A proper cracker: a pre-lockdown day out with the North Cotswold *H&H Plus*

  • A last day’s hunting before lockdown at Papermill Farm, Gloucestershire (30 December) turns out to be a special one as hounds fly on a screaming scent, reports Catherine Austen

    A good friend and I have a sort of code expression for a disappointing day’s hunting.

    “How was it?” one asks.

    “It was lovely to be out…” replies the other.

    We know exactly what we mean; barring disasters, an unexciting day’s hunting is always better than not going at all, but not every day is a great one. Of course, this makes you appreciate the really good ones even more, and my reply in the lorry on the way home from the North Cotswold on 30 December was, “It was a proper cracker.”

    In the seven-and-a-half years I have lived in the Heythrop country, until recently I had barely ever had a day with our neighbours, the North Cotswold. There was no good reason for this, except that if you pay a subscription to a pack and aren’t rolling in money, you tend to want to get as much bang for your buck as having one horse allows, and paying a visiting cap makes the overdraft wobble rather.

    However, I now live and keep my horse within sight of the North Cotswold border and thoroughly enjoyed my few days’ autumn hunting with joint-master and huntsman Oliver Dale, who is in his third season with them.

    The Heythrop kennels are in Oxfordshire, which went into tier four on Boxing Day, meaning that Christmas Eve was my final Heythrop day before lockdown. But as I live in Gloucestershire and the North Cotswold were meeting just a few miles away in that county, I was allowed to go out with them.

    There was snow on the ground and I had no real expectations – I just wanted to go hunting; to get that mind and brain reboot that a day in the fresh air on a horse with a pack of hounds gives. It was going to be “lovely to be out”, regardless of what happened.

    Living in harmony

    The meet, at Rob Wilson and Charlotte Alexander’s Papermill Farm, Stanway, was at the foot of the steep escarpment where the Cotswolds drop down towards the flat of the Worcestershire plain. Quite a large field included a few other Heythrop visitors – event rider Mike Jackson, and Dominic White with his three sons and groom Ollie Millard.

    Oliver Dale’s joint-master Tom Robbins was also a familiar face; his farm is on the boundary and he hunts with both packs. I also saw Tor Collins, Oliver’s partner and a point-to-point trainer, who was very kind to me when I visited the Ludlow, where Oliver hunted the hounds for 12 seasons.

    Papermill Farm is part of Lord Weymss’s Stanway estate, over which we hunted for most
    of the day.

    “They are incredibly good to us,” said Oliver. “The hunt rents the shooting rights from the estate and we sub-let it to Paul Marland, a former MP, who runs a reasonable-sized shoot. We cooperate fantastically well together and hunting and shooting live in harmony.”

    Oliver first drew across the banks towards joint honorary secretaries Malcolm and Gina Mills’ Chestnut Farm, and hounds picked up a trail in Rayers Brake. They hunted over Chestnut Farm on to hunter hireling supremo Jill Carenza’s gallops, looping back, up and down the steep slopes.

    Field master Victoria Sears set off with gusto, and I was glad that I was riding my very sensible Flynn, so kindly given to me by Mikey and Ginny Elliott in the summer and probably the only horse I have had that when I ask it to go slowly and carefully downhill, does so, rather than treating it like a black run.

    After this hunt eventually petered out, we headed uphill above Shenberrow and out towards Stanway Ash Wood, where hounds had a quick hunt out towards Snowshill. Oliver next drew up a slim covert with the wonderful name of Welshman’s Hedge and into the mustard mix, where hounds started speaking once again.

    The North Cotswold hounds are a famous pack, bred for 30 years by their former master and huntsman Nigel Peel, from whom Oliver took over in 2018, and it was a joy to see them hunt beautifully for the next hour or so.

    I don’t wear a watch so am hopeless at knowing what time a hunt started and how long it went on for, but it was certainly the longest and best hunt I have had for some time (note: the Heythrop had several recently but I missed them all!).

    These lovely, largely pale-coloured hounds flew out towards Half Moon and all the way down the Freeboard Wood – another long, thin covert arm – and out of the bottom of it.

    Flynn went from “slightly bored and thinking about supper” to “I love hunting and am in charge now” mode, whizzing over the neat hunt jumps with his grey ears pricked as we crossed the fields to Beehive Bank at speed and on left towards Snowshill Hill and across to Bourne’s Folly.

    At times we had a few moments to catch our breath as hounds checked, but every time they hit the trail off again with surety. They came out of the top towards Hare Park at Springhill and over the old point-to-point course, then carved left towards the lavender farm, back into Coronation Plantation.

    Here we had a lengthier pause and, as the steam evaporated from the horses’ flanks and the temperature dropped with the sun, the dark branches standing out sharply against the snow, I thought that was it. But hounds once again spoke on the line and screamed out of the covert with us in pursuit, although only for a couple of fields.

    “Such a super day”

    The small field remaining started to peel off, having got near the bottom of their horsepower. I was indecisive; it was getting dark and we were a decent hack away from the boxes, but you just knew that it was one of those rare scenting days that meant you would definitely miss another hunt if you went home.

    We jumped three more sets of rails, and while I was pleased that Flynn remained enthusiastic and clever over them, I could feel that he was tired and it wouldn’t be fair to ask a great deal more of him. Tim Pearce-May was guiding a group of people back to Papermill Farm, so Mike Jackson and I decided to follow.

    I was right, though – Oliver took hounds over to some sprout fields near Toddington, where they had a final scoot round before darkness fell completely.

    Hacking home, the news was confirmed that Gloucestershire was going into tier four that night. No more hunting for us for some time. I felt so lucky to have had such a super day, and through this uninspiring, bleak lockdown January, I can conjure up that feeling of galloping miles on a good horse behind a pack of hounds in full cry.

    We all need reminders of just why we commit so much of our time, effort and money to hunting, and this was the perfect prompt.

    Ref: 28 January 2021

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