Dylan Winter has travelled the length and breadth of Britain with his mare, Molly. Now, at 17, she is getting old. This year's sentimental journey along the Ridgeway footpath may have been their last together
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The Beacon would be a bleak place to start a journey, were it not for the half-dozen men who seem to live up there. This modest 300ft lump of chalk rising from the Aylesbury Plain in Buckinghamshire is to model gliders what the Solent is to yachts. As they stand silently pointing their super-long remote control aerials up into the clouds, they look like sea fishermen blissfully unaware of the aeons that have passed since the last tide lapped across this landscape. The gossamer-thin balsa-and- dope gliders swoop and loop in the infallible updrafts high over the heads of their earthbound pilots.

The men were too busy to notice us as I turned Molly on to the Ridgeway Path to Avebury in Wiltshire - the best part of 100 miles away. She and I have covered thousands of miles together. On short trips like this, I ride. On long ones, where we have to take more gear, then I walk and she carries a pack saddle. Last year she pulled a 22-tonne canal boat from Liverpool to London. The coming four days on the Ridgeway are a holiday - for both of us.

Within minutes of leaving the Beacon, we are deep in the glories of Ashridge Forest. There is no woodland tree to match the beech. Massive smooth trunks draw the eye up to the cathedral-high leaf canopy which filters and dapples the sunlight with a subtlety unmatched by any stained-glass window. If I were a believer, then it is here that I would expect to feel the presence of God. The traditional English oak wood is a tortured, stumpy tangled mess compared to the beech groves of the Chilterns.

But British beech woods are no more natural than the buildings they echo. The beeches were planted as a crop - just like the depressing ranks of spruce that splodge their ugly way across upland Britain, or the horizon- wide cornfields of the environmental deserts of East Anglia. Beech burns with a fierce, spark-free flame and makes first-class charcoal. These woods were once the oil fields of England. They provided fuel for kitchens, iron works and gunpowder factories.

Signs of ancient management practices can still be seen in the occasional over-mature pollarded beech tree. They were lovingly decapitated at eight feet above ground level so that the re-growth could reach skywards, free from the damaging appetites of cattle or deer grazing in the sparse undercanopy.

Molly's hooves rustled through the layer of beech leaves littering the path ahead and I soaked up the atmosphere. I lit my first cigar.

The world is at its best when viewed from the back of an easy walking horse. It has little to do with the extra height - though it helps. For me, it is a physical thing. When on foot it is impossible to look up, or to one side for more than a moment or two without stumbling.

When walking with a rucksack, the sounds and smells go unnoticed in the rhythmic lung-rush of air. Eyes become transfixed by the small patch of ground in front of pounding feet. I drop into an introspective trance and forget to savour my surroundings. As the miles mount up I can only think of the journey still to come. Just getting there is the aim. Where is the pleasure in that?

It is all so different when I ride. Molly doggedly follows the path, leaving me to rubberneck the scenery. I can spend minutes on end looking straight towards the leaf canopy scrolling 150ft above my head. The gentlest of breezes matches Molly's pace and cigar-blown smoke rings follow us for yards.

I am dragged back to reality by a slight tensing in Molly as she hears, or sees, a group of cracklingly luminous walkers ahead. They stare suspiciously at the loony on horse back. Down at ground level slow rotting beech leaves provide a drip feed of nutrients for the astounding range of mushrooms and toadstools. I would love to claim that I picked a bag full for supper - but I am an inveterate coward. None of the fungi quite match the prissy Disney cartoon images which litter the field guides.

In early summer, when we set out on our Ridgeway journey, the phallic sheaths of cuckoo pint can be seen scattered all through the woods. There are not enough flowers down in the dappled beechwood gloom to sustain bees and butterflies, so the poor old cuckoo pint has to make do with the buzzing flies which live on deer dung. Bend to sniff these bizarre flowers and your nostrils will be assaulted with the rotten stink of mature manure.

