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

The Field - - Contents - writ­ten BY will cur­sham ♦ pho­tog­ra­phy BY trevor meeks

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.

old-fash­ioned covert

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.

leisurely pace

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

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