincided on an uphill stretch. And these were not Tour de France riders. Jack, who some think prefers uphill to down, was able to outpace them even at a walk.
This was a fantastic day’s riding in perfect weather, through the southern fringe of Snowdonia; within sight of Cader Idris, the second most famous mountain in Wales; and edging round Plynlimon, source of both the Severn and Wye. They saw only two vehicles all day: a farmer’s Land Rover, and ours: Hilary, settled into her role as roadie, had parked herself at a crossroads to greet them because, amid the normal kerfuffle, Jack’s lunch had been left behind.
“It’s the best scenery of the trip,” said Karen, who knows the route well. “It was the day I would have chosen to have this weather.” With no distractions or imagined threats, Jack plodded on contentedly. And Vika had a birthday she will never forget. The team slept in caravans, offered free by very kind well-wishers, Heather and Dennis Taylor, on a farm four miles from Machynlleth.
Day 3 (Monday May 27) – Esgair Fochant to Llangurig 20 miles
This was a tough day, mainly because it began raining soon after lunchtime and never let up. Even before that, on the most exposed part of the route, there was a chill wind.
Later, the ride went through the Hafren Forest, which might have offered some shelter – but many of the trees have been felled recently, so it didn’t help that much.
The horses forded the infant River Severn, which was no problem. However, they also had to cope with a nameless bog on a farm near Llangurig, which Karen knows well but could not avoid: Mac and Jack went in hock-deep (equine for knee-deep) and Ahla got her belly wet.
This being a marathon rather than a sprint, everyone has to conserve themselves; but Jack was allowed to break into the occasional canter, which pleased him. And Vika insisted: “I got really wet but I still enjoyed it.” The riders were not, however, displeased to glimpse the Bluebell Inn at Llangurig soon after teatime. The horses declined to speak to the media but may have felt the same.
Day 4 (Tuesday May 28) – Laurie’s 21st, Llangurig to Abbey-cwm-Hir 16 miles
The riders endured another miserable wet afternoon. But this time the rain was not as cold, the wind not as perishing and the terrain not as testing. Somehow, they all seemed to enjoy themselves. “It was lovely,” insisted Lou. “We got wet but it was great fun.”
Today’s route mostly consisted of forest tracks and pastureland. And at times, in the open meadows, Vika allowed Jack to shift from a canter into what might have been a gallop. He might have imagined himself back on the racecourse, though this time with more chance of winning.
This was still fairly deserted country but one of the few residents happened to be Karen’s friend Patricia, living in an old railway station at Pant-y-dwr. So the team were able to get into the warm for tea and cake.
There were a few adventures. Lou was very proud of coaxing Ahla across a wooden bridge, which was wet, narrow and a bit unnerving. And Vika managed to embolden Jack when they encountered a field full of inquisitive bullocks. At least they couldn’t fly.
Back home, I walked up to Laurie’s grave in St Margarets churchyard with Ruth Watkins, mother of his best friend Arthur. None of this was how we might have imagined the shindig for Laurie’s 21st birthday. But under the circumstances, the day was as positive and fulfilling as it could possibly have been.
Day 5 (Wednesday May 29) – Abbey-cwm-Hir to Bryngwyn 20 miles
With England and the end almost in sight, this was a long and deceptively difficult day, back on high ground through the Radnorshire Hills and the Radnor Forest. After a misty start, the weather mostly improved with some hazy sunshine. And the threesome was joined by five riders from the Underhill Stables at Dolau, where we first met Jack.
However, the last stage was tiring and tiresome, on an old drovers’ trail, churned up by off-road vehicles. So it was slow going, made even slower when poor Jack – after happily splashing about in the wettest bits – lost a shoe close to home, and had to be led in by Vika, by now not quite at her sunniest.
In other circumstances this might have led to frantic phone calls and a long delay on the final morning. But due to amazing luck or organisational brilliance, the farriers, Rob and Julia, were already working at the horses’ billet for the night, the Bryngwyn Stables, and the job of reshoeing Jack was done in no time.
The team is tired now, though, and Vika did not immediately leap at my suggestion of starting all over again on Saturday.
Day 6 (Thursday May 30) – The Finish: Bryngwyn to Hay Castle 10 miles
And on the sixth day, it all came right. After some early drizzle, the skies cleared. Seven more riders joined for the final day to lend moral support. But the day was, in most respects, a bit of a doddle: essentially downhill from the uplands into the Wye Valley under occasional shafts of sunlight.
There were a few new hazards: no pterodactyls this time, just a low-flying jet to scare the daylights out of Jack – he would never have been cast as an extra in War Horse. He didn’t much care for the wooden-trussed Whitney toll bridge either, even though he was allowed to cross free of charge.
Then there were the cars. We were marching into Hay on market day of Festival week, the busiest day of the busiest week of the year. But we had people from Pony Club and Endurance GB, the long-distance riding specialists; they know how to stop the traffic with a raised hand and a glare.
And so, soon after 3pm, slightly ahead of schedule, the posse strode through the gates of Hay Castle to a heroic welcome from a fair-sized crowd. The Castle trust allowed us to muster on the front lawn, and Revel Guest, who chairs the Hay Festival, took time out to welcome us: she had her own sad reason – she lost her grandson to a brain tumour.
There was even a 100-mile cake, baked by Lucy – daughter of Andrea Champ, the endurance rider who encouraged us into believing this enterprise was possible. The official record suggests it was only 93 miles, but that doesn’t include the mileage Jack clocked up going round in circles on Day 1.
To the younger guests Revel Guest, (who produced the film), kindly handed out copies of War Horse, signed by the author Michael Morpurgo. And when Vika got home and slumped in front of the TV, guess which film she chose. I hope Jack never found out.
The preliminary reckoning suggests the Mk II Laurie Engel Fund is now heading for the £25,000 mark. To all our donors, helpers and supporters, our profound gratitude. Particular thanks to Vika’s companions: to Karen for her leadership and expertise; to Lou for her cheerfulness as well as her horsepersonship. To my wife Hilary for her dauntless organisational skills.
Above all, I am proud of our daughter, and of our son, the inspiration for it all.
And after six days, in keeping with the tradition established in Genesis, everyone rested. Thank heaven for that.
Late donors very welcome: To sponsor Vika, please use our JustGiving page.