Monday, 23 November 2009

View Halloo!

There is a small shelf in the kitchen. One half is the "nature table" - found fossils, interesting seeds pods and bug carapaces. The other half is the "information centre" where we prop up invites and schedules to try and remind us when we're supposed to be at some function or other. This time of year it's filled with lists of dates for local hunts.

I should clarify the terminology. In England, 'hunting' means 'foxhunting' - riding a horse in pursuit of a fox (nowadays, only the scent of a fox). What Oscar Wilde described as "The Unspeakable in pursuit of the Inedible". Mike informs me that, in his experience, you would have to be pretty damn hungry to eat a fox. (Being experimental in college had a whole different meaning for him). What we Americans term 'hunting' - going after birds or deer with a gun or bow - is called 'shooting' (birds) and 'stalking' (deer) in England.

Semantics or no, I've never been foxhunting. But one of the local hunts crosses our land, and I thought it would be fun to go and watch the horses and hounds running over our little piece of England. Landowners who support the hunt are invited to attend hunt meets and sent a list of dates. The MFH (Master of the Fox Hounds) also called to ask if she could put a jump on our land for the day, so it looked like it could be a promising show. Particularly for an American who still finds British traditions a great source of hilarity.

But hunting is considered a rather upper class pursuit. And I didn't want to embarass the hosts by making too many faux pas (or is it fox pas in this instance?) Hurrah then for a guide to the British upper class - Debrett's.

I consult Debrett's - the bastion for etiquette and manners - for information on social matters. They publish books and have a handy website. They are the very definition of antiquated snobbery - in the nicest possible way.

In the appendices of its Correct Form guide is something called the Table of Precedence. This guide arranges everyone in England according to rank and status. Having a dinner party and you're not sure whether to seat your Baron or your Viscount at the head of the table? Why, simply check your Debrett's guide. (It's the Viscount in case you were wondering). There are even Tables of Precendence for ladies, and for Scottish people.

I guess, then, the starting point is finding your place on the list.

At the top of this list is HM The Queen, and at the bottom of the list is 'gentlemen' (and 'ladies'). Because we own land, we are raised one rank above 'gentlemen' to 'esquire' (and 'wife of esquire'). Only 90 places or so below the Queen! And to think, last year we were 91 places below Her. We're still below sons of knights and circuit court judges, but I'm begining to feel my own sense of self-importance growing. I may even start ironing my tractor overalls in keeping with my new status.

Armed with foxhunt how to's, I was ready to attend my first hunt meet. As with everything I arrived late, and my first image of the hunt was this -

Those minute dots on the horizon are actually horses. My initial thought was "Huh. Not much of a spectator sport then..." But I stood there, and then a horn blew and soon after the view changed to this:

And a second later, to this:

Then suddenly all the other spectators except us went running off in some pre-ordained direction to intercept the hunt at its next location and watch the whole 10 second spectacle again. So we just followed the pack, not unlike what the hounds were doing.

By the way, I am told they are called 'hounds' not dogs'. And they have a 'stern' instead of a tail.

I think that it's similar to watching professional cycling races like the Tour de France. A few seconds of frenzied excitement as the participants whizz pass at speed, followed by long periods of lull. I don't know about cycling, but a hip flask with homemade sloe gin is essential for watching the hunt. I'm glad I knew this bit of information before we set out for the morning.

We watched The Field (as the group of horses and hounds are called) ride off to our field (of the grass variety) and jump the hedge jump. Then it started raining again. That dampened my enthusiasm to follow them any further. I think I got the jist of this hunting thing, even if I haven't masterted all the terms yet. The next task is to actually get on a horse and join in. I have a plan for that too. Tally ho!


Pomona said...

You must remember to pronounce hounds as 'hinds' to be truly authentic! Apparently fox is truly disgusting to eat - probably because they are essentially scavengers. I do have a book with a recipe for party squirrel, though - Ben Law's Woodland Year - I think it is a book you would like (and not just because of the squirrel recipe!).

Have you ever come across beagling? That is another variation on 'hunting', although my friends all tell me they never catch anything when I express sympathy for the hares. Beaglers go in for very good teas, though, so it can be recommended on the cake front.

