January 2011

As a child, at about this time of year, I used to go to sleep praying for a hoar frost. It never worked. Instead I would wake to a pale yellow January sun hanging  just above the downs, mist rising from Letcombe brook and my mother’s excited cry , “Get up, get up we’re going hunting.”. With a leaden heart I trudged across the sloping field beside Lock’s Lane in pursuit of my thirteen two hard- to -catch “all rounder”  .At a certain point, usually after twenty minutes, he would decide to give in. Then I would be standing on an orange box in the stable  trying to scrape the thickly caked mud off his back  with a curry comb.

Until I was thirteen and was described as being “difficult” I  accepted the fact that hunting was obligatory. (Today I would have been able to ring up a childrens helpline). It wasn’t just that I felt sick with fear but also that  I was in a constant state of toe- curling embarrassment . For instance my pony had a very low trace clip. Smart children had clipped out ponies or certainly high up trace clips. Smart was all I longed to be.

My pony was strawberry roan. Officially called Silver Flame, a name I loved  and longed to hear read out coupled with my own over the tannoy system at local gymkhanas. It was never to be.  His previous owner with whom my mother was slightly in love because he was the director of the Tate gallery had literary pretensions. He had chosen to re name the pony Dirk, not after Dirk Bogarde  which might have been acceptable but  after the Dirk in Browning’s boring poem “How they brought the good news from Aix to Ghent”. To make matters worse my mother would explain the reason for Dirk’s name to people who had never even heard of Browning. My friend Janey Dryer’s pony was called Flikka, Peter Baring’s Wonder and Nigel Baring’s Pippin: proper pony names.

I was embarrassed too about my brown velvet riding hat. I longed for a navy blue one. My mother had a thing about brown. Her bowler and tweed riding coat were brown, her hog maned trace clipped cob  Romany, skewbald.  Other mothers rode chestnuts and greys but never coloureds.  Together we jogged through the back streets of Wantage out onto Ormond road and sometimes through the market square where we could see ourselves in the reflection of the shop windows. I felt uncomfortable to the hilt  in my ramrod stiff jodphurs (my mother pronounced them “Jode- poooors,” with the accent on the last syllable. This led to complications  at the local outfitters, Collards of Swindon ,when shop assistants failed to understand what she was talking about). By the time we reached Baulking Green or wherever the meet was (sometimes eight miles away) Dirk  was in a muck sweat and  I had already eaten the grease –proof- paper -wrapped brown sugar sandwich bulging from my pocket. My feet so cold that I could not feel them and  my hands, trapped icily  in the dreaded yellow string riding gloves designed to encourage frost bite I would watch other peoples’ shiny horses and  ponies clattering out of horse boxes  in pristine perfection. Jealousy swept through me.

But if the hunting field was where  I first  became politically motivated, hovering as I did between envy of and disdain for some of the  people out, it was also where I discovered the joys of people watching : waiting interminably on the edges of coverts like Knighton Thorns down by the railway line,  hoping beyond hope that nothing would happen, I used to study Lady Walker who lived high on a hill at Ringdale Manor, the venue for the Pony Club dance. She  wore navy blue of course and a lot of lipstick which I admired terrifically. Her husband owned the garage in Faringdon which I imagined made millions of pounds. I longed for parents like the Walkers. Expensive parents.. As Lady Walker lifted up her hand to greet people her gloved fingers waved  like wind rippled  grass as she coo-ed  Hellooooo. Tuffy Baring and I used to imitate the wave when she wasn’t looking . We called it “doing a Lady walker”. By eavesdropping I learnt that Mrytle Barclay and Major “Chattty” Hilton Green were living openly “in sin” which was apparently considered shocking by the Old Berks Himt committee,  that Betty Berners owned a lot of the land we hunted over but also most of  Berners Street in London , that men who needed hirelings for the day preferred to hire them from Liz Metford because she was beautiful rather than from poor Miss Meikle who wasn’t, that several people boasted about jumping the infamous Rosie Brook when in fact they hadnt  and that  our doctor, Doctor Squires from Wantage and his friend Mr Morphew from West Hendred were generally  drunk by the time they got to the meet.

