Thursday, July 26, 2018

An epic hunting tour of the US, part IV: into Virginia!

Virginia. A name that sparks a flicker of excitement in any fox-hunter’s heart, a name that has meant good sport since the time of George Washington, a name that means old turf and coops and stone walls backed by the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is the most English of American states, with the oldest pub in the US, the Red Fox Inn of Middleburg, and porticoed stone country houses amid a patchwork of green fields. A list of inhabitants past and present is a Who’s Who of hunting, from the 6th Lord Fairfax who first brought foxhounds to these shores, through the first President to Jackie Kennedy and the art collector Paul Mellon. Now, its 25 registered packs are followed by surgeons and titans of industry, interior designers and artists, musicians and hoteliers. The loss of an arm or advancing years are no barriers to attendance: once a Virginia fox-hunter, always a Virginia fox-hunter.


I drove from Alabama to Virginia on a damp, drizzly day that obscured the mountains around Chattanooga in Tennessee, rendering them more Foggy than Smoky. By the time I reached the ‘lovers’ state’, it was dark but clear, very dark indeed amid the tall red and chestnut oaks of the Shenandoah national park. I wound down and down via a series of hairpin bends, the view of hunting country from which must be spectacular in daylight, and finally reached the undulating road that leads to the home of Jake Carle III, long-time master and huntsman of the Keswick, hound expert and raconteur.

Jake Carle with assorted canines

George Washington, ‘father of his country’, was an avid fox-hunter, but it was with his early life that my first day in Virginia was concerned. The legend of the Cherry Tree, in which the eight-year-old George chopped down his father’s favourite tree and earned a reputation for honesty by swiftly owning up (although, strangely, not for being a mean vandal), is almost certainly apocryphal, but if it did happen, it was at Ferry Farm on the banks of the Rappahannock in Fredericksburg. A great friend of mine in San Francisco is descended from the Strothers, the family who owned the land before the Washingtons, and he linked me up with Bill Garner, president of the George Washington Foundation. Bill and his colleagues Meghan and Jessica showed me around Ferry Farm and Kenmore, another Washington family home, and I was captivated.

The newly arisen Ferry Farm
Courtesy of  The George Washington Foundation 
and Eric Kuchar of Mesick Cohen Wilson Baker Architects

Elegant, very English, Kenmore

Nothing of Ferry Farm remained before archaeologists got to work a few years ago. In 2003, they began the search for the foundations and, in 2008, confirmed that they had identified the remains of the long-sought-after house where Washington grew up.  Excavation has revealed the plan of the whole farm, plus Indian arrowheads, fragments of pottery, Tally-ho cufflinks and more that tell the story of the land over thousands of years. Now, the house, together with the corrals that held animals and the huts where farmworkers and slaves lived, are being rebuilt by hand, down to the lime-based plaster mixed with animal hair, scalloped shingles and beautifully crafted corner cabinet. The work is superb, from the smooth banister to the solid wooden plank that locks the back door. From the river side, where the ground drops away, the entrance to the cellar reveals the original stone and a single large block of earth, left as a gift for future archaeological students.

Ferry Farm and its agricultural surroundings

The beautifully crafted interior, an educated guess at what 
George Washington would have seen as a child

Visitors to Ferry Farm will be able to touch everything, to experience what it was like to live in a house in the new colony, at a time when land was still be surveyed and Fredericksburg a mere cluster of houses. When the ferry, just upstream from the Washingtons’ land, yielded a steady stream of travellers, much to the annoyance of the family. When ships plied the deep waters of the Rappahanock and there were fortunes to be made by anyone with zeal and determination: like George Washington himself. His childhood and teenage years were spent in a new country, a time when he could explore and speculate, forge relationships and secure land, learning from a pioneering people whose spirit gave him the spark he needed to found the United States of America. Ferry Farm is a far cry from the magnificent porticoed mansion of Mount Vernon that was his last home, but it was a vital part of his life and now, thanks to the George Washington Foundation, it will live again.

