Hurrah, the season has begun again! The stubble fields spread invitingly to the horizon, the horses are losing their summer tummies and there’s that delightful nip in the morning air that foreshadows frosty dawns to come.
I had my first morning’s cubbing, or rather, autumn trail hunting, with the Chid and Lec in a fold of the South Downs, an impressively well-attended meet with some 50 riders. Sadly, I was not one of them, Stumpy, my usual hireling, not yet being fit, but just being out under the cloudless sky with the hound music ringing out across the morning air made the 5.30am alarm bell and drive from London thoroughly worth it. There is an incomparable magic about cubbing, something to do with being up before the rest of the world and being more a part of the process, surrounding coverts and listening to what’s going on rather than coffee-housing. I and a fellow footie, Mike Dicks, had some fun of our own, too, when we followed the horses up a rutted muddy track in his 4×4-four wheels can offer something of the excitement of four legs when you’re being tipped to one side and sliding along sideways! Several children had made the effort to get up, including nine-year-old Honor Uloth, who was making the most of the holidays before Saturday school started and going very well on her new pony Exi. Bacon rolls and ginger beer as the sun began to get hot rounded off the morning nicely, improved by a general feeling of satisfaction that the hounds had gone well and a promising season beckoned.
The following Saturday, at a 4pm meet, I was lucky enough to be mounted on big chestnut Fred, a former whip’s horse who now belongs to Mike and whom Mike had very generously offered to after my horseless day.
Warnings that he was strong gained resonance as, having stopped to talk to Rupert Uloth and seven-year-old Nonie, he realised that the rest of the field were at the far side of an expanse of stubble and decided to catch up sharpish. I can only hope that my somewhat sudden departure didn’t contribute to the unscheduled dismount of Nonie, who began her assault on the Tumblers’ Cup (which she already owns) with a vengeance. Completely unperturbed, however, she hopped straight back on, even declining a conciliatory sweet, only the muddiness of her back revealing that anything untoward happened.
I subsequently got the hang of Fred, who proved to be a terrific ride with a lovely jump that made a stile feel like a crosspole. At one point, I was sent on an errand, and Fred immediately settled back into his professional role, cantering smoothly without pulling, thinking he was doing his job again. It can be difficult for a master’s or whip’s horse to settle into the field, having to stay behind people and gallop with a crowd. I remember exercising Atlas, the legendary coloured mount of Clifton-on-Teme MFH Richard Hill, who got extremely confused when asked to close gates as well as open them, as he expected a minion to come up behind and shut them for him.
Again, it was a large crowd, 58 mounted apparently, and we were treated to a terrific evening, with some lovely hound work and a great deal of action for cubbing, over newly built jumps in and out of a covert that saw only one rider come a cropper to my knowledge-young Hartley Crouch, who, with Nonie, topped the Tumblers’ Club billing last year and evidently planned not to let her get too far ahead early on.
When we weren’t charging around, there was the chance to enjoy the peace of a still September evening. When I had been on foot, swallows were still darting overhead, and this time deer and hares leapt from the hedgerows to bound away, assured and unconquerable in their speed. Best of all my wildlife sightings this summer, however, took place when I was minkhunting. A briefest flash of brightest azure, sapphire, teal, iridescent blue-a kingfisher. I cannot do it justice, and turn instead to the opening lines of William Henry Davies’ poem The Kingfisher:
It was the Rainbow gave thee birth,
And left thee all her lovely hues.