A hunting haven
The South Durham’s passion for hunting is thriving in this rural idyll sandwiched by cities, thanks to a re-established pack of hounds and serious horsemen at the helm
IF someone asked you to name the famous hunting counties of England, you probably wouldn’t come up with Co. Durham, but rampant industrialisation and a dubious connection with Tony Blair has done nothing to dampen sporting passions here.
It is a fantastic irony that the village of Sedgefield, in the heart of Blair’s former constituency, is a nucleus for all hunt-related activity in the area in the way that Tetbury is to the Beaufort or Exford to the Exmoor. The South Durham hounds are kennelled outside the village, the opening meet is hosted by the Dun Cow in the high street, a session of autumn trail-hunting commences at the racecourse (hounds draw the spinney in the centre of the course) and the rugby club is a popular hangout for hunt
members. During the summer the South Durham hounds parade at the annual Sedgefield Show and local farmers gather in the hunt-run hospitality tent. Tony Blair lived in the neighbouring pit village of Trimdon and hunt mythology recalls that there was an earth in his garden and the fox ran there repeatedly in the 1990s.
ROUGHLY 16 miles square, it is centred on Sedgefield and goes as far as River Wear in the north, Middleton St George in the south. The far horizon may hold big chimneys and scudding traffic at most points in the day — the A1, A19, A689 and the mainline railway all slice through the country — but the patches that they hunt are perfectly formed, offering a lowland hunting ideal.
The area south of Sedgefield is the South Durham’s prized bit, characterised by large fields, albeit mostly arable, plentiful hunt jumps, jumpable hedges where you can take your own line and sizeable thick-bottomed coverts at regular intervals. This is where they head on opening meet day and invariably field masters Andrew Moralea and Freddie Crawford have carte blanche to take their pick across the cream of the country.
Despite being sandwiched on all sides by roads or cities, the area feels surprisingly rural. There is barely any traffic as we drive around, just one farmer, John Johnson, in his tractor, who calls up a couple of minutes later to
tell joint-master and huntsman Gareth Watchman to drive wherever he wants over the farm. Gareth explains that although many of the farmers in this part of the country do not hunt, they invariably bend over backwards to accommodate the hounds and have done so for generations.
GARETH is in his fourth season as master of the South Durham and his sixth season as huntsman. He is not to be confused with his father, Gary Watchman, who was master of the South Durham for 10 seasons and who retired at the end of last season. Gareth admits that his father was sometimes a controversial figure in the South Durham hunt (he was one of those people for whom “it is my way or the highway”,
‘I used to be into biking, until a friend brought
CHAIRMAN BARRY JOHNSON
he says at one point) but the relationships he built with the farmers were second to none and Gareth is benefiting hugely from all the work his father put in.
“The continuity helps,” he says. “I grew up in the country and people have known me since I was a child.”
From the age of 12, Gareth was down at the kennels helping out whenever he could. In his first season as huntsman he was helped by Adrian Smith, who had been kennel-huntsman to the Ampleforth Beagles and from whom he learned a lot about kennel management and veterinary care of hounds.
Hunting with David Jukes at the Zetland and Philip Watts at the York and Ainsty North provided an insight into hunting the hounds. Gareth mentions that David Jukes has been very generous in helping him with queries all the way through.
Gareth was a showjumper up to international level before he started hunting hounds and latterly produced showjumpers. His ability to cross the country has helped enormously in a place where the hazards are big and close together.
“It is no use jumping into a field unless you know you can jump out the other side,” he notes.
Of his four horses, three are ex-showjumpers and he says being able to lay up with the hounds has improved the sport.
“Previous huntsmen here stopped them all the time because once they had gone, there was too much of a risk of them meeting the road or railway,” he explains.
Gareth has two similarly able riders (both in their early 20s) as his amateur whippersin: Ross Crawford, and Robbie Stephenson, whose grandfather Arthur Stephenson was a famous trainer, who trained winners of the Gold Cup and the Scottish and Welsh Grand Nationals.
Gareth’s only joint-master is John Wade, a respected racehorse trainer who has been master since 2010 as well as enjoying a stint as master in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Local businessman Barry Johnson is chairman, having started hunting in 2010.
