A Foray into the New Forest

The New Forest Hunt was meeting towards the north of their country, not far from Fordingbridge, about an hour and a half’s drive away.  I always love a day’s visiting, seeing ‘how the other half lives’, and so we accepted the kind invitiation made over Christmas dinner from my aunt Judy Sharrock, a New Forset subscriber, and set off . Judy introduced us to the Masters and 30-strong field before we hacked from our forest car park to the very generous meet hosted by the team at Arniss Equestrian where three choices of port, vol-au-vents and mugs of soup set us up for the day.

It was a busy day for hounds, and we enjoyed crossing the country with only the odd gorse bush blocking our path, I think we came across two gates and one road all day.  As joint MFH Alan Brown reminded us, this is hunting as it would have been in the old days: William the Conqueror, after winning the battle of Hastings in 1066 created the New Forest as his personal hunting ground, and crossing the country, without a road or fence in sight, you really are transported back  to those times.

A good view of hounds – a tight pack that tried hard all day

We both particularly enjoyed how field master Paul Ames, very well mounted on an excellent forest pony, kept us well in touch with hounds, who worked hard all day to find the trails.  The pack was small in number, but very fast, and we had some lovely runs across the heathland, with the odd ‘hold hard’ from Paul preventing us from ending up hock-deep in a bog.

We saw some lovely New Forest ponies – perfectly suited to crossing the country

Much of the field was mounted on forest ponies, clearly very adept at crossing the open moorland, dodging gorge bushes and bogs, and scooting under the low branches of the beautiful silver birches and beech trees in the forest.  Our two hunters, all of 6 inches bigger than the local horses, and more used to hedges than heathland and forest, adapted very well to the new going, and they seemed to enjoy the wide open spaces as much as we did.

Driving home, we both agreed that the cheerful crowd, scenic country and great sport made our day with the New Forest Hunt one to remember.  Thank you very much to Judy, Masters Alan Brown and Paul Ames for the invitation, Huntsman Michael Woodhouse for showing such good sport, and Secretary Graham and everyone in the field for making us so welcome – we are already looking forward to our next trip!

 


Boxing Day meet at Castle Cary

A great turn out in the market square at Castle Cary.

Boxing Day meet is an important time to bring together both the hunting and non-hunting community and it is lovely to see such broad support.

A young hunt supporter enjoys the festive amostphere.

 

Megan and Ben enjoying being centre of attention!

I do like how the old pub sign is in the background! The pub is the ‘George’ so you can just see George and the Dragon depicted.


What better start to the year?

‘The finest view in Europe’ – Surtees was right!

 

A beautiful sunny morning greeted the Blackmore and Sparkford Vale Hunt’s meet on New Years Day.  You could see for miles across the Dorset vale country, and we had a lovely day hedge hopping despite it being a bit wet underfoot!

Standing water in the gateways meant that extra vigilance was needed to minimise poaching of the farmers’ land. At the meet, the Master emphasised how lucky we are to be allowed to hunt on such lovely country given the current conditions. Without the farmers, there wouldn’t be any hunting!

Much as Blackthorn & Brook’s hunting is a team effort, Ben and I both enjoy a day ‘flying solo’ once in a while.  I think you can really enjoy your horse’s company, as well as that of the rest of the mounted field.

 

A lovely day to be out: looking north from Bowden in Dorset.

 

 

With the first snowdrops being spotted in the fields – ‘the death knell of hunting’ – I have resolved to get as many days in as I can before the end of the season.  Days like this remind you of how lucky we are to be able to get out and enjoy the countryside as we do, and it will be the end of the season before we know it.

A very muddy hedge-hopper at the end of the day- what a good boy.

 

I hope you have a very Happy New Year, and manage to cram in plenty of hunting, too before the end of the season!


Christmas hunting – a family affair

Hunting around Christmas time has always been a family affair.  At each meet of the Blackmore and Sparkford Vale Hunt, there are always a couple of subscribers who are assigned to follow the mounted field and close gates, put up wire, and generally ‘tidy up’ behind the thrusters.  Gate shutters generally dress in wax jackets and rubber boots – for all the getting-off they do – and a hipflask is a wise addition!

The gate-shutters

Our turn always falls on Christmas Eve.  This year, we were accompanied by Sarah and Judith – Ben’s mother and aunt – and we had a lovely, muddy day.  Judith hadn’t ridden since the summer, but kicked on and, more importantly, was sound on Christmas morning.  Sarah rides regularly, but hadn’t hunted for some twenty years, so it really was a special occasion.

