News: Our Luxury Riding Vacations in Hounds Magazine

We were delighted to have our luxury riding vacations featured in the October edition of Hounds Magazine. Many thanks to the superb editorial team there for their support. You can read more about this cracking publication here.

Hounds magazine was started 28 years ago to fill a gap in the market for editorial coverage of foxhunting. It is dedicated solely to hunting with hounds and is full of excellent articles on foxhounds, bloodhounds, basset hounds and beagles. In fact, it definitely warrants its title!

One of the nicest elements of the magazine is the superb artwork that always graces the front page. Original paintings each month are chosen and they give the magazine a lovely traditional feel.

They certainly are the perfect thing to put in our guests’ rooms when they come to visit on our riding or hunting vacations.

Our Luxury Riding Vacations in Hounds Magazine

You can read the full article here:

We sometimes forget our cousins across the pond and their shared love of the chase. North America has over 155 hunts registered with their MFHA; their countries range from the soft deciduous hills of Virginia recognisable to any Englishman, to the arid deserts of Arizona and Texas more reminiscent of a western film.

Whatever the terrain, North American packs remain faithful to their English heritage. Drafted hounds, imported hunters and a troop of British and Irish hunt staff guarantee the field a strong echo of the old country.

For the American sportsman with an eye on the birthplace of hunting, a small travel company based in Somerset is now offering luxury hunting holidays with packs such as the Blackmore & Sparkford Vale, the Portman and the New Forest.

Run by Ben Darlington & Megan Corp, Blackthorn & Brook offers an all inclusive experience. “We match each customer to a good horse, choose a day that will suit their ability and even fill their flask with their favourite tipple!” says Megan. Out of the saddle, they source handpicked pubs and hotels, personally chauffeur their guests and arrange exciting and unusual diversions for non-hunting days.

The idea for luxury riding vacations grew out of the pair’s experience of working for Ben’s grandfather, Brigadier Peter Marzetti. The former MFH of the Blackmore Vale has been sending hunters to Virginia since the early 1990s. Over 30 horses have gone to the Blue Ridge Hunt where Jt. Master Anne McIntosh finds them homes on the East Coast.

“There’s a real taste out there for doing it the English way”, says Ben. “When Meg and I were hunting in Virginia, it seemed there were plenty of people who might like to come over and hunt, but perhaps would appreciate the whole package rather than just being handed a strange horse at the meet”.

Between them they seem to make a good team. Megan is an experienced horsewoman who was formerly head groom for the French showjumper Pierre Marie Dubois. Whilst she provides the guiding from the saddle, Ben is the man on the ground. “I love the rural history, architecture and natural life of the West Country, and I think our guests really enjoy being able to share that”.

With a successful season last year under their belt it seems the Americans agree – a dozen more foxhunters have signed up this year and are looking forward – as we all are – to some superb hunting this season.

 

 


Sloe Gin – a Refined Recipe

I readily admit that before hunting this week past I dug out my thermal long-johns. There can be no clearer fanfare for the arrival of the vernal seasons! Opening meet is fast approaching and the first bite of autumnal chill in the air. This bodes well for the hunting but also gets me thinking about my flask and what warming draught will keep spirits up covertside on those dark winter afternoons.

For all those who are thinking the same, I’d like to share my recipe for sloe gin.

sloe gin

Sloes are the nearly inedible fruit of the blackthorn tree. Our namesake bush is a stalwart of the hedgerow and the slate blue berries can be found for picking anytime after the middle of September into late October.

Sloes on the bush - this was a great year.

Sloes on the bush – this was a great year.

Sloe gin is the delightful tipple that comes from steeping the fruit in gin and sugar for an extended period of time. It is a hunting classic and a firm favourite with our guests.

To make a litre you will need 750 grams of sloes (26 oz), 350ml of gin (12.5 fl oz) and 170 grams of sugar (6oz).

Traditionally one had to wait until the first frost to harvest, so the skins would be split, but these days it is just as easy to take your batch and put them in the freezer over night. Wash them and remove the stalks and debri before they go in. You’ll notice that mine are unusually large and purple – this I think is because they are actually bullaces, reputedly a sloe-cherry hybrid. When it comes to the drinking I suspect it’s all the same…

Old country lore dictates that the sloe should be pricked with a thorn from the same bush, or even by a silver knitting needle, but as some wit once observed ‘they’re a prune darn it, not a blinking vampire!’

sloe gin

Washed and ready for bottling.

