Last Valentine’s Day, my mum and I had a day out with the East Anglian Bloodhounds. I was hoping to return in the autumn and pitch a bit of journalism on the hunt, but was caught up in other work and didn’t have the time. I did “write up” the experience though, in a light-hearted fashion, and here it is. The Washington Post’s feature on the Coakham Bloodhounds provides some background that’s missing from my description!
The old dog, Dion, reared up and placed his paws on my chest and leaned back, panting happily as he took in the scene; I tried to balance his weight and to fuss him under the ears. It was a bitterly cold Valentine’s Day, and my mother and I were following a man hunt on the private estate of the Duke and Duchess of Grafton outside Thetford in Norfolk.
“Dion lives in the house, he’s a very special dog. He broke his leg in the same accident when Diligence was killed – unfortunately a horse landed on them – and he’s been a pet ever since, but he likes to run with the pack,” explained the hunt secretary, clutching a clipboard of safety dockets and a list of caps paid. Dion jumped down and posed, as if in the show ring, black nose calmly taking in the scents on the wind, tan jowls draped from his uplifted muzzle.
The huntsman (in baggy green tweed with capacious “poachers’ pockets”, capable of stowing a hare or a bottle of whisky) handed me a rope lead – “Want a bloodhound? You hold Minnie. Don’t forget to let her go when the pack’s let out of the horse box.” Minnie, another house pet, had a silky black coat and had to be restrained before she could pluck a sandwich from the hand of a wary toddler who was trying to stroke her. “Ready?” asked the secretary, “They’re about to let hounds out,” and the ramp of the great maroon horse box came down and I just whipped the lead off Minnie’s head in time as a tide of baying bloodhound surged onto the turf, and she and Dion disappeared, swept along with the pack, plump and spoiled next to those rangey, ribby outdoor dogs with coarse coats and curled black sterns.
I’d never realised that hunting has nothing to do with horses. Hunting is all about hounds: their pedigrees, who was littermates with whom, who got the scent that day when everyone thought it must be lost, who disappeared and had to be scooped up by the huntsman from some distant covert when everyone else had gone home, who led the way and who’s loopy just like her grand-dam. Foxhounds, staghounds, minkhounds, otterhounds, harriers, beagles and, of course, powerful bloodhounds or “sleuth hounds”, pursuers of the clean boot“, with their hooded eyes and great, heraldic paws.
They are given names beginning with the first two letters of their mothers’ names. As the dogs roamed between the hunt supporters, people called out to them – though how they could tell one black-and-tan hound from another, I have no idea; they all seemed identical, with their widow’s peaks and sagging faces. “Disciple! Don’t do that.” “Diagram, leave that sausage roll alone.” “Dingo! DINGO! Down! DINGO!” Hounds were magnificently unperturbed. They snuffed the air, sometimes growled at one another, received chest rubs and wagged their sterns. An anthropologist told me, of foxhounds, “They’re very interesting, because they don’t count as wild, but they’re not pets. All they know is the pack, but they don’t behave like wolves, but they never go into a house, or wear a collar. There isn’t a category for them. They’re a special kind of animal.”
I’d talked to the quarry earlier as we hung around by the horse boxes and people poured inky sloe gin or golden whisky into their hip flasks (hunting is also about alcohol and food). “The worst thing that happens when they catch you is that they pee on you,” he told me. We moved out of the way when an impatient dark bay, tack strapped on ready under its rug, swung its quarters round at us. “When you get to the end of the trail you just sit down where you are till they find you. You have liver biscuits to give them when they find you. They love liver.” The ladies of the hunt teased him for not kitting himself out in lycra for his run, “Aren’t you getting your legs out?” they asked, and whooped when he pantomimed pulling down his trousers – “if it’s what you really want.”
I went to find my mum, who had, in the time I’d spent asking a few tentative questions, been in and out of every horse box and found out who everyone was. She was watching a lady unwrap a beautiful flea-bitten grey mare who was frozen in excitement, staring at the rugby players on the pitch nextdoor. Horses love to hunt. “Gosh,” said Mum, awed at the padded leg bandages and the voluminous rug the mare wore to travel, “I just used to stick my horse in a cattle truck as he was, and he was a thoroughbred. I do feel awful. However did we survive?”
This was merely the milling before the meet proper, so I introduced myself to the joint masters, who owned the pack. They were husband and wife, he on a fine, old fashioned chestnut who was praised for being “so good with the hounds”, and she on a tough little blue roan cob called Storm, who could go like the clappers.
When everyone was mounted we gathered at the gates which separated the hall’s gardens from the estate proper, where two trestle tables had been set up. Lady Clare and her cook came round with a basket full of miniature game pies topped with puff pastry, and there were sausage rolls and trays of stirrup cup – plastic thimbles of ginger wine or port. Pernicious, icy sleet began to fall. Some people walked their clipped-out horses to keep them warm, and the flea-bitten grey pranced and shook her head, dancing away from the tray of drinks just as it was offered to her rider. We chatted and watched hounds, who were kept corralled behind the master’s chestnut, occasionally breaking out, only to be driven back by the huntsmen and the whipper-in, who snarled, “That’ll do!” and brandished their crops – thick leather batons with a horn crook (for opening gates while mounted) and a long lash (for snapping at hounds).
