When I was much younger, my Dad was a keen horseman.
He owned a big grey horse which he kept at a nearby stables and he rode it most weekends.
He would also occasionally disappear off on riding holidays overseas to places like Portugal and South America for “some serious riding”.
Occasionally I would accompany him on a ride which, having not quite mastered the art of ‘rising to the trot’ tended to be a rather painful experience for me, but I think he rather enjoyed the father/eldest son bonding nature of the activity, so I went along with it.
My other equine memory of him was his association with the local Berkshire Hunt.
I don’t recall him being an actual member of the Hunt, but he did sometimes play a minor part in the proceedings, I dare say far removed from any possible action.
(I’d imagine it was a little bit like the position occupied by, say the guy in the panda costume in the London marathon)
I know that actual fox hunting has been banned in the UK for a while now and the topic itself stirs up a whole hornet’s nest of emotions, depending on whether you are a member of a Hunt or the Animal Cruelty League. Or a fox, I guess.
However, I do recall the excitement that my father experienced when taking part all those years ago – the anticipation, the costumes, the hierarchies, the rituals, the camaraderie, the thrill of the ride, the beauty of the countryside and the sheer spectacle of it all.
Apart from reading the odd article in the UK news media, I have not really given too much thought to fox hunting for many years – somehow it wasn’t too high profile in inner Sydney.
But that all changed on Boxing Day this year when I discovered Lewes is the start point for the Southdown and Eridge hunt
Locals told us it was a sight worth seeing as the Hunt gathers in the high street before galloping off into the countryside in pursuit of a ‘faux fox’ – the real beast now replaced by a trail laid in advance by a runner or rider, dragging a lure.
We arrived on a crisp winter’s morning to find the high street already 3 or 4 deep with spectators gathering to witness the event.
Before long, a distant clip clop of hooves became louder as the horses trotted up the hill, led by the hunt leaders in their red and black finery, followed by a variety of other costumes – it appeared to me as if black jackets denoted the Hunt lieutenants , whilst the foot soldiers wore tweed.
In total, I counted about 80 horses along with a pack of hounds to lead the chase. The riders seemed to represent a broad cross section of ages and degrees of plumminess, suggesting that the Hunt is a fairly egalitarian event around these parts.
(This rather subjective observation would also seem to negate one of the key arguments of the pseudo-intellectual, anti-hunt brigade who like to rally against its perceived elitism)
Having gathered, rather incongruously outside the newsagents, there was a brisk blast on the hunting bugle and the fun began as first the hounds, then the hunt leaders and then all the other participants broke into a trot as they surged through the traffic lights in a tidal wave of horse flesh, heading out of town and onwards into the countryside.
The crowd applauded them loudly, leaving me in no doubt that this was a pro-hunt gathering, pleased to witness an impressive sight in the high street and also happy to see so many fellow townspeople clearly getting huge enjoyment from their Boxing Day activity.
I have no idea where the Hunt rode to next and whether they achieved whatever they set out to achieve on the day, but I dare say a lot of fun was had by all.
And I know my Dad would have loved it.