Saturday 26 December
At this time of year it is a Bargreaves’ family tradition to ensure everything is nailed down in our idyllic, snow-covered cottage and to group-canter to Ambleside where my parents’ friends Derek and Sandy host the Boxing Day hunt from their beautiful five-bedroom house. What makes this year extra-special is that accompanying Barton, myself and the perfectly-matched parenthesis, are Marny and Licky, the former better-half soon to have the better brother over in Canadia for a turn – perhaps a five year turn; the latter recovering from the journey from her own folks’ home in Hull, during which she had to carry her little pony over the Pennines when it got tangled up in the Snakeskin Pass.
As long-standing philanthropists Derek and Sandy have been busy organising their Christmas Soap Kitsch Hen in which Derek dresses as a hen and distributes eggs to the region’s homeless while Sandy provides all-manner of scrubbers with a decent all-over wash before dressing them in retro styles. Sadly, due to the face-freezingly cold conditions this winter their plans have snowballed, as has Derek, slipping on an unwanted puddle outside the poor house – children are so wasteful – and ending up on the banks of Derwent Water fifteen times his own body size. With all their eggs in one basket, and the ‘40s style clothing irredeemably crumpled, this year they must think of new ways of helping those living on or in the streets, woodlands, badly converted barns or new-builds of Cumbria. So it is that sons Packer and Frisby arrange the mob into teams of modestly-paid beaters as the two families saddle up their hunting reindeer after a preternatural feast of overlapping meats.
A word about Lakeland hunting traditions – such is the perfect isolation to be found in these parts that many small tribes of former invaders continue to grow fat in tiny, bespoke enclaves, despite having been happily trounced by native armies as long ago as 1864 BC. Last year saw an unforgettable battle against a band of Vikings whose removal and collection of Modern Warfare books from Kendal library were both significantly overdue. Never has an axe been so skilfully applied than by Mrs Bargreaves in giving several fleeing Olafs a dangerously dapper short back and sides. And who could forget Derek and Batson Snr, at nearby Sweden Bridge, fending off a vastly superior enemy with a merciless string of ancient one-liners and rehashed cracker jokes – the enemy contorted with pain, then deported to Spain.
This year, prompted by a bloody campaign in the Westmorland Gazette, our chosen targets are lingering Legionaries, left over from the anti-Scotch DIY boom of AD 122, and now reliant on their dwindling supplies of dented tagliatelli. Always a healthy competition between the lads of the two families (despite a unifying appreciation of Man:United) it is with concern that I note that my nose appears redder than my reindeer’s – is 1864 to be remembered as the year my body finally went to port? Will I really be able to compete with Packer, fresh from the Ozzie sunshine, where he lives on a press-up farm with his charming wife Inspira? First blood to Barton who, as a lapsed vegetarian, is best placed to sniff out the wild boar being roasted round the back of Boots by two unsuspecting Roman footmen. Only able to run in straight lines it takes our baby rhino just minutes to wallop them over the border to face a tardy dose of Caledonian hospitality. Frisby weighs in by tying together the shoelaces of an entire garrison of tortoise-forming mincers, then pouring himself a dry sherry atop his steed while watching them slowly topple over. Packer has collected five helmets to my three with just ten minutes to the supper gong when I spot a quivering cohort behind a nearby hedge. Tall, angular, full of Christmas pudding and supremely generous, it is then that I notice Licky at my side, quickly forming herself into a menhir that I can fling at the fleeing soldiers, flattening half-a-dozen of them. With such teamwork I can only see Miss Shazhorn and myself conquering the world next year, perhaps following an overdue detox.