Despite rampant urban sprawl and the proliferation of motorways, it is still possible to head out of the capital to enjoy a day with hounds says Michael Clayton
Heading to the metropolis doesn’t mean having to do without riding to hounds. London hunting is tremendous fun, says Michael Clayton, as he recounts using the capital as a hunting box.
From the big smoke to the emerald isle, hunting in Ireland is not for the faint-hearted. Read hunting in Ireland: touring three Irish packs for tales of imposing walls, deep drains, double-banks – and great days.
So that’s it, I thought. I had secured a job in London – reporting for a Fleet Street newspaper 60 years ago. It was a great opportunity but it seemed I would have to give up my passion, nurtured in my native Dorset, for riding to hounds.
I should have remembered the plot of one my favourite books, Handley Cross. Jorrocks, a successful grocer in St Botolph’s Lane, every Saturday during the season drove a chaise from the City through South London to enjoy riding to hounds. “His great chestnut horse, with his master’s coat-tails flying out beyond his tail, will long be remembered in the outline of the Surrey Hills,” wrote RS Surtees. Jorrocks’ view on sport from the capital was simple: “Doesn’t the best of everything come from London, and doesn’t it follow as a nattaral consequence that the best ’unting is to be had from it?”
I was fortunate to enjoy my first seasons from London subscribing to the Old Surrey and Burstow in the hunting country used by Surtees as a setting for Jorrocks. He and his friends would gather at the Greyhound Hotel before sallying forth.
The politician Enoch Powell travelled by London Underground in full hunting kit, with his top hat on his knees, to hunt with the Surrey Union. He told me this when we exchanged hunting stories after I had interviewed him on rather more serious matters for the BBC.
I had the greatest fun using London as a hunting box from which to enjoy sport with packs at all points of the compass.
Despite the huge development of the Home Counties and the advent of the iniquitous Hunting Act, it is a remarkable sign of the sport’s resilience that hunting in all directions from central London is still possible within just about an hour’s drive or a 40-minute-plus train journey.
Masters and huntsmen of the packs I first visited well over 40 years ago would be delighted that amalgamations and some redrawn boundaries have enabled hunts to survive into the 21st century, and they are still receiving enthusiastic support from mounted and foot followers.
Go to the annual South of England Hound Show, held in conjunction with the South of England Show at Ardingly, Sussex, and you will still see dedicated hound lovers appreciating packs with as high a standard of breeding as you could find anywhere. Hunting people throughout the UK should be grateful that the affluent, highly populated South-East has continued to support hunting so close to Greater London. The packs have survived and flourished despite especially active gangs of hunt saboteurs long before the 2004 Hunting Act, and continue to show great resilience, and courage, in standing up to intimidation and threats of all kinds still sporadically encountered.
Because of the pressures, the South-East’s hunts learned to cope well with vast changes in road layouts and building developments. London business and professional people can give their local hunts an extra advantage in organisation and management.
The hunting man’s traditional advice to his son – “get your hair cut once a week, and never hunt south of the Thames” – was mistaken. I hunted with all the countries in Surrey, Kent and Sussex and had tremendous fun. I never met more friendly and dedicated foxhunters. There was plenty of grass, enclosed by many jumpable fences.
Suitable countryside was already shrinking 50 years ago but tremendous efforts were made to maintain coverts and keep the country rideable. Jack Champion, veteran huntsman of the Old Surrey, was adept at “keeping the tambourine rolling” on the grass of the vale country around Lingfield or eastwards near Edenbridge. Some meets were less than 20 miles from Charing Cross; I recall hunting as close to London as Biggin Hill.
The southern hunts nearest Greater London have survived major developments, such as the M25 and the spread of Gatwick Airport, foxhunting south of London. They are still easily accessible from the centre.
Amalgamation has produced the Old Surrey Burstow and West Kent, while the Surrey Union remains independent with a remarkable history going back to 1799. Farther south, the Crawley and Horsham, the East Kent with West Street, the East Sussex and Romney Marsh, and the Southdown and Eridge – the historic home pack of Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man author Siegfried Sassoon – all survive today due to keen local support.
The M4 motorway scythed through the Dauntsey Vale, spoiling some of the Duke of Beaufort’s best country, but it did provide easy access to many hunts from the London Hunting Box. The M3 made it possible to drive to Wiltshire or even North Dorset for a day’s hunting and return that evening.
It remains much easier, however, for many to enjoy the remaining historic hunting country immediately west of London that has for so long enjoyed the patronage of the capital’s sportsmen, including royalty. King Edward VII, as Prince of Wales, hunted carted stag with the Royal Buckhounds all round Windsor, once finishing a run in Paddington Station goods yard, from where the Prince and his friends hacked on to Buckingham Palace for tea.
