An Opening Meet that went with a bang
A warm welcome and expertly hunted hounds ensured that a day with the Croome & West Warwickshire got the season off to a perfect start
Will Cursham joins the Croome & West Warwickshire
Lanes were full of mounted followers, many visiting from neighbouring packs
Between Worcester and Evesham lies a particularly charming stretch of countryside. Half-timbered farmhouses, each with its own orchard, are set in a gently undulating landscape laced with brooks and punctuated by small woods. To add a touch of grandeur, the impressive forms of the Malvern Hills and Bredon Hill lurk in the background, whilst the mighty River Severn snakes past to the west. Delightfully eccentric village names add to the charm: Upton Snodsbury, Flyford Flavell, Broughton Hackett, White Ladies Aston and the Piddles, North and Wyre, all sound as if they could have been invented by PG Wodehouse.
As beautiful as this area is, it is not one that is well known for hunting. At first glance, you can see why; it does not have the expansive swathes of grass and hedges that are present in the fashionable Shires. Yet if you look carefully, you can see that it has many advantages: great viewing, plenty of well-placed woodlands and a plethora of neatly built hunt fences. And it has just as long a tradition of hunting as any Shires pack. Just down the road is Croome Court, the ancestral seat of the Earls of Coventry, who kept a pack of hounds there from the 1600s. That pack lived on in various guises until 1874, when the ninth Earl set up a pack of foxhounds to hunt the area (and beyond). This soon came to be known as the Croome, and more than 140 years later hounds are still kennelled on the Croome estate and the country is still being hunted by the Croome. (The hunt is now known as the Croome & West Warwickshire, having amalgamated with its neighbour, the West Warwickshire Farmers, in 1973.)
meets near malvern
My acquaintance with this pack began in the early 1990s, when I was sent away from my native Leicestershire to Malvern College. Desperate to get some hunting during term time, I procured a bicycle and went off in search of the local packs. Malvern is on the western boundary of the Croome & West Warwickshire’s country and it was not long before I discovered that on Tuesdays they met within easy pedalling distance.
I had some wonderful days watching the Croome’s great huntsman, John Day, and his hounds, and after each meet I would return to school mud-spattered, exhausted and exhilarated. I would swear that one day I would follow them on horseback.
Twenty-five years later, I finally got the opportunity to realise my ambition. The Field asked me to report on an Opening Meet for the 2017/18 season. I wanted to cover something that would embody the essence of hunting’s traditional curtainraiser and I decided that the Croome & West Warwickshire’s Opening Meet at Field House, Naunton Beauchamp, in the heart of this charming piece of Old England, would fit the bill perfectly.
One of the great things about an opening meet is the party-like atmosphere that accompanies it. I felt it as soon as I got on my horse and hacked to the meet. The lanes were full of mounted followers, many of whom were visiting from neighbouring packs, including Julia and Henry Phillips from the Worcestershire and Ali Tate and Lucy Lockwood from the Ledbury.
“I subscribe to the Ledbury but actually I’m a Croome girl,” explained Lucy Lockwood as we trotted through Naunton Beauchamp. “My dad [Tony Lockwood]
was Joint Master here and I like to come back and visit.”
The party atmosphere intensified as I arrived at the meet. We weaved our way through hundreds of cars before coming upon a huge crowd, at the centre of which was a mounted field of more than 80. Hosts Ian and Louise Ansell and helpers were threading their way through the field, distributing stirrup cups and other goodies. There was even a marquee and I am sure that I saw a DJ setting up some decks.
“They’re going to have a big party after we’ve left,” laughed senior Joint Master Patty Allen as she saw me surveying the scene. It was fitting that the first person I should bump into was Allen. The sixth longestserving MFH in the country, Allen has been Joint Master of this pack since 1979. She is undoubtedly the lynchpin of the hunt and her enthusiasm is undiminished. “I do it from enthusiasm, loyalty and love of the country. The best bit is meeting the farmers and the general feeling of family around the hunt. I love it,” she explained.
Like the perfect hostess, Allen guided me through the throng, introducing me to followers and supporters as we went, including former huntsman Peter Astill, farmer Andrew Forrester (who keeps the hunt’s golden eagle) and local landowner Paul Jeavons. Jeavons’ father, Tony, was one of Allen’s former Joint Masters (1982-88) and although Paul is more of a shooting man (he runs his own shoot), he is keen to accommodate the hunt. “We shoot on a Friday, so that the hunt can come on a Saturday,” Jeavons told me. This seemed to be typical of the good relations between shooting and hunting in Croome & West Warwickshire country.
Last but by no means least, I met Allen’s five Joint Masters, Diana Ralph, Julia Weaving, Robin Palmer, Anna Millington and Edward Righton. This is a remarkably experienced team. Aside from Allen’s 38-year stint, Ralph has been in office since 2000, Weaving since 2006 and Palmer began his
The best bit is meeting the farmers and the general feeling of family
second spell in 2017 (his first was for 10 years, from 2000 to 2010).
