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.

A Shotgun Salad

And so the cakes that starred in my last post were carefully placed into my beloved Garden Trading cake tins and accompanied me around the M25 and up the M40 to the E J Churchill’s Mini-Game Fair, where they became well acquainted with some members of the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club and a few others to boot.

The mini fair was great – and incredibly was pulled together with little more than two weeks’ notice, when we all heard the tragic news of the CLA’s cancellation of the Game Fair proper. I was introduced to Rob Fenwick, the MD of E J Churchill, of whom I’d heard previously. Rather more excitingly (no offence to Mr Fenwick) I got to see the infamous Mickey Rouse, the former world sporting champion, trick shooting – but more on that later. We wandered up the track to the clubhouse, to be handed a slurp of The King’s Ginger Liqueur on our way into the showroom – delicious, sweet and strong with a powerful kick of ginger.[i] We paused here and there to peruse a few stalls on our way up, and after having a typically country chat with Scott in the shop about wellies and tweed and that sort of thing, we made our way into the tents to examine the main array stalls. I had another twang of that feeling of ‘belonging’ when one of them men on the Hunter stand waved at me as if he knew me. On closer inspection, he turned out to be Gary, the Hunter rep from William Powell with whom I’d dealt in the past (incidentally, their new catalogue is out soon and new website is in production – very excited!) Knowing someone (and luckily for me, a friendly someone forthcoming enough to wave) my genuine-country friends didn’t made me feel very self-satisfied, not to mention a little bit relieved that he thought I was nice enough to be worth waving to. My subconscious stood there smugly, her tweed flat cap fitted firmly on her head and one hand on her hip saying,

– “See? I do belong here!”

The array of leathery feathery tweedy and altogether undeniably Country goods on offer was wonderful, from candlesticks made out of antlers (they’ve joined the pistachio green mixer on my mental somewhereovertherainbow-maybeoneday wishlist) to tweedy iPhone covers and snuggly coats for your hipflask. Beautiful photos on card and canvas, gorgeous cashmere knitwear well out of my price range, and delicious fruit gin from the wonderfully friendly Nick at Foxdenton Estate, from whom I purchased two bottles of wickedly delectable gin – one raspberry, one damson (and you can really taste the plums!) More cakes in the offing I have no doubt! The prize for the S&CBC Open Shoot on 18th August was proudly on display – a stuffed fox standing on his hind legs, with a just-as-stuffed pheasant under one armleg and gun over the other. My not-quite-determined views on taxidermy aside, this prompted some cheeky giggling with the S&CBC girls as my friend said he that was determined to come along, win the fox, then place it in the road to confuse some unsuspecting driver, later to be stood at the side of the road saying “Hello? Police? I’ve just hit a fox and it was carrying a gun!” Probably not as funny as at it seemed the time, but sufficient giggles ensued to entertain us. Any way, Mr Fox stood proudly on the stand next to the CBC girls: Bettina with her beautiful bracelets (also on my Wishlist, though promoted from ‘somewhereoverhterainbow’ to ‘next pay day’), Kay with her lovely cards, and Lili of Forbes and Maude displaying her tweeds. Possibly unfortunately we were attending the fair on the Friday, which was very much the quieter of the two days from what I’ve heard. However, we had fun wandering around, and and I enjoyed the challenge of trying to eat a cheeseburger complete with onions and ketchup without getting any on my white jeans. My view on white jeans is you should only wear them if you’re prepared for them to get mucky – if you’re going to be precious about it, wear blue ones or something else altogether! However, bright red grease stains wasn’t quite what I had in mind when I thought that as I put them on earlier in the day, so I battled with my burger and came out on top, my trousers surviving the ordeal and thankfully appearing on the other side of lunch ketchup-free. A perfect canvas for the various shades of proper country muckiness they would no doubt accrue throughout the day.

As well as those S&CBC girls who had stalls at the fair, we ran into a couple of other key actors in the Chelsea Bun Show on Twitter: Jane Macnab, a trickster with a stage name that lulls you into a false sense of security, believing its her real name, until she shatters the illusion by saying ‘Hi, I’m Lucy!’; and Urban Gundog, with bosses in tow. Mrs Macnab had brought along her faithful CBH (Chelsea Bun Husband), Dr Macnab, and Urban had brought along Deputy Boss (another CBH) to accompany him and The Boss. The Macnabs had even brought along Little Miss Macnab, of whom I am very jealous due to the fact that she was treated to both an ice cream and a lovely tweed dress. But to make up for the lack of a tweed dress, Urban[ii] honoured me by christening my white jeans with the proper sort of muck white jeans should pick up. He graciously bestowed upon me the most perfect paw print that I have ever seen – and that’s after years of trying to ink my dog’s paw to get him to ‘sign’ birthday cards, unerringly ending up with a coloured smear in the card and numerous matching smudgy patches on the surrounding floor. I have never seen one so accurate and un-smudged, and was so chuffed that I even took a photo – though for the Boss’ sake I won’t post it, as she didn’t seem as excited about it as I was. But Urban (we’ll stick to stage names here), I thank you!

