A couple who embarked on a 1,000-mile wagon and horse trip to from the Mersey to the Mediterranean have returned safely having raised more than £12k for charity.
Wheelwright Phill Gregson and his wife, vet Emily, were inspired to undertake the trip by losing their baby daughter Elsie to mitochondrial disease a month after she was born.
Powered by cobs Killarney and Bear, they left their home in Lancashire on July 19, ending their journey in the south of France three months later having covered 876 miles.
“We had some slight issues with Killarney our main horse, he had a couple of little sores which turned into galls — we’d rest him and they’d heal but then they came back,” Phill said.
“We had Bear as a side horse who we could swap in but we also had some problems with farriers getting the right shoes for Killarney — we were only a few hundred miles short of our target but we couldn’t let anything get in the way of the horses’ welfare, so we stopped there.”
He explained how he had come up with the plan for the ambitious wagon journey during Elsie’s final days at Liverpool Women’s Hospital.
“We knew her time was up and it was only a matter of days before we’d be turning off the life support. In my mind I was thinking ‘what will we do next?’
For weeks we’d been concentrating on the present and I wanted to do something to keep my wife and I sane, to keep us going and motivated.
“I thought maybe we could go travelling to get away from it all but it would be nice to do something to cherish her memory — not running away from her story but embracing it, as sad as it is. I thought if we could do a charity journey, take the horse and wagon and every day be explaining it to people, it would be a good way of dealing with the loss.
“I build wagons at work, Emiy is a vet, so it made sense. We thought we could afford three months at most and looked what we could achieve — we thought we’d do 1,000 miles at a push so we aimed for the Carmargue.”
The couple acquired 13.2hh Bear and 15hh Killarney, both seven, through a horse dealer friend. Killarney came from Appleby, Bear near Blackpool, and they had three weeks to get to know each other before the trip.
“We’d had another horse before who turned out to be in foal, so the others arrived at short notice which wasn’t ideal,” said Phill.
Both cobs proved perfect for the job however, surviving a few close calls on the roads.
“We came across a few bad drivers in the UK. A bin lorry nearly wiped us out — we came very close but luckily the horses didn’t panic.
In England we were also driving through a lot of flooding but the horses were amazing — some of the incidents we narrowly avoided were purely down to the quality of the horses.”
Horses being horses however, Bear did decide to have a “naughty” day, causing the wagon to crash into a concrete gully and snapping an axle.
“We didn’t realise at the time, it made a big crunch but there was no visible damage so we carried on. It was only when turned into a lay-by to rest the horses that the axle collapsed. It was lucky it wasn’t worse,” Phill recalled.
“I ended up having to walk to the nearest village, 3km away. No one was there but I managed to flag a postman down who directed me to a local micro-brewery —the man who ran it did a bit of joinery as a hobby and he was able to help me out with some materials and he also gave me some beers, which was helpful!”
Their trek took them along peaceful flat stretches of the Loire, which Phill describes as “like heaven”. Often they would start at 5am and finish at midday to avoid the hottest part of the day, spending the afternoons taking the horses for a swim in the river.
“Killarney particularly enjoyed that, he’d be paddling and having a roll, he’s like a big kid,” Phill recalled.
Other than the entirely different pace of life they experienced living in the wagon, he says people’s kindness was another thing that struck him about the journey.
“You had to learn to plan for things in a different way — you might not pass a shop that day and you have no refrigerator, so you need to think about what you’ll need for yourself and the horses,” Phill explained.
“A lot of the time he public would help and you have to embrace that to a degree — people are so kind and they see if you’re in need. Often they were desperate to help even when we didn’t need it.”
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Killarney and Bear remain with Phill, hacking and doing the odd bit of harrowing.
The wagon remains in France as he hopes they will be able to finish the final leg of the trip in the future.
“I’d like to do the Compostella trail or another trip for charity,” Phill added. “I’ve got the bug for it now — it’s a wonderful way of life.“
The funds raised by the trip will go to Liverpool Women’s Hospital, Alder Hey Children’s Hospital and Claire House Hospice on the Wirral.
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