Cottesmore joint-master Julia Hallam-Seagrave
The Fitzwilliam is one of the oldest packs in the country and its opening meet, although a little lacking in scent, turns out to be a very jolly affair
ENTERING “Peterborough” into the sat nav is usually reserved for the annual visit to the Royal Foxhound Show at the East of England Showground. However, the Fitzwilliam’s opening meet on the outskirts of the town was as equally highly anticipated. Held every year in front of the magnificent Milton Hall on the first Wednesday in November, it was very well-supported by both those mounted and those on foot, with a palpable buzz at the meet.
Senior master Sir Philip Naylor-Leyland welcomed us all before holding a minute’s silence in memory of Fred Roughton, a former terrierman and great stalwart of the pack who had recently passed away. Rather
fittingly, as is customary at this time of the year, everyone without exception was wearing a poppy in their lapel in memory of those who gave their lives for their country during the Great War.
Huntsman Simon Hunter, in his third season carrying the horn — having been whipper-in under former huntsman George Adams for two seasons — moved off to the first draw at Temple
Hill with a mixed pack of 17½ couple, assisted by whipper-in Shaun Parish. This gave our field master Lizzie Thomas MFH an opportunity to get the majority of the 80-plus members of the mounted field off the ground over some of the many hunt jumps
strategically placed in virtually every fence line across the incredible parkland.
As hounds started to speak in Walker’s Covert, I heard some amusement behind which momentarily distracted me: “He’s only a four-year-old and I really didn’t mean to jump it!” These were reassuring words coming from the provider of my own hireling, whose mount had earlier veered off and jumped a wooden gate instead of the hunt jump alongside it. Thankfully, Melton — the delightful coloured mare that I had been entrusted with — had no such steering issues and didn’t miss a beat all day.
Quite unusually, there was a large array of coloured horses among the field, many of which either belonged to Michael
Grange or had been ones he’d acquired for clients, all equally well-mannered and giving their jockeys an enjoyable ride. This included the wonderful Asha, ridden by Will Naylor-Leyland, who was seen riding wide throughout the day with his father Sir Philip.
EFFICIENT AND STYLISH
“SORRY we didn’t get to chat earlier, it was all rather hectic at the meet,” exclaimed hunt secretary Penny Fortescue as we paused by Park Farm while hounds drew Thistlemoor. Earlier, Penny and her fellow secretary Karen Silcock could be seen ensuring they had caught up with regular supporters and visitors alike before hounds moved off. Efficient and charming, both Penny and Karen glided about the field effortlessly, extracting cash in a heartbeat in the way that only a hunt secretary is able to.
It was great to catch up with stylish event rider and physiotherapist Etti Dale, whose sister-in-law Lucinda Lloyd is joint-master of the Bicester with Whaddon Chase. Etti was wellmounted and never took her eye off hounds, looking every inch a potential candidate to field master in the future. Also out and looking no different to how she did when we were in the Vale of Aylesbury branch of the Pony Club many years ago was recently married eventer Sophie Lane (née Miller).
Nick Carlisle, who I usually only see in his capacity as a representative of the British Horseracing Authority — equipped with his measuring wheel when discussing the course at my local point-to-point — could be seen riding wide throughout the day, although we did manage to catch up when hacking home.
Cottesmore joint-master Julia Hallam-Seagrave was enjoying a day “off duty”, while another familiar face was my former H&H colleague Gemma Redrup, the huntsman’s partner, who made many of us welcome in their kitchen before the meet.
Other recognisable faces visiting from outside the Fitzwilliam country included a contingent from the West Norfolk, the Dunston Harriers and the Woodland Pytchley.
MUSIC TO OUR EARS
THISTLEMOOR brought music to our ears with hounds speaking well, taking a line out across some beet fields, heading to the edge of Muckland’s Wood where the hounds reached the end of that trail.
Hounds soon picked up the scent of another trail in Muckland’s, encouraged by Tom Naylor-Leyland who had joined us on a stunning grey, having earlier been running alongside his enthusiastic six-year-old son Billy on the lead-rein. With a three-year-old daughter, “another one on the way” and his other commitments on the family’s estates, Tom doesn’t manage to hunt quite as much as he would like, but it was clear to see how passionate he was about hunting.
