Following Nimrod over the Elysian fields
The High Leicestershire country of the Cottesmore is as thrilling as ever, but the hunt must look to the future, finds Rupert Uloth
Hounds aren’t strictly running, more moving quickly between coverts, but there’s a large hedge in the way. It would be reasonably easy to go around by the gate, but that’s not the Leicestershire way. I only just have time to compute this and gather my reins before Cottesmore field master and joint-master nicholas Leeming quietly eases his mount into a good canter inexorably towards one of the natural obstacles that have made this county synonymous with the Chase for more than three centuries.
My trusty first mount, Frosty (yes, you still need two horses a day here), a kindly and enthusiastic grey hired from the livery empire of ollie and Rachel Finnegan, is alert to the cause. Throughout the day, he’s happy to give it his all, including, alas, when we don’t get it quite right at a five barred post and rails.
on that occasion, my aspiration combined with Frosty’s considerable momentum to reduce this work of rural art to a splintered heap. unless you treat these field boundaries with respect, you will as likely end up in the ditches they border. I managed—just— to retain my seat, if not quite my dignity.
drive up the M1 or take the train to nottingham, and you might not be particularly beguiled by what seems to be the modest contours of an East Midlands county. It’s from the back of a horse that you fully appreciate its beauty and subtlety; only then does one understand the term High Leicestershire, conjuring, for a hunting person, images of hounds and horses streaming across grass fields, leaping well-maintained hedges and brooks and waiting expectantly beside perfectly formed coverts.
Great sporting artists such as Lionel Edwards, Cecil Aldin and John Ferneley used this landscape as their ultimate sporting canvas. ‘When I first came here, I thought I’d arrived in a snaffles painting,’ remarks
joint-master and amateur huntsman Andrew Osborne. Referring to the painter whose most famous work is arguably The Finest
View in Europe, I would agree that it’s remarkably similar to the one I’m looking at between Frosty’s grey ears.
Those hunts lucky enough to have some part of their country in Leicestershire came to be known as the ‘shire’ packs. It’s why the Lonsdale family trekked all the way with a pack of foxhounds from Lowther Castle in modern-day Cumbria to this Elysium of venery more than 350 years ago. The hunt establishment then was a huntsman, six whippers-in and two cooks. The importance of food continues to be a theme: we’re well nourished at the meet that I join near Owston, where our generous hosts, the Reason family, ply us with copious amounts of Port, sausage rolls and fruitcake.
Such a reputation was established that, by the 19th century, the most famous hunting correspondent of them all, Charles James Apperley, better known as Nimrod, said: ‘If I were given my choice of a place to live in, and a pack to hunt with, I would say, let me live near Oakham and hunt with the Cottesmore every day they are out.’ Nearly 200 years later, he would probably express the same sentiments, although someone would have to explain to him the presence of the magnificent golden eagle, there
Nimrod said: “Let me live near Oakham and hunt with the Cottesmore every day they are out”
under the terms of the Hunting Act 2004, in which use of a bird of prey is permitted.
Thankfully, what is now called ‘the playground’ remains, with its legendary coverts, such as Lady Wood and Wilson’s. Whenever land comes up for sale, keen hunters make sure that they buy it to preserve the acres of ancient turf and the tradition remains of helpful farmers removing stock wire in readiness for the season. This is, primarily, hunt country: nearly everyone who lives on the land here is emotionally invested in it.
This is why it still draws characters prepared to test themselves. An Irish doctor flies in from Dublin every week—he keeps two hunters at livery locally—and Essex pawnbroker Richard Hunnisett is still hunting three seasons after he broke his neck. It’s also why Bee Bell, who owns a prep school, gave up being the full-time headmistress so she could hunt three times a week ‘before it’s too late’. The pupils are still allowed a day off ‘if they have a meet at home’.
