The Pau Hunt was founded by Englishmen on French soil 200 years ago during a rapprochment in the Napolenoic Wars. It is still going strong today.
The Pau Hunt in France offers a warm welcome to the English hunting contingent. The Pau Hunt started 200 years ago as the Duke of Wellington’s armies swept through south-western France pursuing Napoleon’s defeated regiments. On 27 February, 1814 the armies met at Orthez, where the French put up a hard fight before, once again, retreating. Yet, according to local tradition, an extraordinary rapprochement took place after the battle. Like-minded British and French officers put their enmity aside and decided to hunt together. They met in the vicinity of Pau, where there was such an abundance of foxes and the country was so good that many of the British officers made a mental note to return.
One of these was Sir Henry Oxenden, a keen foxhunter, whose father was a close friend of the Duke of Wellington. He took the view that the local region, the Béarn, would make a splendid foxhunting country. After Waterloo, he returned to England, where he took on the Mastership of the East Kent.
Sir Henry did not forget the promise of the Pau region, however. More than a quarter of a century later, ill health forced him to seek warmer climes. Pau had already become a re-treat for English high society and in 1840 Sir Henry joined a growing group of English and Irish aristocrats. These early ex-pats were determined to establish a sporting home-from-home par excellence and it was not long until they had set up a golf club (the first on the Continent), a steeplechase course and, with Sir Henry’s help, a foxhunt. Their new club came to be known as “le Cercle Anglais”.
The Pau Hunt quickly became an integral part of the life of the men of le Cercle Anglais. By the late 19th century it attracted fields of 200-plus, comprised of English, Irish, French and American followers, as well as various European princes and princesses. Its Masters included the newspaper magnate J Gordon Bennett and Sir Victor Brooke, father of Viscount Alanbrooke (Chief of the Imperial General Staff during the Second World War).
Lord Howth, Master in 1878-1879, dubbed it “Leicestershire en France”. His account of his Mastership, Leicestershire en France, or the Pau Hunting Field, demonstrates what an extraordinary set-up it was. Hunting was carried out in the open rather than in forests, at racing pace, across a country that included banks and ditches. Howth tried to replicate Leicestershire by constructing post-and-rail fences, cut-and-laid hedges, brooks and oxers. He even arranged for tracks to be cut through the rougher country, so that his followers wouldn’t have to slacken their pace.
THE PAU HUNT IN THE 20th CENTURY
The Pau Hunt’s popularity continued well into the 20th century. Yet as the century wore on, its glories faded. A second English exodus to Pau was mooted in 2005 when the Hunting Act came into force but it didn’t transpire.
The Pau is almost entirely French now, with French Masters and French subscribers. Yet in defiant contrast to traditional French hunting, with its emphasis on vénerie, forests and fanfares, the Pau retains its Anglo-Irish flavour, and continues to offer exciting rides over an open country of banks, ditches and brooks. I had long looked for an excuse to visit this vestige of le Cercle Anglais and the 200th anniversary of that extraordinary Anglo-French foxhunt in 1814 gave me the perfect excuse.
I chose a weekend in early December for my visit on the advice of Georges Moutet, the Pau’s Master since 2000, who promised to lay on a day that would have delighted members of le Cercle Anglais. “We will meet at 10, hunt until one, have lunch in the clubhouse, then go to the Pau races, after which we will visit le Cercle Anglais itself,” Moutet informed me.
I flew to Toulouse on a Friday evening and drove 100 miles south to Pau. The following morning I met Moutet at the hunt’s clubhouse near the village of Morlaàs, just north of Pau.
The idea of a hunt being a club is alien to English hunting but it reflects French tradition and the sociable spirit of le Cercle Anglais. The clubhouse is a grand but slightly dilapidated building dating back to 1890 and is a veritable emporium of hunting memorabilia. Dozens of paintings and pictures adorn the walls, ranging from paintings depicting the Pau in its heyday to recent photographs showing members tackling huge banks and ditches.
