The Duchess of Devonshire

duchess of devonshire

Gundogs have been a way of life for the Duchess of Devonshire for as long she can remember. Mike Barnes spoke to her about her love of country sports.

There are those who lend their names to an organisation or a body with which they have some empathy, and there are those who take the next step of also getting involved. The Duchess of Devonshire most definitely falls into the latter category.

A keen sportswoman who has had an interest in gundogs for as long as she can remember, the Duchess is deputy president of the International Gundog League Retriever Society and long-serving committee member, sits on the Kennel Club's Field Trials Sub-Committee and is president of the Yorkshire Retriever Field Trials Society.

Pressures on her time, now that she is chatelaine of Chatsworth, mean that she is no longer able to compete in field trials, but she has seven Labradors in training with John Halsted, most of which she looked after as pups. However, she takes her IGL and Kennel Club roles very seriously.  The IGL organises the Retriever Championship. "The three day championship is hugely important and recognised worldwide as the competition which all field triallers want to be part of, and of course win," says the Duchess. "We have tremendous interest from America and Europe - many other countries too. So we are very anxious that it should maintain its reputation and we are currently considering changing the rules of qualification, which may reduce the number of finalists slightly, but will mean we can ensure the quality of entries."

Some well known names of the gundog world sit on the KC Field Trials Sub-Committee, including Alan Rountree, John Halstead, Graham Cox, Joan Hayes and Wilson Young. "There is never any shortage of opinion" she smiles.

The interest in gundogs was borne of a happy childhood on the family farm in Oxfordshire where her father was a keen shot and her mother became a successful field trialler with a rare gift for training dogs. Her mother, June Heywood-Lonsdale, was a well known and popular figure on the gundog scene, who held the distinction of owning a dog which qualified for the championship in seven consecutive years. "Sam (FTCh Ulstare Style) was a fantastic dog and was second twice, came fourth once and was awarded a diploma. But she was a brilliant trainer and handler - she even taught a German Shepherd to retrieve and took it shooting." Her daughter Amanda wasn't so bad herself having taught a Corgi to pull a sledge! And years later was regularly seen at Bolton Abbey not only with Labradors but also a cross-bred terrier which retrieved with great aplomb.

"My mother didn't start field trialling until later in life. Lady Hill-Wood was a key figure at the time, a widely respected dog handler and a quite formidable lady. My own first field trial was inevitably a bit daunting, performing in front of lots of people, but once you are out there you forget about them - you are so keen to put into motion all that you and your dog have been practicing together. And I must confess to being very competitive!"  At once charming and self-effacing, the Duchess is understandably well liked and will become more widely known now that the family have moved into Chatsworth, but behind the warm and easy smile is the field trialler determined to win. Indeed it's a winning combination. She clearly enjoyed the trialling days enormously. "It's true - my mother and I had many happy times together even when we were competing against one other!  But once our lives became very busy it was impossible to find the time."

The Duchess is married to Stoker, the 12th Duke of Devonshire, who was previously Steward of the Jockey Club and Chairman of the British Horseracing Board and is now, in addition to Chatsworth, Deputy Chairman of Sothebys, and also the Queen's representative and chairman of Ascot Racecourse. The latter is a position he has held for nearly 10 years, so he oversaw the rebuilding of Ascot's extraordinary new grandstand (on time and on budget). The couple have three children - William, Celina and Jasmine.

So she has taken the same route as her mother, who in later years (she died in 2004) left the training to John Halstead (the five times winner of the Retriever Championship, and a record thrice with FTCh Breeze of Drakeshead). The Duchess has opted for John and Sandra Halstead's son, also John, a showjumper turned gundog trainer, and very successful in his own right. "He has just the most wonderful affinity with animals, and has qualified ten dogs for the championship since 1993 (including four last year) but has yet to win it. There is so much luck as well as dedication involved - people can travel long distances to take part in a field trial only to be knocked out within the first hour, for any of a number of reasons. Then the long journey home. I saw one poor man a couple of years ago who  left home in early morning pitch dark, so not wishing to disturb anyone, he didn't put any lights on when he loaded up. He arrived at the field trial only to find he had put the wrong dog in the back of his vehicle. He couldn't take part so he had then to complete the 200 mile round trip back. It's bad enough being knocked out early on, but not even taking part..."

Her own gundog training started with the gift of a Labrador as a wedding present from well known field trial owner Charles Williams, whose trainer Dick Mayall taught her how to get animals to respond on ground near Woburn estate. "He was marvellous and taught me so much - then later Arnold White Robinson gave me further help at Stratfield Saye." From then on she was on her own.

Diary permitting, she hopes to be picking up on let shoots at Chatsworth this year, though the family has a couple of days when she will be shooting as well as handling her dogs. "I very much enjoy shooting, particularly grouse. But if I am really honest I love going off on my own with a dog. Perhaps this goes back to the days when I was taught to shoot by my late father, along with my two older brothers. I was probably 11 and he decided that if he was teaching my brothers then I too would be shown how to hold a gun. I loved it from the word go, and would often go off with my father to shoot rabbits and squirrels." She has a Purdey 20-bore.

Like her husband, the Duchess also has a big interest in horses and keeps eventers. Ian Stark rode Stanwick Ghost for her at the Atlanta Olympics and won Badminton on Jaybee, team silver at Sydney Olympics and team gold at the European Championships in 1999. "Like watching my dogs in the field trial championship, following Ian on one of the horses around an event course is nerve wracking." During the off-season she is able to have them at home and ride them - and is always reluctant to hand them back to Ian.

Another big interest for her is the Purdey Game & Conservation Awards, having been a member of the judging panel for six years. "I really love the judging visits. It's fascinating seeing what people are doing on different farms and estates, and the amount of commitment they make to their particular interest. There is so much effort being made, a lot of which is unpaid, to help wildlife and the countryside in general. And it's all because of shooting interests. Last year's winner, Geoff Eyres, was a perfect example. What he has done with single handed dedication on a Peak District moor with lots of public access is quite incredible."

And now of course,  there's Chatsworth. Having spent 25 years at Beamsley Hall, Bolton Abbey, the Duke and Duchess have now taken on the running of Chatsworth. "It's very exciting, a huge project and such a beautiful place. Obviously there is a lot to learn and get to grips with - but we both love it. And not only us, there is a super team who are all as fond of it as we are."

The Duchess has already been involved with the renovation of a couple of the estate's hotels. Her mother-in-law The Dowager Duchess oversaw the restoration of the Devonshire Arms in Bolton Abbey, while the new Duchess lent her inimitable style to the Devonshire Fell, just up the Wharfe Valley, and has recently overseen a makeover of the Devonshire Arms in the Chatsworth village of Beeley. "It's small compared to the others but we have given it a contemporary feel and we are pleased with how it has turned out." The next possible project on this front is the Cavendish Snake Hotel at Baslow, but no decision has been made as yet."

But at the time of writing, Chatsworth itself was at the forefront of everyone's thoughts with Christmas looming. A special route has been devised for public access over the Christmas period - the house is hugely popular the year round.

Then from December 23 the family.

Following in the Dowager's footsteps is no easy call - apart from her popularity with the general public, she too was a keen sportswoman and good shot. But the destiny of one of England's treasures could not be in better hands.

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