We had a good, busy day, and managed to keep up with the hounds until the end (quite a feat considering we had to close all the gates as well!) Not to be forgotten is Guilia,  Judith’s 10 year old daughter, a welcome addition to the Christmas hunting scene as an enthusiastic groom!

Our Italian girl groom

I hope you all enjoyed some Christmas hunting as much as we did, and you had a very Merry Christmas!


Some wintery weather at last!

After a wet, windy November, winter has finally arrived in Somerset. I don’t think anyone will be sad to see the back of the rain. Horses, hounds, farmers and in fact, anyone just trying to get from a-to-b have had a difficult time with flood water, soaked fields and storm damage aplenty.

As you can see from the picture here, our normal rides have taken on rather a exciting watery feel – horses are by far the best form of transport in the floods and we’ve seen quite a few cars abandoned.

Where we live, on the edge of the Somerset levels near Glastonbury, the land quickly floods and it is easy to imagine how the countryside would have looked before the monks of Glastonbury Abbey drained the farmland surrounding the Isle of Avalon.

It was interesting to hear on Countryfile this week that Somerset was so called because it meant ‘Land of the Summer people’. Traditionally winter flooding was sufficiently widespread that the county was abandoned during the summer months. The view over the gate below is normally grazing for a beef herd.

But now, at last, the deluge subsides. Yesterday was a bright cold day with brilliant sun and we went hunting at Ashington Wood near Yeovilton. The sun shone all day and whilst it can’t have helped scenting conditions it gave cheer to the hounds because they worked hard all day.

Today dawned frosty with an explosion of colours. Life can’t be bad when the embers of the morning sky burn through frosted crack willows to light the commute to work.

 

(Thanks to Fi Fischer for the snaps from our wet ride!)


Thanksgiving traditions

Before this trip, all my experience of foxhunting in America has been either during cubbing or after our English season is over, in late February or early March.  As such, I have never before experienced the spectacle of a Thanksgiving meet.

At home in England, I am used to the big Boxing Day meets: boozing on a packed Priddy Green with the Mendip Farmers’ or crowds holding up the cars in Castle Cary, waiting for hounds to move off.  But what I experienced at the Blue Ridge’s Thanksgiving meet at historic Long Branch was something else.

Jerry ‘tiny’ Rivers, Blue Ridge stalwart and hunting expert Norman Fine and Chairman Robin Duncan at the meet, with Long Branch house just visible.

The trestle table was heaving with ham biscuits to be handed round, hundreds of supporters and subscribers were served hot port and cider, and milled around on the lawn.  All this went on for a good while before anyone even thought of getting on their horses, and even when hounds had moved off, looking back at the meet from the second covert, I could see 100 or so people still at the meet, enjoying the party.  Many come for the social occasion and then hurry back to cook Thanksgiving dinner and wait for the mounted followers to come home.

The other remarkable difference from home is the SUNSHINE! If the Blue Ridge mountains don’t feel far enough from Somerset, the beautiful weather really makes you feel a way from home.  Some shook their heads, fearing for poor scenting conditions, but hounds tried hard and ran well all day – they must like it too!

Moving off from the meet – unlike in England, many more American subscribers who have earned their colours wear red coats on these big occasions, some wear them every day.

Nancy Kleck is a sporting artist who has taken to car following with the Blue Ridge Hunt. Come rain or shine, Nancy is a permanent fixture in the back of the truck, always well wrapped up, and takes some beautiful pictures, seen above, some of which she uses to inspire her professional work www.EquineSportingArt.com .


‘The Golden Age of Foxhunting’ – Article on FoxhuntingLife.com

 

I’m delighted to have had another article published on www.foxhuntinglife.com. The piece looks at the fabled ‘Golden Age of Foxhunting’ and can be read below.

Foxhunters often evoke the nineteenth century as the belle-époque of English foxhunting. This may have to do with the extensive documentation provided by the famous artists and writers of the time. The efforts of Nimrod, Alken, and friends immortalized an age of rollicking runs across open countryside, dashing horsemen and women, and fine stout foxes flying across hill and dale.

