In rural communities, hunting, like Christmas, is about coming together to celebrate our traditional values, customs and rituals, as we have done for millennia, says Barney White-spunner
I HOPE not all the cards you receive this Christmas will be those depressingly bland ones of a star or a festive multicoloured cube or some such neutral symbol guaranteed neither to offend nor to please and that wish you ‘Season’s Greetings’. I hope you will receive at least some cards with proper Christmas scenes – simple cribs and choirs of angels, rough shepherds and splendid kings, villages in winter, decorated trees, presents, stockings and all the other timeless images that we have so long associated with a day that is as magical for children as it is special for grownups. And I hope that you will receive at least some cards with hunting scenes.
Not even the most ardent hunt supporter can argue that hunting is actually part of the Christmas story. But Christmas is a time when we celebrate our traditional values and allow those customs and rituals that have shaped our families and communities for centuries to rule our lives for a few days. Hounds meeting in the market square or on the village green is as much part of the Christmas tradition in the British Isles as giving presents, eating turkey or listening to HM The Queen. It’s not necessarily because the hunt offers a colourful spectacle or that hunt staff share a livery with Father Christmas; it is rather because Christmas in rural communities is about coming together. It’s about an ancient and valued lore – and a lore that runs far deeper than a pernicious law.
You probably know William Butler Yeats’ great poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree. You may have read it at school or heard it since at a funeral or memorial service where it features regularly as we try, understandably, to connect man back to nature. What Yeats describes is man’s yearning to escape back to a simpler, deeper life, away from the “pavements grey”, back to what is in “the deep heart’s core”. The poem is so well known because Yeats articulates so neatly and accurately that desire to connect with our roots, which we all feel but don’t always understand.
That is what hunting has long been, and still is, for so many of us. That opportunity to ride deep into the British and Irish countryside in winter, to escape from all the plastic tensions of modern life. It is an opportunity to be amongst friends, to enjoy the music of hounds on an evening scent, the sun setting over a dark wood, or the shadows lengthening against the hedges as we hack home. It is, like Christmas, a time when we allow a deeper lore to guide us.
And that is why hunting, and the ritual of the meet, particularly on Boxing Day when families are gathered at home, has been so influential in rural life. It’s not just that hunting has shaped how our countryside looks, its coverts and hedges, gorse-covered banks, stone walls and lanes. It has entered so many other parts of our lives. How many pubs have you been into with hunting prints on the walls? Perhaps not some of those rather drab establishments, all functionality and formica, but certainly in proper pubs, those with a soul and warmth and a welcome. Hunting is in the phrases we use every day. We run with the pack, take things in our stride, hound people, sometimes we go to ground and the ‘whips’ control how members vote in Parliament, although I wonder if the more politically correct of our politicians actually realise where the term comes from.
Oliver Cromwell tried to enforce a dull, puritan regime onto the British and Irish people, and to make Christmas just about prayer and self-denial. Cromwell quickly discovered that there is nothing that is more guaranteed to ensure that something thrives in these islands than to legislate against it. Hunting thrives because it is a deeper and more important part of those people whose lives it touches. It is in their “deep heart’s core”. There are also rather more of them than hunting’s opponents would care to admit, as you will be able to judge by the crowds who flock to the traditional Boxing Day meets.
We do not know how long ago our forebears started celebrating the winter solstice, when they broke the monotony of dull, cold days with a feast. We do know, however, that hunting is as old as mankind itself, and ‘Christmas’ probably is as well. So when you are relaxing in front of your fire, ponder for a moment whether there is not part of you that would rather like to be on Innisfree, on Yeats’ island, growing beans, harvesting honey, listening to the lake water lapping and enjoying an evening full of linnet’s wings. Let your eyes pass from those dull cards, those expressions of worthiness that are an insult to their postage, and dwell instead on those that portray the soul of our countryside, those traditions that run so deep we don’t really know where they started but which, for a few days at least, we can cheerfully allow to dictate our lives. And some of those cards will surely portray a meet of hounds. Barney White-spunner’s latest book, Partition: The Story of Indian independence and the creation of Pakistan in 1947, is now available in paperback.
We do know that hunting is as old as mankind itself, and ‘Christmas’ probably is as well