There’s a group called Ladies Who Hunt, who usually number six or seven and come out with a ‘minder’ to ensure none of them gets lost or into trouble. And it’s wonderful to behold Bruce Mckim on a Suffolk Punch stallion enjoying his day as much as those on sleek, athletic hunters. ‘I’ve done everything you’ve done and he’s certainly got stamina,’ he explains, patting his gentle
giant on the neck. Soldiers and officers from the Household Cavalry continue to hone their riding skills here: a young lancecorporal from The Life Guards tells me at the meet that, although he was brought up in Australia, he was determined to join his grandfather’s old regiment and only learnt to ride when he joined.
This being a Tuesday, we’re in the cream of the country. After Alma Bank, we draw Knossington Spinney and then Jubilee, a new covert of thickening thorn trees planted to mark 50 years of The Queen’s reign. Changing horses after a busy morning, I quickly acquaint myself with Black Charlie and, soon, he’s traversing a large ditch with boldness and certainly more successfully than someone just behind us.
We find in Gossage’s, named after a previous long-serving hunt secretary, and the trail takes us to Piccadilly, where we’re foiled by the best efforts of the Water Board, which has brought in heavy machinery for some remedial work by a small stream, but hounds are able to pick up another scent and it’s only when the light fails that home is blown.
It’s remarkable that the Cottesmore is able to hunt three days a week in what is becoming an increasingly testing environment. Countrywide, packs are facing the consequences of rising housing demand, as well as the resulting new roads. Rising costs are also a factor.
It’s ironic, however, that, in many cases, the greatest challenge comes from another country pursuit: there’s now far more shooting than 10 years ago and Benjamin Mancroft, chairman of the Council of Hunting Associations and of the Masters of Foxhounds Association (MFHA), says it’s the ‘single biggest threat to hunting’.
As a result, the Cottesmore’s neighbouring pack, the Quorn, needs to reduce to two days a week. ‘It’s always survived on subscribers from outside the county bringing their horses up to Leicestershire to hunt and
these travelling foxhunters no longer really exist,’ explains Lord Mancroft.
Indeed, 200 years ago, young bucks from aristocratic families would whoop it up in Melton Mowbray at night, earning the sobriquet ‘the Meltonians’. The expression ‘to paint the town red’ was coined after a particularly exuberant evening in 1837 resulted in many of the buildings in the town being daubed in scarlet paint. Now, things are looking rather black.
Reputations die hard and landowners in the Cottesmore country may be queasy about outsiders gallivanting across their land, but a merged hunt, whatever it might be called— both names, resonant as they are with history and borne with pride, would have to be used, surely, but in which order?—would have many advantages. Using one kennels would save money and a subscriber would have a four-day-a-week pack over two of Britain’s greatest hunting countries. These are not the only packs that must re-evaluate their borders for the sake of economy and efficiency.
A recent vote resulted in Quorn subscribers and landowners voting overwhelmingly to merge with the Cottesmore, but the latter equivalents resisted the move, perhaps reflecting their immediate situations—the Cottesmore is solvent and well-supported for the moment. The question is, how long will that last and what will the Quorn do instead?
Most hunts work on a parochial level, but now may be the time for everyone to stand together to forge a new future for the sport. Hunting is entering a new era and the MFHA is urging a healthy reboot of old structures to reflect a practical age. We don’t want a lack of vision to allow the finest views in Europe to be abandoned to intensive farming, housing and shooting.
This is, primarily, hunt country: nearly everyone who lives on the land here is emotionally invested in it
Nothing like giving it some air: Tim Hercock, fomer master of the Quorn, flies a hunt jump
Above: The meet—and some interested cattle. Left: Foot followers are as knowledgeable as anyone on horseback. Below: Huntsman Andrew Osborne with fianceé Sallyanne Brooksbank. Below right: Sallyanne takes to four wheels after a mishap
Above: Members of the Household Cavalry and King’s Troop visit to sharpen their riding skills—and their courage. Below: Amateur whipper-in and eventer Angus Smailes
Hacking home at dusk: to ensure such blood-tingling scenes continue, hunts of all sizes must look to the future and evolve