Horses for Courses

Welcome 2013. I’m not a big one for turning my life around on January first. I struggle to turn my car around sometimes  –  six-point turns in bad weather on roads with a serious camber = nightmare  –  so anyone should expect anyone else to turn his or her life around in a single day is beyond me. The logistical struggle aside, I quite like my life and don’t necessarily fancy changing it entirely, even if it is the dawning of a Brand New Year. However, this year I have compromised a little and made my first ever New Year’s Resolution:

– Learn to ride a horse.

 

I have ridden once or twice in my life, but only ever as a tourist. Most recently was in Nicaragwah on my Gap Yah and it was rather entertaining. The girl I was travelling with at the time was a rather more experienced rider than I and knew what she was doing. We had placidly plodded to the end of the beach with our guide when he stopped to adjust his stirrup (the metal loop where you put your feet). My friend decided she was bored of our snail’s pace, expertly turned her horse around and disappeared back down the beach in a mini-sandstorm. Whether it was a gallop or canter I don’t know – I couldn’t estimate the MPH and wouldn’t know the horsey translation even if I could. I was more concerned with the fact that my horse evidently liked her horse, as during the seconds that I sat gawping at the cloud of sand that had been a girl on a horse, my mount decided:

– To hell with it, we’ll go too.

I felt like a driver who didn’t know where the handbrake was, what a gearstick was, which way to turn the steering wheel, or for that matter what this thing is that I’m sat in – only on a horse, you’re sat on it not in it and there is no seatbelt or airbag. Should the horse so decide, I could be catapulted any which way, only secured by my toes so loosely slipped into the little loops of metal and it was therefore still perfectly possible that I could be dragged along the beach by my feet. I remember holding onto the reins for dear life and thanking the heavens that I was galloping through the shallows on sand instead of the tarmacked roads where I’ve seen people riding at home in Bushy Park (where incidentally I daresay the horses are much better behaved. Nicaraguan horses have a thing or two to learn if you ask me).

Luckily, my horse deigned to stop when its fellow did and so I didn’t canter (gallop?) on to the ends of the earth. Scary as it was, I didn’t fall off and there was a proud moment hidden somewhere under the gasping relief.

Since my last post I have moved house  –  and been ill, attempted to learn more about a world of wine that is apparently expanding faster than our universe, been ill some more, cooked Christmas dinner, attended a couple more Chelsea Bun shoots and actually won one of them for shooting and not for cake. It’s been a busy few months. The bit that’s relevant to this post however is the moving house. I now actually live on a Horse Farm. Those of you who have read this blog from the outset will know that the Horse Farm vs. Yard debacle was one of my defining faux-pas in venturing out of the city. There is therefore both a sense of irony and of belonging in my new abode. The house is a 17th century farmhouse in West Sussex, complete with Aga, tack room, wood-burning stove, dogs and plenty of mud. It also comes complete with a small riding school run by my landlady, and the accompanying stables, ponies and horses. Before I’d even agreed to move in I’d been told I must learn to ride and I would be more than welcome to help out with the horses, and so I’ve decided that whatever the Chinese say, 2013 will be the year of the horse.

Please don’t think I’ve forgotten about shooting. My licence application is on the table beside me, complete with countersigned photographs. I have my very own gun cabinet tucked away downstairs, the lack of guns inside it leaving plenty of space for my ambitions to one day own one. And finally I have my first  –  and second  –  game shoots coming up later this month, along with a couple of days’ loading for Sir Pheasant’s farmer. I’m spending a day at Garrowby with Lord and Lady Halifax, and have been promised that I’ll see some of the highest pheasants on offer in the UK. Somewhat sadly, this is in fact the first game shoot I will ever actually see in the flesh. Please don’t misunderstand me; it will be a magnificent introduction to game shooting I’m sure, but I am a little worried that it’ll ruin me for more ‘normal’ shooting. Along with this worry and another about getting sopping wet and freezing my little toes off, one of my big, if slightly odd, concerns is that I won’t actually like it. I’ve got a week booked out in the field and I’m terrified that I’ll get to the end of the first drive on the Monday and decide that it’s just not for me. I’ve only once ever killed anything bigger than a fly, and that was a lobster that made its re-entrance into the world as lobster mousse ravioli with a seafood consommé. Not exactly the same thing. Smashing clay targets I love, but I don’t know how either my conscience or squeamish gut will fare knocking the pretty little birds out of the sky. One thought keeping me going is that just like the lobster, they’re pretty tasty  –  pheasant mousse ravioli anyone?  –  and conscience and gut both agree that I’d rather be a game-shoot pheasant than a chicken whose life ambition is to make it to the top shelf in the supermarket refrigerator cabinet. Remaining true to my philosophy roots, I’ve got my book on The Ethics of Hunting, but there’s only one way to find out for sure and so I’ll plough on (metaphorically this time) and see what the end of January brings.

