It is a January weekday in a lay-by above Simonsbath and the fog is swirling over Exmoor like a Jutland battleship. This is no deterrent to more than 40 followers of the Devon and Somerset Staghounds (DSSH) with the prospect of a day’s hindhunting before them.
Sir Stephen Waley-Cohen has hacked from his glorious Honeymead estate and Sue Pike and Loveday Miller have ridden six miles across the moor to be early for this 10.45 meet at Prayway Head. Car cappers, Pauline Johnson and Sarah Jeanes, are dressed in sou’westers like fishermen’s friends and, as I poke my head out of my horsebox, I am welcomed by Joint Master Rupert Andrews with the words, “This is man’s country.”
From November to the end of February, it is the hindhunting season on Exmoor and the Quantocks for the three packs – the DSSH, Tiverton and Quantock – which practise this ancient and subtle art, often in weather that would make the average foxhunter quickly close his curtains and retire to bed.
“When you get raindrops in the vale, we get hailstones on the moor,” says Sarah Jeanes. “I live on my own but I never feel alone. The hunt binds the community, rain or shine,” Pauline Johnson says cheerfully, in the teeth of a biting wind. Coins are soon flying into cap bags.
“It’s a locals’ sport at this time of year,” David “Greengrass” Greenwood, who has farmed here all his life, told me. “You get to see more hunting and you get to see the moor at its most wild.” With his purposeful eye, volu-minous beard and obviously friendly nature, I marked him as a man to follow.
There are women, too, in this “man’s country”. Fran Bell, the fourth Master of the DSSH to live at Pixton House (once home of Aubrey Herbert, the inspiration for John Buchan’s Greenmantle), hunts at least three days a week: “I came here from London as a child. Perhaps it is my French ancestry but the stag and the hind have always been my love and my quarry.”
It is a scene as ancient as the time of the 16th century when Queen Elizabeth I’s ranger, Hugh Pollard, kept a pack at Simonsbath and hunted the Royal Forest of Exmoor, now open ground but still referred to as “The Forest”. The only noticeable difference is that, since the Hunting Act of 2004, these hunts today are permitted to take out only two hounds.
“With two hounds, it is the true hunters who come out for the hunting,” says DSSH huntsman Donald Summersgill, who has carried the horn since 1991. “They get a lot of gratification from seeing two hounds working. They know their names and attributes.”
“We have had some wonderful days hindhunting if she is ‘straight necked’ and we can get her away,” Joint Master Diana Scott told me. “There is nothing better.” But things are rather different today, as Donald Summersgill explains. “One of the concerns of drawing with only two hounds is that, unlike the old days, we cannot be sure that the hind is the one that needs culling. This is a problem.”
The DSSH hunts three days a week from early August to the end of April and often still gets more than 120 riders out on a Saturday. Sir Stephen Waley-Cohen, uncle of Cheltenham Gold Cup winning jockey, Sam Waley-Cohen, says of its attraction, “The venery skills in hindhunting are very challenging and you can have a wonderful galloping day.”
There is a story about a foxhunter who came to Exmoor and questioned how easy it must be to hunt a hind when you come across a herd of perhaps a hundred as opposed to finding a single fox to hunt. “Yes,” replied the hindhunter, “But if we lose her, we haven’t got the excuse of saying ‘gone to ground’.”
For all the banter and good-hearted rivalry between the two sports, several foxhunters have made the transition to “the other religion” – staghunting – such as well-regarded former Tedworth Master and huntsman Peter Horton, and former Warwickshire and Heythrop huntsman Anthony Adams who was at the DSSH meet. “This is as old-fashioned hunting as you will find anywhere today, totally absorbing,” he told me.
After an hour and a half at the meet, however, with the mist and fog of Exmoor becoming even more enveloping, the Prayway Head day had to be abandoned. “Cold, wet and windy – any two are acceptable but three puts things out of the question,” said Donald Summersgill. It was the first day to be called off this season.
To see how hindhunting is achieved in all its exhilarating and legal forms I had to travel to the Quantock Staghounds’ meet from the well-kept kennels at West Bagborough. The night before, I had stayed and had supper with their popular huntsman Richard Down at The Hood Arms at Kilve, owned by John and Nicky Thompson and a proper hunting inn.
