Legends of the fell: Pony-walking in the Lake District

Six hours of solid rain and soggy feet did not dampen our enthusiasm for Tom Lloyd’s love of fell ponies.

There is nothing equestrian Tom would not do to highlight the plight of these beautiful, stocky, but wee horses, with which he has worked all his life. Tom certainly knows his stuff and it’s fascinating to hear his magical tales of life on the road.

Tom’s dad Walter established the Hades Hill herd in Lancashire in 1957 and named it after part of the unenclosed Shawforth Common, a pack-horse trail from Rochdale to Clitheroe, where the ponies were traditionally used to carry slate and charcoal along old drover’s tracks.

© Tom Lloyd

In 2020, there are only 200 breeding mares left out on the fells, but Tom is determined to pass on his adventures to the next generation and keep the ponies going. He is in good company as the Queen is a patron of the Fell Pony Society and Prince Philip used them in his carriage-driving days.

Former film-maker Tom switched careers in 2018 and, after undertaking a mountain leader training course, he set up Fell Pony Adventures in the heart of the Lake District.

On most days you can find him out exploring the beautiful landscape with day trips around Windermere and Grizedale Forest or wild camping trips further afield, trekking deeper into the countryside. It’s a wonderful way to spend a day, gently leading the ponies as they carry your belongings so you can explore at a slow pace.

My daughter, Flossie, is animal mad. She’s a bee- and hen-keeper, but if truth be told, would swap everything to have her own pony. But, as we all know, it’s a costly and time-consuming business; so to try and satisfy her enthusiasm, we decided to go on an adventure with Tom to mark her 11th birthday.

We hadn’t bargained on it being so wet, but then the Lake District does boast the most rain in Britain. Anyway, as Flossie cheerfully declared: “I love rain, so what’s the problem!’’

Dad Kenny and brother Ruaridh (13) and myself are not as keen as Flossie on getting wet, but birthday memories are there to be made, so – with waterproofs on – we met Tom and ponies Pansy and Fay in a near-deserted Grizedale Forest car park.

Pansy, a lovely brown-haired lady had the perfect manners and waited patiently for Ruaridh to get the hang of leading her; fair-haired Fay on the other hand, was a match for Flossie and her impatient tapping of hoofs as she waited to head off was a sign of things to come.

Tom spent two years perfecting his routes and gaining the various permissions needed and it is obvious a lot of thought has been put into the adventures. Grizedale Forest was awarded money in 1977 for an arts project; today there is a sculpture trail to follow and Tom has adapted this for his adventure.

It’s the perfect way to introduce people to horses and Tom is a very patient teacher, advising the children to show the ponies who is boss at the beginning to ensure a smooth day out.

After a few tussles, Flossie soon had feisty Fay in check and it was lovely to see them striding along with Flossie regaling her new friend with tales of school life.

A little more sensitive than his sister, Ruaridh was a bit more gentle, and paid the price when Pansy decided to take him on a merry dance dragging him into a ditch so she could have a munch of the tasty trees on offer.

Tom made the decision to start his treks to keep the herd going. His semi-feral ponies live in their natural habitat all year round; no blankets and heaters for these ponies. They need to be in a familiar environment to allow them to survive. It’s a costly business with the ponies regularly needing new shoes which cost over £200 a time. Tom works hard to keep his prices down, but as he says “everyone wants a slice of the cake.’’

© Tom Lloyd

“They have to work for a living. ‘’ said Tom. “Sadly breeders are getting older and the gene pool of ponies less, so it is more important than ever to keep them going.’’

As we walk along, Tom regales us with tales of his travels with the ponies; his clear favourite is to make the annual journey with daughter Flo to Appleby Fair, an annual gathering of travellers held in June in the eponymous Cumbrian town.

“If we fancy, we just pull off the road for a few days”

Tom Lloyd, Fell Pony Society

“We meander our way there with the ponies and if we fancy, we just pull off the road for a few days and enjoy the slow pace,’’ said Tom.

The ponies certainly keep you on your toes and you need the tasty lunch that Tom provides to keep you going. We enjoyed ours while happily tucked under a waterproof shelter by Grizedale Tarn, and as the unrepentant rain came down, we took in the breathtaking beauty of our surroundings.

We began to understand why Tom is so passionate about his ponies because, here, time really does stand still.

More information

Enjoy the slow pace and take in the beauty of the Lake District with Fell Pony Adventures, who offer everything from a day’s trek to three days wild camping.