Riding in Byron’s Hoofprints –
A History of Albanian Equestrian Travel
CuChullaine O’Reilly FRGS
Founding Members of The Long Riders' Guild, Robin and Louella Hanbury-Tenison (left) have completed the first modern mounted exploration of Albania.
The following article was written prior to Robin and Louella's departure across Albania in September 2007.
One must wonder why they are doing it?
Why are Robin and Louella Hanbury-Tenison setting off to ride across this mountainous and mysterious country called Albania? Surely they have had enough adventures to satisfy an auditorium full of eager twenty-years-olds. Certainly the allure of their comfortable country house in Cornwall would tempt most people to sit on the porch and watch life go by.
Yet they have never been content, the Hanbury-Tenisons. Their lives have been about striving in the saddle, as attested to by their mounted journeys through the by-ways of back country France, across the ancient pilgrim roads of Spain, from end to end in New Zealand and along the length of the Great Wall of China.
Now they have set their sights on Byron’s Albania. Though that may seem like a strange decision to you, everyone in the Long Rider world knows it was Albania that gave birth to the poet’s first inspired creation.
Before he left England at the dawning of the 19th century, Lord Byron was a wealthy young man known only to his friends. Yet after having ridden through Albania’s bandit-infested mountains, and having been the guest of the notorious Vizier Ali Pasha, the impressionable English lord returned to his misty homeland and wrote a poem full of passionate imagery. Known as Childe Harold, the sonnet took London by storm, forcing the famous publisher, John Murray, to toss copies out the window to appease the poem hungry mob gathered below. Yet while everyone praised its tone, few of those same Londoners realized it had been the magnetism of Albania which had served as Byron’s inspiration.
Now Robin and Louella are about to swing into the saddle and search for Byron’s muse.
I’m sure that along the way they may find faint traces of the tiny handful of other Long Riders who also ventured into that obscure corner of the globe in search of mounted adventure. These are the Long Riders who have passed on. Yet mankind is still the same. Little has changed since Cheops built his pyramid. Every man and woman still must realize, and then define, his or her own individual fear.
What the Hanbury-Tenisons prove is that every generation bears a few Long Riders who slash away the chains of predictability and ride out into the world in search of the unknown, aboard horses fair and tall, freed from the restraints of gravity and the village. For equestrian travel offers an alternative to the competition-based, ego-dominated, sports-oriented horse world that exists today. Being a Long Rider is not about winning a ribbon in the ring. It is about making a lasting mark in your own life.
In celebration of their departure, gathered here are the men and women who, like Robin and Louella, made mounted journeys through Albania. Like the intrepid Hanbury-Tenisons, these Historical Long Riders did not care about man-made miles or setting records, for horses do not concern themselves with such silly things. Each soul honoured here swung into the saddle in a solitary movement of individual bravery. Theirs was a denial of death and a rejection of frailty. No one handed them the courage to change their own lives or granted them the valour to define the perimeter of their long-ago lives. These Long Riders shone like stars from their saddles.
Now Robin and Louella’s names will join this small band of great hearts.
Lord Byron - explored the mountainous regions of Albania on horseback in 1809. This journey later served as the inspiration for his famous poem "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage." He described himself as "the humblest of thy pilgrims passing by."
marks a man ? What scores his soul ? What glimmer of another person's
passing experience can affect us these many long years later ? Lord Byron
enjoys a reputation for being one of England's most famous poets. His
flamboyant life has been inspiring books since his untimely death from
malaria in 1824. A mystique surrounds his life, his looks, his loves, and
his loss. Yet it is often the object resting in plain sight that is
overlooked in favour of a more exotic piece of a famous person's life.
Perhaps that is why all the biographers have failed to tarry over the
equestrian journey Lord Byron made in 1809. The country he chose, Albania,
had been a backwater satrap of the Ottoman Empire since 1478. Its hidden
valleys were inhabited by fierce mountain tribesmen. The country's ruler,
Vizier Ali Pasha, was the very definition of an "Oriental despot". Albania
had nothing to show an educated, sophisticated, elitist such as Lord Byron,
except the raw courage of its unvanquished people. Perhaps that is what
lured Lord Byron, and his diary-writing friend, J.C. Hobhouse to ride
through this savage mountain kingdom? Regardless of what prosaic cause took
them there, the world of literature changed forever when Byron wrote his
famous poem, "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" upon the completion of his
While stationed on the island of Corfu in 1838, Captain J. J. Best decided to use his leave to explore Albania on horseback. Consequently he set off in November of that year to ride through the seldom-seen land. The isolated country which the Long Rider, accompanied by his fellow English officers, Captains Murray and Cunynghame, and Lieutenant Shaw, proposed to ride through was a province of the Ottoman Empire and strangers were neither permitted nor welcomed.
