From horticulture to piano-playing, sculpting and plastering, Britain’s huntsmen have skills that might surprise you, says the Beaufort’s Matt Ramsden
“What wonderful marrows you have, madam.”
Not a stock sentence advised to whippers-in when placating an enraged homeowner. Nevertheless, it was a sincere remark made to a lady in Tetbury by Dennis Brown, who was whipper-in to the Duke of Beaufort’s hounds from 1969 until the early 1980s.
Hounds had concluded a hunt in the aforementioned lady’s garden and done their utmost to destroy what was a pristine plot. Deputised to calm an air filled with rage, the expert horticulturalist knew no other tactic than to compliment the array of winter vegetables. Naturally, the situation was defused instantly.
As well as being a consummate whipper-in who knew parts of the Beaufort country like no one else, Dennis Brown was an exceptional gardener who won prizes at shows as a matter of course. Badminton Horse Trials director Jane Tuckwell, a long-term Beaufort hunting lady, well remembers the anxiety of ensuring that Master – the 10th Duke of Beaufort – ordered hounds home after cub-hunting, allowing enough time for the whipper-in to fetch his entries up to the Hawkesbury Show, which takes place at the end of August.
Dennis’s skill as a gardener is still spoken about by Badminton residents today, and it was of no great surprise that he went on to serve The Prince of Wales in the gardens at Highgrove upon his retirement from hunt service.
A frighteningly common misconception among hunting folk is that outside the hunting season, masters and staff alike spend their time troughing cakes at puppy show teas and little else. Although indulging in Battenburg and Bakewell is something none of us shy away from, the “downtime” is our only opportunity to nurture or learn other skills. Here, I will try to shed some light on other strings to the bows of masters and hunt staff.
The past 12 months have contained rather more empty periods than we care to repeat, but a positive consequence has been that a lot of these “skills” have been put into practice. Hounds and horses cost no less to keep if they are hunting or not, while the void left by a lack of visiting caps and a season cut short means that we must cut our cloth accordingly.
Therefore, a lot of work which might have otherwise been contracted out is being done “in house”. Our good friends at Defra declared that they were unhappy with some exposed brickwork in a room off our flesh house. A flat, rendered surface was what was required. A few “DIY Doctor” videos later, I was fairly certain that I was an expert.
Having ordered the materials and got hold of a cement mixer, our trainee whipper-in and I got to work. Very quickly, I was reminded of my own work experience with a plumber at the age of 14. I was thrilled to be given a nickname on my first day, until I realised that being called “Fortnight” was on account of my being too weak, rather than anything praiseworthy.
Suffice to say, our job of work was extremely physical and, in the end, rewarding. Had I still been at the Bedale, our countryman, Kevin Newcombe, would have been instrumental, having done a trade in plastering. No such luck.
A little north of here, the Heythrop are in the process of building impressive new kennels and stables. I do not for one minute mean to imply that Charles Frampton is undertaking this work himself, however talented a bricklayer he is – evidence of which materialised a few summers ago, when he and former Wynnstay master and huntsman Richard Tyacke built an extension to the Framptons’ home near Moreton-in-Marsh.
Charles has spent this most recent lockdown in comparative bliss, enjoying the confines of a mini-digger while barking orders at all within earshot.
The arts and hunting are not instantly aligned, but the two have been entwined for centuries. Since before the Bayeux Tapestry, artists have been depicting hounds and horses crossing our green and pleasant lands and, today, masters of hounds continue the tradition.
Best known, perhaps, is Daniel Crane, a master of the Scarteen in Ireland. Unfortunately, Daniel is on the wrong end of the spectrum, painting being his primary occupation. Toby Coles, on the other hand, has been hunting the South Dorset for the past three seasons and draws and sculpts beautifully. While on a brief sabbatical from hunting, Toby and his family spent some time in Africa. There he drew the native animals, the results of which can be obtained as cards.
“Hunting hounds and the arts hold a surprisingly large number of similarities,” says Toby. “You are either bestowed with the talent or not. You can hone those talents through practice or education.
“For me, sculpting and hunting hounds manifested in similar ways; patience and your eye is all you’ve got, and then you need the confidence to carry out your convictions. Let your instincts guide you without being overbearing, and you might be lucky and end up with something people enjoy – either a decent hunt or a bronze standing above a fireplace.”
I once asked a world-class conductor which members of the orchestra were the trickiest to deal with. Quick as a flash, he came back with the answer: “Horn blowers, of course. Biggest lot of prima donnas around!” The explanation was that the line between a bad note on the horn and a good one is fine; something we can all agree with, I’m sure. Whether this has any correlation with huntsmen I doubt, but it is interesting nonetheless.
Undoubtedly the most talented musician hunting hounds currently is the Kimblewick’s Andrew Sallis. A former professional composer, when Andrew taught music at Charterhouse he was fortunate to be granted private health insurance. Eyebrows were raised as his premium crept up on account of being patched up after falls out hunting.
As far as creeping the boards is concerned, a hunt pantomime can bring out the thespian in the least expected members. About 10 years ago, the VWH and the Beaufort staged a highly competitive version of Strictly Come Dancing. A surprising act was a ballet performance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, complete with tutus and tiaras.
The cast of this particular act featured a now eminent huntsman and arguably the best kennelman in the country, both of whom ought to remain nameless. Having let his hair down with rather too much gusto after the show, one of the ballerinas turned in late for work the following morning, only to be sent home immediately.
“I don’t mind you being late,” scolded his boss, “but eyeliner is out of the question!” The director of this groundbreaking piece of theatre was the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art-trained former VWH whipper-in Will Forsyth.
What is evident here, therefore, is the stark correlation between a sport which, on the surface of it, involves little finesse or creative zest and a world of paintings and theatre. The late 11th Duke of Beaufort, although a consummate horseman and field master, was perhaps best known for his work as director of Marlborough Fine Art, selling Freuds and Bacons all over the world. However, when he did have time to cast his eye over a large entry of his hound puppies, he had no trouble picking out the best among them, such was his universal eye for quality.
Working on young horses is an occupation that absorbs the energies of many of us, none so much as Meynell and South Staffs master and huntsman Guy Landau who, along with hunting hounds and showing horses, has devoted most of his life to it.
“I still get tremendous satisfaction seeing the young [horses and hounds] coming around, improving and showing their worth, in the manner that you have hoped for. After a certain moment, they are no longer a challenge; there is an element of sadness from that point,” he says.
During the first lockdown, Ralph Richardson, master and huntsman of the Middleton, went back to his roots to make some young polo ponies. Over the past decade, Ralph and his brother Jack have been retraining racehorses to compete in the polo field at top level.
“The trickiest element of the process is the time it takes,” says Ralph. “Over-developed muscles can be a hindrance and from day one to the professional arena can take up to four years.”
There is no doubt that the last two examples entail a phenomenal level of patience, which is a necessity in anyone wishing to handle a pack of hounds.
One need only consult Beckford’s Thoughts on Hunting and the qualities which, to his mind, make up a huntsman or a whipper-in to discover that all of the above examples help us to go about a day’s hunting.
Whether it is with your head buried in the herbaceous border or watching a dry fly on a quiet stretch of river, time away from our sport, however ghastly, is well spent, if only for the way in which it enriches other talents that have an uncanny knack of cropping up when we least expect. Diplomacy on the other hand, cannot be taught but only accrued over time. I’m still waiting.
Also published in H&H 11 March 2021
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