Tweed, Tradition and More Tweed

The Old Surrey Burstow & West Kent Hunt meet on Boxing Day at Chiddingstone Castle. Image © Hollie Borland

The Old Surrey Burstow & West Kent Hunt meet on Boxing Day at Chiddingstone Castle. Image © Hollie Borland

So, yet again this year, the Boxing Day meets that took place up and down the country received much attention from the media. The use of dogs to hunt wild mammals has been prohibited since the Hunting Act 2004, which came into place in 2005. However, this does not stop the hunts going ahead, where the dogs chase an artificial scent across the countryside.

Personally, I love a Boxing Day meet. I don’t ride, I don’t hunt, I don’t own a horse; but I thoroughly enjoy squishing the entire family – complete with Grandad – into the car, donning my wellies on a crisp post-Christmas morning, to fall out of the car at Chiddingstone Castle in Kent, to watch some top-hatted, red-coat wearing ‘toffs’ on horseback. It’s the one time of year it is socially acceptable for me to wear my tweed jacket and drink from my hipflask, without looking like an alcoholic. No one need know I’m wearing Primark.

The Old Surrey Burstow & West Kent Hunt has their dogs track the scent of a man on a quad bike. He sets off long before the hunt begins, and the dogs and horses chase that scent, rather than a fox. I understand why people are against fox hunting, so this for me is a wonderful compromise.

Crowds of spectators gathered to greet the horses, the hounds and to revel in the atmosphere. Image © Hollie Borland

Crowds of spectators gathered to greet the horses, the hounds and to revel in the atmosphere. Image © Hollie Borland

The BBC ran a story on Boxing Day regarding the Environment Secretary’s warning that the government is unlikely to lift the hunting ban in the following year. Complete with video, the BBC attended a hunt in Oxfordshire, showing footage of the horses being ridden on the roads and the dogs responding to the sound of the horn. But what they failed to show is the number of people who attend the meet simply for the atmosphere and the experience. At Chiddingstone Castle, around 350 spectators turned up to greet the horses and the dogs, to sip on their mulled wines, to wish a merry Christmas to friends. These people aren’t here because they wanted a debate about fox hunting; they are here to witness the display of an old fashion tradition. Being at a hunt is like watching a painting from the old houses come to life.

I know I sound like a snob, but I’m really not. I don’t live in a mansion; I don’t go to the stable every morning to feed my pony which daddy bought me on a whim. Honestly, I’m not like that. But I do thoroughly enjoy watching something with so much history. I love the significance of the red tailcoats, the whiskey mac, the beautiful beasts. And the tweed. SO MUCH TWEED. It makes me smile, because here I am surrounded by stereotypes. There are clean as a whistle Range Rovers, driven by Hunter wearers who have probably never seen mud before. And then there are the stable-hands, wearing gilet’s and jodhpurs, paired with a worn down heel on their Hunters. And then there’s people like me: small-townie wanting my piece of countryside. I get to mingle with the huge horses that I so rarely see, despite living amongst the fields. Antiques Roadshow’s very own Lennox Cato is even here. It’s brilliant!

Meeting the dogs at the hunt is all part of the meet. Image © Hollie Borland

Meeting the dogs is all part of the meet. Image © Hollie Borland

Horses are domesticated animals: throughout time they have been trained and bred to achieve certain jobs. The Shire horse is bred to tow heavy loads, the Thoroughbreds for racing and the field hunter is born to hunt. Now I can’t speak for the horses, but they didn’t seem to be protesting. They bow their heads when they want to be stroked, they prick their ears at the sound of the horn, their tails swish with what looks like anticipation. I know many of you won’t believe me and will probably think I’m being cruel, but I don’t see many of you protesting about the Turkey you ate on Christmas day, which was bred for the simple purpose of being on your dinner table. Same sort of thing really, only with a harsher ending.

The beauty of the countryside is that it is possible to roam amongst nature, which is not possible in urban areas. The beauty of public footpaths through farmer’s fields is so that you can explore the places the roads don’t reach. In my opinion, even though the fox is no longer the prey, there is not much more beautiful than seeing a blur of red dart over a hedge as the hunt stretch the legs of their animals. The grandeur of the hunt clings on to the small bit of freedom that is still found in the countryside.

Let me know how you feel about the type of hunting that still goes on in the countryside. Is it right to continue? Or does it need to be banned completely? Feel free to comment below.

The Royal Ballet’s ‘The Nutcracker’

Tuesday 3 January 2012 at 2pm,

Main Stage, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

If one is going to see the ballet, one must do it properly – the Royal Ballet Company at the Royal Opera House. The reds, the golds, the grandeur create an atmosphere of a royal outing.

As a venue, the Royal Opera House never ceases to amaze. The performance takes place on multiple levels, filling the stage with movement. The ‘magic’ screen creates the impression of multiple stages – one minute, there are servants bustling outside an opaque backdrop of a grand house, and the next it fades to reveal the dancing guests inside.

The performance oozes tradition. At any other time of year, an audience demands new ideas and fresh stories, but at Christmas, family values become the core of society – depicted overwhelmingly so in the Nutcracker. It is a dance of girls and their dolls, and boys and their toys, seeing Clara’s jealous brother, Fritz (Sean Flanagan), snap her precious Nutcracker in an elegant rage of leaps and turns across the stage.

That Christmas magic that both children and adults seek is sprinkled throughout the show. Herr Drosselmeyer (William Tuckett) is seen to make a handkerchief into a wand and a series of them shoot united out of a satchel. There is no time to ponder on how the sorcery is created, for the story has danced on to the Nutcracker, who is dressed formally in that red that cries royalty, tradition and Christmas.

Emma Maguire and Alex Campbell, who play Clara and the Nutcracker, couru effortlessly and romantically together, but it is the Sugar Plumb Fairy (Roberta Marquez) and the Prince (Steven McRae) who should be envied. With headdresses of diamonds, the pair melt into each other with every move, creating perfect control and harmony, something that Maguire and Campbell lack. There are no sugary delicacies to be seen in the Kingdom of Sweets, but the sickly sweet pink of the Sugar Plumb Fairy’s tutu more than makes up for it.

Tchaikovsky’s score is performed to perfection by the BBC Concert Orchestra, and accompanied by London Oratory Junior Choir. The famous melodies played in Act II set a warm, familiar feeling in the pit of the stomach. Peter Wright’s adaptation of Lev Ivanov’s choreography is also to be commended for not producing a dull moment.

In spite of three cast changes due to illnesses, the Nutcracker performed by the Royal Ballet remains the epitome of Christmas. A definite must see.