Moving day…

Hello! 

AlphabetBritain has moved house – to check out the new pad, please visit:

http://alphabetbritain.com

If you are a subscriber to this page, don’t panic(!) you will be coming along with us 🙂 The migration will happen over the next couple of days so keep those eyes peeled for continued updates… 

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Fox Hunting, 2014

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April 8, 2014 · 8:29 pm

F is for … Fox Hunting

Quotes are taken directly from the ‘Etiquette’ section of a hunt website…

“The first thing to do is telephone the Hunt Secretary and ask if you may join the hunt for the day and check with him/her the amount (cap) you will be required to pay.”

It took me a long time to find a hunt that would have me, especially when I explained I would be writing about my experience. In fact, this was probably the most difficult community for me to infiltrate so far. When I finally found a hunt that would accept me, I still wasn’t allowed to know the location of the ‘meet’ until the last minute, and even then I had to be told through a chain of people rather than directly from the hunt secretary.

The reason for this level of secrecy is that hunts in the UK often come into conflict with ‘hunt sabs’ – people who are anti-hunting and attend the hunt meetings in order to sabotage the proceedings – so, as an outsider, the community was understandably suspicious of me and what my agenda was in writing about them.

The ‘cap’ for a days mid-week hunting was £70, on top of the £225 it cost me to rent a horse for the morning. Hunting is certainly not a cheap affair.

“Black or navy blue coats should be worn with 3 black buttons. Ladies should wear buff breeches with plain black butcher boots. Hair should always be tied up and held in a suitable hair net. A hunting tie should be worn with the pin placed horizontally for safety. Earrings and other piercings. Let’s just not go there!”

I spent the days leading up to the hunt pulling together everything I needed; investing in a posh velvet hat, a hairnet and some leather gloves, and borrowing a hunt jacket, stock and tiepin from a friend. On the morning of the hunt I wasted a long time in front of a YouTube clip trying to work out how to tie my stock. I was completely flummoxed by it. In the end I had to ask my friends mum to do it for me so I didn’t miss the hunt all together!

I didn’t really understand the ‘earrings – let’s just not go there’ statement but opted to go ear naked. I guess this is why you don’t see many Goths on the hunting scene.

Etiquette demands that you should say good morning to the Joint Masters. The correct greeting being “Good morning Master” (even if you know them personally)

A ‘meet’ is the gathering point for the days hunting, often on the property of a hunt supporter who provides refreshments. I attended two separate hunts over the course of three days – one mounted and one on foot – and both provided a ‘stirrup cup’ (mulled wine), whisky, homemade cakes and savory snacks.

“Good morning!” “Good morning!” “Good morning!” I couldn’t believe how polite the introduction ritual was. The men all tapped their caps at me as they walked past, elaborately introducing themselves with their full names. 

“Ah Splendid!” the hunt master brayed when I revealed this was my first hunt.

You should not enter any field without the Field Master unless instructed to do so.

As per tradition, the hounds and ‘hunt servants’ (hunt staff) were the first to enter the meet, followed by the bird of prey and its handler (a legal requirement since the ban on hunting with hounds in 2004), followed by the rest of the ‘field’ (mounted hunt members) and the ‘foot followers’.

At all times ride behind the field master. Do not attempt to jump if there is a hound anywhere near a jump.

When the wine and whisky supply started to dry up, the huntsman sounded his horn – ‘brrrrrr brrrrr’ – and we were off, cantering across the countryside en masse.

The experience was nerve wrecking at first. Everyone seemed to know what was going on except for me and the horse I had been given to ride (‘Smarty’) was huge and unfamiliar. I watched the field of forty-odd horses leaping over the first fence with dread. Looking around for a gate, I realised with a pounding heart that the jump was the only way out. I pointed Smarty in the right direction and held my breath as he leapt into the air at full speed. It was utterly exhilarating.

We hunted almost entirely on farmland for the next four hours, passing through endless miles of country without a road in sight, over rolling hills in every shade of green. It was impossible not to be struck by the beauty of the British countryside.

It is your responsibility to shut gates or call back “gate please”. In the event that riders behind are out of earshot a raised whip or hand is the method of communication.

“Gate Please!” I quietly practised this phrase over and over again in the poshest accent I could muster, trying to mimic the others in a shameless attempt to fit in.

At the end of a meet it is customary to say “Good night”.

