John Holliday: Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it [H&H VIP]

  • Variety is the spice of life, and one of the many charms of the Belvoir Hunt’s country is the variety of terrain.

    There are grass and stiff fences in the Vale of Belvoir, fly fences and rolling open Wednesday country, large woodlands and deep arable going in the Friday country and on Tuesdays, and light stony going with the occasional stone wall on the heath.

    The country is open-ended on the eastern side and finishes at the Wash — the North Sea. Theoretically, we could meet at Holbeach or Gedney End. Now there’s a thought.

    Practically, the country is not hunted beyond the South Forty Foot Drain — a large man-made dyke, presumably so called because of its width — constructed along with a huge network of smaller waterways to drain the Lincolnshire fenland.

    Coming from the mountainous Lake District, as I do, my first impression of the Fens was of a flat, featureless neck of the woods, but lacking the woods. Good for nought, save farming, thought I.

    However, I confess a growing fondness for the ancient fenland, steeped in history, with its big sky and remote beauty. It was once known as “the Holy Land of the English” because of its fine abbeys, cathedrals and churches.

    It is the region whence Hereward the Wake fought for English liberties, leading resistance to the Norman Conquest. Had he realised William the Conqueror brought with him not only the “Norman Yoke”, but some top-quality hounds, he may not have cut up so rough.

    There have been several noteworthy hunts deep into the Fens, and once every generation or so, hounds cross the great South Forty Foot Drain.

    I am reminded that 100 years ago to this day, Major Tommy Bouch, Belvoir master and huntsman, met with his private pack on 16 January 1914 in Folkingham village.

    Hounds found at Heathcote’s and were soon away on a strong dog fox for Lenton. After crossing much of the Friday country, those of the field still in contention reached the first major obstacle — locked level crossing gates on the Bourne-Sleaford railway line.

    Padlocks yielded to persuasion and they were soon crossing the Roman-built Car Dyke, heading into the Fens.

    They traversed Morton and Dyke Fens, where the ditches become steep and yawning, only to see hounds had crossed the Forty Foot Drain. It runs deep and wide, and I can tell you, from horseback, it looks like the River Styx.

    The only crossing was a narrow trestle footbridge guarded by handrails, some 15ft above the water. One brave soul crossed on a sure-footed fen pony, before sportingly giving up his mount to Major Bouch, who crossed on foot.

    The way was then blocked by Herbert Jones of Honnington, whose hunter slipped and landed with all four legs firmly wedged. It took some hours to release the poor animal and scuppered the chances for the remainder of the field.

    Bouch arrived in time to see hounds catch their fox at Pode Hole, just short of Spalding. A hunt of 2hr 10min, with a point of 12 miles and over 17 as they ran.
    The 20th century has brought few changes to this area of Lincolnshire; the railway is no more and this epic hunt would still be rideable today.

    A day’s hunting in the Lincolnshire Fens is not to all tastes, but it is something to be experienced. Flat it may be, but never soporific.

    The Blankney, Belvoir, Cottesmore and Fitzwilliam all have areas of fenland within their boundaries and I would strongly advise you give it a go.

    Hunts can be exhilarating, very fast and straight. You will jump more dykes in a day than you will fences elsewhere. They will range from a “shovel width” to “an arm of the sea”.

    I suggest you don’t gallop at them. It’s not the law or anything, but if that’s your method, before setting sail make sure your insurance is up to date.

    And should hounds cross the Styx, I sincerely hope (and so will you) that they do so in the vicinity of a wide and sturdy bridge.