Taking a tumble with grace, or at least a sense of humour. Falling off out hunting is not infra dig, Sarah Fitzpatrick explains; it’s a way into the exclusive tumblers club and a hunt’s most enjoyable do of the season
The tumblers club is an exclusive society, reserved only for those who have hit the ground in pursuit. Sarah Fitzpatrick investigates the sweeping popularity of the tumblers club, and wonders how many fake an involuntary dismount just for a ticket to the best party of the year.
Suitably spectacular falls are guaranteed to be met with glee, but hunting’s deadly sins will not. Check you aren’t falling foul, read 7 deadly hunting sins. Are you guilty?
“Just taking a soil sample… dropped my whip… thought I saw a Roman coin.” No, none of the excuses will wash and there are now hawk eyes watching you from every copse and verge. I have (metaphorically) fallen foul of a “Tumblers Club” for losing my stirrups when my steed tripped in a rabbit hole. J’accuse is enough; never mind Zola, it’s like the French Revolution out there. Today, out hunting, Big Brother is watching you – but in a good cause.
We should not be surprised by the genesis and proliferation of tumblers’ clubs; hunting folk have ever taken falls in good heart. They have to – everyone has them, it’s just a part of the game – and combining as they often do the comedy classics of pratfall and custard pie (or in this case mud) in face, they’re often a source of hilarity.
The claim to be the original hunt tumblers club will be contentious; we are a tight-knit community and once a few packs had tested the going the idea took off. One or two, such as the Quorn, have decided not to follow the herd but the majority of hunts seem to penalise an “involuntary” nowadays.
BLACKMORE & SPARKFORD VALE TUMBLERS CLUB
Mike Batten runs a particularly tight ship at the Blackmore & Sparkford Vale (BV) Tumblers Club. He has a spreadsheet detailing every upset since 2003 (the BV was an early adopter). Though some of the statistics may make you blanch it’s no more than one might expect from challenging country and a hard-riding field. The ledger tends to record a lot of the same names from season to season, “the ones that are trying” Batten confirms. The winning tumbler usually has between five and nine falls to his or her name; one unlucky soul clocked up five tumbles in just five days out.
At the BV there is no dishonour in hitting the deck; the huntsman once won with six falls over the season. “It’s a fun little thing, people think I’m like the Grim Reaper,” Batten says of a moniker he seems quite content with. And, of course, there is a team of spotters to make sure that even if the scythe-wielding one himself is not present infractions are still recorded; and they are wise to tricks: “The young chaps, jockeys, are so quick to jump up that you have to spot the mud on their coats.” Most seem happy enough to get caught, though, “Some people, come the end of the season, will just offer £10 saying they fell off when there’s no evidence.” Perhaps looking for a way in to the party?
The annual dinner – a highlight of the social season – is for fallers and their partners only, no chance for anyone else to buy a ticket. The most frequent faller acts as after dinner speaker and apparently there has yet to be a bad one; the pressure must be startling. It is a thoroughly enjoyable evening and forges good relationships, Batten assures me.“One farmer really got into the gang through his attendance at our dinner.” When we spoke in February there had been “only” 70 falls to date but they “hadn’t had the runs and jumping yet to get falls”. On an average season between £900 and £1,400 is raised for hunt funds. Batten explains, “If you’ve fallen, you’ve likely broken a fence so we’re helping pay to mend them.” Certainly worth a tenner when you’ve got the hooley to look forward to. And for those who anticipate a rash of inadvertent dismounts it is possible to compound for the season by paying £30 at the first fall.
The East Cornwall takes a different tack. “We’re a moorland country, not a jumping country, but people still fall off,” Master Linsey Higgins’s husband Graham explained, and when it’s in the middle of Bodmin Moor the air ambulance can be a lifeline. Rather than take money from unfortunate fallers the East Cornwall claims a forfeit of booze – in the manner of cavalry fines. They “have a bit of a barbecue and barn dance, fallers bring a bottle of port and the rest buy tickets to raise money for the air ambulance”.
TUMBLERS CLUB: LESS FORMAL ARRANGEMENTS
The neighbouring North Cornwall has had a less formal arrangement for four or five years as their tumblers club and given an award only three times. “I’ve won it twice and am heading for a third,” admits Ann Kent. “We’re working up to fines and are thinking of a special award for longest and most complicated excuse for a fall.” There is pride in having champion point-to-point jockey Will Biddick on the list. Will the next stage be inter-hunt competition for the most impressive “celebrity” faller?
Not all packs are hard line about tumbling, Henry Bankes-Jones tells me that the Bicester’s tumblers club “is wholly elective. Some people are mortified by falling off and others just think it is a laugh. A lot is conducted on Facebook and we have photographers of different levels of professionalism who lie in wait to pap a fall.”
I am delighted to note the hunt’s “equal opportunities” approach with followers on bicycles being invited to pay £10 per tumble, too. Some packs, including the Berkeley, charge foot fallers and surely in these enlightened times equality for falls off two legs or four should be a given.
Unlike the Blackmore Vale, the Bicester charges during autumn hunting although Bankes-Jones concedes that “the ground is often hard so humour is diminished”. The money raised is split between hunt funds and charity and there is no restriction on attending the end-of-season party.
