Despite one of the worst scenting days, the Taunton Vale provides one of the most welcoming opening meets
Taunton Vale, the Quorn and the Kimblewick
IF any pack of foxhounds can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, it’s the Taunton Vale. Despite one of the worst scenting days I have ever experienced, this pack’s joie de vivre kept the ball rolling from beginning to end.
Bright sunshine made for a fine opening meet but scant scent. We were generously entertained at Jordans — just off the A303 roundabout at Ilminster in Somerset — by Christopher and Caroline Speke. The house was demolished in 1964 but the family’s legacy was assured by John Hanning Speke’s discovery, in 1858, of the source of the Nile: Lake Victoria in Uganda.
Nigh on 60 horses made for an impressive sight in beautiful parkland. Almost lost below the tideline was the future of our sport. It was the first day for three-year old Poppy Young, mute
with excitement, out on a pony which, in its 32 years, had seen more sport than all the hunters snorting and prancing around it. Poppy’s mother Lucy, a wellknown thruster, was bursting with pride as seven-year-old son Archie watched over his sister.
Another making his debut and ensuring this was the third generation of Alers-Hankey to grace the hunting field was Arthur. At seven years old, Arthur was a little more willing to share his thoughts on the day ahead. Uppermost was the concern his pony might be too tired for twin brother Tristan to enjoy a day with the Tiverton foxhounds the following day.
I have a feeling father Dom was praying there were no unintentional dismounts to dirty great-great-uncle General
Sir Kenneth Darling’s riding clothes — tailored in 1911 but modelled with tremendous flourish by Arthur on his first foray into the hunting field.
Unfortunately, Guy Landau, joint-master and amateur huntsman for the past four seasons, was giving a reading at the funeral of David Barker, former international showjumper and huntsman of the Meynell and South Staffordshire. Kennelhuntsman Dan Hammett was therefore carrying the horn here for the first full day’s sport.
Ben Lowe, stationed here last season but now hunting hounds at the South Tetcott, returned for the day to help out alongside amateur whipper-in Charles Pearce.
IT was obvious hounds and Dan had a wonderful rapport but, once on the move, it was clear the pack were in for a trying day. Excellent teamwork between the mastership and hunt staff ensured those following crossed the vale in some style.
Today, even on breast-high scent, this would not be the easiest of countries to hunt. The days of vale carpeted in unending old turf are glorious memories. A strong trade for protein-based feed, driven by the rapidly expanding affluent Chinese population, continues to push livestock farming to the less fertile fringes of our landscape.
So, in this country where fields tend to be smaller than countries such as the Wynnstay, hounds hunt a fickle scent hinging on an ever-changing variety of crops historically found on vast arable estates.
Throw into the mix pockets of woodland, which thankfully still have a foothold here — as well as this vale’s notorious rhynes and ditches swaddled in blackthorn hedges — and you know a huntsman has to be on the ball and use every tool in his box of venery to help hounds provide uninterrupted sport.
It’s common practice here to jink between flying a hedge to clearing rails and gates or scrambling over or through the type of Irish ditches often viewed
by adrenalin junkies on Facebook videos, and then ducking and weaving through small copses. Your horse’s brain needs to be sharp enough to allow it to change tack quickly on landing if you are to keep with Hedley Webb, our field master.
A GRAND JOB
HE did a grand job keeping the adrenalin flowing all day. The field was in constant contact with hounds and we barely touched tarmac. Hats off to David Lowes, Dom Schneiders, the Clarkson family and Graham Pellow, who have volunteered and helped the mastership and hunt staff continue to open up the country.
This summer, there has been a huge drive to put in yet more hunt jumps and trim back some of the more imposing hedges to allow as many as possible to cross hunt country in proper fashion.
Not long after we left the meet, there were a couple of horrendous falls. The first was Simon Oliver, former master of the VWH. His horse fell into a badger sett on a headland and did a complete somersault with Simon. It was terrifying for his wife Emma to watch. Countryman Tom Leary took a slightly confused Simon to his box on the quad bike while Charlotte Rowe rode back Simon’s horse — plastered in mud but seemingly unscathed.
As 17-year old Annabel Duman’s pony spun yet again towards a hunt jump and straightened itself just a stride away, Mark Ansell and I commented on what a good jockey she was and how she would flourish under the experienced eye of point-to-point trainers Ed and Polly Walker, where she has just started working.
But, as is the way with this sport, within five minutes she was prone on the tarmac at Ilton airfield. Hounds had just spoken for the first time and everyone was
keen to make the most of their music; her horse slipped on the airstrip and tipped up. Thankfully Annabel was OK, if not a little shocked, and showed her true colours by being more concerned about her horse’s welfare than her own.
ONE GREAT FAMILY
THE beauty of the hunting community is no one is ever left to cope with any calamity on their
‘I shall never give up my efforts
to keep this sport going’
VICE-CHAIRMAN DAVID LOWES
own; we’re all pretty useful in a crisis. So it goes without saying Annabel was immediately under the watchful eye of Ellie Wass, her “hunting mum”, and hunt nurse Eleanor Pugh.
How Eleanor appeared on the scene so quickly is still a mystery to me. Usually she is a permanent fixture on her coloured horse, but today she had given up the ride to daughter Lizzie, a primary school teacher in Germany, enjoying some fresh air over half-term.
Another who had come home to roost temporarily was Ali Hawkes, in her first season as stud groom at the Devon and Somerset Staghounds — resting for a few days before switching to hinds.
This is one great family. I hadn’t hunted here since January 2017 and yet it felt as though I had visited just the previous Friday. The warmth and familiarity of the masters’ welcome was overwhelming. Their banter and crack were the main reasons I took out a subscription previously and nothing had changed.
“When this team of masters was elected four seasons ago, I predicted there would soon be a huge smile on everyone’s face,” said vice-chairman David Lowes, who continues to use his great intellectual insight tirelessly behind the scenes on our behalf.
“I shall never forget the look on Annabel Duman’s face when she jumped her first hedge as a little girl. I knew she was hooked on hunting from then on. As long as that keeps happening, I shall never give up in my efforts to keep this sport going.
“There is no community like it. Where else would you find such spirit despite all that has been thrown its way?”
Joint-master Matt Wilkes clears one the country’s hedges in fine style
Poppy Young, three, aboard 32-year-old Ladybird and assisted by her brother Archie Young, seven, on her first day’s hunting
Kennel-huntsman Dan Hammett hunts hounds in Guy Landau’s absence
Emily Rawlins is immaculately turned out for the opening meet
Charlotte Long and Molly Landau make the most of the open country
Team chaser Petra Bryan-Brown with her daughter, Alice
Katy Berry confidently sails over one of the day’s hedges
From left: Rebecca Jordan, Elizabeth Pugh and Jenny Parsons
From left: whipper-in Charlie Pearce with joint-masters Mark Heuff and Poey Vacher, andwhipper-in Ben Lowe
Joint-master Hedley Webb clears a rail into woodland
Joint-master Tony Berry (left) and Johnny Sumption catch up