Chapter 1: Ledbury Hunting Trip
As I drummed my freshly painted nails (hunting red of course) on the shiny glass table in impatient anticipation of the clock chiming for 1 o'clock I dreamed of what tomorrow might bring. A few months previous a few of us had thrown around the idea of going to England and hunting with the Ledbury. Having not really materialised, the invention of ‘whats app’ group quickly focused peoples mind and before we knew it there were 11 of us booked and going. In the weeks preceding we all regularly exchanged our thoughts on what it would be like, sharing photographs of various hunting falls found online and images of the famous Ledbury hedges. A sort of nervous excitement and anticipation surrounded us all and I think we all dreamed of galloping around the English countryside for the preceding three nights.
As the clock struck one I speedily clip clopped out of my final work meeting of the day, up the stairs to my office where I quickly changed, grabbed my suitcase and dashed out the door. I ran across the street to the railway track as the train was slowly pulling up. I hadn’t time to buy a ticket but I nervously jumped aboard anyway and hoped for the best. This weekend was represented by danger and perhaps it was starting how it meant to go on. I nervously shifted from one foot to the other as I scanned around for a ticket inspector. One, two, three stops and I was clear. Next stop was me. As the tram driver hollered the name of the Four Courts stop I jumped off, suitcase in toe, delighted with myself for not being caught, as if somehow the scene was now set for the entire weekend.
I was meeting two friends Karl and Zohra Smyth at the Four Courts as they also work in the City Centre. My fiancée William and I had been stabled beside them in RDS 2 years previously and we had become firm friends since. A mutual love of drinking hot whiskeys at 10.30am of a Tuesday morning in a small pub in the middle of nowhere before blasting around the countryside for a few hours, aboard a horse following hounds, may have had something to do with it. I answered the phone to Zohra as the tram pulled past-and there she was across the street. I yelped with excitement when I saw her familiar hunting face amidst territory that I had only ever related to my work. It seemed strange but also brought a certain warmth. I skipped across the street and we embraced each other, giggling like giddy school girls as we bundled into the back of her brother’s jeep and took off to the airport.
We laughed and joked as we exchanged texts and phone calls with the other members of the group, constantly updating each other with what we were doing, excited for our first meeting at Dublin airport. I was laying on a bunch of bags and wondering what was poking into my back, I curiously felt about and pulled out a hip flask. I thought “no time like the present”. I opened the flask and we passed it around, giddy with anticipation that this time tomorrow we would be on horses with the famous Ledbury Hunt, galloping across magnificent open British country. We were practically jumping up and down in the jeep with excitement.
We were the first to arrive at the airport, still receiving regular updates from the others (most notably the video of William frantically trying to pack his bag while waiting for the shuttle bus at the airport car-park). I felt a sense of relief that I had not travelled with him and had managed to avoid the obligatory row on the way to the airport about said packing. Having finally met up in Dublin Airport we all introduced ourselves. William and I knew everyone but some had not met each other at all. Paul and Aisling were hunting friends of ours from home along with Orla from Dublin and Ciara from Galway. Colie De Lapp was our Connemara man, he was excited about leaving Galway for the first time and Stevo Finn was beginning to wish he never had.
As we made our way through customs I nervously removed my whip and lash and coiled it around my neck. Unsurprisingly, we drew some strange looks from onlookers as the twelve of us began to pull out whips, lashes, hip flasks, spurs, boots, and funny looking jackets. I tried to lighten my heavy bag by donning my crash helmet, striding through customs, fully kitted out to the barely veiled amusement of other travellers and the customs staff. It’s no surprise that the man from Connemara hadn’t emptied his hip flask properly and I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look on the face of the unsuspecting customs officer when he opened it to smell the contents. It must have been the first time Connemara Poitin made its way through customs at Dublin Airport.
After a long spell in customs we managed to drag ourselves and all our “Fifty shades of Grey” gear through and as far as the bar where we cheered and patted ourselves on the back for getting this far. We congratulated each other for being so good to ourselves for organising this weekend and for a few minutes we basked in the sheer excitement of what was going to come. As the plane soared into the sky we laughed and joked that I had a vision of my guardian angel dropping her head in her hands in despair.
We were all in great spirits when we landed, although in retrospect, I wish someone had cautioned me that drinking champagne in the air had more of an impact than normal. That would explain why I had to gingerly tip toe my way down the steps of the aircraft clutching desperately to the side rail. At the bag collection everyone was cracking their whips and pretending to call in the hounds to the great bewilderment of the slightly nervous public. We excitedly rounded up our last recruit, the bould Alan Clancy from Donegal. Having not seen him all year due to a hunting injury we were glad to be reunited once again for the banter and the craic- not to mention the obligatory jokes about how we hoped he didn’t break another bone out hunting.
We booked in to a local restaurant and after a lovely meal we decided we would have a quiet night and go for “one or two” in a local pub before tucking into bed early in anticipation of our days hunting the next day. Naturally, the hotel manager from Galway couldn’t help but order a round of Jagerbombs which were inevitably followed by more rounds and our downward spiral, a 3 o’clock in the morning chipper and then finally a quest for a 24 hour off-licence so we could fill our hip flasks in the morning. Unfortunately most of us never went to bed at all.