Stalls done and two bottles of gin the richer, we headed over to watch Mickey Rouse trick shooting. And it was wonderful – both impressive and hilarious. Renowned as an absolutely fantastic clay shooter, we watched in awe as he shot balloons that appeared to be floating way out of range, and in the order of preference we the crowd shouted out to him as the targets drifted further and further up into the sky. He shot clay after clay, all from the hip. He lined up volunteers and had them throw eggs in the air – and then, you guessed it, he shot them. Using a pump action gun meant he had to physically reload between eggs, a feat not to be sniffed at. He carried on by chipping golf balls higher with his shotgun than I’d probably manage with a club and a set of lessons. Using a 10-shot self-loading gun, he fired a shot, then shot the spent cartridge as it was ejected and continued the series until he’d run out of ammo. Last but not least, he more or less prepared a salad with his shotgun. He balanced a tomato on the end of his barrels, flicked it up into the air and shot it barely a metre away from the end of his gun. He then threw up a melon, which was blasted into pieces, and finally and most spectacularly did the same thing with a couple of cabbages. As you can see, it turns out cabbage explode rather marvellously when shot with a  12gauge shotgun:

Cabbages done, and we return to the cakes. I said previously that the verdict on the cakes would come later, and so here it is:

The lavender cakes I was a little disappointed at – the icing was nice, but wasn’t as floral as I would have liked – more experiments needed to make that one work. However, the Chelsea Bun girls seemed to enjoy their cakes, and I was delighted to hear that Kay thought she could taste the lavender – so maybe my taste buds were marred by the intense scent of lavender in our kitchen from the preparation. The delicious blueberries were altogether too scarce – more needed next time!

My mother was very happy with the carrot cakes, as was I. I would even go so far to say that it was one of the best cakes I’ve made in a long, long time and is definitely one I will be trying again in the not-too-distant future (and if you’re lucky, I’ll put my recipe up when I find the time!) But the biggest endorsement for me was when I gave Mickey a carrot cake. He of cabbage-shooting glory turned out to be an acquaintance of one of my friends, and joined us for a cup of tea. After accepting the offer of a cupcake, declared with a mouth full of carroty sponge,

– ‘That’s seriously good cake.’


[i] I’ve been wondering what that would be like in a ginger cake… Or perhaps in the icing… We shall see.

[ii] It turns out this is also a stage name; his real name is Monty. I shall have to keep an eye out for all sorts of espionage at the Chelsea Bun Club it seems.

Curiouser and curiouser

To start, an apology and an explanation…

Those of you who have read this blog before may have noticed a distinct diminishment in the number of posts recently. For this, I am sorry. I mentioned before that I was diagnosed with carpal tunnel. Well, since then the symptoms of numbness, aching and random stabbing pain have spread to both hands, arms, feet, legs, lower back and more. Honestly, you’d think my body had something against me! I’m not dying or anything (had the blood tests to prove it), but I am baffling the doctors so far! That achievement aside, I’m happy to say that life is now on the up: I’m done with the resting (it makes no difference) and am on some lovely new pain relief drugs which should kick in fully soon. I’ve  got a lovely job that is willing to be flexible around my hospital appointments, drug-induced dizzy spells and discomfort, and I  have upgraded to a shiny new iPhone that I love love love love love, not least because the lack of having to press buttons makes it so much easier/less painful to type on! The above should hopefully explain my apparently paltry efforts when it come to new blog posts in the recent past, and it has all led to a moment of inspiration for a new blog post.

Now aided and abetted by my beloved iPhone I have as I explained before reignited my involvement with Twitter – my Twitter account was created years ago, but only reactivated when my work and my mum both created accounts and demanded faithful followers. My old account was resurrected, given a whole new look (@TheFirstFrost of course, complete with lovely sloe berries as a background) and suddenly I had a whole new life online. Ladies from the aforementioned Shotgun & Chelsea Bun Club are rife on Twitter, and between them can easily absorb hours of my life with talk of cakes, discussions about guns, shooting and associated accessories, lovely photos, beautiful sketches and enough tweedy goods to tempt me and my far-too-empty purse, before I notice and drag myself away from the screen. The acquiring of Twitter followers is a whole new experience – at first it almost feels like you’ve got fans! After a while you start to realise it doesn’t actually mean quite as much as an adoring fan club with banners saying “I ❤ The First Frost” but it’s still rather exciting when you first reach your first 10, then 20, then 50 and most recently for me, 100 followers. And it was my hundred and one-th (hundred and first?) follower that provoked me into writing this.

And now on to the main event…

Mr 101 commented (very kindly!) that he enjoyed my blog and always liked to see ‘country converts’. I replied saying that, truthfully, I was coming to love the country, but that it was a very strange world indeed. And this, to my surprise, surprised him.

Though I’m well aware I’m not a full-blown member of the secret society that is The Country, I feel I’ve fallen comfortably far down the rabbit hole to be safe from burrowing border terriers looking to drag me out by my heels, and thus close enough to Wonderland to able to pass some judgment.[i] And what I’m seeing is intriguing,appealing, confusing, educational, fascinating and very wet and muddy (I suppose as one might expect a rabbit hole to be.) While I am most definitely on my way to becoming a country convert, I am, as I told the lovely man on Twitter, finding a lot of it rather strange.

