BODMIN, England — Seamus loves to travel and appreciates a good meal. He’s happy in his work, has strong legs, and a barrel chest. He is safe at high speed along edges of sea cliffs, even as a camera-equipped opticopter buzzes overhead, and is also unfazed by jet-engine loud wind machines positioned to blow his flowing mane — and Aidan Turner’s — just so. Aidan Turner, who stars in the BBC hit series “Poldark,” (the two-hour finale airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on PBS) loves Seamus for all these reasons and more. Says Mark Atkinson, of Mark Atkinson Action Horses, in a recent phone call from his training facility in Yorkshire, England, Seamus is dependable. From a full-on cliff-side gallop, he “stops on a sixpence.” “Seamus only has to hear Aidan’s voice and his head comes up,” Atkinson says. “They have this fantastic relationship.”
Indeed, says Atkinson, who trained and cast all the show’s horses and its one pony. The entire cast loves the equine costars.
Luke Norris (who plays Dwight Enys) is matched with Charlie, three-quarters Irish draft and very good friends with Seamus. Heida Reed (Elizabeth) had never ridden before. She rides Dylan, a little Dale. “Her first scene was a galloping scene,” Atkinson says. “She did brilliantly.” Ruby Bentall (Verity) had ponies when she was small, “so she was really easy.” She rides an Argentine mare named Laguna.
“Poldark” wouldn’t be “Poldark” without all its pretty horses. Fans in England, where the season finale drew some 6 million viewers, even invented a drinking game in their honor: Every time an actor hops on a horse, you empty a glass.
One thing certain in Cornwall is that Aidan Turner does this a lot, mostly in the courtyard of Ross Poldark’s farm, called Nampara. Located in St. Breward, on Bodmin Moor, Nampara sits just a few miles from another farm, Hallagenna. The show’s producers stable their horses at Hallagenna, a horseback-riding holiday operation. “The location couldn’t be more perfect,” says Atkinson. “Literally, we walk out the back door and get the horses and go filming. Four miles down the road is the film set.” He adds, “The people at Hallagenna are amazing.”
This is why they contracted with Jen Cootes, a trainer and guide at Hallagenna, to help handle the horses and coach actors during production. This is also why I felt not alarmed but thrilled as I watched my 14-year-old gallop off astride Sydney, one of Hallagenna’s stable. The color of coffee, with lush mane and tail and a long stride, Sydney bears not a passing resemblance to Seamus. He’s fit, fast, and dependable.
“With rugged character and wild streak,” says the BBC, “Bodmin Moor provides the perfect backdrop to Poldark’s plot of passion and family dramatics.” An easy and scenic nearly-four-hour train ride from London’s Paddington Station, Bodmin Moor, in southwest England, is also the perfect backdrop to a horse-lover’s plot of adventure.
Over three days, we spent 18 hours in the saddle, with Cootes as our guide, booked through the US-based Equitours. Cootes, who has trained horses at the prestigious Talland School of Equitation in Gloucestershire and in Arizona, has been riding Poldark’s moors since she was a toddler, then ducking behind bushes as she grew older to hide from the school bus so she could spend the day on her pony. But while Cootes has the moor in her blood, she assures me it’s the horses we have to thank for not getting lost.
And indeed, here and there, Annie, Freckles, Lucy, and Sydney — a friendly, hardy mix of Exmoor and Dartmoor and draft — stop in their tracks, shifting sharply right or left.
“They know best,” Cootes shouts into the wind. When the fog rolls in off the sea, and you can’t see the pony three strides ahead, drop your reins. They’ll take you home.
But we luck into a string of clear and sun-drenched days, and the views stretch endless and heartbreakingly beautiful: dense and deep forests, herds of wild horses, grazing Highland cattle, napping newborn lambs, fragrant blooms of sun-yellow gorse, vast open grasslands spotted with Bronze Age settlement ruins, burial sites, and stone circles. First farmed more than 4,000 years ago, Bodmin Moor holds a number of fancy designations to honor its unique natural and historic value: World Heritage Site, Site of Special Scientific Interest, Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Important Bird Area.
Never missing a step, our horses and ponies carry us through Bolatherick, passing Ivy Common. There’s King Arthur’s Hall, and Roughtor and Brown Willy, the highest point in Cornwall with wide-angle views. One day we ride eight hours, often at a gallop, but also along and through streams, granite fields, and narrow gorse-lined trails, to the credibly haunted Jamaica Inn, featured in “Poldark” and made famous by Daphne du Maurier’s novel. After settling the horses in a small grassy yard across the street, we visit the Smugglers’ Museum onsite. Another day, we ride to Blisland village, alongside the Camel River. We lunch at the pub, where downing a glass after hopping off your horse is the tradition, while the horses contentedly graze next to us on the village green. Evenings, after sponging and brushing our horses and showering ourselves, in Hallagenna’s newly renovated contemporary cottage where we stay, just steps from the stable, we visit Tintagel, site of King Arthur’s conception, some say, and the stunning cliff ruins of Richard of Cornwall’s 12th-century castle.
There’s Boscastle, home to a museum of witchcraft, and also, for a time, Thomas Hardy, who worked as an architect there in 1870, finding love and loss and their poetic value. Indeed, his inspiration for “Far From the Madding Crowd,” the novel made into a movie this year, was born there. We’re not surprised. We left part of our hearts in Cornwall, too — with Annie, Freckles, Lucy, and Sydney.Catherine Buni can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.