When Ciara the veterinary student from Galway who had sensibly gone to bed a few hours before us banged on our doors at 7.30am I thought the sky might fall in. I blearily pulled myself from the bed and attempted to find my clothes and get dressed. It was then and only then I realised that although I had gone through my gear twenty times before I left I had the house I had still managed to leave my hunt shirt behind.
I staggered downstairs to the others, one fake eye lash on, the other still semi attached. On examination of my options I concluded that my only resort was to wear Stevo Finn's disco shirt and wrap my stock around the front of it. The process of putting on said shirt and stock may have required the assistance of three people but the laugh will last a life time.
Trussed out in our spurs, whips, jackets and hats we all bundled in to two cars and headed to the meet. The car journey could be characterised as eventful to say the least. I don’t think any one of us will ever feel the same about Lionel Richie’s “What a feeling” after dancing to it like mad crazy people all the way to the hunt meet. The man from Connemara had drawn the short straw, uncomfortably seated in the seat in the boot, which was at the very back of the seven seater. The less than gentle rocking motion unfortunately did no favours for his seedy stomach and he proceeded to empty same into the hedge at the side of the car park on arrival at the meet. A truck pulled in with our hire horses and we all got very excited laughing and joking and taking pictures of each other. Nervously puffing on cigarettes we all lined up for a group photo and on reflection we do look like a bunch of bold school kids in it. Out came 10 beautifully turned out hunters suppiled by Rachel & Oli Finnegan from Leicestershire Hunter Hirelings and sales, we all fought, pulled and dragged out of each other until we were all legged up and hacking down the road.
A lawn meet to start the day found us all sat around sipping hot ports slowly clearing away the morning cobwebs. We promptly tipped off across the first field. I was glad to get going as I felt that my stomach and nerves couldn’t hang around much longer. My legs felt like jelly and I thought if I even chanced opening my mouth I might lose the contents or my stomach. Popping into canter made me think that I might actually fall off and at one stage I distinctly recall thinking-“maybe I'll just jump off into the nearest bush and get it over with”. Then came the first jump which was an enormous one foot rail that I'm pretty sure we could have done in a walk. I just sat and pointed(and maybe have even closed my eyes) . On landing, I got into a fit of giggles as my nerves dispersed and I heard the others laughing and jeering behind me taking the mick out of one another.
Once we were jumping from field to field I felt that sense of feeling alive and that familiar rush of adrenaline that one only gets from hunting and from the thrill of the chase. Then came the hedges, the glorious, glorious hedges. We spotted the first one when we saw a person leave the group and take a separate option, no one needed to ask us twice and we followed him in quick succession. Up and around a gap and then there I was galloping down to my first Ledbury hedge, da dum da dum da dum, up my gallant grey steed came and we sailed in unity through the air (well that's my story and I'm sticking to it, none of this 'you were fixing his teeth for him!' talk). On landing, the rush of adrenaline hit me and I squealed in excitement, shouting back to the others 'we'll live forever!'
Then bang, bang, bang, hedge after hedge after hedge they came. There were galloping across glorious open green fields in winter sunshine, jumping the famous Ledbury hedges and being able to share every minute with the best of friends and people. I wanted to scream with excitement and I think I may have, but no one heard me thank god.
There we were, a bunch of folk from all walks of life, all on different journeys but united in this unique love of not just the hunt but the horse. As Winston Churchill once said “there is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man”. I think we can all relate to that. Galloping across those fields, no breed nor creed, money nor power mattered, just a bunch of folk lusting after that same feeling. To feel the warm winter sun on your face, the butterflies rising in your belly, feeling the beat of the horse’s heart against your body and feeling your heart beating in unity with theirs. To feel the tears stream out of your eyes as you gallop together, horse and rider, man and beast.
The hunt staff and folk couldn't have been more welcoming and kind and although we got a few funny looks it was in pure amusement at our playful antics. We were kept going all day and we all had plenty of falls which earned ourselves plenty of hunt tumbler cards which we proudly took home.
As the day drew to a close, we sadly gave back our horses to the very kind hunt hire folk who thoughtfully dropped us off to the nearest pub. Having already drained our hip flasks we happily welcomed the warm fire where we could laugh relax and clapped ourselves on the back for surviving the day. We had a great laugh and joked with the local folk and watched William repeatedly falling asleep on his seat. Later we realised that his sleepiness was in fact caused from a possible concussion from falling three times in a row but lest there are any concerns, we can assure you that “no Williams were permanently harmed in the making of this weekend”.
Off we went out again that night, ate like kings and danced like hooligans. We even managed to hit our Cheltenham haunt of Club 21 and gave a nod to March plans (but that's another story)
It was such a fun way to spend a weekend with such a great bunch of people. We bonded over the beauty of hunting and reflected on how it brings people together. We all agreed on how fortunate we were to have an interest like this that gave us the opportunity to escape the everyday monotony of life, the adrenaline and the rush that it brings.
We ended our journey with a leisurely and relaxed Sunday morning breakfast, which turned out to be too relaxed as it resulted in a nail clinching drive to the airport where we just about made our flight to Dublin. I don’t think we stopped laughing and talking about it for weeks and weeks. It was truly one of the best weekends of our lives and I look forward to more in the future. Here’s to the next adventure!
(Photo credit Vikki Ross Photography)