The view to the Rappahanock River, at the edge of the grass.
Fredericksburg is visible in winter, when there are no leaves on the trees!

Everything, from the banisters to the doors, has been made
fresh, and can thus be touched and experienced

Bad timing doesn’t begin to describe the story of Kenmore, home of George Washington’s sister Betty and her husband, Fielding Lewis. In the mid 18th century, England and all things English was the height of fashion, with furniture, silverware, glassware and porcelain imported and displayed to impress the neighbours. Lewis was a successful merchant and patriot who owned a fleet of ships dedicated to bringing in the most stylish and sought-after goods from the Old Country, and Kenmore became a showcase for his family’s English affinities, a way of proclaiming to the world that they were akin to aristocrats, or at least the upper middle class. The house itself is a perfect Georgian box, red-brick and perfectly proportioned with an elegant portico and strikingly painted hall. Even the servant’s passage was painted where it could be glimpsed by visitors.

A perfect Georgian box. It could almost be in Hampshire

But the tragedy of Kenmore is that it was completed too late. Only a year after Betty could sit back and reflect on her possession of the most elegant house in Fredericksburg, the War of Independence broke out and suddenly George IV tankards were being chucked out of windows onto rubbish heaps across Virginia. Kenmore and the trade that had sustained it were valueless almost overnight. No longer was it the embodiment of good taste, but instead a symbol of lost loyalties.

Kenmore: out of date almost as soon as it was completed

Nearly a century later, another war was to batter Kenmore. Fredericksburg was the frontline in the American Civil War, with the Confederates firing from the south and Union soldiers from the north. Cannonballs and holes from both sides can still be seen in the walls and roof. The house was pressed into use as a hospital, with the dining room serving as the operating theatre and stretchers laid out on the lawn. A gradual decline ensued after the war, until the threat of demolition from a Mr E. G. Heflin who wanted to build flats on the space in the 1920s galvanised the women of Fredericksburg, led by the redoubtable Kate Waller Barrett of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, to buy and save the house. Local grandee Emily White Fleming and her daughter, Annie, with Mrs Barrett, sent hundreds of letters asking for donations and swiftly raised the money, with $1,000 from none other than (the brilliantly named) Col Isaac Newton Lewis, descendant of Fielding Lewis. It has been open to the public ever since, hosting Presidents and First Ladies, and, since 2001, has undergone a top-notch restoration.

Cannonballs have been inserted in the holes to remind of the effects
of the conflict, and there are many more scars of war

The jewels of the work are two elements that showed off the Lewises’ English connections best. In the dining room, the carpet has been newly woven to an 18th-century pattern, with an excellent chance that it was the exact design used. The dining-room floorboards were ripped up after the Civil War, too soaked in blood to keep, which made the restorer’s job more difficult. In most rooms, carpet tacks on the floorboards could indicate if the room had been carpeted, but there were none left – except for one, on the threshold. Expert examination revealed tacks embedded in the wood, which showed that, firstly, the carpet had been wall-to-wall. Secondly, tiny fragments of carpet fibres were left, in a striking dark-red colour. It was reckoned to be a Wilton carpet, made by the (now) Grosvenor Wilton carpet company of Kidderminster in England that still exists. A terrible fire in the 19th century destroyed all records before 1790, but enough remained to show that only three designs of the period used that colour. Analysis of the paint on the walls revealed the room’s colour scheme, and the carpet chosen and woven accordingly. The whole design feels so fitting that I have no doubt they are correct.

The drawing room with its restored Kidderminster carpet

The Kenmore drawing room

You have to look up for the second spectacular element. Letters and accounts reveal a mysterious Stucco Man, who came from England with the plasterers to create the gorgeous plaster ceiling with its foliage and circular motifs. It seems likely that he was Italian, with a difficult-to-spell name that was never used, but he was so good that his plasterwork is the crowning glory of both Kenmore and Mount Vernon, George Washington’s later and sumptuous home. No one knows who exactly he was and where he came from, but Stucco Man’s work is unique in America, the fashion for ornate plasterwork swept away on a tide of anti-English feeling.