If the hounds found, my heart went into my mouth. I looked around desperately for Doris Bean  who rode a show hack called Matches which she pronounced “Metches”. She  was a  safe bet to follow because she didn’t jump, knew the country backwards and trotted sedately from gate to gate. The trouble was,  she was never on hand at the critical moment, neither was my mother who was usually gossiping with her friend Molly Baring  and so Dirk and I inevitably took off with  Mr George  who farmed at Longcot or Mr Adams who farmed at Fernham . They both went like the clappers. So did Mr Mason but thank God I never galloped in his wake. Nigel Baring used to. It involved taking a straight line and jumping barbed wire. Mason would ping the wire with his crop to show the horse, turn him and then  take off over it. If that failed he would hang his coat over the wire.

At no stage, during the whole of my hunting career did I have any idea of what was going on concerning the catching of a fox . Hunting  was simply a terrifying test of survival which ,as though that wasn’t enough , involved being shouted at to boot for barging through gateways or galloping on seed. How could I help it if I was out of control? Dirk would streak past admonishing field masters at the speed of light. “Drop a rein, drop a rein,” called Mr baring  “Make him go in  a circle” . There was no hope, Dirk had to be at the front. I may have won the Old Berks Hunter trials challenge cup two years running  (non swanks)but that was when I was in control. The real thing was not the same. .Once , when I was carted along the main road from Kingston Lisle to Sparsholt under the great cathedral of beech trees  , I  actually lay on Dirk’s neck , got hold of his bit with both hands and yanked it from side to side. It had no effect. I ended up galloping past the master down Star lane and Dirk only stopped when he reached the old canal.  I was mortifed  not least because the master lent us his box  for the Horse of the Year Show at Olympia, the annual  highlight of my life, and I imagined he would now put a stop to it. In fact he never did.

Something stuck. One evening a few years ago I was driving through Goosey a tiny village with a scattering of farms, cottages and a small church encircling its enormous green . It was just before the hunting ban and I was remembering that this was one of my mother’s favourite meets. Suddenly out of the gloaming came  the Old Berks huntsman, whipper in and  hounds on their way home from hunting. Steam rose rose from the group in the cold air and the beauty of the scene made me stop. How could this possibly be obliterated from English life?  The timelessness of it was total and  I burst into sobs of tears and everything about hunting all those years ago came welling up: Lady Walker’s wave, Molly Baring’s horse Sinbad who could jump a house and the  slow-trotting home with my mother along Portway under the dark, looming line of downs when Dirk had finally stopped pulling and my arms had gone back into their sockets.

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3 comments to January 2011

  • Anmarie Gibbs

    Hello Candida. I’m not sure if you remember me, but I had the enormous pleasure of being part of your mother’s life (when I was a child) because my mum, Jeanne Gibbs, worked for her as housekeeper/gardener at the Mead. Your mum was so very generous and kind – and I loved her dearly for it. Your stories, and the way you write, are so like her that it brings happy tears to my eyes. The hunting stories are particularly touching as I too joined her and Romany – or Sidi – to go hunting. I remember tramping across the bog at the front of the mead to catch Tiny Tara and get spruced up for the day. (I also remember the yellow string gloves that didnt keep your hands warm). We never took a horsebox anywhere either and, looking back,we were a living Thelwell cartoon as we went down the road!!! We would ride out via Ham Road and back via the Ford to get the horse’s legs clean. Oh Happy days :-)

  • Erin Billings

    Very entertaining and well written article Candida. Hope that you and Rupert and your children are doing good. I think of you often and am still touched by the kindness and hospitality you showed me and Derek. If you have not heard from him lately he is doing very well. I have just sold my house and hope to be almost his neighbor soon ( just a few minutes from him). We cannot live together as his house is too small and I have several children as you know. I may even have two of my daughter’s friends live with us in the new house while they attend a local college. That would mean that Derek would be in a house with 7 females. Fortunately he has a lot of patience!
    I bet that you are looking forward to the springtime and I wish you well. Please say hello to Rupert for me
    love, Erin

  • Celia Clarkson

    Lovely to read your delightful article. I used to hunt but in Northern Ireland so I enjoyed your tales! Sir james Walker was my godfather, so even more reason to enjoy your writing!! As part of my family history research, I googled his name for fun and came across your article. I shall enjoy reading more of your work!! Celia (Yes, my godfather had a daughter called Celia as well!)

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