First is that the country world is far more old-fashioned in a lot of ways than the cosmopolitan environment I’m used to. It seems in a few ways rather behind in the ways of modern technology. Don’t get me wrong; the tractors and other farming machinery I’m sure are built with the newest of new technologies, but for the first time in perhaps as long as ten years, I’ve met fully grown adults who don’t have email addresses. This is astounding to me, a girl who could reasonably comfortable type before I could reasonably comfortable write. I’ve used computers since I was three years old, and have had at least one email address and generally two or more at all times since the age of ten or eleven.  It seems alien to me that anyone could function without regular access to the internet and email communication. Similarly, some of the country businesses, organisations and companies I’ve come into contact with in this new world have websites as advanced and complex as the ones we built for our GCSE IT. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to live a life devoid of email or so un-reliant on the Internet, but it is in my mind peculiar.

Technology aside, the country seems slightly old-fashioned in other ways. I’ve met people of my own generation (early 20s) who admit to having only ever met one or two people of African or Afro-American origin, including  someone who said he once proffered an introduction along the lines of ‘I’m sorry if I’m weird around you, I’ve just never met anyone black before’. I grew up oblivious to skin colour. You might not believe me, but I really did. Accents I noticed, but the colour of someone’s skin meant absolutely nothing – my school was a rainbow of skin colours, and none of them had the slightest of impacts on our opinions of each other – your performance in inter-house challenges was far more important! My mum will back me up with an anecdote about some friends and me sat in the back of our car discussing how a girl we knew looked like Sandra Bullock. My mum sat in the driving seat somewhere between astounded and amused, as the lookalike in question was from an Indian family and thus had completely different colour skin to Sandra Bullock. But that was irrelevant – she really did look like Sandra Bullock! Let me be clear: I’m definitely NOT saying that everyone in the country is racist. Far from it. This is probably more of a comment on those people not-in-the-capital-city. But the slight, unintended racism of a few of the people I’ve met in the last year or two is incredibly strange and slightly shocking to me. I thought that sort of stuff had mostly died out, at least among ‘people like me’. Shows how closeted I’ve been in my capital-city life.

Similarly, I’ve personally encountered more sexism since discovering this world than I ever had before – for instance, gentlemen assuming I would know nothing about guns (problem here is, they’re right) or ammunition (I know a little more about cartridges I’m proud to say) and automatically turning to a male colleague to ask advice. Or more simply male customers looking unsettled in receiving ammunition advice from someone who dared have both a matching pair of X chromosomes and an interest in guns. Surely not! I’ve met women who volunteer to help on a shoot only to restrict themselves to helping with tea, coffee and refreshments. Now, I’ve made my love of tea and cake abundantly clear, and if you’ve read my blog and not realised that perhaps I need to work on my writing. But simply because a woman enjoys baking, does that mean she should be limited to the kitchen? Why not bake and help with the shooting side of things? Or god forbid, shoot yourself?! This is definitely NOT a problem affecting all country folk – if you possess said pair of X-chromosomes and find yourself sat at your computer agreeing or shouting “YEAH!” then I highly suggest you find your next S&CBC meet and come along. Join us in our ambition to prove to all menfolk that we enjoy baking and take pleasure from our beautiful kitchen aid mixers (wishful sigh) while simultaneously enjoying shooting and taking pleasure from our beautiful shotguns.[ii] Call it multitasking. If you like the sound of that, come along and you’ll meet plenty of like-minded women I promise! Anyway, I digress. Until I left university I was coming to the conclusion that from my own (admittedly limited) experience, sexism was far less prolific than some of my more feminist minded friends made out, and as long as I stood my ground I’d be okay. But if it’s still in existence in country life, evident to me in under a year, then who’s to say they’re not right that it is prolific in other worlds too. I’m growing to really like the country, and love the history and tradition – seeing no point in change for change’s sake, and valuing hugely a lot of things lovely and old-fashioned – but some things have changed for a reason, and these isms are one of them.

The second odd thing I wish to comment on, and that I can ramble on about for some time if given the space (but I’ll try not to), is the acceptance of the roles of nature and death. I’ve talked about it before, but Country Death is not a horror that lurks in the corner in a black cloak with a scythe just waiting, revelling in the general fear and loathing that people hold towards him until the time comes for him to hack your head off or whisk you away into The Beyond. Death is accepted. The animals shot for sport are respected while living, treated well, looked after and protected while still left to roam free. And yet their deaths, and the achievement of killing them, are celebrated and glorified with photographs of dead birds laid one atop the other, or a shooter photographed and so preserved for all eternity, posing behind the dead of a just-shot dead, one hand on each antler holding it up. Animals are frequently killed on a regular basis – a farming friend casually mentioned that he was going out ‘blasting bunnies’ later on, as they were causing problems in his crops. I won’t mention the hunts-on-horseback at this point, but foxes are still shot regularly as pests, and photos will often be taken of the carcases as the norm, even just friends snapping pics on iPhones. Taxidermy – a practice which I had thought antiquated and old-fashioned – is very much still alive, with stuffed birds dotted around country shops and living rooms, the heads of decapitated buffalo, stag, antelope and countless other animals mounted on wooden plaques and displayed in shops, shoot lodges and hallways. From a city perspective, this means that someone has taken it upon themselves to track down a living, breathing animal, end its life, carefully gut and empty the animal of all its bones, muscles, arteries and other live-preserving matter to leave only the outer skin, fur, feathers, eyes, feet horns and so on. They then stuff the dead animal (and use other much more complicated techniques) to ensure its preservation, and proceed to display this emblem of a life ended too soon as a pretty ornament. City girl says: what’s wrong with a painting or sculture?

