On Walking: On Hunting

We’re heading up over to the Orchard Field, and Pants and Dora are swinging and straining on their leads.  They’ve caught the scent of the hounds who lolloped through the village yesterday, leaving their big paw prints over the wide grass verges. Dora’s father was a Hunt Terrier, and I wonder if the scents provoke any ancient instincts. I hold her lead tightly, in case she shoots off down a drain.

The rain is falling in an unfriendly curtain, and I can barely see out from my hood. I fit my boots in semi-circular divots left by the horses, and wonder what glory was to be had, riding to hounds on a grim, grey Wednesday in North Oxfordshire.

The topic of hunting makes my heart race. It makes people so incredibly angry – far more than illegal deer hunting, or mole-trapping (which makes me FURIOUS), or dog-fighting.

I’m ambivalent about foxes. I’m not very good at killing things. But I’ve been around chickens most of my life, and as a child, I remember my mum picking up the poor, headless bodies of the pullets in the side paddock, putting them in a black plastic sack. She had tears coursing down her face, and was shaking with rage. I had that same rage, twenty years later, when I caught a fox half-in, half out of my chicken pen, one summer’s dawn. My birds woke me with a tremendous noise and I shot outside in my knickers, then chased the fox (a whopping dog) out of our garden and across the cricket pitch. I was so angry I didn’t feel any pain in my bare feet, nor care that any early walkers would have seen me; breasts bouncing, buttocks wobbling – streaking and shrieking, ludicrously waving a gardening trowel. If I’d have caught that fox, I’d have squashed it flat, shoved it in the van and driven into Banbury for it to live outside Iceland and be urban.

But to be honest, I’m not at all sure that general anti-fox hunting feeling has anything to do with foxes. I was at the school-bus stop yesterday, when the Warwickshire came up the Wroxton Road. Every single one of the women I stood with made hissing noises and took a step back into Bob and Brenda’s driveway. The Huntsman waved and called hello, and the hounds were merry and controlled, but still the others didn’t call hello, just shrunk back further. I stood alone, with my phone camera, grinning, loving the ancient treat of seeing horses and hounds trot briskly past in the rain.

When they’d gone (the last rider was a lady, who looked as if she were wearing an old Scout tent) I asked the others why they didn’t like them. There were mutterings about hounds meeting the school bus on the bends, and horses shouldn’t be on roads at school-bus times, and that they think they can ride where they like, and they don’t shut gates. No one mentioned foxes.

‘Bunch of knobs,’ came the last comment, and we hastily turned the conversation back to types of dining chair. But how interesting.

And then there’s my own thoughts on hunting. I went out as a child in the late eighties with Pony Club chums, and frightened myself silly, but I still love the whole glamour and bravery of the thing. I have all sorts of unsuitable crushes on men in tweed jackets with shiny-topped boots, and my heart races ridiculously when I hear the horn, or the shoes of trotting horses clipping past. I’d love nothing more than to be at the back, giving the fences and ditches a go, spitting mud out of my mouth, swigging a hip flask behind a blackthorn copse. I don’t want to kill a fox, though. Or see a fox being killed. In fact, I’d like to take foxes out of the equation altogether.

We reach the Orchard Field and I let the dogs go as I stand beneath the little oak. Mid-wee, Pants suddenly does his funny half-collapse before going on point, and I start running to catch him before he mullers the cat from Meadowsweet Farmshop, next door. But I’m far too slow. He’s off like a rocket, bendy rubber-toy body flying over the yellowed goose-grass. Dora goes after him, a second bullet, complete with yapping. They’re heading towards the spinney, away from the farmshop – it’s too far – the cat won’t stand a chance. I dash the rain from my eyes, reach the top of the hill.

I see their quarry; it’s getting away and I stop shouting and laugh, my breath coming in heaves. Not a poor little cat. A bloody great fox.  Go Pants, go. Point it towards Banbury.

Bonfire Night! Tuesday, 5th November

Every year, we whiz down the Warwick Road to Warmington, for Warmington’s Bonfire Night. It’s always on the actual 5th, and the bonfire is always a whopper.

