Town or gown? It doesn’t matter when you are out following the beagles. Beagling has earned its place in the modern sporting pantheon as the crucible of many sporting careers. With its strong links to schools and universities, it is set to forge the future of our country sports. Their packs are full of vitality and are essential for training the future generation – be they hunt staff, Masters or politicians. To take on a pack is a rite of passage. It teaches things an academic education cannot. All university and school packs hunt within the law and its exemptions.
Three schools still kennel their own packs: Eton, Stowe and Radley. Eton (1858) is the oldest and the most traditional. It hunts twice a week in the Michaelmas term and three times a week in Lent. Last year Tom Selwyn Sharpe and Tom Holland-Hibbert held the Joint Mastership. While the pack is organised by a trust run by three ex-Masters, Selwyn Sharpe was keen to point out that “you would struggle to find a sport run as much by the boys”. Boys organise the meet card and they clear the country.
To take up the horn and follow the hounds requires them to eschew major sports (football, rugby and cricket). “The housemasters tend to encourage major sports before the beagles,” Selwyn Sharpe says. “It is time-consuming but worth it. We keep on top of it with an efficient system. We get lots of advice from neighbouring packs as our country is quite limited.”
The largest recent field saw 34 boys, though usually about 16 attend each meet. These provide important interaction with the community, as adult followers and visitors often join, too. “It is the best feeling in the world to be on top of the moorland alone with your pack of hounds,” he says. “We are also really keen to raise the profile of the beagles, and have just reinstated our Beagling Ball.”
Treasurer Andrew Robinson adds, “As for the justification of having a pack at a school, it’s educational – not just in hound care and hunting skills but in dealing with farmers and sometimes aggrieved neighbours and gamekeepers. It’s not half bad for diplomacy, either.”
Radley’s pack has been going strong since 1940, hunting Tuesdays and Saturdays. “They could have disbanded when the ban came in but Radley was kept as a country school,” says countryside officer Simon Timbrell. A former amateur huntsman to the Warwickshire Beagles, he is pleased if boys from non-hunting backgrounds follow the beagles. “When the boys don’t ride they’ll hopefully keep beag-ling instead of moving to foxhounds. It’s nice to see some still on foot in the future,” he says.
The Radley pack consists of about 22 couple of hounds – “a smart pack, bred by my predecessor Albert Hickson,” says Timbrell. “They have plenty of Dummer blood. These are famously biddable, creating just the sort of pack you need when you’re dealing with changing Masters and tight country.”
Timbrell clears most of the country and keeps relations with farmers on track but the boy Masters hunt the hounds. Last year’s Joint Masters, Tom Chatfeild-Roberts and Harry Gosling, are from hunting families. “It is the chance of a lifetime to hunt a pack of hounds while still at school, and to learn about all that goes on behind the scenes in hunting,” says Tom. “There’s a rota for daily kennel visits and the kennelwork – from exercising them to worming them, organising the puppy show and even writing thank-you letters after meets,” says Timbrell. “At every meet one of the Masters will make a speech. It is a great way of instilling confidence,” he says. Harry is set to spend a gap year as second whip to the Old Berkshire foxhounds and Timbrell is suitably proud of “the stonking speech Tom made at the end-of-season farmers’ supper”.
Phillip Kennedy, kennel huntsman for the Stowe pack for eight years, states boldly, “I think Stowe has provided more Masters in the last 30 years than any other school pack.” It was the last school pack to be formed (1962) and hunts twice a week. Like Timbrell, Kennedy clears country and acts as a Master, alongside two Stoics, usually from the Upper Sixth. “The support the beagles get from the school is 110%,” he says, “and new pupils are introduced straightaway. Anyone who is keen is encouraged.” Stowe had 12 whips from across all years, including two girls, out last season. Kennedy believes the beagles play an important pastoral role: “The pupils and beagles form a loyal bond – they look out for each other and provide a break from academic life.”
Freddie Ingall has followed the Stowe pack for 30 years and holds a deep-seated affection for these academic Actaeons. She strongly advocates youngsters hunting. “They learn to respect one another’s opinions. The quickest way the boys learn respect is when a beagle won’t do what they tell them.” Perhaps it might be time to form an inner city pack?
