Fell ponies are making a comeback on the Lakeland tourist trail
PUBLISHED: 01:16 05 September 2011 | UPDATED: 17:26 27 April 2016
Fell ponies are making a return to Lakeland's historic pack horse routes, as Paul Mackenzie reports Photography by Kirsty Thompson
They have been an industrious part of the Lakeland landscape for hundreds of years, plodding tirelessly along mile after mile of rugged paths. And the region’s fell ponies are now establishing themselves on the tourist trail too.
Since early summer a team of ponies has been leading treks through some of south Lakeland’s most stunning scenery and giving visitors a taste of the region’s heritage. And for former primary school teacher Andrea Meanwell, who launched the business in May, it’s her family heritage too.
Her great-grandfather used to run fell pony pack horses and her grandfather taught himself to ride by jumping on the backs of wild fell ponies. ‘I think it may be something genetic,’ she said. ‘When my youngest son sat on one for the first time he took to it straight away.’
And mum-of-three Andrea, who taught in Cartmel and Flookborough before opening the Lake District Fell Pony Centre, added: ‘The ponies are native to this area and they are very stocky and hardy. These ponies would have been used by farmers and as pack horses carrying loads of wool and the valleys around here would have been criss-crossed with pack horse routes. By buying these breeds we are supporting breeders.
‘The ponies have fallen out of use in agriculture because of mechanised farming so they are now used mainly for pleasure. The Queen rides a black fell pony around her estate at Balmoral and the Duke of Edinburgh used four black fell ponies in carriage driving trials.
‘Fell ponies are an endangered breed.There are fewer than 500 registered breeding mares nationwide, that’s smaller than the number of blue whales and otters.’
And the horses aren’t the only regional breed Andrea supports; she shares her home in the Rusland Valley with Lakeland Terriers and Herdwick sheep as well as – from a little further afield – a herd of alpacas.
‘I have always had a love of animals. My uncle is a sheep farmer and we always used to spend holidays there – I used to bottle feed the pet lambs. I keep the alpacas for their wool and make hats and scarves which I sell at craft fairs. We have 12 ponies now and it’s really great fun.
‘People think ponies are just for children but they’re not. They’re really exciting and they can get into places and along paths that larger horses just can’t manage. We are in a fantastic area for riding and this is something that makes the most of the area we live in.’
And it’s an area which has much to offer – Andrea’s favourite route takes her up onto Bethecar Moor with views across the Lake District and, on a clear day, out to sea, while her sons prefer the narrow paths of Grizedale Forest.
Andrea runs the business with fell pony expert Danielle Metcalfe who studied the breed as part of her degree in equine psychology and even took her pony to university with her. ‘Danielle really knows the breed,’ Andrea added. ‘She bought her first fell pony when she was 12 and wrote her dissertation on Cumbrian fell ponies. And she knows all the best routes.’