Englishman, horseman, and author Julian Roup has published his fifth book, Into the Secret Heart of Ashdown Forest: A Horseman’s Country Diary, which is described as a collection of essays that “are small narrative jewels of landscape, horses, friendship, and a search for belonging…” Or what the author also calls love letters to “Ashdown Forest after a forty-year affair. It is also a book of spiritual renewal during a time of the pandemic in which a return to the woods offers answers.”
Roup, the author of A Fisherman in the Saddle, has spent the last 40 years living and riding around the fabled Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, England (the home of Winnie the Pooh) and found the place, and his horse, almost magical during the pandemic.
His passion for horses shines through in these pages and his writing is, as he himself says, a form of ‘moving meditation’. “After the best part of a year in lockdown thanks to Covid-19, it became clear to me as never before how much I owed to the place … and to my horses who have carried me across its green miles.”
He says that both the forest and the horses have brought him health, peace, and deep spiritual contentment when life offered just the opposite. “The pandemic truly brought it home to me how important nature is to our well-being,” he adds, calling the book, “A thank you to the forest and Callum, the big chestnut Irish Sport Horse who has been my companion during this plague year. On his back I have reconnected in a deeper way with the forest and seen how and why we need to cherish what remains of the wild places.”
Roup isn’t the only equestrian in the family; his wife, Janice Warman, author of The Hey Nonney Handbook, has a 16.3-hand 20-year-old skewbald named Traveller which they’ve owned since he was a six-year-old. “He is the equine equivalent of a saint,” Roup says.
Horse-Canada.com spoke with Roup about his latest book, horses, and the ongoing state of the world and how riding helps all of us cope.
Horse Canada: What inspired you to write about your lifetime spent with horses and the Ashdown Forest?
Julian Roup: I have always loved horses, riding, and landscape and they provided an escape and a balm from the pressures of a fairly unhappy schooling experience. I started riding at the age of six in Cape Town, South Africa, where I was born and now at the age of 71, I am riding what will probably be my last horse, Callum, an 18hh Irish Sport Horse.
What inspired me to write about all this? Well, it’s been my passion, my salvation in a way, and certainly cheaper than seeing a shrink! During the past 18 months of the Covid-19 pandemic the importance of horses and riding became doubly important to me, as did the beautiful heathland and woodland called Ashdown Forest – home of Winnie the Pooh and the walking ground of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote the Sherlock Holmes books. And for three years, 1913 to 1916, it was the winter home of poets Ezra Pound and W.B. Yeats, who shared a cottage on the forest and drank cider in the Hatch Inn.
For me, Ashdown is a dreamscape and a literary landscape combined and I love it and wanted to share something of it with others. Having emigrated from South Africa in 1980 at the age of 30 I was very unsettled for some years and then slowly but surely Ashdown began what I can only describe as a ‘nature cure’ and the place entered my heart. These days, after owning some ten horses, my real home is in the saddle. When I am riding, I am home.
What changed for you during the Covid-19 lockdown? Did you spend more time riding, seek more solitude?
Some three years ago I had heart surgery and some stents were placed in my heart. I also have a blood condition which impacts my immune system, so for these reasons and even since being vaccinated twice, my wife, Janice and I have been in effective lockdown. Horses have always been a lifeline and now they became a lifeline with a capital H. So in effect I’ve spent the last year and a half writing and riding like fury on Callum who I found when I went in search of an ‘old man’s horse’ but fell in love with what is probably the single most inappropriate ‘old man’s horse’ imaginable! But what the hell, you only live once.
What, in your opinion, is the spiritual and meditative power of the horse?
Where do I begin? This is such a vast subject. We are all aware now of the way horses are used with emotionally troubled people and the benefits this brings. The book The Horse Boy by Rupert Isaacson is one of the best on this subject and it moved me greatly.
I find that when I ride it is a form of moving meditation. Because one is on a large animal that has the capacity to kill you, it forces you to live in the now; the past and the future have to take care of themselves for a while as you negotiate your way through the woods. This helps you focus on the present to an unusual degree and I believe this brings about an activation in our minds of a much older brain area better known and understood by our hunter-gatherer forbears. One is truly alive and the natural world takes on an almost luminous and numinous presence. I, for one, feel I am riding through a sacred space.
This is the gift of the horse to humans, or those who have the sense to tune into what the horse offers. After some hours out in the woods I am a different person to the one who left some hours before: more still, more centred, more at peace. And the activated endorphins released by the riding give you a natural high.
What advice would you give an exhausted/stressed-out horseperson today?
I would say: Cherish your horse as a purveyor of horse medicine. They will, if you allow them, give you the single most powerful connection with nature and its power to fill you with joy, health. Forget any form of competing if that is your thing and let the horse give you a lead in slowing down, finding the time to simply stand and stare, as the poet tells us, and to remind yourself of all those things that bewitched you about horses to begin with.
What is so special about Ashdown Forest?
Ashdown Forest is a remnant of the ancient forest of Anderida that the Romans found when they first conquered Britain and cut a road from the Sussex coast to the Thames. Centuries later, Ashdown became a royal hunting ground and there is, above our cottage, a stand of signature pines known as King’s Standing, where King Henry VIII wooed Anne Boleyn, whose family owned Hever Castle five miles north of us. Today it is owned by the local authority the East Sussex Country council and is the largest natural park and woodland southeast of London with some 9,000 acres to walk and ride on. It is special scientifically as one of the last remaining heathlands in Britain and is a beautiful place to explore on foot or on horseback. It is astonishing that such a place even exists so close to London beneath the flight paths into Heathrow and Gatwick airports.
What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned during the pandemic about how horses and nature provide comfort and healing?
The pandemic has brought many thousands of new visitors to Ashdown Forest as they grasp the importance of what it provides in terms of good physical and mental health. So I am not alone in having a fresh respect and understanding of the value of nature to us as human beings. There was in these parts an ancient belief in The Green Man of the woods, a sort of nature spirit. I believe something of the spirit of The Green Man has entered my soul during this time.
I have come to realise that unless we see nature as sacred, as something worthy of veneration, we as a species are lost. After all, we can see with increasing clarity that this ‘spaceship’ we call the Earth has no lifeboats. If we destroy it, we destroy ourselves. What better reason do we need to worship the earth in ways earliest man did instinctively, believing as he did if one listened the trees and the stone ‘spoke’. Looking at the landscape in this way transforms everything, us, and the landscape. And horses, through their sensitive nature, are the perfect guides into this new reality, spirit guides if you will.
Purchase Into the Secret Heart of Ashdown Forest on Amazon here.