It was at this time when I probably learnt more about running a country than any other and it certainly stood me in good stead for the future. When I look back at those early days of collecting flesh in Warwickshire for Clarence or fencing in the Heythrop Country with Geoff, it makes me realise just how important it is to run a Hunt properly and efficiently. Firstly though, let us imagine the scene, Mondays would produce fields of up to and over a hundred, Wednesdays, anywhere between two hundred and two hundred and fifty, Fridays were the smaller days of about fifty to eighty and Saturdays, between two and three hundred, with the largest field I ever remember of three hundred and twenty! There were even weeks during the regular season when we hunted six days a week, which of course we had already done, all through Cubhunting! In all my time at the Heythrop I only hunted once on a horse, I was much more use to Stephen by not doing so. I was in a much better place, with help from the locals to work out which farmers Stephen and I should visit after hunting or to be there to help Geoff if required. When I explained in past articles about being at the sharp end, I certainly was here and the reason why will become abundantly clear, shortly.
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The Mondays and a large part of the Fridays were spent between Banbury and Chipping Norton and were looked after by Stephen’s Joint Master Oliver Langdale. The Wednesday and Saturday Country was west and south west of Chipping Norton to Moreton in the Marsh, Stow on the Wold, and to Bourton on the Water and beyond. The rest of the Friday Country took in the land from Chipping Norton down towards Oxford, Burford, and over the A40 towards Cirencester. Although not the largest of hunting countries every bit of it was huntable. The reasons why at that time the Heythrop enjoyed almost unlimited access was because there had been exceptionally good farmer relations for a good many years, little shooting and in Captain Wallace’s era he had encouraged those with city wealth behind them to buy land. Something which would be all but impossible today!
Despite the Captain convincing the Ladies and Gentlemen to purchase land, a tremendous amount of effort had been spent to ensure those who did not possess the same in depth the interest in our sport as ourselves, were always looked after properly. I think, if my memory serves me correctly, there was only one farm where access was denied to the Heythrop and it was during my time with the Warwickshire that we happened to get on it! Not only that, it also happened to be the day when Stephen Lambert had kindly invited my Father to bring the Puckeridge Hounds to hunt the Warwickshire Country! We met at Sutton Under Brailes where Miss Boultbee Brooks, a former Master kindly entertained us. After a busy morning around Traitors Ford, hounds got away well from Long Compton Coombes and ran as hard as they could clean into the Heythrop Country, running into Over Norton Park and on almost into the back streets of Chipping Norton. When we got to the Park, the Puckeridge Hunt Supporters were seen hauling the hounds over the rather high wall which the fox had jumped up onto and ran for some yards before leaping off into unforgiving territory! Not knowing it was the only place where the Heythrop were not allowed we carried on until we could go no further! My Father, knowing the Heythrop Kennels were just down the road then made the swift decision that we should take the hounds there and everything should be sorted out before returning to Hertfordshire. On arrival, Tony Collins appeared in a rather shocked state, and made the comment, that all his adjoining packs enjoyed hunting in the Heythrop Country and now the Puckeridge had to come all the way from b………. Hertfordshire to do the same! Approximately twenty five years later the unwelcoming farmer rang me and asked if I had a Lincoln Red Bull for sale to cross with his South Devons and luckily the story was recalled with some amusement!