I think I’m starting to be able to rationalise it, and even possibly understand it (and I’ll save that ramble for another day) but the problem is that however rationally I explain it in my head, the fact is that I’m still pretty squeamish when it comes to dead stuff. Or dying stuff. Once it’s dead in my kitchen, it’s not a problem; it’s not an animal that recently died; it’s meat, even if it is still fully clothed in fur or feathers. I’m just not phased by dead animals when they are obviously there to be eaten. But that act of killing them still turns my stomach slightly, the idea of a stately stag in the wild standing proud one minute, and lying dead the next with a bullet through its neck (or head or heart or wherever else they’re shot), blood spilled on the grass and then dragged back home. Then again, once it’s strung up to be skinned and gutted, I have no problem – it ceases to be a deer and becomes venison. But still the middle bit, the transition from dead to alive, the idea of people and children in particular being so close to that moment, and the successful hunter taking quite so much pleasure in it… much as I possibly shouldn’t admit this to some country-friends, my head may have manage to get around it, but my heart and stomach still haven’t. I’ll admit, I’m far happier with the idea of shooting birds than I am deer and stags, so I may simply be suffering from a case of Bambi-it is. Nonetheless, it took some serious thinking to find the idea of what I first saw as ruthlessly shooting a bird down mid-flight not unpalatable, and I still find the ‘country-folks’’ complete, nonchalant acceptance of it all rather peculiar.

The last thing I’ll comment on today that I find strange looking down the rabbit hole is the amount of money people spend on clothes and footwear. I come from a world where you buy your day-to-day things cheaply, be it H&M to M&S, but the extravagant purchases are a beautiful pair of heels, or a dress for a special occasion, both of which you may wear only once a year – if that! And I know someone who buys the absolute cheapest wellies he can, once a year for a festival, leaves them at the festival and buys another next year. But suddenly I fall into the Country, and meet countless people who own £300 wellingtons (leather-lined, of course). But it does make sense – a lot of people will spend days, even weeks on end in their wellies, wearing them all day long, day in day out. They need to keep their feet dry, comfortable and warm. Similarly, a £500 coat isn’t a designer item, it’s a heavy-duty, waterproofed affair – tweed of course, if you’re of a traditional persuasion and going on a game shoot – but still Goretex lined with these storm cuffs, that drip stopper thingy and those draining holes (in the pockets of course, to keep your cartridges dry!), and countless other sensible touches, instead of the frills and fripperies of the city. This makes so much sense – I’ve even started adopting it in my every day life, spending less on dresses and heels for occasions and more on my day-to-day shoes and clothes – and you know what, it works! My clothes wash better, last longer, and are quite simply fit for purpose – so much more worth the money I spent on them than a £200 dress I might wear once or twice. Though I’m still not in the market for £300 wellies – I just don’t wear mine enough. Amazing, wonderful, sensible, logical, and most definitely to a girl who grew up in the city, just a little strange.

Strange isn’t bad, it’s strange. The Country is my wonderland, and assuming I stay safe from decapitation-hungry monarchs that torture hedgehogs with flamingos, I’m eager to see more of it. I promise that as I keep falling down the rabbit hole, I’ll let you know what else I see. In turn, if you farming folk would be so kind, should you find yourselves out ‘bunny-blasting’ please avoid any flustered looking rabbits with waistcoats and pocket watches.


[i] A country friend recently confirmed this for me, as I, a humble girl from Twickenham, referred to her local country town as “Chippy”. Apparently this means I passed some sort of test, and am well on my way to becoming ‘country’. Though apparently not there yet, as I still own Hunters, and insufficiently muddy ones at that (and love them).

[ii] For the record, I don’t recommend baking with shotguns or shooting with cake batter or even sultanas. Neither will yield very good results.

Shotguns and Chelsea Buns

Last week I encountered a chain of bad luck. One due to my own clumsiness, one actually due to sheer bad luck, and all of which culminated in me bombarding my few Twitter followers with tweet after tweet after tweet last Saturday morning, every single one of them moaning about the traffic jam I was sat in for an hour and a half. There were four key factors that led up to this moment:

  • First, last autumn a girl I was working with wrote an article about her experience on a grouse moor for a new website, ladies-shooting.com.
  • Second, I started this blog.
  • Third, a couple of months ago I was embarrassed by my mother’s proficiency and persuaded by work to rediscover my Twitter account – which I duly linked to the blog, rechristening it @TheFirstFrost – and started ‘tweeting’.
  • Fourthly and finally, due to a diagnosis of bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, I have recently found myself living back in Greater London – temporarily I might add – and thus with a slight lack of anything even vaguely country to write about.

These circumstances all combined to stick me in the worst traffic jam I’ve yet experienced as a driver. I shall explain.