Warmington Bonfire, Warwks, 05.11.13
Jess’ earmuffs!

This year, we’re off with our chums, the Always-Sprightlies, and it’s half past five, and we’re eating a vast tea of jacket potatoes and Bolognaise with buckets of grated cheddar to keep us going. The children are already screechy with excitement, and are winding up the dogs, which worries me.

‘But will he be okay?’ I say, for the hundredth time. It’s the Pants’ first experience of fireworks, and he’s already tried to wee on the stairs. Dora is in her cage, grumbling away like an old kettle.

Just as we’re agreeing that wouldn’t it be lovely to have a glass of that red, someone notices it’s almost six, and then we’re all swirled into activity – grown ups clearing the table, children all crammed in the hall wellying up, me turning on the television and RadioTwo full blast.

‘What’re you doing?’ asks Stephen in horror.’I suppose you’re going to leave all the bloody lights on, as well?’

‘Yes,’ I hiss. ‘And where the hell is Merlin?’

We open the front door to all pour out, and the missing cat streaks in, straight upstairs to hide beneath a bed. I can hear Pants whining, and I hesitate on the doorstep. Dora joins in with her clockwork bark, and feeling horribly guilty, I pull the front door closed and run to the van in the darkness.

The Sprightlies beat us there, and save us the last  space in the lay-by above the village. We’re all pleased, because it’s the best get-away spot and crammed with cars from Horley and Hornton. We all get out and discover we’ve two working torches between eight.

‘Gosh,’ says S, when Stephen puts the Maglite in her hands. ‘What a whopper,’

We skirt St Michael’s (which is beautiful, incidentally – but more grey-in-the-stone than our lovely St E’s), stumbling only slightly in the starlight. ‘Come on,’ say the children, and drag us down the hill into Warmington proper.

Oh, but it’s pretty, even in the dark. Warmington can trace its roots back to the Mesolithic age, and it spills gently down a hill like a tipped treasure chest. The houses are grouped round two generous greens – the top one has a big pond, and I always think that if I could draw my perfect village, I would definitely steal bits from this one. We pass the pub – The Plough – all yellow-lit and heaving with handsome farm-types in checked shirts.

Village children are rushing around coat-less, brandishing light-sticks, and we can smell sparklers and hot dogs and onions, and behind all that, the hot, crackling smoke of the mighty fire.

‘Can we go, can we go, can we go?’ say our children. The men slide off to ‘bring you hot drinks, darling,’ and S and I are left to peer through the darkness, trying to identify the flame-licked silhouettes of local buddies.

‘I’m sure that’s Tasha’s hat,’ I say. ‘Or not. Oh, I’ll wave anyway…’

The men come back empty handed – no tea! – and the children are racing about playing It in the crowd. S and I natter on, as is our way.

Just as I’m starting to shiver (no tea!), the fireworks crack and vhisp into extraordinary, pointless life, lighting all the faces around, eliciting oohs and aahs, as parents try to jolly surprised young children

‘Too loud, Mummy!’ wails a boy in the crowd. Our four are transfixed, and Stephen pulls me against him, sheltering me from the wind. He keeps pretending to jump at the bangs, and I slide my hand to horse-pinch his thigh: hard. This is the first year I’ve not had to hold Jess – she was always petrified of the rockets and anything that does that crackle thing. I look at her profile now – eyes wide-open, mouth laughing and chattering. She’s wearing enormous grey furry earmuffs, and I smile, privately, and wonder if they’re boosting this new-found bravery.

Warmington Village Bonfire Nov 2013
Sorry for rubbish camera, but you can just see the reflection in the pond…

The fireworks last the perfect amount of time for me with no tea.

‘Can’t we stay?’ say the children, as we call them to us. ‘Please, please?’

‘No,’ we say. ‘School tomorrow.’

We start walking back up the hill to the layby, sharing bags of Haloween Haribo to keep us going.

We’re full of plans for next year, what we’ll do.

‘And whatever else,’ I say, navigating the cars. ‘We’ll bring some tea in a flask.’

‘And hot chocolate,’ says Ellie.

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘And hot chocolate. More torches. More flasks. It’ll be excellent.’