 …regardless of the time of day! “Good night” I dutifully said as I trotted back to my horse box at 2pm, having seen neither hide nor hair of a fox all day.

On my way back I spoke with Angela who hunts her ex-racehorse twice a week when she isn’t treating her physio clients.

“The weekday meets are the best to come along to,” she tells me. “At the weekend you get all the dribs and drabs – the London lot who hire from Jill and don’t have any idea what they are doing. They’re all over the place and can be a real pain”.

I had come from London, hired from Jill and didn’t know what I was doing. I looked at her. “Erm. Isn’t that me?”

She smiles. We both know it is me. 

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Crufts 2014

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April 2, 2014 · 1:21 pm

D is for … Dog Showing

“That must be the most pee’d on lamppost in the country!” The lady in front of me laughs as her dog cocks his leg to contribute to the rapidly expanding wet patch. We are walking from the Birmingham NEC car park into Crufts – ‘The Greatest Dog Show in the World’ – playing host to over 22,000 dogs over its four-day residency.

The vista is a sea of dogs, some in trolleys, some being carried and others walking on leads, a few of them wear unflattering doggy onesies to keep their well manicured coats clean.

I had already dipped my toe into the world of dog showing a couple of months earlier, thanks to an invite to be an assistant steward at an Open Dog Show in Henley. As I walked through the door on a rainy Saturday morning, my senses were bombarded by the sound of yapping and the overwhelming smell of damp dog. My co-steward and new friend Karen guided me to our ring, through the local sports hall that was now crammed with hundreds of dogs and their fussing owners. We walked passed stalls selling dog photography sessions, diamond encrusted leads and gourmet venison dog sausages.

I was amazed by how much some of the owners looked like their dogs. The owner of a Rottweiler who won an early class looked and sounded like she had walked straight out of East Enders, the Labrador and spaniel classes were full of tweed and Dubarry boots, and two of the ladies in the Shih-tzu class wore matching pink diamanté suits.

The community is mostly female, of a ‘certain age’; “I would say women between 60 and 70 make up the vast majority,” Karen tells me. The community was largely daunting and unfriendly to her when she first started to get involved a few years ago; “the women can be quite bossy and territorial. They don’t have a lot of time for newbies”.

One of the ladies in the Dalmatian class we are stewarding loudly threatens to pull her dog out if we do not lengthen the ring so her dog has more room to ‘show off his gait’. “Some women take it a little bit too seriously,” Karen tells me diplomatically.

So I was prepared – as much as one can be – for what was to come at Crufts, albeit on a completely different scale. The whole place is littered with huge signs bearing the phrase ‘healthy, happy dogs’; undoubtedly the result of a documentary called Pedigree Dogs Exposed which aired in 2008 and was a watershed moment in the dog showing world. The documentary lifted the lid on the numerous health problems experienced by certain dog breeds, due to being selectively bred (and interbred!) to produce qualities that are deemed ‘desirable’ by the Kennel Club. Examples include Pugs whose faces are now so flat they struggle to breathe and cool themselves, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels whose brains can outgrow their skulls, leading to terrible neurological problems, and Bulldogs whose heads have become so big many cannot give birth naturally.

The documentary resulted in Crufts losing numerous sponsorship contracts, as well as its BBC coverage. It also triggered the Kennel Club to introduce a ban on father daughter mating, to open a DNA research and health testing centre and to make some revisions to its breed standards (such as changing the size of the bulldogs head from ‘massive’ to ‘big’). It is a complex and highly political topic, with much still to be done.

I spent four days at Crufts and never ran out of interesting things to see; numerous agility, flyball and obedience competitions, heelwork to music performances and gun dog displays; all punctuated by hundreds of show classes.

The dogs seem to thoroughly enjoy the agility, the obedience and the fly ball – their tails wag constantly and they simply can’t contain their excitement, especially when they see how happy their owners are with them. It is heart warming to watch.

I don’t think they enjoy the showing in quite the same way.  Everywhere you look people are grooming, nail clipping, hair curling with tongs, hair straightening with GHD’s, walk practicing, fluffing or back combing their dogs – I feel a bit like I am back in Essex.

There is a lot of waiting around, then when they finally do get to the competition ring they are constantly fiddled with by the owners and judges; leg placing, head lifting, tail straightening; topped off with unnecessary amounts of cupping(!)

The dogs just stand there, putting up with it. I am sure if they could roll their eyes they would.

