James Delingpole, author
“Don’t worry, we’ll take things very carefully and bring him back in one piece,” Jane Spencer promised my wife, somewhat rashly, I thought.
Jane was talking on the eve of my first proper day’s hunting — in “Monday country”, with the Pytchley — and like most non-hunting spouses, the Fawn (as she’s known) wasn’t looking forward to the prospect one bit.
It’s not that the Fawn is anti-hunting. Her mother — quite rightly — thought that it was the greatest sport on earth and before she died she ceremonially handed down to me her cherished hunting whip.
But the Fawn knows what hunting is like and, worse, knows what I’m like: reckless, impetuous, irresponsible, immature, hopeless. As I demonstrated only the other week when I broke our daughter’s ankle.
I’ll spare you the ugly details. Suffice to say that it was a riding injury and as the parent supposedly in charge at the time, I got all the blame. It could hardly have happened at a more inconvenient moment — the day before school started and, worse, the beginning of the autumn hunting season.
How in God’s name was I to persuade the Fawn that riding isn’t dangerous when we had such strong evidence to the contrary, stomping round the house with her boot and crutches and being as bolshie as only a hobbled female teenager can?
Anyway, to my first proper hunt. I say “proper” because although I’ve been out one or two times over the years — once, with the Devon & Somerset staghounds, just before the ban, for an article in The Sunday Times; once with the Cotswold for a TV documentary in praise of toffs — I’ve only ever done the really important bit, the jumping bit, by accident.
Jumping petrifies for me, because though I’ve been riding on and off since I was a cold, reluctant eight-year0-old (“Ianto. T-rot!”), horses aren’t in my blood and I never did Pony Club or anything proper like that.
Plus I’m getting on: 50 this year. It’s not the getting hurt I fear but what the Fawn would do. If I got myself injured my life wouldn’t be worth living. Frankly I’d be better off dead.
So, very sensibly, Jane — who has been getting me hunt-ready at her Northants riding school over the last couple of years — insisted on taking things slowly.
First, she gave me a bomb-proof hireling — Eddie Stobart — who used to belong to the master so he knows what he is doing. Second, she forbade me from doing the tiger trap immediately as we set off and although I grumbled, she was right, for it was several riders’ undoing.
As indeed was the deceptively innocent-looking hedge that followed. It looked fine from the front but there was a big drop behind it: one poor girl said she had broken her hand as it thwacked into her saddle on landing.
Instead we took three post-and-rails in succession. Or rather Eddie did. I just pointed him, sat on top and let him do his stuff.
Isn’t it just the best thing when your mount takes care of you like this? None of that “will he, won’t he?” business I saw some other riders having to deal with as they approached their jumps.
Or am I being naive here?
We’ll find out soon enough because this marks the beginning of what I’m calling Mr Delingpole’s Sporting Tour. Like Surtees’s sporting hero, I suspect it might have to involve a degree of begging, borrowing and stealing because I too am skint. But very much unlike Soapey Sponge I haven’t yet mastered the art of horsemanship. Which could prove interesting.
Watch this space…
My first ‘proper’ hunt
Which pack: The Pytchley
Where: Walgrave, Northants
Country: Mainly gently rolling arable, with a tiger trap, one challenging hedge and about six post-and-rail hunt jumps.
Mount: Eddie Stobart; aged 10 (as he has been for several years, apparently); honest, wildly enthusiastic, a free sweater, bomb proof and I love him to bits.
Field: a friendly crowd of about 36, mostly around my age — including lawyers and an airline pilot — plus some girls on half term.
Best bits: surviving the various jumps.
Most surprising bit: watching Jane join the tumblers’ club in front of me, her first fall in five years. A fiver to the hunt please Jane.
Biggest mistake: not bringing my own booze: it’s antisocial swigging from other people’s flasks if you can’t reciprocate with some deadly anaesthetising concoction of your own.
Most vital lessons learned: trust your horse — he knows better than you; don’t bring along your mother-in-law’s hunting whip until you’re a better rider.
Other vital lesson: when squeezing through a narrow gap, hoick your leg out of your stirrup. Otherwise you’ll get your leg squashed. Thanks for the tip, Jane. Otherwise I’d be crippled now, just like my daughter, and that wouldn’t be popular.
PS – I’m keen to give credit, gratitude etc to all the hunts that host me. So please, if you’re happy to have your names in lights, just let me know and I will add accordingly!