When not thinking about Ridgway, I’ve been thinking about jumping. I took one look at the syllabus for the BHS Stage 2 exam, turned pale and retreated to my jumping lessons (you can see some amazingly underwhelming crosspole exercises on my Instagram!). In between trying to learn how to steer less like a drunk uncle at a wedding, I’ve had my first cross country lesson, which was so wonderful I could barely speak afterwards, so my friend and I went to the pub and drank a brandy in grinning, idiotic silence.
It is a constant source of amazement to me that, for someone who wasn’t so much “prone” to anxiousness last year as being a walking quivering nerve, that I took to jumping, and then fast riding across fields with such total glee. Massive great wooden thing? Go for it! Jumping off a bank? Why the heck not! Joe got many, many Polos afterwards. Maybe it’s the freedom of not being in a school, who knows, but I’m glad I’m finally having a go – especially now autumn hunting season is well under way.
I went to my first hunt during last year’s Newcomers Week, organised by the Countryside Alliance in partnership with a number of friendly hunts throughout the UK, and in full swing now for 2017. I spent the days beforehand in an agony that I wouldn’t fit in; that everyone would be able to tell that I was from London and hadn’t seen anything more of hunting than the odd Boxing Day meet disappearing off behind my parents’ house in the 90s; that I’d break my hireling somehow or let her down; and that I wouldn’t just fall off but that I would fall off in the most embarrassing way imaginable – having since seen The Field’s Tumblers Galleries, I now understand that would have to be quite the feat of physics. I spent so long thinking about what would go wrong, that I forgot to think about what would go right. The idea that I might actually have fun seemed massively unlikely.
Over the last year, I’ve been repurchasing the old pony books that I grew up with – Pullein-Thompsons, the Jill books, and Satin and Silk among many cloth-bound others – and something I never noticed at the time was what a huge role hunting as a community activity that far outstrips a (sorry Mum and Dad, but bloody boring) walk – and getting a rare equine opportunity to dress up, a bit like going to a black tie event on horseback.
I never thought it could be something that could be done from London unless you had obliging friends with horses to spare, but it turns out you just need trains, a Premier Inn, a phone number for hirelings from the Hunt Secretary, a taxi for getting to the yard at sparrow fart the next morning – and a partner in crime. My friend H was a source of boundless encouragement and enthusiasm, and as we traipsed up from south London through the season in increasingly smart attire (thank you eBay), and smelling increasingly terrible on the return trip from sweat and melted Mars bars (my Uber rating duly suffered), we loved every view across the countryside, every chance to watch the hounds, and every new thing we got to try. H, a vegetarian, was sadly deprived of the chance to inhale the sausage rolls at meets, which were uniformly spectacular.
Every time I went out I thought, “Now, today maybe I’ll do a jump”. I still haven’t. By the time I’ve got my nerve up, it’s nearly time to go home! It turns out galloping across a field, then turning to someone you’ve never met before and laughing for pure joy, is quite exhilarating enough. Nobody tells you – perhaps because the given idea is that hunting is snobbish, exclusionary, and only for people with a stately home named after them – that it’s incredibly fun. Without wanting to go all David Cameron meeting a black man in Plymouth (although by all means google it if you feel the need to cringe), I met nurses, zoo workers, grooms, freelancers, civil servants, and loads of other people who loved exploring the country and following hounds.
I also saw plenty of the saboteur brigade, all dressed in khaki like they’ve watched too many old All Saints videos, with black napkins covering their mouths, and then having the hilarious gall to call the unmasked riders “cowards”. It’s ironic, really, that riders and antis both spend the day having a hugely enjoyable time with their hobby while dressed up to the nines in a traditional uniform, but there we are.
One of my friends says that hunting’s trouble is that riders enjoy it too much, and if hunts went round in their most ancient riding gear looking bored, nobody would have a problem. But then of course, the farmers probably wouldn’t let them have the access to their land: a field of people in neon sweatshirts and crash cap silks isn’t quite as lovely as a field wearing tweed, black, blue and red – whether from eBay or elsewhere.
It is clear that the Countryside Alliance needs to tackle the emotive idea of hounds “ripping” poor defenceless little foxes to pieces. If someone’s yelling at you, “What kind of horrible person chases down a fox to watch it be ripped apart?”, the answer is rarely “Oh hello, it’s me.” But I am the person who follows a trail. I do not chase a fox, because I hunt within the law. I will see an eagle strike a fox dead, or the lead hound bite it on the back of its neck. It’s telling that I have no animal welfare problems from hunting, but that working in a meat-packing factory after my university finals put me off supermarket ham for life.
Some people have strong feelings about hunting that they don’t want to change. It’s simply easier to cast all people who hunt as poshed-up snobs with no feelings except a lust for port and killing. In turn, foxes, with their dog-like faces, are regarded as victims, albeit victims whose raids on hen houses and lambs leave a scene as grisly as something out of Dexter. There’s a reason that farmers want them killed, and it’s not because all farmers are Roald Dahl villains.
Last year’s outings taught me that wherever you live, you should give it a try, if only to see that the posh hunting Hoorays the antis are always going on about are in the minority, but the camaraderie, welcome and sheer whooping joy of dancing through the countryside on horseback is real. I hope that coming to hunting in my 30s is the start of a long love affair. A planned outing with a friend from Jilly Cooper Book Club this weekend has come a cropper, quite literally, after she was thrown on a hack (all well, fingers crossed, but very dicey!), but next month I’m off to follow the hunt in Exmoor for a week on foot, and by car – with a day mounted so I can experience the appalling Exmoor hill thigh-ache for myself – with a friend I met last season. My heart is beating faster already – but this time, I’m excited.