A day with the Heythrop
A fast-paced hunt can leave you feeling more alive than ever, says Catherine Austen after a day with the Heythrop. But none of this would be possible without top-notch hunt staff and a healthy relationship with local shooting estates.
(Photography: Sarah Farnsworth)
There is nothing more thrilling – for me, at least – than galloping across country on a good horse with hounds hunting hard in front of you. It is often said that a bad day’s hunting is still a good day, but a great day’s hunting is something close to heaven.
The tone was set from the start. A trail had been laid away from the meet at the Landless family’s Hill Farm in Duns Tew, Oxfordshire, and the Heythrop hounds hit it off immediately. We left the farmyard at a canter and barely had time to unscrew a hipflask for the rest of the day.
This part of the Heythrop Monday country is something of a well-kept secret; it doesn’t attract the large, thrusting fields that jostle for position on a Saturday, but it is a fantastic place to go hunting. Simon Lawrance, who has been a Heythrop joint-master since 2008, gave us a superb lead as field master and we jumped our socks off over rails and hedges across the Ballards’ land, then hunt chairman Mikey Elliot’s farm. After second horses, they found on the Flemings’ Barton Abbey and hunted so swiftly to Wootton that it was nearly impossible to stay with them. Hunt secretary Guy Avis, who has hunted with the Heythrop for 50 years, said he could barely remember a faster hunt.
Simon, who has ridden round Badminton and Burghley, inspires enormous confidence in his field; they trust him, and will follow him over places they would not follow a less experienced field master. I was riding a lovely, elegant grey horse lent to me by Heather Moodie, which was bold and a real galloper, yet mannered and impeccably balanced. Riding him across country with hounds always in sight ahead of us meant I was still buzzing from the experience 24 hours later, and had bored nearly everyone I know about what a brilliant day I had had.
Charles Frampton is in his fourth season as joint-master and huntsman of the Heythrop, and the hounds are showing excellent sport. It has taken time to develop the pack he wants, but quiet persistence and patience are now paying off.
Anyone who goes hunting with Charles will notice how little noise he makes, and how little he interferes with his hounds.
He says: “It is essential to let the hounds do as much as possible on their own. We have bred them for 300 years to go hunting – they are specifically and carefully designed to do so – so why not let them do it? Assistance from the huntsman should be the last resort, not the first resort.
“They lose self-confidence if you interfere – rather like the effect of a nagging wife!
“Good gundog people know exactly what I mean. A good pack of hounds is well-disciplined, but they need to hunt independently [as a pack] with confidence in their own ability.”
This season, he has hunted a mixed pack – the doghounds and the bitches together – with the slightly steadier, hard-working doghounds working well with the sharper, quicker bitches.
The Heythrop is a four-day-a-week pack, and Charles says: “The primary reason I am now hunting a mixed pack is because during the shooting season we cannot always guarantee two days a week for both the dogs and the bitches, and if I still hunted them separately the doghounds would only get one day’s hunting a week sometimes. A lot of hunts come to the Heythrop to use our stallion hounds and we must ensure that they are 150 per cent proven in the hunting field.”
There is no doubt that in many areas of the country the balance of power between hunting and shooting has shifted in the decade since the Hunting Act came into force.
“Certainly in the time I have been a master, shoots have become more prolific and estates are shot more intensely,” says Simon.
And there are lots of hunts that suffer much more than the Heythrop do – estates such as Blenheim, Batsford, Sezincote, Eyford, Swell Wold and Fir Farm, to name a few, are welcoming and friendly towards hunting. But there are others, often with long-established historical ties with hunting, to which access is difficult.
“For the future of the countryside, it is so important that country sports stand together,” says Charles. “Hunting is such a community; shooting less so, because there tends to be one keeper working in one place, alone, and it is essential to do all that we can to include them in the broader country sports community. Communication and respect between both sides is vital; the better both sports work together, the greater the benefits to both.”
Lee Walker is headkeeper at Blenheim. He says: “I’ve worked on too many estates where there is a ‘them and us’ attitude to hunting. I don’t like that; we should support each other.
“As long as it is not the day we are shooting, we’re pretty flexible about hunting and I like to see the hounds.”
The Heythrop organise a keepers’ dinner and a keepers’ clay shoot every year, and Lee says that events like these, and invitations to hunt events such as the puppy show, improve relationships between hunts and shoots enormously. “The Heythrop have been great about including keepers in events, and I’ve seen the relationship between the hunt and shoots get much better in the past few years, which is as it should be – after all, we are all in the same boat.”
At the beginning of February, the Heythrop hounds visited Leicestershire to hunt the Cottesmore country, by kind invitation of the Cottesmore masters. A mounted field of 157 – huge for a modern mid-week meet – met at Bleak House, Knossington, with representatives from at least 12 different packs present.
This is the most famous bit of the Cottesmore hunting country, often termed “the playground” for its myriad jumping opportunities, and parts of the day were something akin to riding in the Grand National with three times the number of runners Aintree allows.
Ashley Bealby did a first-class job as field master and there were dozens of empty saddles, including your correspondent’s, at only the third fence. I rode two excellent horses belonging to Ollie and Rachel Finnegan and, despite embarrassing myself by hitting the deck, had a cracker of a day.
It has been really difficult to find hirelings in Leicestershire in the past decade, and Ollie and Rachel, who set up their business at Pickwell Manor this season, have been welcomed with open arms. Their horses are turned out immaculately and are guaranteed to go well.
With a heavy frost coming out of the ground, the Heythrop hounds acquitted themselves extremely well in difficult conditions, and the large team of visitors returned south at the end of the day – after a very generous tea – feeling very proud of them.