“I used to be into trail-biking,” he says, “then a friend brought me hunting and I never looked back.”
Barry’s business brain is focused on raising money for the hunt. They have 35 subscribers, around seven of whom are farmers, and their main fundraiser is the annual hunt ball, which attracts anything from 400 to 600 people. Expect to find
fields of 20 to 25 on Wednesdays and 30 to 35 on their Saturdays.
Jilly Rose, the stud groom, is a financial advisor outside the hunting season and provides good back-up with the hounds when required.
Hunt secretary Laura Wilkinson is a teacher married to Rob Wilkinson, who farms in the country. Foot follower Pete Young has hunted with the South Durham for 17 seasons. He is very involved in fundraising for the hunt and never misses a Saturday throughout the season with his wife Sarah and children Finley and Poppy.
“As a hunt we like to include children by including them in the puppy show and taking the hounds to various shows in the area,” says Pete. “It is important that the next generation learns about us and we bring that tradition through.”
WHEN Gareth took over the breeding of the hounds in 2011 few records had been kept, apart from some scraps of paper in a desk providing a rough guide to what had been going on. Gareth’s remedy was to replace most of the existing pack with drafts from the York and Ainsty North, Middleton and Zetland.
Gareth says: “I am extremely grateful to the masters of all three of those hunts for helping me re-establish the pack. Often drafts come your way because they are second draw but pretty much all of the ones that arrived were a huge improvement on what was already here.”
When he looked further into the pedigrees of the hounds that arrived, he discovered that a significant number of the ones he liked best had lines going back to College Valley Governor 95 and he has continued to use the College Valley “G” line as a dominant line in the kennel.
Gareth observes: “They were consistently low-scenting but the main thing for me was drive.”
Through the Zetland drafts he was able to find blood going back to South Durham Filbert 96 and thereby reinstating some original South Durham blood in the kennel.
Gareth showed a calm authority as we went around the kennels and the hounds seemed relaxed and happy. He had a good-looking collection of puppies which had come back from walk, suggesting that his renewal of the breeding programme is paying dividends.
Gareth says the breeding of the hounds has had its ups and downs: “Ideally we need between five-and-a-half and seven-anda-half couple of puppies per season but we either seem to get too many or too few. In 2015 we lost a bitch, Farthing, while she was giving birth but we fostered her four remaining puppies on to a whippet and, incredibly, they survived and are now in their third season.”
Gareth currently has 141∕2 doghounds in the kennels, 15 couple of bitches — 291∕2 couple in total.
IN the late 1880s there was some vintage sport for the South Durham, culminating in the season of 1881-82. A notable run is recorded in Ralph Lambton’s History of the South Durham and provides a window on a time when hunting was far more hard-core than it is today.
Ralph Lambton recalls that a fox was found at Thorpe in a rough grain field at quarter to 12 and run to ground under a road below Great Stainton when it was getting dark, about half a mile from where it had commenced. The hunt was recorded as an eight-mile point but many more as hounds ran and there were several casualties: one member of the hunt, John Bevans, came to grief when his horse shied at a steam engine at a railway crossing (the modern world was encroaching even then), several horses lay down during the run said to be “momentarily exhausted in the heavy going” and one broke its back.
A master at the time, John Harvey, was a renowned character. He was a tea merchant from Newcastle who had hunted since he was a boy. If you feel tired driving home at the end of a long day in the saddle, spare him a thought. Ralph Lambton documents that he would hack nearly 30 miles from Newcastle, change to his hunter at the Hardwick Arms in Sedgefield, hunt all day, have dinner and hack home at night.
Field master and amateur whipper-in Ross Crawford
South Durham hounds in their lodge with Gareth Watchman, huntsman and joint-master for the past four seasons Left to right: Alex Moorhouse, stud groom Jilly Rose and Katrina Toni-Simpson
Gareth does a spot of early-morning valeting at the kennels
All in a day’s work: Gareth washing down in kennels before autumn hunting
Gareth, a former showjumper, grew up in the South Durham country
The next generation: Thomas Howey, aged eight, follows on foot