In his book, “Excursions in Albania,” Best described how he obtained official army permission to explore the hermit kingdom of Europe. This permission was vitally important because eight months prior to this Prince Pierre Napoleon, son of Lucien Bonaparte, went into the country illegally to hunt, whereupon he and his group became involved in a lethal shoot-out with the mountainous inhabitants, the result of which was that two Albanians were killed and the entire countryside was alerted against foreigners.
English officers had been sneaking into Albania for some time to hunt without any official Albanian authorization. So Best's recognized journey was historically important as it appears he may have been the most important English traveller to explore the country since Lord Byron rode there in 1809.
Best’s book is packed with a variety of equestrian adventures. However, one piece of equestrian travel advice offered by the author is worth recalling.
"We had not resumed our journey long before we came to another river, and hearing there were many more which we must cross in our day's journey, we decided on adopting a plan which I strongly recommend to all persons who may meet with similar difficulties in travelling through a wild country with a small allowance of clothes. Sitting in wet clothes is likely to cause rheumatism, so, after some deliberation, we came to the conclusion, that in a warm climate like Albania the lower garments, which we usually wear in the civilized part of Europe, ought to be considered as useless encumbrances, and fit only for fashionables who study their personal appearances.
We therefore (do not blush, gentle reader) established a fashion of our own, and rode without any at all!
By this remarkably simple and ingenious contrivance, for which we took to ourselves a great deal of credit, we preserved a set of dry clothes to put on at the end of our day's ride, and ran no risk of getting rheumatism by keeping in wet ones. We performed a considerable part of this last part of our journey in this extraordinary costume. What a fine subject for a caricaturist! At first I was disposed to laugh a good deal, but a few hours up to my girths in water cooled astonishingly my sense of the ridiculous."
In his merry story the young English Long Rider recalled how he and his friends avoided being murdered by trigger-happy Albanians, witnessed the miseries of a local slave market and out-rode local brigands.
"This ended the equestrian part of my journey, which was the most exciting and enjoyable excursion I had ever made in my life," Best wrote.
Such was the fate of the English Long Rider Aubrey Herbert, whose amazing true-life adventures served as the inspiration for one of the most dashing heroes in British literature.
Aubrey Herbert was a renowned traveller who set out at the beginning of the 20th century to explore Anatolia, Arabia, Mesopotamia, the Middle East and the Balkans. Burdened at birth with poor eyesight, this son of wealthy English aristocrats compensated by becoming a linguist who spoke French, Italian, German, Turkish, Arabic, Greek and Albanian. The latter language, though seldom heard outside its mountainous native land, was to play an influential part in Herbert’s later life.
During the course of his many wanderings, hair-raising quests and narrow escapes from death, Herbert was accompanied by Riza Bey, a notorious Albanian tribal prince, who had thrown his lot in with the wandering Englishman for the lordly sum of ten English pounds a year.
In 1905 Herbert and Riza explored Yemen on horseback, at which time Herbert wrote, “The desert is a cruel place, where strangers rarely thrive.”
The following year they rode from Baghdad, across the Syrian Desert, to Damascus, where the famished Herbert and his Albanian comrade cantered up to the best hotel in the city.
“For three weeks we had been tanned by the sun and stung by the wind, sand and rain. Our clothes were fastened with string. With his gun slung over his shoulder Riza marched before me into the ordered quietness of the dining room. I followed, as well armed as he. There I sat down, and penniless and unknown, ordered a royal luncheon. Silence fell upon the room. Luckily for me our English Consul was there. He backed my name upon a piece of paper for all the money I wanted and for three days I revelled in luxury and baths.”
The remarkable duo next rode across Albania in 1907, a country which Herbert described as being so isolated from the rest of Europe that the chivalry of the Middle Ages still existed there.
In his autobiography, “Ben Kendim,” Herbert recalled an episode from his Albanian adventure which makes for interesting Long Rider reading today.