The method of production itself is easy. Take your defrosted sloes and stuff as many as you can into your glass vessel of choice, whilst leaving a couple of inches at the top. Old pub gin shoulders are good, but in their absence any old bottle will do. I have chosen these kilner jars with the sealing lids, they’re 1 litre capacity and take about 750g (26oz) of fruit.

Next add your sugar. And this, I believe, is the critical bit. The tendency is for too much and the final tincture will be sweet, medicinal and bereft of the delicate hedgerows flavours that make this drink special. I have put in 170 grams (6oz). You will need to shake the bottles to get it all in.

Sugaring sloe gin

Adding the sugar

Finally, add the gin. I managed to get about 350mm (12.5 fl oz) into our 1 litre pot.

Once assembled and the lid is on, you will need to shake the vessels twice a day for a week to make sure the sugar dissolves. After this is simply a case of hiding the bottles somewhere dark. The second critical point is PATIENCE. Immature sloe gin is like cough mixture, a fruity, alchoholic ribena. Time is the key here. 12 months steeping will bring out all the flavours, from the rich berry taste to the slight almond fragrance from the stones. If you can possibly manage it, exercise restraint and drink this year’s batch next year. It will be worth the wait.

sole gin

Come and visit us in 2015/16 and this will be your reward!

After about 9 months, crack a bottle open, put on your favourite smoking jacket and have a little try in front of the fire. If it needs more sugar, add it now. Then, when the time comes to decant your brew, strain the liquid off into prepared bottles using muslin and there you go. Your fellow subscribers will crowd to your side after every memorable run for a sample of your famous sloe gin. Whether you choose to share it is down to you…


Countryside Alliance Auction – New York 2014

Countryside AllianceSome very exciting news this month is that Blackthorn & Brook will be supporting the Countryside Alliance’s North American Chapter at their auction in New York.

The auction will be held on Wednesday 19th November 2014 at the Racquet & Tennis Club, New York and raise money for Countryside Alliance in the UK. An event that has run for over 25 years, we are honoured to announce that a Blackthorn & Brook hunting vacation will be among the lots in 2014.

Each year the auction catalogue is stuffed with exciting sporting opportunities. Past years have boasted salmon fishing on the river tweed, shooting at Caerhays Castle in Cornwall and hunting with some of England’s finest packs.

If you would like a chance to bid please contact Lady Emma Mancroft of the Countryside Alliance at theladymancroft[at]countryside-alliance.org and quote Blackthorn & Brook.

FOXHUNTING VACATION

Foxhunting with the Portman Hunt

SHOOTING

Shooting at Caerhays

Our offering is a luxurious four-night stay in England for two. On the itinerary are a day’s hunting with the Blackmore & Sparkford Vale Hunt, a long ride around the breathtaking Stourhead Estate and a night at the theatre in London.

As ever, you can anticipate, safe, high quality horses, a prize-winning English Country pub as your lodgings and a Range Rover and driver on hand throughout (including airport service from London). You can find the full listing via the countryside alliance – again please contact Lady Mancroft via the details above.

Unfortunately both we are guiding a vacation on the day of the auction because we would have loved to have been there! Happy bidding!


Hedge-hopping Hints

My top moment of any Blackthorn & Brook holiday comes just after our guests pull up from a run having encountered their first hedge.  They make a fuss of their horse, turn to me and grin: ‘I see what you mean about sitting up!!’

‘Hedge-hopping’ is a much talked about feature of our holidays.  The subject is met with excitement, trepidation, anticipation, fear, bravado and everything in between as it really is an unknown quantity for the vast majority of our American guests.  We have all heard that there is no substitute for experience.  However, a little preparation never goes amiss, and anything to concentrate on to distract from pre-hunting nerves gets the thumbs up from us.

It is in this spirit that we have put together a short video  and accompanying blog below, explaining a little of how we prepare ourselves and our horses for popping the hedges in style!  This isn’t meant as a concrete instructional guide, but more as a collection of basic principles  that work for us.  If anyone has any questions/challenges/improvements/ideas, we’d love to hear from you!

