The South of England Hound Show, held in Sussex, is an illustrious celebration of the English foxhound and beagle, says Rory Knight Bruce
The South of England Hound Show at Ardingly is a glorious celebration of hunting, says Rory Knight Bruce. He joins the sportsmen, stalwarts, public and, crucially, schoolchildren at the ringside, in a quintessential English scene that has not changed since the days of Siegfried Sassoon.
For more on hounds, learn about the international packs made by English blood. Read foreign foxhounds: the English hound abroad.
THE SOUTH OF ENGLAND HOUND SHOW
Forget, if you will for a minute, Glyndebourne and Goodwood, for there is another occasion of the Sussex social summer season every bit as mighty, if your passion is for hounds. It is the South of England Hound Show at Ardingly, which sees, in early June, the very heartbeat of the county assemble to venerate and celebrate the English foxhound and beagle. Ardingly, as it is informally known, is the first of the five major hound shows, followed by Builth, Great Yorkshire, Peterborough and Honiton. Held over two days – foxhounds on a Thursday, beagles on Friday – it sees sportsmen and stalwarts spend a day at the ringside or in the free grandstand, alongside members of the public and, importantly, schoolchildren, who come for an hour or so to observe this quintessential English scene, little changed from the days of Siegfried Sassoon.
“These hounds are a towering monument to breeding and all things good,” says Sir Nicholas Soames MP, the show’s president, who grew up hunting with the Eridge under legendary Joint Master and huntsman Major Bob Field-Marsham. “They are quite simply bristling with quality, a testimony to the hard work of the hound breeders and hunt staff who look after them.”
A FITTING TRIBUTE
In 2018, the famous hound show ring was dedicated and named after John Robson, long-standing show president, former Master and huntsman of the Old Surrey and Burstow, who was awarded an MC for conspicuous bravery during the Italian Campaign of 1944. He recorded in meticulous detail the 1,646 days hunting he enjoyed between 1949 to 1995 (always saying if the fox was caught ‘on top’ or ‘to ground’.)
“There could be no tribute more appropriate to such a wonderful man to whom this show will always be deeply grateful,” said Sir Nicholas at the naming of the ring. “We remember him for his determination and spirit in keeping it going from strength to strength.” The ring has been sponsored by Viki Ellinger, the long-time show secretary and friend of John Robson.
Having attended Ardingly since a prep school boy in Sussex in the 1960s, I have seen the changes and the characters. Gone last year was the old wooden luncheon hut that Robson got for free from an undertaker (who used it to store coffins) and in which, one year, a rodent dropped off the ceiling into the soup of a startled sponsor. Also swept away has been the beer tent in which terriermen were wont, perhaps too vigorously, to celebrate the victories of their respective hunts. In their place is now a splendid marquee, packed with more than 100 Masters, judges, vice-presidents and sponsors, and the Balcombe Bar, a gift of show patron Simon Greenwood on whose Balcombe shooting estate hounds are always welcome. The bar was opened by Richard Benyon MP, whose Berkshire estate hosts meets for the Vine & Craven. Within them both are conversations of days gone by. Sir Nicholas Soames not only knows everybody but remembers with great fondness his hunting days with his parents with the Eridge in the late 1950s and early 1960s. “Bob Field-Marsham was the most wonderful amateur huntsman in my teenage hunting life and these were golden days,” he recalls. “A tall figure with a commanding presence, when he called us up to whip-in or go on point we thought we were gods.”
Soames hunted with all his siblings but also spent 18 months with the terrierman Tom Newick, whom he remembers as, “a terrible poacher and terrific countryman”. This presented something of a problem for his mother, Mary Soames, who was at the time a junior magistrate on the Bench at Mark Cross. “Every time Tom came before the Bench, which was often, she had to absent herself,” Nicholas Soames remembers. Another looming figure of the time was Major Bruce Shand (two MCs by the age of 25), the Duchess of Cornwall’s father, who was a Joint Master of the Southdown (1956-75) and a regular at the hound show. “He was more fun than you could shake a stick at,” says Sir Nicholas. “Brave and without a shred of pomposity.” Two years ago, the Duchess of Cornwall came to the hound ring at Ardingly and stood where her father once had, and as she too had stood as a child.
Sorely missed is another show president and bearer of the Military Cross, Ian Askew, of the Plashett estate, long-serving Master of the Southdown, whose kennels at Ringmer he bought in 1959 and where the hounds are still kennelled today. The hound lodges at the Ardingly Showground were also gifted by him and each day at the show families can go and look at the hounds in kennels. A regular in front of them now is Harry Parsons with his pack of sealyham terriers, another popular element with the children.
