In which Our Lass has a ride on a horse which I fail to photograph well due to a belligerent goat trying to pick a fight with Our Dog
Prussia, once the home of the straight-backed German soldier with the duelling-scar, now a peaceful farming region full of small villages, low rolling hills and small forests. Prussia, in fact, doesn’t exist any more but the land around parts of North Moravia used to be Prussia and so off to ex-Prussia we went.
This little expedition was aimed at gathering mushrooms and riding a horse. In that order. In reality of course, the plan went wrong from the very beginning. There are 2 roads which go in the direction we wanted; a fairly direct one and a tortuous winding one which goes through every tiny village and low-speed limit imaginable. Of course the direct one was shut. Not closed with warning signs and a diversion set up or anything, just shut.
That’s how we came to be crawling through endless Silesian villages behind a succession of tractors, farm wagons and at one stage, a horse and cart, when we should have been winding up the mushroom hunt and heading for the stables. No matter, the landscape is picturesque, the sun was shining and Our Kid was sound asleep.
The village of Brantice, when we arrived, was a collection of smallholdings; buildings with huge gardens full of apple trees or vegetable patches, very much like the landscape of South Moravia. All of the buildings were old, probably pre-First World War and some of them were obviously flood-damaged. Flooding in the Czech Republic has been serious at times in the past, as it has over large areas of Central Europe. A lot of money has been spent over the last few years on improving river banks and other forms of flood defence but when you see where the render has been removed a metre and a half up the wall of a house and you’re 3 metres above the current river level, it gives you an idea how fearsome these floods can get.
People were walking along every road carrying large baskets full of mushrooms as we drove through the village, so we had high hopes for later on. Our first problem, though, were the inhabitants of the farm where the horses were. A garden full of puppies of various sizes was going frantic by the gate at Our Dog, who was also going frantic trying to get in to meet them. Beyond a fence some geese were adding to the ruckus and a goat was wandering around the horse field getting under the horses’ feet and generally making a nuisance of itself.
As is customary in farming villages, a small girl of about 13 was in charge of everything. She dragged the dogs out of the way, scolded the geese and ushered us into the horse field. Here I began to feel, in the presence of dirty big horses, that having Our Kid in a pushchair was less than ideal. Horses can move a lot faster than I can move a pushchair and Our Dog was determined to go and give everything a jolly good sniffing. Our Dog knows all about horses and likes them a lot but these horses didn’t know Our Dog and were getting skittish. Our Dog had me on a lead as well, so I was being dragged around trying to keep the pushchair and the dog under some sort of control, when the goat put in an appearance.
‘He doesn’t like dogs.’ Explained the all-wise farm girl as she held a horse steady for Our Lass to mount. Oh good, I’ll just get on with taking pictures then, shall I? Fortunately, I had packed the correct equipment for one-handed photography (an ancient point-and-shoot, fully automatic, 4 mega pixel Canon in Our case). Our Lass had managed to get on the horse and was off for a slow canter, as one to the manner born. Our Kid had never seen his Mum on the back of a horse before and wasn’t totally sure he liked the idea, but as he was securely strapped into his pushchair, there wasn’t a lot he could do about it. So with one hand manoeuvering Our Kid to keep myself between him and the goat, my camera in the other hand and Our Dog’s lead round my neck and shoulder, I managed to get these 2 photos before it all went wrong.
As Our Lass went round the field, she disappeared behind a tree stump. Obviously she had disappeared off the face of the planet as far as Our Dog was concerned, because she went frantic. She raced off to look behind the tree stump, which spooked the goat into a full-frontal attack, in turn making the second horse prance around nervously and giving me a nasty rope-burn as the lead went tight. Then then I got tied up in knots as she simultaneously tried to watch Our Lass, stay out from under the horse’s feet and threaten the goat into leaving Our Kid alone.
I had to give up on the photography, wrestle Our Dog back under control and put Our Kid up on my shoulders, away from the goat, which was circling at a safe distance and bleating belligerently. Our Dog was having none of it and tried a counter attack on the goat, giving me rope burn on the other side of my neck and nearly dismounting Our Kid. The goat backed off but then Our Lass went behind the tree stump again and Our Dog earned herself a few sharp words and a taste of strangulation because I was ready for her frantic rush this time and held the lead tight.
