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Pony Trekking–Tour the English Countryside By Horseback

Pony trek Horseback riding travel in England

In Britain, a “pony trek” is a horseback ride that is undertaken primarily for sight-seeing purposes, at a slow pace. It does not necessarily mean you will be riding a pony (although most of the provided mounts are ponies or cobs – short, stocky horses that can carry larger animals). “Horse riding” or “trail riding” means a faster-paced ride for the fun of riding. Generally, you have to be willing to demonstrate basic riding skills to be allowed to go on a trail ride (unlike in the U.S., where the same term covers both). Pony trekking, however, is open to all, even if you have never sat on a horse before. A “pub trek” is a ride that visits local bars–it is not illegal to ride a horse under the influence in the UK, although drinking in moderation is best.
Most pony treks are one hour, a half day, or a full day. Although multi-day riding holidays are available, most are angled towards people who know how to ride. Here are a few tips:

Fitness

If you are not a rider, then even a one pony trekking ride can leave you saddle sore – that is to say, sore in the various muscles you use only when riding. The worst-hit areas are generally the inner thighs and the lower abs (below the belt). If you are planning a half day or full day ride (and certainly if you are booking a riding vacation), then you may want to work on your fitness some first. These exercises will prevent some of the soreness new riders or those who ride infrequently may experience.

What to Wear

Specialist riding gear is not necessary except for helmets. The center will provide helmets since it is illegal to ride on public trails or roads without a helmet in the UK.

In addition to that, you should wear:

  • Long pants– Riding in shorts is inadvisable. The best thing that’s likely to already be in your wardrobe is straight leg, “boyfriend” cut or boot cut jeans. Well fitting sweat pants can also work. Avoid skinny jeans, as they may interfere with your ability to get on and off the horse. Yoga pants are often too loose and may get caught on something.
  • Closed-toed shoes or boots with a bit of a heel– Boots are better than shoes. Avoid athletic shoes, which are particularly prone to get caught in the stirrups if something goes wrong. Hiking boots are also a bad idea because of the broader soles. Also avoid fashion cowboy boots with a very smooth sole, as you will have no grip.
  • A plain, long-sleeved top–Short sleeves might be tempting, but long sleeves will protect you from sun, wind, and accidents.
  • Gloves– Gloves protect your hands from blisters. Cycling gloves are great. Do not ride in plain wool gloves, as the reins will slip right through your hands, especially if they are wet from rain or horse sweat. Trust me.
  • Wicking cotton socks 
  •  Sports bra–For ladies, or a bra that is particularly comfortable and reduces “jiggle.”
  • Sunglasses–Sunglasses are a good idea, especially if you don’t wear prescription glasses. Some people also prefer to ride with a strap to hold their glasses in place.

Choosing a Place to Go

Keep in mind the following when choosing a place to go pony trekking:

  • You get what you pay for. Typical rates (in 2018) work out to around $30-40 an hour. Anything much less than that should be a red flag.
  • Look for a center that is approved by the ABRS (Association of British Riding Schools) or BHS (British Horse Society). These mean that the center and guides have to meet fairly stringent standards of competence and safety.
  • Check reviews on TripAdvisor and similar to see what other customers are saying.

Some great places to try include Snowdonia Riding Stables in North Wales, Loch Lomond Pony Trekking in Scotland, and Masham Riding & Trekking Centre in Yorkshire. The last mentioned has been around for over twenty-five years to my knowledge (the website claims thirty) and uses almost entirely purebred Highland Ponies, a gorgeous rare breed.

Safety

  • Horseback riding is considered a high-risk activity. As previously mentioned, helmets are required in the UK and are provided. Many centers will also not allow you to ride in unsuitable footwear. However, despite that, accidents on the trail are rare, especially if you take the following precautions:
  • Pay attention to the guide. If English is not your first language or if you have issues which might cause you to have difficulty hearing and understanding, talk to them in advance about the issue.
  • Avoid over consumption of alcohol, including on those “pub treks.” If you are too impaired to drive, you are too impaired to ride.
  • If you have young children, don’t let them wander into stalls or barns.
    Stay one length from the horse in front. For those who don’t ride, you should be able to see the hocks, that is the middle joint of the leg, of the horse in front between your horse’s ears.
  • If wearing a jacket, keep it zipped up. Floppy jackets can startle horses.
    Don’t approach a horse from behind or walk behind a horse. Yes, even if you see the guides and grooms doing it. They know how but you may not.
  • Make sure that you are covered by travel insurance if something does go wrong.