The red-coated master’s speech was drowned out by hounds baying – a noise I can only describe as a rusty, whooping, honking “ulp, ulp, ulp!”. Some poor lady had already broken her nose on her horse’s neck and been carted off in an ambulance, her cap paid, and we hadn’t even set out. Mum and I were trying to snag a lift in a Range Rover or similar, because the unmounted followers would be driving to the end of each “run” along the mud roads of the estate, and our car was definitely not a four-wheel drive. We were still knocking on windows when the pack took off on the scent, with much ulp!-ing, followed by the masters, and the whippers-in, and then, at a short distance, the knot of horses and riders, up and over the brow of a hill, and lastly the black and white hound van, carrying water and a spare hound.
Mum and I began to run to the car park in the sleet, giggling, with only the vaguest idea of where we needed to be. We climbed into the car and Mum, fired by two stirrup cups, put the pedal to the metal and we rocketed off out the main gates, taking a sharp right up a dirt track, me turning the Ordinance Survey map this way and that and trying to work out (a) where we were and (b) where we were aiming.
Minutes later we were bouncing along a track in splendid isolation, not a soul, a hound or a horse for miles, seemingly. Lost on the estates of the Duke and Duchess of Grafton. “Straight on here?” “I don’t know.” “Where did they say we were going?” “I think it’s that farm.” “Let me look. On the end of that row of trees? The old approach road?” “I don’t know!” “Let’s try this way…”
Suddenly there was a bottle green Land Rover. A lady jumped out and promised us a lead, and we jounced off after her, the little car seeming to relish the giant ruts in the track, part of a convoy once more.
“LOOK!” Mum. stopped the car and thrust an extravagant, ginger-wine-fuelled arm out of the window.
“LOOK at that magnificent pollarded oak! Take a picture. Isn’t it amazing?” By this time the Range Rover behind us, driven by the ninety-something Duchess, had also pulled up. Its inhabitants looked puzzled. “Drive on quick or we’ll get lost again,” “Ok, but did you get the picture? What a tree!”
When the row ended, the track deteriorated until we were lumping along at an angle, one side of the car up on the verge and the other splashing through puddles. A farmyard and white cottage loomed and we drove round, parked and climbed out. The hunt does up to six runs a day, with a break for more booze and for fruitcake between each. The huntsman had put out plastic buckets and the dogs lapped and slurped water, and milled happily around, tongues lolling. The sun was out, and the wind had cleared patches of clouds. The horses stood more calmly now, on long reins, the tickle taken out of their hoofs by the gallop.
Mum and I made the executive decision to leave before the hunt did. The next leg would take them back to the hill by the car park, and we didn’t want to slow down the four-wheel drives, so we lurched back away down the track and along the row. The aim was to get back in time to see them arrive over the hill in full cry.
Minutes later we were lost again. “Did we come this way before?” “I don’t know. It all looks the same. Isn’t this it on the map?” “Wait, I’ll stop the car. I think we went left when we shouldn’t have.” We pulled up on a track at the break of the hedge. “Let me look.” “I think we need toback up and go down there.”
Mum put the game little car into reverse and took a right-hand fork. We waited. “We’ll see the other cars soon.” “I hope so.” “There they are!” At the far end of our track three or four horses cantered by, a quarter of a mile away. And then,
“Ahhh! They’re behind us! I just saw them in the mirror!” Hounds and the scarlet-coated master and his chestnut had just burst out of the gap in the hedge where we’d been parked minutes before – we’d nearly committed the faux pas of scuppering the scent trail. Hounds would have been leaping over our bonnet. We started laughing hysterically. “Thank God!” “Sit here and don’t move until they’ve all gone by!” I saw Storm galloping to catch up with the chestnut, his hoofs punching the ground, then came the whipper-in on his piebald, one hand on the reins, the other brandishing his crop.
When the last straggler had gone, we reversed again and drove back down along the park wall, and left into the field with the abandoned horse boxes, were a lone Patterdale terrier stood on guard at a cab door. The car was splattered with mud but seemed to be bearing up well. We found the hunt on the hillside, the horses’ sides pumping for breath, the hounds panting harder. Minnie was being towelled down by the huntsman – she’d travel the rest of the day in the hound van. Dingo jumped up at me in greeting. The hound soup was so thick that they were peeing on one another.
“Will you come for the next leg?” asked the lady master, as Storm chucked his bit and pinned his ears back, wanting to be away. “I don’t think the car will take it.” “That’s a shame, it’s such a beautiful day. Aren’t hounds extraordinary? They always know when it’s time to set off. That dog with the red face sometimes leads them astray – he took me into a caravan park once – but usually they get it right. And they do it all for liver biscuits. Nothing else.”