All in a day’s work: Style guru Martha, Lady Sitwell *H&H Plus*

  • Martha, Lady Sitwell, on 10 years of hunting sideways — and why you’ll never see her in a pair of stretchy breeches. As told to Flora Watkins

    I had a bad belly-up at 13, hunting a young horse. I broke my back and neck, and my horse, whom I adored, was fatally injured. I didn’t ride again for many years, then got married and was taken to live in Northamptonshire where I didn’t know anyone. It was really lonely.

    I’d be walking my dogs and the hunt would come hooning past — they were all so smiley and friendly, I thought, “You have to man up and get back on a horse.”

    Like all rational horsey women, I wondered if I’d feel more secure sideways. Philippa Holland and I went off to try side-saddle with Roger Philpott, who was kindness and patience personified. Roger and a lovely cob — who had an amazing knack of catching you after a fence — managed to restore my confidence. It only took about three months before I was hunting.

    Hunting side-saddle is definitely more fun. It’s a great conversation-opener for everyone. People — particularly boys — are friendlier. You never have to open a gate and you’re given a lot of hip flasks. And I just feel so much safer.

    When I came back to hunting, it did seem that the jodhpurs had got more stretchy and the jackets more boxy. And quite frankly, unless you’re supermodel Edie Campbell, that isn’t a good look. Philippa and I designed ourselves some habits and had those made up, then other people wanted one, so I started my company, Sitwell and Whippet.

    For me, the whole point — of whatever you’re wearing — is to have a tiny waist. That’s surely where the woman is, in the waist. So the habits I design all give the optical illusion of a smaller waist; the leg-of-mutton sleeve and the full skirt all make the waist appear smaller than it actually is.

    Downton Abbey helped side-saddle take off. When I started, there was really only one legendary mad woman I’d heard tales of who hunted side saddle, this effervescent creature called Lucy Holland. She was my inspiration. She’s an incredible horsewoman and now a master at the Bicester.

    I’ve met some amazing women through hunting side-saddle. Susan Oakes organised a wonderful day with the Meath, with 50 side-saddle riders from around the world going hell for leather over their double drains. Stylist Sarah Kate Byrne has got to be one of the most elegant women in the world on a horse, along with her sister, Aoife.

    I only had one lesson with Jinks Bryer, but my riding was much the better for it — that voice booming across the school, “Don’t trot, you’ll get terrible udder judder!”

    For hacking at home I’ll wear jeans, but for anything else it’s batwing breeches. If I’m hunting, it’s one of my coats or habits. The coats I designed for my Harry Hall collection can be worn astride as well; I was inspired by a painting of Frank Freeman, the famous Pytchley huntsman.

    Sisi, the Empress of Austria, is a great style inspiration always, as is Skittles (a Victorian courtesan with a passion for hunting), and the Munnings paintings are glorious. But the raised collar of the waistcoat from my collection, which is very much a signature of mine — and which I see has been picked up elsewhere — that was inspired by Beau Brummell and Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and the Napoleonic era.

    Darling Mark Todd sent us shed-loads of stuff to wear when I rode across Mongolia in 2014 for charity, in memory of my sister Polly. We did 500 miles in just under a month. I was very fit when I came back but also stank to high hell and was hairy like an old ewe. The Mark Todd boots I wore every day only died last month — and I cried.

    I’m terrified going out on a hack. I’m much more confident hunting, I suppose because the horse is focused on hunting and not skittering across the road at a butterfly…

    Ref Horse & Hound; 16 January 2020