The Association of Masters of Harriers and Beagles tapped into this keen, young scene in 2007 with the launch of the AMHB Young Hunters Award. “It has become extremely prestigious and competition is high,” says AMHB director Lizzie Salmon. The award is presented to a young person who has shown acumen and commitment to a local pack; anyone can be nominated. The AMHB also holds a young hunters day every October.
Ampleforth and Marlborough no longer keep their own packs but maintain associations. Ampleforth schoolmaster Matthew Torrens-Burton, and occasionally one of the monks, drives between four and 12 pupils out twice a week in season to meet the Ampleforth pack. There is no direct involvement with the kennels as they are too far away but there is a pupil Captain of Beagling as well as a couple of whips. “They gain a wide experience of country life,” he says. Ian Kibble, Joint Master of the Ampleforth pack, sees the long-term goal as “ultimately to move closer to the school. It is very supportive and there’s still an end-of-season supper in the school refectory.” The pack has existed since 1915 and many alumni go into hunt service and Mastership. Thady Ryan went on to hunt the Scarteen for 46 years.
The Marlborough pack (1952) remained on site until 2006 when it amalgamated with the Palmer Milburn Beagles to form the Palmer Marlborough. There is still an annual meet in the college court and about 15 boys and girls follow the pack every Tuesday, with some helping to whip-in. Sean Dempster, master-in-charge, says, “The school is very supportive and gives a significant subscription to the hunt.” Dempster believes beagling “teaches tremendous manners. The boys learn to converse with adults and the less sporty have an opportunity to get involved with something.”
When it comes to graduating as a bona fide huntsman or fledgling Master, the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester is where many gain their apprenticeship. American Libby Gilbert is one of three current Masters of the RAC pack (1889). She learnt from her father who carries the horn for the Essex Foxhounds and Tewkesbury Basset Hounds in America. “I never dreamt I would get the chance to hunt hounds in the UK, especially being American and a girl, too,” she admits. “Nothing makes me happier than seeing 25 couple of beagles with their eyes on me,” she says. “The beagles give everyone the chance, country keen or not, to join in on a Wednesday or a Saturday.” Fellow Joint Masters Charlie Thomas and Alex Jackson are also from hunting stock. They play a vital role in clearing country and talking to the farmers, and whip-in with the rest of the team. “We all learn so much from kennel huntsman David Simms,” says Gilbert. “Our previous Master, Evo Shirley, just left to whip-in for the Tiverton foxhounds; I hope I will be that lucky,” she says. “Masters of the beagles are not simply learning the trade to join hunt service. Ideally, they are learning to become Masters,” says Mark Hill, chairman of the RAC Beagles.
The Oxbridge packs are important diplomatic outposts of the sporting world. At Cambridge the Trinity Foot (1862) joined the South Herts in 2002 and is hunted by Joint Master Matthew Higgs, who shares the Mastership with his wife and the students. “In the old days people went to university to hunt hounds. There are still plenty of students who will hunt but few who have the time to organise it.” While there is no formal link to the university, there are a couple of student Masters every year, with adult officials providing the continuity the pack needs to keep functioning. “We get about 12 students out with us regularly. It gives us the opportunity to put hunting in front of people who otherwise might not come across it,” he says. Higgs is effusive in his praise of the farmers who support the pack. Ex-student whipper-in Jonathan Griffiths is amazed at the diversity of followers the pack attracts. “Where can you meet people from as far afield as India, Switzerland, Malawi and Serbia in one day?” he asks.
By common consent the Christ Church and Farley Hill is the most active university pack. Its Beagling Ball is the last of the school and university packs to retain any semblance of a formal hunt ball. While the trustees oversee the kennel huntsman and the hounds, the students organise the day-to-day running of the pack. Ex-honorary secretary Matthew Paul, now Master of the Emlyn Beagles and a full-time barrister, admits that, “most people will put what they have learned on hold before coming back to it.” Hugh Young, who was the last boy Master of the Ampleforth pack, went on to Master the Christ Church, and is now a trustee alongside “ex-masters of different vintages”. Young believes “the important factor is not just that people are directly involved with the beagles but also that they are exposed to the country life. It is a very important mission and we take it very seriously.” They are flying the flag for fieldsports and putting it in front of an audience who will be crucial in hunting’s continuance. “It is important how Oxford students see fieldsports now and in the future,” he says. One need only look at the present government to agree.
Therein it lies – that which educates the schoolboy and influences the student will shape the way future generations see fieldsports. And it starts with the beagles.
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