Bespoke hunting boots are a significant investment, however, they offer protection, comfort and unsurpassable style, says Eve Jones
Bespoke hunting boots will not only last a lifetime, but also offer protection, comfort and style in the field, says Eve Jones.
For more on bespoke field kit, read handmade shooting stockings. The best kit for the field – the humble shooting sock is enjoying a renaissance.
BESPOKE HUNTING BOOTS
Among a rider’s possessions there is none that serves or looks so well as a pristine pair of boots. In most disciplines, riding footwear has evolved in form and function alongside modern manufacturing and fashion but choice hunting ensemble has remained largely unchanged since the early 19th century. Straight cut, English leather boots are considered the most ergonomic and aesthetically accurate for the job. (If you’re looking for gumboots, take a look at The Field’s list of the best.)
Correct hunting order is black or brown boots for autumn hunting, black boots with blue and black coats and topped boots with a red coat for hunting proper. While turnout is passably interpreted with popular Spanish cut, zip-backed boots and straight-cut, box-calf boots, such as Regent’s Pro Cotswold, which offer an economical style, neither fully match a traditional, heavyweight hunting boot when faced with the rigour of multiple seasons in the field.
A true hunting boot is made to measure out of heavy-duty wax calf, the surface of which can be restored with each wear. Also known as reverse calf, the side of the hide on the outside is from the ‘inside’ of the cow and the fibres are ‘fluffy’. By rubbing polish hard into the fibres, in a process called boning, a flat surface is engineered. If it scratches you can ‘bone’ polish into the split fibres to restore the leather and shine. Former Bicester huntsman Patrick Martin learned how to bone a glass shine ‘bliffing’ in the King’s Troop. “The principle we had to learn was you weren’t bliffing leather you were bliffing the polish on the leather. You bone the polish to get the shine.” Ideally, one would use the shank of a red deer but any hard, curved surface works. For the boning enthusiast, cow ribs have a smooth curve and deer ribs fashioned to a point can be used for working polish into the stitching and welts.
After routinely polishing his daughters’ hunting boots, farmer Mark Eyers’ talent for a shine developed into a side business, The Boot Man, restoring vintage boots. Eyers created a method of refurbishment that treats and rehydrates the leather of even very old boots. “Not wanting to get rid of a pair of boots is something I come across almost daily. People get enormously attached.” If needed, he sends the boots to be stitched or altered, then to his cobbler before selling or returning them. He has observed a growing market for the fastidiously traditional. A client brought him a pair of nearly new Maxwell’s acquired for just £200 recently. “One of the things that occupies his mind greatly is tabs on the side. One is missing and the other one has been eaten by rats. He wants them replaced and he is very, very firm about that.”
LASTING A LIFETIME
New, made-to-measure boots range from punchy to more-than-your-hunter-cost prices. However, properly cared for, with trees, they can last a lifetime. Henry Maxwell and Foster & Son will set you back £8,000 and John Lobbs £9,598.80, plus £3,114 for trees. Favourites within the hunting community are Davies, Horace Batten and Schnieder. Specialists in riding boots, with not insignificant yet more attainable prices, their boots will have seen the best sport of recent generations.
The Horace Batten workshop sits in Pytchley country, with walls lined with hunting curios and old boots shaped with experience. Emma, a seventh-generation Batten bootmaker, is at the helm. She spent her childhood weekends fitting boots at hunt kennels with her grandfather, learning by virtue of being there why the boots did or didn’t fit, then at the workshop she would be allowed to cut leather and stick pieces together. Today, they make around 100 pairs of new hunt boots a year, on top of alterations and other boots.
Due to a recent surge of demand and the pandemic interruption, the waiting time has increased from eight to 12 months. Various lengthy stages are involved in the process, wetting and drying the leather and so on, so the team works simultaneously on a different parts. Every boot starts with the customer’s needs: injuries, orthotics, pronations in the way that they walk. Leg measurements must account for customer’s breeches and socks and a foot impression records the undulating part of the foot. Paper patterns are cut, lasts are chosen then an insole put to the last. They store a huge array of different lasts. Occasionally, one can be perfect in every way; otherwise, bits are added or taken away to achieve the perfect shape.
