The lifelong adventurist, ace tennis player, fieldsports enthusiast and now an outdoor clothing supremo shares her family’s love of sport
Brought up in Northumberland and introduced to fieldsports at a very young age, sport is a family affair for Lady Melissa Percy. From a surprise catch aged seven to launching her new outdoor clothing line, Lady Melissa Percy shares her sporting story.
Our new column celebrates seriously sporting ladies and offers encouragement and advice. For more, Zara Tindall shares why a career in eventing was a natural progression for her. And Rachel Carrie is taking on her greatest challenge yet, tacking the misconceptions surrounding fieldsports.
LADY MELISSA PERCY
I was brought up in Northumberland, one of the largest counties in the UK with the smallest population, blessed with stunning beaches, craggy moorland, rolling hills and plentiful wildlife. My father is a passionate countryman and being taught to fish and shoot was part of our basic education from a young age. He never differentiated between his sons and daughters and we were all given equal opportunity.
Fieldsports were not pushed on us. Dad always wanted us to enjoy our days outside and never forced us to stick out a whole day in torrential rain. Mum would pack a big bag of sweets, a flask of hot Ribena and our Game Boys so we could sit in the car with the heater on if we were too cold to shoot. This kind of encouragement is rare in my experience. My parents always just wanted us to enjoy the day.
As a result of this relaxed attitude to country life, we all appreciate and love our days together. Shooting as a family, with assorted badly behaved dogs, are the days we all love best. My father always says he loves having us all in the line and he organises his shoots around our availability, which is pretty amazing.
At the age of seven I caught my first salmon on the Spey. Unbeknown to me, I had fished all week with a piece of Sellotape on my line instead of a fly because my parents couldn’t cope with the four of us catching each other. On the last day, Mum insisted I have a fly put on my small trout rod and I went out in a boat with a ghillie holding it while ducking furiously as I thrashed the pool with huge enthusiasm. Suddenly I felt a pull and remember saying I thought I might be stuck on the bottom when the rod was almost pulled out of my hands. I had hooked an 18lb salmon.
Sport runs in the family (my mother’s great uncle, Max Woosnam, was an extraordinary man who won at Wimbledon and Olympic gold at Antwerp in 1920; captained Manchester City and England; scored a century at Lords; was a scratch golfer and an ace ping-pong player). From the age of four, with no tuition, I showed an aptitude for hand/eye coordination. I learned a lot about sport from watching Dad playing with my older siblings and he taught both Katie, my older sister, and me to throw overarm from a young age. As a result, we can both throw as far as most men. These skills and practice at a young age helped me out fishing so much, as I found that casting a line was much the same as throwing a ball and I quickly learned to Spey cast. Basically, it’s all about timing, which is probably my motto in life.
In a nutshell, my sporting career flourished after this early introduction. I played county hockey and tennis, and won a sports scholarship to Millfield School. Aged 14, I was given the opportunity to train in Florida to become a professional tennis player and from that went on to become number one in doubles and number two in singles in the under-18s in England. Later, I played on the WTA circuit. I loved the work ethic but missed my family and a normal life so when I reached 20, I spent a year at Leith’s School of Food and Wine and retrained as a chef. I also worked as a coach at The Queen’s Club.
I returned home for weekends and holidays at Alnwick, where I quickly picked up where I left off and loved being with my very special Norfolk terrier, Frank. Frank was my constant companion on all my outdoor adventures. He retrieved, adored watching me fish and would sit on my grouse butt watching grouse building in the distance and marking them as they fell.
I have always been an adventurist, as have my whole family, and currently on my wish list is Canada for its salmon fishing.
I now try to keep a balance between London life and country life. After 10 days in the city I long for fresh air and the space to breathe and play. I know that almost as soon as I walk through the door, Dad will challenge me to a game of something. Competition is always part of our life at home.
Recently, I’ve developed a collection of vibrant, outdoor clothing that can be worn in both an urban and a rural setting. I saw there was a gap for affordable, flattering and fun country clothes, which could be worn anywhere by anyone and hence the brand was born. It’s called “Mistamina” and building the brand has been a fantastic experience and journey so far.
TOP TIP: The best tip I can give as a sportsman is practice, practice, practice… it’s a lot more enjoyable when you are good at something. And from an outdoor country girl’s perspective “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad kit”. I always take out a few jackets with me as waterproof doesn’t always stand the test when up against the elements.