Before the Cotswold Hunt Grand Auction, the sum total of my experience at rural auctions was the annual Boylestone Show, where the highest grossing item last year was a £13 bottle of homemade”vintage” 1996 dry hawthorn wine. I know because my host at that event was involved in the nasty bidding war, finally standing down at £12.90. The atmosphere was just as tense last night at the Cotswold Hunt Grand Auction when bidding on a fruitcake reached £400. Our experience bidding on jams and cakes at Boylestone had clearly left us unprepared for this, an introduction of sorts to Cotswold society.
Sure I had studied the Hunt Auction’s little green catalogue I had found at the wine bar the week before. Just reading through the lots was entertaining, not to mention an introduction to a whole new vocabulary of gallops and jollys and such. There were 105 of them, and every base was covered:
- Practical – house sitting; babysitting; an airport chauffeur; a week’s boarding in kennels; a housekeeper for a day.
- Food – a large game pie, “ideal for your point to point picnic”; a side of smoked salmon; half a lamb, butchered and jointed; a whole cooked ham joint; a large fruitcake; pub dinners.
- Luxury – 250g Oscieytre Caviar; 1 case of Chateau Beychevelle; homes in Provence and Switzerland.
- Horsey – equine sports massage; transport for three horses; animal portraiture; horse dentistry sessions; bales of hay; trail hunting; and my two favourites, “jolly on your horses” or “a morning on the gallops” followed by breakfast with trainer.
- Horsey Luxury – A polo lesson with Lavinia Black; a membership subscription to Cirencester Park Polo club; shares in a 2-horse syndicate; a dressage lesson with Sandy Phillips.
- Bizarre – work for half a day with taxidermist (adult or child 10 years or over). Specimen can be provided.
There was also a lot of name dropping going on in the donor list. Even I, the uninitiated, recognized Captain Mark Phillips, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, David Hicks, and a few local lords. Lured by the promise of complimentary preview drinks and canapés (husband is from Liverpool after all), we arrived at the local hall in plenty of time with £210 of cash burning a hole in our pockets. We perused the lots, admiring an old hunting map and arguing over the tastefulness of a pasta bowl decorated with horses, hounds and a fox in the middle. With so many of the lots being “experiences” rather than loot, the preview was over quickly.
We shuffled about the room a bit, sheepish, then retired to a wall to critique the toffs. Gloucestershire’s support of the corduroy industry was on full display. This fabric is the upper class man’s license to dress in loud colours. Nevermind if it’s electric moss green, a shade I didn’t know existed until that evening. It’s made of corduroy. One gentleman of about fifty stood out in a a mélange of clashing yellows: mustard corduroy trousers paired with a canary coloured checked shirt and a marigold tie speckled with pheasants. I’d guess the trousers had not fit him properly for a good ten years by the way they cupped his buttocks. It looked uncomfortable but he seemed entirely at ease, a master mingler.
The women fell into two sartorial categories: she-man with wool cape, which husband calls Jolly Hockey Sticks, and horsey chic, which includes rabbit fur vests, expensive boots worn over tight jeans, and meticulous haircuts. Both are equally confident and friendly. (I have found there is a refreshing lack of correlation between looks and confidence in England compared to L.A.) One of the women in the horsey chic category from the organizing committee approached us and made a bit of friendly small talk, asking us if we’d reviewed the lots. “Oh, yes, lovely things,” we told her. “Oh, yes,” she agreed and confided she was in custody of a number of “at any cost” bids for friends who couldn’t make it. The catalogue had mentioned Internet bidding at chunt.com (I’m not making that url up). Another sign we weren’t in Boylestone anymore.
The first lot of the auction was dinner for two with a bottle of wine at a pub in the next village over from ours. Bidding started at £40, and I went in at £50. In a flash the gavel came down, and I found dinner was mine at £70. Now the auctioneer was asking my name. “Jennifer,” I said. “Jenni-furr”, he repeated back. (Was he mocking my American accent?). “Last name?” I told him, quietly.“A bit louder please,” his matronly sidekick demanded. This time I nearly shouted, eager for the auctioneer to move on to bidding on a day of trail hunting on the Duke of Beaufort’s Hunt so all those corduroy enshrouded eyes would move off of me. The flush of early success had been replaced with self-consciousness. My husband was staring at me in disbelief, as if to distance himself, as if to say to everyone in the hall, my wife may be a stupid idiot who would spend £70 on a pub dinner, but no, not me.
It was not until lot 6, “A hunting special large fruit cake” made by someone named Peggy went for £400 after a feverish round of bidding that my husband conceded that perhaps my £70 pub dinner was not such a bad deal. The bidding continued and we happily quaffed glasses of red wine while admiring the spectacle. When the lot consisting of use of a cherry picker for one week came up, husband suggested we bid on it then park it outside the window of the neighbour who told him he couldn’t park our car on the road outside our cottage. Tipsy, we laughed uproariously. Shortly into the laugh I thought, “we are having a spontaneous moment of pure laughter” then looked around to make sure others in the room who may have earlier thought “who are they?” could see us having our moment of pure spontaneous laughter so they would know we were a fun-loving couple having a smashing time at the auction. I paused then laughed some more to cement the point.
After the auction ended, we shuffled back for last call at the wine bar where only barman R., and a man from one village over remained (two more stalwarts in the corduroy rainbow). Somehow we started discussing the love-hate relationship between Britain and France. Historical references abounded and I tried to nod knowingly as the conversation moved effortlessly from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Carla Bruni. Thank God I had just read something in The New Yorker about how Sarkozy courts the press that I could slide in. I made a mental note to brush up on my history (at least read a historical novel) just as the two gents started comparing total takes of this hunt auction (£34k!) vs their own (£25k and £45k respectively). I also learned that the man from one village over went to Westminster School for Boys, which meant nothing to me until it was explained. It’s posh and all that, but I found it most interesting that someone of this gent’s age, 60-ish, was still slipping his school pedigree into conversation. When I went to pay for our wine R. informed me that man from the next village had taken care of it. My protests were met with an impassive reply of, “No, no, let him pay for it, he’s very rich.”