Three Cliffs is one of the outstandingly gorgeous beaches in the outstandingly gorgeous South Wales Gower Peninsula. Cited as one of Europe's Ten Best, it comes complete with a long flat beach, caves, rivers which flow into the sea and a very satisfying castle. Last time we visited we hiked in and out --on two feet. This time I borrowed an additional four.
Booking horseback treks in the UK is a popular holiday activity. I generally aim for "hacks" as these are faster rides (treks being beginner stuff) and life with my lively horse Archie has well prepared me for action. This ride, at Parc Breos near Swansea off the A4118, hard by the Gower Heritage Centre where you can take gurning lessons, looked like a mixed bag when I got there. The day started wet due to torrential rain and lowland flooding and hoping the car didn't sink when I gunned it over road lakes that weren't there yesterday. Arriving late, I was assigned the last pony in the paddock, Chico; a lovely but contrary round-barreled bay Welsh who had the enviable ability to hide in plain sight and was a bit of a gurning champion himself.
Our orders were clear. Brush your ponies, bridle them and set them free. Stand with your back at the fence and slide down to the gate, avoiding any equine hijinks on the playground. Next, we had a 15 minute demo on how to ride a horse. This was a good thing for the three young German riders clad in admirably white sneakers and jeans who were new to the sport, and interesting for the rest of us, with me being the only "native" speaker, even though my accent is New England. Lining up for saddles and sent out to re-find our mounts, I looked for Chico, but he had disappeared. Bea, a small Italian child who seemed to know everything anyone really needed to know, cheerfully acknowledged my confusion and pointed to the pony behind her, " 'Ere is the Chico!" We saddled up. Do not touch the fittings. Get on from ground. Wait for rain to stop. When rain does not stop, get on anyway. Six Germans, two Danes and me. One gets yelled at a lot for violating ride protocol, but as she clearly does not understand English, she smiles and carries on. I occasionally hear German chatter which comes back to me with "The Chico" casually popping up and I discern that everyone else is counting themselves lucky for riding a horse who clip clops rather than clippity clips.
The rain finally lets up, and it is a memorable ride through country lanes and bracken-thick trails to the summit of neolithic Arthur's Stone. We "experienced" riders have several satisfactory gallops as the ride sections off to allow beginners their walk and the wilder contingent their high speed coastal chase. We pass down to Three Cliffs Beach. I am terrifically grateful to the dancing- in- his -footsteps Chico for carrying me both up and down. We easily cross the two rivers while the tide is reassuringly far, far out. Three Cliffs allegedly has the second fastest/highest tide in the world outside of Canada's Bay of Fundy. It's not unusual for helicopters to have to swoop in to rescue bathers, kayakers--or ponies.
We have a gallop up the dunes and tie the horses to puny pieces of gorse so they can graze and rest and we can head for the Three Cliffs cafe for sandwiches. The German twenty-somethings all picnic by the headland and kiss and doze in the sun. I eat lunch in the cafe garden with the Danes (father and daughter) and two young German sisters, one of whom is deathly afraid of bees. There are bees.
It's interesting, the Danish father accompanying his 13 year old daughter. This is the fourth family I have encountered this summer where the parents have taken up horseback riding as a common denominator for joining their offspring on summer holidays. The week previous, I rode out near Brecon with Gary and Vivian from Hong Kong who were having their last summer with their Cambridge-bound daughter--on horseback. If it's a trend it's a nice one, far nicer than say the ones my parents had where we went on holiday with their friends, most memorably during Republican or Democratic National Conventions which saw the production of great adult angst and the consumption of a lot of adult gin.
Having finished my sandwich at the cafe, I wandered back to the clifftop to gaze meaningfully over the sun speckled sea, while to my left the German couples posed in FaceBook bound life- endangering positions over the rocks. That masthead arms -out thing the Titanic movie spearheaded is still very au courant. I admired the blueness of the sea, the steep limestone cliffs and the perfect reality of being here and not anywhere else, until Bea called to me, "You must come and find The Chico --we leave!"
I found The Chico--wound deeply in the gorse, his gratitude for my releasing him unapparent, re-mounting by leading him into an odd circular depression in the dunes which may have been where the Tardis once landed. We trotted through a golf course and down a huge cleft in planet earth, emerging up the other side to a few arced golf balls and a hugely threatening sky. I dug my rain jacket out, a dicey operation as The Chico was still dancing and insisted on doing a four square dosey-do without partners, but I got the sleeves on and the zip zipped and then woosh.
The thing about lightening storms when you are on horseback is that you are usually "out" somewhere in say, "the countryside" and you tend to be trapped between the metal stirrups which anchor you to the saddle, and the metal shoes which anchor your horse to the ground. This is generally a Good Thing, but when you see a series of forked lightening hit the beach fifty yards from where you are drenchedly descending to ford the rivers necessary to return to the cliff from whence escape is possible, it is actually a Bad Thing. The Chico and Bea on her little Welsh pony Baby ("Baaby, now you be good pony, we go here now") and I were last in line. Chico descended the cliff to the beach in the same way that I climb ski slopes--sideways. Each time thunder roared, he shifted to a quick 360. Bea looked nonchalant and the rest of the ride had already found the beach and were trotting towards the two rivers. River One--forded. The distance between River Two was a tide filled beach, two lightening strikes and Thor hurling down thunder claps that sends ponies like The Chico, mad.
Bea, Baaby, The Chico and I brought up the rear and watched as the rest of the ride (outdistancing us both by height and by speed) crossed the enormously rushing intensity of what had been a gentle broad stream two hours earlier. The bigger horses gained their footing on the far side as Baby and Chico were coaxed in. Daredevil Bea stayed right at my side as I nervously watched to ensure that Baby's head stayed above the rushing tide, and felt Chico's feet leave terra firma and swim against the current. Bea mouthed something at me, but through the deluge, the crash of thunder and the crack of lightening, I couldn't hear her. She looked pretty cheerful though.
Chico found land just before Baby's tiny hooves did, and we raced up to meet the Ride, trotting along fields and roads until we finally reached the home stretch. Lightening, thunder and drenching rain hounded us the whole way back.
Later, when we released the ponies in the paddock, The Chico balefully melted into the crowd and we stood in the rain watching them head for shelter. I asked Bea what she had said as we crossed the river. She thought a moment and answered, "My boots, these boots with which I ride, they are full of water." She demonstrated by pulling one off and emptying a gallon from each foot. I found I could do the same and we laughed. Ha ha.
There was an old hand hanging around the corral and I said, "Wow that was some ride--we were on the beach in forked lightening." Welshmen don't chew baccy, but this one might as well have. He paused, looked me in the eye and said, "Oh that's happened."
"Happened, like on a Ride?"
"Twice," he said.
"So... what happens when the Ride gets struck by lightening?"
"Oh, everyone falls off."
"They fall off? Then what?"
"They get back on and ride back."
"They ride back? Are they okay?"
" Oh yes. Of course their heads feel funny for a few hours."
I thanked the immensely capable and terrifically cool Ride leaders one of whom was telling the other that this had been the most dramatic outing she'd been on. When I asked them what they would do had the Ride actually been struck by lightening, one drew her finger meaningfully across her neck. Goners. Soggily wandering to my car, I was over- helpfully assisted in backing and turning by the German young men who were celebrating their survival with a suspiciously pungent cigarette, and headed home. Choosing the longer, twistier but high ground single tracks to avoid flooding, it was a slow drive. Once back at our friend's small village bungalow, wet boots, jacket and hat abandoned in the yard, I had a very welcome, deep hot bath. By the time I emerged, the sun shone.
Wales. What's not to love?