… or any convenient conveyance. A pack’s foot followers can be every bit as tenacious as the mounted field, says Eve Jones
Hunting is not just for the mounted. Foot followers are also at the heart of the action, an impressive collective who bring knowledge, dedication and essential snacks with them, says Eve Jones.
For more on the vital people that keep a pack going, read about the modern-day heroes hunting hounds without a salary to support them, amateur huntsman: hunting hounds and staying solvent.
In the decade before the Second World War, revered huntswoman and hound expert Daphne Moore spent 700 days foxhunting and 648 days otter hunting. This on a lean income derived from hunting correspondence and without being able to afford a horse. There were infrequent days mounted but she relied famously on her feet or a bicycle, thinking nothing of cycling 10 miles to a meet (her first bike fell apart such was the battering it received crossing country and was sold for 4p as scrap). Post-war, she gained patronage from the Duke of Beaufort and spent the latter part of her life hunting her quarry by bike or running with hounds twice a week. ‘The lady who runs’, as she was named by Warwickshire huntsman George Gillson, was renowned as a true expert in the field.
Today, ‘foot followers’ tends to describe those unmounted collectively. Most follow by car but a proportion of robust types take to country by alternative means with impressive reputations, proving good hunting is not just for the mounted.
“Vecta had probably forgotten more about hunting than most people nowadays will ever know,” reflects Sio Axel-Berg, Master of the Hampshire Hunt, about legendary follower Vecta Mitchell. “Before the ban, she was always there on the line, had always seen a fox go away and with such enthusiasm, I remember once trotting along to see her car abandoned in the middle of the road, with all its doors open while she stood in the hedge and halloaed.” Mitchell originally rode to hounds and was married to a huntsman and Master of the Hambledon. “I think often,” says Axel-Berg, “when people are no longer ‘hounds and horses’, they become ‘terriers and cars’.” Indeed, Mitchell would be seen in her red car with terrier Scamp, who would disappear out of the window, go to ground or through cat flaps to cover local bitches.
“There’s a huge camaraderie amongst those who follow hounds off a horse,” says Bicester Hunt with Whaddon Chase secretary Oliver Cornock. “They bring sandwiches and flasks and are out all day, often much longer than those mounted. They share certain characteristics; some haven’t ever ridden to hounds, it’s all they’ve done, then obviously some have. Combined, they bring a significant amount of knowledge. They are often retirees but not always, we have some quite keen younger foot followers.”
Mitchell followed until she was about 90. She was “a little wiry person” and following for as long as she did naturally attracted the attention of the antis. One time they threw words to the effect of, “God you’re so old you should be dead” at her. She didn’t bat an eyelid but said, “Yes, well, when I am, I am going to be thrown to the hounds anyway.”
Bicester subscribers pay a car cap to a member who also helps co-ordinate, explains Cornock. “You need to be familiar with the people following on the road because they are not always supporters. And in the past there were a lot of people cycling but now it’s cars and from a secretarial point of view, it’s important they don’t block other road users as anyone mounted shouldn’t. No gateways, houses, usual good manners on the road – it is important. But it’s wonderful to have people helping. The gates, for example. Often they’re there before the gate shutters or the huntsman.”
“Mum and I are known as the food wagon because we give everyone chocolate,” admits Harriet Page, fourth generation in Bicester hunting country and avid car follower. Occasionally she rides to hounds but a hereditary medical condition makes car following more pragmatic. “As a child Mum hunted with Grampy every Saturday and Tuesday but hasn’t ridden since she was 21, which meant I‘ve always been with her. I’m 29, I’ve been in the car since I was born, basically. I follow on foot a bit. We might walk to a covert if there are any problems – if a rider gets in trouble or a hound gets stuck – but Mum and I usually park up where we can help them crossing roads and opening gates or feed the boys as they come through.” Page describes followers as having a ‘connection network’, with core people called on to help whether for blind escapee ponies, injuries or just getting lost. “If we lose the Master we call and he says, ‘We’re here’ or if there’s anything he needs to know we say, ‘Um, you’re going the wrong way. Come back.’ I coordinate with Bob who organises the car followers and three of us have the hunt gate key so we’re a point of call if they don’t have it on a horse. It’s like a kind of family, we all help out in different ways.”
With regards to hunting, Page has the benefit of having watched hounds work from two perspectives. “At times you can see more from a vehicle, which I think gives you more of an appreciation of how good our pack is. Though you can’t beat the adrenaline buzz you get on a horse when hounds are in full cry. The buzz is different, but it is more than enough for me to go out as I do.”
