Best hunting country can raise passionate avowals. Do the hedges of the shires or the unexpected challenges of Exmoor and Dartmoor make for the best day, asks Michael Clayton.
Best hunting country – is it over hedge or moor? Whichever holds firm in your hunting heart, ensure you are on the best hunting horse and take our advice on what to wear out hunting before you start. And if you have never experienced the thrill of the chase, cherishing gun rather than horseflesh, take inspiration from those who have switched from breeks to breeches; from shooting to hunting, and mount up.
When Captain Ronnie Wallace announced suddenly that, after 25 years hunting the Heythrop hounds, he was going to take the Exmoor pack, some wiseacres said, “That’ll be a nice rest for him.” How little they knew about moorland hunting. Many of Wallace’s former followers in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire began visiting him on Exmoor. They soon discovered that beautiful mornings cantering over the heather could swiftly become arduous rides in the teeth of gales sweeping in from the Atlantic. Perhaps this was the best hunting country after all?
BEST HUNTING FOR A HUNTING CORRESPONDENT
For me, as a hunting correspondent, no season was complete without spring and autumn hunting over heather and gorse – and I soon discovered that exciting, and sometimes hazardous, riding was far from ruled out.
Moorland hunting is not a fringe activity in the hunting world. Historically, the wild moors have offered some of the purest venery and made heavy demands on the stamina and horsemanship of those riding after hounds. Suerly a mark of some of the best hunting.
It is a major error to assume you will never “leave the ground” riding to hounds on moorland and the weather may offer another challenge. I fell off a wiry little mare three times in one day when jumping walls on Dartmoor in teeming rain that utterly soaked me and my saddle. I recall an Exmoor day when the wind was so strong that my horse, and others in the field, refused to turn their heads into it. No wonder Wallace began to appear on wet days in a hunting coat made of red waterproof plastic.
Following the locals across such boggy ground as the Chains on Exmoor requires a certain act of faith. It is a distinctly nasty feeling when your horse flounders, staggers and finally subsides in a bog. The first time I saw another rider suffer this, I had distinct visions of Carver Doone disappearing forever in the Exmoor drama Lorna Doone.
Six Exmoor foxhunters dismounted, attached two girth straps together and slid them under the belly of the horse. They pulled hard and, eventually, with a sucking sound, the horse got to its feet and staggered out, plastered in black mud. A major grooming job awaited someone on its return to the stable.
As for the threatening, and reputedly bottomless, bogs of Dartmoor, I always followed the guidance of field masters with great care when riding round those dark morasses. Although Dartmoor in rough weather can bring to mind the hound of the Baskervilles, I have enjoyed some of the best hunting in lovely weather there, as well as those glowering days. Granite stonework among the gorse often clatters under your horse’s feet but there are also many acres of springy ground offering a great ride.
Although jumping is generally rare on the Westcountry moorlands, if you have never before ridden fast down a one-in-four gradient, you will find that moorland hunting can offer plenty of unforgettable thrills.
I was once put on a wonderful galloping thoroughbred by that great producer of event horses Bertie Hill, Master of the Dulverton West. The potential competition horse romped down steep hills at a long-striding gallop I could not always check. As a chronic sufferer of acrophobia, I sometimes closed my eyes and ingloriously hung on to the mane, which is not a proper horseman’s response to a puller.
The lure of moorland hunting for the visitor in spring and autumn is the opportunity to enjoy the best hunting on mornings bathed in balmy sunshine, watching hounds in the purple heather. Even then, as I learnt one beautiful morning when cantering behind the Devon and Somerset Staghounds, there are lurking hazards. We seemed to be floating over purple heather when I was suddenly somersaulted over my horse’s head as he lurched to the ground. “Ah, you’ve found one of our old bomb holes under the heather,” said a friendly staghunter, who had caught my horse for me to remount.
It is just as important in moorland hunting to concentrate hard on what the hounds are doing as it is in high Leicestershire. In the shires, among a keen mounted field, getting a good start is vital if you are to enjoy the thrills of a “quick thing”, say a 25-minute burst over fly fences. This is to many the best hunting imaginable.
I once dashed ahead of the field and jumped the first fence alone, only to be politely invited by Quorn field master David Keith to jump back. With a big ditch before me, and an uphill take-off, this proved a challenge and much amused the rest of the field, especially when my horse refused twice before clambering through the fence.
As a new “Pomponious Ego” (Surtees’ term for a hunting correspondent), I was perhaps excessively fond of riding over obstacles in grassy country and paid for it once by breaking a leg by jumping on to hard ground while supposedly cub-hunting with the Belvoir. Yet, after a season competing in big mounted fields, I also delighted in the far greater sense of freedom hunting in wide expanses of moorland. I found it thrilling when a fox got up out of the heather far ahead of the Exmoor pack, hunted by Joint Master Jack Hosegood.
One day, hounds were drawing, heads down, in the white grass that bedecks some of those lovely Exmoor hills. Suddenly, as one, they lifted their heads and caught the scent of the distant fox on the breeze. They feathered, then accelerated and surged forward over the moors with a crash of hound music. We shortened our reins and cantered after them.
Hosegood, an excellent horseman and huntsman, made crossing the moors at speed look easy. I have never forgotten the sheer charm of following him that morning over the heather in the sunshine, as the hunt progressed from a walk to a canter for more than an hour until the hounds caught up with their fox.
Equally memorable, for entirely different reasons, were my above-mentioned three falls on a Dartmoor day. They occurred in a tremendous hunt with the Spooner’s and West Dartmoor pack, hunted by Major Michael Howard, one of the most genial of hunting personalities. We met at Princetown and hounds ran under the frowning walls of Dartmoor prison on the line of their first fox of the day. Then came the rain, heavy and inexorable. We came to a moorland area divided by granite stone walls and some of the locals on cobs and ponies made popping over these formidable obstacles look easy.
The sharp grey mare got right under the first wall before buck-jumping over it, catapulting me out of the side door. This happened twice more at successive walls, providing entertainment for those who had sensibly gone through gates. Thereafter, wet through, I grasped the mare’s mane with one hand and the saddle pommel with the other to jump a few more walls. Not very Leicestershire but it kept me in the plate. The mare had reared and bucked when I first mounted her that morning and I learnt later she had been bought for a “bargain price” at a local market the week before. A hunting correspondent’s life wasn’t all port, lawn meets and the best hunting.
Mike Howard blew for home after thick mist descended. I asked him, “What do you do when the worst Dartmoor fog comes down like a curtain?” “I just go home and leave them to it,” he replied cheerfully. “Hounds always come home to the kennel safely on their own. There’s no point in looking for them.”
There is much pleasure in riding on moorland as far from hounds as you please, staying on tracks and going home when you wish. I soon found that to ride a hunt to the end, you had to be prepared for long hours in the saddle and I took to carrying a small compass and binoculars after I once got lost hacking home late into the evening after a staghunt.
Riding hundreds of miles over the British Isles in pursuit of hounds and the best hunting every season, I relished the beautiful moorland hunting in the New Forest, Derbyshire, Wales, Yorkshire, Cumbria, the Borders and Scotland.
At the end of a season with the Quorn in Leicestershire, I would often take my hunting mare, Josephine, up to the grass and moorland country hunted by the South Notts and farther north by the High Peak Harriers.
We fastened protective knee boots on our precious hunters and perhaps this encouraged Josephine to knock several stones off a wall. I laboriously complied with the hunt’s policy of dismounting and replacing the stones. Josephine was not amused when we were left far behind the hounds.
The best hunting: hedge or moor? In the ideal hunting season, they are complementary. I wouldn’t give up a golden moment in either of these Elysian fields.