Eventually the all-wise farm girl, tut-tutting at my inept city-boy handling of the situation, came over and dragged the offending goat away by its horns. Well, that was me told!
With the goat sent off and Our Dog given a yellow card, things were much calmer for Our Lass, who captured my first experience of horse-riding beautifully.
All I can say is I’m no John Wayne. I mean, this wasn’t the largest horse the world has ever known but somehow it was a lot bigger looking down from the top than up from the bottom! You certainly wouldn’t want to fall off it, anyway. The next thing I noticed was the lack of controls. My boots were far too large for the stirrups and I couldn’t reach the reins without pulling them out of the hands of the girl, who was quite obviously the supervising adult here. The horse was very kind to me, not even attempting to run under any low branches or anything and after a few unsteady moments, I really began to enjoy it. I even felt relaxed enough to wonder how Our Dog would react when I went behind the tree stump (Our Lass gave the lead a good yank and used some threatening language before she could think of misbehaving).
Getting down was a little tricky too. I’d climbed up using some steps, which I never saw John Wayne do, and by carefully swinging my right leg over the horse’s backside, I managed to slip and fall to the ground in a way that I never saw John Wayne do either. I don’t know who was most pleased to have survived the experience, me or the horse, but now it was following me around like a beggar, sniffing pointedly at my hands. I recognised this little tactic from several years of loving attention from Our Dog; it was on the scrounge. The girl gave it a carrot and it went away, well pleased with its reward.
Horse riding accomplished, we decided to go somewhere and cook sausages over a camp fire and gather some Fruits of the Forest. First though, we had to run the gauntlet of the farm animals. The goat was still spoiling for a fight but this time Our Lass had Our Kid, and I was at the back with Our Dog so there was no-one to see me take a threatening swing with my over-sized boot and give Our Dog a bit more slack on her lead. The goat finally got the message and sloped off, trying to give the impression that it could have given us a right good pasting if it had wanted to but had other things to get on with. The geese had a pop at us as well but from a safe distance. I got the impression that they are the farmyard bullies, swaggering around with the goat and picking on smaller animals but once the goat had been sent packing they bottled it and ran away.
This farmland in the Moravian Gate is much flatter than the foothills and mountains of the nearby Jesenikys, good for cross-country skiing novices or less energetic cyclists and hikers, although for the average tourist, there’s relatively little to see or do. However, for the likes of us, on this fine day, it was perfect. The wind was quite strong, signalling a changing weather system to come and the poplars and birches swayed and streamed all around us. We headed for a disused quarry, the perfect camp-site in this sort of terrain. It formed a nice sun-trap and we set about teaching Our Kid how to set fire to things, always a useful skill for a 17 month old baby to possess.
Our Dog knew that food was afoot and kept a respectful, though carefully calculated distance. If sausage, once cooked, is not forthcoming, the distance and degree of respect decreases rapidly. I wouldn’t mind but I thought the point of domesticating dogs was that they helped somehow in the acquisition of the meat then stood back and allowed those of us with opposable thumbs to sort out a fire and cook it before sharing the spoils. Obviously nobody has explained this to Our Dog.
By the time we’d cooked, eaten, cleared up, exhausted Our Kid’s appetite for collecting sticks, burning them and experimenting with rock-climbing, it dawned on us that there wasn’t really much time to gather mushrooms. The ever-present threat of having to find our way back to the van in the dark wasn’t far off and this time we didn’t even have a map of the area to help. With almost no houses, no roads and cloud cover, the night out here is impenetrable. A torch will show you what’s going on for a couple of metres but with no way to see the shape of the hills and orientate the map you will inevitably end up in a forest, river or electric fence which is no way to spend the evening.
We looked in all the likely places on our way back but in the end we gave up because the local villagers had picked the area clean and driving around on the off-chance of finding somewhere good is asking for trouble as well, if you haven’t got a map. Once it’s dark, all these village roads look the same and there’s never any road signs because all the locals know the area and everyone else except us has satnav.
Not to worry, it was a nice day out and at this time of year it’s never certain how many nice days are left before it all goes rainy and grey. At some point, the land will need a good dose of rain and after that the snows should come, opening up countless possibilities for the intrepid explorer. Each nice weekend after the end of September is a bonus!