It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive. Rubbish. Whoever said that had never followed the Chiddingfold, Leconfield and Cowdray hounds on a late-October afternoon in Charlton Forest. We were lost high up on the Sussex Downs. I was a new master, in charge of the subscribers, honorary members, children and day caps for the first time, and we were alone in a forest sprawling enough to have hidden the fugitive Charles II for days.
Each face turned brightly towards me for guidance. The huntsman’s wailing notes were lost on the chilly evening breeze. Well, they would have been if he’d bothered to wail them at all. ‘Speaking for myself,’ piped up one voice, ‘I’d like to travel hopefully and arrive. I’ve got a hair appointment at four.’ A veteran chose that moment to remark: ‘You know, men have gone mad trying to find a way down. Probably still here. Somewhere among the trees…’
As an institution, fox-hunting can withstand anything thrown at it no matter how unlikely, such as abolition. Individually, packs are tough nuts to crack, too. Increasingly, they must acclimatise to new regimes and, in so doing, welcome the non-predictability of the new master, whose enthusiasm tends initially to outweigh his ability. In my case, colossally, but I never forget the honour given to me. And when it all works-and most of the time it does-we have great days and the rewards are boundless, more than justifying any perilous route it took to get there.
Shame is the first thing the new master learns to leave firmly at home. I’ve taken direction from an eight year old, who has arguably less idea where we are than I, but, on the basis that two heads are better than one (and his is clouded only by Ribena)… He’s also told me that a hedge with a yawning ditch is perfectly doable and gone on to prove how just how doable it is. And then back again the other way. ‘See?’ At this point, I exercised droit de seigneur over his fruit pastilles.
Natural obstacles apart, there are, however, some things that still confound two years on. The meet card is one. Each season, we indulge in a courtly dance with landowners and gamekeepers, a gavotte of advance and recoil, which allows us, when we are all exhausted and fluttering our fans, to have drawn up a list of hunting days and shoot dates and still remain on cordial terms.
Next, identifying hounds. This is intolerable (counting them is impossible). By the end of the season, when I’ve learnt every name and the differences in their identical colouring, there seem to be more or fewer than there were when I started. This is when some multi-purpose names come into good use. I can shout them out if ever I need anyone to know that I know perfectly well what I’m talking about-usually when neighbouring hunts are visiting: ‘Get on about you, Ringworm! And as for you, Silage…’ ‘Silage?’ Very few people are fooled, and fewer hounds.
Then, of course, there are precisely those constituents that have made hunting the dignified institution it is. Chiefly, the importance of correct etiquette. Members of the field live in fear of being ‘sent home’ for some misdemeanour, obvious or arcane. I live in a state of fear in case I have to send someone home. How great does the infringement have to be? It’s your farrier: dare one weigh up the possible recriminations? What happens if, on being told to do so, they refuse to go? Do I go home instead?
Genghis Khan may have fired up cauldrons and boiled chieftains alive pour encourager les autres, but, for me, nothing chills the blood more than a predecessor who sent a boy home because he was ‘chatting excitedly’ and it was time to make an example. This was ruthlessness tinged with full-blown lunacy: his teenage victim was, I’m told, the current Lord Egremont, who, like his forebears, not only owns all the hunting country in any direction from Petworth House, he also owns the kennels, half the hounds and the huntsman’s house.That he is, years later, still ‘on message’ and a hound trustee says much about noblesse oblige and a great deal more about the man.
The Egremont family hosts our first opening meet-rather greedily, we have two-and the Cowdray family the second. This was the scene of an early violation of protocol. It is a tradition, long established (aren’t they always?), that a vast silver cup slightly larger than the Wimbledon trophy is filled with port and handed to the first master who strays into eyeline. In 2008, that was me, on a badly behaved horse.
There were complimentary noises when I managed, at length, to grasp the vase, lift it up with both hands and drink. As the approving noises seemed to continue, I thought, happily, that I shouldn’t stop. It might be rude. ‘I think, sir, you’re meant to take a sip and pass it on,’ murmured an obliging, if insistent, whipper-in. At which point I dropped it.
Not long after that, I had dropped, too. Off my horse and onto the tarmac leading away from the House. Viscount Cowdray’s aunt, mounted as she had been for nearly 80 years, stepped over me. She was from an age that required masters to abase themselves regularly in front of grand families, but probably not so soon after a meet.
It is understood that, for the first season at least, the new master turns up to every social event and hosts at least one. The annual general-knowledge quiz is mapped out way in advance like Montgomery’s briefings at El Alamein, but with greater attention to detail. The questions are pared to the bone to avoid ambiguity. It’s never enough. This year, the questions about the ostrich, West Midlands Airport and the westernmost point of Europe were, with hindsight, a mistake. Montgomery would have settled the resulting disputes better than me. However, I didn’t have a tank handy. (And yes, I know there were two El Alameins, so yes, I could also have been Gen Auchinleck).
As this season draws to a close, it has been, we masters agreed, remarkably free of incident. This is probably, said one, because it has also been remarkably free of hunting, 15 days having been lost to an unidentifiable ‘cough’ at the kennels and the weather. However, my horse didn’t knock unconscious a leading cast member of Emmerdale- that was the tail end of last season-nor did we feel the need to fire our huntsman on the field at a gallop (apparently, that occured in the 1980s).
Nor did I, as field master, have my head cut off in a botched execution that required five strokes of the axe (that last happened in 1685 to the Duke of Monmouth, more to do with his moral compass than his sense of direction). We did, however, charge unexpectedly into a protected wildflower meadow. What turns the new master into an experienced one is the sure knowledge that tiptoeing out unnoticed can never, ever be an option.
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