Shardeloes

In front of the Palladian Mansion, to the left in the photo, the Old Berkley Hunt would sometimes meet before setting off on its pursuit of some poor fox trying to merely live out its nature. As a twelve year old riding a hairy, little riding school pony I remember waiting in the bitter, misty cold outside the big house and being given a stirrup cup. Giving an alcoholic boost to warm a child and get her through the initial part of the hectic, bloody chase seems like a pretty primitive idea in our enlightened times. Maybe this was one of the last pagan experiences to be had in England before it was all turned totourism and reality TV.

Shardeloes was only partially occupied, neglected and derelict when I was a child, so the meet had the added spooky aspect of decay and gloom. The big house had been built by the lords of the manor away from the smelly, working town which they also owned; the family had always been keen on the hunt, especially the ones that became Rectors of the town. There was a hunting rector when I was a child, a man who had frequent accidents, after frequent stirrup cups, and was frequently brought home on five bar gates by the farm workers. There were numerous meets throughout the winter, and sometimes we’d be out all day galloping across fields, waiting patiently on the edge of a copse as the hounds drew a fox out. Once I was there at the kill, by accident. I can be back there now, a long grassy track with bracken going into newish woods on both sides, maybe 4 other people, grown ups on huge horses. Somehow I had sped up on the pony, determined to arrive. I tried not to watch as the dogs tore the handsome red beast into chunks; this savagery is the reality of why hunting is exciting, it is something that I hadn’t confronted until then.

As I was the youngest person, by far, to have been at the kill that day it was expected that I should be blooded, that I should have a piece of raw, bloody fox flesh smeared all over my face. Luckily they didn’t try and force me when I said no, but the game was up, I knew what they did out there and I never went again.

The hunt met in the main street every boxing day morning, right outside our smaller house in the High Street; red coats, hounds and bugles, posh people, farmers, vicars, gentry, ladies riding side saddle and the master. The master was a family friend, a butcher who had made good and owned a large pie factory in the town He always made a point of coming to say good morning to me on whatever scruffy pony I happened to be riding that day, to the annoyance of the well-dressed, well-horsed ladies of the hunt.

I never went to parties and balls or cocktails and soirees at Stardeloes, I associate the building with authority, darkness and
the savagery of that day, the dark side. Which is why I’m so fond of this photo that I took in 2017 of a beautiful, well kept
house, safe in its place in designed, electric green grounds.

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