As Andrew Cook prepares to step down from a 30-year career with hounds, he talks to Tessa Waugh about his experiences and what he has learnt
ON 1 May this year Andrew Cook is retiring as master of the Dumfriesshire and Stewartry Foxhounds after 15 seasons. It is a big change after 30 years in hunting – a good stint by any standards.
When asked why he is stopping, he bats the question away with a swift, “because my wife told me to”, followed by a hearty cackle.
Andrew is not one to wear his heart on his sleeve. Nor does he enjoy talking about himself. But when pressed he is clear: “I have been in hunting in one way or another since I was 16. I have done 15 seasons here and if I want to do something else, I need to do it now before I get too old.”
Rather pointedly, he adds: “We’ve all seen people who have carried on too long. I don’t want to make that mistake.”
Andrew didn’t hunt as a child, but he grew up with hunting all around him.
“The VWH kennels were across the fields from my family home, and some of my earliest memories are of the hounds being exercised through the village,” he says. “I can remember a day when they met nearby, and I saw a fox going away from Poulton Gorse. The hounds were struggling to hold the line and I remember being completely transfixed as I watched Charlie slink down the hedge, back to where he came from.”
As a self-confessed “doggy” child, it was natural that he would get involved with the beagles at Radley. During his time there, Bill Lock arrived as kennel-huntsman.
“We were very lucky to have a new purpose-built kennel,” recalls Andrew. “Bill had hunted staghounds and foxhounds, so he had a very broad knowledge of hunting and I spent far too much time there listening to his stories of the chase.”
Andrew became master of the school beagle pack from 1990–1991, and in those days the master could take the pack home for a few days’ hunting over the Christmas holidays.
He remembers writing to Hugo Busby, who was master of the Royal Agricultural College (RAC) Beagles at the time, requesting some meets in his country. He laughs as he describes the letter that came back saying that he would not be allowed to come under any circumstances. Several other school packs had asked, and Hugo had said no to them all.
“Needless to say the RAC country was plundered by school packs that Christmas holidays,” he adds, with more laughter.
“ONE SMALL HURDLE”
AFTER Radley, Andrew spent his gap year working at the Bicester kennels and hunting with the harrier packs in New Zealand. He went on to the RAC and, having hunted the College beagles for three seasons, had a good idea what he would like to do with his life. There was one small hurdle – he hadn’t done much riding.
“I knew I would have to get that going if I was going to pursue hunting any further,” he explains.
The famous Talland School of Equitation was down the road from where he grew up, so he took a crash-course with renowned coach Brian Hutton and rode out with various family friends. Eventually, he bought “a little cobby thing” and hunted with the VWH and the Heythrop. This was not always plain-sailing, Andrew remembers.
“One day I was up with [VWH] huntsman Sidney Bailey and the hounds, and I got off my horse to help the terrierman bolt a fox. The fox bolted and Sidney set sail with the hounds, at which point my horse bolted too, just as I was trying to get on. He galloped halfway across the field with me clinging on to the side before I finally bailed out.”
When he was 22, Andrew got a phone call out of the blue from Anthony Hart, who had been chairman of the Radley College Beagles. He wanted to know if Andrew was still interested in hunting a pack of foxhounds. When Andrew said yes, Anthony replied, “Well, that’s good because Pamela Sykes from the South Shropshire is going to ring you in a minute.”
“When Pamela rang, she said in her typically abrupt way, ‘I gather you can hardly ride,’” says Andrew. “So I explained that I was working on that and, after going up to see them, I was offered the job.”
By his own admission, the first two seasons were not easy.
“I took over from Michael Rowson, a professional, born and bred in the country, and some people thought I had pushed him out of a job. But the animosity faded and I went on to have seven fantastic seasons there. The South Shropshire was well-foxed, varied and a lovely country to be in.”
A good friend of Andrew’s, Patricia Cornes, who became hunt secretary during his tenure, recalls, “We took quite a gamble on ‘Cookie’ because his riding wasn’t the best, but I was impressed straight away with the way he hunted hounds.
“He was quite cocky when he arrived, but he won us over with his hard work and everyone was sad to see him go.”
MOVING ON “UP THE LADDER”
FROM the South Shropshire he went to the Portman. Why did he leave? “Because when you are young you feel as if you should go on up the ladder,” he says slightly wistfully.
At the Portman he enjoyed the vale, but regrets that it was over-hunted because it was popular with the supporters.
