Earlier this year the Croome and West Warwickshire lost Steve Key, a much- loved member of our hunting family. I didn’t know him long enough or well enough to write a tribute of any sort at the time, but I think that he deserves more than a passing comment in the first C&WW write up of the season. I could say that he was always happy to share his chips at supporters club committee meetings, or that he did the washing up at every hunt function, or that his efforts in producing a tasteful hunt calendar saved everyone from looking at naked hunt members.
None of that seemed right, and so I’ve turned to what Steve was best known for- his photographs. The Croome paparazzi are a thing of wonder to behold for anyone who isn’t used to them. While I grew up on stories (however true) of MFHs sneaking their mistresses into the woods for a quickie, no one at the C&WW could ever imagine such debauchery, not because our subscribers are especially pious, but because no sooner would the mistress have lowered a zip with a murmur of “Yes master you are right, I do need some horn blowing practice” than one of our photographers would have appeared, long lens in hand, posed to capture the field coming in over a rail. Of these photographers Steve was something of a leader, and so here are some of the photographs he took of Bluey and me over our first two seasons with the Croome and West Warwickshire, and the story behind each one. These write ups will be somewhat lacking without his images, and there will always be an empty space in the field where he should be standing with his camera.
In the summer of 2015 I started working for a fresh produce company. Top of my priority list was finding somewhere to stable Bluey, and more importantly, somewhere where I could hitch a lift to meets with the local pack. From the moment I phoned the (then) secretary, to the time when one of the joint masters gave me L’s number, the Croome & WW embodied everything that is good and great about the hunting community. We ended up on the yard where the hunt horses are stabled, and as a result, here we are in this image, following hounds down a stubble field at the first hound exercise of the season. I adore the symmetry of this photo, the blue of the sky, and that if you zoom in close enough, you can see that Bluey and I had already fallen for this pack.
We would, later on, break our first hunt rail and I would fall off. When a hunt character, named Smithy, saw the mud marks on my breeches he said “I bet you looked pretty lying on your back”, which quickly dispelled any worries I had about the C&WW being too smart or formal for me.
Shortly after cubbing began Bluey injured his check ligament, and underwent several weeks of grass rest and laser treatment (yup, L has a laser machine!). This was his first meet back after his injury, and his first time out side saddle. Bluey loved to pose for Steve and his camera.
When I walked into the kitchen for pre- opening meet drinks, and L saw that I was dressed to hunt side saddle she said, rather loudly, “YOU TWAT.” Her brother, who rode around the Grand National before it was made “less hard” (on a horse belonging to my godmother’s father-in-law) wore a grim look that said he agreed with her. Well dear reader, from my writing this you will know that all was well. Grandma J looked after us with the non- jumpers and we had a terrific first proper meet with the C&WW. Here we are hacking down the drive to the meet, behind hounds. And yes, I did put on a hard hat before we moved off 😛
This isn’t a very flattering photo I hear you saying. Well no, its not, because at this point in the day I had consumed seven ports (Computer Whizz’s horse is also spooking, which adds another amusement, thanks Steve). To understand why we will have to rewind slightly. After opening meet I decided to have a day astride, and L approached me one day to say that it was time that Bluey and I had “a little jumping practice”. She offered her help, and told me to knock on the door when I was ready to go into the school. Now, every time I do a Sorting Hat quiz it puts me in Gryffindor, but L scared me marginally more than coloured poles, so I snuck Bluey in to the school, coaxed myself over a pole, and put him back in the field.
When the meet came around I loaded Bluey on the lorry, and was about to hop in the cab when I was told not to.
“The huntsman’s on his own. Help him load the hunt horses and come to the meet in his lorry.”
I was a bit confused… The hunt horses were all ready to go, and none of them had issues loading.
At the meet L and a giggling Whip thrust a glass of port in my hand.
“How was your drive in?” Giggle giggle cackle cackle.
Realisation dawned in my incredibly innocent head.
“Did you just… try to… SET ME UP WITH THE HUNTSMAN?”
“Yes girl, and take off that bloody hairnet, you won’t pull like that.”
And that is the story of why I don’t wear a hairnet hunting.
Anyway I was force fed port at the meet and as a result looked like that when Steve got to me with his camera. Later in the day I hacked home at second horses, only to be told that the wrong horse had been loaded on the lorry and I would have to find my way back to the field.
When I found the remainder of the field it was a formidable group; the Handsome Master and his beautiful wife, the Firefighter, the Hairdresser, the Secretary, and the Forward- Going Master. These people could hunt with the Ledbury, and everyone knows that the Ledbury drink port laced with the blood of sacrificed virgins. There was no gate option.
And so that day Bluey learnt to jump the tiger traps and rails of the best part of Croome country. Our final jump of the day was a rail- a genuine post and rail fence rather than a hunt jump- and Bluey flew over it. It was rather unfortunate that Steve and his camera- toting companions had already gone home for the day.
I didn’t realise that Steve was at this meet, until this photo appeared, as he had missed out on the tomato soup shots of the Tuesday gathering. He later commented that Bluey looked like a polo pony, which is maybe more complimentary than how I would have described him! That day we had our first jump side saddle, a tiny rail into a field, and I lost my veil on a branch and had it rescued. And yes, I put it back on, stretched elastic and all.
HELLO 2016. Here we are at the New Year’s Day meet of 2016, and somehow Steve has managed to make me look like a proper, smart side saddle rider. The day was incredibly muddy, and when Grandma J and I got back to the lorry with K, some nice gentlemen invited us to their lorry for tea and chocolates. Uncouth lot didn’t have any Earl Grey, but it was a welcome drink before heading home.
Another good jumping day where the paps failed to get any good action shots! Fortunately they also failed to get any of me falling off as Bluey caught a leg on a nasty rail onto a bridleway (regular followers will know the one I mean). It had rained a lot, and I took out a third horse for the huntsman before NHS Direct told me to take a delightful trip to Redditch A&E. I think my headache was actually port- induced though, not concussion.
Steve took this one just before he came over to assist the Computer Whizz with a small project to make me look presentable for opening meet (tucking in keepers, removing dirt from my hat, avoiding the port spillage). In my defence I had driven nearly four hours to get there. Computer Whizz would later use the below image (taken by another of our paps, Sally) to illustrate the hunt’s “hunting etiquette” page, a small joke there. Although I did once tell someone off for calling a hound a dog, and he got his revenge by pointing out my sizeable arse in the most cruel way possible- “do you and Anna have any children?”
As above, but Steve coming to the rescue!
And here we come to the last image taken by Steve, and my all time favourite hunting photo. This is still from opening meet 2016, but taken at the end of the day as we hacked home. I love that the horses are all in step, that we are all laughing, and that at the end of the day we have all enjoyed ourselves. This photo sums up what hunting with the Croome and West Warwickshire means to me, and why I still subscribe from my lonely Welsh outpost. I have it framed and ready to go up in my new house, and every time I look at it I’m grateful to Steve for being there to take it.
This was my last meet of the season with the C&WW, and the last time I saw Steve. The horse I’m riding is also called Steve, and was very kindly lent to me by L when Bluey went lame. When I got back to the lorry Steve had left me a print of the opening meet image, and my copy of the hunt calendar- here I have just handed him the money for them, and he is telling me that he’s not going to the hunt ball that evening.
Hunting this season really will be different without Steve there, and I think it was only right that I did something like this… There is an exciting event coming up this season (my lips are sealed) and I am really, truly, sorry that Steve won’t be there to photograph it.
Rest in peace Steve Key.