Starting point

We understand that not everybody has the facilities to school their horse on an all-weather surface and practice over a cross-country course (and neither do we!).  These exercises can be mimicked with very basic drums and poles and the odd cross country fence.  A hedge-like appearance can be given to a fence with the help of some brushwood or similar – the idea is to get used to a ‘hairier’ looking fence.

1

Meg checks her balance – no need for smart facilities!

Ideas to consider

  • The main difference between jumping a hedge and jumping a rail is that you can’t see through a hedge! This means that often you and your horse don’t know how wide it is, or what is on the other side.  There could be a ditch, wire, a boggy patch of ground or a big drop. 
  • To guard against the unknown, and make sure we stay in the plate:
    • It is often better to ‘attack’ a hedge with a bit more impulsion than we would a rail, to make sure we clear the width of the hedge, plus any ditch.
    •  It is better not to worry about seeing a stride.  An experienced horse will do it for you. (Don’t worry – Blackthorn & Brook’s horses all know their job!)
    • A more upright position (particularly on landing) helps to stop us from being thrown forward on landing.
    • We need to allow the reins to slide through our hands to make sure we don’t jab our horse in the mouth, and to allow him to balance.
Soft hands and impulsion in the practice field - under Grandpa's watchful eye!

Soft hands and impulsion means my horse can really stretch over a hedge in the practice field – under Grandpa’s watchful eye!

Rider’s position

The aim is to remain safely in the saddle without getting in the way of our horse.  We find the following three principles helpful:

  • Legs – Keep them strong around the horse to give him confidence and maintain impulsion, with heels down as always.  It helps to try not to let them creep too far back as you jump, as this will make you tip forward on landing.
  • Hands – ‘Soft’ hands are important so the horse can stretch and stays confident. During any ‘iffy’ moments, it’s good to get in the habit of grabbing the neck strap to keep your balance, letting the reins slide so that the horse can balance himself.
  • Sitting up – Sitting and looking up keeps your weight back, making sure you aren’t thrown forward on landing, should there be any little surprises!
Sitting up and letting the reins slide makes sure y horse stays confident and I stay in the plate!

Sitting up on landing, with legs forward and letting the reins slide makes sure my horse stays confident and I stay in the plate!

The Horse

Any horse you ride on one of our holidays will know his job.  He will also be used to being left pretty well alone to tackle a hedge.  To make his job easier, and to keep safe, we keep the following in mind:

  • Rhythm – It is good to maintain a strong, forward canter into a hedge to make sure you clear its full width.
  • Straightness – As with any fence, it is important to stay straight.  In particular with hedges, it stops you making them wider than they are by jumping on an angle, and if everyone holds their line, it makes sure there are no collisions!
  • Positivity – Riding positively keeps the horse confident – he’ll keep jumping for you all day!

Final Thoughts

The video this blog accompanies can be found below- enjoy! We look forward to seeing you mounted on a Blackthorn & Brook horse, jumping hedges in style with us in the very near future!


10 Inspired Things to do with a Red Telephone Box

Walking through our village this week I noticed that our iconic red telephone box is enjoying a fresh coat of paint and a new vocation. The old phone is long gone to make way for a tiny village library.

Given the threat that these historic red landmarks must be facing from the ubiquity of the mobile phone, it’s exciting to see that people are finding inspired ways to keep the telephone box at the centre of village life. Here are my top-ten ideas for recycling a red telephone box:

1: A Village Library

 

phone_box_book_swap

 

2: A Local Tourism Office

tourist office phone box

3: A Sofa!

telephone box sofa

4: An Art Gallery

Smallest Art Gallery

5:  A Smokery (thanks Jamie Oliver!)

Smokery Telephone box

6: A First Aid station with defibrillator

first_aid_station

7: A Cash Machine

cash_machine

8:  A Loo!

red_telephone_box_loo

9: An Art Installation:

art_installation10: A Shower Cubicle

shower


Ludlow Hunt Ball 1930 at Croft Castle

hunt_ball_dinner

The splendid ‘Hure de Marcassin aux Pistaches’ or Boar’s Head stuffed with Pistachios.