Pomona x

Terry Scoville said...

How interesting indeed. I think your analogy to the Tour de France was spot on. Looking forward to seeing you on board at the next "hunt".

Poppy Cottage said...

Sounds like a fun day (least we saw the sun in the afternoon for awhile!!

Sara said...

Fascinating. Jen, I'm thinking The New Yorker magazine for some of your blogs. You could be their ex-pat contributor in England. Just a thought.

Paula said...

Re-lease the hounds!! is a call I grew up with, not that we hunted or even had horses. My parents were landowners, though- they had a quarter acre like everybody else in town. Release the hounds was just something that my older sister read somewhere and started saying until we all used it. It's useful at mom's when everyone shows up with their dogs, er, hounds in tow.

Thanks for showing us a hunt!

Jennifer Montero said...

Pomona - Our invite to the Beagling Hunt is there, we just need to find a day we can take up their gracious invite. I know absolutely nothing about beagling except that they follow the scent of hare. Catching hares is not allowed apparently.

I know the one animal that drives my dogs crazy with excitement is a hare. None of them are in with a remote chance of catching one but they can't seem to help themselves.

I will pass on the squirrel recipe, though the underkeeper here eats them. I don't think I've been quite that hungry yet!

Geoffrey Woollard said...

"I've never been foxhunting. But one of the local hunts crosses our land, and I thought it would be fun to go and watch the horses and hounds running over our little piece of England."

That 'sounds' like the fun bit and I wish these people would be satisfied with what is called 'drag hunting,' i.e. getting the hounds to follow a scent. But, they say, 'it's not the same.' Of course it's not the same. I know it and they know it, because there is no 'kill.'

These people are perverts: they derive perverted pleasure from their so-called 'sport.' I hope very much that fox hunting (with 'the kill') and hare coursing stay banned.

Go to -

Jennifer Montero said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
FrauKlug said...

That was a great post, brought back memories of Hunts in Maryland, yes Maryland. Back in the mid 70's I was a groom,and the woman I worked for would take me along on hunt day. I loved the pic of the dogs rushing towards you, and the veiw from behind. It is thrilling when they come rushing by, after that it's binoculars and something hot in a cup to drink while you watch them from afar.
I love your blog , it's wonderful!

Jennifer Montero said...

Thanks for your comments FrauKlug, glad you're enjoying the blog. I knew that we have a few fox hunts in the US but I'd only heard of the ones in Virginia. It's interesting to hear of others too. I'm glad it brought back good memories.

It was exciting having the hounds come rushing past and to see them so happy doing their 'job'! Working dogs are always happiest when they're working aren't they?

Jennifer Montero said...

Geoffrey - I probably didn't make it clear enough. Although it's still called fox hunting, they were only following a scent trail they laid down themselves. No live game was involved. Beagling is definitely not hare coursing. Coursing is illegal.

Even though I'm involved in country life, I had mixed feelings about hunting foxes with dogs when it was legal; that's why I had never gone. I don't think I would call them perverts but you are certainly entitled to your opinion. That's why I published your comment. It's only fair to hear both sides.

Tamar said...

While I can't get behind terrorizing an inedible animal just for the sport of it, I can't help but think all those hunters must feel a little silly following a laid-down scent. Perhaps they should take the fox out of the equation altogether, and train the dogs to pursue Chanel #5.

Mandella said...

But Tamar, then no self-respecting female member of the British Upper Classes would be safe from the attention of the hounds either. Conjures up quite a nice picture actually.

Although I never rode to hounds, I confess to attending a couple of hunt balls in the 1980s. They were extremely decadent affairs, or seemed so at the time.

Anonymous said...

My husband's aunt raises foxhunters (the horses) in Maryland. We often watch the hunts (that makes us followers) but we do it from a car, driving about the countryside, trying to figure out where they'll pop out next. But there they actually chase live foxes (never killing them) and they use beagles (which are always called hounds).

Our aunt has foxes on her farm as well (wild ones) and says the average fox family has a member chased about once or less a hunting season. They don't want to wear them out and so move the hunt from farm to farm each time.