UNDER THEIR OWN STEAM
The picture of vehicle-lined hedgerows on hill brows is a familiar one. However, in the vein of Daphne Moore, some followers cross country under their own steam, chasing that buzz with two legs or wheels, not four. Simon Hodgkinson has been following since a lad in Atherston country, an interest inherited from a car-following father. A chance breakdown one day saw them on their feet. “I can remember going that day and just thinking, ‘Wow! It’s just so different from being in the car. You can be right in with the action’.” To date, he has trodden the hunt country of 135 packs, with almost three decades of foot-following with the Heythrop. “I used to go with the terrier boys when I first came, so we’d walk up autumn hunting, then go in the truck. Back then you covered such distances on hunting day it would have been impossible on foot really. I learned to ride but I’ve just always preferred it on my feet.” Proof of which is the incredible 1,000 miles he clocked up this season. “I had 60 days. On the Cheltenham Wednesday, when we finished the season, we stayed out until about 7.30 and I just clocked up a thousand as we were finishing, so I was quite chuffed with that. The Heythrop lends itself to foot following. All that open Cotswold pasture, easy going, nice and hilly so you can actually see without getting in the way. There are days you get left behind but you just plod on and try to catch up.”
Hodgkinson wears a GPS watch that measures his distance, pace and heart rate. At the end of the day he downloads the data and the OS map tracks where he’s been and the trail layers have it for their records. “On a Saturday I do trail laying in the morning. I jump out the hound lorry half way to the meet, run about the areas we’re going, then catch up. I just look at the distance really but for the trail laying, if they do need any information, then it’s all there.”
Navigation is something hunt photographer Penny Fillingham learned the hard way. “My first couple of seasons, 10 minutes after they left, I’d be on my way home completely lost.” Now, hunting four or five days a week on foot, she keeps sat nav on in the car and an OS map on her phone. “If you’re foot following, especially in South Notts country where there are a lot of dykes, and think they’re going in such a direction, you could head off and two fields later you’re trapped by a dyke and you can’t get back. So the OS is an advantage but every bit of country is different and you never stop learning.”
Fillingham aims to be ahead of the field and jumps to get her shot without obstructing hounds. “The car followers who are really good at it will be slightly in advance, between hunt servants and hounds, and the field who are being kept back slightly. So, you cut across different ways. Horses have to follow field edges and have jumps to cross. I can climb through hedges, across dykes – you rip yourself up a bit I can tell you. I was fully togged out in tweed when I started and that lasted one season. Now I go in running gear. Sealskin socks to my knees instead of wellies, running trainers and proper running tights.”
Roger Finney has a lifetime’s experience of the rigours of hunting. As a child he loaned an out-of-season Butlins pony, “out hunting he was wicked, you couldn’t stop him”, then car followed until he could afford a horse. Ten years ago a broken leg put paid to riding and a car was back on the cards. For a man who has whipped-in otterhounds, hunted bassets and been an amateur whip and Master of foxhounds, his legs weren’t going to sit still for long. “Car following, if you haven’t got a horse, is fine. A lot of riders without a horse just wouldn’t go hunting and that would be the same in any pack in the country. Hunting-wise, car followers are often keener on actual hounds than the mounted crowd who are interested in the riding. Then again, the South Wold made me car master for a season. At the end of that season I got a horse because I didn’t see a lot of hunting trying to keep the car followers in line.” Finney’s solution? “Electric bikes have come on fairly well, so I’ve got one of those,” he says. “I’m going across the country, it’s a mountain bike type, so I chuck it over fences, dykes and hedges and it’s amazing how much you can see.”
THE BENEFITS OF BIKING
And biking allows for vital supplies, “I carry sloe gin and Mars bars in the rucksack and a first-aid kit and fluorescent waistcoat, important if you need an air ambulance to land.” He’s hit the deck himself, “I’ve come off it quite badly on the road and skinned both my knees. They run a tumblers club up here, though, so I ended up paying toward that as well.” His is the only electric steed at the Brocklesby, while at the Zetland, where his son hunts hounds, it’s caught on with six or seven on electric bikes forming ‘a bit of a club’ meeting up for breakfast and such, too. Their followers have plenty to live up to with a regular octogenarian in the field. “He’d park his car, run with hounds all day and then have to run the eight miles back to his car at night,” relates Finney. “I was up there the other week, the day before he’d just run his 40th Swaledale marathon – a 4,000ft climb.”
All no doubt dedication that Daphne Moore would have approved of, likewise tales of following hounds along the canal by barge at the Pytchley or following, and sometimes returning, the Ullswater Foxhounds by a boat on the lakes. The exertions of her days hunting riverbanks, hillside and fields are recorded in Moore’s hunting diaries, as meaningfully as having swelled with pride when praised by the Duke of Beaufort for helping open gates and rating hounds away from a dead sheep.
Harriet Page reflects on the role of foot follower: “I don’t think hunts could do what we do without those who turn the cogs in the background. Hunt staff, Masters, landowners, supporters, we all have a part to play even if it is as simple as a chocolate bar on a cold, rainy day. I’m doing what I enjoy and love, and every little helps to keep us hunting for the next generation.”
Following hounds and trail laying is a quiet passion for Simon Hodgkinson. “There’s a few followers now but to be quite honest I like to be on my own. Half the time they’ll talk about what was on the TV last night, so I sort of keep out the way.”
Penny Fillingham can relate to the solitude. “There are lots of people who know more about hounds than me. It’s a completely different thing that I do but I love that bit where you’re all on your own, waiting on the other side of a wood and you can hear hounds working. You can’t see anyone, just hear the hounds. It’s got a magical feel about it, deep down instinctive, running with hounds, it goes way back. And that’s why I love it so much. It makes you tingle.”