For the past five years I have walked a path every day, twice a day.

Sometimes I am trailing a gaggle of five children, with or without bikes, balls, cowboy hats and princess dresses. I have ploughed pushchairs through its familiar, peaty mire and cheered men in uniform,  firemen actually, as they guide their pantechnicon up the steep and unforgiving gradient.

To me, the path’s chief significance is its ability to get me from the main road, up onto a plateau in the forest. It is surrounded on each side by steep banks, which serve to rid the dog of the worst of his  angst. He does not use the paths, but runs up these earthworks which are almost vertical. It is one of my favourite sights, this dog at right angles to myself and the world.

Occasionally his crazed ascent is rewarded by a muntjack or a red deer, deep in contemplation, at the top. When these animals flee, they do so gloriously and horizontally, so the whole thing becomes like a bizarre manifestation of Battleships.

If this were Narnia, the path would be the wardrobe. Were it Hogwarts, it would be platform nine and three quarters. The path is a leafy limbo, a place in between the worlds of civilisation and arborialisation.

But to me, for half a decade, that was all that was extraordinary about it.

Until the middle of last month, when a lot of Very Important Signs appeared at the start and finish of this little interpolating stretch of muddy gradient.

It appeared, from everything the rangers were telling us, that this was a very significant stretch of mud indeed.

It dates, I now know, from 1702. On reading this at the top of the path, my children became extremely excited very quickly. I looked at them, nonplussed, until they enlightened me. It was a year before Samuel Pepys, that diarist of the prattling clerical ranks, died at the ripe old age of 70.

This track had a purpose. Because our forests surrounded a great castle, and they were hunting forests.

This path, the sign said, without a shadow of Carry-On double entendre, was a queen’s gully.

This was news to me. I always thought gullies were American canyon-like natural phenomena, carved over aeons using natural forces , primarily water.

But this had been cut out of the hill by men at the dawn of the eighteenth century, to make a gradual slope, at the behest of a queen. Now the wooden supports which held up each side needed to be replaced, and it would take 21 days.

Now I’m drawing my own conclusions here, but it seems this queen loved the drama and hullabaloo of the traditional hunt, with its dashing immediacy. What she did not like was riding the horse.

So, when it came time for her Prince to charge, helter skelter, after the deer or other quarry, the queen would send the order to get out the carriage and make ready the horses.

And miles and miles of track were cut away for her, so that she could follow the progress of the hunt using wheels instead of hooves.

It would not be hard to lead the poor lady on a merry dance. Access for a coach and four, or even two, must be so very limited.

You wouldn’t catch Catherine the Great doing that.

Catherine was born less than 30 years later than this path. One of my favourite pictures of this voracious, charismatic life-lover is a portrait of the ruler, dressed head to toe in mans clothing, seated on a horse.

What a woman. Farmed out to Russia from Germany to marry the 16-year-old Russian prince Peter, it soon became clear he was no match for the young firebrand. She scorned the Lady Macbeth role and instead schemed to change her situation.

A plot was raised to depose Peter.

Intreague must have come naturally to her. Many of the plotters in the ring were quite sure they were deposing the Tsar so that his son Paul might eventually rule, with Catherine as a caretaker Regent meanwhile.

But somehow Catherine ended up double crossing the lot of them. She won the loyalty and dedication of every soldier in St Petersburg. She needed no-one else: she declared herself Catherine II, sole ruler of Russia.

And so began a stunning period for the nation.

Her first two years were spent making split-second raptor-like decisions. She weighed who was friend and ingratiated herself carefully: and judged who was foe, despatching them mercilessly and efficiently.

Presently, she was in a position to change things in Mother Russia. She was widely read and loved the ideas encapsulated by the French Enlightenment. She was a great lover of Voltaire.

And she changed that vast nation: she reformed the law to give everyone equal rights. She formed an education system with a greater number of schools available. She organised the country into provinces and appointed staff to run each one.

While she was a woman of action, her words speak just as loudly for her. She once told someone: “You philosophers are lucky men. You write on paper and paper is patient.

“Unfortunate empress that I am, I write on the susceptible skins of human beings.”

She had strings of lovers: but as her portrait would indicate, she wore the trousers.

She died of a stroke aged 67, and not in the bizarre circumstances the urban myths often relate. She was a clever woman who faced life and took almost unimaginable responsibility: who steered a notoriously shiftless vast nation and imposed some kind of order upon it. Against all the odds.

She had her faults. But this was a woman who, at a time when women were traditionally powerless, bucked every trend.

Follow the hunt in a carriage.

The very idea.


15 thoughts on “Carriage

  1. In 1702, the Queen was Anne (of being dead fame) and just like poor old Philip, her hubby was just a Prince, not a King – George of Denmark.

    Anne certainly wouldn’t have measured up to Catherine in any way, though her favourite, Sarah Duchess of Marlborough would probably have been her match when it came to intrigue….

  2. For Empress Catherine the Great, the handsome officers of the Imperial Guard constituted a ready-made stud stable, from which she would select temporary lovers as the mood took her. After eyeing a prospect, however, she would first have him examined by physicians, then put through a preliminary test, administered by one of her two confidantes, Countess Bruce and Mme. Protassov. If he passed, he would then be named an imperial aide-de-camp and assigned to service in the empress’s bed. Upon occasion Catherine might choose to observe his performance firsthand before giving him the nod. –

    I liked your right-angled hound 🙂

  3. I third Jules’ comment: Each day I look forward to what you will write about, and always enjoy those with the Wonder Dog in them.

    Catherine the Great, wonder what she was like as a child 🙂

    1. Oooooh, there’s a thought, Liz. I wouldn’t want to be quarreling over dollies with her in the nursery. I believe she had a governess, of whom she said she was ‘the kind of governess every child should have’. But read into that what you will:-)

  4. What a story, brilliantly told! Thanks for the insight & cool to have that piece of history on your doorstep! Our dogs have to make do with an ordinary suburban stream 🙂

  5. Kate, I think a small correction.
    Charlotte’s passage was carved out, and paved, it is true, but it used the original entrance to the Caesar’s Camp iron age fort, which is why the earthworks accompany it on both sides.
    Love Dad

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