My perfect weekend is a simple affair. Hunting, naturally, a magnificent hunt tea, an enormous bath, a convivial dinner with like-minded friends and ‘a long sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over’. After following on foot at my opening meet, great fun but not quite the same, I finally settled into the rhythm of a proper hunting weekend with the Chiddingfold, Leconfield and Cowdray. Settling down with a G&T the night before at Fitzhall, home of the Country Life Deputy Editor Rupert Uloth and the location of the meet, I felt London finally fade into the background.
The following day, the promised rain failed to materialise as I mounted Stumpy, a big, handsome horse full of power. As the members of the Chid and Lec love to remind me, when I reported on this same meet last year for Horse & Hound, I contrived to fall off at the first fence. It’s a decent tiger trap with a slightly angled approach, and I simply didn’t kick on enough. It wasn’t the most dramatic fall; indeed, I had enough time to think ‘no one is ever going to let me forget this’ on the way down, and they haven’t. I tend to be introduced as ‘the reporter who fell off’, at which point people say: ‘Ah yes, of course!’ So this year, I was extremely keen to get over it in style, and sure enough, Stumpy flew it.
A terrific start to a lovely day – plenty of action, great company and exhilarating weather with the odd heavy shower and a blustery wind. Everyone was on fine form, with joint-masters Robin Muir and Paul Lyon-Maris enjoying being off duty and following field master Liz Fox-Andrews. Paul’s voice of authority was heard occasionally, however, usually to round up children – a good field master is never off duty! The scent trails weren’t holding particularly well, but we did have a blistering run up to the foot of the Downs to finish – always the best way to end. The hunt tea was splendid as always – the 80-odd mounted followers had left us the odd crumb from the morning – and Champagne/vodka/elderflower cocktails ensured the dinner chat flowed without pause. It may also have contributed to a classic slapstick moment as we were leaving, when a member of our party, walking in front of the Range Rover in which we were seated, slipped and vanished from sight, only to bound up again moments later like a Jack-in-the-box to find us in stitches! Great hunting, food and wine and superlative comedy – what more could one want?
The following week, I returned to the East Kent, scene of my first Horse & Hound report three years ago – during which I managed to stay safely on the horse. Back then, I rode Gerry and Carol Pack’s Paddy, and they have generously allowed me to borrow him several times since. He is a dream to ride -smaller and neater than Stumpy, incredibly agile and nimble with a light mouth and gallons of spirit. He stars in dressage and show jumping with the Pack’s groom, Ali, but loves his hunting! Carol was mounted on her smart bay Corribe and friend Lyn was on Gerry’s handsome grey Sam, who knows exactly what he’s doing and likes to dictate the day, choosing his own path. Gerry affirms that the only time he fell off was when he tried to tell Sam what to do. Lyn was whipping in, and had a super time jumping, never slowing down for such mundane things as talking on the phone, but simply continuing the conversation in mid air! Richard Blakeney, huntsman here for nearly 40 seasons, retired last season with a splendid meet that saw some 25 visiting huntsman and masters enjoy a terrific day, and the hunt has been equally lucky in his successor, Mark Westaway.
A sunny morning saw some 50 people met at the Black Robin in Kingston, a pretty village surprisingly near the A2. When I first visited the East Kent, I was amazed by how rural the country felt, despite being bisected by the M20 and the Ashford railway, and being prime commuter country. It is a hugely friendly pack, with a very loyal following, whose love for and understanding of the Kentish Weald has survived inroads of concrete and iron. We were in Forestry Commission woods for much of the day, but had a lot of fun slithering round tracks and jumping rails in and out, interspersed with the ubiquitous hip-flask discussions – a fetching lime-green example attracted attention! Sadly, Sam got kicked at about half past two (he’s fine now), so our party had to return early, but that did at least leave time for tea and cake in the lorry and a cosy tack-cleaning session (made all the cosier by the threatened rain that began to pour), before a bath and another superb dinner.
Whatever wonders and delights the world may have in store, nothing beats the simple pleasures of life – especially in the hunting field!