‘You can’t just park your mule,’ Hugh Thomson, travel author, tells me. And he’s quite right. I can’t remember the last time I saw a mule parked anywhere – something that Hugh sympathises with. ‘In England there aren’t many mules so it was quite difficult to find one. For some reason, we don’t use them much so there are very few left. ’
Despite this, and having had experience of these animals on his travels in South America, Hugh was determined that one should accompany him on his next British trip. ‘Mules are wonderful animals,’ he tells me. ‘They’re a cross between a donkey and a horse so they have the best qualities of both. Mules are tough animals and they’re very intelligent – but they won’t do anything they don’t want to do.’
Hugh eventually found Jethro, the mule who would become his travelling companion. Jethro was living with the RSPCA who had rescued him after he had been abandoned by his previous owners. Together, Hugh and Jethro set out on a journey that Hugh has written up into his latest travel book One Man and a Mule: Across England With a Pack Mule.
In the book, Hugh recalls his first meeting with the mule: ‘As soon as I met him, I could see Jethro had a bit of a spare tyre. If anything, this made me sympathetic. 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 ... about twelve and a half hands – with striking colouring, a freckling of white and beige like an Appaloosa, and an enquiring and appraising gaze which I came to learn was characteristic. Our first meeting in the stable yard at the RSPCA was cordial, if not effusive; so English in the best possible sense.’
With Jethro on board, Hugh planned out a route that would see them travel across time, as well as across country. Eschewing modern motorways and methods of transportation, he decided they would journey from coast to coast, across Cumbria and Yorkshire – some 200 miles – by foot on old, potentially disused drovers’ tracks. ‘We were roughly following the route of the Coast to Coast path across the North,’ Hugh explains. ‘But the Coast to Coast path is obviously a footpath so we introduced a variant, using the old drovers’ tracks and travelling as people would have done with pack animals. It was an interesting way of seeing the country as people must have seen it in the past.
‘We began at St Bees and crossed the Lake District,’ he continues. ‘We then entered Yorkshire in Swaledale. We went all the way down to Richmond, crossed the Vale of Mowbray to the Yorkshire Moors and finished by walking across the moors, ending at Robin Hood’s Bay.’
Not your average Sunday morning stroll then. Hugh gives me an insight into the amount of planning and preparation that went into his trip: ‘I had a horse lorry because I needed to transport Jethro to stables,’ he says. ‘There were times when I had to drive him somewhere for overnight accommodation because in England you can’t always just stop where you are, so we had a mix of staying with friends or in pre-arranged accommodation along the way.’
This was not the only issue that travelling with Jethro presented. ‘A lot of old bridleways have been closed,’ Hugh says. ‘Routes that used to be bridleways have been changed into footpaths. That means crossing the country becomes difficult.’
A look at Hugh’s back catalogue sees him travelling through the south of England, Mexico and ancient Peru so it would be fair to suggest that he’s something of a wanderer. What, I wonder, did he learn on this latest journey? ‘It was a very nice way of travelling slowly and seeing the countryside,’ Hugh responds. ‘It was a way of getting to talk to people; everyone liked Jethro so that was great.’
In his book, Hugh recalls one particularly memorable encounter with a Yorkshire native: ‘Passing High Hawsker, a friendly fellow popped out of the village hall to say hello. “Have you got a carriage for him?” he asked, pointing at Jethro. This was the first time anyone had suggested hitching Jethro up to some wheels. I wasn’t sure he was ready for it.
It turned out that the man once had a donkey called Trudy, and had used her to pull a small cart; she had lived to the ripe old age of 30, although she never liked the cold and sea spray of the coast. Given his experience, I introduced him properly to Jethro and explained that we had come 200 miles from the other coast, in Cumbria.
“So what are you going to do when you get to Robin Hood’s Bay? Because you’ll have to get Jethro all the way back again. And he’ll be double fare on the bus.”’
Hugh explains that he discovered more than just mule-care tips through his conversations with the locals though. ‘I was trying to find out about how people are living in the countryside and how things are changing,’ he says. ‘We get a lot about what life’s like in the cities and not quite so much about what life’s like in rural England so I looked at how people get by there. I got a very friendly welcome in Yorkshire.’
And what, apart from the people, stood out about our fair county? Were there any locations that were particular highlights for Hugh, a self-confessed ‘soft southerner,’ with little prior knowledge of Yorkshire? ‘I very much enjoyed the walk around the corner of the Yorkshire Moors from Osmotherley heading round to the Wainstones. I thought it was beautiful – you can see for miles. You get the sense that this is a route that people have taken for thousands of years, so it’s nice to follow in the footsteps of such history.’
Hugh is also particularly enthusiastic about some of Yorkshire’s towns, particularly Richmond. ‘What a wonderful town that is,’ he gushes. ‘You can see why James Herriot called it the finest town in the country. Everyone always thinks he said finest town in the county but actually he said it was the finest town in the country, which I would agree with.’
As well as the spectacular countryside and venerable towns, Hugh tells me he enjoyed sampling some local culture in Yorkshire and arrived in Whitby in time for the annual Goth Festival, which he found very entertaining. Jethro, on the other hand, was less impressed with the corpse paint and spiked leather jackets. I wondered how he reacted to being uprooted from his home with the RSPCA and taken along on this mammoth journey.
As it turns out, he had a cracking time. ‘He was quite interested by the sea when we finally got to Robin Hood’s Bay,’ Hugh reports. ‘The Bay Hotel there gave him a certificate – anyone who walks the Coast to Coast path gets given a certificate so they made a special one for him.’
However, Hugh does acknowledge that there may have been mules more physically suited to this cross-country ramble. ‘I went to the races at Catterick,’ Hugh tells me. ‘Just to show Jethro what it’s like if you’re really running.’ Jethro wasn’t in peak physical condition then? ‘He was quite temperamental,’ Hugh confides. ‘He’d had a slightly troubled upbringing as he was a rescue mule so I don’t think he’d had a very easy time of it in his first few years and he had a few fitness issues, as there’s only so much exercise the RSPCA can realistically give their animals. He had a bit of a spare tyre that needed working off but he was quite fit by the end.’
When talk turns to the future, Hugh speaks positively about continuing to travel with animals, although he concedes that they do complicate travel plans. ‘It was a great experience,’ he says. ‘I’ll certainly be travelling with mules again in South America – it hasn’t put me off them. It reminded me though that England is a more enclosed country these days – it’s not as open as it used to be, so I’m trying to bring back the idea of mules because there are so few left here.’
Hugh also hopes to work with Jethro again. At the end of their journey, he was able to find him a more permanent home, not too far away from his own and so when asked about plans to keep in contact with his four-legged friend, the writer answers with an enthusiastic ‘yes,’ and promises that if he undertakes another journey like this ‘I’ll definitely take him.’
One Man and a Mule: Across England With a Pack Mule is now available by Preface Publishing. All excerpts by Hugh Thomson, published with kind permission of Preface Publishing.