In the same way that Parisians desert their city and head south in August, hunting people from all over Britain flock to Exmoor. It’s no Easyjet flight to Majorca for them; instead they cram the lorry with children, ponies, dogs and wetsuits, and head for the moor.
A week of hunting with foxhound and staghound packs is littered with picnic rides, outings to Withypool fete, day trips to the beach and a lot of food and drink. It is extremely British — it always rains and nobody minds.
On Exmoor, staghunting is king. The staghunters, secure in the knowledge that their sport is major-league baseball to foxhunting’s rounders, regard the hordes of foxhunters who appear, on foot and on horses, at their August meets with an amused superiority.
At last Tuesday’s meet at Brendon Two Gates, there were masters and hunt staff past and present from foxhound packs stretching from Scotland to Dorset via Leicestershire and Gloucestershire, all keen to see Exmoor’s magnificent red deer.
I car-followed with the lady master of the Heythrop and her one-year-old daughter while her husband, who remains an ardent staghunter at heart, despite being forced by marriage to hunt with the Heythrop every Saturday, went on a horse.
To have any chance of seeing anything once the staghounds are hunting their chosen stag, it is necessary to drive incredibly fast for a very long way, risking your life at every bend in the road. There is no time for idle chatter; the passenger must keep his or her binoculars trained on the landscape for any sign of horses, hounds or stags.
Picnics and suppers
If you’re clever, you will follow William Nunneley, former master and huntsman of several packs of hounds; he has a radio, from which intermittent bursts of unintelligible information emerge, and an excellent picnic in the boot.
William and his wife Caroline — who made three lifesize sculptures of the brilliant showjumper Hello Sanctos for his owners, Lord and Lady Harris and Lord and Lady Kirkham, and his rider, Scott Brash — also kindly had a large number of foxhunters (and their children) for supper that night.
Two mothers cunningly managed to persuade their offspring to go to the Dulverton West evening meet on Thursday, rather than the Exmoor meet at 6am the following morning, enabling their exhausted parents to have one more glass of wine and a lie-in, rather than a 4am start to get five ponies and two or three horses ready for hunting.
A hunting pilgrimage
The lady master and I did make it to the Exmoor on horses, only very slightly late owing to an alarm clock failure. And so my hunting season started with this famous pack of hounds in their exceptionally beautiful, wild country.
Huntsman Tony Wright and master Felicita Busby are two modern hunting legends. They carry on the legacy bestowed on them by possibly the greatest hunting figure of the 20th century, Capt Ronnie Wallace, known as “God”, whose grave in Simonsbath churchyard is often visited by foxhunters during their Exmoor pilgrimage.
It was a desperate struggle to do up any of my hunting clothes — if you see me eating between now and the opening meet, stop me — and the persistent drizzle permeated to the skin. But the sight and sound of hounds hunting sends a charge of something thrilling and unexplainable through our veins. There is nothing like it, and we are so lucky to be part of it.
Ref Horse & Hound; 23 August 2018