It is exactly true that pride comes before a fall. When jockeys get new silks, they trample on them before they race in them to avoid the nemesis that follows hubris. I took no such precaution. In the last column, I boasted of my new red coat and my new (to me) buckskin breeches. Sure enough, they looked very fine, and attracted admiring comment at the opening meet of the Vale of Tears Hunt (VT). Equally sure, though, was the punishment.
Out on the marsh is a solidly built timber fence, wide enough to tempt several riders to approach it at once. My own dear horse. Sancho (Panza, to give him his full title), had been behaving politely for once, not crowding the bottom of the horse in front, and so I set off towards the jump without the usual need to rein him fiercely in. He sensed this, I think, and started to rush forward. As he did so, the horses heading for the fence began to veer slightly sideways as they sought the best take-off, each edging the one behind him nearer to the side. Sancho found himself at the end of this fan, and uncomfortably close to a blackthorn. If a running stop is the opposite of a standing start, that is what he did. Over I went, whacking my hip on the timber as I passed and embedding all that scarlet and silk and leather and buckskin and dry-clean-only glove in the thornbush.
On these occasions, a knot of concerned citizens gathers round you, which is very kind of them, but forces you to your feet when you would rather lie down and swear for a bit longer. Then the form is that you totter towards your horse, muttering I'm fine, I'm fine', shakily remount, and, in full view of the field, take the fence again. Sancho behaved himself, and I rode on feeling that honour had been satisfied, superstition justified, and entertainment provided. I spent the evening digging thorns out of my flesh with a pin.
But what a good recruiting sergeant for hunting New Labour is. Even prewar memories (we have one mounted subscriber who has been out with us since the mid-1930s) could not recall such a large field. On a normal day. 40 is a big number for us, and for the opening meet we expect 70. This time, though, we had 100, of whom about 30 were under the age of 18. Subscriptions are up and, for the first time in years, the economics of the VT are on a sure footing. People seem to be asking themselves, 'If Parliament spends more time debating a hunting ban than it does legislation on the National Health Service, we want to know what all the fuss is about.' And when they find out, they seem mostly to like it.
A big field does not help good sport, but it is a sight to behold. As we snaked our way down from the inn, past the castle, and Out on to the marsh, we needed only the addition of pennants and lances to resemble some irregular troop of horse, cavalry hastily mustered in an unwanted civil war. The sky was lowering and big across the flat land with the Downs in the distance, but, as I watched, a Jacob's ladder of sun pierced it and lit a lone rider, later than the rest of us and posting it across the fields like some urgent emissary. 'My lady,' I imagined him exclaiming to the Master as he galloped up, 'London is taken at last! Master Tony Banks hath his head on a pikestaff and Master Blair is fled to Brussels!'
I doubt if such fancies were troubling the minds of the terrier men, Muffin and Foxy Dave. They were up at first light stopping the earths and showing the sights to a gang of their counterparts over from Ireland for the day. Their work paid off, for we found almost at once, and had Charlie in full view as he hastened across the young wheat. Somehow he slipped across one of the dykes which divide the marsh, and the field, which dared not follow, had to gallop right round to find a crossing point. Hounds, however, kept up their 'gallant chiding' (Shakespeare), and fell upon him in the reeds.
We ended with tea at a farm on the far side of the marsh. There was Kevin, who has started to whip in at the age of 12, and Lucky, a life-long huntsman who is 71 and proudly showed me the X-ray of all the metal inside him to mend his latest legbreak. The Irishmen loyally said that our terrier men were grand, and added that the field had been pathetic in not jumping
all that water cavalry and infantry trading insults. I'd say the troops were in good heart.