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January 21, 2011

Life in the Flask Lane

By Spear's

Wowee — a hunt ball in upstate New York that’s a match for its booze-sodden English counterparts. Bottoms up, says Daisy Prince
MAYBE IT’S MY age, or the fact that I spent almost every winter weekend of my twenties on a horse in the UK countryside, but I start climbing the walls in New York if I can’t escape from the city at least twice a month. New Yorkers don’t tend to leave the city during the winter as often as Londoners do. The idea of dashing off to each other’s houses for shooting weekends or just to have a jolly house party doesn’t really exist on the same level in the US. You might leave with a group of friends for the weekend, but you’d be more likely to sit around in someone’s kitchen on a Saturday night playing Scrabble than having a seated black-tie dinner.

So, it was out of sense of curiosity and adventure that we set out for a weekend in Millbrook, New York. Millbrook is in Dutchess County, a lovely area that has in recent years, became a draw for expat Europeans, hedge-funders who hate the Hamptons and the occasional low-key movie star (Liam Neeson, Sigourney Weaver and Frédéric Fekkai all have properties here). The countryside also looks an awful lot like Gloucestershire, which appealed to my husband and was an additional reason why we were there surreptitiously scouting out the area. We were invited by friends to attend the Millbrook Hunt Ball and since we’d never been to one in the US, we thought we’d give it a shot.

We looked for a B&B and found the newly opened Pines Inn, overjoyed to discover that it was a mercifully short five-minute drive from the Mashomack Club, where the ball would take place.

Staying at the Pines Inn was a little like being in a BBC drama or the board game Cluedo. The house was High Victorian, with gothic touches everywhere. Americans view restoration as high art and the couple who owned the Pines had spent the past eight years lovingly restoring a dilapidated wreck. They were so committed to their goal that they’d even found a company in California to re-create a discontinued brand of William Morris wallpaper from the 1870s. Our room had a vast bed of carved ebony with Frette sheets, a large bathroom with twin sinks and an enormous bathtub with a powershower. It was the countryside dream, with amenities. ‘Face it,’ said my husband, ‘you were in love from the moment they showed you that you had your own hairdryer.’

The next morning, as we strolled down for breakfast, we encountered the downside of the American B&B: the shared table. As the Pines Inn is trying to cater to an upmarket crowd, they were under the mistaken impression that what people really want is to be served at breakfast. The Brits definitely have it right on this one — a buffet of hot food, the papers and silence until breakfast is finished. The Pines Inn gave us a four-course breakfast which was served to us with painstakingly agonising care, during which we had to make small talk with another couple for an hour and half and ended up missing the hunt meet.

When we finally arrived at the clearing and began to follow the riders on foot, it was clear that although England and America might be separated by 3,500 miles and political beliefs, there are some traditions that are the same on both sides of the Atlantic. ‘Hello down there. Hope you brought your flask,’ said one beefy, red-faced, red-coated hunter on a beautiful bay.
THE HUNT BALL definitely had more in common with an English party than an American one. Loyal readers of my column will know my views on most New York City parties (or ‘events’, as they are maddeningly referred to here, as if they were brought on by cataclysmic shifts). They are, in a word, dull. I call them ‘Potemkin Parties’ because everyone stands around pretending to have a good time with glassy smiles holding glasses of warm white wine, constantly aware of the photographers clicking away.

However, once in a while someone throws a real shindig, complete with cataracts of champagne and great music and fun people. The hunt ball in Millbrook was one of these occasions.

Everyone arrived more or less on time, drove straight for the bar and never looked back. The only real differences were that the food was nicer (foie gras as a starter, chicken that was edible for a main course) and the auction prizes went for lots more money than they ever did with the Beaufort. One added bonus of having a party in a private club is that everyone could smoke inside, so everyone who smoked could do it in the warm of a room lit by a crackling fire. That alone proved that the US countryside can certainly hold its own with England. 

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Illustration by Anna-Louise Felstead

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