SHE has been an unlikely light in the dark depths of pandemic lockdown, riding out into the Theban desert with hundreds of followers from all round the world.
She has sailed down the Nile, and explored ancient temples; she has taken to the night-time streets of Luxor in a kalesh and introduced us to her farmyard family of four-footed friends.
Lesley Hammam has become a popular guide on virtual trip streaming platform heygo, honing skills she never knew she had in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic.
Yet it might never have happened for the 45-year-old born in Shropshire’s Montford Bridge. A terrifying riding accident almost cost Lesley her life, and left her battling crippling back injuries.
But then this is a woman who has a habit of proving wrong anyone who tells her that there is something she might not be able to accomplish. Her philosophy is simple: she just gets on with it.
Here, in the first of a two-part interview, she looks back on her riding career in the UK. After you’ve read this one Read Part 2 here
Her father was a cow herdsman who worked on a farm in the nearby village of Forton. Lesley recalls that she was sitting on a tractor by the age of four, and riding when she was five years old.
But not in the style you might expect…
The village of Forton, where Lesley grew up on the farm
“My first riding experience was on a bull,” she says with a wry smile. “We used to have this old bull that would wander between the farm and the house so my dad used to put me up on top of it and I used to ride that around.
“Dad always said I should have been a bull rider rather than a horse rider. But I’ve been in the saddle properly since my granddad bought me a pony named Misty when I was five years old.
“I was literally on it for five minutes when it threw me off and broke my leg. So that was it then – I was hooked! I still have a photo taken five minutes before I got thrown off, looking very pleased with myself. It’s very funny, looking back.
“As soon as the cast came off I was back up in the saddle. They sold Misty, though, because they thought the accident was a bad omen. Instead, I got his lovely old Horse of the Year Show gymkhana pony called Red Baron.
“He was my first proper riding pony. I swear he used to have this little clock in his head – he’d let me work him for 15 minutes then he’d frogmarch me back to the stables. It happened every time, and there was nothing I could do about it.
“I could pull and pull, and pull all I liked but to no avail. He was like ‘No, no, we’ve finished now – I’m going back to the stables’. But he was incredible, an amazing school mount for me.
Why worry? Just get on with life.
“My mum taught me a lot about horses even though she’s a city girl from London. She always liked horses and I think she lived vicariously through me because she didn’t have the same ‘I don’t care’ attitude as me.
“If a horse took off with me, I was just like ‘Hey, don’t worry. It’ll stop when it’s ready’. I still have that attitude now.”
Lesley’s father had to stop working on the farm when he broke his back in an accident. She was, she recalls, eight or nine at the time but the family stayed at the farmhouse for many years.
She tried Pony Club but didn’t like it – “they were all a bit snobby for me” – and started showjumping, eventually riding in three-day eventing at novice and intermediate level, which she loved.
But her career in riding began when she started working for racehorse trainer Mark Brisbourne at the age of 15. After a couple of years, he told her ‘You’re too good for here’ and got her a place at Walford College, where she did her teaching qualifications.
An early picture of Lesley riding in the UK
Fate, however, has a habit of playing a cruel hand.
“In October 1997, I was out hacking and we were riding past a building site,” she recalls. “There was a bit of plastic that waved in the breeze and it spooked Honey, the horse I was riding. She did an about-turn in the road and just bolted.
“Because we had to take out eight horses a day, we used to ride one and lead one. So when Honey took off, another horse named Brodie followed. We ended up galloping flat-out down these lanes and I was thinking ‘This isn’t good. This is really not good’.
“I was a lot smaller then and it was like a mosquito riding an elephant. It didn’t matter how much I pulled, she wasn’t stopping. The only thing I could do was try to keep her on our side of the road and steer. I ended up shooting out onto a main road.
“Luckily, some tractor drivers saw me and stopped the traffic but Honey carried on. I kept thinking ‘She’ll get tired. This nightmare is going to be over pretty soon’. When we got to a gateway, she started to go in but the horse behind us spooked her again.
Lesley with one of her horses in Luxor
“Off we went a second time. There was a chicken farm and we were heading straight for it. My last chance to stop was by dropping my reins but I yanked on the reins a little too late and Honey ended up going straight for the gatepost.
“If we’d gone over the gatepost – she was a hunter so she would have done – both of us would have been killed because we’d have ended up crashing onto the chicken houses. It was either that or head into a backyard and hit a wall. Even that was preferable to keeping on going because we were heading towards a major road.
“She ended up veering one way, I went the other way and I hit the whole of my back against the gatepost and bounced down the road. It tore all the ligaments and things in my back, which have taken years to fix.”
It was, it seemed, the end of her professional riding career.
“I was happy with my career – I miss it even now – but I couldn’t go on with it,” she explains. “I was putting myself in danger on a daily basis because I never rode normal horses: they all had a screw loose. That was my speciality. I was good at fixing animals other people would reject.”
Saffy and Lesley – husband and wife tour guides
The accident was a turning point in more ways than one. She had earlier met, and married, Saffy Hamman in a whirlwind holiday romance that has stood the test of time, and they decided to move to Egypt full-time.
Lesley will be doing a free Q&A hour on her life and times with heygo virtual travellers at 7pm BST on Sunday October 10 – see www.heygo.com. Catch her blogs theadventurewithin.com and bluelotusegypt.com.