A friend at work encouraged, persuaded and bribed us all to ‘follow’ @William_Powell on Twitter. So that evening, I logged onto my dormant, near extinct Twitter account and did just that. Embarrassed by the fact that my mother was more social-medialy active than I was, and armed with a brand new shiny phone and my brand new shiny blog to talk about and shamelessly promote, I decided to pay attention to my neglected Twitter account. I promptly set about hunting for people to stalk – I mean ‘follow’. Amongst my victims were my colleagues, including the girl mentioned above who wrote the piece about the grouse moor. Sheep that I am, I also set about following people they were following, picking out anyone who seemed familiar, interesting or with an interesting name. Being a lady (or woman at least) who likes shooting, I opted to follow owner of the website she wrote for, @ladies-shooting. Little did I know it would bring me one step closer to that awful traffic jam.

City-bound as I was (and still am for that matter) I’ve had to actively hunt out things to write about, and so I derived my first benefit from Twitter. @ladies-shooting kept tweeting to the world about a clay shoot happening one weekend with the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club. I looked into it, and discovered that it is a ladies-only shooting club, where everything you require is provided, from guns to tuition, good company to cake, and I swiftly signed up.

The day before the shoot saw disaster number one. I set about making a ginger cake to take along, a very simple but very lovely, until-now failsafe recipe, requiring plenty of sticky ingredients – I finished off a tin of golden syrup in the making, which my dog very much enjoyed cleaning out.

However, one foolish and distracting phone call mid-bake meant that I forgot to add the key ingredient of my ginger cake: the ginger. After two minutes in the oven, I remembered, whipped the mostly-uncooked mixture out of the oven, and grated in my stem ginger, stirring it as little as possible before returning it to the oven. Sadly my last-ditch effort to gingify the cake meant that it sank in the middle, quite drastically; the Titanic of cakes if you will. Ever the optimist, I decided that I would cut the cake into squares, ice it, and no one would ever know of my ginger omission and its results. I released the sides of the springy cake tin, inverted it onto a plate, and removed the base of the tin. I then placed a cooling rack on the exposed bottom of the cake, and with one hand on the rack, one on the plate, set to turn it right way up onto the rack to cool. At this point my carpal tunnel kicked in: I dropped the lot. Half the cake slid off the plate onto the floor (much to the dog’s delight) and the rest smashed onto the counter. The cake was, even for the eternal optimist, ruined.

Not to be deterred, I reminded myself that there was nothing about Saturday’s shoot saying that you had to bring a cake, simply that you could if you wished. Next morning, I set off in plenty of time to drive to the Oxfordshire Shooting School to join the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club for the first time, sadly empty handed but armed with my ear defenders. Traffic caused by an accident earlier in the day caused everyone on the M40 to be diverted off at my junction down the A40, the road that I needed to drive down; and so we reach my traffic jam. I sat and crawled along, occasionally lifting my foot from the clutch as I reached the dizzying heights of 8mph, only to be shown a sea of red ahead of me as all cars hit their breaks and we ground yet again to a halt. I spent longer in that traffic jam than the entire journey should have taken. And so I tweeted my little heart out, simply as a means to keep myself amused. I also encountered a traffic sign that I don’t recollect specifically seeing before, and perhaps it was the petrol fumes, but it greatly amused me, surrounded as I was by stationary vehicles:

None of us had much need to be wary of tractors; unless one planned to drive over us all and crush us into real traffic jam (tasty and spreadable, with absolutely no pips!)

Luckily for me, I wasn’t the only one delayed, and when I finally made it to the Shooting School I was just in time to join a group on their first peg, and managed a decent score of 20/30 across all three targets. There was plenty of cake provided by luckier (or simply more organised) members of the group and we stood and sat around, chatting away drinking tea from beautiful china cups with matching saucers. All in all, it was well worth the wait, though I will aim to arrive on time next time.

For any women out there wanted to get involved in shooting, I highly recommend the club as an in. I knew no one at all when I arrived, but had a thoroughly lovely morning. The range of members is wonderful – there are people from a very country background kitted out in Dubarry’s and tweed, and people like me who really really aren’t. There’s also a fantastic variety of ability – you would not be alone as a complete beginner, and the instructors are prepared for that; but there were also a couple of experienced game shots that were both educational and a delight to watch. As I watched one of the women shooting one of the more challenging driven targets off a tower, she seemed to shoot in slow motion; she made it look elegant and easy, and there never was a better reminder that you have so much more time than you think you do from the moment you call for your target to the moment when you pull the trigger.

Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club has achieved something noteworthy (aside from there being tea and cake provided at every get together); they’ve managed to create a group serious about shooting without shying away from the feminine. Everything from the scorecards to the tea sets used at the end was oriented to women. And watching the lady I described above shoot demonstrated that it is possible to be a phenomenal game shot and be ladylike with it; as with all things, it simply takes practice. I very much look forward to the next shoot, on the 2nd June in Barbury near Swindon, and hopefully I can arrive with baked-offerings next time – if I can manage to bake a cake without dropping it or forgetting any ingredients.

Eau de Dairy Farm

Last week I went on a mini-tour of the shooting grounds of the Home Counties: E.J.Churchills, West London, Royal Berkshire and finally Holland and Holland. About the individual grounds I shall have to write another time, because, as all those who follow my Twitter account with know, I recently promised a friend I would write about cows. This came about after a comment I made in the office, about some cows I’d seen at the end of my shooting-ground tour. I told him I’d visited a dairy farm, and met a horse. He asked me whether it was a big black and white horse with udders. And I explained that the dairy farm I’d visited had also had a livery (stressing this word somewhat proudly, as it seemed a genuinely country-sort-of-word that might help secure that notion of ‘fitting in’ I’d had at the charity shoot). He went on to ask me more about the farm, and in particular what type of cows were bred.