Today, one remarkable hunt, the Kimblewick, encompasses a huge swathe of country, 60 miles by 40 miles, in parts of six counties just west of London: Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Hampshire. It’s roughly the size of Cornwall.
The Kimblewick, an extended form of the former Vale of Aylesbury Hunt, is extremely well organised for the 21st century, and welcomes newcomers. Several hunts amalgamated to form the Kimblewick: the Garth and South Berks, the Old Berkeley, and the South Oxfordshire, and the Hertfordshire. The hunt holds four point-to-points each season and has a highly effective fund-raising supporters’ club, which makes a major contribution to overall costs. Hunting’s resilience was truly demonstrated last season when the Kimblewick hounds contracted bovine TB and the pack was put in isolation, some hounds being put down. Visiting packs entertained Kimblewick followers in January and February, and the hunt expects to hunt a full pack in the season ahead.
You hardly had to journey far out of Hampstead before you entered the Enfield Chace Hunt, formed in 1935 by Major Smith Bosanquet. He knitted together some country from the Old Berkeley and Hertfordshire Hunts, and used to say his country comprised “most of London, except the Zoological Gardens”. They hunted Piccadilly Underground line near its northernmost station, Cockfosters. The TV commentator and show organiser, the late Raymond Brooks Ward, was a Master and huntsman of the Enfield Chace, and despite urban build-up insisted: “We have a lot of fun.”
The Enfield Chace moved farther north, escaping the grip of the M25 circular motorway, to amalgamate with the Cambridgeshire from 2001, another example of hunting’s extraordinary resilience despite massive increases in roads and encroaching urban sprawl.
I was fortunate to subscribe to the Whaddon Chase, which deserved its nickname “the Londoners’ Leicestershire”, with the original showjumping commentator Dorian Williams as senior MFH and the great Albert Buckle hunting hounds. An example of Home Counties’ enterprise and acumen was the formation by Williams of Britain’s first hunt supporters’ club.
Hugely enthusiastic support could not, however, defeat the loss of crucial country to the growth of the new town, Milton Keynes, and the Whaddon Chase amalgamated with its neighbour, the Bicester and Warden Hill, in 1986. Since then, it has flourished as a fine hunt close to London with every reason to be proud of its record.
The M1 and A1 made it possible for City magnates to drive up to Leicestershire for a day with the Shires packs but far fewer do that nowadays. The residential packs in the affluent and highly populated South East provide so much fun for all the family, with so many associated events, such as hunter trials and social parties, plus the huge advantages of local Pony Club membership.
City of London businessmen in Edwardian England loaded their horses onto special trains to head out for days with the Essex packs, keeping up the tradition of Londoners who rode out to follow hounds in Epping Forest from medieval times. Farther back, Soho earned its name from the Norman huntsman’s shout “so-ho” to rouse his quarry. There has long been plenty of plough in Essex but there are still four
packs bearing the county name, testifying to the enduring support of local sportsmen and women.
The Essex Farmers and Union, going back to 1822, has the Thames as its southern boundary, and amalgamated as long ago as 1984. All the county’s hunts have illustrious histories: the Essex formed in 1785; the East Essex in 1820; and the Essex and Suffolk in 1794. They have avoided modern amalgamations and can be proud of their long records of providing sport and social events in busy commuter-land.
With beagle packs operating throughout the Home Counties, and famously hard-riding draghound and bloodhound packs, such as the Mid-Surrey Farmers and the Coakham, the region around London remains plentifully supplied with opportunities to follow hounds, on your feet or mounted.
So, despite all that “progress” and urban attitudes can do to the shrinking South-East countryside, a modern Jorrocks would find that central London is still a hunting box.
As Jorrocks said: “Bliss my ’eart, wot a many ways there is of enjoyin’ the chase.”
FACING THE CHALLENGE
Guy Allman returned from hunting the Blue Ridge country in the US to hunt the Bicester with Whaddon Chase two seasons ago. “I really enjoy it here. We get tremendous support from followers and many landowners and farmers. Potentially, we face a big challenge if the HS2 rail link north really does go ahead but it won’t defeat us. We are already making big efforts to bring back pieces of country we hadn’t hunted so much.”
Gerald Sumner, who hunted the Kimblewick for 11 seasons, said: “I could see Chorleywood tube station while I was hunting part of the country. The Kimblewick has some very good patches and travels a long way to each area where it has mounted fields of local people, some taking out short-term tickets.”
Julia Caffyn, senior Joint Master of the Southdown and Eridge, said: “Our country is 70 miles long north to south, from Shoreham up to Tunbridge Wells, all in the commuter belt. We offer hunting in terrain varying from downland to woodland. Sometimes we lose a bit of country but then we recover another bit. Often we will phone as many as 60 people to arrange one day’s hunting. It is still well worth it.”