‘A way of life’
A thrilling final autumn day with the Tiverton Staghounds shows how deeply ingrained hunting is in this community
AS the evenings draw in and there is a little more time to read, try to get your hands on a copy of Tiverton Staghounds by Richard Lethbridge.
It is full of wonderful personal recollections from people down the ages who hold such passion for deer and hunting. They sing from the heart about an ancient and magnetic lure, which is as compelling today as it was 122 years ago when this pack was established.
Dartmoor, unlike Exmoor, was freed in 1203 by the charter of King John from all rules pertaining to forests. Its people were permitted to bring land into cultivation, make parks and “have hunting of all kinds”.
Not so Exmoor. This landscape, noted in ancient times for its five forests — or chaces, as they were called — is little changed and has, therefore, retained the all-important thriving herd of red deer whose lineage has remained undiluted since pre-civilisation.
Their varied habitat of woody coombes, broad heathfields and bosky dells skirting the moor is as hospitable as ever — as are the farmers who accept their grazing habits with a shrug of the shoulder and a blind eye.
In the late 19th century, deer numbers on Exmoor grew to the extent that they drifted down the Exe Valley and started to make a nuisance of themselves on more fertile farmland. The Devon and Somerset Staghounds were invited to come and hunt this country in an attempt to control numbers. The first recorded meet was in 1882 at Eggesford, where 300 riders turned out.
In 1886, Sir John Heathcoat Amory agreed to keep a pack, known as Sir John Amory’s Staghounds, at Knightshayes Court near Tiverton, to hunt the Devon and Somerset country to the south of the now-defunct Taunton to Barnstaple railway line.
In 1919, the pack was renamed the Tiverton Staghounds.
Since the Hunting Act, this pack operates as a trail-hunt. However, they are always prepared to deal with any deer casualties found during any day.
HOUNDS WORKING WELL
THIS part of Devon and Somerset assumes a halo of romance which, in its autumnal glow, was at its most poignant when we met in
Roger Sexton’s field at Bullaford Cross between South Molton and Bampton for the last day of the autumn season. Both the Devon and Somerset and Quantock Staghounds had already finished so car numbers exceeded 100, which was some sight.
It was at this northern tip of the Tiverton’s country that two hounds, Policeman and Darwin, immediately picked up the trail and galloped down a bank of old pasture out of Wester New Moor. In a flash, they crossed the aforementioned old railway line — a familiar route — and set their compass for Bottreaux Mill. There will be few better experiences than galloping flat-out along that old line in sight of hounds that were working so well.
It was not a day for coffee housing. Thankfully, Vicky and Dave Snell, who farm the other side of the North Devon Link Road from Knowstone, gave me a first-class resume of who was who during the meet.
The speed with which these two hounds set about their work left me with little time to work out who was best to follow. Dave had disappeared into the ether.
John Quick, a well-known face at the Eggesford, took me under his wing and I was soon made to feel very welcome by
Rob Clements and his so-called friends, who spent the day teasing and threatening to set him up on Tinder.
These included Dave Snell’s brother Peter; Thomas Elliott, previously master and huntsman at the Stevenstone; East Devon master Shaun Carter, and Ben Wilson, who can be found in his mechanical workshop when not hunting.
Jimmer Blake’s name featured on a regular basis during the day, but I didn’t meet him face to face. His father, Stafford, one of the joint-masters, was not difficult to miss. Stafford’s enthusiasm for this sport is legendary. He reminded me of Percy, one of four Yandle brothers involved with these hounds between the wars. Percy was renowned as quite excitable and vocal during a day’s sport. It was obvious Stafford was as mesmerised by hunting as were the Yandle brothers.
On leaving Yeo Mill, Policeman and Darwin crossed through the woods to Churchtown Farm, West Anstey. There was a pause above the churchyard. It transpired Policeman and Darwin were a little behind and had lost the line temporarily.
At this point, huntsman Andrew Herniman was also a bit behind, having more country to cover than us to catch up, so Steve Cole took hounds to a far hedge where he knew the trail had been laid. They jumped up and over the wire, on to the Devon bank, through the thorns and spoke.
“We call Steve our own two-legged tufter. He’s forgotten more about Exmoor and its ways than most people think they ever knew,” said Ben.