“We hunted a quarter of the country three-quarters of the time and three-quarters of the country a quarter of the time, which was very sad. The downland bit was heavily shot, but if you looked back through history at the great hunts they had in that part of the world, they were always on the downs,” he says.
Asked about the huntsmen who have influenced him the most, Andrew names Sidney Bailey and Martin Thornton, who in style were “chalk and cheese.”
Of Sidney, who hunted the VWH for 43 seasons, Andrew says, “He was one of the last great professionals and I am full of admiration for someone who hunted the same country four days a week for as many years as he did. Having been in two countries quite a while, one of the things I’ve found hardest is watching how the country is degraded. Witnessing that over Sidney’s long tenure would have been heart-breaking.”
Watching Martin Thornton in action at the Bicester was another vital part of his education. While Sidney was quiet, Andrew says, “Martin was totally thrusting and would gallop through a wall to catch a fox. It didn’t matter if it had only gone five yards. The Bicester hounds were awesome and it showed me what you can do with a pack of hounds when their confidence is up.”
Andrew recalls Martin’s hard-man persona, which involved five mornings’ autumn hunting on the trot followed by some seriously aggressive squash games. One day he had the pleasure of driving him around on a day’s hunting after a bad fall.
“Sally [Martin’s wife] instructed me that under no circumstances should I allow Martin out of the car, but it was a bit like having an unmuzzled pitbull terrier in a playground full of children. At a bad check Martin was out of the car and running across the road and through the hedge into the field to be with hounds. He fell into the ditch on the way and I was left standing there thinking, ‘Oh no!’” he recalls, laughing uproariously at the memory.
THE NEXT CHALLENGE
IN 2005 Andrew got a call from Jamie Blackett, a Dumfriesshire landowner whose ambition was to re-establish the Dumfriesshire and Stewartry Foxhounds, which had been disbanded in 2002.
Andrew threw himself into the challenge with his customary energy, moving to Scotland that summer with his wife Jane, and set about establishing a pack of hounds comprising drafts and some he brought from Dorset.
Andrew’s joint-masters Piet and Sue Gilroy and Malcolm Bell Macdonald also had a big part to play in re-establishing the hunt. Piet notes that it is Andrew’s “complete professionalism as a manager of the kennels” that stands out in the time he has been there.
Andrew found the Dumfriesshire country similar in many ways to the South Shropshire: “A lot of grass, while the west side was very wild with lots of gorse. There were also large tracts of forestry with very little access. If you ran into them, it was game over – you could be there for the rest of the day.”
Looking back, he says, “We had a lot of fun doing it, but we probably went and hunted a lot of places early on that weren’t suitable.”
The country was huge and the travelling made logistics difficult.
“The average journey to a meet is an hour; some of our meets are an hour and three-quarters away, so if you left a hound out it was a serious hassle.”
He relished the opportunity to start a pack of hounds from nothing, noting “good cry, hunting ability and determination” as the key things he looks for.
“In a hill country you really want a hound that never gives up, although that can be a serious pain on a bad scenting day. You’ll be two-and-a-half couple short and know without looking around who they will be.”
The best stallion hound he has bred at the Dumfriesshire is one called Saracen 12, by Blencathra Trimmer 07 out of Dumfriesshire and Stewartry Saviour 08.
“They were a very good litter, as is often the case with a direct fell outcross,” he concludes. “They weren’t particularly big but they were all serious hunters.
“I can remember a tricky day in some hill country when the fox ran along the dyke for 250 yards. Saracen and one of his litter-mates tried to hunt it along the top of the dyke and two or three of that litter took that fox on. He did a phenomenal amount of work and we bred from him a lot.
“The Duke of Buccleuch’s and College Valley and North Northumberland also used him, but it is always hard to get your hill-type dogs used by those down south because they tend to want a big, scopey dog.”
The biggest lesson he has learned?
“If you have a good, reliable pack of hounds always trust them, regardless of any information you are given elsewhere.”
He names time spent with hounds as the most enjoyable aspect of his work – he is at the kennels most mornings – along with “banter with the farmers.”
So what next? Having always kept sheep, he has set his sights on a farm in the West Country.
“I’ve been farming on a small scale but I’d like to do things properly,” he says, “and give it my all.” No doubt he will.
This exclusive interview is also available to read in H&H magazine, 25 March 2021 issue
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