Teamwork at the fore as record midweek numbers follow the Mid Devon *H&H Plus*

  • A slow start does nothing to dampen the spirits as the promise of a second lockdown brings out a record number of followers for a midweek meet before the restrictions bite, writes Rebecca Jordan

    Mid Devon, Creaber Gate, Devon, 4 November

    It felt chaotic and perturbing as we filtered out in groups of six on to Dartmoor at Creaber Gate. The horses were obviously enjoying the sunshine on their backs; a sharp drop in temperature also lifted their spirits. At last we were free from weeks of debilitating wind and rain.

    It was the last day’s hunting before a month’s lockdown. Ever since Boris Johnson’s announcement, texts had winged their way through the Mid Devon ether to find out who could take a day off work; was there a spare horse anywhere? Our new secretary, Hayley Jansz, had her hands full as she checked off everyone from her list and tried to recognise a handful of foot followers through their masks.

    Up on the moor, a snipe darted up and away and, as my horse cantered up the track, skylarks lifted out of the gorse bushes. Soon their song filled the sky and, as I looked back, their chatter was matched by the excited greetings emanating from the field.

    For the past few days, there had been a heightened atmosphere, matched just once before – on the eve of the hunting ban. Yet again, faced with restrictions beyond the hunting community’s control, we had chosen to come together and celebrate what we love.

    There were also a number of new faces in the field; people who had put a day’s hunting on their bucket list and used this situation as the catalyst to tick it off.

    As a result, numbers swelled to just over 25 – a record for a midweek meet here. Christl Cole lives locally and had only hunted a handful of times before – but never here –so it was a delight to see her out.

    Turning back the clock

    Robert Barkwell was in the mastership for 10 seasons at the turn of the century, but has not ridden for at least five. He has, however, quietly supported the hunt behind the scenes. As Mid Devon stalwarts Paul Ridgers and Anthony Jervoise greeted him, it felt as though the clock had turned back 20 years.

    Joint-master Phil Heard also supplied a hireling for Capt (retired) Crispin d’Apice. After months of chat, Crispin took the plunge and donned his breeches.

    Crispin (ex Coldstream Guards) has this extraordinary ability to remain immaculate in any situation. At the end of a hunt ball, despite carrying enough alcohol in his bloodstream to melt a breath tester, his shoes will still fly through an inspection on the parade ground.

    It had been a long while since he was last in the saddle, so was forgiven a couple of minor dismounts during the day. Yet he was one of only five who came home with hounds at dusk. And then he got off his horse as spotless and poised as he was in the morning. Extraordinary.

    Midweek is usually in-country for the Mid Devon so it was great to see some of that crowd out. Vet Richard Stringer usually field masters then and was brilliant in that role at the children’s meet the week before.

    Clare Arden also appeared. Major Arden, her grandfather who had just one leg, hunted these hounds for a majority of the time between 1937 and 1971. It was also great to see Dartmoor kennel-huntsman Harry Cook and Annabelle Partridge this side of the moor. Their hounds had provided very good sport the day before so the pressure was on.

    Valiant hounds

    A few of us had enjoyed a memorable evening hunt on Saturday. Hounds had battled mentally and physically all day in gale force winds so Duncan Hume, their huntsman, had the unenviable task of breaking their resolve and stopping them as the hunter’s blue full moon rose up above the moor. It was obvious hounds were still a little quiet as they went to draw on Kennan. Today, though, bright sunshine was going to snatch scent from them. They valiantly tried to latch onto a couple of trails laid earlier, but they had as good as dissipated.

    As we patiently waited for Duncan to help them, it was apparent this was a crowd of people drawn together from all corners of society. Chatting, it was clear Covid had cut to the chase and affected everyone.

    Angela Boyden has been the backbone of this hunt for as long as I can remember. To pay for her hunting, she worked in the National Trust’s busy and popular gift shop at Widecombe-on-the-Moor. This was obviously shut in March and Angela has been sent a letter of redundancy recently as it will now close permanently.