The gorgeous ceiling

There are dozens of stories within the walls of Kenmore, from Betty Lewis’s writing desk that was discovered in an auction in Minneapolis and now stands in its original place to the canoe that hangs in the attic. It was once owned by the son of a late-19th-century Kenmore family who was crippled from the waist down and used the canoe to improve his upper-body strength. It was he who persuaded his father to let him restore the plaster ceiling, in a sorry state after the War, and painstakingly replaced lost pieces with plaster of Paris. George Washington’s grand Mount Vernon home draws the crowds, but if you’re in Virginia, don’t miss visiting this exquisitely restored gem of a house.

Betty Lewis's writing desk, discovered at auction
and restored to its original place

If you see this view as you drive into Fredericksburg, stop!

Grey skies gave way to blustery blue the following day, the clouds dispersed by gale-force winds that tore down trees and powerlines across the north-eastern US. No internet and no phone thus meant an enforced, and welcome, day of swapping hunting stories with Jake, plus an abortive trip to Horse Country in Warrenton – naturally, no power meant the hunting-clothing-household-all-good-things store was closed. The wind meant even my low saloon car was buffeted off its course and I held my breath every time we went past a tree, which was often. We were luckier than most: we got power back that night, but most people were reliant on bottled water and generators for days.

Jake snapping the Bull Run meet on a blustery, sunny day

Worst of all, most hunts were unable to get out on Saturday, but Bull Run is made of sterner stuff. Half an hour south of Warrenton we drew up at the kennels on a cold clear day, the wind still chilly but no longer threatening to throw us flat on our faces. Leaving early in case of log-forced detours, we arrived in time to see the latest additions to the Bull Run kennels, born the night before! Little squirmy bundles, pure cuteness. Soon afterwards, rigs started to arrive and a decent crowd gathered to cry ‘yes’ in response to Mike Long MFH’s call of ‘Are we going to have fun today?’ Being English, I can’t help but cringe a little at such openers, but no one can deny the enthusiasm. And we did have fun! Scenting wasn’t brilliant, but we had some good music and jumps, up on a wooded hill just south of the kennels called, grandly, Cedar Mountain. One run took us out of the woods and onto smooth turf, to an upright rail more like an ad hoc British jump than a pristine Virginia coop. We marked soon afterwards, huntsman Charles Montgomery blowing to ground with enthusiasm and praising his smart crossbred hounds, who lapped up his words.

Mike Long gives a cheery welcome before we set off up Cedar Mountain

Happy first field!

Marking to ground

Praise from a satisfied huntsman

Off again!

It was jolly steep in places, which proved too much for my handsome Avalanche. He was a bit like a flying sofa, with smooth paces and a powerful jump, but wasn’t quite fit enough to gallop up hills. When one of his shoes spread, his owner Amy Savell immediately leapt off her Friesian-Morgan cross (yes, really), Tucker, and chucked me on him instead so I could carry on. Typical hunting hospitality, this time from a fellow English girl! In one of those extraordinary coincidences, it turned out we had both worked for IPC Media in the same office in London, King’s Reach Tower. Amy had worked in IT on the third floor and I had been on the 21st floor with Country Life. Much reminiscing about the local hostelries ensued…

Former (almost colleague) Amy Savell!

Another one to ground! This time a view from bay Tucker

Looking back at Cedar Mountain

With beautiful bright sunshine and Tucker’s ears never less than pricked, great company in field master Jay and assorted members, it was a lovely day, not, perhaps, a vintage Virginia outing, but an enjoyable start to my sojourn in the state. The wind threatened to blow away our bowls of chilli at the tailgate, but few people wanted to leave with any celerity. Smiles all round!

