Occasionally, the elements combine to turn a good run into a brilliant one. These are the days on which treasured hunting memories are made, says Adrian Dangar
Adrian Dangar’s new book is a limited edition of his comprehensive, pre-ban hunting diaries. Through these huntsman’s diaries, here he relives thrilling runs and his most treasured hunting memories.
For more on the role of the huntsman, meet these modern-day heroes and read amateur huntsman: hunting hounds and staying solvent.
A HUNTSMAN’S DIARIES
It’s a given that every contemporary huntsman wishes he or she had been plying their trade in an easier era several decades earlier. And yet, when the time finally comes to surrender the horn there is a realisation that things were not quite so bad after all. That was certainly how I felt following 14 consecutive years during which I thought of little else but foxes, hounds, horses and country. Sadly, I am not sure that will not be the case for the current generation of practitioners battling at the Covid coalface against a backdrop of increasingly stringent regulations and vigilante saboteurs.
I had the great good fortune to hunt my first pack of foxhounds across wild and woolly Dartmoor, a friendly and forgiving land of hospitable farmers, open country and plentiful foxes that, up until the ban, were the essential ingredient for successful sport. When I moved north to hunt the Sinnington in the shadow of the North York Moors gamekeepers used to tell me, “You only need one good fox for a day’s hunting.” That’s not true, except on those rare occasions when it is. Just occasionally in every huntsman’s career, a day will come along when almost everything falls into place, often against all odds and expectations.
Twenty-second January 1994 was such a day. We met that Saturday on the gravel outside a grand and beautiful country house, the owners of which have for long been closely connected with the Sinnington Hunt. Hillfoxes were sometimes hard to find during the second half of January towards the end of the shooting season, but on this occasion hounds opened in the bracken beds behind the meet within 10 minutes of moving off. In country where they are scarce, there is always the fear of losing a fox soon after it has been found, but as hounds scorched northwards through the wilderness and up the steep and thorny incline of Threadgold Bank the unthinkable became increasingly remote. There comes a stage during every memorable hunt when the watershed is crossed between a good run and a brilliant one, which for me was the moment the pack spilled out onto the dank brown heather and headed at racing pace into the heart of Bransdale Moor. The sporting artist Robin Furness emerged from his car at Ousegill Bridge to cheer us on our way; he was the last human soul we saw for the next hour or more.
The going across wet moorland was horrendous but Waggie, my game little mare standing all of 15.3 hands high, found an easy, relentless rhythm once we reached the firmer ground of Rudland Rigg. A fine house stands at the head of Bransdale, which was home to Anne, Countess of Feversham, a former Master, formidable foxhunter and a source of endless support and encouragement to my young self. In her heyday, the Countess rode sidesaddle in a red habit; she was also the first lady to serve on the committee of the MFHA, so how fitting that having reached her residence and made a six-and-a-half-mile point, our fox chose to turn eastwards. Here, amongst the heather, Gardiner 90 – a favourite hound by the celebrated sire Cotswold Glencoyne 84 – suffered such a severe convulsion that both my whipper-in, Richard Mould, and I thought he was dead. To our astonishment he recovered quickly and by the time hounds had sunk the valley floor into Farndale was back at his usual place at the head of affairs.
The pack continued to hunt at top pace past places with alien names, for we were by now miles out of our own country. Spout House, Penny Hill, Monket Crags, Horn Ridge and Wass Gill all sped by in a glorious whirl as we strove to keep hounds in earshot, if not in sight. After 17 gruelling miles we finally ran into what we call a ‘stopper’ – the name is self-explanatory but, in this case, it was the Farndale shoot wrapping up their last drive of the afternoon. Thankfully, the headkeeper was a good friend to hunting and there were no recriminations other than the overwhelming disappointment to have lost our fox after such a fine hunt. Perhaps it was his way of telling me something, but Frank Croft waited several years before admitting that his beaters fished our dead pilot out of the infant River Dove after the hounds had killed him and moved on. We had other exceptional hunts in the Sinnington high side but that was the first of them and the one I will never forget.