With that, we set off with hounds running the valley below us. We weaved through lines of cars where a succession of hands came out of drivers’ windows to pull in wing mirrors as we cantered past.
It wasn’t long before we passed through the gate beside the cattle grid on to East Anstey Common. Good going and well-hung gates helped our progress. It was soon obvious we were heading for the Barle Valley.
PASSION AND EXHILARATION
AS we came off the common, I glanced to my left and caught sight of a small herd of deer on the fringes of a copse the other side of the goyle. Poised, they tested the air. And then, as one, they rounded the top corner with an ease and grace that belies the speed at which these deer cross this country; their rhythm is relentless despite so many changes in terrain. This is a species welded to its landscape.
We dropped into the vast wood and travelled its tracks for some while, before bursting out onto the skyline into a field emerald green with an autumn flush of grass. Silence descended.
We moved along onto a bank looking out across to Slade Goyle. After a few minutes, four hinds casually broke cover to jog away into some ferns. Not a word was
spoken as we followed Policeman’s deep voice up through the wood. We strained to hear if he would stay true to the line.
Suddenly Bonny — otherwise known as whipper-in Mark Langford — lifted his arm and pointed across the valley to a small paddock adjacent to the wood’s edge below a white cottage.
And there, out in the open, were Policeman and Darwin. But only for a moment; they changed tack and were soon swallowed up yet again by the wood. We followed their progress back down to the river by their music, which had taken on a clearer tone as if filtered by the trees.
We turned tail and galloped back into a wall of copper and red leaves. Beech trees bordered steep and stony rides; raindrops splashed loudly through them as the heavens opened. Steam rose from our horses and it felt as though the water sizzled as it hit my hot cheeks.
Charging down the track, we weaved in and out of quad bikes and a few 4x4s. Down at the edge of Danes Brook, the floor was carpeted in gold while above, other leaves — still green — clung on. As if blindfolded, we could hear but not see Andrew blowing on hounds on the opposite bank. We turned tail and raced to a crossing.
Stafford was already there in a high state of excitement as he explained to Andrew where hounds should cross the river. Lucy Harrison was highly relieved to find him; her horse had pulled off a shoe so she was hoping he might nail it back on.
“Hammer and nails are in the truck — help yourself,” was the last I heard as we dashed on.
Crossing the river, we climbed a bank and stopped. There was Darwin on the track pondering the true line. Such was his concentration, he paid no attention to our intrusion; he never lifted his head. He worked the line back and forth across the track through the horse’s legs. Every time he lost the scent, he went back to the exact same place on a moss-covered branch lying on the floor and started again.
Finally, he found a spot on the track where he could hold the line and take it forward. Without lifting his head, he set off down the track. We followed behind to eventually cross the road above Marsh Bridge and meet up with other members of the field. Lisa Sampson very kindly shared her hip flask and introduced me to her brother, Paul Heard, and friend, Julia Slade.
Not long after the day concluded, Peter Snell’s phone told us we had travelled 18 miles from the meet — including a fair hack back to Five Cross Ways where foot-followers kindly held horses and a convoy of cars drove us six miles back to our boxes.
Years ago, when it was possible to hunt this country with a full pack of hounds, their music was a joy to follow. It continues to serve as a reminder of the passion and exhilaration still felt on Exmoor for a way of life which has fashioned these people for centuries.
Teamwork: huntsman Andrew Herniman and his hounds
Steven Cole ‘has forgotten more about Exmoor than most people think they ever knew’
From left: Stuart Govier, Lisa Sampson and Paul Heard watch the hounds at work from a vantage point
Whipper-in Mark (Bonny) Langford with his partner, Chloe Campbell, and their daughter, Olivia Langford
Jimmer Blake is a well-known face with the Tiverton Staghounds, and his father, Stafford, is one of the joint-masters
Vicky Snell is still smiling at the end of a fast-paced day
Phillip Snell (left) and Debbie Aplin trot smartly along the lanes
There is a huge number of foot-followers in attendance
From left: East Devon master Shaun Carter, Rob Clements and former Stevenstone huntsman Thomas Elliott
Jack Ashton is the lucky raffle winner of a bottle of port at the meet