While riding with his horses and servants through a vile and dangerous portion of the mountains, a soldier stopped the author and demanded his yol teskere (road permit), which was packed away.
Soldier: "O Effendi, O my two eyes, give up thy teskere. The merciful government requires this. Praise be to God !"
Herbert: "God prosper the merciful Government ! This law is not for me, nor will I unpack my luggage."
Soldier: "O educated sir, O corner of my liver, stay. Thou shalt not pass."
Herbert: "O dog, eat dirt, but behold that we part in friendship."
Soldier: "I am grateful to you, O Bey. Depart in peace."
"So," writes Herbert, "in those days were the obstacles of travel surmounted."
When the First World War broke out, Herbert was declared unfit for military service because of his poor eyesight. Not to be put off by a few rules, the intrepid Long Rider was able to launch his military career by the simple expedient of purchasing an officer’s uniform and boarding a troopship bound for France. Upon being discovered, the noted linguist was transferred to Cairo, where he joined the British Intelligence Bureau and worked with T. E. Lawrence.
It was thanks to his amazing ability to blend into foreign cultures, and transform himself linguistically to fit his surrounding environment, that Herbert gained a reputation as being a cultural chameleon who was able to disappear into enemy territory. That reputation inspired the English novelist, John Buchan, to use Herbert as the inspiration for the fictional hero, Sandy Arbuthnot. In Buchan’s most famous novel, Greenmantle, a Herbert style hero infiltrates the Muslim world of the Turkish-Ottoman Empire in search of secret plots, deadly spies and the fabled green mantle once worn by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
When the war was over Herbert returned to England, at which time the fledgling democracy of Albania twice offered its throne to this Englishman they had grown to trust.
Sadly, the man whom many still revere as the real Greenmantle died at a young age, not in the saddle or while escaping foreign spies, but as the result of a botched dental surgery. Towards the end of his life, the Long Rider who had escaped dozens of dangers became totally blind, whereupon he was told that having all of his teeth extracted would restore his vision. The resultant dental surgery resulted in blood poisoning which killed the fabled traveller in September, 1923, when he was only 43.
Though few today remember either their journeys or their books, Cora and Jan Gordon were top notch English travel writers of the Jazz Age whose exploits took them to a variety of exotic locales. The couple's adventures began when they worked with the Red Cross during the First World War. Having narrowly escaped being slaughtered in that conflict, after the war ended they lived in Paris where they witnessed the Bohemian events of the 1920s. A remarkable couple, the Gordons wrote twenty-six books on their travels through England, Ireland, France, Spain, Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, Sweden, Portugal and the USA. In 1925 they explored Albania on horseback, a journey which resulted in the publication of their book, “Two Vagabonds in Albania.” It was during this journey that the Gordons, armed with nothing more than their sense of humour, Jan's guitar and Cora's lute, met “gentle assassins” and a host of other memorable figures on their ride through Albania.
It was a special time, an envelope of peace in a war-weary Europe. The 1930s presented a unique opportunity for three wandering Swiss horsemen to journey across a recovering continent, a chance to see the last remnants of nineteenth century village life before it was swept away forever by the horrors of the Second World War. Hans Schwarz was just the man to lead such a mounted expedition. A lifelong horseman, Schwarz conceived of the idea of riding from the mighty frozen Alps where he lived to the steamy plains of faraway Turkey. The resulting ride can only be described as idyllic. Along with two companions, the amiable Swiss Long Rider peeked at tiny Liechtenstein, crossed Austria, explored Romania, fled Albania, endured Yugoslavia, and finally reached Turkey, then rode back again! His book, Vier Pferde, Ein Hund und Drei Soldaten, is more than just a well-written Swiss adventure tale. Schwarz's trip, and the resulting book, both took on legendary status in the German-speaking world, and inspired three generations of Swiss Long Riders to take to the saddle, including legendary equestrian travellers, Hans Jürgen and Claudia Gottet, who rode from Arabia to Switzerland on their native Arab horses.
For fifty years Albania was closed to the world. Now it is open, but few visit. Starting in the Balkan Peace Park, Robin and Louella will ride pure-bred Albanian horses the length of Albania. It will be a journey of discovery and a passage through history as Robin tells the story of this extraordinary, beautiful, and troubled land, and goes in search of Europe’s last ethnic peoples.
To read Byron’s Story from the Road, please click here.