Two Middle-Aged Ladies In Andalusia

Penelope Chetwode


Two Middle-Aged Ladies In Andalusia

Penelope Chetwode


Penelope Chetwodes’s middle-aged companion on her ride over the mule tracks and goat paths of Andalusia in 1961 was the twelve-year old bay mare, La Marquesa. This treasured animal, borrowed from the Duke of Wellington, brought her experience of native travel conditions to the expedition. Together the two travellers brought out the very best in their Spanish hosts, whether met on road, crude country Inn, cavehouse or during Penelope’s frequent attendance at unexpected Church services. The result is a journey, through the region north from Granada, described with warmth and wit, humour and candour lit up by an infectious personal fascination for horses, God and Spain. 

‘Enchantingly self-revealing, without being in the least self-conscious’ - Daily Telegraph
‘... unusual and life-enhancing.’  - Raymond Mortimer, Sunday Times
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Two Middle-Aged Ladies In Andalusia
ISBN: 978-1906011-68-0
Format: 158pp demi pb
Place: Southern Spain


Author Biography

Penelope Chetwode, Lady Betjeman (1910–1986) was an English travel writer. She was the daughter of Field Marshal Lord Chetwode, and the wife of poet laureate Sir John Betjeman. She grew up in northern India, returning to the region in later life.

She is best known for Two Middle-Aged Ladies in Andalucia, her account of travelling through southern Spain on horseback in the summer of 1961. The book has been widely praised: the Independent called it "a classic work of adventure and humour" while Kate Kellaway in the Guardian called it "a charming, intrepid story". Chetwode also wrote Kulu: The End of the Habitable World (1972), an account of her trek from Shimla to the head of the Rohtang Pass.


Extract from Chapter One

It was the horse that brought me to Spain.

IT WAS THE horse that brought me to Spain. For years enthusiastic friends had tried in vain to make me go there. I pointed out that two countries, Italy and India, were enough for ten lifetimes. How, in middle age, could I be expected to mug up the history, language and architecture of a country about which I knew next to nothing? I had not even read a line of Don Quixote.I knew Italian fairly well and if I now tried to learn Spanish I should inevitably confuse the two and end by speaking neither. I dug in my toes and obstinately refused to be lured to the peninsula by ardent hispanophiles.

Then, in a Sunday paper, I read about conducted riding tours in Andalusia. My resistance suddenly broke down and I booked to go in late October.

St Thomas says you cannot love a horse because it cannot love you back.1 This statement proved a serious obstacle to my entering the Holy Roman Church in 1948. Then Evelyn Waugh pointed out that St Thomas was an Italian accustomed to seeing his father’s old chargers sent along to the local salami factory in Aquino. Had he been an English theologian he would never have written like that: his father’s chargers would have been pensioned off in the park. Now I was going to a Latin country where old horses ended their lives in the bull-ring. Could I stand such an attitude to animals? I who had always been full of the traditional English sentimentality towards them? This racial antipathy was well illustrated some years ago when I brought my daughter’s pony into the kitchen and kissed it in front of Gina, our Calabrian maid: ‘In Italia bacciamo uomini!’ (In Italy we kiss men) she had said in utter scorn.

* * *

When I first arrived at Alora, the starting-point of the conducted tour, and saw the wiry little horses of the sierras, I got rather a shock. Standing between fourteen and fifteen hands high they were so much narrower than our own mountain and moorland breeds, and their conformation was decidedly odd: they had ewe necks, cow hocks and unusually straight pasterns. Nevertheless they turned out to be extremely fit, and were surprisingly good rides. They walked out well, never stumbled down the stoniest mountain paths, and had armchair canters. The soles of their feet must have been an inch thick as they never bruised them on the roughest going nor went lame from any other cause. Their narrowness would have been tiring on long rides but the Andalusian saddles provided the width which the animals lacked. They were high fore and aft, had soft sheepskin seats and were almost impossible to fall out of. Beautifully embroidered leather alforjas (saddle-bags) were hung over the cantles at the back and it was astounding what a lot one could cram into them.