Whilst The Golden Age as it is known has long since provided a benchmark of foxhunting excellence and excitement, we note that today’s foxhunters are blessed with some decided advantages.

hugo meynell2

Hugo Meynell, the father of modern foxhuntingIn the eighteenth century, advanced hound and horse breeding techniques were an important factor in bringing about a revolution in the field. Speed and stamina defined the new fast method of hunting pioneered by Hugo Meynell, Master of the Quorn in the late 1700s. Lord Willoughby de Broke described how the modern foxhound marked a quantum leap in hunting practice:

It was a great discovery that it was possible to breed and train a foxhound that could find his fox at eleven o’clock and kill him before noon, instead of an animal who had to be taken out in the middle of the night all the winter through in order to give him the advantage of finding his fox asleep with supper indigested…

Contemporary to canine improvement were advances in equine breeding. The history of the Thoroughbred is well documented, and I needn’t observe that the introduction of bloodlines from Byerly, Darley and Godolphin to indigenous breeds provided the athletic, robust animals that still form the stalwart of the hunting field today.

The historical context of the era is also important as it opened up the countryside to the sportsman as never before. It was probably, notes T.E Dale in his history of the Belvoir, “the period in our history when trade and agriculture prospered best side by side.” Before the agricultural depression of the 1870s, the Corn Laws protected English farmers from foreign import, bringing affluence to the countryside that surely fostered favourable attitudes towards the sportsman.
 
The Enclosure Acts passed between 1750 and 1860 apportioned common land amongst large interests. Suddenly a single landlord with a penchant for hunting now held the key to swathes of countryside.

Enclosure not only forged the landscapes we associate with hunting today, but as England’s ancient woodland receded so too did traditional quarry such as red deer, wild boar and even hare. With a new countryside came a new quarry: the fox.

As we hold onto this image as the heyday of hunting, however, I wonder whether perhaps we over romanticise a rose-tinted past and neglect to credit today’s foxhunting. The Countryside Alliance has observed that the UK’s foxhunts are enjoying a renaissance “with more riders than ever […] coming into the sport, more hounds being bred [and] more people are being employed in the industry.”

Often perceived as a threat to foxhunting, the growing railway network connected town and country in the nineteenth century affording foxhunting an accessibility that added to its popularity in the golden age. This legacy lives on today in the social diversity of the hunting field. The place of children particularly has changed. My mother recalls the hostility of the hunting ground for small riders even as recently as the 1970s. Today children are a welcome addition to the field.

From railway to automobile, the combustion engine has made the foxhunt the activity of a single day, rather than two or three. In the Golden Age our forebears would have had to ride to the meet the night before the appointment and return in darkness or the following day. With lorries and trailers we have the range to visit no end of local packs within a few hours’ drive and be back again for tea! Clare Griffin-Jones admits:

The stout covert hacks so beloved by our sires
Have yielded their place to petrol and tyres;
And I frankly confess that I drift with the tide
Of those who would much rather motor than ride.

And from automobile to jet-plane, we must celebrate too the internationalisation of the sport. With active packs in New Zealand, France, South Africa and of course, the burgeoning tradition in North America and Canada, fox-hunters from across the globe can look beyond their own shores for their sport. A hunting trip overseas provides the opportunity to meet new friends, watch hounds work in a different environment, and to test yourself across new country.
 
Horsemanship too has evolved radically since the early nineteenth century in terms of breeding, saddlery, nutrition, and veterinary understanding. In 1825, Blackmore Vale hounds ran an astonishing twenty-odd miles in Dorset. What is astounding about Henry Higginson’s chronicle of the run, however, is his reference to how “the lance was freely used.”  During the years of the Golden Age bloodletting was perceived as an effective way to relieve exhaustion in horses. Its inefficacy is clear as he later concludes:

Lots of horses died in Fordington Field, and in the town that night, and many were of little use afterwards; yet horses at that time of years should have been in good hunting trim.

The reality of course is that the comparison of two hunting eras spanning a time of unprecedented change is difficult. The complete re-invention of British society, two world wars, and unimaginable technological development mean the Golden Age and our hunting today represent worlds apart and it is hard to envisage the true meaning of the contrasts.