The hunt horses and those belonging to the Naylor-Leyland family were all superbly turnedout, looking incredibly fit and well in their coats. This is down to the
hard work of the team in kennels which is headed by Andrew Simpson, the stud groom, who has been in the role for 12 seasons.
The Fitzwilliam were using a combination of legal activities to comply with the 2004 Hunting Act during my visit. As well as trail-hunting, Erlan — their golden eagle — could be seen throughout the day on the quad with handler John Mease, who was immaculately dressed in Milton tweed. The hounds flush foxes to this magnificent bird of prey, who has accounted for well over 50 brace.
A ditch at the back of the house near Belsize Wood soon after second horses produced the next opportunity for the remainder of the field to watch and listen to the hounds working out their line. It was here that when I remarked to heavy-plant operator Jonathon Cobden that his girth was “hanging”, I learnt that the only trick to riding his former racehorse called Gormless was “to balance and not move much”.
Predominantly modern English-bred, the hound breeding is the responsibility of aficionado Martin Scott, assisted by Simon Hunter who identifies the best working bitches throughout the season.
“Mr Scott selects appropriate stallion hounds for the bitches and we’ve used a number from the VWH, as well as the United and the Heythrop,” explained Simon.
The line these hounds had taken quite strongly from Belsize ended abruptly near a stick pile alongside the drive, so we moved on towards Foster’s Coppice and from there onto Ramshill, the covert managed by former huntsman George Adams. This produced some encouraging signs before hounds were picked up and taken on to the next draw at Bushy Wood. George, huntsman of the pack from 1984 until his retirement three seasons ago, was in good spirits at the meet and continues, quite deservedly, to be welcomed by all.
A COHESIVE and supportive mastership is vital for the survival of any pack and it is clear to see why the Fitzwilliam has thrived, particularly under the current leadership. Sir Philip and Lady Isabella Naylor-Leyland take a huge interest in all aspects of not only the hunting day, but also what happens in both kennels and hunt stables. Philip Baker MFH, who somehow managed to find a thorn bush on which to tear his cheek, and Lizzie Thomas are responsible for clearing country and field mastering in their areas.
Lizzie’s friendly manner, her effortless ease on a horse and knowledge of the country make her the perfect field master, but she admitted that “occasionally I do like to enjoy a day off, so I can quietly take my own line”.
Opening meets bring with them a certain amount of pressure, an expectation, but huntsman Simon Hunter showed no sign of concern, despite scenting conditions not being ideal. After drawing Brake’s Wood and White’s Spinney, his patience was rewarded when hounds took a strong line away from Oldfields Pond. With hounds in full cry, it was the sort of moment the few remaining members of the field had been longing for.
They ran sharply across the arable to the edge of Castor Hanglands, back through Brake’s and White’s, where they checked for a few minutes. Simon picked out a hound called Maverick, who resolutely continued to work out the line from where they had
checked, putting the rest of the pack right and getting them going again.
Both our horses’ and our own ears pricked as they picked up the line and we were off with great anticipation. I was tailing Lady Isabella and our field master — both on lovely greys — as they galloped stride for stride in perfect unison down the ride at Oldfield Pond, neither taking their eyes off hounds, and both riding hard to keep up.
As much as we all wanted to end the day by following hounds on a screaming scent all the way back to kennels, this wasn’t the day for it. It was, however, a day to reflect on how lucky we are to be enjoying access to such magnificent country, while following one of the oldest packs of hounds in the UK.
Fitzwilliam huntsmanSimon Hunter and hounds in front of Milton Hall, which is synonymous with the pack
Hounds in full cry alongside a covert
H&H’sGemma Redrup pops some rails on Kerry Varley’s smart grey
Most of the mounted members turn out for the opening meet, a fair few riding coloured horses
Fitzwilliam senior master Sir Philip Naylor-Leyland with son William
Joint-master Lizzie Thomas, field master for the day
Family affair: Sarah and mother Penny Fortescue, joint hon secretary
Ready for the off: joint hon secretary Karen Silcock
Whipper-in Shaun Parish sports a leather across his shoulder
Esme Lloyd and her immaculate grey nip over a hunt jump
Philip Baker, who joined the mastership in 2014