Just spent a freezing day next to a horse jump on a course traced onto the windswept hills our side of Hadrian’s Wall, covering a point-to-point in view of a still-occupied castle where lived the landowners and hosts of this meet, which was complete with a massive marquis and the attendees mostly in tweeds the colour of fresh hay, blending in with the dry grass of the farmland more like moorland, as pale green as the sky was blue. Everyone in flat caps, and Hunter boots, and a few Barbours, parked up in Landrovers and Nissan 4x4s and Audis, many with beautiful dogs that all breed litter after litter and are pets – but working pets, who are meant to retrieve slain birds when Henry’s going shooting, and so on.
Hours in the sunshine, every half hour watching a fleet of horses running towards me, I’d count the bobbing heads of approaching jockeys before the jump, then this wall of horse would thunder up and over and I’d count the heads going away, hopefully all there, no heads on the floor, hoofs upon them, and on the group radio colleagues report in after regular pauses as the racers go round, ‘fence one, clear,’ ‘fence two, all clear,’ ‘fence three one fallen… ‘
Only the second jump there was a big smash, on horse tripped and went down and took two more with it, three half tons of horse thumping into the cloddy grass at 20 mph with another half dozen hoofing over them, you can feel the ground shake from all the energy of the impact, meanwhile the poor rider got hoofed (or kneed?) very badly, I radio in ‘Fence 2 to control – three down! Three down …’ then one got up, then two, so ‘ Fence 2, two, no, one down, one still down’ and ventured onto the track, where this woman was writhing in agony, but almost as soon as I was there her mates were too, and as my mind goes blank – me assuming that if you get smashed by a horse, and she’s rolling around crying in pain, she must have broken ribs? Punctured lung? Cancer? TB? – while the course doctor is here in seconds anyway and says straight off ‘she’s winded, she’d OK, let her lie there, let her lie there,’ and soon enough this woman soon sits up, stops crying, declares ‘Bugger!’ and hobbles off, even does another race two hours later, and comes off again, again without great injury.
Everyone seemed to know one another, but at least spoke to one another with such jolly confidence, not even confidence maybe as they spoke to me, a stranger, the same way, as if they were simply in some ‘you are there and I will talk to you’ Pavlovian response to people, but nicely. Three women kept me company at the fence with high-viz, flags, sandwiches, and explanations. One lady on horse-back was pointed out as being of particular note as she was ‘absolutely tough as! She’s in the next race, in her 50s, still going, absolutely marvellous woman! Here she comes, watch this!’ and this woman with a head scarf (no helmet unless I’m embellishing things) saw us and trotted over and shouted ‘it’s never anything less than fucking brass monkeys is it! Hopefully some young ‘uns will fucking freeze off their rides and I’ll win!’ – to ROARS of laughter. ‘Told you she’s absolutely wonderful!’ said my guide.
I was told they’d all come from all around, from Yorkshire to Aberdeen (which would take forever with a horse-box), as the number of meets has dwindled as owning horses has fallen, so a meet like this has a much greater draw, if not be that much bigger for it. Yet for all their breadth of origin, they all sounded Home Counties
One chap who reminded me a shade of Malcolm Rifkind to look at came up and said jovially, ‘I suppose you’re just waiting for some massive pile-up so you can really get your teeth into it, eh?!’, and he beamed. I said well maybe when I’m sure I know what I’m doing I’ll look forward to it, otherwise watching them all hurdle the hedge successfully is really quite a relief.
‘Ha! I remember I was in a point-to-point near Morpeth, years ago now of course, don’t ride any more, but I was in this race with my brother, and we were pounding along, and he came off, and whacked the ground, and swallowed his tongue! Gulp! Very dangerous of course but the first aid man came over and spotted this very quickly, very good on him, anyway we had to go round the course twice and the second time I come along and I see my brother still there lying on the ground, and I think ‘Christ he’s dead!’ but carried on of course, it was a race, but you know, he was lucky.’
Today was a fun Sunday. Another world of people on a circuit that I’d never really known existed … cakes and fine horses to boot.