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.

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.

Sir Pheasant Struts His Stuff

Last weekened, for the first time in my life, I met a combine harvester. Or rather, I met one of the wheels. And one of the wheels was enough; it’s almost as tall as I am (and I’m not short) and probably similar in size to my whole car [i]. The machine itself, even without the wheels, was probably bigger than the house currently I live in.

The farm I visited was entirely alien to me, but the strangest thing about it was the noise it made in the evening. When you stand in the middle of the fields (and there’s quite a lot of land there, especially for a girl who measures floor space in square feet), you can hear nothing. Actually nothing. I like peace and quiet, but peace and quiet to me comes with the background noise of living under the Heathrow flight path (when I was small) and mere metres away from the M40 (now, when I’m not so small). Vehicles of one form or another tick away quietly in the background of my life, ever present and for the most part, unnoticed (though listening for concord at 11am when I was at primary school was a definite exception – everything stopped when concord flew over; it was far too noisy to think, especially when you’re thinking complicated four-year-old thoughts). So for me, Countryside Quiet is quiet on a whole other level. It truly does ‘echo with the sound of silence’.

Everyone knows the sound of your ears ringing when you subject the poor things to a lot of loud noise for a continuous length of time, whether it’s a concert, festival or screaming child. But stood in the middle of a field, with zero background noise, no matter how hard I strained to hear, my ears were ringing with the lack of noise. It was like they couldn’t cope without sound, and so generated it themselves.

If black is in fact the absence of colour or light, then silence is the black of the auditory realm. Quiet you can hear, but this was the complete and utter absence of anything – and I can’t stress that enough. Very occasionally you could head a distant moo of cattle or squark of a pheasant, but that only heightens the lack of sound the rest of the time. Nothing happening, the world just Is. It lifts everything from your shoulders, the world is put on pause… it’s wonderful.

Another thing I liked about being on the farm was seeing the animals. Not just the farm animals, but the wildlife. I’ve developed a familiarity with game – I’ve had to, as it’s emblazoned on everything in the shop where I work, from jumpers and cufflinks to crockery and boxer shorts. Partridges on side plates and bowls, woodcock on mugs, pins and brooches of roe deer and snipe, pheasants embroidered onto jumpers and grouse woven into silk ties. I’ve been presented with a brace of pheasants, a few rabbits, pigeon and even haunches of venison as gifts, and I even have a tiny silver grouse hanging off my charm bracelet as a gift from my mother. But I’ve not yet actually spent any length of time around the live birds. Seeing them around the farm provided not only a novelty, but immense amusement.

They really are funny little things. The plumage on a cock pheasant is stunning, and stationary it looks almost elegant with long slim tail feathers, a proud face and the spectacular shimmering mallard-green and holly-red head, subtly speckled and smoky feathers on the body. But then they start to move, and the show begins. Strutting around with his chest puffed up, the cock pheasant assumes a comically arrogant persona: a rich portly gentleman of class, red face from years of overindulgence and cigars simply because he can; one thumb hooked into the pocket of a silk waistcoat, gold buttons straining, as he consults his shiny pocket watch pretentiously, rising onto his tip toes in that sort of way as he proclaims something supposedly insightful, concluded with ‘… don’t you know old boy’. Tail thrust out proudly behind him, our Mr Pheasant –sorry, Sir Pheasant, swaggers about as if he owns the land and terribly kindly lets the poor farmer work it. And yet, for all his apparent pride, if you walk or better yet drive towards him, the two scrawny little legs that support his rotund body start spinning round in circles like a Loony Toons character. Both scared and hilariously indignant, huffing and puffing he scuttles away.

Partridges are simply a smaller, rounder version of the same. Quiet and peaceful on the surface, not quite so proudly plump in the chest but they are just as funny to watch. Given that despite their wings, they’re not the most proficient fliers, partridges and pheasants both really do have tiny little spindly legs, with movement limited to just two options: the overinflated strut and comical scuttle of resentful desperation.

In the fields at dusk we watched the Mad March Hares playing (before returning home for tea with Alice and the dormouse no doubt). Bounding through the sprouting wheat and barley, pausing occasionally to box each other before carrying on their whimsical game of tag. Roe deer spotted in the distance, only as tall as the hedges around them, slim elegant legs and necks, they walk sedately though the fields. Admittedly at this point I only saw the farm, I didn’t do any work or get involved in any way. But watching the wildlife at dusk you see how nature endures calmly and happily, barely disturbing the silence and flattered by the twilight, providing gentle entertainment, amusement and wonderment. I’m sure Mother Nature will reveal her nasty side to me soon enough – and eyes peeled because I’ll write about it when she does – but for now, I’m smitten.

I know some of my friends would ask how I could reconcile this attitude towards nature and wildlife when I am in favour of shooting. On a farm like that one, small shoots are held during the season, and Sir Pheasant, who I’ve been writing about with such affection, becomes a target. While I’m desperate to go, I’ve not yet actually been game shooting (one day… one day) but despite my lack of experience and my appreciation of nature, I will still defend it. The shooting industry  is actually responsible for an awful lot of conservation of the wildlife and habitats involved in shooting (see BASC for more info). Birds are bred specifically for the sport, and are looked after from birth – after all, a weak bird that can’t fly a good distance, for any length of time or with any speed makes for a very poor target. Anyone who takes issue with game shooting should consider the source of the meat they eat from their local supermarket – I for one would far rather eat a bird that’s lived its life outdoors and been shot mid-air than a battery farmed hen. It is very possible to appreciate the elegance and comedy of the puffed up pheasant strutting his stuff on the farm, the challenge he provides as an airborne target, and the flavour of the pheasant breast wrapped in streaky bacon on your plate at dinner.


[i] The overgrown toboggan that is my little blue Peugeot 107.

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).