Jethro’s toll

Travelling across the north at mule pace allowed for many conversations with people living in the countryside. What they revealed was not some pastoral idyll but disconnects and pockets of deprivation

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The idea of taking a mule across England had come about in the same focused way as so many of my projects: some long entertained half-thought (like trying to find an Inca ruin or running a black-market car from Texas to Central America) crystallising into action without at any stage being examined
for plausibility, possibility or sheer bloody stupidity.

As my wife Irena pointed out: “You haven’t really thought how you’re going to do this, have you?” This was rhetorical, as married conversations often are. We both knew I hadn’t.

Before I could think about it too much, I found myself in St Bees on the west coast of Cumbria, getting ready with my newfound mule Jethro to cross the country towards the Yorkshire Moors.

Jethro was a rescue mule from the RSPCA. He had been abandoned because, like so many mules in this country, no one had realised that if you left a donkey in a field with a horse, you might get an unwanted result.

He had been standing in a field for the last three years and hadn’t taken much exercise. The RSPCA said he had been prone to, uh, “weight-gain issues”.

If anything his spare tyre made me more sympathetic to him – just another middle-aged mule/male. Moreover, Jethro had been gelded late in life so retained the energies and inclinations, if not the abilities, of a stallion.

The big country houses on the hill could be a thousand miles away from the small cottages

It didn’t take me long to realise that taking a pack animal across England, which once would have been so natural as to attract no notice, was now working against the lie of the land. The route was bifurcated with everything from stiles to boundary fences to the six lanes of the M6. The process of enclosure, begun so controversially in the 18th century, was still continuing. I was very roughly following the route of the Coast to Coast footpath but I needed to deviate and find bridleways to take Jethro along.This was much more difficult than I expected.

Almost two-thirds of bridleways have disappeared across the country since the Second World War. Even some of those labelled as bridleways turn out to have stiles. And while that doesn’t matter so much if you’ve got a mountain bike, trying to get 300kg of mule over a stile is an impossibility. Quite often we had to turn back and find another route.

Travelling at mule pace, I was determined to use the journey to talk to as many people living in the countryside as possible. Farmers come in all shapes and sizes in this country, from Michael Eavis to the Duke of Beaufort. Lumping them together is unhelpful. And even less voice is usually given to the few farm workers who remain in an increasingly mechanised agricultural industry. I wanted to unpick the threads of what was really happening in the rapidly changing countryside, far from the metropolitan conversation.

What I didn’t want to do was just describe the landscape or the animals.  There have been plenty of recent books that did that.

George Orwell was deeply suspicious of such natural history writing and of those for whom the “world centres round the English village, and round the trees and hedges of that village rather than the houses and the people”.

In a 1944 review of a contemporary natural history book for the Manchester Evening News, he went on to say: “It arises partly from the small size, equable climate, and varied scenery of England, but it is also probably bound up with
the decay of English agriculture… The fact is that those who really have to deal with nature have no cause to be in love with it.” He added that, for such writers, their “ideal picture of rural England might contain too many rabbits and not enough tractors”.

If Orwell had taken this journey, he would not have wanted to write about which birds were in which hedgerows. He would have wanted to talk to people, to take the temperature of the road to Whitby Pier, where I would end my journey. And like me, I suspect he would been appalled at the disconnect that now reigns in the north, just as it does in the rest of the country: the way in which so many of the middle class are unaware of the depths of the pockets of deprivation, both in the countryside – where they are particularly easy to ignore – and in the small market towns that I passed like Richmond.

For I soon discovered that, along with its Georgian charm and impossibly picturesque position with the castle and the river, as painted by Turner, there was a darker side to Richmond. The lamps along the castle walkway had been vandalised. Locals told me about a epic pub fight with some 30 people that had taken place outside the Buck the previous Christmas. One of the guys at the petrol station counter had a black eye after remonstrating with a customer who had tried to do a runner.

In the sandwich shop, Jefferson’s, I got chatting to the ebullient owner Gary while he was selling me a sausage roll with black pudding (and giving me an extra one for free, as he could tell I was an enthusiast). He told me that “although it might seem a contradiction in terms, there’s a thriving food bank in Richmond”. Decent jobs were “like hens’ teeth”.

But even if there was a layer of grime under the rim of the silver plate, it was hard not to be seduced by Richmond: by the cobbled street of Newbiggin bestriding the top of the hill with such wide elegance; by the Wynds uncurling around the town; by the fine cobbled marketplace (“Don’t ever call it a square”, Gary had told me. “Because it isn’t one”), the largest in England, with its obelisk and church; and, of course, towering over proceedings, the handsome Norman castle.

As Jethro and I travelled on, right across the Yorkshire Dales and the North Yorks Moors, I came to realise that the big country houses on the top of the hill, whose owners arrive at the weekend in an SUV laden with shopping bags, could be a thousand miles away from the small cottages at the bottom, whose occupants may rely on a moribund bus service. And there is no longer any reason for the two households to meet. The wealthy couple in the big house often feel no sense of responsibility for what happens in the rural community. They are just visitors.

This is not just because they do not want to be engaged. Many of the old focal loci of the countryside – the church, the gathering for the harvest and even the beleaguered rural pub – have faded. The closest contact its inhabitants sometimes have is on a country lane when the wheels of their cars or buses swish past each other. The book I ended up writing is in some ways an attempt to connect the countryside up again.

And as for Jethro, what happened to him? This is the question most people ask.

I’m pleased to say that we were able to start a Facebook page for Jethro as we travelled and, as a result of the publicity, he has now been permanently adopted, so no longer needs to stay at the RSPCA.

The people who took him on live quite close to me, so I have been able to visit occasionally while writing the book. He always looks at me in the way the English do on such occasions – with a friendly if slightly quizzical expression that leaves the changes in both our circumstances unspoken. And he is always too tactful to mention that his Facebook page still attracts more interest than my own.

Hugh Thomson’s One Man and a Mule is published by Preface/Random House (£20). Follow Jethro at 

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