When people consider a spring West-country sporting tour it is as likely as not they have in mind a couple of days with the staghounds and one in be-tween with the Dulverton West or Exmoor foxhounds. There will be evenings in Exford in the Dalesman bar of the White Horse or the dining-room of The Crown, and plenty of convivial company.
Certainly this was the case before the Devon & Somerset staghounds were limited by law to hunting with just two hounds, and when Captain RE Wallace held sway with the Exmoor. A couple of hundred riders with the staghounds and 70 with the foxhounds was the norm.
While the economy has played its part in the reduction of visitors to the Westcountry, there are indications that some are being more adventurous and striking out for the glorious yet by no means easy moors of Bodmin and Dartmoor. For authentic moorland sport, neither can be surpassed.
“On Exmoor you can ride anywhere except where you can’t and on Dartmoor you can’t ride anywhere except where you can,” is the old Westcountry saying. What this means is that the southern moors require greater concentration on horsemanship to keep with hounds. There are plenty of bogs but also acres of open space and the prospect of long days.
Steep-sided scree valleys and granite tors abound and the visitors who cope best hire horses locally rather than bring their own. On Dartmoor, Haytor and Hound Tor conjure up images of a wild, desolate yet breathtaking landscape, and they are not misleading. The small villages and inns of Chagford, Widecome-in-the-Moor or Bridestowe nestle into the moorside like beacons of safety and warmth.
HUNTING IN APRIL
On the southern moors the seasons are dictated by farming practices. The East Cornwall and the North Cornwall, which hunt Bodmin Moor, finish in the third week of March and the first week of April respectively, and the Dartmoor packs go on for a few weeks beyond.
Graham Higgins has hunted the East Cornwall as Master since its amalgamation in the late Nineties with the Bolventor Harriers. Before then, he hunted the Bolventor Harriers from 1983 as well as being Master. Because he farms here and keeps the hounds at home, everyone is known to him. “The moor is wild and beautiful and the characters are second to none. Long may that continue,” he says.
Bodmin is mostly privately owned, whereas Dartmoor is mainly Duchy of Cornwall land. There are about 25 lords of the manor who own the freehold of the moor and 70 farmers with commoners’ grazing rights. The redoubtable Nancy Hall, Lady of the Manor of Hamatethy, has lived on Bodmin all her life. “I will have my ashes scattered on the moor, that’s what it means to me,” she says. “I farm, shoot, hunt, and love the bleakness of the landscape and the colour of the people. They will always stop and say hello.” This is also the view of Peter Throssell, moorland farmer and former Master of the Bolventor Harriers. “When I was growing up all the farmers were my friends. Many of the well-stocked farms were of little more than a hundred acres and there was no wire. Much of that has changed now, with Natural England giving subsidies not to stock the moor. I am afraid it has been a disaster.”
“IT’S A TOUGHER LIFE”
Bevil Bunt, a former Master of the East Cornwall, has been farming the moor all his life. As a child he would take himself on to the moor or off to school on his pony. A horse breeder and parish councillor, he is a significant figure in the village of St Neot. “You have to be born on the moor to farm the moor,” he claims. “It is a tougher life.” Like Throssell, he kept the hounds on his farm. Then there is Ian Borton, who was for more than 40 years a cattle auctioneer and, for 20, chairman and field master of the harriers. “I hunted on a horse till I was 80 and ran three markets on a Monday, so if there were any problems, I was there to sort them out,” he recalls.
No one who has met Michael Hooper, who farms 900 acres for the Duchy on Bodmin Moor, will be in doubt that he embodies the very spirit of those who live, work, and hunt here. He has a hefted flock of 700 sheep, no wire, and the ewes lamb out of doors in the old-fashioned way. “It grieves them to be penned up,” he says. “If we have to bring them into a barn, through sickness or bad weather, they straight-away lose condition.” One of the highlights of Hooper’s year is his snipe-shooting conducted over 70 acres of marshland. “The marsh holds a lot of snipe and woodcock and it is proper rough-shooting.” He is to be found hunting with the East Cornwall, wearing a ready smile and a pork pie hat.
But the East Cornwall is not averse to newcomers. Round-the-world yachtsman Chay Blyth was a regular mounted follower in the Nineties. Higgins recalls having to cart him off the moor on a tractor and trailer after a fall in the days before the air ambulance. As a child, shoe designer Emma Hope was taken for long walks from her grandparents’ Cornish home on to Bodmin. It left an impression. “I now hunt on the moor whenever I can,” she says.
Bodmin is about a fifth of the size of Dartmoor’s 368 square miles. Alan Murton, Master and huntsman of the North Cornwall, hunted the Spooner’s & West Dartmoor in the Nineties. “Bodmin is tiny by comparison but we have a lot of fun here,” he says of North Cornwall country. On Dartmoor, before the ban, he would have hunts of eight miles, and credits his success to hounds from the Border in Northumberland: “You’ve got to have independent hounds when you are drawing a hundred-acre bog.”
But what of Dartmoor with its four packs: the Spooner’s & West Dartmoor, South Devon, Mid Devon and Dartmoor? George Lyon-Smith has been hunting with the Mid Devon all his life and been a Joint Master for the past 11 seasons, also acting as field master. “You can see hounds working in a magical landscape,” he says. “But it is always out to get you; the weather can change in a moment.”
Ian Pearse, Master and huntsman of the South Devon, moved to Dartmoor to hunt hounds in 2002. “I believe we have got the prettiest part of the moor for variety, pretty villages and the landmarks of Hound Tor and Grimspound,” he claims. “I will never get tired of its changing ways.”
Ian Brackenbury was brought up at the Ring of Bells pub in North Bovey where, from after the war until 1970, his father was the landlord. He follows the hounds every day he can when not operating as a pest control officer. “There was no wire until the Fifties and we got everywhere on our ponies,” he says. “Even when electricity came to the post office on the moor in the Sixties, the postmistress only used it to see to light the Tilley lamp.” Dartmoor in the Fifties, says Brackenbury, was like Surrey before the First World War. There were darts matches against the prison warders at the Devil’s Elbow pub in Princetown, pigs in the backyard which would be slaughtered at Christmas, and plenty of “lock-ins” at the pub. Today Brackenbury is a mainstay of Dartmoor foot-following and of his village. He does not go abroad.
At Belstone, made famous by the eponymous book, film and fox, Rosemary Hooley, has run a stables since 1964. Thous-ands of riders have experienced the wonders of hunting on Dartmoor from her yard, where in the late Sixties she ran popular donkey shows with games. “I moved here with sundry horses, dogs and cats and have never left,” she says. “I keep meaning to give up but the moor is my life.”
Then there are Gill Norrish and her daughter Lorraine Chamberlain at Poundsgate, who hire out superb horses. “Dartmoor is a mysterious and magical place,” says Chamberlain. “There are terrific open spaces, a ruggedness that simply blows the visitor away.” For the Cornish packs, look no further than Tony Boon for hirelings. He was formerly the huntsman of the Lamerton and knows these parts.
At The Fox and Hounds at Bridestowe there is a hunting mural by a German prisoner of war. The story goes that he painted it because Hitler hated hunting and it so endeared him to the locals that he made Dartmoor his home.
Both moors from time to time have welcomed visiting packs and the Beaufort has been to both on several occasions. I have been among them and can confirm that the welcome, like the humour, is second to none. Once, when Beaufort Joint Master and huntsman Captain Ian Farquhar had taken a fall into a deep stream, a special presentation was made to him later in the day. It was a snorkel.
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