There is no quarter given at the Belvoir. Ten spotters (whose identities are cloaked in mystery) keep omniscient eyes on the field so any and all penalties are ruthlessly enforced. The tumblers club has been running for nine seasons and is described as an “elite society” but I suspect that most of the field have earned membership during that time. Over 18s are stung £10 per unseated rider or £5 for a horse fall (a kind distinction). Bribery and corruption are actively encouraged in an effort to bolster funds which are split 50/50 between the hunt and local air ambulances – to date that’s over £9,000, strong evidence that Belvoir country remains a good test of mettle and an exciting ride. Prizes are awarded at the end-of-season supper (always a sell-out) and the tumbler team, “likes to introduce a new category each year; these have included Best Hung (over a gate) and Dirtiest (including photograph of horse & rider). Each recipient gets a very nice glass tumbler suitably engraved but also suffers the indignity of hearing a speech as to why they are receiving an award,” says my informant.
TUMBLERS CLUB: TUMBLERS AND SINNERS
It is no good being shy with a tumblers club. Tumblers and “sinners”, that is anyone who brings the hunt into disrepute by parking badly, “sneaking through farmyards without a lead from the field master, splintering woodwork” – the list goes on – is named and shamed on the Belvoir Hunt website by the redoubtable Bambi Hornbuckle. She does not pull her punches, even the suffix MFH is no protection from her gleeful accounts of indignity.
In Gloucestershire there has been a proliferation of tumblers clubs: the Beaufort, Ledbury and Berkeley all have one. Oliver Jones-Davies is on the committee for the Beaufort’s “Spring Fling”, a dance for farmers and subscribers supported by tumbles. “When invitations go out they ask for an additional tenner for every fall; effectively it’s an honesty box and it’s on show during the reception how many everyone has paid for.” This has been going since 2011 and made over £1,000 in the first year but revenue is down and Jones-Davies is unclear whether this is due to “fewer fallers or less honesty”.
Some packs will let you away with a fall if you end up in hospital, some allow autumn hunting as a warm up and others will sting you for a trip getting out of the car. However they are organised, tumblers clubs seem to be here to stay so pop an extra tenner in the pocket of your hunt coat. In the course of a season you can be pretty sure you’ll need it.
THE COUNTRYSIDE ALLIANCE POL ROGER HUNT TUMBLERS CLUB 2015/16
Ah, the unmistakable sound of popping corks, or was that a collarbone? Riding the crest of the (crashing) Tumblers Club wave, Pol Roger and The Countryside Alliance have joined forces in a national photographic competition for the second time. Photographs taken during the 2015/16 season by amateur and professional photographers are invited to be judged by Paul Graham of Pol Roger, leading event rider Harry Meade, Henrietta Rutgers from the Countryside Alliance and The Field’s Deputy Editor Alexandra Henton.
“Top tumbler” and amateur photographer will be awarded a magnum of Pol Roger Champagne and engraved tankard with second- and third-placed tumblers and photographers each receiving a bottle of Pol Roger. The winning photographs will be published in the Countryside Alliance magazine and on the Pol Roger website.
It didn’t take long to decide to hold the competition again because “it was so successful last year” Graham explained. The champagne house is keen to support hunting within the law not least because the Pol Roger family has been involved in hunting for 200 years and hunting complements its close ties to three-day eventing as sponsor of Harry Meade and Laura Collett. For Meade, the competition “epitomises the spirit of hunting and the camaraderie… hunting is about being able to challenge and push yourself” while he concedes, “it’s more light-hearted [than eventing]”. He has yet to join the Beaufort’s tumblers club.
For Graham it is about “being outdoors, working hard and having fun – we are interested in endeavour and there are people in the company that hunt”. He has had “plenty” of falls in the past, though now he’s strictly a spectator rather than a tumblers club member.
The Countryside Alliance is keen “to share the fun of riding to hounds” and falling is certainly something that any rider can relate to. Rutgers will be looking for “tumbles that are funny” and though it has been a poor scenting season for many the ground has been more than wet enough to catch out the unwary.
“The tall tales told after a hunting day, and remembered and revisited for years, are one of the best things about a day in the field. It’s what we try to capture in our hunting coverage. And they usually feature an almighty thrill or undignified spill. The Field is delighted to be judging the awards, so kick on and enter” urges Henton.
Last year’s winner was “out of his comfort zone” at a joint meet of the Taunton Vale Harriers and Western Banwell Harriers, being “more used to a hedge or a gate and not big reens”. Despite his thorough ducking, a trip to Ireland is still on Sam Matthews’ wish list and he is keen to point out that, “The horse didn’t deserve the fall to be fair to him… we’d already jumped the biggest one in the country unknowingly.”
Entries by 1 March to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send images of at least 1MB having gained the tumbler’s permission and including faller’s and photographer’s name and address and a caption. Any falls resulting in injury of horse or rider are ineligible. For full terms and conditions please go to www.countryside-alliance.org.
The Field, Pol Roger and the Countryside Alliance wish you happy hunting and #softlandings