In at the end

Hacking in, ears still pricked

Back home! Thank you Amy, first for Avalanche, then for Tucker,
then for taking this picture! 

An adventure of a different kind was mine recently: galloping across Dartmoor with Liberty Trails. Simply the most glorious landscape, coupled with great horses, company and food! 
Email if you'd like to experience it for yourself.

Views galore, and my intrepid guide Elaine Prior

Me on the fabulous Blackie

The Prince Hall Hotel - a perfect place for lunch - and gin! 

Thursday, May 10, 2018

An epic hunting tour of the US, part III: across the wide prairies to Alabama and the Mooreland Hunt Week

The air was bright and cold when I awoke on the Nance ranch after the kind of night’s sleep that only fresh air and exercise can engender. The mesa to the north-west of Adren’s home stood out clear and proud in the morning light, only needing a Navajo pony to rear on its edge to complete the picture. This is the kind of landscape that quickens the pulse and stirs the blood, that invites you to saddle up and ride out with a song on your lips. Or, in the real world, to tuck into an absolutely top-notch breakfast, which is what the Nance matriarch Beth served up to everyone in her high-ceilinged ranch home. It set us up for a tour of the ranch by truck, not as romantic as saddling up but a lot more practical, given that I had to set off for Alabama, 1,300 miles away, at some point.

Not a bad view to wake up to

The ranch is stunning, cattle heaven, with a new pond dug and lots of coops for the hunting. Did I mention that I have a few things I want to return for? Fox-hunting here is extremely high up the list! Hunting for Pueblo Indian ceramics made for an excellent substitute until I was forced to tear myself away and set off eastwards to the Texan border.

Life-saver for the cattle in the desert

Not very different to when the Pueblo Indians lived here

As I was starting far south of Albuquerque, I chose to drive in as straight a line east as possible, rather than diverting north to the interstate. The sun was out as I left the ranch, winding along a near empty road through rolling desert, dark green juniper bushes against sandy dry grass. Ahead rose the Magdalena Mountains, over which furious clouds spewed sheets of rain, black and misty. At their foot was the town of Magdalena itself, empty of pedestrians and nearly empty of cars. Boarded-up shops and closed-down diners flanked the street, forlorn signs fading and cracking. Hillary Clinton may have appealed to the liberal-minded glitterati in their gleaming glass skyscrapers in New York and Los Angeles, but it’s easy to see why she and her fellow Democrats resonated not at all in these poor towns, scattered across the vast centre of America, where there are few jobs and fewer prospects. After all, this is where the ‘deplorables’ live.

Empty roads and crystal-clear air: New Mexico

The road goes ever on and on

Rain over the Magdalena Mountains

As I descended down one long slope to a plain backed by mountains, black rock loomed up on either side of the road and before I knew it I was driving into the Valley of Fires through a huge swathe of lava, the last remnants of an eruption 5,000 years before. Rather than spewing from a volcano, this 44-mile long river of lava, the Carrizozo Malpais, emerged from vents in the valley floor. I pulled off for a closer look – nearly losing the car door to the wind – and absorbed the view for a minute. There was not a soul around and the only sound was the gale. Everything before me was black, with a scattering of tattered grasses clinging onto the cracks, as if a dragon had swooped low over the land and blasted fire for hundreds of miles. An extraordinary place.

The Stars and Stripes over the Valley of Fires

Black, but not a wasteland: collared lizards nip through the cracks
and the Lily in the Desert, with tiny flowers and ribbonlike leaves, blooms

Returning to my eastward progress, I passed through the 1870s, also known as Lincoln, New Mexico, where the jail and courthouse played host to Billy the Kid. The town is perfectly preserved, with the Tunstall Store still selling 19th-century merchandise and verandahs along the street crying out for a laconic cowboy to scuff his boots along them. Beyond the town of Hondo the land began to flatten out, the plains on either side bare of anything but dry, tawny grasses. I was approaching the alien capital, Area 51, Roswell, where extra-terrestrials once landed, and, apparently, immediately left again because the landscape was just so dull. It has a certain awesomeness to it, being so huge, and it would be fun to chase a coyote or two across it, but after a while the eye longs for something to startle it out of its lethargy. Only the occasional wrought-iron archway with cut-outs of cowboys and cattle that announced another vast ranch interrupted the monotony. One thing’s for sure, I wouldn’t want to be rounding up cattle here without a darn good compass. 

