The perfect hunt ball is the headiest of concoctions, bringing together a kaleidoscope of guests who are as gung-ho crossing country as they are on the dance floor, says Madeleine Silver
“I have been to so many incredibly dreadful parties and you have to sit next to such boring people. But at the perfect hunt ball no one says ‘How many children have you got?’ and ‘Where do they go to school?’” says side-saddle hunting doyenne Martha, Lady Sitwell, who breathes a sigh of relief at the thought of these hunt calendar jamborees. “You’re all much beyond that; there’s a camaraderie. And, OK, there might be an auction but it’s not there for people to show off: it’s to raise money for the hunt. At some of the charity balls in London that are full of hedge funders, there’s a lot of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. But the hunt ball is so egalitarian: the terrierman and the old-money Master party together, and I love that.”
Lady Sitwell has nearly 30 years’ worth of hunt balls under her belt, each time bedecked in long vintage. However, ask her to divulge any of the debauchery and she’s admirably discreet. Ranks are closed but by the time life-saving bacon sarnies are being devoured what is certain is that there will be stories to be told. When Jilly Cooper wrote in You magazine in the 1980s about the fabulous time she and her husband Leo had had at the Cotswold hunt ball, complete with racy photos of the Queen of Bonkbusters kissing Leo’s best friend, her dress falling off, she was swiftly asked to resign from her post as chairman of the mid-Gloucestershire branch of the RSPCA.
Hunt ball festivities are distinctly ‘Chaucerian’
Imprinted on the memory of the Vale of the White Horse (VWH) chairman Gavin MacEchern is the vision from the late ’80s of a friend appearing in a taffeta dress late into the evening having swapped clothes “head and legs sticking out, and his very pretty girlfriend in fishnet tights, with a white waistcoat on top, a white bow tie, no shirt and the red tailcoat”. But it is perhaps model Edie Campbell, who flitted between fashion’s glitziest parties and hunt balls when she was dating the South Shropshire’s former Joint Master Otis Ferry, who best captured their inimitable lure in The Spectator. ‘There’s really nothing better than a hunt ball: the food is guaranteed to be unidentifiable and will be washed down with Jägerbombs; somebody will snog the huntsman’s wife, get knocked out, lie unconscious in a ditch, only to be roused by the wafting odours of the bacon butties passed around at 3am,’ she wrote.
Where hunt balls once began with dinner parties in private houses, before well-oiled guests moved on to the ball at around 10.30pm to dance and sit down for a breakfast of kedgeree in the early hours, brave committee members can now find themselves organising sit-down dinners for well over 500 guests. “As soon as one ball is finished, we think about the date for the next one,” says VWH hunt secretary Rosie Cowell (née Garton), who has been at the helm of the festivities with three best friends for four years. “We’re all just turning 30 or in our early thirties and certainly between the four of us have racked up quite a few hunt balls in our twenties.
“The first time we met with the marquee company we were very strict that no one should be able to gatecrash the marquee. We said: ‘Look, we’ve probably been to enough hunt balls to know how they’ll do it,’” she laughs. Here is a ball with form: within 24 hours of announcing the date last year, Cowell had numerous bands clambering to play, thanks to a reputation garnered over the preceding decades. At a grand house outside Tetbury in the mid-1990s, HM King Charles III, then Prince of Wales, was spotted on the dance floor at the VWH ball, the late Badminton commentator Michael Tucker conducted the auction, and 1,500 eggs were used for a showstopping breakfast. The following year at Williamstrip Park the new fountain took centre stage and dancing was so energetic that condensation dripped from the marquee ceiling.
The VWH hunt balls ‘have form’
When MacEchern hosted the VWH ball at his home near Fairford in Gloucestershire in the late ’80s and early ’90s, flowers adorned the stairway and rooms, the dance floor was in the sitting room (before it later moved into a marquee on the floodlit lawn through the French windows) and dancing was to MacEchern’s friend Mike d’Abo & His Mighty Quintet. “In the late ’80s the hunt ball was something where the generations mixed well,” remembers MacEchern, now in his seventies. “Go back 35 years and the relationship between parents and children was more formal than it is now. In those days it was much more Sir or Mrs or Lady, but when you met on the hunting field you were all together, you broke down barriers. And the hunt ball was all the generations together.”
