Old Surrey Burstow and West Kent master Richard Gurney’s hunting life has come full circle, as H&H’s hunting editor Catherine Austen finds out...
What makes a 48-year-old decide that the one thing he really must do in life is hunt a pack of hounds?
On the face of it, it looks like lunacy. After all, it wasn’t as though Richard Gurney’s life had lacked interest and challenges – far from it. He had worked in high-goal polo, attempted to ride in the Grand National (and nearly pulled it off), run successful businesses, raised huge amounts of money for charity and written and produced a pop song. And, as an MFH of the Old Surrey Burstow and West Kent for a decade, he couldn’t plead ignorance – he knew just how hard it would be.
But people who love challenges continually seek them, undaunted, and in fact this wasn’t something completely new. It was the final, irresistible tug on a string that led all the way back to the beginning. Richard explains: “When I was six months old, my mother [Anne] was poached by Uvedale Lambert, master of the Old Surrey and Burstow when Jack Champion was hunting the hounds, to be his groom. She went for a two-week trial and stayed for 26 years.”
Uvedale Lambert lived at South Park, near Bletchingley, a 2,000-acre estate that Richard describes as “like a playground”, covered in hunt jumps.
“By the time I was 10 or 11, Uvedale used to say, ‘We’re going on exercise tomorrow – bring your hunting horn and we’ll bring the whole pack,’ which was about 3½ couple of lurchers, Labradors, our terrier and so on. I’d hunt the hounds, he would be the master, my mother would come on a young horse and sometimes we would be joined by Uvedale’s daughter Sophia [now Peel], and whoever was staying at South Park at the time would come along and ride whatever was spare.
“One day when we were all getting ready, this guy in bishop’s robes came out of the house, walked to the stables, put his hand on my head and said, ‘Rick, I’m blessing you and wishing you luck for your day’s hunting.’ It turned out to be Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Not many huntsmen, aged 11, were blessed by Desmond Tutu, I would imagine.
“And that’s how it all began and that’s how lucky I was, that I was allowed to play at hunting hounds on this amazing estate in Surrey for the first 16 years of my life.”
“Other things in life”
After Anne arrived at South Park, Uvedale never bought another hunter – she bred and produced them all. Richard had plenty of ponies, did all the Pony Club activities and hunted constantly, eventually whipping-in to Jack Champion alongside his sons, Billy and Bridger.
However, when he left school, he “realised there were other things in life”, and “lost the hunting bug for a bit”.
Richard loved polo and in his early twenties went to work for John Horswell, playing for him and doing the marketing for his polo school. Between them they invented the J&B Polo International, “two on two in an indoor arena”, which was televised and went out around the world, and Richard reached a handicap of two goals indoors.
His other passion was racing and when he married Abi and they moved to Fletching in East Sussex, he trained point-to-pointers and then took out a permit, training Galapiat Du Mesnil to win a handicap chase – and land a considerable punt – at Fakenham on his birthday.
The move back to the Old Surrey and Burstow country also brought him back to hunting. The pack had, by that time, amalgamated with the West Kent.
“One thing led to another,” says Richard, “and Andrew Coveney, who was a joint-master, asked me to start field mastering, which I really enjoyed. And I got on well with Mark Bycroft, who was hunting the hounds.”
After two seasons, in 2008, he was invited to join the mastership.
“There were never fewer than four of us or more than six of us, and I started with the Sussex country in and around Fletching,” he says. “As time went on, I added more and more to the remit, and then before I knew where I was, we had lost Jeff Pegrum, who had been in the mastership for 19 years. He left at the same time as Mark, who’d been with us for 28 seasons. That was a huge wrench.”
Finding a replacement for Mark was “obviously impossible”, says Richard.
“All packs in the south-east carry a certain amount of bad press with them, in as much as people think the country is small, difficult, tricky, we have many ‘opponents’ out with us on a daily basis… all of which is partly true, but not completely true. So when Mark left, there weren’t many people who came forward for the role as huntsman,” he says. “Mark said to me, ‘You could do this.’
