Think of summer and many people think of lazy afternoons by a pool or on a tennis court, preferably with a glass of Pimm’s to hand. For hunt followers, the highlight of this idyllic routine is the puppy show – not, as the uninitiated might assume, a parade of bumbling bundles of fur, but the chance for the hunt to show off the young entry of the recent season. The hounds shown will have been whelped the previous spring, been with puppy walkers during the summer, and hunted in the season just gone. Thus they are nearly full grown, but not yet mature, still leggy and full of exuberance.
Last Sunday, I donned a floaty dress – puppy shows are thankfully still formal affairs – and drove down to the village of Elham for the East Kent puppy show. I did my first Horse and Hound hunt report on the East Kent in December 2006, and have been back many times since – the last time on March 28 for Richard Blakeney’s last meet, which I also wrote up for H&H.
Richard was huntsman of the East Kent since 1976, and his great legacy is a superb pack of hounds. Now, Mark Westaway has the pack and, although he must have been nervous taking over from such an eminent man who was in the unusual position of watching from the sidelines, he did an excellent job. As judge Andrew Sallis, huntsman of the East Sussex and Romney Marsh, said, these hounds ‘have that extra quality called quality’.
The seven doghounds were shown first, in couples and then in a group, as Andrew and his fellow judge, Old Surrey Burstow and West Kent huntsman Mark Bycroft, deliberated and discussed the finer points of confirmation and spirit. Finally, they pronounced Duster, by VWH Darius and out of Sudden, champion at Ardingly in 2007, the winner. Hound names begin with the first letter of the father’s name and the second letter of the mother’s name. It can be a challenging tradition – the Llanwnnen in Wales has several hounds beginning with V. Vacuum was my favourite!
Eight beautiful bitches then bounded onto the flags, out of which Alto, by VWH Aintree and out of Placid, came first, with her sisters Alamo and Alibi second and third respectively. Finally, Duster and Alto returned to the stage, after which Duster was crowned champion.
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The all-important puppy walkers then climbed over the fence to take up the leads of their couples – it was wonderful to see how the hounds still remembered their early trainers after so long. The walkers do a crucial job – introducing the youngsters to sights and sounds, getting them used to people, traffic and livestock, teaching them their name and generally ensuring that, when they return to the pack, they are steady, confident and well behaved. Sally Hart took the honours, having walked brother and sister Allenby and Alibi.
A magnificent spread in the barn gave some respite from the sun as everyone chatted away – the lack of hats and stocks does make recognising people somewhat tricky! The latest litter were enjoying the sun above the kennels, and were still puppyish enough to delight the children. The whole pack was let out for a run at the end – and although a silk dress causes one to avoid the paws and thrusting noses more than usual, it was as wonderful a sight as ever. We moved onto Pimm’s as the sun sank in the west, suffusing the valley of Elham with that warm golden light that speaks of endless English summer evenings spent in good company in glorious settings. Why does anyone go abroad when such heavenly moments are here?
The gentility of the scene was reduced somewhat by an unrepeatable story concerning Mark Bycroft – hunting humour is simply terrible sometimes! I left the laughter to meander gently back to London – I long for the day when I will go home to country house rather than a city street. But, for now, such sun-kissed forays to the fields as the East Kent puppy show will keep me content.
Pictures courtesy of Ro Older, Combat Moose Photography