Exmoor Memories

BY NIGEL BEAN

My home is in the shires and we have some wonderful packs. I’ve had some great days – the Bicester and Whaddon chase, Warwickshire and Kimblewick to name a few. But my hunting heart lies down with the Exmoor fox hounds, affectionately known as the Stars of the West where, pre-ban, we had some amazing rides.

My beloved Exmoor, the hunting Mecca of Merry England with its roaring red stags, steep-sided coombes, its streams and rivers – these make the terrain glorious hunting country. The coombes provide a natural amphitheatre where the hounds can be drawn on one coombe side with the mounted field on the opposite side. You can really see the hounds working the undergrowth there.

Tony Wright, the professional huntsman, is for me the best in town. His job was never to provide entertainment for the field, he has a job to do and that is to kill foxes for farmers. During lambing time Tony can be seen out on his own. On non-hunting days when the Field are not in attendance, he can be found with his hounds finding foxes that are chewing their way through the lambs. He is called out day and night. The mounted Field during the working week can consist of mainly farmers’ wives – they know the problem foxes cause.

A by-product of this fox control happens to be riding across some of the most beautiful countryside the UK has to offer.

I went down to Exmoor during the week one year. My friend’s new lady had recently taken to the saddle and it was to be her first day’s hunting. She had been having lessons for months and had been hacking out for hours on end to get hunting fit.

I hired my Exmoor hunters from Jo Strong – she also provided a great bed and breakfast. With a cocky swagger with an ‘I’m alright jack grin on my face’ after the previous day’s hunting, I would saunter down to breakfast. Jo would say “I’m a tad stiff this morning, Nigel, what about you?” I would cockily reply “Nothing much here, all fine and dandy”. I would then get in the car and drive the four hours back home, pull up and literally crawl on my hands and knees to the front door. Stiffen? – I became a virtual invalid for days after.

So, for that week-time visit, Jo, my friend, his lady and I pulled up in the lorry at the meet. This down on Exmoor means something completely different from other hunts, it means it’s the nearest you can get to the farmhouse that only has a single muddy track running to it. So we had a seven-mile hack to where the meet was actually being held. This was amazing in itself – down coombe side, across swollen rivers, up coombe sides and through ancient woods. It was glorious. If Jo had said that’s it and we are going home now, I would have been entirely happy, but we had a whole day’s hunting ahead of us.

The hounds were put in near the farmhouse and it would not be long before a fit fast fox was away – our pilot took us through the breathtaking countryside we had just crossed but at a blistering pace. The terrain is a lot trickier at high speed and not for the faint-hearted. Even when the hounds check to pick up the scent of the fox you can still be moving the Field master riding hard to get you to a higher vantage point for viewing – no stopping for the field for as soon as we found that vantage point we moved on again. The fox was accounted for and we then headed back the 3 miles or so to the farmhouse to find another. Not before long another fox was away.

This was perfect fox country – the thick bracken means foxes can remain well hidden from the guns. The hounds working as a pack could cover in ten minutes what it would take twenty men walking in a line with guns to cover in day so alternatives to using hounds are limited.  Again another good-paced hunt with amazing views and scenery, we never really got to rest before another fox was taken.

It was on the way back to the farmhouse for a third fox something quite strange happened as we shadowed the Huntsman on the opposite coombe side. A fox appeared from nowhere and ran in front of the hounds and raced down to the bottom of the coombe and into a hole. It was quickly followed by the hounds.

We viewed from above and watched as the huntsman arrived along with the terrier man at the hole to assess the situation. The Huntsman called the hounds away from the hole and turned to face the terrier man and was indicating he should leave it and head back to the farmhouse when the terrier man started pointing back past him. The fox had leapt from the hole and was making good his escape. The huntsman shrugged his shoulders, allowed the fox his sporting distance, and then blew gone–away. This reverberated around the coombe and sounded simply magnificent to the assembled field above.

“Hold them” shouted the field master as the horses reacted to the notes of the horn and started dancing around. They knew that one particular sound alright but the fox and hounds had crossed below and there was a chance we would head the fox if we went at that moment so we had to wait patiently until there was good distance between us, the hounds and the running fox.

“Let them go” was the next instruction and we flew down the coombe side at break neck speed, hanging on for dear life. I then noticed to my right someone had taken a tumble and I pulled up to help – it was my friend’s new lady. We put her back on the horse and started off again in hot pursuit – she fell off again. It was obvious that her legs had turned to jelly.

With the rest of the field quickly disappearing off into the distance we had to call it a day. But of course there is no road or lane – we couldn’t just call the horse box to come and pick us up. We were in the middle of Exmoor, we had a long hack back – a walk was just about all my friend’s lady could take.

We hadn’t gone far when we were engulfed in one of those renowned Exmoor thick fogs with visibility dropped to yards – a real pea-souper.  ‘No worries’ I thought, we have an experienced Exmoor hand in Jo, she knows the area like the back of her hand, so we pressed on.

Thirty minutes later my friend called out to Jo, “We passed this point thirty minutes ago!”.

“Really?” said Jo, “I must have taken a wrong turn”.

Another thirty minutes went by and my friend called out again, “we’ve just passed the point we passed 30 minutes ago, we are going around in circles!”.

With the temperature dropping and night also pressing in I must admit I had my concerns and then I remembered what Jo’s husband would say with a wily grin whenever I was down hunting. “Don’t forget to write your name in your boots, Nigel, that way they can identity you when they find you!”.

By good fortune my friend sometime later recognised a path we had come down earlier in the day, so we took that. A few miles later we had left the fog and found a road at last, still a good four miles from the horse box. It was getting dark and we had to crack on in trot. This was too much for my friend’s lady – her legs gave way and we had to leave her in a barn and lead her horse back to the box.

Finally we arrived back at the horse box and loaded up before driving back to the barn to make the extra pickup – another Exmoor adventure was over with.

And so it was back to Jo’s to ready for a night out in the famed White Horse in Exford. I’ve been in this pub after a day’s stag hunting – it was packed and a TV on the bar was showing England playing. When England scored, nobody noticed – they were far too busy talking about the line of the stag. Then it was back to Jo’s – I liked to doze for an hour in front of the roaring crackling fire before going to bed.

So it was once again with a cocky swagger I sauntered down to breakfast.

Jo said, “A tad stiff this morning Nigel what about you?”

I replied  “Nothing much here, all fine and dandy”.

I got in the car and headed for home……

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