Back to my equine ambitions. One of my horsier housemates has accepted my resolution, and a couple of the boys are even going to join me in my pursuits. One can ride but wants to learn to hack; the other is a novice like myself. I’m not sure what hacking is, but I know that there are special jackets available for it – a potential reward if I stick to my new year’s resolution?

I will end my first post of 2013 with another faux pas, and a slightly horsey one at that. I may now have an officially country postcode – there are now only a handful of addresses sharing my postcode, as opposed to 36 in London – and I may know how to shoot, own a pair of ‘proper’ waterproof boots, no longer fear The Mud and wear tweed to work; but I am still tripping over plenty a stumbling block on my journey of discovery. Last night I sat in the kitchen with my new housemates, discussing polo (yet more unexplored territory – I’ve been promised a trip to a polo match and someone even tried to explain ‘chukkas’ to me after I asked about ‘half time’ – apparently there is no such thing in polo). One of the boys walked in and a comment was made about his polo shirt. This was the moment when I discovered that much as a rugby shirt is a shirt worn while playing a game of rugby, a polo shirt is a shirt worn while playing a game of polo. It had honestly never occurred to me, but my loud outburst of realisation was enough to fill the kitchen with laughter. I then asked whether in winter people played polo in polo necks. But no, apparently that’s just silly.[i]

The view from my new bedroom window

The view from my new bedroom window


[i] After my discovery that ‘polo’ is in no sense a term used by tailors or seamstresses, as I had previously assumed in a not-ever-thought-about sort of way, I’m sure there must be some link to polo in the term ‘a polo neck’ or else it would be called something else. If anyone is an expert on either the history of the term or the sport or both, I’d love to know more.

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Pies and Prejudice

Fabulous Fortnight Part 3

 And so we come to the end of the life-changing fortnight. Though the life-changing bit had actually already happened, a long-awaited diagnosis and new career, the (hopefully annual) Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club Competition and scrummy BBQ social topped off the fortnight perfectly.

As with every meet of the Bun Club, there would be baked offerings of all sorts from members. After the success of my tiramisu at the Hen Party, I decided to make tiramisu cupcakes. The sponge, idea of how to fill them and the base for the icing were all borrowed from the wonderful Hummingbird Bakery, but the recipe for the actual icing and filling were my own doing. By digging out the middle of each cake, slicing it, soaking it in a sinfully boozy coffee-amaretto mixture and layering with creamy filling and grated dark chocolate, I hoped to create a mini-tiramisu in each pretty cupcake case. I topped them off with an amaretto-mascarpone icing with just a hint of coffee, and with a final a sprinkle of cocoa they were ready for the competition. I gently popped them into cake tins – they had to go into three separate tins; no chance of layering these cakes without smushing the icing.

Before the S&CBC competition, I drove over to Barbury Shooting School in Swindon with my old instructor and shot the 100-bird challenge. I was pretty happy with how I shot I have to say – a one or two sloppy mistakes from lack of practice (and concentration), and towards the end some very frustrating misses as my HNPP-sore hands refused to do what my brain told them to. But I came out with a not-embarrassing score, especially compared to the ladies who had shot before me, so I’m pretty content. More practice required I think. Once I get settled in my new job (insert squeak of excitement here) my plan is to find a local shooting ground and get trigger-pulling.

Shooting a 100-bird competition the day before my Proper Competition with the Chelsea Buns was perhaps not a great move for my chances on the day, fun as it was. I turned up with a stiff back, still-sore hands, sore legs to boot and a slightly tender shoulder; not the best state to start a competition. Again, my kills I did shoot well, with only one really chippy break – I actually thought I’d missed it but spectators and the scorer thankfully disagreed. Some misses were good – as long as I know where I missed it, I can correct it. You actually learn more from a miss than from a break, as long as you’re concentrating. But more frustrating/sloppy mistakes meant I lost any chance I had of winning fairly early on. Nonetheless, I was thrilled to finish the competition by straighting the final stand – always nice to go out on a high.

I volunteered to score for the afternoon’s open shoot, and while juggling clipboard, ear defenders, pen and plate stacked high by the generous BBQ man, I traipsed around the stands again to watch people who actually knew how to shoot – and shoot well – have a go at it. Once we got back to the clubhouse, I was both disappointed and thrilled to find that all sixteen of my tiramisu cupcakes had been eaten. Good news as it meant they obviously liked them, slightly sad that I hadn’t had one – but this was quickly appeased when I remembered that I had hidden four in the car in case of some late-arriving friends. And after stuffing my face with cake, decided that they were really rather tasty even if I do say so myself. Luckily for me, my arrogance was justified when Chief Chelsea Bun Victoria announced that they had won Best Cake. So I am now the proud possessor of a pink rosette for my cupcakes. Hurrah!

Earlier in the week, after finding out I’d got the job, I went out for (of course gin-based) celebrations with a friend. He jokingly commented that the exclusion of men from the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club was quite sexist, that they needed an ‘Emilio Pankhurst‘ to protest on their behalf. Though I know he was joking, it still was a little thought provoking. Another male friend from university, keen on both baking and shooting, has commented before enquiring about whether he could join. And the answer is, in general, no. The social this weekend was an exception, when the menfolk were not only welcomed but even invited to shoot. Nevertheless in general it is an exclusively female club; no Y-chromosomes allowed.