A last glimpse of mountains before the plains of eastern New Mexico

Flat. For miles and miles and miles

And miles

Finally, I reached the Texan border, which was equally thrilling. But then dark clouds loomed ahead as the sun behind me slanted through the grey blanket that had echoed the desert in its uniformity and I smiled involuntarily as it caught a water tower, so evocative of America, and lent the arrow-straight road ahead an enchanted air. Leaving the back roads for the interstate, a craggy ridge to the west was tinged pink as the sky above turned gold, finally fading to darkness split by the insistent reminders of McDonalds and Best Western.

Dull prairie transformed to pure beauty

Unmistakably America

Pressing on as long as I could, I stopped for gas (sorry, British readers, but the word has started to trip off my tongue more easily than ‘petrol’) and joined an elderly black truck driver at the counter. There was a skinny white guy behind the till and a Mexican girl stacking the shelves, when the driver grinned at the sound of my voice and wondered aloud which of our disparate accents was furthest from home. He was from deepest Louisiana, with that wonderful rich, honeycomb drawl, and an infectious laugh. We exchanged tales of the road, and I set off again with renewed energy. Such encounters are one of the chief joys of solo voyaging, the chance for disparate lives to touch and part again, leaving all of us uplifted with a sense of fellowship.

Texas! 'Drive friendly - the Texas way'

I spent the night in an Econolodge, which was more comfortable than the name suggests. It was clearly breakfast that bore the brunt of the ‘econo’ bit, with cardboard muffins and polystyrene cups. I longed for bowls and silverware that could be washed instead of cluttering up gutters and eventually the Pacific! The weather was gloomy and humid, with Fort Worth a grey collection of grotty freeways and grubby glass towers. The temperature gauge hit 82˚F, 60˚F higher than the lowest point of the trip, 22˚F in Colorado. Getting out of the car was distinctly unpleasant, especially considering it was February.

This sign was beside the road near Roswell, in an area one
would assume was pro-Trump. Was it left over from the Obama
years, or are the locals repelled by the orange one?

I had one hairy moment when an ancient truck carrying scrap metal decided to fling a few chunks and strips of sharp-looking silver across the road, causing cars to swerve. I thought I caught a sliver with my wheels and pulled off in a panic, but my trusty Nissan was more than a match for whatever it was. Returning to the interstate with a giant soothing cup of French Vanilla ‘coffee’, a gang of workmen were already gathering and sweeping the debris with insouciant disregard to the approaching traffic. It must be a regular occurrence…

Americana: an old truck and an Art Deco store, seemingly defunct

A fitful sun lit my passage into Arkansas, over the wide brown Tennessee River into Memphis, and then almost immediately out of Tennessee into Alabama as darkness fell. Finally, I climbed the winding road to my dear friend Cary’s house, where her adorable mongrel, Gwen, the ‘gas station dog who won the adoption lottery’, gave me all the welcome I could help for. A glass of chilled sparkling rosé did not go amiss, either!

Arkansas: 'The Natural State' 
Which begs the question, how are the rest artificial?

Tennessee: 'The Volunteer State Welcomes You'
Well, that's nice

Mississippi: 'Birthplace of Ameria's Music'
Happy Birthday!
It was too dark to take a picture of the Alabama sign, but it reads:
'Welcome to Alabama the Beautiful'
or, of course: 'Welcome to Sweet Home Alabama',
which means you have the song stuck 
in your head for hundreds of miles...

