Having taught my sister and myself to ride bikes my father saw no reason not to apply similar methods to riding horses.
He taught himself to ride by chasing down the milkman’s horse, which was guaranteed to be found relaxing at the end of a hard day in the peace and tranquillity of a lush, green field at the end of his street.
I feel nothing but pity for that poor horse. Having spent the day affixed to the shafts of the milk-cart, the last thing it wanted was a bevy of young lads chasing round it the field until one of them managed to grab its mane and swing his legs over its back, whooping and hollering imagining they were Roy Rogers.
That said, my father loves horses and at some point in his life got to grips with concept of saddles and bridles, but always eschewed using stirrups to mount, choosing instead to swing his leg over the back of his mount like every cowboy in every western ever made.
I remember he came unstuck once when, on a family horse ride, he contemptuously brushed off the offer of the stable-hand to give him a leg up. Clutching the reins in one hand, he swung himself upwards with the gusto of the middle-aged proving a point and surprised himself with the acceleration he’d achieved – he went hurtling at terrifying speed over the other side of the startled beast.
My sister and I watched in horror, eyes wide with astonishment, hands clasped over our mouths to contain the mirth, which we didn’t want to escape until we knew an ambulance wouldn’t be required.
Although his efforts to do anything were always slightly unconventional it made for an entertaining childhood.
From a young age we learned the names of trees, flowers, birds and how to identify their calls. We’d arrive home from a country walk and his coat pockets were stuffed with interesting items he’d come across in his wanderings, along with the odd wild plant he’d decided would be delightful, and better preserved, in his garden.
He has always been a conservationist in his own unorthodox way, although he has had his ongoing battles with grey squirrels which regularly taunt him from the top of his silver birch trees.
Over the years he has devised some ingenious methods of discouraging the wild-life of the area from destroying the paradise of his garden, none of which has worked in the long term.
We had to disconnect the electric wire he’d rigged up on the top of the fence to dissuade the squirrels and neighbourhood cats from entering his territory. And drew the line at a loaded shotgun perched from an upstairs window, cross hairs lining up a dray of squirrels.
He’d had a terrible time with them which led to a rising of domestic security alert levels and the current impasse – they had taken to digging up his spring bulbs and replanting them in the spinney at the back of my parents’ house.
For the record the spinney is a large wooded area with public footpaths criss-crossing the dense manicured grass, sheltered by the towering branches of ancient chestnut trees, offering leafy shade in the summer and a plethora of glossy chestnuts in the autumn. In the spring it is full of dancing daffodils, most of them planted from bulbs taken from my father’s garden.
Daffodils are one thing but the snowdrops were the final straw. I’d found them in the garden of our old cottage garden in the East Riding of Yorkshire the spring after we moved there and I’d given some to my father.
The cottage was old – walls made of horsehair – the garden older, and these were snowdrops unlike any I’d seen before. Turned out they were a rare species, so I made sure Dad had some for his garden too.
The squirrels took a liking to them, only discovered when the rare species flowered in the spinney the following spring, much to the delight and excitement of local horticulturists –who were set to make this a protected area of horticultural interest. There was much media coverage and speculation as to where these specimens had come from, with my father watching the proceeding with gnashing teeth over the garden fence under cover of a large forsythia bush.
My father was enraged to have been treated in this way by a troupe of grey skinned vagabonds whose fur, in his opinion, was only useful as a component for making fishing flies. Another of his passions.
He was finally reduced to sneaking out after dark with a small trowel and a plastic bag to retrieve what he believed was rightfully his. He can get very territorial and sentimental over things like that.
Fortunately the local constabulary were very sympathetic when they accompanied him home and he was able to show them (by torch light) the same variety of snowdrop in his own back yard and decided not to press charges.
Since then his rage against the grey peril has known no bounds but he has agreed not to invest in any automatic weapons, hand grenades or landmines, although I’m sure he’ll find a loophole somewhere…