Does this make us sexist? I guess in some ways the answer is yes by definition: men are not allowed to join most shoots, in virtue solely of their being male. But the club is actually helping to redress the balance in the world of what is a predominantly male-dominated sport. Most shooting grounds will find that their client base is much more blue than pink, and guns are designed and shaped for the average male build – otherwise they’d have far higher combs and there would be no need for gadgets such as Jones stock adjusters (a life-saver for any woman with breasts above a B-cup) or comb raisers to let us dainty females keep our heads straight on the stock and thus shoot straight even if blessed with the highest of sky-high cheekbones.

I suspect it initially stems back not to discrimination of women, but to the hunter/gatherer instincts of the human race. Hunting is, as I’ve said before, embedded deep within human nature. It makes sense that we can still find satisfaction in it, even now in our grandesuperskinnyicedfrappemochaccino times. Our base instincts haven’t evolved as quickly as our taste in coffee. Back before the advent of Starbucks and even further back, if there ever was such a time, the male of the species did much of the hunting, while females were bogged down with all the child-bearing malarkey. But now in our modern, post-Starbucks world where women have proven their ability to multi-task, taking care of themselves as well as bearing offspring, why shouldn’t we be given the opportunity to shoot too? The ladies-only Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club goes some way to help redress the balance – not by excluding men, but by giving women a chance to ‘catch up’; to shoot in the company of other women and build their confidence without fear of either embarrassment or being snappily told to stop talking. It gives some inexperienced ladies a chance to learn how to hold a gun properly, and realise that they can actually break targets. And those that can already smash a clay nine times out of ten can simply practise doing so in good, girly company with plenty of tea and cake. The club would never do anything other than encourage a lady gun to go out shooting with male friends and companions in between and even sometimes straight after the ladies-only shoots, nor would it discourage men from shooting (or possibly to start a male-version of the club, for those baking-mad guns out there – The Shotgun and Homemade Pie Club perhaps?) So Emilio Pankhurst can step down, the club is not sexist. From where I’m sat, it exists simply to promote good girly fun, enjoyment of a fabulous sport and of course, practice practice practice.

Proof: a man shooting at the S&CBC Competition, taken by Kay Thompson

The weekend’s competition was a huge success. The ladies-only beginners’ and novice categories gave the girls a chance to experience a proper CPSA competition format without the pressure of shooting amid a crowd of experienced male guns. The afternoon let the Chelsea Bun HABs[i] have a go too, with the open shoot there for anyone to compete in. The BBQ on site provided more than enough tasty burgers, proper sausages and crunchy coleslaw. The bar issued numerous drinks as the clock stuck Pimms O’Clock and a couple of hours later Gin O’Clock, and the clubhouse gave home to the traditional S&CBC tea and cake, complete with tea sets and beautiful cake stands made by Victoria herself.

Having built up an appetite so large that even a BBQ and an award-winning cupcake couldn’t satisfy it, the cherry on the cake that was my fabulous fortnight was dinner at the famous pie pub in Deddington, Oxfordshire. My chicken, ham and leek pie appeared with a cloud of puff pastry rising out above my pie dish like a flaky sky-scraper, hiding a scrumptious filling that went perfectly with my glass of Chardonnay (I need to get to grips with some of this wine stuff now, if I’m going to be working ‘in the industry’) And it was a Proper Pie, with pastry lining the pie dish as well as adorning the top. As if one wasn’t enough, I ordered the apple and cinnamon pie for dessert. It arrived and took my breath away – along with my confidence in finishing it. It was the same size as my main, with the same tower of flaky pastry this time drizzled with maple syrup and dusted with icing sugar. With deliciously creamy vanilla ice cream hidden inside the pastry of all places, it was heavenly. And finished completely – only one step off licking out the dish.

A truly fabulous fortnight, and just in case anyone involved is reading this, I’d like to thank those involved: the Lancastrian Chelsea Bun for her recipe; Dad for enjoying his chips and friands, for making that Kichen-Day a success and for the celebratory bubbles after getting the job (and Mum for celebrating with me); NeuroDoctor for finding an answer to The Mystery Of The Numb Hand/Knee/Leg/Feet; Mr and Mrs Newly Wed and their wedding elves for the most wonderful First Wedding I could have been invited to; my interviewers for agreeing to give me a chance (sucking up even before day one – brownie points??); a certain someone up in York for putting me onto the job in the first place and for recommending me, and her fiancé for helping confirm the address for her thank-you flowers; the Chelsea Buns for enjoying my cakes enough to give me the rosette – my first ‘award’ for baking! – and Chief Chelsea Bun Victoria for organising such a splendid event, and for creating such an incredibly inclusive, friendly, not-at-all-sexist and encouraging club. A joy to be a part of it, not least because of all the cake.


[i] Husbands and Boyfriends