Chris Thompson at the FPS Autumn Sale in 2004

The Drybarrows Ponies - Legacy of Chris Thompson

The farm trailer clangs and rattles behind the quad bike as it growls up the fellside, and we ride its movement with our knees bent, like skiers.  

The late Chris Thompson’s hill farm, Drybarrows, is farmed by his son David and daughter in law Gail. Drybarrows is a typical Cumbrian holding, with a long winding track up through the fields to the house and buildings. Whereas on a lowland farm it would be very odd to have the house at one side of the fenced land, up here it’s right where it needs to be, looking down over the ‘in-bye’ from a position tight against the fell wall. The farmstead lies central to all the work because once you’ve gone beyond the buildings and through the fell gate you’re out onto the open common with the sheep and the ponies.

It’s a fine morning in early August, with wisps of cloud and a breeze thinning the sunshine on the tops. There is grass and sedge underfoot with sheep trods winding across black turfy soil and granite boulders poking up where they were left by the last Ice Age. A silver-grey tarn lying in a hollow reflects a darting dragonfly. Pinpricks of purple show where the heather is just coming into bloom. On the lower ground a neighbour is mowing-off encroaching bracken, and up here, when our wheels crush the fronds overhanging our path, we’re assailed by the same sour green smell.

Hills and valleys unfold steeply, grey, fawn and green, and the higher we climb the more stupendous the views appear, fading paler and paler into distance, from sage and blue to an ethereal lavender. From the steep slopes above Haweswater we can see Cross Fell, the Pennines, and Wild Boar Fell above Mallerstang. If we were to climb still higher we could spot Blackpool Tower, the sands of the Solway and the hills of southern Scotland.

“On a good day,” says David, “it’s the finest office in the world. On a bad day, the worst!”

We are up here looking for Fell ponies. We’ve found and photographed most of them lower down the fell, but there are another six "good 'uns" who have gone off as a separate band. David isn’t worried, however. The ponies travel widely, finding their own shelter in bad weather, seeking fresh grass.

“They move about a lot,” says Gail. “You’ll see them in one place one day and the next they’ve moved on. They seem to have half a dozen favourite areas to graze and as the grass freshens up they visit them all in turn.”

We don’t see anything remotely like a pony, however, only a variety of bracken, sedge, grass, rock and heather, and one or two sheep.

Instead we go back down to the farm and sit chatting over tea and biscuits.

Chris Thompson had come over to my house for an interview while I was preparing “Hoofprints in Eden” in 2004. Here he is, explaining how his family began keeping Fell ponies:

“My father had them all his life; and his father before him. I think they started, there was a farm sale at Town End at Helton, Mr Hunter, and that would be very early on before the First World War. Before the Society was founded. He bought 3 ponies there and he farmed at Scales where Dougie Braithwaite is now, you see. And he just left them on their own ground where they’d been taken from and that’s where they originated from.

“My father gave me one when I left Askhamgate and went to Drybarrows. I only had the one from home and I bought one or two from Sarge [Noble], which were local ponies round about Drybarrows; and I bought a one off Alan Kirkpatrick. His ponies were in the Society but it was his daughter who had them. He had them at Hullock Howe. And I also bought a one – the breed would originate from Sarge – off Anthony Barker at Patterdale; he was huntsman, once over. 

“There’s quite a range of Fell ponies and I always think there are two types; there’s a Fell pony, and a field pony! Fell pony will ‘do’ on the fell, whereas if I bought one that had never been on the fell – they haven’t the same instinct when they get to the fell, haven’t the field ponies. I know I sold  a Fell pony mare and she was in foal and I took the yearling back off her; the man said would I take the foal and I said, “Yes I will do,” and it wasn’t turned out until it was a yearling. And about Easter Sunday, some people who’d been walking on the fell came and said there was this pony;  and there just was the head there when we got there. It had gone to where there was some nice green grass round the bog and it had gone too far and couldn’t get out. We were lucky; it could have been buried and we’d have known nowt about it.

“They’re really knowledgeable. They wouldn’t take you into a soft place if you were riding a one. I have been out on the fell on a pony and the mist’s come in, and I haven’t had a clue which way I wanted to be. So I give it its head and it’s landed up at home. (But I’ve never had t’experience of riding another horse at fell to find it out whether it could take us home! Not when there’s been any mist!) I think I more or less gave it its head and let it find its own way. We might have gone quite a long way round by but I just couldn’t say that; it was mist down to home. I thought well, it’s a better knowledge of the fell than I have!