“I told him I didn’t have the time or the money any more, but what I could potentially do is share it with someone.”
Richard found someone with whom to share the role, Matt Wickens, who “thought about it and jumped at the chance”.
“I said I would do the Old Surrey and Burstow side and he would do the West Kent side. Splitting it wasn’t such a ridiculous idea; it actually went right back to the war, when Sir Ralph Clarke used to hunt the doghounds in Sussex and Jack Champion hunted the bitches in the vale, so we’d come full circle.”
“A learning curve”
For the past three seasons, that is what has happened. It has been “a huge learning curve”, Richard admits. “It’s not easy when you’ve got a country with the danger points that ours has, and you’ve got to show sport while you are learning. But it’s without doubt the best thing I’ve ever done on a horse, and the best decision I made was asking Matt to share it with me.”
He elaborates: “If it’s in your blood, then it’s the ultimate challenge for anyone who loves hunting. Being on your own with a pack of foxhounds, whether it’s pouring with rain, snowing or a beautiful spring day – there is no feeling to describe it. Jumping a point-to-point fence on a really good racehorse is an amazing feeling, but it’s nothing compared to hunting a pack of foxhounds. I absolutely loved every second of it.”
Like most things in life, you can only get better at hunting hounds by doing it.
“I improved on the horn and I got quieter,” he says with honesty. “I’ve only hunted with two people for any length of time – Jack Champion, who was the ultimate showman huntsman in a country that was tricky even then, and Mark Bycroft, who was probably only second to Jack, if that, as a showman. Both of them used their voices probably more than an absolute purist would wish. Having learnt from them, you try to copy them to a point.”
He remembers Stephen Lambert, Uvedale’s son, Richard’s godfather, former amateur huntsman and former chairman of the Masters of Foxhounds Association (MFHA), telling him about going to the Taunton Vale as master and huntsman after growing up with the Old Surrey and Burstow.
“The first day that he took his hounds out to go hunting, they found and Stephen was ‘tally ho-ing’ and blowing his horn. The kennel-huntsman came up to him and said, ‘Please, sir, stop making all that noise.’
“He said he didn’t realise – and why would you? We all thought that was how you hunted a pack of hounds. But because one goes and sees other people do it, you understand that the quieter you are, the better you are.
“It’s been proved to me that if you shout at hounds, they go spaniel-deaf, whether you are walking out, on hound exercise or hunting them. Shouting at them gets you nowhere. If you literally whisper to them, however, at the meet, they will look up at you. They’ve got very sensitive ears and I think if they were humans, they’d be very highly strung.”
As much as Richard has loved it, he feels now is the time to stop. “I’m 52, I think it is a young man’s game, there is a new team in place and there’s nothing worse than outstaying your welcome,” he states.
“And I have spent an awful lot of time and effort in the past 14 years on hunting, as a master and on the MFHA committee, and your business suffers as result, as well as your family life. Luckily my children, Tom and Issy, love it, but I think it has been incredibly hard for Abi.”
The Covid-19 pandemic cut his last season short, and by chance his final day’s hunting hounds was at South Park, nearly 50 years after his first-ever day, aged three. A neat ending.
He has no regrets, except for not having done it earlier in life. “But I’ve dipped my toe in and it’s been amazing. Having said that, if I was lucky enough to get five numbers and two bonus balls on Friday night, I’m confident I’d be back somewhere having another go. I’m a firm believer that you’ll be told by your body or by your horse that the game is up – and I haven’t been told that yet.
“I will do more with the MFHA in the next 18 months if they think I am useful, as I will have some more time and I would like to help hunting remain sustainable and see it evolve in the 21st century. I know it can remain relevant – it’s all about adapting. We have had to and so will other packs.”
Ref Horse & Hound; 16 April 2020