North Nethercleave Farm was the first property that Angus and Emma Cook looked at when they started house hunting in North Devon. When they saw the Victorian farmhouse, in Umberleigh, set in ten acres of pasture and with lots of outbuildings they knew they had found what they were looking for to start a riding yard and holiday lets business.
Angus had grown up in Gloucestershire and Emma had spent time as a child in North Devon and, while their careers had seen them end up in Buckinghamshire, they had always wanted to return to the Westcountry to start their own business. After buying the farm seven years ago, Angus initially continued with his day job as an aeronautical engineer, by then commuting to Hampshire, while Emma and their four children, now aged six to 15, settled into North Devon. Emma fulfilled her dream of having horses, opening a livery yard and keeping ponies for her own children.
When these were outgrown, Emma wanted to keep them on and so she started a pony-share scheme. This sees horse-mad youngsters aged from five to 16 pay £25 a week in return for a share in one of the yard's ponies. They can come up to three times a week for supervised sessions where they learn stable management and riding, with the chance to build a relationship with "their" pony. For Emma, it's a way to bridge the gap that exists between a weekly trip to riding stables and the huge financial and time commitment that goes into actually owning a pony. "When I was a child, I came from a single-parent family and we lived in Barnet. It would have been inconceivable for me to have a pony, but I had friends with yards and I worked in return for rides. My experience was that I had to create opportunities and make the most of whatever I sat on," she said.
Fifteen children are part of the scheme, with youngsters able to stay on the yard until they turn 17, at which point most will have progressed to the point where they are ready to move on. There are a range of 14 horses and ponies, all selected on the basis of temperament and their suitability as a child's ride. Sessions run after school and at weekends, with an indoor school available for winter evenings. It's the type of thing I would have loved as a child growing up in Plymouth. Instead, I had to be content with weekly trips to riding stables first at Yelverton, then at Wembury, where my dreams of clear rounds at Hickstead were indulged in hour-long hacks or lessons on board a variety of steeds, from the laid-back Dartmoor Pippit through to the misnamed Exmoor, Happy. I would have loved the chance to take part in a pony share and I think it's a great way for children who don't come from horsey families to learn more. In fact, if it wasn't 20 years too late, I'd ask Emma to sign me up.
Over time, the pony-share part of the business has come to the fore and the couple are now hoping that this will give their soon-to-be-launched holiday lettings business a strong appeal to horsey-folk. With stabling and grazing available, the idea is that families can either bring their own horses with them on holiday, or can ride some of the horses and ponies that live on the yard. With Exmoor and the coast within easy reach as well as miles of bridleways, woods and quiet lanes surrounding North Nethercleave, it's fantastic riding country and it's easy to see why horsey families would come from far and wide to experience it.
Emma plans to prepare guides to nearby rides for guests as well as giving families the option of children joining in with the pony-share scheme while they're on holiday. Because the horsey sessions are closely supervised, this would also give parents the chance for some time on their own. The holiday lets will be open year-round and Emma thinks that North Nethercleave will also appeal to people who want to ride to hounds, with several hunts nearby.
With the yard now well-established, the holiday letting side of the business is also coming along. When it opens this summer, the farm will offer a one bedroom, two two-bedroom and a three-bedroom accommodation with spa facilities including a sauna and whirlpool to soothe tired limbs after a day in the saddle.
Although the horses will offer it a USP, North Nethercleave will also appeal to non-horsey types, with the nearby station providing easy access to Exeter and Barnstaple for car-free day trips and with Exmoor about 12 miles away, the coast about six miles away and the towns of South Molton and Great Torrington offering antiques shops and tea rooms for relaxed browsing. And for those who want to simply get away from it all, the farm is in a quiet setting that boasts stunning views across the Taw Valley.
After chatting to Emma and volunteer Vanessa over a coffee, it's time for the children to arrive. After changing out of their school uniforms, they get stuck into mucking out, feeding, water, haynets and grooming. The yard has excellent facilities with several fields overlooking the yard itself, two blocks of stables and a tackroom that Emma insists is in chaos, but that looks neat and tidy to me. As the ponies are brought in from the fields, boxes begin to fill with a variety of happy-looking equines eagerly anticipating a small feed then a hack.
I'm riding Arianna, a 17-year-old, 14.2 hand Connemara who is described as a forward-going but sensible ride. I'm spared most of the jobs but am handed a body brush to give Arrie a quick going-over before she's tacked up. There are plenty of routes to choose from and we head out of the farm straight on to quiet, country lanes which we have more or less to ourselves. We stay mainly on the roads, although we do head off onto a couple of grassy tracks which offer cracking canters. One or two cars pass us but that's it as we make our way on a long circuit passing through picture-postcard hamlets with thatched cottages on what is a perfect spring evening for riding.
After returning and installing Arrie back in her box, I get ready for the long drive back to Plymouth. It's hard not to feel a little envious of the Cooks but, as Emma reminds me, what looks like a rural idyll on a sunny April evening is actually a lot of hard work, particularly during a winter like the one we've just had.
"It is hard work and you have to be really passionate about what you're doing. You can't just say 'I want to come to the countryside and step down a gear'. You have got to have a talent and a passion for what you're doing."
For more information you can email firstname.lastname@example.org. The website nethercleave.co.uk will go live shortly.