Taking tea with the Tynedale
A ladies-only day at the Belsay estate, with refreshments served by tailcoated men and then high tea in the hall, attracted a fine field from many hunts
Sarah Kate Byrne joins a ladies’ day
When there is only a handful of dates left in the hunting calendar for a city dweller desperate to follow hounds, any opportunity to hunt is a golden one. But this particular invitation, extended by the Tynedale Hunt, offered just that little bit more, something certainly worth the 700mile round trip. Phrases every visitor longs to hear were bandied about in abundance: “We shall have a dinner party with the huntsman”; “You must have the chairman’s horse”; there will be “champagne & canapés at the meet”. References to butlers in livery, a meet on the lawn in front of a Greek Revival mansion and a sumptuous high tea followed swiftly. How could I resist? Thus, after a huge amount of help from the wonderful Diana Beaumont, honorary secretary of the Tynedale, I finalised my plans and left a grey day in London behind, setting off for the Northern Frontier and its famous edifice, Hadrian’s Wall.
Arriving in the dusk at chairman David Johnson and his wife Verity’s home I was welcomed as a long-lost friend. A muchneeded cup of tea was proffered before Verity took me to meet my mighty steed for the meet, Jonjo. Both he and Verity seemed rather bemused as I popped my sidesaddle on and took him for a spin. Jonjo didn’t bat an eyelid, testament to his owners and to the lady who broke him, Lesley Douglas, whom I was to hunt alongside the next day. David Johnson, who typically rides Jonjo, turned
I thought turning out ‘on the wonk’ would lend itself to the occasion
up just as Verity and I decided the horse was broken to sidesaddle, leading us to a pertinent point: why was the hunt chairman relinquishing his superb hunter to a veritable stranger? Well, this particular meet was strictly ladies only, with 70 women expected from a variety of packs both near and far. Followed by afternoon tea. And given I prefer riding sidesaddle, I thought turning out ‘on the wonk’ would lend itself marvellously to the occasion.
I can almost hear the incredulous gasps. Seventy women? No men? Surely this must be a first? I have attended many a ‘ladies day’ at which the ladies ride sidesaddle and the chaps act as our pilots, retrieving whips, gloves, opening gates and offering liquid sustenance (and sometimes Dutch Courage) from their flasks. But this meet was to be different. All those mounted, save the hunt staff, were to be women and men in tailcoats would serve us at the meet. The idea originated with hunt member Carol Brown following a visit to the Brocklesby ladies meet, alongside Tynedale Master Sheila Eggleston. It proved a huge success and raised much needed funds for the hunt’s coffers in the process. Thus, Brown, John, her husband, and Verity Johnson set about hosting their own Tea with the Tynedale day, which was set to be followed a fortnight later by a Gentleman’s Day, with a white tie dinner and poker night in place of afternoon tea.
A mist had settled across the country on the morning of the meet but it was cold and the weather looked set to lend itself to a good day’s sport. Verity and I set off for the Belsay estate, David acting as groom and bringing Jonjo to the meet. Having the chairman as groom was rather spoiling, and it got even better when subscriber Belinda Speir appeared just as I was tacking up Jonjo.
She had been taught by the famous Betty Skelton and, as any sidesaddle girl knows, all help is welcome so long as one knows what one is doing.
The Belsay estate is magnificent, comprising three architectural feats: a medieval castle, a Greek Revival mansion and a stunning garden that connects the two. In the possession of the Middleton family from 1270, Belsay boasts a superb fortified tower, testament to the conflict in the Borders and proximity to Hadrian’s Wall. The Middleton’s lived in the castle until 1817 when the then owner, Sir Charles Monck, formerly Middleton, moved into the vast pile of his own design that is Belsay Hall. Sir Charles garnered architectural inspiration on his honeymoon to Greece and the resulting building is close on architecture perfection, albeit slightly at odds with the surrounding hills. The Tynedale Hunt, pronounced ‘Tindle’, has hunted the area of Belsay and its environs stretching from the Tyne to the Wansbeck and from Hexham to Portland since it was formed in 1893, its kennels located at Stagshaw Bank 25 minutes from Belsay.
Our host was the utterly charming Laura de Wesselow (née Middleton), whose family
have lived at Belsay since 1270. De Wesselow was impeccably turned out and is an accomplished horsewoman, who has been championing her Belsay Horse Trials event since 2012 with huge success. She oversaw the meet, at which the very game, tailcoator velvet smoking jacket-clad men proffered trays of bubbles, complete with a raspberry for extra pizzazz, and delicious blinis and sweet treats to the mounted field. Prizes were awarded to Cindy Onslow – most elegant lady riding astride – while I received the sidesaddle prize. However, as the only member of the field mounted sideways it felt a bit of a cheat.