After a start-of-season speech given by hunt chairman Dave Bull, a cheque for £2,776 was presented to Worcester Breast Cancer Haven. The money had been raised at the hunt’s recent Fencing Fund Frolic, one of the Croome & West Warwickshire’s many fundraising events. “We are lucky enough to have two supporters clubs, one for the Croome and one for the West Warwickshire, so we have more people to shoulder the burden of fundraising,” Anthony Kent, the hunt’s honorary treasurer, told me.
It was now time for the season proper to start. Huntsman Ben Dalton raised his horn to his lips, blew a few short notes and he and 18½ couple of very smart modern English foxhounds threw off, attended by professional whipper-in Simon French and amateur whip Jacky Bates. We followed the throng, which was bursting with pent-up energy and excitement.
starting with a Bang
Purists may not agree, but I think that an Opening Meet should start with a ‘bang’, and this is what fieldmaster Anna Millington gave us. After just a few minutes we heard hounds speaking on the far side of a covert called Christmas Trees. I had barely enough time to tighten my girth before Millington led us off at a gallop.
Being used to the hurly-burly of a Shires field, I expected a real scrum at the first fence but everyone was remarkably polite and I soon found myself near the front, taking in at least a dozen inviting timber fences as we described a huge loop around Robin Stanley’s Frog Hall Farm. The pace didn’t slacken as we crossed the Upton Snodsbury Road onto David Lole’s acres and then continued to Colin Collins’ land. Collins had received his hunt buttons at the meet and was up front, relishing this quick burst.
The fences kept coming thick and fast, and no-one was enjoying them more than mustard-keen teenagers Adam Eggington, Kate Saunders, Grace Plowman and Robert Saunders, who were right up at the front. So too was the stylish Lydia French, whipperin Simon French’s wife, and Joint Master Julia Weaving. Not to be outdone, Weaving’s
daughter, Sarie, caught the eye by pulling out and jumping several five-bar gates.
After a couple of brief pauses, we carried on at a sharp pace onto Polly and Kate Arnold’s land, where we jumped a line of fences one way and then doubled back and jumped them again, before checking at Happy Lands, a lovely, old-fashioned covert with commanding views of the surrounding country. “We used to call this the ‘Poor Man’s Leicestershire’; there were grass and hedges from here to Peopleton”, said local farmer Peter Randall as we caught our breath. Randall is a member of one of those groups of dyed-in-the-wool hunting farmers (that also included Robin Stanley and the late Ken Tarran) that is the backbone of every hunt.
Millington had done a superb job keeping us entertained all morning. She is not the “scare-the-be-jesus-out-of-you” type of fieldmaster but one who prefers to take everyone with her. Crucially, she knows her country, and the people who farm it, inside out. “I have grown up with these farmers and they have all known me since I was tiny. Also, I run a livestock transport business, so I see them every week at market,” she told me. A truly local girl, she was previously honorary secretary (a position now filled by her mother, Sally Millington) and it turned out that her grandfather, Ken Tarran, had his ashes spread a few yards from us, in Happy Lands covert. In a nice twist of fate, it turned out that The Fieldõs previous visit to this hunt, back in 1985, was to a meet at Hallgarth Farm, Millington’s family farm.
This opening blast had lasted for more than two hours, but the day now fell into a more leisurely pace as we moved on to Tony Lockwood’s farm and then down towards Peopleton, before fording the Bow Brook, past Hays Brake and up the Saw Brook to Egdon. A little further on, at Lowhill Covert, Millington treated us to a spin over some good, old-fashioned Croome hedges on Kate and Rob Adams’ land.
The opening blast had lasted for more than two hours
It was a real pleasure watching Ben Dalton and his hounds working their way across the Worcestershire countryside in the late autumn sunlight. I was tempted to stay out with them all afternoon but, with a busy morning behind us and a full season ahead, I decided to say “Good night” and turn my horse’s head towards home.
There is always an awful lot of expectation placed on Opening Meet, and all too often it does not quite live up to it. Scent is often difficult at this time of year and it certainly didn’t help today. The Croome & West Warwickshire, however, know exactly how to put on a great day. I can say with all honestly that my day following this expertly run pack of hounds, in this charming piece of country, meant that my season started as it should have done: with a bang.
Above: Joint Master Diana Ralph clears a hedge in style; she took on the role back in 2000Right: 18½ couple of the Croome & West Warwickshire’s smart, modern English Foxhounds threw off
Left: amateur whip Jacky BatesAbove: Joint Masters Anna Millington (centre ) and Robin Palmer (right)Right: hounds clearing one of the many fences
Above: Joint Master Julia Weaving (left) clears a fence. Far left: Joint Master Edward Righton Left: whip Simon French
Above: huntsman Ben Dalton. Left: senior Joint Master Patty Allen enjoying a stirrup cup (top); past Joint Master Les Bailey