The climax of Crufts is the ‘Best in Show’ competition, selecting a dog that has been whittled down from thousands to take the ultimate title. This year the prize was taken by Afterglow Maverick Sabre (‘Ricky’), a beautiful but ridiculous looking standard poodle who was tipped as the winner from the beginning of the competition.

“It’s all rigged!” I am told by Eric, a professional breeder of fox terriers who sits next to me. I immeadiately recognise this phrase, having heard it many times over the last four days, almost exclusively from the mouths of embittered owners whose dogs have been beaten in the ring.

“How did you get on?” I ask him.

He looks irritated, “Five dogs, and we didn’t win anything!”

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Brentwood, Essex

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April 1, 2014 · 4:54 pm

E is for… Essex

“You gotta go see Amy in her shop, shew’ll love you giwls coz your pretty!”

We are in Amy Child’s beauty salon and our bubbly beautician grins as she evangelises about her boss, oblivious of her implication that she only likes pretty people. She leans over my friend Moira who is lying horizontal on a treatment table, looking as if she is about to undergo a serious operation.

She is.

Moira is about to be ….. Vajazzled!

I decided to spend some time in Brentwood, Essex to provide a materialistic contrast to the more spiritual communities of AlphabetBritain. Of course, the ‘culture’ of a small community of young revellers in Essex is by no means exclusive to this part of the world. It can be found in most mid-size towns around the country and is relatively mainstream in this sense. The reason I decided to come here specifically was because of the hyperbole around the community, created by the TV show The Only Way Is Essex (TOWIE). I wanted to see how close to reality this Reality TV Show actually was.

My ‘Essex’ experience started far in advance of my arrival; my first stop was a City beauty salon for a fake tanning session.

“How dark do you want to go?” the unassuming beautician asked me as she adorned her rubber gloves.

“As dark as possible!” I replied confidently.

She looked shocked, “I have never been asked that before!” – she paused to think – “well … three coats it is then!”

That afternoon I went on a shopping trip – looking like an Oompa loompa – frantically sending pictures of myself from the dressing room to my friend Sian, asking ‘Is this tight enough? Bright enough? Revealing enough? Are these shoes high enough?’

We arrived in Brentwood later that evening to find a high street adorned with ‘boutiques’ selling row after row of tight dresses; “Lucy’s Boutique”, “Lauren’s Way”, “Amy’s Boutique”; all launched by the female cast members of TOWIE to capitalise on the wave of tourism created by the show.

On the first night we were scheduled to go to Faces nightclub, one of the clubs frequented by the TOWIE crowd, but we were diverted at the last minute by a call from a friend ‘in the loop’ who informed us that tonight was Mario’s birthday party in Sugar hut (Mario being a cast member), so this was the place to be.

After 3 hours of preening we finally arrived at the club. I teetered in awkwardly in my ridiculous heels, feeling like an old cow at the sales being paraded in front of a ring of unimpressed looking farmers. I looked around me at my fellow revellers. Nearly every other girl was wearing fake eyelashes, fake tan, fake hair, sky scraper heels and a ‘body contour’ dress, some were so tight you could see … well … everything.

I felt like an anti-feminist just by being there – why do girls have to put themselves through this charade just to look good for men? But then I looked around the room and it dawned on me – the men had done exactly the same! Most had waxed their eyebrows, were wearing fake tan and were dressed in tight, low cut t-shirts revealing painstakingly toned bodies. Their hair was combed through with a lot of gel into a neat, almost military sweep. Some were even wearing makeup.

One guy pushed in next to me at the bar. He was wearing a crisp grey suit with a thin tie and a v-neck cashmere jumper. He looked immaculate, like a doll. I couldn’t help myself and blurted out “Ahhhh, you look so sweet.” As soon as I said this I grimaced. How patronising. I waited for the tirade of abuse I deserved in return but, instead, he smiled at me and said “Thanks. You look really nice too”. What a nice guy!

He wasn’t an exception – everybody we had met so far was beyond friendly. The atmosphere was welcoming and the room filled me with a strange sense of camaraderie. With that, the bartender jumped up onto the bar and leant towards me; “Babe – am I coming detached at the edge?”

“Erm… What?” – I had no idea what she was talking about.

“My eyelash, is it coming off?” she pointed to the edge of her eye.

