The RS Surtees Society heads north
Though not too far north, on this occasion, with the Duke of Beaufort’s country hosting the acolytes of the great Victorian sporting novelist
Frank Houghton Brown joins the Society on its Northern Trip
Robert Smith Surtees was the driving force behind the founding of The Field in 1853. More than 160 years later, the Robert Smith Surtees Society, as eccentric and indomitable as their hero, remain devoted to the man who gave us that hilarious sporting grocer, Mr Jorrocks. To celebrate Surtees’ legacy, they organise three commemorative events annually, one of which is The Northern Trip – an opportunity to hunt with different packs up and down the country. At the end of this year’s action-packed weekend at Badminton House in February, members were ushered out through the front door to pose for a photograph on the steps. As we did, I couldn’t help casting my mind back to the speech at the Goose and Dumpling Dinner the night before: “Given that the current Duke is a member [of the Surtees Society], and is kindly allowing us to go round Badminton, you may be remembering Hillingdon Hall, where Mr Jorrocks is in conversation with the Duke of Donkeyton:
‘Pray, Mr Jorrocks, who was your mother?’ inquired his Grace, after he had bowed and drunk of his wine.
‘Please your Greece, my mother was a washerwoman.’
‘A washerwoman indeed!’ exclaimed his Grace – ‘That’s very odd – I like washerwomen – nice, clean, wholesome people – I wish my mother had been a washerwoman.’
‘I vish mine had been a Duchess,’ replied Mr Jorrocks.”
The Society’s “Northern Trip” was started by chairman Rob Williams, who took over from Lady Pickthorn in 2011. Since Surtees was born at Hamsterley Hall, County Durham, in the Braes of Derwent hunt country, the first tours were to his birthplace to meet at the house where, briefly, he kennelled his own pack. Last year, it moved to Sir Humphrey Wakefield’s Chillingham Castle in the Percy hunt country. Sir Humphrey, a committee member, has one of the few private homes in England that has a single table long enough to seat the whole society for the Goose and Dumpling dinner. This year, because of its unforgettable role in the Surtees novel, the Cat & Custard Pot Inn at Shipton Moyne in the Duke of Beaufort’s hunt country was the focal point.
scene for the meet
The eponymous public house in Surtees’ famous novel, Handley Cross, was the scene for the meet at which Mr Jorrocks’ huntsman, James Pigg, is rather unkindly made rip-roaringly drunk. Our programme for the weekend had on it that familiar greeting: “Pigg and Ben trotted on with hounds, and when they reached the meet – the sign of The Cat & Custard Pot on Muswell Road – they found a great assemblage, some of whom greeted Pigg with the familiar enquiry ‘What he’d have to drink’.” Pigg was summarily fired, leaving John Jorrocks to hunt the hounds himself. When the fox was all but lost, Pigg was seen on Camperdown Hill, “a Wellington-statue-like equestrian with his cap in the air, waving and shouting for hard life.” Thanks to Pigg, the hunted fox was brought to book and due to “the ecstasy of the moment” his master, Mr Jorrocks, reemploys him on the spot.
Rupert Boswall was seated at the Friday evening dinner at the Cat & Custard Pot armed with an 1854 edition of Handley Cross, given by the Master of the buckhounds in 1867 from the Royal kennels, Ascot, in Jorrocks country. Captain Ian Farquhar, the
Senior Master of the host pack, the Duke of Beaufort’s, and his wife, Pammie-jane, both came along for dinner with Michael Cunningham, who was staying with them from the Flint & Denbigh. There had been a hard frost on Thursday night and Captain Farquhar suggested that it was likely the meet the next day at Easton Grey House would be delayed until 12 noon and would be a one-horse day only. Hearing this, Johnny Sumption, who had brought two horses up from the Taunton Vale country with his wife, Henrietta, offered Rob Williams his second horse there and then, the chairman having lamed his a few days before. After a few phone calls, Charles Stirling, a committee member of the Society and an ex-amateur huntsman himself, agreed to bring Williams some hunting kit in the morning in the hope it would fit.
The Holford Arms, run by the Senior Joint Master’s daughter, Victoria Farquhar, was the comfortable resting place for the majority of Surteesians, but John Doble, former high commissioner to Swaziland, and his wife, Sue, were billeting with Simon Tomlinson as they were at university together and both Masters of the Oxford drag hunt. Captain Peter Jones-davies had travelled down from Hexhamshire in Northumberland with Belinda Speir and had taken over his son’s house for the weekend and commandeered his horses as well. Carolyn Humphrey, hound trustee and former Master of the Hursley Hambledon in Hampshire, was staying with Beaufort Hunt chairman Bobby Faber, while Alastair Martin, CEO of the Duchy of Cornwall, with his wife, Esme, and daughter, Poppy, had rented a cottage for the weekend from the Highgrove estate.
The Cat & Custard Pot produced a hearty breakfast for all-comers on Saturday morning and the meet was postponed as suggested the previous evening. Matt Ramsden, the new young Joint Master and amateur huntsman, brought the Beaufort hounds to the front of Michael and Tessa Green’s Easton Grey House at 12 noon and with the frost twinkling in the sunlight of a bright but no doubt poor scenting morning; it looked more like an outdoor extravaganza than a meet. Anya Pardoe, a hound trustee of the Wilton Hunt near Salisbury, soon cadged a lift on Frank the fence-mender’s quad bike and was better positioned than anyone else all day.
