It’s been a while since I’ve done anything related to hunting – 1950s hen weekends in Paris, Sussex cricket matches and vintage fairs in Battersea Town Hall (proud purchases: a silver-fox fur and an ermine cape) have been occupying my time, but, before my withdrawal symptoms became too difficult to cope with, the annual jamboree that is the CLA Game Fair arrived.
It was held at Ragley Hall in Warwickshire this year, and, despite a complete lack of signage from the west – I went a mile or two in the wrong direction before I was sent back the way I had come – it proved to be superbly organised and arranged. A much more undulating site than Belvoir and Blenheim, I sympathised with the stallholders who had to make thousands of pounds worth of delicate sculptures stand upright, but the slopes made for some splendid views of the rows of white tents and fluttering flags – evoking the martial banners of a medieval camp.
The grey stone of Palladian Ragley was partly hidden by trees, until you reached the highest ground where its Classical portico overlooked the Countryside Alliance stand and the main arena. A definite advantage of the site, to my mind, was the position of the lake – right in the centre near the CLA members’ enclosure and the Game Fair Theatre, putting the curving lines and intricate casts of fly-fishing on show for all to see.
Indeed, one of my purchases was a fishing rod from Lakeland Lures – 9ft, six weight, on the instructions of Country Life editor Mark Hedges – that will hopefully allow me to contribute to supper when I go to Scotland in September. It was at the same place, Glencarron on the west coast, two years ago, that I first tried fly-fishing, and fell in love with the motion, the need for patience and acute observation and, of course, the tantalising prospect of actually catching something. The loch near the lodge does reputedly have trout in it, and I intend to find proof.
My lessons in fly-fishing so far have been somewhat rudimentary, so I and my friend Antonia made a beeline (or should that be troutline?) to the fishing grandstand on the lake for a masterclass in ‘Teach yourself to fly-cast’ from professional fisherman Michael Evans. It was absorbing stuff, even if we did get a bit lost when he moved onto double-Spey-casting – I think the basics will do for now.
One thing that struck me as particularly effective at the fair, as someone who wears hearing aids in both ears, was the quality of the sound system. So often, outdoor amplification turns everything into an unintelligible cacophony, but here, every display was accompanied by crystal-clear commentary, whether it was a falconer running round the main arena or Mr Evans perched on a floating pontoon.
After the big purchase of my hunt coat last year, I was concentrating more on fishing than hunting at the fair this time, but I didn’t neglect my favourite sport altogether. I have wanted a traditional hunting waistcoat for years, so made tracks to Alexander James, where I bought a white-silk-backed check number – bring on the opening meet!
As I am the proud owner of a new flat and the slightly less proud payer of a mortgage, I promised myself that I would be sensible this year and only buy things I needed, principally birthday and wedding presents. At Belvoir last year, I bought a baker’s dozen of hunting prints, most of which are still unframed and unhung, so I determined not to add to the collection. But, as always, the lure of the likes of John and Judith Head’s stall drew me in, and my heart was immediately taken by a small Lionel Edwards of a lone huntsman and a few couple of hounds high on a snowy moorland, captioned ‘The acme of rapture: alone with the hounds’. Fellow hunters will understand the shiver that ran down my spine. With an effort, however, I squared my shoulders and returned it to the pile, telling myself that if it were still there at the end of the day, I would assume it was meant to be.
Several hours of tasting buffalo burgers (scrumptious!) and honey whisky, watching brewery drays on parade, buying cookery books from Clarissa Dickson Wright, and listening to the Country Life debate ‘Does Britain need farmers?’ (answer: yes!) later, it was, so it has joined its fellows propped against my bookcase, soon to be arrayed in pride of place on newly painted walls.