–       Brown ones.

The ensuing laughter suggested that apparently this isn’t an accurate description of a breed of cow, and also ruined any notion I might have had that I was becoming country’.

It turns out that the cows in question were in fact pedigree limousin, but I have to say that the name means nothing to me. They were big, creamy brown cows, the colour of a not-too-weak white tea. I was shown some of the new calves, only around a week old, and it was fascinating to see that, while I had no idea of the specifics of what makes ‘a good calf’, I could clearly tell the difference between a ‘good’ calf and a ‘weak’ one when the two calves were pointed out to me. The good calf had a much more symmetrical face and body, a broader, flatter back, wider, more muscular rear (rump?) and looked healthier; if it had been a child, my mother would have described it as ‘bright eyed and bushy tailed’.

That same weekend (the same weekend in fact as the boxing match of the Mad March Hares,) I was also shown some bulls, on a different, livestock farm (that’s a meat farm to me) where beef is farmed for Waitrose and other supermarkets. And the biggest difference between the two farms, far more noticeable than the set up, machinery or even the cows themselves, was the smell. It turns out being in the countryside elicits far deeper sensory experiences than those found in the city. Either that, or I’m just used to the sights, sounds and smells of Greater London.

I’d already been lead to believe that dairy farms had a distinct smell. A couple came into my showroom a few months ago, the parents of an ex-colleague and, more importantly for the purposes of this anecdote, the owners of a dairy farm. Just after they left, another colleague (the nephew of a dairy farmer who accompanied me to the Halloween hunt ball mentioned previously) walked into the showroom and asked whether they were the parents of the woman with whom we both used to work. When I said yes, he said,

–       Ahh, I thought I smelled dairy farmer.

At the time, I thought he was joking; whoever heard of a person being able to smell someone’s profession, and this after they had left the room. He attempted to convince me of his sincerity, but I have to say that until I stepped out of the car onto the dairy farm the other week, I still doubted him.

But it’s true. The livestock farm, with exclusively male cattle, smelled vaguely farmy, for want of a better word. The warm, pungent, almost fruity smell of manure, mixed with fresh air and general agricultural dustiness. But the dairy farm smelled very different. It was sweaty, tangy, sour, not unlike milk past its best. Difficult to describe, I have to say it was not a pleasant smell, but definitely distinctive, and I began to understand what he meant now about being able to recognise smell of a dairy farm. Once that scent gets into your hair and clothes, I imagine it’s virtually impossible to remove.

The second thing I remember most vividly about the dairy farm was the farmer’s manner with the cows. None of them had names – no Daisy, no Buttercup, and no Ermintrude to be seen. I assumed that a farmer, who sees hundreds if not thousands of cows, generation after generation, pass through his farm, would be ambivalent towards the cattle, see them purely as a means to an end – the end in this case being the milk and profit accrued from it. But far from it. He leaned over the fences and pointed out beast after beast, telling us when how old they were almost to the day (the calves) or how many calves they’d had and when (the cows). As we chatted, cows wandered over to the railings and stuck their heads over the fence to be petted, as my dog does when I walk into the room at home. And just as I would with my dog, he scratched behind their ears and above the brow ridge, and they stood calmly enjoying the attention. I liked the fact that the farmer really did care for his animals, and while not silly about them – they are after all there to produce milk and thus an income – it doesn’t stop him being affectionate and concerned. Any milk that comes from that farm definitely comes from happy cows, and that I like.

Despite my naivety about the breed of cows I have to end this post by pointing out that even working on a dairy farm doesn’t teach you everything about them. Months ago, I was at a pub quiz with my colleagues, gin and tonic in hand, and a question was asked about cows. We all spun round in delight – we had the aforementioned nephew of a dairy farmer on our team after all – as the compare broadcast the question:

–       From where on its body does a cow sweat?

But even he was stumped and could do little more than guess. A lifetime’s experience of cows hadn’t taught him this, and yet, after just a few months just tiptoeing around the edge of country life, I can share with you that a cow apparently sweats predominantly from its nose. You learn something new every day.

Agricultural Genres

With a degree and many photographs of me in a silly hat under my belt I moved, as people do, to an entirely new area. I knew no-one and had no contacts. I promised myself then that I would accept every invitation I got, and invite myself along where possible. The result of this was me tagging along with some colleagues to a friend’s friend’s birthday night out.

The birthday girl in question is what I believe is called an Event Rider (or something of that nature), riding very expensive and very beautiful horses in very competitive events – and being paid for it. We arrived at her house, and as it opened the big wooden gate (a novelty in itself) revealed a variety of buildings looming up in the darkness: a house, a very big shed (this turned out to be the stables), and what looked like a giant’s food mixer set into the ground: a sort of wall or fence (the mixer’s blade) fixed to one side of a central post, making out the radius of the circular wall around it. Three statues of horses stood in the gravel drive. Looking at the buildings and machinery around us as we pulled up, I opened my mouth and declared: “I’ve never been on a farm before”.

