One evening, deep in the West of the country, at a turning off the main road between two busy cities we discovered an ancient inn. It has nothing to do with that very new road, but sits thirty yards or so up the side road beyond a low ridge covered with a copse of birch and oak trees, half turned away from the roar of passing lorries it’s so well masked by the trees and embedded into its surroundings that it’s very easy to miss it altogether. Fortunately we’d been keeping an eye out for a side road which would take us away from the frantic rush we were caught in, and had already turned into the lane and were approaching the hill ahead when we glimpsed the end of it on our left and immediately pulled in.
The long, low building’s mossy roof, gently undulating in rhyme with the hill-slopes before and behind, seemed designed to hide it from the eyes of outsiders; while small dormer windows peeped out like nervous children peering over the sofa, in fear of some unknown danger which might be approaching. We turned the car onto a grassy track which wound round the back of the inn to a space on the far side where we could park. No other cars were there, and ours looked lonely and incongruous, and we felt we should have come in a cart or carriage of some kind. This feeling was strengthened when we saw the horse trough, and a couple of open stable-doors in an out-building off to our left. Perhaps horseback was the only correct form of transport here!
Following a narrow path which took us between low box hedges we made our way round to the front of the L shaped building. It was only then that we were able to see the sign hanging on the wall beside the porch and wide doorway. A dark horse galloped over a moonlit moorland, his mane flying in the wind of his going, and a herd of smaller ponies followed behind. The Wild Stallion, proclaimed the words beneath the image.
We were struck for a moment by its atmosphere and the powerful liveliness of the painting, then I laughed, and remarked that the horse trough and stabling were definitely most suited to this Inn. (Interestingly, neither of us ever used the word “pub” while we were there – or afterwards when talking about it – it was an inn.)
We glanced around. The foot of the L was on our right – we had just come round the end of it, and the stem was in front of us. It was built with a mixture of old stone and bricks between oak beams, though it seemed likely that the bricks had replaced an earlier wattle and daub. A warm golden light shone through several leaded windows, and two rough benches leant against the wall facing across the garden towards the hill behind us.
The door in the old stone porch was set open, and we could hear the sound of quiet conversations going on within. We went in, filled with a mixture of pleasure, curiosity, and trepidation. I, for one, had already fallen in love with the place and was hoping that it wasn’t going to be a horrible disappointment inside. Later Bria told me she’d been fearful that it might be so much a ‘local’ that we wouldn’t be welcome. I’m glad to say our fears were unfounded, and the innkeeper put down the glass he was polishing, and with a beaming smile said,
‘How might I help you, young ladies?’
‘Is it possible to have a meal?’ I asked. ‘And do you have any rooms for guests?’
‘Yes, and yes,’ he replied, and whisked a notebook out of his apron pocket with one hand while presenting us with a handwritten menu with the other. ‘Why don’t you choose your food, and while it’s being prepared we can fetch your things in,’ he suggested, adding, ‘Where did you park?’
‘We’re round by the stable block,’ said Bria, ‘if that’s alright.’
‘That’s fine,’ he said, and we turned around to find that we were being watched with quiet curiosity by about a dozen men and three or four women seated at tables in the main room. They smiled at us, and several said ‘Good evening,’ as we moved towards an empty table by the window. We responded in kind, they returned to their conversations, and we settled down to study the menu. It didn’t take us long to choose a home-made venison and stilton pie, and when our order had been taken we fetched in our cases and were shown to a pleasant, airy room in the foot of the L. One window looked across the front of the inn, while a second opened towards the hill opposite, and two very comfortable beds, two chairs, a table and a wardrobe made up the rest of the furnishings. A bathroom was next door.
Returning to the main room we were soon tucking into the most delicious pie and home-grown vegetables accompanied by a local red wine. When we were sipping our coffee, after a refreshing fruit sorbet, the innkeeper came over and sat down for a chat. He didn’t take long to extract most of our life stories from us and the fact that we were touring around for a fortnight exploring little-known corners of the country.
In a pause in the conversation I asked, ‘Do tell us something about the inn. It looks as if it has a long and interesting history.”
‘Yes, please do,’ agreed Bria, ‘There must be a story about its name, at least.’
‘Aaah, the Stallion! Yes indeed, there’s a story about him, but I’m not the best one to tell you that.’ He turned towards a group sitting by the fireplace and called, ‘Doran, tell the ladies about the Stallion, will you?’
