Thursday, November 14, 2013

Autumn Rituals

Fall. Autumn. Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness...

It's obvious enough from the gorgeous turning leaves I see from my window, but I was reminded of the rituals of the season when a kind neighbour arrived at my door with a brace of pheasants. I live in the country and country folk still shoot. We follow other country customs too – my kind neighbour received a pot of home-made bullace (wild plum) jelly and a bag of apples from our trees in return for the birds.

In Regency times, hunting and shooting were almost a religion. Gentlemen rode and hunted and shot. They learned to shoot as soon as they were old enough to be trusted with a gun, and were usually taught by the gamekeeper, if their family was rich enough to own a country estate. Even smaller estates had shooting. We probably all remember Mrs Bennet inviting Mr Bingley to come and shoot on Mr Bennet's ground once he had shot all his own birds. And we probably laughed at Lizzie's cringing embarrassment as she listened to her mother fawning over him.

Reminiscences of keepers can be interesting. Their job was to guard the game from predators (animal) and poachers (human). We modern folk may have sympathy with both. The predators were only doing what came naturally, and many of the poachers were desperate to put food in their children's mouths. Poachers could receive very heavy sentences if they were caught, especially as the magistrate might well be one of the local landowners, keen to preserve his rights.

Predators, if caught, ended up dead and that included birds of prey like hawks and owls, and mammals like otters and stoats. There were often special rules for foxes, though, even though foxes could do huge amounts of damage to young game birds. Keepers were usually forbidden to shoot foxes – the "sacred" fox – because the foxes were to be kept as the quarry for fox-hunting, which started on the first Monday in November. Grouse shooting started on 12th August, the partridge season in September, and the pheasant season in October, so the gentlemen had plenty to keep them occupied through the autumn and into the winter.

Hunting foxes with dogs is illegal now, but in the Regency period it was practised wherever the countryside was suitable, and especially in Midland counties like Leicestershire. Many, perhaps most, gentlemen hunted. One exception was Beau Brummell who apparently would not ride for any distance with the hunt because the pristine tops of his riding boots might become muddy! And Oscar Wilde (not in our period but worth quoting) called it "the pursuit of the uneatable by the unspeakable".

My pheasants – cooked with apples and sage from the garden, plus a good slug of vermouth – were delicious!



Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

Lovely seasonal post, Joanna. I love these crisp dry autumn mornings - but I have just bought new boots for the not-so-dry autumn days, which are bound to come!

Anonymous said...

Ah yes, I bought some last year, because we do get rain and snow round here and boots need to be both waterproof AND warm (which Wellies are not).

Forgot to say on my post that the pics were taken at Westonbirt Arboretum, in Gloucestershire, a couple of years ago. For autumn colour, Westonbirt is hard to beat and much recommended, though it really needs to be a crisp dry day to enjoy it, not the rainy ones we keep having.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Westonbirt Arboretum looks wonderful - lucky you to have it on your doorstep.

I'm glad the pheasant was delicious - though I don't enjoy the plucking and gutting that one has to do first! Not to mention the dangers of inadvertently biting on pieces of shot!

Christina Courtenay said...

My great-great grandfather was a gamekeeper so your post made me think of him - must have been a strange life really, preserving animals just for them to be shot later on! But being a gamekeeper was usually a good job as it brought with it perks like a nicer cottage :-)