We walked roughly 400 miles each of those summers during the 1980s and 90s. This with two horse-drawn carts and a wagon, averaging something like 12 miles per day. 12 miles was the ideal distance between venues, and so we tried everything possible to make that work. But the reality was that daily travel distances could be anything between 5 and 20 miles despite all our planning. Much over 20 and we would have to split the travel over two days, which was something to avoid if at all possible. Mostly we walked – occasionally individuals would ride up on the drays, especially if someone had pulled a muscle, but the norm was to walk, and long distances were relatively easy to manage under the spell of the clip-clopping of horses hooves.
In the 1980s local authorities had, by todays standards, large arts budgets. They were often keen to have a summer programme of events delivered to their rural areas, and our offer of a horse-drawn theatre tour that travelled from village to village, was a popular one. We would stitch together a tour of village halls, usually with the help of the local arts officer. Our routine would be to play in three different halls each week, with a travel day between each plus one day of rest. However, it was always a special treat to be able to play a venue for more than one night, as the second or, if we were very lucky, a third day would mean lots of free time for everyone. Overall, we would aim for a month in each local authority’s area, but more often it would be just a couple of weeks.
Either way, this all meant a lot of setting up – meeting arts officers, agreeing on a tour, plotting a route. Then a second and usually a third visit going over and over the route, negotiating with local hall committees, finding friendly farmers to provide us with grazing and camping. We also had to look out for resting places during each days travel, including a longer lunch stop. Any travel over 7 or 8 miles would mean needing to find a decent stop somewhere to rest the horses, when we could also set up a fire spot and cook ourselves a meal – soup perhaps, or a fry-up of some sort.
The reconnaissance trips were busy too. I usually went along with the Horse-handler to look out for stopping places, for grass verges large enough to pull our wagons off the road, and to note where we could find a farrier if a horse lost a shoe. As these exploratory visits would be in March or April, we had to imagine what the grass cover would look like in July or August, when we would be on the road. We also noted road conditions, avoiding main roads wherever possible, and exploring greenways or asking permission to travel through private estates or nature reserves.
It was especially important to check the road gradients and often the surface too, where a good grip under hoof was vital. If a hill climb was too steep for us we would just have to find an alternative route. If crossing a major trunk road was unavoidable we would sometimes have to ask for a police escort. In those days this would normally be provided without much fuss. All of this information went into a tour book, which was then carried by the Horse-handler during the tour, reminding them what to expect on the journey ahead. It became the tour bible, the essential guide to successful horse-drawn travelling.
Sometimes the reconnaissance visits proved as eventful as the tour itself. On Uist, in the Outer Hebrides, I was with Moira Hirst when we clambered onto a large strand of dried kelp, which was strung all along the tide line of a huge, beautiful, deserted sandy bay, and looked out to sea. Eventually we became aware that the dry kelp was beginning to move under our feet in an odd, slightly undulating way. For a few seconds we stood there unable to figure out what was happening. Then, suddenly, hundreds of rats burst out, running hither and thither along the beach. Earlier that day we had discovered the skeleton of a huge whale, its bowl of a cranium large enough to photograph with Moira standing inside it.
But if all of this was done properly the tour travel days should go smoothly. On a typical day we would walk for a couple of hours and then stop for a tea break, boiling a kettle over chitties by the roadside. In bad weather it would be done inside the wagon. Each of these stopping places had been noted, of course, in that little book. Then on for another few hours before finding the lunch stop where the food boxes would be broken open and a hot meal put together. Naturally the horses were fed and watered too, and then we all – whether on two or four legs – rested for an hour or more before continuing on our way.