In late April I went to visit my Grandmother in Ludlow. Given the bright spring-like weather and Granny’s boundless energy we set off to explore Croft Castle, a fortified country house near Hereford, and discovered a fascinating bit of foxhunting history.

croft_castle

Croft Castle – a building has stood here since the 11th century and current castellated manor since the 14th century. To the left is St. Michael’s Church.

Croft is set on a gentle slope with long-ranging views of Shropshire and Herefordshire. There is an exquisite walled garden, which, given the month, was rich with apple blossom and bright spring flowers. The stables, replete with decorative brass fittings have been restored and the handsome farm buildings are still in use. Mature parkland surrounds the house and is dominated by a triple row of majestic Spanish chestnut trees. One of these is one of 50 ‘Great British Trees’ recognised on the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002.

chestnut_tree

The celebrated Spanish Chestnut

 

The most engaging part of the visit was without doubt the dining room. Inspired by a menu from the 1930 Ludlow Hunt Club Ball, the National Trust (who now own the property) have put together an exhibit of the grand event given by Lady Margaret Croft.

From the discovery of the menu amongst the personal ephemera of a family member, the Trust appealed to local people through regional papers to track down as much information about the night as possible. A contemporary article from the ‘Ludlow Advertiser’ reported that ‘the arrangements had been excellently made and guests numbered around 250’.

2014-04-29 15.49

The original 1930 menu.

It also mentions that ‘Newman’s Band’ provided the entertainment and parking valets were provided by both the Royal Automobile Club (RAC) and the Automobile Association (AA)  .

The menu itself gives an intriguing insight into the party and the social scene of the time. The dishes (provided by Harris’s Caterers of the West, Hereford) are all listed in French – a peculiar fancy of British gourmands to this day! Amongst the treats were Viennese Ham Mousse, Strawberry Bavarois and the splendid ‘Hure de Marcassin aux Pistaches’ or Boar’s head stuffed with Pistachios!

lady_margaret

Lady Margaret Croft who gave the Ball.

James and Katherine Croft, who organised the 1930 ball at their ancestral family home. Picture courtesy National Trust.

James and Katherine Croft in full hunting garb. Love the britches! Picture courtesy National Trust.

 

My favourite details is that ‘au depart’ guests were given fried eggs and bacon and a mug of soup!

As you’d expect the tables are laid beautifully with silver service and each table is lit by a lamp with a hunting scene depicted on the shade. If anyone is wondering whether the event would be more decorous than our raucous hunt balls today, I think probably not: there was a considerable quantity of booze on hand!

The one thing I would have loved to have seen would have been more photos of the night – it would be fascinating to get a glimpse of the great and good in attendance and the fashions of the day.

Hunt balls continued to be held at the castle until the 1960s. Today the Ludlow Hunt still rides across the estate. I feel more than inspired to try and arrange a visit next season – anyone else?

croft_castle_gate

The main gate at Croft.

hunt_ball_table

Plenty of silver to polish on the tables – looks almost as smart as one of our picnics!

hunt_lamps

Detail of the hunting scene on the lamp.


Riding in Hyde Park

Just to disprove that horse-riding is only for us rural folk. I caught this picture with my phone of a group riding in Hyde Park – bang in the middle of London. 2014-03-16 14.54.30They must be good horses, they were fending off roller-bladers, skate boards, hoards of bicycles and the taxi and police car seen in the photo!

 


Do you remember jumping your first hedge?


As promised, here is our second attempt at a hedge-hopping film!

It captures something that not many of us have the luxury to have preserved in techni-colour glory: the first time you jumped a hedge.

It’s a big moment, right?

In the case of one of our recent guests however, helmet camera, hedge and Megan’s astonishing capacity to jump on auto pilot all came together and the moment is caught forever.

Lucky she didn’t bin it into the ditch is all I can say!

I know there is still room for improvement on the editing front. Practise makes perfect as they say. At the moment we’re using the basic GOPRO software; if anyone can recommend a more sophisticated program we’d love to hear from you.

 


Hedge Jumping with the Blackmore & Sparkford Vale

We recently decided that a helmet camera would be a great addition to our equipment. The sight of huntsman and hounds is always picturesque and a light-weight camera would give us a great way to share the excitement of the field and some of the extraordinary views of the countryside that one only gets a glimpse of when following hounds.