Just over two years later the Sinnington mixed pack produced a memorable day in its lovely, unspoilt vale, which, unlike the heavily shot high side, has always been well foxed. It’s hard to imagine a great hunting run not getting underway until after 3pm but it was about that time on 28 February 1996 that I cheered hounds into Richardson’s planation, which stands between the rivers Riccal and Rye. The small covert had become a sure find since being clear felled and replanted, and within minutes a fox came away across the old-fashioned rig and furrow grassland; I remember the silvery splashes where his hind feet clipped the glinting furrows as he galloped across the sodden sward like a steeplechaser. The lane beyond was lined with vehicles but he went through the crowded footies like a knife through butter just as the leading hounds poured out of the covert, swung down the wind and hit the line, off with a roar to make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. If not quite a sea of grass, what lay ahead was certainly an ocean of wild, unspoilt country with no further roads for at least two miles.
A MAGICAL PLACE
The Sinnington vale is drained by myriad churning becks, most of which the pack swam at least once during the course of the next three-and-a-half hours, undeterred by riot, livestock, electric fencing and others hazards of the modern hunting field. At one stage they hit a wall of wet, freshly turned plough that in normal circumstances would grind down the best of them to a walk, but hounds just carried on chiming away as if it were stock-free grassland. I’ve had further points – six, seven and even eight miles – across the Sinnington low country but no vale hunt lasted quite so long, or transported me so comprehensively to that magical place that only a huntsman knows, a place no huntsman ever wants to leave.
After hounds had stuck resolutely to the line through consecutive fields of crowded sheep it felt as if they could not possibly lose their fox. But catching him was going to be another matter. The pace had never been fast enough to put the fox under real pressure and he maintained a seemingly unassailable five-minute, four-field lead for all but the last 20 minutes. By then it was car followers only and when we had to abandon exhausted horses at the Lockwood’s farm near Brawby I was relieved to join their ranks and hitch a lift on the bonnet of a Land Rover, clasping a hunting horn commandeered from the farmhouse mantelpiece having lost mine somewhere along the way.
As dusk settled across the vale, we could just discern the sinuous, ghostly blur of the pack racing in full cry through wisps of grey mist floating above the grassy banks of the River Seven. Even if we had not seen them in the gloaming, it would have been obvious from the renewed urgency and vigour of their cry that after 17 meticulous miles, hounds were finally running in view.
With hunts like that, it was hard saying goodbye to the Sinnington in 1998 for a move to the Quorn. There was not sufficient space for such long runs on three of the four days we hunted each week, but the Friday country endured; a glorious and extensive swathe of rolling, well-fenced pasture liberally sprinkled with celebrated thorn coverts. The best of it lay within the confines of three large and historically important estates, the owners of which extended a warm welcome to the hunt. We ran through them all on Friday 17 December 1999 following a filthy, rain-lashed night. Despite finding well in the late Ulrica Murray Smith’s small garden on the outskirts of Gaddesby, our fox had established a long lead with the help of several fields of sheep by the time we reached Streethill Farm. Ahead of us – and well out of the planned draw – lay the finest hunting country in the world, but as hounds gathered momentum on an improving scent the fun could so easily have ended, for Lowesby were shooting that day. I have seldom felt more relieved than when a messenger galloped up with the welcome news that we were free to continue, and a hard-riding field was able to spread out and enjoy an exhilarating ride across the old turf and hedges of Lowesby estate.
Never mind moorland and bog, a long, fast hunt across the cream of high Leicestershire behind a straight-necked fox is about as close to hunting nirvana as it gets, and epitomises the close bond between man, horse and hound. There is not much to beat landing in the same field as hounds astride a brave horse with the engine to devour the turf relentlessly and the guts to pick up the bit and attack each fence as it comes, spurred on by the clamour of hounds running hard in front.
The hunt continued all the way to the summit of the wild Tilton Hills, where the steep, rough banks confound many visitors’ perception of Leicestershire hunting country. Having made a six-mile point the bitches swooped back downhill for a heaven-sent second helping of Lowesby before running onto the equally delectable Quenby and a check at Church Spinney.
As I was watching hounds cast and contemplating my next move, I felt an unwelcome arm across my shoulder. Irritation evaporated when I realised it was the top-hatted and swallow-tailed Irishman Aidan O’Connell. “That’s the best hunt I’ve ever had,” he beamed. “Outside of Ireland.” Shortly afterwards the bitches regained the line and hunted on to an open earth near Keyham Bridge to conclude a 14-mile run and the best hunt I ever had in Leicestershire, too.