By lucky chance, my planned sojourn in Alabama coincided with the Mooreland Hunt Week, with Bear Creek and Midland from Georgia the visiting packs. To warm up, Cary and I took Tully and Nate, her off-the-track Thoroughbreds, for a trail ride (hack) around the fields the day before. There had been heavy rain recently and numerous animal tracks showed in the smooth swathes of mud: deer, turkeys, coyote, rabbit. Both horses were behaving beautifully, so Cary suggested a canter. I agreed, and we set off, but almost immediately I felt my right rein come away. I called to Cary to stop, but as she slowed down the bit fell out of Nate’s mouth, he spun round in panic, bunched up his haunches and took off, flat out.

Nate, in more relaxed mode!
Courtesy of Cary McWhorter

It’s extraordinary how much one can think about when one is gathering up dangling pieces of tack, grabbing the sole remaining bit of bridle, the noseband, and trying to talk soothingly to a bolting horse. Chief among my thoughts was that my mother was going to be very upset if I fell off, followed by the sure and certain conviction that I was not going to bail out. Even with the threat of armadillo holes and deep mud threatening to trip us up, hitting the ground from a 16.2hh galloping horse would not be comfortable. I don’t even know how I would have done it! Eventually, Nate slowed down enough for me to hop off, whereupon I went to his head and he nuzzled me as if to say ‘that was scary, mum!’ He hadn’t been malicious, just frightened, and had never stumbled.

Nate safely at home, with the Full Cry kennels in the distance
Courtesy of Cary McWhorter

It turned out that the loop of the gag cheekpiece had snapped right through, cleanly and all at once, with no signs of prior deterioration. A tad worrying, and it meant that we were then short a bit. Luckily, Cary has been training Tully to go bitless, with the ultimate aim of hunting him with nothing but a rope, so we swapped bridles and ambled home, Tully behaving impeccably with nothing in his mouth. A stiff drink back at the barn with the Full Cry huntsman Jay Athon and his wife Mopsy was extremely welcome. We were all delighted to find that because I had had Cary’s tracker in my pocket, we had proof that former racehorse Wildcat Nation was quick: 30mph!

Note the sudden burst of speed and the amble home...

Four wheels proved a more relaxing option the next day for the start of hunting. Cary, her husband HC and I hopped into HC’s super new blue Jeep as dark clouds threatened to put the kibosh on the action altogether. Fortunately, the hunting instinct triumphed over the fair-weather riders, and we all set off after the joint pack of Bear Creek and Midland hounds. Following by car always requires a certain amount of ingenuity, but HC and Cary are seasoned campaigners. We stood station on a road for a while – one passing car asked what we were all doing, storm chasing? Testament to the darkness of the sky, but not as fun as the reality, and they wished us a good day – before the radio announced that hounds were on and heading back past the meet. We hared in pursuit and got into the perfect spot to see a big red coyote circumnavigating a huge cotton field, water splashing up from every pad. The first hounds soon appeared in pursuit, but it was a long time before the riders could get up. Heavy going doesn’t begin to describe the ground. We cracked on along a parallel lane, but soon came to a near stop as the heavens opened and a deluge destroyed almost all semblance of visibility. Normally, I chafe at being in a car rather than on a horse, but I confess I didn’t mind in this case…

The coolest car-following car in the hunting world
Courtesy of Cary McWhorter

Happy me!
Courtesy of Cary McWhorter

Mooreland whip Rachael ready for the off on a soggy morning
Courtesy of Cary McWhorter

Leaving a wake!
Courtesy of Cary McWhorter

Trying to keep up - coyote and hounds were long gone
Courtesy of Cary McWhorter

Hounds lost (or caught, depending on which huntsman you spoke to) the coyote in Nance Creek, which, in pleasing synergy, is named for Juan Tomas huntsman Adren Nance’s family, who farmed over here before moving to New Mexico in his grandfather’s time. Horses and hounds – and humans – were exhausted by the ground, but revived by a fantastic tailgate back at the meet, when, naturally, the sun came out. The day ended with a cocktail party, the elegant dresses and glittering crystal a striking contrast with the soggy mud-covered characters from earlier in day. Nothing says variety like hunting!