It just so happened that a day or two after our GoPro camera arrived, the Blackmore & Sparkford Vale Hunt had a Saturday meet in the vale country with lots of meaty hedges! Megan bit the bullet, faced some inquisitive looks and questions at the meet and took on the country in fine style!

Here’s the finished video, hedge jumping and all!

This is our first attempt at both shooting and editing a film and we can see there is some room for improvement. Nonetheless we’re really excited about getting out and capturing more footage of the countryside and our riding adventures.

In fact, we’re already working on our second video. Last week we had three guests from Richmond, Virginia join us for their first foxhunting experience in England. Watch this space for footage from their trip!

 

 

 


Visiting the Duke of Beaufort’s Hunt

One of the great joys of our sport is that two days are never the same.  Over the past couple of days I have enjoyed two very different meets: the same game, but in two very different settings.

On Saturday we took four horses up to visit the Duke of Beaufort’s Hunt at Acton Turville. It was a huge meet amid some beautiful countryside around the Badminton Estate.

Button- sewing and tea-drinking in the lorry - 90 minutes well spent!

Button- sewing and tea-drinking in the lorry – 90 minutes well spent!

We were up early before the long drive, and to make sure our horses were immaculate to fly the Blackmore Vale flag on unfamiliar turf!

Getting ready to go at the Duke of Beaufort's Hunt

My horse looking fresh after his long trip and early start

 

Polo professional and host at the Duke of Beaufort's Hunt

Polo professional and host Roddy looking dashing in his vintage coat

 It is always strange when visiting that the field so resembles what you are used to at home, just with different faces. We were soon introduced to a number of characters by our host, and managed some cheeky ‘celebrity-spotting’: we spied a couple of England polo players and even one of the masters of The Piedmont Hunt, VA!

162 Horses + 48 bottles of port + several tonnes of sausage rolls = Beaufort-scale catering at the meet!

162 Horses + 48 bottles of port + several tonnes of sausage rolls = Beaufort-scale catering at the meet!

 It was a real privilege to be part of something as grand as this Saturday with the Beaufort.  At one point we galloped for five miles along a drove of ancient turf – perfect going compared with the waterlogged farmland we have down in Somerset and Dorset at the moment.

The Badminton Estate is an amazing place.  You can feel the history – time stands still in the idyllic villages of Little Badminton and Acton Turville. Turning a corner to be faced with the magnificent Badminton House, home of the Duke of Beaufort and the hunt kennels, surrounded by its world-famous cross-country course took my breath away.

The field at the Duke of Beaufort's Hunt

The field canters away from the meet with hounds ahead, just about to enter the first covert

In contrast, yesterday morning’s meet saw 20 mounted followers at one of the Blackmore & Sparkford Vale’s smaller meets at Bush Farm, Babcary.

The Blackmore & Sparkford Vale at Bush Farm, Babcary

The Blackmore & Sparkford Vale

I gave the horses a day off and arrived at the meet on foot. Pretty handy as it was between the stables and my office – a five minute drive! I knew nearly everyone on their feet and mounted, and had a good chat (mostly about the previous Saturday with the Beaufort) and breakfast of sausage rolls, ginger cake and port.

The sport was good on both days, viewing hounds streaming away through the Gloucestershire countryside and hearing them speaking well across the fields  on Monday (frustratingly audible from the office) both gave me goose-bumps!

Going visiting makes me really appreciate all that is great about our local pack: knowing the meets and the people; being able to turn up at the drop of a hat to enjoy a sausage roll and a good chat; knowing where to park and who to follow.

Equally, seeing a pack through the eyes of a visitor reminds me of the spectacle of hunting, its history and how lucky we are to be part of this wonderful, timeless scene.

To find out more about the Duke of Beaufort’s Hunt see here.

For the Blackmore & Sparkford Vale’s website see here.

 

 


  1. Let us know if you have any questions or leave your details and either Ben or Megan will be in touch.
Please note, throughout our website we use the term fox hunting to mean all of the activities carried out by our participating hunts operating within the constraints of the Hunting Act 2004.