When Roger and Cheryl Clark formed the East Anglian Bloodhounds twenty three seasons ago, no one was left in any doubt that they did not see this sport as an alternative to foxhunting. Quite the opposite, they both saw it as an additional activity. Roger in particular, having been Master and Huntsman of the Essex and Suffolk for the previous three seasons could again indulge himself in his fascination of hounds and their breeding, whilst at the same time providing entertainment for an ever growing equestrian community. All these years later his views and those of his present wife Fiona have not changed and if anyone could be picked out as an example of true supporters of foxhunting and the role it plays in the countryside, it would be all three of them.
As somebody who is keen on any type of hound, it was fascinating to spend time during the very last days of the East Anglian Bloodhounds, visiting the Kennels and then hunting with them. This was an experience and one not to be missed. It more than demonstrated the detail that the pair of them have gone into to ensure the pack's success.
I arrived at 11.00 o’clock sharp on a grey late March morning and made my way to the forge where I expected Roger would be shoeing a horse. Sure enough he and his colleague Stephen Gowing were hard at work whilst Fiona was cooking them breakfast. Lewis Mander, Roger’s right hand man, was swilling down the yards for a second time, and it was not long before a pack of twelve couple of very level bloodhounds were being walked up the hill behind the farm for me. It not only gave me a real good in depth look at them but also a chance to get out my camera.
My first experience of Bloodhounds was when we used to have their trials on our family farm in Hertfordshire back in the 1970's. They were interesting then but the more that you learn about them makes them even more so. Deeply independent and strong willed are just two observations that come to mind. Equally like all breeds of hound, they are kind and certainly not, contrary to what some of the uninitiated may say, lacking in intelligence. Now was a good time before their big day to look, listen and learn so much about a breed I knew only a little about. It is the power of their nose and ability to hunt the scent of what is described as the "clean boot" which is so all absorbing. When you add in the equestrian factor of a large, hard riding field behind them, you just wonder if they may be put off, and say to themselves, "no don't like that", and then refuse to cooperate. Not a bit of it, they love it, and the photographs and what I was most fortunate to witness, go to prove it.
To hunt any pack of hounds successfully, it all needs to start somewhere and whether your chosen quarry be the stag, fox, hare or the clean boot, more often than not, you will be performing your task as a Huntsman from the back of a horse, unless of course you are a beagler. It is so easy to forget that it is the relationship and bond between man, horse and hound that makes it all work and whilst we stood on the hill overlooking the beautiful Stour Valley, a sight began to evolve right in front of me that summed it all up in a matter of a few minutes. Roger's old horse Major who he has hunted hounds off for a considerable number of years was out on the bank and came to us as we walked up. Fiona checked his rugs and then he stood with us, and although Fiona held him, it was amongst those hounds where he wanted to be. That was exactly where he belonged, he knew it, and so did the hounds.
Sunday morning was wet and windy and remained so all day. However a very large crowd had gathered in Shrublands Park to come and pay their respects to Roger, Fiona, and Cheryl, now Grover. Roger had been out early and given his chosen quarry for the day, a rough idea where he wanted them to go. The rest was over to him and his hounds to sort out. After speeches from Jack Jiggens, a former Master of the Essex and Suffolk and Roger, hounds were taken and drew for a line. It was not long before they were in full cry and a field of nearly a hundred were in hot pursuit. The sound of the A14 and the heavy traffic that exists in that area, was all but drowned out, on this day, by a pack of eleven couple of pure bred Bloodhounds, a sound I know I and many others would much prefer. There were three lines, each ending with Roger making a great fuss of his hounds. However whilst the horses were steaming and flasks were being offered around, Roger sat quietly with his hounds drinking a mug of tea and observing all that was going on.
For all of us who have a passion for breeding hounds, the Bloodhound holds considerable interest. Back in 1975 the well known experimental hound breeder Sir Newton Rycroft crossed one of his New Forest foxhound bitches with a pure bred Bloodhound. One of the litter was given to the New Forest Buckhounds to hunt the fallow deer, the other, Paragon, hunted with Sir Newton for a number of years and possessed a booming voice which you could hear for miles around. Roger Clark’s hounds undoubtedly have nose drive and cry and if I was still breeding my own hounds today, I would have no hesitation in going to him for an outcross.
As the end of an era passes, East Anglia will be the poorer for the demise of its Bloodhounds, however there will be many with some very happy and long lasting memories of them.