Molly and I have been together for a decade now. At 17 years old she is getting a bit ancient for travelling - though she is still capable of carrying me and my gear for 20 or more miles a day. In her prime, a decade ago, we could have covered twice that distance and with very little training. Now it takes weeks of steady muscle building to get her fit even for a short trip like this.

I cannot remember a time when I did not dream about owning a horse. I thought I would grow out of it. When I hit 30, the desire was as strong as ever. So I went ahead and bought Molly. She is a rough old mare - good at most things but brilliant at nothing. An equine Transit van.

Sadly, with horses, as with cars or planes, the relentless logic of time dictates that they will eventually be unfit for work. After all those miles together, the thought of parting company from her is not a happy one. It haunts me as we plod slowly towards Avebury. This is probably going to be our last trip together. The Ridgeway is a good place to think about the past and the future.

The 100-mile stretch of English countryside which has now become the Ridgeway Long Distance Footpath was the M1 motorway of Neolithic Britain. Herds of cattle and sheep were driven up it and flints were carried from Norfolk to the civilisations which built and maintained Stonehenge. The Romans used the Ridgeway as their main route to conquer the Western heartland of England - knocking out the scores of hill forts that lined the chalk ridge. These mighty symbols of power and civilisation all tumbled like a row of dominoes before the Roman military machine.

Two thousand years on, and the Ridgeway is so peaceful that it is hard to believe that it passes through five of Britain's most populous counties. Twenty million people now live within a one-hour drive of the path.

By the middle of the second day the weather had deteriorated to a steady drizzle. They used to describe woodland as the poor man's overcoat, but this makes its way through anything.

At almost any time over the past 2,000 years a mounted traveller like me could have found a place to stay where a handful of coins would have brought a dry barn for Molly and a hot meal by a warm fireside for me. But I am 100 years too late for such pleasures, so in the wet evening gloom I knocked on a farmer's door to ask to camp on his soggy, weed-infested set-aside land.

I tethered Molly and erected my tent - a large blue plastic sheet which pegs out around a single central aluminium pole. I used to buy expensive lightweight tents - but Molly destroyed the last one in a fit of pique at my late return from the pub. During the night I was joined by all sorts of creeping, crawling wildlife sheltering from the incessant rain. I have learned to check the inside of my coffee cup and kettle before starting the morning brew.

It's the slugs. But I bear them no ill will. Not now I know about the sex life of the grey slug. For them, finding a partner could not be simpler. Slugs are hermaphrodites. Foreplay is two hours spent languorously licking each others' slime. Then it's up to a high point where they bungee-jump on a mutually produced thread of goo. As they swing gently in the breeze they penetrate each other with 2in-long penises (pretty good length for a beast that is often on the shy side of 4in long). After another half an hour of copulation they eat their way back up to the branch where it all started and go their separate ways. It makes the desire to retreat to a bedroom with another consenting adult, a rubber wet suit, a jar of chocolate spread and a bottle of washing up liquid seem positively tame.

The next morning I sat contentedly in the early autumn sun, drinking coffee and contemplating Molly delicately dead-heading thistles along the hedgerow. While dogs often look like their owners, horses always look like their riders. An 18-stone man might own a Jack Russell or a Westie but he could never ride a Shetland pony.

The synergy goes deeper than that, though. I have never seen a scruff in the saddle of a palomino. Flashy people ride flashy horses. Molly was once unkindly described as being a dense, dim-witted slob.

If you can learn about a person just by looking at his or her horse, then you can understand them even better by riding it. I learned more of my neighbour by exercising his horse for an hour than I did from ten years living next door. Cowboys, reticent loners to a man, will never let strangers ride their horses. It would give too much away.

The next two days were a delight, as we headed up across the real Downs - wide open spaces where the nearest building or tree can be miles away. The views stretch out into the haze which swallows up the villages scattered across the Vale of the White Horse.