The frost slowly eased its way out of the ground and the slippery conditions underfoot made following the trail difficult as they drew out to Pinkney and through Vi’s Bottom, a thick covert planted in the bottom of a small valley by Vi Kingscote, whose husband, Captain Maurice Kingscote, hunted both the Beaufort and the Meynell hounds. Mrs Caryl Cross now owns the covert and her daughter, B, was ubiquitous during the weekend in many different roles. Meanwhile, the Society cameraman, Richard Kay, who had never seen hounds before but had been told to “dress to blend in”, was trying to stay with them in camouflage fatigues. This caused deep suspicion among the hunt quad bikes, on a day when antis had to be politely escorted from Simon Tomlinson’s farm by his daughter, Emma. Safely back at the Holford Arms, Kay reported that the Beaufort countrymen’s affection for Victorian hunting literature was “at best lukewarm”.
Hounds were busy in the wetlands and from Simon Murray Wells’ Pond Farm, and a busy day finished in the beautiful surrounds of the historic Estcourt Park, where the Beaufort bitch pack followed the trail with a great cry around the grass parkland and away towards Tetbury. Alastair Martin, who, among other things, was chairman of the Mendip Farmers Hunt, commented afterwards that Rob Williams had come “with no kit, eventually sourcing all from an ailing foxhunter half his size and setting off with an aplomb that our hero, Jorrocks, would have been proud of. In fact, the whole thing was rather Surteesian.”
The daylight was drawing out and with a late finish, not much time to change into white tie and tails before the Goose and Dumpling Dinner at Chavenage House, the Lowsley-williams’ home and setting for the Poldark TV series, where we again found B Cross there to help. “There are two things in the world that there is seldom any mistake about,” Surtees writes in Hawbuck
He sourced his kit from a foxhunter half his size and set off with an aplomb Jorrocks would have been proud of
Grange, “the smell of a fox and the smell of roast goose”.
Mr Trumper’s harriers are called “The Goose and Dumpling Hunt” because they dine on goose and apple pudding at each other’s houses after the first day’s hunting in each week. They had, according to Surtees, “fully satisfied themselves that they are the finest, heartiest cocks in the kingdom, and their hounds the best that ever were seen”.
Lord and Lady Cope of Berkeley and local MP James Gray and his wife, Philippa, are members who just came to the dinner, while Benoit Guerin drove down from Yorkshire for the festivities, being about to join the mastership of the Ampleforth beagles as they move back to the College grounds in the valley at Ampleforth after an absence of some years.
A late night at Chavenage was followed by an early breakfast and a tour of the gardens at Highgrove, arranged by Alastair Martin. A quick turnaround and a Book of Common Prayer church service at Little Badminton, with a visit to the Badminton kennels to follow. There, Captain Farquhar and Matt Ramsden played off each other like a well-rehearsed double act as they espoused the virtues of the Welsh outcross. At one point, the Captain mentioned that he had not wanted too much Welsh blood in the pack. This was too much for septuagenarian Llanishen solicitor Huw James. Normally the quietest member of the visiting Surteesians, he opened from the back of the pack: “And what’s wrong with too much Welsh blood?” Kennel huntsman Nick Hopkins showed us a wide spectrum of hounds with great aplomb and, for many, this was the highlight of the trip.
A huge roast lunch at Victoria Farquhar’s pub preceded our final fling: the tour of Badminton House. “Only the Society could get two canons at the side door of a ducal residence,” quipped the chairman as the Reverend Canon Mulholland greeted society member the Reverend Canon John Fellows. This was immediately crowned by our guide, who shot back: “And these two canons have both been recently fired”.
Like a top hound that’s in it from the find to the finish, B Cross had been our host at Vi’s Bottom covert, our waitress at Chavenage and here she was again, helping the good Reverend show us round the house and pointing out the room where the game of Badminton was invented when the weather was too inclement to play games outside.
As we separated for another year to our cars and homes up and down the country, I overheard a comment that summed up the feeling: “Only the Surtees Society would put several couple of ex-mfhs, a serving MP, Reverend Canons of the Church, a Surgeon Commander of the Royal Navy, the former High Commissioner of Swaziland, the CEO of the Duchy of Cornwall, John Major’s chief whip and Captain Farquhar in the same place for a whole weekend”.
Only the Society could get two canons at the side door of a ducal residence
Matt Ramsden, Master and huntsman of the Duke of Beaufort’s, who led the field for the RS Surtees Society’s day
Above: hounds – with not too much Welsh blood – at the Duke of Beaufort’s kennels at Badminton. Above right: Captain Ian Farquhar MFH showing the RS Surtees Society round. Right: placard at Badminton House
Above and top: attending a service at St Michael and All Angels, Little Badminton. Top right: scene of the Goose and Dumpling Dinner. Right: the Society with the Reverend Canon Mulholland