Horse riding on Dartmoor with Sara Cox
PUBLISHED: 10:07 15 August 2018 | UPDATED: 10:23 15 August 2018
Cantering up the gently sloping, springy turf of a Dartmoor tor is a million miles away from the noise, pollution and hubbub of Sara Cox's life in London - and that's exactly why the 43-year-old radio and TV presenter keeps coming back to ride there.
Sara rides regularly with Tavistock-based Liberty Trails, which specialises in arranging bespoke, luxury horseback tours of Dartmoor for small groups of experienced riders who want to explore the wilderness of the moor on fit, well-mannered horses.
The former model turned DJ and TV presenter rose to fame as a presenter on Channel 4’s The Girlie Show in the 1990s.
Since then, she has hosted the breakfast show on Radio One before moving to Radio Two where she currently presents Sounds of the 80s every Friday night. She has also presented TV shows including The Big Breakfast, The Great Pottery Throw Down and, most recently, Love in the Countryside on BBC 2, where she played matchmaker to a group of singleton rural folk.
Enjoying a well-earned glass of red wine at The Old Inn, Widecombe-in-the-Moor, Sara reflected on a happy day’s riding around Hamel Down in the spring sunshine on board the handsome, grey gelding, Zulu.
Having arrived back home in the early hours after presenting her Radio 2 show and then catching an early train to Exeter, she’s only too aware of the difference 12 hours can make.
“It’s probably the ultimate contrast with my day-to-day life,” she said. “I love London, it’s my home, but it’s full on and it’s dirty. To be on Dartmoor it’s the polar opposite because you can see the skyline and beyond that you can see misty hills – it’s just beautiful.”
The Bolton-born mum-of-three learned to ride as a child on her father’s farm and talks freely about happy memories of riding her pony to the local chippy and holding her reins in one hand and a butty in the other. It’s clear that the experience of riding for hours on the moor takes her back to these carefree days.
“I come from a background of riding around my dad’s beef farm and the local estate to get to a bit of the country. When you’re up on the open moor the view is spectacular, you can cover so much ground and fit so much into one ride,” she said.
“Riding is one of the best ways there is to relax. It gives you the freedom to think of other stuff. You can think about your family or your work life. I exercise a lot but what I’m looking for is something to give me the space to not think about anything – riding gives me something primal.”
Sara has become a regular visitor to Devon after taking part in Liberty Trails’ flagship event, the Dartmoor Derby, a 100km ride held every September which sees riders striking out across the moor by day and then staying in luxury camps to unwind after a long day in the saddle.
When her schedule permits, she is hoping to take part in another derby – and has hopes of bringing her 14-year-old daughter, Lola, to ride with her in the future.
It’s the latest in series of horsey challenges that Sara has taken on. Her equine CV includes winning an informal race against legendary jockey Frankie Dettori – though she admits she had to beg him to let her win – and showjumping with Olympic gold medallist Nick Skelton. But the experience of riding through the unspoilt wilderness of Dartmoor is clearly something that ranks highly on her equine wishlist.
“Dartmoor just draws you back. I don’t think there’s anywhere else in the UK like it. It’s such big country, it’s like Australia or Arizona. It has miles and miles of landscape and no people. It’s just this amazing space and I didn’t really know we had that left in our country. Thank God we do – we need to cherish it.”
Sara’s latest TV project has been the BBC 2 series Love in the Countryside, which has followed the ups and downs of a group of rural singletons looking for love.
Given her own family background as the daughter of a farmer, Sara is only too aware of the challenges, as well as the joys, of living in the countryside but she is hoping that her role as matchmaker will bring the participants lasting happiness.
“There is a serious point behind the series because it’s a vocation to be a farmer out in the middle of nowhere,” she said. “I got really emotionally invested from the beginning because they’re all real people and you root for them.
I was somewhere between encouraging auntie and annoying sister. I just loved it from the start and I wanted to do the whole Cilla thing and buy a hat!”
The Dartmoor Derby
The Dartmoor Derby, devised and organised by equine adventure business Liberty Trails, sees riders travel in small groups, navigating their way through 100km of the spectacular moorland landscape either staying at hotels, or at high end camps ranging from an African-style bush camp through to Mongolian yurts.
Described as ‘a luxury riding challenge’, the derby is not a race, although riders do need to be confident. Participants can either bring their own horse, or can ride one of the Liberty Trails’ herd, many of which are hunt hirelings and well used to spending all day out on the moor.
As well as Sara, the event has had other high profile participants including the actor Martin Clunes and the Devon-based three day eventers Mary King and Lucy Wiegersma.
Riding on Dartmoor
Horse riding on Dartmoor is an amazing experience for both horse and rider offering gently sloping grassy tracks that are perfect for fast work and leafy lanes through picturesque villages for those looking to enjoy a quiet amble.
The moor has plenty of bridleways which offer easy to follow tracks through the stunning moorland landscape. Unlike many parts of the UK, you can ride out on just about all of the moor, provided it is common land.
For novice riders, there are riding stables dotted around the moor to provide a guided ride on a quiet horse. For those with their own horse, a pair of saddle bags and an OS map can mean an unforgettable day’s exploring – although extreme caution should be exercised to check routes for bogs which can be dangerous for horse and rider.
Some areas of the moor are also used for live firing exercises by the Ministry of Defence. Check dates and times of these exercises at gov.uk/government/publications/Dartmoor-firing-programme before setting off.