“They were quite good weather merchants. They knew when it was going to change and they came to the lower ground. I won’t say they come right home but you would see them heading down the fell and probably the next morning we’d three or four inches of snow. It’s instinct again isn’t it; but your older ponies quite often came and you’d probably got to go and look for the younger ones. Maybe if they’d missed the older ones coming away, they were to bring down.”

“I think you’ll go a long way before you’ll find anything that’s as hard and as tough as a Fell pony. And versatile, they’ll do anything.”

In January 2013 immediately following Chris’s death, several people sent memories of him to the Fell Pony Society magazine. We didn’t have room for all these  tributes, but his family agreed that a piece about him could go onto the FPS web site, and so some of their remembrances are below.

“A couple of times Chris went on his ATV with his dog and I rode his grey Dales mare and we gathered the ponies in to the farm to sort them out. Chris knew the fell very well and although I really appreciated going up there, Chris was much better than I at knowing where the ponies were at in the first place and then driving them down to Drybarrows. At times, I didn’t go the right way and we had to retrace our steps back!!

“There was a small bog half way up the Fell behind Drybarrows. I can’t remember which pony it was, but one particular pony was a being a bit of a handful, so Chris and I took it up to the bog, Chris handled it into the bog and then I got on it and rode it around in the bog for a bit and although many memories of Drybarrows are a bit faint due to it being a few years ago, I can remember, clear as day, riding that pony back to Drybarrows and it was as quiet as a lamb and it was a fantastic obedient pony after that!! Sometimes, the older ways are the best!”

Ellen Jones

“I had been pony spotting at High Drybarrows a couple of times and Chris would tell many stories about the ponies and his way of breaking them to ride. As the farm was next to Sarge Noble at Heltondale there was often the opportunity to divert in there to see who was about. I first saw Duchess as a three year old on a dull, wet November day and used to enjoy showing people her before and after photographs. It took another year before I was able to buy her. She was a very correct pony out of Heltondale Purple Heather, the registered  sire was Heltondale Black Prince. 

“Eventually I decided that another Drybarrows pony was essential – Chris agreed to see what he could find. Although this time there weren’t any brown ones, Drybarrows Maddy,  then a two year old, was considered suitable. She is out of Drybarrows Rose and by Townend Rolo and I arranged to view her on my way to the Breed Show in August 2008. Unfortunately due to an accident I wasn’t able to attend although Chris did offer to meet me on route, and it wasn’t until October that I finally made it up to HDB on what must have been the wettest day of the year. Fortunately she was stabled, because two hands were required to open the door which had to be quickly shut to prevent the hinges being blown in. Just remaining upright seemed a challenge and so there was no way of taking her outside and seeing how she might move. Passports and scanner were produced and all was in order – by this time the weather was atrocious and the roads were flooded so Chris drove down in front so I could follow, because it was impossible to see where the road was.

“Having waited so long I agreed the sale so she would come up to Scotland. It is typical of Chris’ kind nature that after I had paid he counted back some of the cash, enquiring if it would cover the insurance costs. When D. Maddy, stable name Mabel, arrived in the north of Scotland she quickly made herself at home. She is typical of the Drybarrows ponies,  an attractive free moving pony with a surprising turn of speed - which is completed by a decent amount of feather but not too much, a mane and tail which nearly sweep the ground and  the ability to read the weather and look after herself  - when it’s windy Mabel is usually lying down. I hope she will be able to represent the Drybarrows ponies out and about this year as a tribute to Chris.”

Judy Fairburn

Chris used to say: “You’ve got to be interested in them to carry the Fell ponies on, and it’s got to be in the blood.” David and Gail intend to continue breeding under the Drybarrows prefix, though on a reduced scale.

 “The experience that the mares have, of living on the fell, that shouldn’t be sold,” says David. “And I can’t throw away the sixty-odd years of work and enthusiasm that Dad put into his ponies.”

Chris Thompson waiting for ponies off the fell. Photo: Simone Albrecht (2008).


Text (c) The Fell Pony Society and Sue Millard, 2013