Dolly has brown hair, a broad white stripe down her nose, an unruly black mane and a knowing look in her eyes. At 13, she’s middle-aged in equine years, but as she plants her four hooves firmly in the middle of the lane and turns to pull tender leaves from the hedgerow, there’s definitely something of the stubborn teenager about her.
Fortunately, owner Louise Thompson is used to Dolly’s ways. “Rather than pulling a pony, you get hold of the rope, walk beside the head and push the pony in the direction that you want to go,” she advises. The keeper of a much-loved Cumbrian fell pony in childhood, Louise set up Lakeland Pack Ponies to offer visitors the chance to experience the beauty of the southern Lake District.
Walkers can follow ancient trails through the fells, accompanied by animals who are as much a part of the landscape’s history as its famed hills, valleys and waters.
Short, sturdy and thick-coated, fell ponies are known for their gentleness and intelligence, making them ideal companions and luggage-bearers for the Lake District’s tangle of green lanes and stony bridleways. If you find their sure-footed pace too brisk, however, Louise also has other ponies, one of which is Dolly, whose leisurely gait makes her a favourite with children.
Making friends with the ponies
We start in the stables at Louise’s farm, meeting Dolly and her friend Twig, a grey pony with a flowing mane and a nose that feels like crumpled velvet. Leading them outside, I help groom them in preparation for putting on the traditional pack saddles. The ponies can each carry up to 40kg (88lb), enough for the luggage of a holidaying family of four, but pack ponies of the past would have borne up to 100kg (220lb) when working.
We’re soon on our way, wandering through Buttstead Wood, a coppice once used by charcoal burners. Dolly’s eagerness to please has won out over her initial laziness and we get on well. However, my powers of persuasion are tested as she suddenly pricks up her ears, gives an excited whinny and pulls towards a neighbouring field, where a handsome stallion has trotted to the gate to greet his admirers.
Splashing through a shallow stream, we follow a path up Woodland Fell, with the grey-green hulk of the Old Man of Coniston visible behind us. The treks are usually self-directed with the aid of a map and directions, but today Louise joins us.
As we ascend the hill, she tells me about the history of the pack routes. Before the arrival of railways, thousands of pack ponies would leave Kendal every week, bound for London, Bristol and other ports. Their main cargo was wool, as well as locally mined iron ore and slate. Louise points out a groove in the path, worn from centuries of pony-drawn sledges being dragged down the fells.
Follow smugglers’ routes
The remote paths in the hills also attracted smugglers who would sneak their boats into the coastal village of Ravenglass in order to dodge heavy taxes on whisky and tobacco. “The bounty would be put on the pack ponies at night, and often their feet would be covered with little felt boots so that they couldn’t be heard. The ponies were the little black fell ponies, so you couldn’t see them either,” Louise says.
The original plan for my visit was to stay overnight on a campsite a few miles away in a well-appointed bell tent, but as recent heavy rain has caused flooding at our planned destination, we circle back to Louise’s farm, where I bed down comfortably in a wooden railway hut.
In the morning, Louise saddles up and we continue our sedate exploration, crossing the River Lickle via an arched pack-horse bridge whose stones reveal that it was originally just a metre wide. On our journey we pass stone gate posts carved in a style dating back to Roman times, a cruck barn held up by ancient curved timbers and the remains of retting ponds – where flax was retted (soaked) to soften it for spinning.
After a picnic lunch, we make our way back to the farm. I feed the ponies with apples, a small thank-you for having had their soft noses and warm, grassy breath at my elbow for the past two days.
How to get there
Woodland is off the A593 just north of Broughton-in-Furness.
Find out more
Lakeland Pack Ponies
Moss Side Farm, Woodland,
Broughton-in-Furness LA20 6DJ
Prices include a two-day/night break with breakfasts, lunches and bell tent accommodation for two adults and two children for £340.
The Blacksmiths Arms
Broughton Mills, Broughton-in-Furness LA20 6AX
A historic inn with character, serving local produce.