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October 10, 2005

Hunting Life - The 107th annual Somerford Show

Posted by Jorocs

This August I attended the 107th annual Somerford Horse and Produce Show in the neighbouring village. What has kept this show going, through a century of two world wars, two agricultural depressions, foot and mouth, and the various ego trips that usually beset committees? Consistency and tradition. The first thing is the dinner, the show is always held on the third Saturday of August, and the dinner on the third Thursday of November. Consistency you note. The dinner is an all male affair, concluding with several speeches of a very racy nature and an enormous consumption of alcohol.

In one notorious year, pre-breathalyser I might add, a hundred farmers attended, and a hundred whisky bottles were put in the dustbin the next morning. In this infamous year, my neighbour, Fred unwisely insisted on driving himself home. He woke up, sat in his car in a ditch, well past midnight. A passing good Samaritan willingly attached Fred's tow rope to his own car and pulled him out backwards. Fred understandably, hurriedly drove off. The next morning in the local post office purchasing a much needed hangover cure, he met his good Samaritan, who informed Fred that he still had Fred's tow rope, but also the piece of Fred's car to which it had been attached. In his speed to leave the scene Fred had forgotten to decouple.

The other reason for its continued existence is the way in which the long established farming families occupy the same position on the committee, year in, year out, generation after generation.

The show field is a very attractive setting, a large triangular field, which you enter at the narrow end, with a cool clear river running away to the left, and the embankment of the defunct branch railway line. In pre-Dr Beeching days, the local train, fondly labelled the Malmesbury Bunk, would travel out with townspeople and park beside the show field all day giving the passengers a grand stand view to retire and eat their sandwiches. On entering, you first encounter the fair, with the owner, old George, my age, and his son, young George, my children's age. Sadly, very old George has passed away but his widow is, as always, in the wooden hut overseeing the dodgems. With her dark and swarthy looks she sits silent and immobile like some ancient Far Eastern princess in a wooden temple built around her. The only indication of life is the solemn movement as she passes you a token for your car, or when she reaches for the microphone and her voice booms out "one way only".

First port of call in the morning must be the show hunter class, the riders here range from wizened old showmen, through white breeched daddies daughters, to the fat thighed first time owner. At the ringside the super critical ground jury consists of retired horse dealers, enormous female pony club commandants and a sprinkling of elderly hunting gentlemen on sticks. All day long, the murmured running commentary from this group is an education for the casual listener, but would be frightening for the young judge in the ring if he could only hear:

That one looks to be going short on the front.
Funny you should say that, I thought that when I judged him at the Vale show last week, I marked him down on it. Didn't tell the owner but potential long term problem there.
Old so and so still; sits on a horse like a sack of shit, but horses still go well for him.
These old boys will reminisce all day long: how in 1958 lightening demolished a show jump; or the time when the yeomanry had a bare back mounted tug of war.

The winner of the main class turns out to have won at the Dublin Horse Show last week, but nobody minds as it keeps the standards up, and means that winning at Somerford show is prestigious. Imagine beating that. Now it is time for the two-year-old class. There are a good number this year ranging in size and colour from 13.2 to my 17 hands. Yes a two year old 17 hands. All the others have leather bridles with brass buckles, we only have a teryline head collar. But class will always win through. After twenty minutes walking round as a group, and trotting up individually, we are placed 12 out of 12. Come on, number 11 was a black and white gypsy vanner with feathers. Obviously the judge has brought his wrong glasses.

As the day progresses we move to the show jumping ring. Although only a small local show, in its glorious past David Broome and the Biddlecombe family would have competed here. I can remember their seventy-year-old father successfully competing with failing eyesight on a elderly grey, and telling me how he had jumped a set of level crossing gates on this horse in pursuit of hounds:

There and back, and the only ones to do so.
The jovial commentator on the microphone keeps the friendly banter going on all day in a very casual manner without looking up from his notes:
And now we have Franky Thomas on his own, Thomas Town.
His companion asks him to look up as a gorgeous blonde lady rides into the ring.
Oh sod it!
he says forgetting to switch off the mike, but this is the Somerford show.

The final outcome of the show jumping is won by the local blacksmith who attaches shoes to horses by day and himself to the lady owners by night when he's not schooling his horses under street lights. He narrowly beats the up and coming horse dealer who has a far greater selection of horses to choose from, and all day to school them.

The highlight of the day is the parade in the mid afternoon of hounds. Young in push chairs, old in wheel chairs, and reclusive farmers, to whom this is the only day they will spend away from the farms, all to see hounds. All morning, the two Master of Fox Hounds (MFHs) from the two adjacent packs have been on the showground verbally shadowboxing. Neither will commit themselves as to when they are to start hunting for fear the other will declare an earlier start. Oblique questions are posed: How's the harvest going in your part of the country? i.e. is there enough ground cleared to start, or

How well are you up with hound exercise?
Anything which might glean an indication of an impending start. By the time of the hound parade one will have committed, and the other will have gazumped. Hounds are paraded this year by the new huntsman. After several circuits the huntsman and whip dismount and the crowds enter the ring and mix with the hounds. The new man stands smiling receiving congratulations on his recent success sweeping the board at the Honiton Hound Show. The old recently retired huntsman stands on the periphery, slightly unsure, now he is no longer the main attraction, but quietly observing with dignity. He is no longer the queen, but he is the queen mum.

The young MFH in his pink trousers with only one eye on duty gives a commentary, he states that in the coming autumn the law will be tested to the utmost; a neighbouring pack has purchased a golden eagle to flush foxes to hounds, all perfectly legal. He states our secretary has acquired a homing pigeon for the same purpose. It is proving difficult to train, but it has the advantage that it will never get lost. He has heard that the local mink hounds are going to use a duck.

Afterwards all repair to the secretary's tent for liquid refreshment and much jovial banter. Hunt gossip is exchanged. In this community, rumour can travel the length and breadth of the country in 24 hours. The best one to date is the MFH who left his two naked paramours chained to the banister while he went hunting:

to make them more grateful when he got back.

Jorocs writes about hunting life for the Social Affairs Unit. To read more by Jorocs, see Hunting.

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The hunting community always claims to be quintessential example of British culture, and this article convinces me that this argument is indeed right. After all, hunting life - as described to us by Jorocs - does seem to exhibit two of the characteristics that make British life most British, namely binge drinking and casual misogyny. The hunter would feel equally at home in this regard in a football crowd.

Posted by: Anon at October 10, 2005 06:58 PM

Misogyny? I'm not certain that I concur with Anon. When as a student I was a foot-follower of the East Fife, it was sometimes hard to tell the women from the horses, at least until some came into the pub afterwards (those were the women, I think). But both were treated with affection and both carried themselves with a hauteur implying recognition that they were brighter than we fellows ever were.

Posted by: s masty at October 10, 2005 08:16 PM
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