This obviously isn’t true.  We’ve had family holidays staying on farms, where we’d chased chickens (when I was little) and bottle feed lambs (when I was a little bit older), and primary school trips had given me great experience of orienteering through mazes made of small hay bales. But as a newly initiated adult, I’ve never been on a farm as a venue for a visit, party, occasion or any event other than visiting a farm.

The truth of the statement turned out to matter not a bit, as the three other occupants of the car burst out laughing. It wasn’t apparently a Farm at all, but a Horse Yard, where some of the aforementioned very expensive very beautiful horses ridden in the events lived, slept, were fed and watered, washed, brushed and sunbathed (there was actually a contraption to give the horse sufficient UV something rays. I’m sure there’s a legitimate explanation for why the horse needed a tanning salon but I can’t for the life of me remember it). To me it still sounds like type of farm – one for horses – but there you go. So with another faux pas and much hilarity enjoyed by my new friends, my country education progressed another step.

Meeting the horse later was a whole other experience in and of itself. The beast was huge. And we’d had a few drinks, making all the bigger. I made sure to stay near the head end of the animal, on the other side of the wall to talk to it through the little window. And I have to admit, though I’ve never cared much for horses, admired and petted from a safe distance, it was a stunningly beautiful, powerful-looking creature, glossy and silky silky smooth to touch – and its legs looked so muscular I felt fully justified in my decision to stay near the head end. But then, for £45,000 I should hope it would be a fit and healthy specimen.

The blasé nature of how the others waltzed into the stable showed me another entirely alien side to country folk. The hostess grabbed a large dustpan and brush quickly mucking out the horse before we set out for the night, despite her cream satin dress and matching heels, her devotion to the horse more important than her outfit (though she somehow managed to stay as clean and cream as she’d gone in) and her devotion to the animal was obvious. I think, one day, I’d like to learn to ride. Something to add to the list.

During the drive home the next day I provided yet more amusement for my friends when I mentioned someone I met at university who farms beef and peas. I explained that he was a meat farmer, thinking before I opened my mouth (for once) that a herd of cattle could be farmed for milk as well as meat – and I was quite proud of this forethought and the resulting distinction. Again, raucous laughter pervaded the car, as one of the boys, the nephew of a dairy farmer, kindly explained to me as one might to a small child the different genres of cattle farming: dairy vs. livestock (and peas are a type of arable farming). As with the yard/farm differentiation, I maintain that farming livestock is the same as farming meat, but as being laughed at every time I speak about it might get a little time consuming, I’ve tried to take it all on board. I started afresh, talking about someone I’d met at university who was a livestock farmer (and who also grew peas).

Feet at Five Past Two

Continued from below.

Eventually, I joined the shooting club. And eventuallier, after many socials and almost as many hangovers, I actually attended a session and got to fire a gun. It HURT. The club was new, and the guidance from other members on how to hold a gun was well-meant but a touch inaccurate – at a cost of nine shots (and sadly far fewer broken clays), I became the owner a rather magnificent Mulberry bruise on my shoulder, with the accompanying agonising ache included completely gratis.

Third year started and long story short a local instructor with more than a little experience in instructing women agreed to coach us for free. The idea of a semi-proper gun fit and proper tuition was wonderful, and I started attending regularly. For the first time, I learned how to mount the gun and how to stand (feet at five past two; 12 o’clock is where you’ll break your target) and I fell swiftly head over heels in love. The combination of intense concentration and natural instinct provides a steady satisfaction and an adrenaline rush all at once – a heady combination if there ever was one. All this is performed with a beautiful, often handcrafted shotgun, with intricate engravings and a gorgeous walnut stock. I love all things mechanical and all things wooden (no double entendre intended). I don’t know how a beautiful, natural, intricately grained, softly rounded and smoothed piece of wood can’t ignite a spark of pleasure in a person.[1] I like knowing how things work and the logical processes behind them, the effects of forces in nature and the workings of science and mathematically-rich mechanics that make things happen – and the gun-and-cartridge combination is a perfect example of it. And in me, all of the above combined to a love of shooting.

Through speaking to the instructor and learning about the shooting world, I came to realise that the Fellowes/Archers lifestyle DOES exist. Real people live and breathe it. The sloe gin and champagne, the cigars and hipflasks, tweed caps and drinks before dinner. Admittedly I also realised that it is tougher and harder than the Aldridges’ 15minutes a day quite conveys. The hours are long. Chickens, horses and dogs, not to mention livestock, require constant care and attention – they don’t care if you’re tired, sick, if it’s Christmas or if you’re in the mood for nothing but a private pity party under your duvet. They need walking, feeding, tending, grooming and general dedicated attention. The solitude of harvest sounds to me both wonderful meditative and soul-destroyingly lonely. You’re at the mercy of the weather for most of your working day, and funnily enough the animals (and crops) don’t care about the weather either – bad weather, hot cold wet or overly dry, simply increases the workload. In fact, farming life in general seems very suited to the mediocre grey English day that I’ve grown to look upon with disdain. But even in gentle England we have some extremes of weather – or extreme enough to cause extra work and discomfort.