I once asked Ian Askew if I could re-enact a day’s hunting as it might have been in Siegfried Sassoon’s time before the First World War when he hunted with the Southdown. The hack with Masters, hounds and huntsmen from the kennels at Ringmer to Plashetts was perilous on the busy A road. “How did you get on?” Askew asked huntsman Stuart Pocknell and myself as he handed us a glass of port at his lawn meet. “Rather more Porsches on the road than in Mr Sassoon’s day, sir,” came Pocknell’s reply.
But what of the Ardingly Hound Show today? The new chairman is energetic downland farmer and former Southdown Master Gary Lee, who devotes every attention to the condition of the ring, finding sponsors, having judges to stay with him and his veterinarian wife, Fee, and overseeing proceedings on the day. “The show is in better heart than it has ever been and Gary Lee runs it in the style of John Robson,” says Christopher Wysock-Wright, former chairman of the Countryside Alliance for the South East of England. “Gary knows all the Masters and is good at getting them to attend.” Lee has taken on the chairmanship from his great friend and Crawley & Horsham Joint Master Antony Sandeman, to whom there is also a permanent arch at the hound ring in his memory. “For me, the reward is to see some fantastic hounds in a very friendly atmosphere,” says Lee.
RH & RW Clutton has been a major sponsor for the past decade. “It is the pinnacle of the whole show and it is the hounds which keep it as a country show,” says Clutton’s James Tillard. “It is wonderful to see schoolchildren standing by the ring, watching in awe and silence.”
Renowned hound breeder Martin Scott first came to judge at Ardingly with the late 10th Duke of Beaufort, known to all as ‘Master’, in 1971, and has returned most years. “It gets the hound showing season off to a good start and there has always been a historic strength in the South of England packs who create both a standard and interest,” he says.
That there are restricted classes with rosettes for the south-eastern packs ensures a good local showing. The East Sussex & Romney Marsh, Chiddingfold, Leconfield & Cowdray (CL&C) and Crawley & Horsham are always amongst the rosettes, sometimes beating stiff competition from the four-day-a-week packs of the VWH and Heythrop. They also throw picnics for their supporters worthy of Car Park Number One at Royal Ascot or the Fourth of June.
In 2017, I judged the doghounds with Martin Scott and we placed the unentered CL&C Dragon as reserve champion.
I wrote afterwards to its huntsman, Sage Thompson, saying that, in my view, his dog should have won. In 2018, Dragon came back to claim the doghound championship against the VWH, who had won all the other morning classes. “He is an exceptional first season dog and this means so much,” Thompson told me of his win. “It is all about consistency and knowledgeable hound breeders, and for this I have to thank former Joint Masters Nigel Peel and Mrs Shirley Reid, who look after the breeding.”
A YOUNGER PERSPECTIVE
A younger perspective on the show comes from Camilla Swift, now in her second season as a Joint Master of the Surrey Union. “It is a big show but very inclusive. We have taken unentered hounds and won a reserve championship,” she says. Before Ardingly, the Surrey Union hosts its own show for local packs. “This gets the hounds used to a big crowd round the ring, and we can also have a look at the local competition before Ardingly.”
Another element of Ardingly, in the main ring, is the inter-hunt relay and the Saturday cavalcade of hounds. At the end of the cavalcade, with perhaps nine packs of hounds all mingling together, more than 1,000 schoolchildren are invited into the main ring to join them. “In all the years I have been organising this, not one child has been bitten and not one hound has growled,” says former Old Surrey & Burstow Joint Master Ann Cairns. “It’s a showcase of hounds and we are very proud of it. Of course, it was another idea dreamt up by John Robson.”
In 2000, John Robson wrote A Portrait of Jorrocks Country: The Old Surrey and Burstow Hunt, full of detailed hunt records and elegiac photographs. Sadly missing in it is his account of coming to stay with us in Devon in 1953, when, after a hunt ball, my father as Master and huntsman of the Silverton asked Robson to hold his horse whilst he took hounds into a covert. An hour later, Robson went into the covert to find my father and the hounds all fast asleep around him, his scarlet coat hanging from a tree.
In Sir Laurence Olivier’s memoirs, Confessions of an Actor, there is a comment given to him by his friend and film director Tony Bushell, on his 21st birthday. “Three pieces of invaluable advice to you my boy: nevah hunt south of the Thames, nevah drink port after champagne, and nevah have your wife in the morning lest something bettah should turn up during the day.”
Whilst two of these observations may be open to debate, hunting south of the Thames is still full of pockets of rural glory – and this includes lawn meets at Glyndebourne and Goodwood – and plentiful characters, many of whom may be found around the hound ring at Ardingly. No doubt they are not averse to drinking port or champagne in any order, with an eye on the ladies all afternoon, so long as they are hounds.