The pancake-flat polo pitches at Cirencester Park have been the stage for the VWH’s recent balls, and the roads leading to them across Earl Bathurst’s estate are sufficiently reliable to lower the blood pressure of any organiser. “If someone offers a field in February that can be a bit of a nightmare [with cars getting stuck in the mud], so having that infrastructure helps,” says Cowell, who is stringent about other practicalities. Loos need to be within easy reach, alcohol supplies abundant, multiple bars avoid mood-killing queues and communication with subscribers about when tickets are on sale is paramount.
There’s a strict cap on the number of auction lots – “no one wants to be sitting at a table and nodding off”, warns Cowell – however generous the prizes. Think a private day’s hunting, a lesson with a professional polo player or a magnum of raspberry gin. Would-be hunt ball organisers also need to be wary of letting the committee get too big: “With a really big committee you spend the time planning the committee meetings rather than the ball. Everyone’s proud to hunt with their pack and say that it’s our hunt ball this weekend. And a lot of the success is down to the support from all our subscribers,” says Cowell.
HRH The Prince of Wales made an appearance
Some 250 miles further north in Northumberland, the Tynedale ball has a similarly raucous reputation to uphold, with the field bolstered by at least 40 visitors descending on hunt-ball day to get their pre-party adrenaline fix. Most recently it has been at the livestock auctioneers Hexham & Northern Marts “which is brilliant because it has a massive hardstanding car park and is easy to get to,” says committee member Pip Nixon, despite an admirable scramble to set it up after the Friday market day. But at its home in the early noughties at Welton Hall the benchmark for merriment was set. HRH The Prince of Wales, then Prince William of Wales, once made an appearance, vodka jelly was inhaled, there are tales of revellers stranded in a snowdrift, a spontaneous ‘full monty’ and casualties off the ha-ha.
For equestrian artist Madeleine Bunbury, it was the South & West Wilts 2019 ball that still rings in her ears. “Like any great party, you are going to have the most fun when you’re with a group of your own close friends. For me, the South & West Wilts ball was better than all the other bigger, fancier balls because after years of hunting with this small pack it was such a delight to see everyone dressed up and not on a horse for once. I am an avid rock ’n’ roll dancer – electro or house music does nothing for me – so the fact that this one had a fun band blasting out all the old classics was just up my street,” she says.
“Set in an old barn, beautifully decorated with foliage and flowers, [it was] more like a boutique wedding than the grand, white marquee that houses all the other balls I go to. And what they also had, which was fabulous, was a reel of black-and-white vintage hunting videos playing on a big screen.” It’s these touches that committee members have become savvy to. The Quorn set the bar for post-dinner entertainment with a pole dancer one year and an eyes-on-stalks spectacle of an angle grinder from Britain’s Got Talent who danced around in a metal leotard for another.
At a perfect hunt ball, the revellers are still jumping hedges
At the Tynedale a thrills-and-spills slideshow of photos from that day’s hunting was shown at a recent ball, they’ve had girls with shots going around the tables and have ditched a starter in favour of canapés (“because everyone wants to talk and mingle when they arrive”, says Nixon). Never scrimping on the band is the advice that Belvoir committee member Daniel Russell swears by, whether their ball is in the Disney-worthy surroundings of Belvoir Castle or Melton Market. But, as Russell says, it’s more than the music that accounts for the vigour of a hunt ball; it’s that hours earlier these partygoers were on the hunting field together, as gung-ho crossing country as they are on the dance floor. “They have stories they can come and tell, they’re excited and they’re still jumping hedges,” he believes.
Writing in The Guardian after hosting a hunt ball at her Midlands home, the historian and journalist Leanda de Lisle perhaps best made the case for the hunt ball as a showcase for all of society. ‘My half-Peruvian husband, who is Master of Foxhounds (MFH), dressed in a scarlet evening coat and stood with the ball’s organisers to greet people as they arrived in our hall. They included a polo pony trainer, another MFH, my parents-in-law, a Peruvian headhunter, a writer, a doctor and a documentary filmmaker. A mixed bag, but no more so than the farmers, GPs, hunt servants, dailies, businessmen, builders and vets who wended their way towards the marquee.’ And it’s this kaleidoscope from every walk of life, against the sound of a horn summoning people for dinner, the flash of red coats on the dance floor and the adrenaline of a day’s hunting coursing through the sea of revellers that makes a hunt ball the headiest of concoctions.
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