ON THE first night we parked our hired horse-drawn caravan in a peaceful field and fell asleep to the gentle gurgling of a nearby stream. In the small hours we awoke with a start, as the whole vehicle shuddered and shook.

A hitherto undiscovered major earthquake zone in the Welsh border country? Nothing so dramatic. A cautious look through the window revealed Gipsy, our horse, vigorously scratching her ample backside on a corner of the caravan.

We had hired a replica Romany caravan, and Gipsy to pull it, from a farmer near Hay-on-

Wye, Powys. The added attraction for two daughters who were mad about horses was that from this centre we also were able to hire a riding pony to trot along behind. We were given a route map with details of farms that would provide grazing for the horses, parking for the van, and water for all of us.

The caravan was fitted out for four, with two bench seats that became bunks at night, while the back rests let down to become a double bed. A two-burner gas cooker, gas light and sink, with a large plastic jerry can for water, completed the facilities.

Gipsy was a friendly horse, which was just as well since our limited experience with horses meant that harnessing and unharnessing her took a considerable time.

A draught horse's harness is much heavier than even the biggest riding saddle and has to be manoeuvred into exactly the right place. Gipsy usually stood patiently while we grappled with straps and buckles, but once, just as we were leading her out of the shafts, she leapt forward and broke the girth. A call to the proprietor, Farmer Gwillim, brought him cheerily out with replacement harness the next morning.

The distances between overnight stops varied from five miles to about 10, so on some days, travelling at about two miles an hour, we were able to reach the next farm by lunchtime. Any self-respecting hiker would have sneered at our progress, but the leisurely pace, along winding lanes with ancient hedgerows wreathed in honeysuckle, was a big part of the charm.

We felt completely unpressured. Once Gipsy had been rubbed down, given a drink, and the girls had enjoyed a ride around the lanes on Wally, the riding pony, nothing needed to be done. A tiny church to be inspected, perhaps; or a village pub to be visited, but no two-

hour tours around a cathedral and no art gallery with an unmissable collection. So we lay in the sunshine, admired the views of the mountains, and thought about dinner.

What dinner? One might think that in Britain it would be impossible to travel by road for the best part of a day without going past a food shop. In a horse-

drawn caravan in the Black Mountains, it is easy. One day we rejected a poorly stocked shop in the belief that the next one would be better. That was a mistake: the next one was closed.

We saw no farm shops bursting with fresh home-made cheeses, and our best - in fact, our only - local produce was a giant puffball, an edible fungus, found in the corner of a field, fresh, creamy white and as big as a bucket. It provided two meals. Sliced and fried in butter and oil, it had a delicate wild mushroom flavour and the texture of toasted marshmallows.

Two horses to look after for a week, and no danger of any 'serious tourism', had our daughters in seventh heaven. Having your own pony for a holiday is bliss for children who normally ride for one hour a week at a riding school. They loved messing about with the horses, catching them, grooming them and cleaning their feet. The horses were gentle and friendly: they would try to poke their heads through the door of the caravan while we ate breakfast.

Wally was a smallish, but very solid, Welsh Cob type with a more independent nature than Gipsy. He executed a smart sidestep once while he was being saddled, depositing the saddle in a fresh cowpat and delaying our departure by an hour. He was quite happy to follow the van, but when we took him out for rides on his own, his main aim was to get back to the field as soon as possible. Once he realised we were determined, however, he gave in gracefully.

On single-lane roads we sometimes sent a lookout ahead to warn impending cars of our approach since backing up to allow a vehicle to pass was impossible. That was a neat reversal from a century ago, when a man with a red flag walked in front of cars to warn horses.

We completed the route without mishap, and apart from the broken girth the only damage was paint scraped off on a gate post: it takes a while to realise that the vehicle behind you is a lot wider than the horse in front. But Farmer Gwillim said that was nothing. One family had managed to overturn their caravan on top of the horse, which, fortunately, escaped injury.

Another family rang in during the early hours of the first morning to complain that they could not sleep because the horse was walking around the field grazing and the caravan was jolting. If they were uncomfortable in the caravan, what about the poor horse? They had left it in harness, imagining that it was to stay between the shafts for the entire week.

WELSH Horse-Drawn Holidays, Bell Street, Talgarth, Brecon, Powys LD 3 OBP (0874 711346). Hire of caravan and horse for a week pounds 345. Riding pony pounds 80. About pounds 3.50 a night to camp at farms.

Cotswold Romany Caravans, Friars Court, Clanfield, Oxfordshire OX18 2SU (0367 81226). Cost: pounds 380 for six days. Overnight stops with shower and lavatory are included in the fee.

Northumbria Horse Holidays, East Castle, Anfield Plain, Stanley, Co Durham DH9 8PH (0207 235354). This firm runs caravan holidays from a base in Norfolk. Cost is pounds 209- pounds 349 plus VAT per week.

Equestrian Ireland, from the Irish Tourist Board, 150 New Bond Street, London W1 (071-493 3201), for Irish horse-drawn holidays.

(Photograph omitted)

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