Andrew Sallis: Wisdom, wit, charm and mischief [H&H VIP]

  • Hunting funerals are seldom morbid occasions. There is usually too much to celebrate and the local huntsman is almost certainly booked to blow “gone away”.

    The fanfare of the chase, echoing around a lofty church or graveyard, can render even most the composed mourner asunder and send all hunters at grass within two miles into a lather.

    Last week, the south-east hunting world paid its final respects to one of the most important figures of the past century.

    The Southdown and Eridge hounds escorted their president Ian Askew on his final journey from the kennels to Ringmer Church where he had worshipped every Sunday. He died peacefully, just short of his 93rd birthday. A couple of nights previously, he was holding court at a hunt event.

    It seemed as if the whole of Sussex and more besides had turned out in the rain. Locals brushed shoulders with royalty to honour a remarkable gentleman.

    My old composition teacher at music college would have liked Mr Askew. There were no “wasted notes”, no filibustering; only wisdom, wit, gentle authority, affection, charm and, yes, a great deal of mischief. The care and friendship he showed towards those who aided his everyday affairs over the decades was truly profound.

    To call Mr Askew a mere philanthropist does not reflect the sincerity of his gifts or support. Countless charities and good causes benefited from his generosity and attention.

    However, since he joined his brother and Major Shand — the Duchess of Cornwall’s father — in the mastership in 1956, the fortune of the Southdown, and latterly Southdown and Eridge, hounds was his abiding passion. He bought the Southdown kennels over half a century ago and his nearby estate to ensure their future.

    On 5 June at the South of England Foxhound Show, new kennels will be opened before judging commences by Mr Askew’s niece, Cleone Pengelley. It will be perhaps a final gift to hunting from the hound show patron, Ian Askew MC DL, though his legacy will live on for generations.

    Ardingly won’t be the same without his slightly stooped figure working the crowd, doffing his hat every footstep to greet each and everybody.

    Preparations for the puppy show and hound shows are now in full swing. Anybody who stands still long enough is liable to be scrubbed, mown or painted and the hounds are being put through their paces.

    Young hounds don’t stand like statues on the flags and then gallop like stags by accident.

    Granted, some huntsmen and kennel-huntsmen have such a natural bond with their hounds that they could hoodwink nearly any judge into thinking their platypus is a winner. But rest assured even the most gifted will have spent many hours throwing biscuits at home and getting their charges used to different situations.

    Once in April, we practise little and relatively often. Larger kennels are fortunate to have a steady stream of masters and huntsmen coming to see their hounds over the summer, scouting for a stallion hound and to keep abreast with the progress of certain lines and outcrosses.

    These events are ideal pre-show preps for hounds and staff alike, but can be lethal as they can constitute a second career for some connoisseurs (and their necessary, long suffering “drivers”).

    Some kennels have pre-puppy shows and other occasions. Once hounds have found their feet, I find hyperactive children, extraneous noise and indoor schools to be useful practice tools.

    Hound exercise is important, too, as it builds up muscle and fosters discipline, while acclimatising young hounds to different environments in the company of their elders.

    Shows may be a summer distraction, but it tends only to be those who don’t try or take little interest in the breeding of their hounds who think they aren’t an important distraction.

    “My hounds are bred to hunt, not to show,” comes the cry. And so they should be, but if hounds move with graceful power and have good conformation suited to your country, then they may hunt even better for longer.

    True, quality hounds don’t have to show, but it can focus the mind. And if you win, your hunt will feel justly proud of their hounds.