Cary the photographer in action under threatening skies

A tailgate worthy of the name - delicious!

My unrelenting schedule of riding or driving every day caught up with me on the Friday, when my body refused point-blank at 5am to go with Cary to the stables to get the horses. I went back to bed and slept another five hours, missing a morning that, to my selfish relief, was hot and blank. We were back in the Jeep the following day, and hounds worked well out of our sight as we waited on point. We would have been useful had the coyote run our way, but we lost the gamble on this occasion, returning to watch everyone hack in – including the smart equipage of Earl Burchett with his ex-Amish plough horse and buggy, wife Jen riding point. Easton drives and rides, and the beautiful blue vehicle, picked out in silver, with its wide axles and sturdy tyres, goes everywhere.

Three of the best huntsmen in America: Rhodri Jones-Evans of Mooreland,
Steve Clifton of Bear Creek and Ken George of Midland

A motley crew of hunt staff ready for the off. 
Trying to get them all to pose at once is nigh impossible - 
Steve and Ken, I mean you!

A paved road? For wimps

From Amish ploughshares to the Alabamian hunting field
Courtesy of Cary McWhorter

An equipage of which The Duke of Edinburgh would be proud
Courtesy of Cary McWhorter

Hacking home in the heat
Courtesy of Cary McWhorter

Steve and Ken bringing them home

All smiles: Mason Lampton MFH and Leslie Crosby MFH

Mary-Lu, Paula, Mason and Jenna of Midland looking good

One of the indispensable staff who keep the whole caboodle on the road:
Jenna of Midland

That night, Mooreland huntsman Rhodri Jones-Evans proved he could pull off a flamingo hat at the hunt ball, the surreal culmination of an evening that began with cocktails at the beautiful home of Mooreland’s senior master Leslie Crosby. She and her fellow masters Hal Barry of Bear Creek and Mason Lampton of Midland welcomed us all, and David Twiggs, executive director of the MFHA, paid tribute to the huntsman and staff who had put on a great show despite unseasonal heat and bottomless going. We all decamped to the Huntsville Museum of Art for dinner and dancing, although the latter definitely took precedence as the music defeated conversation during dinner. Perhaps dinner first, next tme, and then music… which was brilliant, especially the saxophonist. We tore up the dancefloor in fine style, until we dragged ourselves away to get some sleep before moving out with Full Cry first thing in the morning.

HC pulling off the neon crown look; Bear Creek whip Mel and me

With Southern royalty Warner and Tish Ray

Me with party animal David Twiggs of the MFHA

Oh yes, Rhodri can rock the flamingo look!

Patience is a virtue, and huntsman Jay Athon proved the old saw in spades when he quietly kept going for four hours around sodden coverts and muddy corn fields, until we and the hounds were rewarded with an absolute cracker of a run. They put up a coyote that streaked away across stubble and dived into a strip of trees a quarter of a mile away. Hounds needed a touch of help to get on the right line, but once on, they were on! They screamed through the trees, across grass into sparse covert and flashed through the thickets with us galloping outside, their music a clarion call. Nate was as thrilled as anyone to be on the move, but never tried to get away from me; it is such a joy to feel so much controlled power underneath! We crossed through a hedge line and galloped flat out in Jay’s wake down the tramlines of winter wheat, hounds already far ahead. Finally, the coyote crossed the railway line, forcing us to give it best, but we were all well satisfied with the blistering pace after such a long period of determined searching. The overcast, cool weather and the damp ground (I kept wondering where the ‘very wet’ bit was that I had been warned about, before realising that what Alabamians consider soggy is normal winter going to me) made for excellent scent, but with the coverts flooded, finding the coyotes in the first place was the tricky thing. Thank goodness for a huntsman that doesn’t give up.