But it also seems to promise something more; please forgive me in advance for the slightly purple prose here. It appears to promise a chance to spend much of your time outdoors, in one of the most gently beautiful countries in the world, a landscape full of subtle intricacies and delicate beauty (this particularly appeals right now as I currently work in an office with no windows, and at this time of year often barely see daylight). Fresh air, and hard work that makes you tired – a good, fulfilling sort of tired, a tired from being up and about from 6am, working hard, moving around, not from sitting at a desk all day. And though I’m sure not everyone living the ‘country life’ is lucky enough, it seems from my outsider’s perspective that there’s an abundance of good, proper food and drink. Country pubs serve vastly better food than city pubs. All of it appeals to me, and I sometimes wonder now whether I might even one day be happy as a housewife in that sort of life (something I’ve always very strongly objected to); a busy one with a proper homemade home. Or maybe I could just work from home… Or just enjoy my weekends. However it ends up, my adventure of leaving city life began with the shooting of a gun, an education complete with silly little faux pas and many demonstrations of my sheer naivety to accompany it (and I’m sure more to follow,) and my plan is to document those embarrassing/ funny/ educational moments here.


[1] The love of nice bits of wood is I’m sure is also at least partly genetic; as evidence I’d like to site the living room furniture at my parents’ house. Photographs to follow.

Jam in the blood?

I don’t know whether an interest in making preserves can be found in DNA, but I feel it’s in mine. Making jam was the closest I’d  come to country life before the age of 19. To me, the idea of it used to lie somewhere between a Julian Fellowes novel and The Archers: wonderfully indulgent, hard-working and tiring, traumatic and tranquil, and always, always fictional. Real people lived in cities, worked from 9-5 in an office of some description, and sat in a lot of traffic jams[1]. Jam making was a hobby introduced to me by  my mother, best kept for a lazy Sunday in late Summer when we went picking the blackberries growing around our local playground. Taking them home, we’d boil up one, perhaps two jars of bramble jelly. Sometimes we didn’t even have enough for one jar (on those days, a yummy crumble invariably made an appearance on the evening’s menu). Keeping chickens and sheep and so on was a dream of my mother’s – “wouldn’t it be nice one day…” – along with living in a lighthouse on the coast. Country lanes were something to be driven along on the way to Grandma’s – but even she lived in a cul-de-sac of modern houses (though she does make marmalade; both my grandmothers do in fact – more evidence of the genetic nature of preserve-making). Bramble jelly aside, I was a (Greater) Londoner, through and through – though a suburban one I’ll admit. I didn’t realise how citified I was until approaching university, when I was talking to a friend about getting there:

– Why not get the train?

I wouldn’t know where to get off I said.

– In York!

I know in York, but which station? I said.

– York station.

But which station in York?

The idea of there being just one train station in a city hadn’t even crossed my mind.

I should explain that as we lived in a large, capital city, we rarely visited them as a family while I was growing up – part of the reason for my naivety. My parents were the proud owners of a VW camper and we ventured around the British Isles and west coasts of France and Spain for our summer holidays, or escaped to self-catering cottages to relax around Europe. We stringently and steadfastly avoided hustle and bustle of big cities, bar one trip to Paris, preferring to spend our time as a family (with my poor father every year re-teaching us of the rules of Whist). By the age of 19, the only cities I’d properly visited were London, Paris, San Jose in Costa Rica and Grenada in Nicaragua. Not entirely surprised by the lack of an underground railway or multiple train stations in Central America, my experience of cities had always included more than one railway station, and generally an underground. Paris had an underground; I knew Warsaw had one, and Vienna, so why wouldn’t York have multiple stations or an underground system? Unbelievable I know, but please try to think of my naivety with compassion and charity, and possibly amusement, but not disdain.

Step one of leaving the (outskirts of the) Big City complete, and though bemused by the general lack of public transport – buses stopped at 5pm and you couldn’t catch a train to the surrounding villages – and opening hours – closed on a Sunday? Closed at 5pm?? Why?! – I survived. I’m not claiming here that university was an immersion into country life, because I know it wasn’t. But it was where I started shooting.

Time for another bit of history… my wonderful mother had always had an idea that she might enjoy shooting – a notion brought on by reliably good performances on the shooting ranges at Thorpe Park and other theme parks, sending tin cans scattering, making buzzers ring and lights flash. When she discovered that the local gun club was hidden away down our road she wanted to try, and my brother and I went with her. For a few months, I shot air rifle pellets 10m down a covered alley into paper targets, and I loved it, though sadly not enough to put up with the slightly creepy (though I’m sure well-meaning) portly instructor with no notion of personal space. When Mum stopped going because of work, I stopped too. Years later, having recounted this story repeatedly to my poor boyfriend, who listened to my anecdotes told with the repetitiveness of Friends on Channel 4, he took me on a Day Experience clay pigeon shooting. I think it was a ‘reward’ for my A Level results, but in all honesty I can’t entirely remember. He could just have been being sweet and generous. I loved it, and though I’m sure we were set up with easy targets and our instructor effectively shooting on our behalf while we supported the weight of the guns, I came away with the idea that I was pretty good at it. At university I was confronted with the vast and terrifying pick’n’mix of societies, clubs and committees thrown at every Fresher, and the array included the University of York Clay Pigeon Shooting Society (UYCPSC for not-so-short).

To be continued…


[1] Instead of driving his toy cars around the living room, narrowly escaping fatal collisions with my parents’ ankles, my little brother used to arrange his toy cars into traffic jams, moving them around the car-mat inch by inch. Which tells you something about our area while I was growing up, and explains why I used public transport a lot.