The feeding of horses in southern Spain is extremely interesting because it is so different from our own. They get neither oats nor hay but paja y cebada, which is chopped barley straw chaff and barley corn fed dry. According to Richard Ford28 lb barley is equal in feeding value to 10 lb oats because it contains less husk. The manger is first filled with straw chaff then the corn is mixed well into it. In the morning, before giving the first feed, any chaff that remains and any dust in the manger are scooped out onto the floor to form the deep litter on which the animals are bedded. In the posada stables this is a muck mystic’s dream, with the droppings of horses, mules, donkeys, pigs, goats, hens and human beings perfectly composted with chopped barley straw, wood ash, onion and other vegetable peelings. It is sweet-smelling, as all the best deep litter should be; nor did I ever notice any sign of thrush in the animal’s feet. Greenmeat is provided by lucerne cut and fed in the manger, or by grass when it can be found by people with no land of their own on which to grow lucerne. The animals are also taken out to graze when work and time allow, usually along streams or irrigation canals where there is always a bit of grass, or up on the mountains where there are several plants which are eaten with great relish. When grazing they are either hobbled or put in charge of a boy. Morning and evening they are led out to water at the fuente (a trough sometimes fed by a spring, sometimes by piped supply) and when on a journey they are encouraged to drink at every stream they ford.

In England I would despise a conducted riding tour because English is my language and I am a one-inch map maniac and a lot of my delight lies in working out routes on my maps beforehand and in poring over them afterwards. But going to Spain for the first time with next to no Spanish and very poor maps, I decided that the best preparation for a solo ride (my avowed ambition) was to go on a preliminary one with people who knew the ropes: thus I hoped to learn about Spanish blacksmiths, feeding methods, inns, and cross-country navigation. I would also mug up a stable vocabulary. I chose one of the cheap tours run by Antonio Llomelini Tabarca which was wonderful value for money, costing only £28 for a fortnight, full board and lodging of horse and rider included. Antonio is a young Sevillian whose chief delight has been to explore the sierras of his native Andalusia on a horse and now he has made a business of it and established an excellent riding centre in the hills at Alora, 12½ miles inland from Torremolinos.

Antonio’s enthusiasm, seriousness of purpose and delightful manners do not answer to the description given of his countrymen 120 years ago by George Borrow: ‘The higher class of Andalusians are probably upon the whole the most vain and foolish of human beings with a taste for nothing but sensual amusements, foppery in dress, and ribald discourse.’

Discourse in any case was limited by ignorance of one another’s languages. On the first evening at dinner (excellentgazpacho followed by a very good curry, his cook having spent two years with an Indian family) I attempted to talk about foxhunting. Antonio made, or rather I thought that he made, the astonishing remark that in this part of Spain vixen were milked and their milk was made into cheese. What he actually said was that poisoned cheese was put out on the hills to kill foxes. I tried to warn him against indulging in such practices when he went to work in the Cottesmore Hunt Kennels where he had arranged to go during the winter in order to learn English. Do foxes really eat cheese?

Antonio had a little rough-haired terrier on short legs, the shape of a small corgi, of which he was as fond as the most ardent English dog-lover. It always slept on his bed and was very friendly with his guests. One night I went to evening devotions in the big church across the plaza. I arrived late and fell flat across the corner of a confessional, which set a whole pew of children off into a fit of giggles. Then Chico came in, singled me out as his master’s friend and came and lay down at my feet. The Blessed Sacrament was exposed and instead of letting a sleeping dog lie quite innocently in the Divine Presence I got up and carried him out. On returning to my place I again fell flat over the confessional. I soon learned that it was the usual thing for dogs to wander in and out of church in Spain and that nobody minded. Many priests have dogs who regularly hear Mass sitting motionless in an aisle with apparent devotion.

The day after the fox-milking incident Antonio had to go to Seville to get his papers in order for England.