When the last and pattern correlate, the leather and lining is cut, then closed (handstitched up the back). Wax calf has the fronts stitched in with handmade thread. The uppers (the foot and leg) are pulled over the last and welted to the sole but before the sole is finished and heels built, a fitting is required to ensure any foot and leg adjustments can be tweaked. “Nine out of 10 times it’s just a little bit of the way the leather sits on the leg. I say to customers the boot is only just learning to be a boot. Five minutes ago it was a cow so it wants to learn to be shapely, drop and soften, become part of your leg.” Once the fitting is done, the final stitching is completed. Then there are trees, each crafted uniquely to fill their boot. Batten’s long-time tree maker has retired and they have now brought the work in-house. “They’re £895 but then, where are you going to get hand-made beech trees from? The companies that do it in the UK are zero, basically, and they double the lifespan of the boot.”
Treasured, tired and battered boots come back for alterations and refurbishment and the firm gladly takes on the challenge of restoring for owners unable to part with them. Batten has also helped bootmakers who have come across a problem making boots, like blocking fronts or making trees. “We’d hate to see a bootmaker fall by the wayside. So many lovely bootmakers are lost to history, so if we can help someone out, we will.”
Hand-written measurements record the decades of feet that have passed through Batten’s door: hunters, Cavalry officers, even Darth Vadar. Emma Batten hopes the eighth generation – her daughter, aged 10, is showing enthusiasm – will continue to welcome them. When Timothy Batten passed away two years ago, it threw his daughter into the driving seat. “I made the boots, he did all the chit chat. So, to suddenly be in a position where I had to do it all was huge.” Not least as the first lady to steer the ship through an antiquated world. But Emma Batten holds dearly to the traditions laid down by her forefathers. “You can’t have been doing it for the past seven generations and then just give up because it’s hard, or you’re a girl, or whatever reason you might think of. Sorry, but no. Every day we get up and we come and make boots. We do it to the best of our ability and hopefully it makes our customers very happy.”
ROYAL WARRANT HOLDERS
Stepping into big shoes is something Chris Hunnable understands. The former Olympic eventer and stepson to Rudolf Schnieder of Royal Warrant-holding Schnieder boots has taken a more active roll in the business since Schnieder suffered a stroke last year. “Rudolf’s 83 and he’s so aware of everything going on and it is his passion, he’s very proud, like I am of his boots. We’re biased but we think they’re the best in the world.”
Schnieder has more than 200 years of boot making in his family. He moved to the UK 60 years ago, working at Maxwell’s and selling boots from WH Giddens before opening his Mayfair shop and Northampton factory. He bought WH Giddens about 15 years ago, has held the MOD contract to make Household Cavalry jack boots for two decades and counts kings, princes, sheiks, celebrities, sports and hunting people among his customers. He makes off-the-shelf riding boots as well as the bespoke, wax-calf hunting boots to measure. These are 100% traditional hunting boots, made from leather sourced in the UK; trees can be made from mahogany, oak, apple, cherry or walnut. “He always said when you fall off and your horse rolls on you, if you’ve got my boots on you won’t break your leg but if you’ve got flimsy, paper leather, zip-up boots on, one, they won’t last you a lifetime and two, you will break your leg.”
Schnieder’s advice, says Hunnable, “is to look after boots like you do your car. Clean them, polish them, cherish them and get them serviced if you’re bit worried.”
Hunnable has helped in the shop for years and is in daily contact with Schnieder. “He’s the sole proprietor, it’s a big responsibility.” The firm has a steady stream of hunting orders and Hunnable has been out on the road taking measurements. He has his own ideas for the company, including offering a discount for hunt staff. He also plans to design a modern showing boot with his wife, top show rider Katie Jerram. “It fits in perfectly. My passion is the horse. My wife’s passion is the horse. We’re getting to the stage in our careers when you go, ‘Oh, what are we going to do when we finish riding?’ It’s an exciting opportunity.”
Shoemakers Dennis and Margaret Davies began making boots from the shed and a bedroom at home in 1977. Dennis, amateur whipper-in to the Monmouthshire for 16 years, recognised the limited choice beyond the pricier London bootmakers and wanted to make hunting boots at an attainable price. While hunting on Exmoor with Captain Wallace, the Captain surmised if he could make a good quality boot at a reasonable price the hunting fraternity would support him. They developed the pattern, took it to their hunting network and established themselves as a go-to bootmaker. “We’ve supplied most of them [the hunts], the majority I would have thought,” daughter Elizabeth Withey reflects. “I often say, ‘If only the boots could talk…’” She and husband Lyndon joined the business in 1989, leaving jobs in Somerset for the workshop in Brynmawr. Elizabeth, a keen hunter, had always done the company books so understood how it worked and who the clients were. This year, after the cancellation of the shows, they have decided it’s a natural time to retire.
