Hunting in the Midlands by T. H. S. Escott

"Jem Pike has just come round, gentlemen, to say that they will be able to hunt to-day, after all: and as it's about starting time, and you've some distance to go, I will, if you wish, gentlemen, order your horses round."

The announcement, as it came to us over our breakfast at a hostelry which I will call the Lion, in a market town which I will call Chippington—a highly convenient hunting rendezvous in the Midlands—was not a little welcome. Jem Pike was the huntsman of the pack, and Jem Pike's message was an intimation that the frost of last night had not destroyed our sport for the day. The morning broke in what Jem would call a "plaguey ugly fashion:" from an artistic point of view it had been divine: for hunting purposes it had been execrable. A thin coating of ice on one's bath indoors, a good stiff hoar frost out, crystallized trees, and resonant roads—all this was seasonable, very, and "pretty to look at, too." But it was "bad for riding:" and we had not come to the Lion at Chippington in order to contemplate the beauties of nature, but to brace our nerves with the healthy excitement of the chase. Full of misgivings we descended to breakfast, in hunting toggery notwithstanding. As the sun shone out with increased brilliance we began to grow more cheerful. The frost, we said, was nothing, and all trace of it would be gone before noon. The waiter shook his head dubiously, suggested that there was a good billiard-table, and enquired as to the hour at which we would like to dine. But the waiter, as the event proved, was wrong, and we were still in the middle of breakfast when the message of the huntsman of the Chippington pack arrived—exactly what we had each of us said. Of course the frost was nothing: we had known as much; and now the great thing was to get breakfast over, and "then to horse away."

After all there is nothing for comfort like the old-fashioned hunting hotels, and unfortunately they are decreasing in number every year. Still the Lion at Chippington remains; and I am happy to say that I know of a few more like the Lion. They are recognisable at a glance. You may tell them by the lack of nineteenth century filagree decoration which characterises their exterior, by the cut of the waiters, by the knowing look of the boots. Snug are their coffee-rooms, luxurious their beds, genial their whole atmosphere. It is just possible that if you were to take your wife to such an establishment as the Lion, she would complain that an aroma of tobacco smoke pervaded the atmosphere. But the hunting hotel is conspicuously a bachelor's house. Its proprietor, or proprietress, does not lay himself or herself out for ladies and ladies' maids. It is their object to make single gentlemen, and gentlemen who enjoy the temporary felicity of singleness, at home. If it is your first visit, you are met in a manner which clearly intimates that you were expected. If you are an old habitué you find that all your wants are anticipated, and all your peculiar fancies known. The waiter understands exactly—marvellous is the memory of this race of men—what you like for breakfast: whether you prefer a "wet fish" or a "dry:" and recollects to a nicety your particular idea of a dinner. Under any circumstances a week's hunting is a good and healthy recreation: but it is difficult to enjoy a week's hunting more perfectly than in one of these hostelries, which have not, I rejoice to say, yet been swept away by the advancing tide of modern improvement.

Of whom did our company consist? We were not a party of Meltonian squires, such as it would have delighted the famous Nimrod to describe. We were neither Osbaldestones nor Sir Harry Goodrickes: neither Myddelton Biddulphs nor Holyoakes. A Warwickshire or an Oxfordshire hunting field differs very materially, so far as regards its personnel, from a Leicester or a Northamptonshire gathering. The latter still preserves the memories and the traditions of a past régime, when hunting was confined to country gentlemen, farmers, and a few rich strangers: the former is typical of the new order of things under which hunting has ceased to be a class amusement, and has become a generally popular sport. Now it is not too much to claim for hunting at the present day this character. The composition of the little band which on the morning now in question left the Lion Hotel at Chippington, bound for covert, was no unimportant testimony to this fact. We were half a dozen in number, and comprised among ourselves a barrister, a journalist, a doctor, and a couple of Civil servants, who had allowed themselves a week's holiday, and who, being fond of riding, had determined to take it in this way. In an average hunting field of the present day you will discover men of all kinds of professions and occupations—attorneys, auctioneers, butchers, bakers, innkeepers, artists, sailors, authors. There is no town in England which has not more than one pack of hounds in its immediate vicinity; and you will find that the riders who make up the regular field are inhabitants of the town—men who are at work four or five days in the week at their desk or counter, and who hunt the remaining one or two. There is no greater instrument of social harmony than that of the modern hunting field: and, it may be added, there is no institution which affords a healthier opportunity for the ebullition of what may be called the democratic instincts of human nature. The hunting field is the paradise of equality: and the only title to recognition is achievement. "Rank," says a modern authority on the sport, "has no privilege; and wealth can afford no protection." Out of the hunting field there may be a wide gulf which separates peasant from peer, tenant from landlord. But there is no earthly power which can compel the tenant to give way to the landlord, or the peasant to the peer, when the scent is good and hounds are in full cry.