    Rory Hardick is a recent Mid Devon recruit. One of his business interests is a chain of service stations along the M5. With motorways almost deserted for most of lockdown, this business took a heavy hit.

    Hannah Kidner had organised to go travelling in her gap year. Instead, she has helped out with the hunt horses until Hannah McDonald started earlier this month. As a thank you, George Lyon Smith lent her his horse for the day. George, who has previously hunted these hounds and is the best field master we have ever had to follow across this relentless country of bogs, granite boulders and hidden river crossings, was unfortunately unable to make it himself.

    Unfortunate on one hand, but a blessing the other. He owns the Devon Marquee Company, which was obviously brought to its knees in March. Even George, one of life’s eternal optimists, was getting a little concerned as the months passed. However, as social distancing remains pivotal in the workplace, George is now putting up marquees to allow for these requirements in schools and businesses. Hence his absence.

    He will, however, be kicking himself because after a good 20 minutes’ perseverance, hounds opened up. They bent to their task with real confidence in gullies and on hillsides in the lee of the bright sunshine. However, their quality shone through where scent was sparse and teamwork paid off.

    Total trust

    It was at times like these the pack had relied on Habit, a South and West Wilts bitch by Heythrop Goodman 10 Duncan had brought with him in 2016. She had his back on many occasion with her uncanny gift of grafting at the exact spot where the pack last spoke and methodically finding the way forward.

    Unfortunately, old age caught up with her a few weeks ago, but she was helping us in spirit as her litter siblings Hawthorn and Harlequin, by Mendip Farmers’ Gosling 11, steadied the ship, held their resolve and gave tongue with increasing confidence.

    At one point, sheep foil stopped play. Our horses had worked hard and steam was rising. I looked around and the rest of the field were just as high on adrenaline. Some flushed faces reflected total fear, having crossed country at full tilt they would never have considered in cold blood. Looking up, it was dawning on them they had to keep going as they had no idea how to get back to their box.

    However, Duncan’s anxious tone caught their attention. Across the other side of the valley a white hound was steadily hunting a line along a track where about 20 sheep had just run. They stood in a bunch facing hounds which had quickly lifted to the white hound.

    It is a huntsman’s worst fear that hounds will start to hunt hill sheep when conditions are frustrating. There must be total trust between him and the pack if he is to succeed in his role in a moorland country.

    And so everyone watched in silence as the hound – which transpired not to be a new entry but Fireman, by Mid Devon Viking 10 and out of Mid Devon Firefly 12 – drove straight through the sheep without lifting his head.

    As soon as the pack was clear of the foil, they worked with renewed vigour and flew. It was hard to keep with them; it had got to the stage where it was each man for his own. People started to take their own route as they tried to second guess where hounds would run. This is a game you win as often as you lose. Today was not Phil Heard’s as his horse floundered in a bog on Haydon. All was well but his saddle will take a while to dry out.

    A much-needed tonic

    It was a day to keep us all going over the coming weeks – perhaps months. Many face ongoing change in their workplace – Richard Bruford, train manager for South West Trains, is working on nigh-empty commuter trains travelling to and from Penzance.

    Jessica Jeffery is one of many working from home for the foreseeable future – her work for the Animal and Plant Health Agency can be done just as well from South Zeal but she misses socialising with work colleagues.

    Ashleigh Hutchings has cancelled all her physiotherapy clients. As well as being a farmer’s wife, she also looks after Mike Malseed’s horse. He was not out as he needed his horse for pony-gathering the following day. Mike is another feeling the pinch. He produces thousands of turkeys from Frenchbeer Farm but will need to take them to lighter weights this Christmas.

    On the day, however, there were two who viewed lockdown as a saviour – 11-year-old Henry Hardick and 14-year-old Jack Jordan missed a day’s school.

    Rory, Henry’s father, had no compunction in telling the school exactly why Henry would be absent. I was a coward, but will happily pay the £50 fine as, in years to come, I treasure the image of my son Jack and his grey pony gliding across the moor close behind hounds stretched to their limit doing what their and Jack’s families have done for generations.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 12 November 2020