Elizabeth and Lyndon would work on two pairs at a time, which took 18 to 20 hours, with occasional part-time help. They also made their own beechwood trees, taking five hours per pair. Despite the conventional style, they were flexible to customers’ requests and developed an optional non-slip, longer-lasting resin sole. They also evolved to make box-calf riding boots in dressage and jumping cuts worn by well-known riders, including Lucinda Green and Karen Dixon. “Comfort is the important thing,” says Elizabeth. “If you buy off the shelf you are compromising somewhere along the line. No one is the same measurement. With each foot, each leg, the patterns are from scratch, so you get a comfortable fit. A hunting boot is a working boot and you’ve got to get the quality of the materials so they last. They can feel uncomfy to start because they’re strong boots. The more you take them on and off, the more they come to your leg. We’ve had people come back when things have happened on the hunting field and say if it wasn’t for your boots it would have been so much worse.”
Doing their best for customers has been their focus and pleasure. Many customers were met and measured at annual shows but they’ve measured the odd one or two in a gateway or even in a layby. “When your interests are the same as your client you’re dealing with it makes life even easier.”
So, shift is afoot among the bastions of the hunt boot. With the closure of Davies, Batten and Schnieder have adopted their custom. “It’s sad day for hunt staff that Davies have finished,” says Patrick Martin. Surplus Davies stock has now been sold on and they are working on the factory contents. Could a successor be waiting in the wings? Certainly, the appetite to buy quality, bespoke hunting boots is as strong as ever and with such passionate custodians at Horace Batten and Schnieder, the hunting fraternity looks set to stick firmly with tradition.
HOW TO GET INTO YOUR BOOTS
Don’t sweat it. Here are a few essential tips and tools to get your boots on in time for the meet
Boot pulls: essential metal hooks that fit into material loops on either side of the inside of the boot.
Jockey lifts/boot slides: a curved metal plate with a lip that sits on the front of your boot and stops breeches rucking up over a close-fitting boot. Place the lift on and pull your boot on as usual. “Like hen’s teeth,” according to Emma Batten, so if you see a pair snap them up immediately.
Pop socks: wear ordinary socks that finish below the calf then put on a pair of nylon pop socks over the top up to the knee and over your breeches. The nylon will help your leg slip into the boot. If holes appear, use them to polish your boots.
French chalk: a silky chalk lubricant that, when dusted on, should help the foot slip in more easily.
Silicone spray: coat your feet in the spray then leave to dry for 30 seconds before pulling your boots on.
Toes out: turn your toe towards the outside of the boot as far as possible while pulling them on.
Start sitting down: when you sit, your calf muscle is relaxed. Slide your foot in as far as you can before standing and pushing your foot down to the bottom.
CARING FOR YOUR BOOTS
If boots are to last a lifetime they’ll need looking after. The more layers you put on and the more elbow grease you apply the better they’ll look. If you are fastidious about polishing them every time that you wear them, you can get them looking like glass.
Wash and dry: wash them down straight after hunting to remove any mud.
Trees: ALWAYS put your trees back in, leaving them for a day at least to dry out and set back to the tree if they’ve been soaked.
Polish: apply a decent coat of polish with a high beeswax content. With a cloth, use your finger, moving in small circles, to work it into the leather then leave to dry. You can use an actual stick of beeswax and crayon that on, too. The more beeswax that goes on the more waterproof they are.
Boning: deer bone them, traditionally using the front leg of a red deer. You could use a wooden dowel, the back of a teaspoon, anything solid to push against to rub the polish into the boot.
Polish again: apply another thin coat of a neutral polish and smooth it all over to finish it off (depending how desperate they are).
Shine: roll a pair of nylon tights into a sausage with a duster on the inside. Polish in really little circles going round and round to get a proper shine.
Davies Riding Boots Existing orders only being fulfilled. Tel 01495 313045; daviesridingboots.co.uk
Horace Batten Wax calf boots without tops £1,495, with tops £1,595; made-to-measure trees £895. Tel 01604 770287; horacebatten.com
Schnieder POA. Tel 020 7734 0433; schniederboots.com