Molly's feet thump and tump on the rabbit-razored turf track. Just like the beech trees, rabbits are a recent import; brought from the Mediterranean in the 12th century as a delicacy for the aristocracy. They lived lives of luxury in man-made warrens and were fed on exotic titbits. Now they are a registered pest - gassed, trapped and shot by the million, their corpses left to rot in the fields. The real price of success.

The wide open downland scenery suited Molly. Her pace started to open out into an easy mile-eating walk. Her ancestors would have lived in places like this; predators can be seen or smelt miles away and horses can make the best of their main form of defence - to run away. The relationship between us and them has been under continuous refinement for thousands of years. It is much more than a taming. A zebra or a wild ass can be tamed and ridden or broken to harness. But no number of hours working with wild stock can produce the eagerness with which a good horse tries to understand and predict its rider's wishes. Watch a polo player or a cowboy in action and you will hardly notice the signals passing from rider to horse and back again. I have no doubt the horse is a willing participant.

That a rider sits astride his mount means the physical contact is greater than any other working relationship between species. The horse becomes the bottom half of the human, and endows the rider with powers of speed and endurance unmatched until the development of the internal combustion engine less than a century ago. It is exploitation. But cruel? I don't think so.

The modern horse shows just as many signs of enjoying its work as a sheep dog gathering a flock, or an urban mongrel chasing a stick in a city park. We have bred animals which are happy in the role we created for them. Up on the Downs, in the sun with space all around, Molly was showing every sign of enjoying herself. And so was I.

Just after the White Horse at Uffington we passed a bizarre construction called Wayland's Smithy. It looks as much like an overgrown hobbit hole as is possible to be. It is the burial chamber of some Bronze Age big cheese. The incumbent must have been as important 3,000 years ago as figures like Saddam Hussein, Admiral Nelson or Lenin are to us.

Unfortunately fame struck before there were any literate priests, scribes or journalists who could be bribed to write stories about what an all- round great guy he was. Wayland is actually the Norse God of metal workers, and is almost certainly not buried in the tomb. To have invested all that effort in immortality only to have the monument annexed by some Norse god! Life can be a bitch - even for the rich.

The next day was our last. We passed through the massive ramparts of Barbury Castle. It is easily the most impressive hill fort on the Ridgeway but, just like all the others, it too fell to the Romans. I stopped to sit and dream of the past and the future while Molly hoovered up the grass.

Later, as we came down the hill from Barbury towards the end of the journey I became aware of a change in Molly. She was reacting to the countryside in a different way, looking more closely at things which would otherwise have passed by unnoticed. She was somehow less relaxed.

My wife sometimes complains that I am better tuned to Molly's moods than I am to hers - which is probably true. In some quarters prejudice against mares runs deep. I have been on working ranches in America with over 100 cow ponies and not one of them a female. Mares suffer from PMT. Every three weeks in the spring and summer months Molly does go slightly loopy. Nothing serious or dangerous - just a gentle loosening of the screws. For a couple of days the old lady starts behaving like a slightly capricious adolescent.

Some riders will tell you that mares are more biddable, more faithful and harder working than males. This, they claim, more than compensates for the odd day of crabbiness. In all the time we have been together Molly has never been off sick, never kicked or bitten anyone and has always been ready and willing to work. She has been a good horse, suited me just right. It would be hard to find one as good.

It was then that I finally made the decision to fork out the pounds 300 and take her to see the local stallion. It does not actually solve the problem of what to do with her when she gets too old to work, but it will postpone the decision for a year or two. Maybe this time next year I will have another horse; a scion of Molly, who will see me well into the next millennium and possibly right through to retirement. And that is something you can't do with an old car.

! Dylan Winter was overall winner of the 'Independent on Sunday'/Panasonic writing competition held earlier this year.

One man and his mare: riding the Ridgeway is not like walking it. The traveller can rubberneck the landscape while the horse does all the work