As we get to the bottom of the long and irregularly-paved street which constitutes the main thoroughfare—indeed, I might add, the entire town of Chippington—we fall in with other equestrians bound for Branksome Bushes—the meet fixed for that day—distant not more than two miles from Chippington itself. There was the chief medical man of the place, mounted on a very clever horse, the head of the Chippington bank, and some half-dozen strangers. As we drew near to "the Bushes" we saw that there had already congregated a very considerable crowd. There were young ladies, some who had come just to see them throw off, and others with an expression in their faces, and a cut about their habits, which looked like business, and which plainly indicated that they intended, if possible, to be in at the death. There were two or three clergymen who had come from adjoining parishes, and one or two country squires. There were some three or four Oxford undergraduates—Chippington is within a very convenient distance of the city of academic towers—who were "staying up" at their respective colleges for the purpose of reading during a portion of the vacation, and who found it necessary to vary the monotony of intense intellectual application by an occasional gallop with the Chippington or Bicester pack. Then, of course, there was the usual contingent of country doctors: usual, I say, for the medical profession gravitates naturally towards equestrianism. If a country doctor rides at all, you may be sure he rides well, and is well mounted, moreover. There was also a very boisterous and hard-riding maltster, who had acquired a considerable reputation in the district: a fair sprinkling of snobs; one or two grooms and stable cads. There was also an illustrious novelist of the day, the guest of Sir Cloudesley Spanker, Bart., and Sir Cloudesley Spanker, Bart., himself.

We had drawn Branksome Bushes and the result was a blank. Local sportsmen commence to be prolific of suggestions. There was Henham Gorse, for instance, and two gentlemen asseverated most positively, upon intelligence which was indisputably true, that there was a fox in that quarter. Another noble sportsman, who prided himself especially on his local knowledge, pressed upon Jem Pike the necessity of turning his attention next to the Enderby Woods, to all of which admonitions, however, Mr Pike resolutely turned a deaf ear. These are among the difficulties which the huntsman of a subscription pack has to encounter or withstand. Every Nimrod who pays his sovereign or so a year to the support of the hounds considers he has a right to a voice in their management. Marvellous is the sensitiveness of the amateur sportsman. It is a well-established fact, that you cannot more grievously wound or insult the feelings of the gentleman who prides himself upon his acquaintance with horses than by impugning the accuracy of his judgment in any point of equine detail. Hint to your friend, who is possessed with the idea that he is an authority upon the manners and customs of foxes in general, and upon those of any one neighbourhood in particular, that there exists a chance of his fallibility, and he will resent the insinuation as a mortal slight. Jem Pike had his duty to do to the pack and to his employers, and he steadfastly refused to be guided or misguided by amateur advice. So, at Jem's sweet will, we jogged on from Branksome Bushes to Jarvis Spinney, and at Jarvis Spinney the object of our quest was obtained.

'Tis a pretty sight, the find and the throw off. You see a patch of gorse literally alive with the hounds, their sterns flourishing above its surface. Something has excited them, and there "the beauties" go, leaping over each other's backs. Then issues a shrill kind of whimper: in a moment one hound challenges, and next another. Then from the huntsman comes a mighty cheer that is heard to the echo. "He's gone," say half a score of voices. Hats are pressed on, cigars thrown away, reins gathered well up, and lo and behold they are off. A very fair field we were on the particular morning to which I here allude. The rector, I noticed, who had merely come to the meet, was well up with the first of us. Notwithstanding remonstrances addressed by timid papas and well-drilled grooms in attendance, Alice and Clara Vernon put their horses at the first fence, and that surmounted had fairly crossed the Rubicon. Nay, the contagion of the enthusiasm spread, as is always the case on such occasions, for their revered parents themselves were unable to resist the attraction. Sir Cloudesley Spanker asserted his position in the first rank, as did also the distinguished novelist, his guest.