Pony trekking is a great way to see the British countryside. The small horses often used may come from breeds that are rare in Britain and all but unheard of outside (Highland Ponies, Dales Cobs, etc). You can reach areas that would otherwise need a difficult hike to access. It’s worth trying to make time during your British vacation for an hour on horseback.

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Why Castle Lovers Must Visit North Wales

Do you love castles? If so, you should consider North Wales as a destination. Why is that? Because of the Iron Ring, perhaps the most ambitious castle building project in history. Built to subdue the Welsh, the second phase of the Iron Ring was built right before cannons were invented essentially rendering Medieval castles obsolete.
As such, the four castles of the second batch, all built by the same architect (James of St. George d’Esperanche) represent the castle builder’s art at its best, culminating in the sadly unfinished Beaumaris.
On top of that, the four castles–and a bunch of lesser forts –are close enough together that you can devote a week to castle-spotting. Also part of the project was the town walls of Caernarfon and Conwy. Here are the four castles of the Iron Ring that you cannot miss!

Conwy

Conwy (or Conway) is both the castle and the medieval town built next to it. Conwy was a planned, colonial settlement, designed to bring English people and culture into the heart of wild North Wales. Conwy was the most expensive of the four late phase castles and sits on a narrow rocky outcrop. The castle is in excellent condition, with most of the stonework intact, though, the wooden parts have long since gone. The limitations of the outcrop cause the castle to be long and thin, and it lacks concentric walls. The rock made for enough extra defense. The castle’s purpose was to protect a natural harbor, hence it’s location at the shore, tucked into a valley.
While in Conwy you can walk the town walls, contemporary with the castle. Check out the suspension bridge by the castle, of much more recent vintage but built with crenelated towers so it would blend in. Hikers can climb up to the older Deganwy Castle, which Edward I allegedly took one look at and decided not to use. Although Deganwy is in ruins, it gives visitors a great view of the area.
The nearby Victorian-era resort of Llandudno is also worth a visit—and makes a great base of operations, with boutique hotels and quirky bed and breakfasts as well as classic hotels.
Pro tip: Avoid driving into Conwy itself. There is very little parking, and the roads are extremely narrow.

Caernarfon

Caernarfon castle with its grandiose exterior seems to have been built to impress and intimidate the locals. The harbor side of the castle has two lines of colored stone which serve no purpose other than decoration. The towers? Polygonal, rather than round. Many consider Caernarfon to be the most spectacular of the castles.
Unlike at Conwy, Edward I did not move the site of the castle —there had been a fortress on the site since Roman times.
Caernarfon is also the castle where Edward famously gave the Welsh a “prince who spoke no English” –his infant son. This is the origin of the title of Prince of Wales and Caernarfon is still, technically, the “seat” of the prince. The castle is occasionally used for ceremonial purposes, including the Queen’s Balcony (where Prince William was presented, although the tradition was not followed for his oldest son), and is still used for the investiture of a new Prince of Wales.

While in Caernarfon:

Caernarfon is close to Snowdonia, where it is possible to go hiking and horseback riding and “pony trekking” which is a grand tradition in this part of the world. Steam trains occasionally run along the main line through North Wales, and the station is a great place to observe. You can also take a boat tour. Or, if you are not done with fortresses, go to Segontium Roman Fort to check out the ruins there.

Beaumaris

Even in its unfinished state Beaumaris, the last of the Iron Ring to be built is quite something to see. Built on a completely flat site, the architect was able to demonstrate just how you build a castle when there’s nothing in the way (or to help you). In fact, Beaumaris is pretty much in the dictionary next to “Late Medieval castle.” It’s considered technically perfect.
It was never finished because Edward I ran out of money…and by the time there was more money available, the age of the great Medieval castles was over. The walls should have been quite a bit taller, giving the castle a bit of a squat look. But it’s still spectacular in its own way.