The kennels, home to 121⁄2 couple of hounds, is next door. “Our hounds are a mixture of French deerhound, beagle and English foxhound. Recently we were given an English bitch called Balcony,” explained Moutet as we looked around. Balcony and her sons, Idalgo and Imanol, were easily identifiable, their pale colouring setting them apart from the black-and-tan of the French hounds.
These hounds hunt “le drag”, the only hunt in France to do so. “Until 40 years ago, we hunted the fox but, sadly, there are not enough around now to hunt,” Moutet told me. In fact, the Pau experimented with draghunting long before this. In Lord Howth’s time it hunted a drag in certain parts of its country because there were so many holes and so much gorse, that it was impossible to get a decent run.
Moutet introduced me to my horse but because no one plaits here, all I had to do was pass a brush over him and throw on the tack. When we had all scrambled on, we immediately moved off. “Don’t worry, you’ll get your stirrup cup at the end of the hunt,” joked Moutet as he saw my look of surprise.
We were soon cantering across the open country just below the village of Serre-Morlaàs and before long I spotted huntsman Bernard Baylac’s horse put in a huge leap over a seemingly invisible obstacle. “Fossé!” came a shout from ahead and as I got closer I realised that I was approaching my first French ditch. You need a clever, experienced horse to negotiate this country. The ditches are substantial and at this time of year they are hidden by undergrowth, making them almost blind. You can see that they are there but it is almost impos-sible to gauge their width or depth. The same can be said for the banks. They are covered in thick bracken and undergrowth and it is difficult to distinguish solid bank from undergrowth. There are often water-filled ditches on take-off or landing, which your horse will not see until the last second.
Luckily, I was riding a superb old campaigner called Dady Marjyb, lent to me by Moutet’s granddaughter, Agathe Lafont. Dady had been a successful steeplechaser, winning cross-country races at Pau and Auteuil. He is now an experienced hunter and he gave me a superb ride over the ditches and banks that we tackled over the following half-hour or so.
After a brief check we crossed a bridge over the A64 and hunted through the country to the west of Sendets. Scent was poor, so the pace was fairly steady but there was plenty of jumping. I had a merry time as Moutet guided me over innumerable banks, ditches, road-crossings and streams. He would occasionally shout “Derrière!”, which I initially thought meant that I should keep behind but actually meant that there was a whopping ditch behind. At one point we jumped a large bank into what looked like somebody’s backyard. We jumped out again pretty quickly.
It was magnificent fun and reminded me of hunting in Ireland, even down to the friendliness of the field. Despite the language barrier, everyone was very keen to chat (and share hip flasks of armagnac), and I was helped immeasurably by Lieutenant-Colonel Louis Laval, a former special forces officer who now works in London, who took time to explain everything to me in impeccable English.
Whereas the hunting had an Irish flavour, the déjeuner that followed was distinctly French. We finished hunting at about one o’clock and cantered back to the clubhouse, where a four-course meal awaited us: la garbure (a hunters’ soup), cold meats, roast pork and then a very fine custard tart, all washed down with Béarnais wines. My contribution to the meal was a Cropwell Bishop Stilton, which was well received by our French hosts.
By the time we had finished it was nearly four o’clock but we still had time to pay a visit to the Pau steeplechases, which are held at Pont-Long, five minutes down the road from the Pau’s kennels. In its heyday the Pau Hunt was inextricably linked with the steeplechasing and the ties remain strong. Jean-Loup Valentin, a hunt member and former director of the French National Stud at Pau, whisked us up to the stewards’ box, where we watched the cross-country race over a glass of armagnac. As horses and jockeys raced over banks, ditches, rails and hedges, it was easy to see how these races had evolved from hunting.
My trip would not have been complete without a visit to “le Cercle Anglais”, and so it was fitting that we finished off our day with a visit to the club itself. As we sipped a glass of whisky, I admired one of the many paintings on the walls, showing Henry Ridgway, Master of the Pau from 1901 to 1910, at the head of an enormous and impeccably turned-out field. The Pau Hunt and its country may have changed tremendously since then but it is remarkable that the spirit of the hunt has been so well preserved.
The Pau Hunt welcomes visitors: call Georges Moutet on 00 33 6 23 97 92 78.