Most people welcome the warmer weather and the longer days, but for me, it means the end of the hunting season and six long months before I can gallop behind hounds again. I was a relatively late starter to hunting, following mounted for the first time when I was 14, but now hunt as much as I can during the winter. I still hunt with my own pack, the Clifton-on-Teme in Worcestershire and Herefordshire, as often as possible, but also visit other packs.
Due to the unjust ban, which seems to give animal-rights groups licence to trespass and harass hunting people, mounted and on foot, hunts have to be careful about newcomers, as although they would like to welcome new people, there is always the possibility that unfriendly types will follow with the purpose of ‘monitoring’ them.
However, once one’s loyalty is assured, a shared love for hunting is a passport anywhere. I work full time as deputy chief sub-editor for Country Life, but, at weekends, am a hunt correspondent for Horse and Hound and lucky enough to travel all over the country for my job. Sometimes, I know members of the hunt I’m visiting, but more often than not I know no one. Yet it never worries me, as hunting people everywhere are the most generous and welcoming of all, and it’s never long before the stories start coming.
Every pack has a wealth of tales to tell, of 10-mile points, good and bad hounds, funny falls and legends, apocryphal and otherwise. One of my favourite stories is from my own pack, when a certain subscriber who shall remain nameless arrived at the kennels for the last meet of the season. After a cup of coffee with the master, she went outside to mount up. A few moments later, she returned saying she had to dash home for something. ‘What?’ asked the master. ‘A girth, gloves? We’ll lend you something.’ ‘No,’ she replied sheepishly, ‘my horse.’
So the coming of summer is always tinged with sadness, but there are compensations – point-to-points, puppy shows, game fairs, evenings painting the kennels – and, of course, the memories of a terrific season to look back on.
And it has been a good season. Eighteen days on 15 horses with 11 packs, eight in England, two in Ireland and one in France. Not as many as I had had planned – the weather and a funeral intervened – but not bad at all.
It began with a quiet but beautiful morning autumn trail-hunting with the East Kent on Romney Marsh at dawn, took me as far north as Teesside, as far west as the westernmost tip of Cornwall, and across the sea to Ireland and Burgundy in France.
I have ridden Thoroughbreds, trotters, cobs and crosses, from experienced eventers to green four-year-olds, and have had only one bad ride. (If you hire Winegum with the Beaufort, make sure he has a gag and no feed.) I’ve followed a pack of big, black-and-white, domed-headed French hounds, Ardingly, Builth and Peterborough champions, and a full pack of Welsh woollies, and traversed moorland, forestry, fields and marsh, in sunshine, frost and rain.
Every single pack has been enormous fun in their own unique way, and I’ve made good friends up and down the land. The only difficulty of following so many packs is that the invitations for next year outnumber the number of Saturdays in the season. A few mid-week days off next season will be in order, I feel.
Until then, I will prepare my kit for the opening meet and enjoy the delights of the summer, beginning with Strictly Come Dancing in drag with the Beaufort and the VWH… All will be revealed in the next instalment…