We might not have jumped Hadrian’s Wall itself – nor taken on the British Eventing fences, designed by Adrian Ditcham, that pepper the estate – but Nicky Keate, Field Master for the day, ensured there were some terrific obstacles to negotiate over the perfect turf of Belsay. Aided by two more lady Masters, Cheryl Lawsoncroome and Caroline Dickinson, Keate was fearless. With these three leading the charge, the field tackled everything at a blistering pace, from stone walls to hedges, neat post and rails and even a gate that took one visitor’s horse somewhat by surprise, leaving her with an impressive set of scratches. But ladies in need of smelling salts we were not, and she carried on regardless, showing me that not only were the Tynedale bunch hard-riding ladies but so too were the visitors. One should note that in the absence of any men the field was extraordinarily polite, queuing was the order of the day and there were no attempts at bravado or show-boating. There were only two fallers, neither the result of rider error. I shall stop there…
picking up the trail
The trail for the day had been laid from the whins in front of our host’s house. Hounds were soon speaking as they picked up the scent and performed a slow circuit of Swanstead and the Village Wood, increasing the pace as they crossed the front drive and made for North Crag. With scent holding up well, these determined hounds were undeterred by a hard check at the Stamfordham road and having run the road for a short distance their perseverance paid off and they soon owned the line again, swinging south past Bygate Farm and Black Heddon Farm, where they were again checked by sheep foil. Huntsman Charlie Shirley-beavan lifted his hounds with consummate skill and cast them again in Bitchfield Whin, where a new trail had been laid. This time they really sang to the line and ran back to North Crag and around the park where, streaming across the front of the hall, they looked perfect in their landscape. They stuck like glue to the line around Crag Lake and out to the Bantam.
As scent improved in the falling temperature, hounds screamed on this fresh line, across the Stamfordham road without a check and up Belsay Dene then north for Bradford Whin and into Capheaton Hillhead, via the Hall Wood where the trail ended. This was an 11-mile hunt, as hounds ran, across the best of the estate’s old turf and it showed the tenacity and drive of this north country pack to perfection.
a plethora of hunts
For the field it made for a thrilling and non-stop day’s sport, evidenced by the inadvertent 57-minute audio clip I recorded, which revealed the most marvellous snippet of thundering hooves, thoroughly summing up the day. In between fences and gallops, there was the chance to speak to dozens of women from a plethora of hunts, including the Braes of Derwent, the Duke of Buccleuch’s, the Mid Devon, Jed Forest and the West of Yore, to name a few. Turning out sidesaddle does give one an unfair advantage as a hunting correspondent, as everyone wants to talk to you. And there is always fascinating company to be had riding to hounds. Tynedale subscriber Anne Telfer spoke of her stint as groom for the Prince of Wales at Windsor back in the 1970s when he had his string of polo ponies. There were many hairy tales of hunting in Ireland, accounts of great days with the Tynedale and numerous subscribers who displayed much pride in the terrific job Shirley-beavan was doing alongside Andrew Higgins, his kennel huntsman.
Homage must be paid to the splendid high tea that was waiting for us in the English Heritage-run tearoom housed in the old kitchens. It was bound to be exceptional with such a team at the helm and it didn’t disappoint. Straight out of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five in its epic and plentiful proportions, the field fell upon it greedily after a solid four hours of exertion (though I have neglected to mention the pit-stop two hours in when we enjoyed more goodies washed down with ample port). Asparagus tarts, a hearty soup, dainty sandwiches that would have looked the part in Claridge’s afternoon tea tiers and endless cakes and pastries. It was utter heaven and left me thinking a sausage roll at the next meet might not cut the mustard.
Completely sated by this lavish feast, I was already worrying about my next host Orlando Bridgeman’s reputation for conjuring up multiplecourse dinners. But it set me in good stead for my three-hour drive south towards Middleton Hunt country during which I mused about a whirlwind 24 hours and my first experience of hunting that far north. From start to finish, I had experienced perfect hospitality from consummate hosts, testament to the kindness, generosity and community spirit that is at the heart of hunting. The Tynedale followers are a lucky breed, enjoying great sport, superb hound work, stunning country and wonderful company. These are the key ingredients that make hunting magical. And this magic was not lost on this visitor from the Elysian Fields of the Emerald Isle.