“Oh,” I look – feeling inexplicably proud that she chose me to ask this trusting, girly question to – “No, you’re fine”.

We somehow managed to blag our way into the VIP section where I had a stunted but relatively polite conversation with Mario and Chloe from TOWIE – I wasn’t sure if she was being purposefully nonchalant or if she was just struggling to move her botox laden face – before joining them and Louis Spence for a dance on the sofas. I decided to sneak a glass of Grey Goose Vodka and the night became a little hazy from then on. Funny that.

The next day we indulged in a daylong ‘getting ready’ routine for another night out in Sugar Hut, involving a vajazzle, a hair salon, nail painting and dinner with Prosecco. When we were back in our hotel room I bombarded my friends with questions;

“I think you presume we have all read a book about this stuff”, Sian said to me when I asked her which way round my fake eyelashes were supposed to go, “but it’s just common sense”.

Is it? Should I have been born with an innate sense of this stuff? I seem to have missed that gene. I don’t know how to put fake eyelashes on, I don’t know how to put hair extensions in, I am crap at doing make up, crap at doing my hair and I can’t walk in high heels. It turns out I am more out of my comfort zone in Essex than anywhere else… bring back the vampires!

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Wyck Hill Racing Yard

January 2014

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February 5, 2014 · 10:44 pm

Chapter Two; Horse Racing

OK. It’s fair to accuse me of playing it safe with this one. I worked at a racing yard all through university so the culture isn’t in any way alien to me. But, I do remember a time when it was, and of how it felt to be opened up to a world that was so different to how I had expected; a world of tradition and custom that spans the socio-economic spectrum, from stable lads to aristocrats.

My host for this adventure was David Bridgewater, or ‘Bridgy’ as he is known in the industry. Bridgy used to be a very successful jockey, riding 473 winners and finishing second to McCoy in the ’97 jump jockey championship. His career as a jockey ended abruptly at the age of 27 when he became a victim of something all jockeys dread – getting ‘hung up’- when your foot gets caught in the stirrup after a fall. He was dragged and repeatedly trampled on, shattering his arm irreparably. 

He is stoic about it, “it happened. Nothing you can do about it. You just get on with it. Move forward”.

Now a successful racehorse trainer with his own 120-acre farm in Stow-on-the-Wold, Bridgy spends most of his time on the ground watching the horses on the gallops – a long woodchip track with rails either side– and designing a bespoke training schedule to get the best out of each horse.

Horses are creatures of routine, so each day at Bridgy’s yard follows the last with little change or disruption. The horses are taken to the gallops each morning and cantered in groups. Twice a week they will be asked to ‘work’ which means they will be pushed on by the jockeys and brought up the gallops in pairs, working together to encourage a competitive spirit. Bridgy barks phrases like “give him a nose”, “set him on the girth” and “just let him tick over” to the jockeys as they hurtle through the early morning fog.

Bridgy’s stable star is a horse called The Giant Bolster, who was second to Syncronized in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2012. ‘Sammy’, as he is known on the yard, is owned by Simon Hunt, an affable character who I have the pleasure of spending time with when he comes up to watch his horses on the gallops.

Simon is a self made man who runs his own large-scale construction business that he built from scratch. He tells me a story about when he and his wife spent three days in Stow-on-the-Wold for their honeymoon, courtesy of a buy-one-get-one-free voucher in the local paper. Now, every time he drives through the village to visit the four racehorses he has in training, he remembers how little he had all of those years ago, and how much his life has changed. “It’s very humbling”, he tells me, “I never want to lose track of that”.

Horseracing is, first and foremost, a passion. If you work in the industry it becomes your life; your work, your pleasure and your community; it is all consuming.

Bridgy’s wife Lucy rides up to 7 horses a morning on the gallops, starting at 6am and working throughout the day. The family haven’t had a holiday for many years, it’s just something they never get round to. I get the sense that they don’t feel they are ‘entitled’ to time off in the way many people do. It is simply not an option. In fact, they never even have a day off, or a lie-in, even when they are unwell. The horses still need looking after and they are the number one priority.

In a bid to collect another label to add to my list (so far I am a ‘private’ and a ‘textile’), I ask Lucy what those in the world of racing call those who aren’t.

She thinks for a while and then laughs … “Idiots!” she says.

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February 5, 2014 · 10:37 pm

Hazelwood Racing Kennels

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January 28, 2014 · 10:05 pm