A small, wizened, elderly man turned his chair towards us, as all the others in the room hushed their conversations and also turned to watch and listen. They had a look of keen expectation in their eyes, and it was clear we were to hear a favourite tale.
‘The Stallion is it?’ Doran said, with an all encompassing smile.
‘Yes, you might say I was a part of that story,’ and he settled himself to begin.
‘When I was a young lad, not above six years old, my Da first told me the tale of what had happened in the days of his Grandda. So you’ll understand this was round about two hundred and fifty years agone.
‘At that time there was a fine, rich, lordly man by the name of Rennard Roydon lived over the moors in the big house, and my Great Grandda was one of his stable boys. There were many fine horses in those stables, but Roydon had set his heart on a stallion which was owned by a neighbour to the north of his lands, Gage Maslon, a wealthy farmer, but no way a nobleman.
‘Roydon despised him ‘cos of that , and thought he could take what he wanted from him, and he wanted that stallion.
‘Dark Prince he was called, and they say no finer horse has been seen in this country for five-hundred years! He wasn’t a true black, you understand, but a deep, velvety, dark brown. He had an air about him, a nobility you couldn’t find words for. He’d been born to a mare Maslon had bought, and his sire must have been summat above special. Maslon had bred him up, and would ride him from time to time, but word was no one else could even set a saddle on his back.
‘Well, to cut a long story short, Roydon became obsessed by that horse, and over some years he worked it that Maslon fell into debt and finally was ruined. I dunno the ins and outs, but it was evil trickery, that everyone was sure of, and was truly sorry for Maslon, ‘cos he was well liked by all. So Roydon was able to take Dark Prince as part of what Maslon owed him, and my Great Grandda went over to fetch him to the Big House. The parting between the horse and his owner was hard, and Maslon said, “He’ll get no joy of this, lad, I promise you that.”
‘Great Grandda had no trouble, he and Dark Prince understood each other fine, but as soon as Roydon stepped into the stables that horse became a fiend. First he tried to bite him, then he squealed at him, lashing out with his hooves, rearing up, or turning and trying to kick him. At first Roydon was patient, “He needs time to settle into his new home,” he said. “I’ll leave him a week, and come again.”
‘But it made no diff’rence. And this went on for nigh a month, until Roydon got real angry. He told the Head Groom and my Great Grandda to take him out into the paddock and to tie him firmly by ropes pegged into the ground. They had to put a sort of muzzle onto him as well, so’s he couldn’t bite. They wasn’t happy, but being afeared of the Master, they had to do it. So that’s what they did, but with as much care as they could, and talking to Dark Prince all the while to tell him it wasn’t their fault, nor his for that matter.
‘Then out comes Rennard Roydon, as lordly as you please, with a saddle over his arm, a long whip in his hand, and the nastiest set of spurs on his boots as you did ever see!
‘First he walks all round Dark Prince, telling him who’s the new boss now, and showing him the whip. “I’m gonna to put this saddle on your back, and you’re gonna like it!” he says with a sort of snarl. And so he does, and Dark Prince is so tied he can’t move, but his eyes say it all, and his ears, and he gives a very nasty squeal of rage.
‘Roydon sort of snaps at that, and lays about him with that whip, till there’s blood dripping off Dark Prince’s neck and down his legs something terrible.
‘Then he climbs into the saddle, and sticks those spurs into his sides, all the while shouting, “You’re mine, you’re mine! And I’m your master now!”
‘No-one could say what happened next – couldn’t, or wouldn’t, – though there’s those in our fam’ly who might have had something to say if it’d been right to do it. But of a sudden three of the ropes snapped with the strain Dark Prince had been putting on them, and he rose up on his hindlegs, spun around, tore the others out of the ground, and leaping and twisting he threw Rennard Roydon to the ground, and broke his head in with his hooves!
‘The Head Groom and Great Grandda told them at the Big House that they ran for their lives, and p’raps they did, but be that as it may, when next Dark Prince was seen he was up on the moors, and there was no sign of ropes nor muzzle on him!
‘They never managed to catch him again, though Great Grandda told his son he’d seen Malson once or twice going up to the moors with a bridle and a bag of oats. True it is, he took over the moor ponies, and led them for many long years, keeping them safe from ev’ry kind of harm.
‘And true it is my Grandda, my Da and me, we’ve all seen him on a moonlit night, leading his mares to the heights, running glad and free.’