Whilst some might yearn for halcyon times past and others favour the conveniences and safety of today’s sport, the essence of the exercise remains fundamentally unchanged, and I think that it is this that links us with our foxhunting forebears. Regardless of the era, we revere the chance to explore our beautiful but ever-changing countryside, and, whilst we celebrate the rhythm of tradition, it is the unexpected, unpredictable excitements of a day’s sport that keep us coming back. Foxhunting requires good preparation, flexibility, and resourcefulness. Golden Age hunters and modern enthusiasts enjoy the chance to test themselves against the ever-different circumstances of the chase. I also believe it is these characteristics that have allowed the evolution of the sport through history, giving us yesterdays’ Golden Age, our golden age today, and the prospect of more gilt-edged hunting tomorrow!


Corton Denham Ridge Ride

With hunting at Nyland threatening to be sub-marine, we dodged Saturday’s meet and boxed the horses up to Corton Denham for something a bit different. I’ve been out two or three times this autumn to plan potential routes for newly arrived guests. Rather than plunging people into hunting as soon as they’ve arrived it’s nice to give visitors the chance to get back in the saddle after a long flight and to explore the country at a leisurely pace.

This route is definitely a winner- it has varied countryside, tremendous views of hunt country and a number of possible pub stops for refreshment! Importantly it is largely on bridle paths and open country; any lanes that need navigating are really quiet.

Setting off from the lay-by on the Sutton Montis road overlooking Whitcomb (this is the top point of the route on the map), the ride takes you straight up onto Corton ridge where the Sparkford Vale falls away below like a Lionel Edwards painting.

A good (if slightly muddy) canter along the top soon brings you to the high-hedged lane into Stafford’s Green. From here we followed the lane straight up over the hill towards Wheatsheaf Farm and the ‘Triangle’ where three roads meet.

At this point you pass through an ancient and rather extravagant road tunnel which leads into a peaceful valley, which is charmingly referred to the Ordinance Survery as featuring ‘Pillow Mounds’.

Bringing you through a secluded valley littered with gorse, the ride crosses the main Sherborne road which warrants a bit of care, before climbing above Poyntington to the Lady’s Mile. The mile is a super place to have a proper gallop.

Pulling up, we took the track to the left and then left again, skirting the top of the Sprakes’ farm where the B&SV point-to-point is held, and then back to the Sherborne road.

Passing the pigs in a muddy yard at Seven Wells the lane climbed again bringing us to the geographical highpoint of the ride. The trig. point above Corton Village is easily spotted from the aptly named Beacon Lane. Beyond it lies a fabulous vista with Glastonbury, the Quantocks and even the distant sea all visible on a bright day.

Downhill all the way home, we mooched the last mile or so before reuniting with our trailers. All in the ride takes about two hours. I would firmly recommend it to anyone looking for a scenic, varied outing – it certainly made a nice change from our normal routes.


Into Full Swing

Amidst the excitement of the hunting season proper getting underway, it’s been a week or two since I last put pen to paper.

Opening Meet has been and gone with all its fanfare; a red-letter day matched by burnished gold trees, those greenish blue autumn landscapes so particular to our surroundings and plenty of glasses brimful of burgundy port.

All of the polishing, grooming, soaping and brushing is rendered worthwhile when the rural fraternity comes together to inaugurate the sporting year. One-hundred and forty-nine horses turned out to follow hounds, a respectable field, but an insignificant number when compared with the crowds of pedestrian supporters who make their annual pilgrimage to Inwood House. There are some wonderful photos on Emma Harris’s website.

Always a sport of contrast, my hunting this week has given me plenty of solitude. Far from the festive host of Opening Meet, I managed thoroughly to lose myself at Sticklynch on Tuesday and spent a lonely couple of hours tracking the hounds several miles from our trailer where I’d returned because one of our party had lost a shoe.

Despite the frequent frustrations there is something very special about scouting across country — just rider and horse. Corbally and I found ourselves completely alone on the Glastonbury Festival site. In lieu of 100,000 revellers, a few sheep meandered around the iconic stone circle with the ghoulish tones of distant horn adding to the surrealism.

With impractically patchy mobile phone signal, it was also a fairly rigorous test of field craft, essaying my knowledge of the country and skills of observation. It’s remarkable how misleading a distant horn call is. I sat for some time in the corner of an apple orchard aurally tracking Mark’s progress through covert before feeling confident enough to backtrack to the road and reunite with relief!

Of course, with rediscovery came the news that it was time for hounds to go home! The truth is that pleasure of hacking the mile or two back to the hound lorry in the rusty light of the afternoon made the effort well worth my while.


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Please note, throughout our website we use the term fox hunting to mean all of the activities carried out by our participating hunts operating within the constraints of the Hunting Act 2004.