But what of the actual hunting, you long-winded wuss, get on with it! I hear you cry. Well, quite. A list then:
- Horse. Check.
- Riding. Check.
- Kit and kaboodle. Check.
- Tacit agreement with local hunt I may join them on a pre-agreed day, on the right horse, with the right chaperone... for an hour. CHECK!
I basically wore the Secretary down on the matter. Everyone agreed if I was to push on with my attempt to hunt it would be best for all concerned if the first outing was during the ‘pre-season’ in Autumn. A mid-week meet was selected and I booked the day off work.
I did not sleep one jot. I was terrified. By dawn I’d made the firm decision if I was to fail, I'd fail like an Englishman. Not screaming and wailing but walking confidently onto the punch as if I knew it was coming. Dignity is free.
There did appear to be quite some level of interest in my first outing. There is clearly affection for those that cross the Rubicon to join the mounted field from the foot followers. I suspect some were awaiting the inevitable calamity and placing bets, but all were gracious and welcoming. I followed my wife to say good morning to the Masters and Secretaries. I had decided to try to keep chatter to a minimum but I must have appeared a nervous Nelly.
Hounds arrived. Everyone was mounted and there was no messing around with speeches and sausage rolls. This was Autumn Hunting, not a social event. Off we went with barely a word.
Let me say right here that I was as proud as punch at managing to get on the horse, and then trot away neatly at the tail of the group, up the road and along to a muddy field. If sent home then it would have been worth it just for those first few minutes. And yes, I had set my bar of achievement very low.
But I was smiling ear to ear and waving at every car. Not exactly portraying cool nonchalance. I could have done with following the lead of my horse who was so relaxed he was practically napping on his feet. He had clearly been here before and wasn't so easily impressed.
As I followed the Field down the lane I focused on calm walking, trotting and cantering, trying not to slam into anyone and trying to stay in my seat. I said "sorry" a dozen times until a Master told me not to. And trying not to look scared. There were a couple of small ditches, a steep bank, and an extremely narrow bridge that required my feet to be pulled out of my stirrups and placed up in front of the saddle (they never taught me this in the sand school) and a field of murderous cows who identified me as the weakest link and were pushing the advantage.
Now, I don't want to tell tall stories, but there were a few moments when I genuinely thought I was going to die.
About an hour after we set off the Field started to move differently. A horn blasted and there was a definite change of pace. Off the Field Master flew and we all cantered down a hill to a gateway in the corner. I noticed another Master veer right from the middle of the group and jumped straight over the ditch separating the crops and hammered up the brow of the neighbouring paddock.
My horse thought this a cracking idea and looked to do the same. I braced myself for the leap but he was bluffing. He swerved alongside the queuing riders and shoved his way into the gateway (it has been said he can strong). Before I knew it, I was galloping (I mean it) up a field following the leaders towards the horn and speaking Hounds.
For the first time I really got a sense of what a horse can do. I’d been underestimating him. The boy was a beast. The horn was in front, the mud was flying and for a few moments we flew. The charge declined and everyone slowed at the edge of a woodland having achieved whatever it was that spurred the movement in the first place.
It was breath-taking five minutes and I won't forget it in a hurry. My wife laughed and said it's always the boring Autumn days that suddenly become exciting when no one expects it. The excitement abated and there was another few hours of generally making way; another narrow bridge (much worse than the first but at least I was drilled in the ‘knees-up’ routine) and then we were back at the lorries.
I leapt down and tried to be useful until my wife told me to sod off and leave the tack alone. I'm still more of a hindrance than a help on these things. There was little mud, no food or drink, no cup of tea or hearty drink for the huntsman. Everyone shot off quite quickly. We were the last lorry in the field. It was not even noon and my first outing had been completed.
I stood on the tube in London the following morning with an ache in my knees and ruddy face thanks to some wind burn. Work was going to be a doddle for the remainder of the week not least because I was going hunting again on Saturday.