The “correspondent’s curse” strikes as November gales hit Cornwall’s exposed moors, but the hunting community and a determined pack make for a memorable day nonetheless, writes Beanie Sturgis
East Cornwall, Lower Priddacombe Farm, Cornwall, 2 November
Sometimes you need a spot of breakfast before a day’s hunting. What you don’t expect is to be asked by the lady making you a bacon roll and a coffee in the Subway at Bodmin, “Where you to today? Ketchup? ’Spect you’d be going to the East Cornwall. Milk? My father whipped-in to them for 24 seasons before going to the Spooner’s. Sugar? You won’t believe it but ’parently they got the Horse & Hound out today. That’s £4.80.” Very small world, especially in hunting.
Graham Higgins has been a master and huntsman of the East Cornwall since they amalgamated with the Bolventor Harriers in 1997 and held the same post with those since 1983. When the packs united, the deal was that they kept the East Cornwall name but the green coat and red collar of the harriers.
The kennels are at Higher Trenant Farm, Graham and his wife Lynsey’s home near St Neot. They pretty much look after the hounds themselves with help from Danny Wilcox, who also cares for the horses. Although the East Cornwall is run “on a shoestring”, there has recently been an impressive facelift in kennels with the kind help of Chris Burchell and Mike Brooks, who kindly donated their time and talents.
For the past six seasons Lynsey has been hunting the hounds, but in the spring this year, the fates combined to bring about a fortuitous change. Neil Starsmore had been a very efficient and much liked second whipper in to the Beaufort for nine seasons. He has a young family with a successful business on the edge of the Beaufort country.
He said: “It was time to make a big life decision, come out of hunt service and put more time into the business, or stay put.”
A couple of days after Neil sadly handed in his notice, Graham rang and asked him his plans for next year. Thus a perfect symbiosis was formed. Graham and Lynsey still look after the kennels and horses and Neil heads south twice a week to hunt them.
Throughout the summer he has made regular trips to walk out the hounds in the morning. Afternoons have been spent getting to know the country and meeting the farmers. All this work has reaped its rewards, and Neil has fitted in very well – there is not a bad word to be said about him, and most importantly, the farmers speak very highly of him. Praise indeed.
With an impeding second lockdown, we assembled at Glen and Di Wilson’s Lower Priddacombe Farm. What a magical place it is. When you next pass Jamaica Inn on the A30, look hard right: you will see the craggy top of Brown Willy, at 1,378ft the highest point in Cornwall.
Glen has a wonderful story to tell regarding this. When he was a younger man, he was up very near the top on a horse and jumped off to scramble up the granite rocks.
He said: “Before I knew it my horse had jumped up beside me, so I climbed back on and now I know I have been the highest man in Cornwall. It was a very long way down, mind!”
Swathing along towards it is wide-open moor with little combes dotted through it and the odd tree growing sideways. There are also deep, dark, almost black patches of forestry on the lower ground. The moor this side of the main road is about six miles square, which is a huge area to get stuck into. Unfortunately, the correspondent’s curse struck again and the forecast of 50-mile an hour winds felt conservative from some of the higher points.
Neil had a mixed pack of 16 couple and the hunt has been generously supported by the Beaufort, Tynedale, VWH and Heythrop with some really good drafts.
The small-world syndrome struck again as countryman Andy Young arrived. An electrician by trade, he lives near Andover and is also countryman to the South Dorset, and therefore hunts two, sometimes three days a week with them as well as two days a week here – and seems to know every bit of country between the two.
Farrier and amateur whipper-in Anthony Ball couldn’t be out, so another farrier and amateur whipper-in to the Beaufort, Charlie Dando, juggled work commitments to make the trip “down the line”.
Not to be underestimated
With the very high winds and the odd vicious, skin-erasing hail storm, scent was tricky to say the least. Drawing up through Priddacombe and over to Tober Tor, trails that had been laid earlier were so sketchy as to be nigh on impossible to hunt.
Dropping in to a little network of valleys at Codda, there was more shelter and the results were immediate. These tough hounds hunted really well with great voice. At one stage they went like smoke over the top of the opposite bank, which left us with a rush to get round to them, only for them to check and hunt unaided back down to the valley below.
Although this moorland country looks very open and crossable, underestimate it at your peril. Hunt secretary Mary Martyn who, like field master Dawn Mitchell, knows every inch of it, was on hand to offer quiet advice, always with a smile, on how to best get from A to B.
What would seem like an obvious route often proved impassable. A direct route through a gate was bypassed for a longish detour. It was then explained that, “’Tis wet there.” “Really, very wet?” “Yes, ‘twill go over your horse’s shoulders.” Worth the detour then.
Where it is not wet, there are granite boulders ranging in size from a loaf of bread to a large car, and a small, sure-footed, cat-like horse is your best ally for negotiating them. Even knowing the country intimately guarantees nothing. Earlier this season, Graham went to cross a little stream on his quad bike with Neil’s father Ian on the back.
“Well, I thought it was only a foot deep, but the water came over the seat. Starsey abandoned the sinking ship and got proper wet, but, like the captain of the Titanic, I stayed with it until they pulled me out and stayed dry!” he says.
“Wild and woolly”
Moving on from this sporting area, we drew up to Leskernick. Nestled in another sheltered valley was a beautiful cottage. Many years ago it used to be the kennels for the Bolventor Harriers and you couldn’t imagine a better spot. Now it is used for holiday lets and for certain should be on everyone’s wish list as a place to go.
A trail had been laid from the bracken beds at the back of the cottage, although there was no need to stay there for long. Instead we left the protection of the lower ground and headed up to High Moor, Penny Darn and then even higher to the steep, granite strewn slopes of Brown Willy.
With height comes incredible views. On a clear day most of Cornwall can be seen. This craggy head is the boundary with the North Cornwall country and, as amateur whipper-in Danielle Wilcox said, “Most days it would be heaving with walkers.”
The inclement conditions meant only one hardy soul had made the walk to the top.
Hounds tried really hard round the leeward side of the hill on an old trail and even harder in atrocious conditions as we crossed the ridge to the blowy side, but to no avail. Neil is very patient, has a lovely light touch with them and allows them to get on with their job, but is there for a nudge and encouragement when they need him.
Drawing back through Duck Ponds and then on to Cat’s Hole, there was that sinking feeling that we were coming to the end of the day. With that, Tynedale Grenville opened in a whin bush and within seconds the whole pack joined him at full volume and pushed through a marshy bit of ground.
The sun, who had decided to show her pretty face just before going to bed, cast a memorable light on the rocks on the other side of the wet. Alas, high hopes of a screaming finale were jiggered by the blessed said rocks. Hacking back to the lorry, reflecting on a tricky day, Neil still had his trademark grin.
“I have been backed 100% here by everyone and it is a fun, spoiling pack with wild and woolly country; what’s not to like?”
From uncertain times at the beginning of the year, life has dealt him a great hand and as Graham said, “Neil is the best thing to happen to the East Cornwall since sliced bread.”
Joint-masters: Graham and Lynsey Higgins
Secretary: Mary Martyn, email@example.com
Huntsman: Neil Starsmore
First whipper-in: Anthony Ball
Groom/second whipper-in: Danielle Wilcox
Ref Horse & Hound; 19 November 2020