A Trip on Shanks’ Pony

I felt rather like the little man in the picture by the time Shanks’ Pony had done with me.  I wonder whose mug it is? A fellow left-hander, obviously.

“I went on Shanks’ Pony”, as I am sure you all know, is another way of saying “I walked”. I used to think there was an actual man called Shanks, who had possibly lost his actual pony and was forced to make his way on foot, but in fact your ‘shank’ is the part of your leg between your knee and your ankle, and your shanks are – by association – your legs. There’s a bird called a redshank which has – would you believe it? – red legs. Here he is:

redshankAnd a knot called a Sheepshank, which I remember trying to learn, along with a fiendish thing called a Round Turn and Two Half Hitches:


And you can see why – it looks a bit like a sheep’s leg with a hoof on the end:


If you’re an animal-lover, by the way, I wouldn’t look up sheep’s legs on Google images – there’s some really sad pictures.

This knot, used for shortening a rope or taking up slack, and much beloved of the Girl Guides, nowadays seems to be frowned upon. It’s not safe because it will disintegrate under either too much or too little load and should be replaced by something safe and useful such as the Alpine Butterfly Loop. Ah well, in for a penny, in for a pound:


I was going to talk about walking, but I seem to be talking about obscure knots instead. You see, I don’t walk much nowadays: probably rebelling against a family of obsessive yompers and super-fit long-distance racing cyclists. Also, without my car I feel a bit like that armoured bear in Northern Lights – when he has his armour taken away. (I loved that bear.)  So it really serves me right that I’ve got a bad hip.

But this morning I decided to catch a train and then walk about a mile and a half to the hospital where my mother is (hopefully temporarily) incarcerated. Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway, I repeated to myself as I headed for the railway station, hoping my car would be all right without me for a few hours. Feel The Fear… What I usually do when I Feel The Fear is Do It Another Way or Don’t Do It At All. And in fact I was avoiding – substituting one fear for another. I’m scared of that nightmare of a hospital car park, which provides a minuscule number of spaces for a vast number of cars, and which whenever you visit is full of bad-tempered, sick, stressed people honking and hooting at one another and circling round, hoping against hope to get lucky and spot the space everyone else has missed. I can’t bear it – hence parking one stop down the line, taking the train in and walking, a whole mile with a hip that currently feels like a blunt metal spike has been hammered into it.

Oh, it was a long way for an unfit person with a metal-spiked hip. And it was uphill – luckily not so steeply uphill that I was forced to huff and puff and take embarrassing rests on people’s little low garden walls – but enough to make it hard going, especially against a cold March wind. Nevertheless, the sun was shining, and there was some sort of park on the way, with people playing games in it, and I thought – maybe this outside world, this fresh air thing, isn’t so bad after all.

So then I got lost in this vast, horrible hospital, lost in their giant metallic lift, lost on their prison stairway and emerged from a different entrance. That’s the thing with cars, isn’t it? You park in the car park (eventually) and follow everyone else in through the front – but I had arrived at the back, where people in high-vis jackets stood around chatting, and lorries were delivering into No Admittance zones. I didn’t feel up to circumnavigating the hospital grounds in search of my original road. I could see from the map that there were other ways back to the station, and maybe in this direction…

I shall just have to think on my feet, I thought. Luckily I didn’t have to. I fell in with a chap with a roll up cigarette and an East London accent. He was returning from a hospital appointment and walking right across town, past the train station. So we marched together. He told me he used to run a pub up in London, but it was long, long hours. There was plenty of money around but none of it was his – it all had to go in buying more beer. He told me about his own Mum, who had gone through all the stages my Mum is currently going through. Mine turned on all four electric rings but couldn’t decide which one to put a saucepan on, so just left the rings blazing. His turned up the gas on the gas cooker but didn’t light it, and went and sat in the front room, smoking. “Never heard language like it!” he said. “She blamed me, of course. Broke my heart it did, but you’ve got to keep them safe. Got to do it, haven’t you?” Suddenly I began to feel a whole lot better – demented parents were commonplace. We shared the woes of our generation.

At the station Mr Roll-Up Cigarette waved me a cheery goodbye and belted off up the road. My hurty hip seemed have been numbed into submission, if only temporarily, by the effort of keeping up with his fierce walking pace. Sitting on the train watching green fields flying past I was thinking – that’s what’s outside my car – other people. Maybe I should try it again sometime.

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