“The art of hindhunting is to select the hind and stick to her over a hunt of perhaps three hours,” says Richard Down, who was brought up with the DSSH but has hunted these hounds since 1991. He always hunts bitches which, in the old days, might have been as many as 20½ couple; the young hounds are now entered in their third season. “You need settled weather and for the trees in Bagborough Wood to be black,” Down told me as we looked out at the trees above his kitchen window the next morning. “The hounds will tell you at breakfast if you are going to have a good day.”
The old saying was that if you could kill two hinds before Christmas the huntsman had done a good job. Before the ban, perhaps 20 hinds would be set at bay by the hounds in a season. “The hind is as crafty as a barrel-load of monkeys,” continues Down. He has never used tufters or old hounds in hindhunting. “The hinds are wiry, intelligent and clever. When we were hunting stags, everyone saw the horns, but with a hunted hind, she can slow and pretend she’s not the hunted quarry, then speed off again.”
It is the sheer speed of hindhunting in the UK that brings the sport its aficionados. (For all the stag and roe packs in France, they do not hunt hinds.) Recently, several French visitors have been joining the DSSH to experience how things are done here.
The Vicomte Hugh le Hardy de Beaulieu, now 91, is a stalwart supporter of the Quantock Staghounds, and was out on my day on his smart, grey horse. The meet was hosted by Michael Thorne, who has never ridden.
From the meet we went to “Sixty Acres”, a renowned plantation belonging to Anthony Trollope-Bellew. To the north was Bagborough Wood and, to our right, the sedate pink shimmer of the restored Triscombe House. History in staghunting sits like a breast-high scent. Who could hunt in “Sixty Acres” without recalling the 19th-century family forebear, John Froude Bellew? I am indebted to the Nether Stowey historian David Worthy for the following succinct account in his book Sporting Victorians: Froude Bellew “drank, hunted, lied and cheated and, amongst other activities, showed his displeasure when a parishioner was disobedient by setting fire to his hayricks”.
Today’s Quantock field are more temperate in their passions but no less ardent in their sport. The embattled sincerity of their Masters, and the kennel, which still keeps 15 couple of bitches, are a beacon as bright as Dunkery.
From the low country we passed on to the Quantocks themselves, some four miles wide and 12 in length. The sky above the brackened moor had the luminosity of kelp and, on the distant shoreline, the Hinkley Point nuclear reactor loomed visible. Twelve miles away over the Severn Reach could be seen the lights of South Wales. But the Quantocks still have about them the same mystery that drew Coleridge to Porlock and led him to write his sublime fragment Kubla Khan.
To ride the tops and coombs requires a decent horse and a good pilot. Hunt staff require two horses in a hind hunt that may only last two hours but is over 12 miles at a blistering pace. “I always had my second horses up early to me in the day when we were hindhunting with a full pack,” said Richard Down. “The hinds are much faster to hunt.”
To be given a hunt horse that knows the country and his job made my day. I could observe proceedings throughout on Lucy Down’s Red, with the rein buckle on my fingertip. I fell into the company of my old hunting friend, Richard Walton, a singular hunter of the old-fashioned school, happy to have hounds, fox or stag, before him. He exemplifies Snaffles’s dictum: “Happy are they who hunt for their own pleasure, not to astonish others.” He did, however, astonish us all by taking a fall on the flat as we hacked home, emerging mud splattered, without complaint.
The achievement of the Westcountry staghounds is that they have drawn for their present activities on the very close community of their past. Richard Lethbridge’s The Tiverton Staghounds records many days with the hinds and the families, both as Masters and farmers, who have kept it going. The achievements of the three staghound packs are no longer recorded in the local paper but support for them remains undimmed.
Sitting with Donald Summersgill and Joint Master Diana Scott at the Devon and Somerset kennels, I ask them to recall a particularly memorable day’s hindhunting. They tumble upon it like purists of this ancient art and I sit silently listening to their breathless accounts – each hound, every covert, who was there and what happened is like the carving on a rubbing post.
Donald Summersgill talks about each hunt and each hound as if they were family to his own memories. “For the visitor, the best advice is to keep quiet and listen,” said Diana Scott, “And then they will enjoy themselves.”
Hindhunting in the Westcountry has evolved through its local farming community over four centuries. An example of this is the DSSH whipper-in, 28-year-old Peter Heard. “I’ve never been beyond Dulverton and Simonsbath. This is my dream job.”
Then there is the old flesh house at Bagborough which has been renamed The Antler Inn. There, after hindhunting with the Quantock Staghounds, I sat with the Masters, huntsman, and other hunt members, and we reflected upon the day before an open fire. There was such old-fashioned knowledge and good humour that the outside world was quite forgotten.