Monday, 9 September 2013

Equestrian Pursuits 2


     If racing was an expensive and sometimes ruinous sport, the less affluent could still enjoy the thrill of equestrian chase. Hunting has existed in the British Isles since at least the Norman Conquest, but it is likely that packs were devoted solely to fox-hunting since the eighteenth century. It was towards the end of the seventeenth century when landowners – the main body of the hunting fraternity – started to notice that foxes provided better sport. The fox was craftier than either deer or hare, not as strong smelling as the one and could run for longer than the other.

     It was largely due to the patronage of royalty and members of the aristocracy, such as the Duke of Buckingham, that fox-hunting flourished. Buckingham’s estates were in the north of England; the Dukes of Berkeley hunted across lands between London and Bristol and the Dukes of Beaufort from Bath to Oxford. The necessary establishments to hunt such large areas were hugely expensive. With the Industrial Revolution came the new gentry, with new money, and subscription packs were set up to hunt smaller areas.
     Many packs were owned by an individual, whether duke, landed gentry or even an innkeeper with pretensions of grandeur. The nineteenth century was termed the heyday of hunting, but it came at a price. With little care for the land or the farmer whose crops they destroyed, enormous fields galloped great distances at a fast and furious pace, since there were no tarmac roads, barbed wire or artificial manures to slow up the chase. The fox-hunting season lasts from November to March, once harvesting is over and the leaves gone from the trees, continuing until the frost is but a memory and farmers ready to sow their fields.

     On the hunting field everyone, within reason, was equal. A farmer could rub shoulders with an earl; a magistrate could take a lead over a bullfinch from the landlord of the village inn. All types, shapes and sizes of horse and pony might be seen. From the squire and his lady, mounted on their quality animals, to reckless young bucks of the nobility on mettlesome blood horses; from farmers on their cobs or draught animals to grooms on steady hacks, the meet was a tapestry of the equine species. Children too young to hunt might attend the meet on the leading rein, mounted on one of the sturdy and sure-footed breeds native to the British Isles. Irish hunters were imported by many a discerning gentleman, for the bone, substance, staying power and scope (jumping prowess) of such an animal was greatly prized.

     Particularly in the fast, galloping country of the English shires, it was often the practice to employ a ‘second horse’. The owner would ride his best horse in the morning, then change to his ‘second horse’, which was fresh, for the remainder of the day. The groom followed the hunt quietly along the lanes and bridle paths until the spare horse was required.

     Packs of foxhounds have existed all over the British Isles for more than three hundred years. Some of the oldest are the Belvoir, the Berkeley, the Cottesmore, the Duke of Beaufort, the Pytchley, and the Quorn. The Pytchley, the Belvoir, the Cottesmore and the Quorn were all founded in the 1770s. The latter three are not only three of the most exclusive hunts, but also possibly the most famous.

     Melton Mowbray, in Leicestershire, is home to these renowned institutions and could be termed the headquarters of fox-hunting. Upwards of three hundred horses were reputed to be stabled in the town during the season, with many a hard hunting gentleman maintaining a string of hunters, since it was possible to hunt six days a week with the various packs. Melton Mowbray was described in a nineteenth century guide as ‘one of the brightest and busiest resorts’ when the wealthy and fashionable sportsmen poured into town. Many of the finest buildings are former clubs and hunting lodges. During the hunting season, these establishments played host to such diverse persons as royalty, high-ranking army officers, eminent politicians, rich young bloods and industrialists. Indeed, the Prince Regent, the Duke of Wellington and Beau Brummell were notable visitors, as were Winston Churchill and Edward VII when he was the Prince of Wales.

     Melton Mowbray is also reputedly the birthplace of the saying ’painting the town red’. Since hard days in the saddle were followed by hard drinking and wild deeds, it is not to be wondered at if the account labelling the eccentric Marquis of Waterford the precipitator of the phrase is accurate. It is said that, in 1837 the Marquis and his cronies celebrated in spectacular style, by rampaging through the winding streets armed with paintbrushes and tins of bright red paint.