While near Beaumaris:

The Isle of Anglesey is quite different, geographically, from North Wales. It is flatter and is known for its beautiful beaches – if you want a day on the beach, pick any of them and you will do great. You can also check out a number of stone age tombs (don’t worry, none of them are known to be haunted). The last refuge of the druids, Anglesey shows signs of hundreds of years of continuous human occupation.

Harlech

On the southern side of Snowdonia, Harlech Castle is a bit further away from the others. It has concentric walls and was put together faster, and cheaper, than any other castle. If you’ve heard the rugby song “Men of Harlech”– this is that Harlech and the siege during the War of the Roses proves that it was built to take a beating. The castle used to be right on the sea, but the sea has receded, leaving it and its supply routes high and dry. A new visitor center and bridge have greatly improved accessibility.

While in Harlech:

Royal St. David’s golf club is close to Harlech if you want to work on your handicap. Other than that, this part of North Wales is a place for trains. The Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railways are well worth a visit, but there are others, including some of the famous “Little Trains” of Wales– former mining trains that run scaled-down trains on narrow gauge tracks. The Ffestiniog itself is the oldest rail country still operating and is also narrow gauge.

General Tips

Bring rain gear. The weather in North Wales is unpredictable and can be quite wet even in July and August. July and August are peak times, but early September (right after the kids go back to school) can be a great time to visit. Still, you can expect to be rained on, and the castle ruins are open to the elements.
The castles are somewhat disabled accessible, but obviously climbing the towers requires that your knees be in decent condition. Access is via steep spiral staircases. However, even those in wheelchairs can access the courtyard areas. Be aware that Caernarfon has no disabled restrooms. (Also, foreign travelers to the UK should know that many disabled toilets require a special key to access, which has to be requested in advance).
Only Harlech Castle has a cafe, but picnicking is allowed at the other sites.
It is recommended to devote a full day to each of the four castles, as there is a lot to explore. If you get done, check out the other visitor tips provided.
If you want to see the work of one of the best castle architects and appreciate welsh strongholds at their finest, you should tour the Iron Ring.

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How to Eat Well in the United Kingdom

Feast Through the United Kingdom

The fact is that it’s quite possible to eat well in the United Kingdom. You just need to know where to go and what to look for. Here are some suggestions:

Go Indian

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Beef Tiki Masala

It’s been said that you can get better Indian food in London than you can in Delhi. Of course, you’re most likely to hear that from Indian restaurants in London. The truth is, though, that Britain imported a lot of people from the Indian subcontinent in the 1950s – and a disproportionate number of them started restaurants. As long as you can handle spice, you can find good to great Indian food almost anywhere, including small towns in North Wales and the Midlands. Mediocre Indian restaurants just don’t survive very long. Just remember – Vindaloo is not for the faint-hearted. Try Maharaja, near Kensington Park.

Pasties, No, Not That Kind

In the US, the word “pasty” often means something associated with strip clubs. In the UK, it always means a fold over pie. Pasties became popular during the mining era (hence “Cornish” pasties, because of the amount of mining there). A “Cornish” pasty is specifically a pasty filled with beef, potato, swede, and onion. As they have Protected Geographical Indication, they can only be called that if made in Cornwall. Stores outside Cornwall get around it by calling them “traditional” pasties, and everyone knows what they mean. You can also get pasties full of chicken and bacon, ham and cheese, you name it. Pasties are often still good cold and make a tasty picnic lunch. Get your pasties at a traditional pastry shop. The Proper Pasty Company sells some of the best in a variety of locations, or ask a local where to go.

Chinatown

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Chinatown London

If you’re in London, then London’s Chinatown, while quite a bit smaller than New York’s or San Francisco’s is worth a visit (especially if you’re taking in a show in the West End, as they’re right next to each other). It’s more like San Francisco both in feel and in the kind of food than New York. British Chinese food, dominated by Hong Kong cuisine, is not quite the same as American Chinese. Don’t expect to be able to get General Tso’s, but do expect to get excellent sweet and sour. Seafood lovers will be particularly satisfied. But look for an established joint such as Joy King Lau, serving Cantonese food on three stories.