It was after hunting that the work had to be put in to ensure all was well. It is important to remember that the size of our fields were some of the largest anywhere so it was absolutely vital that we kept on top of the job. It is also interesting to note that it was at that time warning cards were still only sent out to keepers or earth stoppers to request they either night stop or put to in the morning. It was felt at that time that the farming community always knew when we were in the vicinity by checking the local paper where the meets were published weekly. On our evening visits we very often would not get back to the Kennels till gone nine with more than likely a belly full of fruit cake and a certain amount of whisky and milk, just enough of course to line the stomach! It was important to know when to act swiftly and there was one such occasion that proves this point. The bitches were running hard out on the North Cotswold borders, they suddenly changed direction and went back straight through the Waverton Stud, where there were a considerable number of rather valuable thoroughbred brood mares were out in paddocks around the house. These were owned by Sir Joscelyn Hambro and as soon as we knew what had happened, a call was made to the Stud Groom. Although obviously concerned about the arrival of the Heythrop hounds from afar, he was very good about it, but felt it would be wise to pay a visit to the Boss. So at the end of the day I loaded my battered old open topped Landrover up with the Stephen and Valerie Wills, his Joint Master. Mrs Wills was wedged in between us like a sardine in a can and did not look overly comfortable with her head just peering over the dashboard, however off we set! In the back were my scruffy old terrier and lurcher, so imagine the scene! After proceeding through lots of electric gates we found our way to the front door where Sir Joscelyn was waiting for us looking rather harassed! Not so much possibly about the hounds turning up on his doorstep but the sight of what was coming up the drive! Anyway all turned out well and the entourage was invited in and forgiven!
It was absolutely extraordinary. Hunting farming and the breeding of racehorses in that part of the world as in many places is inextricably linked, but to think we could gallop two hundred plus horses across their land and were made most welcome afterwards, really left its mark on me. So many of those whom we hunted over were proper hard working working mixed farmers, they were the absolute salt of the earth. I will always be grateful to them for what they taught me. More than a year at Agricultural College ever did! The knowledge they imparted was invaluable and became extremely useful as farming was later to become an increasingly important part of my life.
The Heythrop was a big team. With four in the Kennels, five in the stables, plus terrierman and fencer, it was a force to be reckoned with. Roger Bigland was Terrierman, and amongst other things in charge of – stopping. However, his work during the early spring to me was vital. The contribution to the environment through covert maintenance was where we put an immense amount back into the country we hunted. Coverts which were drawn four or five days a year would be laid and made warm and dry for every conceivable wild animal or bird to take advantage of throughout the year and it was only on those few occasions when they would they be disturbed. Here the word balance came to the fore and demonstrated why Great Britain was lucky enough to possess the most healthy fox population anywhere in Europe and across the World. This was also the time of year for the hedge laying and the best rebuilt stone wall competitions would be judged, again showing an all round commitment. So with Geoff Tomlin, either refencing or improving access, Roger carrying out his work in the country as well as what was going on at the Kennels, the breeding a first class pack of hounds what better place could I have had to work? It was then and only then you took on board just how important hunting’s contribution to the countryside was and still is today!
One day Stephen asked if I would go down to Moreton in the Marsh Station and see if I could locate someone I could talk to with regards setting up a better understanding between the Railways and the Hunt. This had been undertaken by the late Michael Downes in the Captain’s day but had now lapsed and this situation needed reversing. A visit to the signal box paid dividends and within no time an arrangement was made that really worked not only for us, but the Warwickshire and the North Cotswold. As a result a number of train drivers and signalmen became good friends of Hunt and to many individuals. It is only in recent years that I have lost contact with them as they have all now retired. We were able to thank them all at the earth stoppers dinner at Bourton on the Water on an evening in April 1983, when fourteen signalmen, fourteen drivers and their two bosses arrived in a bus from Worcester! If my memory serves me correctly there was not a drop of alcohol left on the place and every pot plant disappeared back to Worcester, as they said they would need them to keep the wives happy! It was on that occasion that the father of Kevin Connolly, the BBC’s reporter, told me to be at Moreton Station for 9.15 on Tuesday morning as I was to drive the train to Oxford! I will never forget that day for many reasons but one in particular and that was when we got to Oxford he took me down to the Station Hotel where a group of drivers were waiting to give me breakfast. They had picked up that I was off to pastures new in a week or two and they wanted to say thank you for including them in the workings of the Heythrop Hunt. That is something which will always be in my memory of great days past, but more importantly I will always remember they were the ones who with good humour, never once faltered from making our arrangements work. They were a cracking group of chaps to work with and a privilege to know.
So, as May 1st came, it was back across to the Eastern Counties to hunt the Essex and Suffolk and the many more new and fascinating challenges that were to come with that!