A few years ago, my husband came home and handed me a book. “Here,” he said, “I found this in a charity shop and I think you’ll like it. I KNOW you’ll like it.”
I looked at the cover. It was an old Pan paperback, with its familiar logo of the black silhouetted Piper in the top corner. The cover image, in warm golds, greens, orange-reds and blues, was of a dapper, arty-looking man in a Panama hat. He gazed into the face of a grey horse whilst stroking its nose and, I think, feeding it a treat with his other hand. In the background were some well-known European landmarks. The book was called “Trigger in Europe” and the author was William Holt.
Turning the book over, I read: “This is a book to be read till dog-eared, treasured, quoted from in families and handed down… – Housewife.” (A magazine, I presume, rather than a person, although I might be wrong.) I also learned that one of William Holt’s other books – “I Haven’t Unpacked” – had sold 250,000 copies in its hardback version. I’d read many books written by equestrian and other travellers and I’d never heard of him!
I opened the book and began to read: “One day in the little town of Todmorden in Yorkshire I saw a white horse. Remembering what superstitious folk told me when I was a boy I spat three times and took a secret wish. Looking a second time I was struck by the darkness of what was behind him. He was hauling an old rag-and-bone cart loaded with old iron. It was incongruous. His white robe was immaculate, his mane valiant, his tail nearly touched the ground…”
Several hours later, I emerged from “Trigger in Europe” with that exalted feeling that comes from seeing an excellent film or making a long anticipated visit to a place of personal pilgrimage. That was a book, indeed.
Not only did William Holt rescue Trigger from the rag-and-bone cart (although he wrote that Trigger really rescued him, a sentiment to which all horsemen and women will be able to relate), he also rode Trigger on a 9,000 mile journey across Europe. Starting from his home in Yorkshire, Holt rode to the south coast of England, boarded a cargo ship at Folkestone, arrived safely in France and carried on. He rode right through France to Narbonne and the Mediterranean coast and from there, continued into Italy where he spent some time in Rome before crossing the Appenines to Pesaro. Then he turned north again towards the Austrian border and rode through Austria and Germany to Belgium, where, after a journey of fifteen months, he and Trigger boarded an aeroplane together and flew to Lydd. Literally boarded it together – Trigger would only enter if Holt rode him onto it. Finally, they rode back home to Yorkshire.
On the way, they met an amazing cast of characters and oceans of warm hospitality. The audacity of riding a horse, simply getting on a horse’s back and riding it across Europe, resonated with everyone they met. It was the early 1960s and the horse had mostly been pushed out of the way, abandoned by the roadside, so to speak, by the brash new world of mass motoring. Holt does comment on the tiresomeness of having to ride in constant vehicle traffic during parts of his ride but he’s not a whinger. He just got on with it, thus proving incidentally that it was still possible to take part in a horseback adventure in the middle of the petrol-fume-fuddled 20th century. But that was not his motivation. He rode to prove nothing – just to do it, in his own words, like “two schoolboys playing truant”. Holt was in his late sixties, Trigger was thirteen.
Most nights, man and horse slept together side by side, under the stars. One night at an abandoned Royal Marines building in London, they were offered a fire-damaged hut which Trigger rejected. Holt found a patch of grass: “There was just room for Trigger and me. I was falling asleep when I felt Trigger lie down beside me. His shoulders were warm against me. Slowly his head sank down and with a sigh of contentment he let it fall on my knees.”
As the pair travel through Europe, the depth of the relationship between Trigger and Holt is at the heart of the book. Certainly, it’s fun to read about Trigger’s very different night at the posh Royal Mews; to listen in on Bill singing “There is a tavern in the town” in several different languages; to laugh at him feeding his horse with champagne soaked oats at a bar in Boulogne to celebrate Bill’s birthday (‘Oh! Les Anglais!” says the proprietress, throwing up her hands); to meet the mystical Roman Principessa del Drago who shows Holt how to “hold off emanations” and bad influences, or to attract someone’s spirit. But that’s not what we remember. The legacy of “Trigger in Europe” is the knowledge that we are reading about two creatures, one human, one horse, who care for one another deeply.
As a human, Holt comes over as a creative, mercurial character. Such people make charismatic friends and fascinating raconteurs, but they are not easy to live with. It sometimes takes the non-judgemental attitude of an animal to show the best in them.
Find a copy of this book. No, really, read it! You’ll enjoy it, I promise you. I’ve never really liked it when people say I should read a certain book. I’ve always thought, “I’ll make my own decisions about what I read, thank you.” However, if you are a horse person and you want to read about people who understand that constancy and trust are at the heart of a true relationship between a human and an animal, you will enjoy it.
Finally, recently I became aware that “Trigger in Europe” is in print, albeit under a different title (“Ride a White Horse”) as part of the Long Riders Guild’s “Equestrian Classics” series. This is a great book and a worthy addition to this excellent series. Check it out here: http://www.horsetravelbooks.com/europe2.htm#holt
Find out more about this little-known horseman and his amazing life at: http://www.hebdenbridge.co.uk/features/william-holt.html; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Holt_(writer); http://www.nwfa.mmu.ac.uk:591/samhanna/FMPro?-db=samhanna%20web.fp3&-format=record_detail.htm&-lay=websafe&-sortfield=accession%20number&gallery=leisure&-max=10&-recid=95&-find= (film archive); http://www.visittodmorden.co.uk/shop/custom.asp?cpid=custom44 (Holt’s old home); and whilst doing the esearch for this page, I found that Holt’s grandson, John, decided to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps (well, on a motorcycle in fact) and journey around Europe. I’m not quite sure where he is at the moment but here is his blog address: http://crazyenglishabroad.blogspot.com/; and wonder of wonders, Bill Holt has had a Facebook page set up for him! Please do “like” it, if you’ve read the book: https://www.facebook.com/pages/William-Holt/104069989628296?sk=info