So as I said in my last post, yesterday we had what's called a "joint meet" with a hunt from oh I guess the middle of England, some three hours' drive away from here. Friday around lunchtime it started to snow around here, those big wet flakes that make great snowballs. Now I live in the valley but there are wonderful hills all around and it wasn't long till the hills were covered in snow. In the evening it got cold and I began to wonder if our guests would be able to get their horseboxes three hours up the road to join us at the crossroads.
Now some of you who have never been involved with a fox hunt think that everyone who gets on a horse and dons a red or blue (or whatever color) coat is just a toffee-nosed snob. And some people are snobs, no doubt (isn't that true in just about any group you survey?) But around here there's not a whole lot to be snobbish about so our country hunts are made up of farmers and their wives and kids, a few folks who have moved here from other parts of the country and, well, a wide variety of folks. Yep, there are a few folks among them that seem a little detached and posh, if you will, but for the most part they're just good old country folks who know how to operate a pitchfork, change a tire, drive a lorry and things like that. Okay.
While you might look in Horse & Hound (important reading if you're in the U.K. and a "horsey" person) and see all these posh hunts meeting at places that must have 50 master bedrooms and a staff of 100, a grand house on a 10,000 acre country estate, here in my neck of the woods we mostly meet in someone's farmyard, in the middle of a village...or at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere. Try to give directions to a place like that! Our starting time (11:00 a.m.) was especially flexible yesterday since our visitors had to take it s
low over the roads (lots of reports of vehicles in ditches due to "black ice" conditions) and then try to make our which narrow lane would get them to the place "you can't get there from here."
But eventually a bunch of them made it and I suspect that since the place they came from is a whole lot more posh than the place they met in a little old country crossroads yesterday, maybe they were just a leetle bit surprised at the amount of food and drink they were offered by a cheery group of hunt supporters. If you've ever been to a tailgate party you'll get an idea of the scene which greeted them. A long lonely stretch of road on which they had plenty of space to park their lorries and unbox their horses, get them tacked up, stand on the ramp and mount, then ride back to the gathering of dozens of horses and foot followers at the crossroads. There were big smiles on every face as they approached the gathering.
At the crossroads then were retired farmers in dented Land Rovers, rosy-cheeked kids wielding trays spilling over with sausage rolls, elderly ladies in wellies proudly offering trays of luscious Christmas cake to car followers and the mounted field alike, about a dozen or so folks walkiing around with trays of port and whiskey in plastic cups, freely given to any and all who wished to partake. This went on for about 45 minutes till we were all stuffed and not exactly sober either, and then the hunting horn was blown (a kind of call to attention). By now (guessing here) about 50 horses and riders were gathered there in the crossroads with probably another 75-100 people standing around the edges enjoying the nice sunshine (a rarity these days) and maybe now and then stopping to gaze up at the snow on the hills all around.
The huntsmen (there were two, one for the home hunt and one for the visitors) and assorted masters in red coats, the visiting hounds who were largely black and tan in colour (we favour lighter coloured hounds we can see on the heather and bracken in these parts) obediently standing just behind the huntsman on a lane from which there's no outlet (and they mean it! talk about some rough tracks and foot-deep water in the ruts).
The huntsman blows again and the "home" senior master, an eloquent local dairy farmer, greets our visitors and says a few words, then one of the visiting masters says a few words. Meanwhile I hoof it as far up the track I know they'll be taking as I can make it (not very, should have started earlier!) and begin snapping photos as the hounds and horses soon head toward me. Then we all jump into our vehicles or head off on foot with a sturdy walking stick and head for the hills to follow the horses and hounds!
I got to ride with my friends Mike and Charlie, and Steve, who spent much of the day on foot with his stick, got a lift up on the hill with us. We had a great day watching the hounds exercising on the hills around us and on the fields below. The horses enjoyed some good fun, too, at one point jumping a distant wooden gate during a lull in the exercise. Viewing the astonishingly beautiful local landscape in the context of the hunt with horses and hounds and local people as subjects is, well, just one of my favorite things in the world. Ten years ago I would never have imagined being here, doing this. But I'm glad I am.
Our guests yesterday aren't likely to forget their wonderful day on the hills
nor the great plates of beef stew they were served before they sought their long roads home at the end of that long long day.
Here in the Welsh borders we love our countryside ways and aim to keep them alive and strong for the children who are being born now to cherish. We will continue to hunt within the law - and revere the days when we hunted freely - until such time that we can return to hunting freely without city slickers legislating the countryside ways of which they are completely ignorant.