All in a day’s work: The school beagle pack master *H&H Plus*

  • Tom Gurney on swapping rugby for beagling, skipping lessons to get to the kennels and what he’s learnt from being immersed in the rural community

    On my first morning at Stowe, aged 13, I woke up and missed my first lesson because I went straight down to see the beagles at the kennels. When I’d arrived with my father the night before, I saw the hounds being exercised in the Grecian Valley in the school’s grounds, with the sun going down on them, and I wanted to find out what it was all about.

    My father Richard Gurney has been the master of the Old Surrey Burstow and West Kent for 12 seasons, and he was field master for two years before that, and so I’ve hunted my whole life.

    I went beagling a couple of weeks into that first term and was sucked in from there. I dropped rugby straight away! I’ve now been master for the past two seasons. How many teenagers can finish their maths lesson and then go and hunt their own pack of hounds half an hour later? It’s the coolest thing.

    While everyone else is on a hockey pitch in the pouring rain, beagling means you escape the school grounds with your mates to go out into the hunt country. You’re communicating with people from all walks of life. There are us boys who are 18 years old, and then there are 70-year-old retired blacksmiths. You don’t get that in any other activity at school.

    The pack meets twice a week on Wednesdays and Saturdays. When we get back to school in September, we have a couple of weeks of hound exercise and then we crack straight on. At the start of every school year there’s a bit of a recruitment drive because it’s not necessarily thought of as a “cool” sport – but people soon realise the freedom it offers. It can be good exercise, too; when we’re hunting, I could easily run 15 to 16km in one day.

    We have people involved from a non-hunting background as well as those who have grown up with it. My joint-master Bertie Keane lives bang in the middle of Birmingham and had never hunted before he came to Stowe. He came ferreting with me once and that got him interested in beagling. I think the appeal for him is in seeing the hounds work and that sense of community at the meets.

    Every afternoon after lessons, I head down to the kennels and walk the hounds out. When we go hunting, it’s a matter of talking to the farmers, finding out where we’re going and planning the meet. I sometimes go and walk country with the kennel-huntsman Phil Kennedy, but because we go to the same meets quite a lot, we don’t normally need to unless we know something has changed. And then, of course, there is writing to farmers to thank them afterwards.

    It’s not a demanding job – I just find it a lot of fun. I’m lucky to get on really well with Phil, who has been at Stowe since 2003. We’re now like good mates, rather than having a normal teacher-student relationship. And I have a great connection with the hounds, and get on well with my friends who come and help me at the kennels or whip-in for me.

    We go on hunt tours three times a year to different parts of the country – from Northumberland to Dorset – and I’ll never forget the first one I did, aged 13. We stayed at the Coniston Hotel in North Yorkshire and Michael Bannister, who is the senior master of the Pendle Forest and Craven, made the most inspiring speech at dinner about us being the future of hunting. I knew then that this was something I wanted to do and I hope to go into hunt service after school.

    I’ve learnt so much through beagling that I wouldn’t necessarily have learnt from the traditional subjects that I’m studying. You’re talking to people who are a completely different age and from a completely different walk of life, but hunting bonds everyone together.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 23 April 2020