Well, it’s over. The horses are out at grass, shoes off and bellies full; boots and jackets are clean and safely stored; hounds are piled up in their beds dreaming of the season past; and we riders must settle down to wait out the long, long summer until the horn is wound once again.
The season of 2009/2010 certainly won’t go down as a red-letter season-hunts struggled with kennel cough, snow and lack of scent, and I only made it out on horseback 10 times. But I’m glad to say it finished on a high, back on Stumpy with the Chid and Lec, and with a very special meet.
The previous week, I had had a fun, if quiet, outing with the Saltersgate Farmers in North Yorkshire for Horse and Hound, when it had rained all day. Then, there was a silver lining to the clouds-the weather proved that my hunt coat, new this season from Lyford’s of Liphook, was a star buy as it kept me bone dry all day (the master, whose stock was stained pink by the end, was somewhat envious, I feel!). Back in Sussex, unfortunately, less-sturdy ratcatcher was the order of the day. It poured, and poured, and kept pouring, defying a certain joint-master who asserted cheerfully and foolishly: ‘Oh, it’s only a brief shower!’ Fortunately, a splendid gallop across neatly built telegraph-pole fences brought a glow to our cheeks, and Stumpy was on fine form, bursting to go and definitely not keen to wait. When he locks on to a fence, nothing will stop him-I often think that if someone refused or fell in front of him, he’d simply jump them, too. I know he’s capable of doing so!
There is a tradition, upheld by some hunts, that dress changes to ratcatcher after the Gold Cup, but the Chid and Lec wear it for another reason, too. It was the favoured dress of a great 19th-century huntsman, Toby Fitzwilliam, who is commemorated at the end of the season with a two-meet day. Under initially sunny skies, we feasted first at Littleton Farm, hunted for a couple of hours, then reconvened at the Toby Stone high on the South Downs for another chance at the port.
The Toby Stone is a mounting block, which had to be rebuilt a couple of years ago after the antis vandalised the original. The hunt raised money for a new one, and standing atop it, the Rev David Brown blessed the hounds in a moving ceremony that was only slightly dampened by another fierce shower.
Joint-master Robin Muir remounted Sinbad from the Stone in the proper way, and we set off again for a fun afternoon that, when huntsman Sage and the pack were hidden in a valley, saw an impromptu race among the field to warm us all up-I confess I was beaten by a tiny boy on a tinier pony. Many riders drifted away in search of hot baths, but the few of us who remained were rewarded by blazing sunshine and crystal-clear air that afforded us splendid views back along the Downs and across the valley below.
Scent revived briefly to give us some thrilling music among the trees, but it petered out in the too-warm late-afternoon sunshine, and we scrambled down off the hills to a magnificent hunt tea-enlivened by a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday to Robin.
Back in London, my end-of-season feeling of emptiness has been allayed by the biggest purchase I have ever made-a studio flat in Fulham. There’s an awful lot to do to it, but there are a couple of nails left in the walls from the previous tenants, perfect for hunting prints! So Snaffles’ The Finest View in Europe, prints of the Bicester and the Four Burrow and a mounted set of hunting cigarette cards, not to mention the other half-dozen or so waiting to be framed, will at least give me something to feast my eyes on during the hot summer months until the fun begins again in the autumn.