Madeleine Silver says the perfect huntball is the most heady of all concoctions. It brings together a kaleidoscope guests who are just as excited about dancing as they are about travelling across the country.
“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. By the time bacon sarnies and life-saving bacon are consumed, there are sure to be some stories. Jilly Cooper wrote a letter in It is important to understand that you can use your own language. 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.
Whereas hunt balls were once preceded by dinner parties in private homes before guests moved to the ball to dance at 10.30pm and then eat kedgeree for breakfast in the morning, now brave committee members have to organise sit-down dinners that can accommodate over 500 people. “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. Cowell has an established ball: within 24 hours after announcing last year’s date, he was inundated with bands wanting to perform, thanks to his reputation built up over the decades. In the mid-1990s at a grand house near Tetbury, HM the King Charles III was seen dancing on the floor of the VWH Ball. The late Badminton commentator Michael Tucker ran the auction and 1,500 egg yolks were used to make a spectacular breakfast. The next year at Williamstrip Park a new fountain was centre stage, and dancing became so energetic that it caused condensation to drip from the marquee roof.
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. When you met at the hunting field, it wasn’t as formal. It was more like Sir or Miss or Lady. 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. Alcohol should be readily available, multiple bars to avoid long queues, and the loos must be easily accessible.
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 Prince Charles made an appearance
Around 250 miles to the north, in Northumberland the Tynedale balls has an equally raucous reputation. On hunt-ball days, at least forty visitors descend to the field to get a pre-party adrenaline rush. 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. In the early 2000s, Welton Hall was the place to be. 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] It was more like a small wedding than the large, white marquees that house all of the other balls I attend. 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. After dinner entertainment was set by The Quorn with a pole-dancer one year, and an angle grinder that had the audience’s eyes on stalks. Britain’s Got Talent Who danced in a leotard made of metal for another?
The revellers still jump hedges at a perfect huntball
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). Daniel Russell of the Belvoir Committee swears that you should never skimp on the music, no matter if the ball takes place in the Disneyesque 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.
Write in English The Guardian Leanda De Lisle, a historian and journalist from the Midlands, hosted a huntball at her home. She made a compelling case for the huntball as a social event for everyone. ‘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. A polo ponies trainer, a second MFH and my in-laws were among them. Also, a Peruvian Headhunter, a Peruvian writer, a doctor, a documentary film maker, a Peruvian Headhunter, a Peruvian headhunter. 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.
If you enjoyed this feature…
The Field The book includes many first-rate hunting articles, such as hunting stallions. Also included are profiles of Hugo Meynell and the best hunting horses ever bred.