Heading towards Death Valley... not an advisable place
to be if you're Wil E. Coyote

Cary and her law intern, Natalie, who is as quick to learn the 
whys and wherefores of hunting as the law. One to watch!

Jay Athon and David Twiggs setting off on a thankfully cool morning

Gathering hounds after a blistering run, just reward for our patience

David Twiggs, executive director of the MFHA and an
enthusiastic follower. He chose a good day!

Tired hounds after a fantastic run

Hacking back to Hall Place, a sadly dilapidated historic plantation house.
If only I had a million or two spare...

Successful selfie

We had another such huntsman on Tuesday, when my last day in Alabama was spent with Rhodri and the Mooreland hounds. On a beautiful morning, soft and warm, like a perfect June day in England, Cary and I hacked from the barn to her farm, where four staff and five field members had gathered. Nate and Tully were on excellent form, easily fit enough to do five miles there, and the chance to warm up and enjoy the landscape the old-fashioned was very special. I would always choose to hack the meet over faffing with trailers, so it was super to have the chance.

Hacking to the meet on a perfect morning

Rhodri has done an excellent job with this handsome pack of crossbred hounds and his unobtrusive control is wonderful to watch. After drawing a covert blank, they return like iron filings to a magnet, flocking towards him from all points of the compass, showing how hard they work, how trusted they are and how biddable they are. We crossed some gorgeous country, more rolling than much of Alabama, lush and green under a clear blue sky. The Tennessee river formed the northern border, curving in a wide loop that has been known to confound the giving of directions; if Rhodri says ‘north’, he means ‘towards the river’. We rode part way along an ancient track, known as Lock A Road, a reminder of when the Tennessee was made navigable by a series of locks, through sun-dappled woods where the breeze soughed in the branches and around fields of young wheat.

Whip Rachael on duty

Hacking up Lock A Road

Cary looking sharp! We were doing the English thing of wearing formal 
throughout the season instead of ratcatcher in the week,
although we felt a little too smart!

Rhodri and the Mooreland hounds hacking on to the next draw

Welsh-born Rhodri, one of the best in the business!

Finally, hounds spoke deep in the woods by the river, and we followed the sound of the music past the meet and to an overlook, where they lost the line. We had been out for nearly four hours and were close to the trailers, so we might have called it a day, but Mooreland people are made of sterner stuff and he recast the hounds in the wood. A 3½-mile point proved he was right to do so! Nate was an absolute star, and it was fantastic to see these Mooreland hounds do their stuff. The only hiccup was when, on a slippery field boundary, the field master’s horse flung up a mud-covered stone than hit my left eye with some force. Fortunately, I only needed one to see the armadillo holes!

Calling them up after losing the line the first time

Perhaps this time would be more successful... Rhodri being patient

More than three miles later! End of the line

A very satisfied huntsman and hounds

We glimpsed red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures on the ride back, cleaned tack and drove home, tired and content, to collapse in front of a classic Southern film, Steel Magnolias. A perfect last day in Alabama. Thank you all, Cary and Nate especially, for a blissful week!

Me and Nate, doing his Dobbin pose. Ten minutes earlier
he had been showing the field his turn of speed. 
Sign of a good hunt horse, being able to preserve energy
when hounds aren't running. He's a keeper!

BFFs: me and Cary at the Mooreland Hunt Ball

Next time: to George Washington's childhood home in Virginia!

Gateway to England
The sun is finally out on this side of the pond, and we were treated to a superb display of equestrianism at the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials last weekend. Congratulations to Jonelle Price on a truly well-deserved win. 
Read all about it in the May 10 edition of Horse & Hound, which also 
happens to include my report on the Arapahoe Hunt in Colorado!
If you would like the chance to ride across the heavenly English countryside yourself and stay in houses as historic and beautiful as Badminton House itself, email