Fish and Chips

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Fish and Chips

It’s a British staple to the point of being a stereotype, but good fish and chips (hard, although no longer quite impossible, to find in the United States) is something every visitor should try at least once. Fish and chips is fast food, and best eaten out of paper on the street. Sadly, it’s no longer legal to wrap it in newspaper, although some chip shops will put a sheet of newsprint around it outside the food safe paper just for old times sake. Yes, vinegar is a condiment here. You can get fish and chips in restaurants, but if you happen to be in Haxby, York, you can visit this year’s National Fish & Chip Award winner, Miller’s Fish and Chips. Yes, that is how seriously British people take fish and chips!

Pie Day

If you’re in Britain on 3.14, or even on any other date, you can seldom go wrong with savory pies. The most common are steak and kidney, steak and ale or chicken and mushroom, but cold pork pie is a picnic favorite and many pubs now sell pies with some very interesting fillings such as smoked cheddar, coronation chicken, leek and cheese, etc. Cottage pie, in which the upper crust is replaced with mashed potato, is another pub favorite (note that it is only shepherd’s pie is made with lamb). The best pies are often found at specialized pie houses such as Battersea Pie Station in London, but almost any pub will sell you a decent pie. “Fast food” pies are a good alternative at chip shops if you have somebody who utterly hates fish.

Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding

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Yorkshire Pudding

British people use the word “pudding” in three different senses that sometimes have to be worked out from context. “Black” pudding is blood sausage. “Pudding” on its own often means any kind of dessert. “Yorkshire pudding” is a kind of dumpling that is traditionally served as a side with roast beef and filled with gravy. A variant is the “giant Yorkshire pudding” where the entire entree is put inside the pudding. This is another good thing to order in a classic English pub, if you can find it – not as many places have it on the menu anymore, and it is often only on Sundays, but I was recently able to find beef inside a Yorkshire pudding at The Parsonage near Wigan – so look for a Hungry Horse pub.

Treacle Pud

For dessert? Go for “treacle pud.” It’s sponge cake made with light molasses and served with a thin custard (trust us on the custard, it’s better than it sounds). It’s on the heavy side, so make sure you save room. Equally delicious is “toffee pud” or the disturbingly-named “spotted dick.” The spots are raisins and “dick” in this context is slang for “dough.” For the very best, you’ll need to go to a place called Upton upon Severn, where you’ll find The Pudding Shop’s cafe – but be careful, they sell them to go.

Cheese

To finish up, it’s worth talking a bit about cheese. It can seem that every single little town in England has its own cheese. If you want to try actual cheddar, not the stuff generically called cheddar, look for West Country Farmhouse Cheddar and get the extra sharp. But it’s also worth trying a few more. Stilton, which comes in white or blue, is worth sneaking a bit of. Cheshire and Wensleydale are delicious crumbling white cheeses which are hard to get in the United States. If you really want to be adventurous, try Stinking Bishop. Which lives up to its name.
So, a few things to try to help you realize that Britain isn’t the hideous “food desert” a lot of people claim. Just a few caveats, though:

  • In a “restaurant,” things work the same as they do in restaurants everywhere. If you are eating in a pub, however, then you are expected to seat yourself. You should then send somebody to the bar to order drinks and food (two people if it’s a large party, as they’ll be bringing the drinks back). Make a note of the number on your table so the waiter knows where to bring the food.
  • Britain is an optional-tipping society. Tipping is not required, but it is appreciated. 10-15% is customary in restaurants, but it is completely acceptable to stiff the waiter if service is poor. Larger groups may be charged an automatic tip. Generally, you don’t tip in pubs and some bartenders will actually take it as an insult.
  • Marmite is every bit as vile as you have heard. Other foods that can be acquired tastes include rollmops (pickled herrings) and, of course, haggis.

Enjoy your trip…and appreciate the fact that you really can get food that is not completely bland and over-cooked.
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