Chairman of Scottish & Newcastle and next governor of the Bank of Scotland, Sir Alistair Grant tells Brough Scott of The Racing Post about the thrill of riding to hounds.
You can sense it in the way he talks. On the horse and off it, Sir Alistair Grant is a man who likes to hold the reins.
He didn't pick them up until he was 36. Not on a horse that is. By then the self-made son of a physiotherapist and former professional runner had already met James Gulliver and the great burst of entrepreneurial energy which was to create the Argyll Group was under way. 'We had moved out of London and bought a house at Hitchin which had a field,' says Grant.
'Sue, our housekeeper, said that if I got a horse she would help look after it. I did it within a week, an old cob called Chubby Checker.'
Grant relates the tale of how he came to own Chubby Checker with the precision of word and memory that you would expect from a captain of industry (especially one who had read the complete works of Sir Walter Scott).
'I was at a cocktail party near Cambridge and met a girl called Victoria Pemberton who had overheard my conversation and said she had the cob I needed. I went over the next morning to have him saddled. I didn't know what to do but he was one of those horses who taught you naturally. I could even rise at the trot straightaway. He was so sensible, not stuffy like some cobs, but fun and affectionate.'
With typical thoroughness, Grant put himself in the hands of a woman called Liz Pickard for six months of twice-weekly riding sessions and by November he was booted and spurred at the opening meet of the Cambridge Foxhounds at Ashwell. 'I was ready to go hunting,' he says, 'I had read Surtees (the 19th-century satirist of country life) and Trollope and had no qualms about the sport, which seemed the most natural thing in the world for horse and man.
'Every Saturday my wife would become a hunting widow. I would hardly sleep on Friday night for excitement. It was a wonderful feeling to go into parts of the countryside that the car cannot go. When you drive between Royston and Cambridge you might think it very ordinary, dull, arable land, but when you get on a horse you find little quarries and copses and dykes and green roads and gypsy encampments.'
We are on controversial ground. Many people get uptight about field sports, but Grant trots steadily on. 'Mine is not necessarily a fashionable view,' he says, 'but it is based on the idea that we are part of a system that is preserving rural Britain and that the death of a fox from hunting is not a bad death. Through hunting I have probably met three to four thousand people, some bad, some good, but by and large they are among the most pleasant people I have met in my whole life. They are not bloodthirsty and they give up their time to go hunting.'
Like the great storytellers he adores (he has just written an introduction to a new edition of Anthony Trollope's Hunting Sketches), Grant grows lyrical as he recalls the places and people who every Saturday enriched an intensely busy working life.
Chubby Checker was finally pensioned off aged 22 during the frenetic period when Argyll bid for Distillers in 1986. Grant's interest in hunting was rekindled when in 1989 he bought 'a bit of a house in Scotland' - a modest description of the library wing of the vast gothic mansion of Tyninghame in East Lothian, whose other residents are the director of the National Galleries of Scotland and the historian Asa Briggs. He bought two handsome hunters, Umpah and Ballybrae, and he now has shares in some thoroughbred foals near Dunbar and an idea to breed quality Highland ponies for carriage driving.
'Riding has kept me physically very vigorous,' he says. 'I used to joke with James Gulliver that to get on in business you have to be able to out-work the thinkers and out-think the workers. I became somebody who was not just about thinking the right thoughts but who was willing to act - I think hunting helped with that.'
Then the voice goes lyrical again. 'Riding is about little epiphanies,' he says. 'A moment in the Borders, the hounds running, the wind from the west, the sun going down over the Aldon Hills; you feel friends around, your horse is fit and you probably won't do anything with the fox because it will be dark in a minute. But you have that snapshot, it is near the peak of human existence.' Trollope never put it better.