One historic use of the Fell Pony was as a pack pony before roads improved in the north of England to support the use of wheeled vehicles. “At one time over 300 Fell ponies left Kendal every working day for destinations all over the country carrying cargo as diverse as woolen stockings, fresh fish, tanned hides, live chickens and bolts of cloth.” (1)
An artifact in today’s Cumbria of those bygone days is pack horse bridges. These bridges are usually narrow by today’s standards, just what was necessary to allow the passage of the ponies, and they had low side walls so that the packs wouldn’t get hung up as the ponies crossed them. “[For] several hundred years the tracks and bridle-ways of the Lakeland fells, now largely the province of walkers and cyclists, were thronging, night and day, with strings of laden packhorses, the crags echoing the jingle of the leader-bells, the shouts and curses of the men who drove them and the eerie clatter of a hundred hooves…. At every crossing point [over becks and rivers] a packhorse bridge had to be built – and in the well watered fell country this required a great many such bridges. Today approximately one quarter of all known pack horse bridges in England are to be found in the county of Cumbria; they are indisputably a treasured feature of the Lakeland landscape, graceful, aesthetically pleasing in their architecture, their natural weathered stone blending perfectly into the scenery.” (2)
In an attempt to bring the past and present together again, a competition was launched in 2007 to encourage photographs of modern day Fell Ponies on these historic pack horse bridges. Sadly there was little interest in the competition, and the prize was never awarded. Being a working pony enthusiast, when I heard about the competition recently, I couldn’t help but be captured by the vision of a Fell Pony being photographed on each of the known ancient bridges. Sadly, living on this side of the pond has so far been an impediment to helping this dream become a reality.
An article in the latest issue of Cumbria magazine provides a glimmer of hope to Fell-Ponies-on-pack-horse-bridges dreamers like me, though. Lakeland Pack Pony Holidays uses Fells in its business to transport client meals and supplies on routes in the Lake District, including those across pack horse bridges. While their website doesn’t yet have any pictures of Fells on bridges, they do have some stunning photographs of bridges as well as loving pictures of their ponies. Louise has supplied the picture here of a bridge near Hardknott Pass, including the following information: Hardknott Pass is an old Roman road, used by pack ponies carrying goods such as wool and grains from the market town of Kendal to the little Roman port of Ravenglass. It is also said that the pack ponies were used by smugglers to collect illegal goods brought to the port and, quietly, in the dark of night, then would disappear into the fells carrying their loads. (3)
I hope to include an outing with Lakeland Pack Ponies on my next trip to Cumbria. In the meantime, I’ll keep an eye on their photo gallery and add their recommended readings to my library!
(1) Richardson, Clive. The Fell Pony. J.A. Allen, Allen Guides to Horse and Pony Breeds, 2000, p. 5.
(2) Gambles, Robert. “Cumbria’s Forgotten Bridges,” The Fell Pony Society Newsletter, Spring 2005 Volume 11, p. 56-58.
(3) http://www.lakelandpackponies.co.uk and email dated 11/02/11.
(c) Jenifer Morrissey, 2011