It has been remarked that all runs with foxhounds are alike on paper and different in reality. We were fortunate enough to have one that was certainly above the average with the Chippington hounds. Our fox chose an excellent line of country, and all our party from the Lion enjoyed the distinction of being in at the death. Mishaps there were, for all the bad jumpers came signally to grief. Old Sir Cloudesley related with much grim humour the melancholy aspect that two dismounted strangers presented who had taken up their lodging in a ditch. The two Miss Vernons acquitted themselves admirably; so did the rector, and I am disposed to think that the company both of the ladies and the farmers vastly improved our hunting field. It is quite certain that clergymen, more than any other race of men, require active change, and they need what they can get nowhere better than in a hunting field. Nor in the modern hunting field is there anything which either ladies or clergymen need fear to face. The strong words and the strange oaths, the rough language—in fine, what has been called "the roaring lion element," these are accessories of the chase which have long since become things of the past. And the consummation is a natural consequence of the catholicity which hunting has acquired. There are no abuses like class abuses. Once admit the free light of publicity, and they vanish.

There are hunting farmers and hunting parsons, clergymen who make the chase the business of their lives, and those who get a day with the hounds as an agreeable relief to their professional toils. There is not much to be said in favour of the former order, which has, by the way, nearly become extinct. It survives in Wales and in North Devon yet, and curious are the authentic stories which might be narrated about these enthusiastic heroes of top-boots and spur. There is a little village in North Devon where, till within a very few years, the meet of the staghounds used to be given out from the reading desk every Sunday after the first lesson. Years ago, when one who is now a veteran amongst the fox-hunting clerics of that neighbourhood first entered upon his new duties, he was seized with a desire to reform the ways of the natives and the practices of the priests. Installed in his new living, he determined to forswear hounds and hunting entirely. He even carried his orthodoxy to such a point as to institute daily services, which at first, however, were very well attended. Gradually his congregation fell off, much to the grief of the enthusiastic pastor. One day, observing his churchwardens lingering in the aisle after the service had been concluded, he went up and asked them whether they could at all inform him of the origin of the declension. "Well, sir," said one of the worthies thus addressed, "we were a-going to speak to you about the very same thing. You see, sir, the parson of this parish do always keep hounds. Mr Froude, he kept foxhounds, Mr Bellew he kept harriers, and least ways we always expect the parson of this parish to keep a small cry of summut." Whereupon the rector expressed his entire willingness to contribute a sum to the support of "a small cry" of harriers, provided his congregation found the remainder. The experiment was tried and was completely successful, nor after that day had the new rector occasion to complain of a deficiency in his congregation.

Tories of the old school, for instance Sir Cloudesley Spanker, who has acquitted himself so gallantly to-day, would no doubt affirm that fox-hunting has been fatally injured as a sport by railways. The truth of the proposition is extremely questionable, and it may be dismissed in almost the same breath as the sinister predictions which are never verified of certain naval and military officers on the subject of the inevitable destiny of their respective services. Railways have no doubt disturbed the domestic tranquillity of the fox family, and have compelled its various members to forsake in some instances the ancient Lares and Penates. But the havoc which the science of man has wrought, the skill of man has obviated. Foxes are quite as dear to humanity as they can be to themselves; and in proportion as the natural dwellings of foxes have been destroyed artificial homes have been provided for them. Moreover, railways have had the effect of bringing men together, and of establishing all over the country new fox-hunting centres. Hunting wants money, and railways have brought men with money to the spots at which they were needed. They have, so to speak, placed the hunting field at the very doors of the dwellers in town. In London a man may breakfast at home, have four or five hours' hunting fifty miles away from the metropolitan chimney-pots, and find himself seated at his domestic mahogany for a seven o'clock dinner. Nor is it necessary for the inhabitant of London to go such a distance to secure an excellent day's hunting. To say nothing of her Majesty's staghounds, there are first-rate packs in Surrey, Essex, and Kent, all within a railway journey of an hour. Here again the inveterate laudator temporis acti will declare he discerns greater ground for dissatisfaction than congratulation. He will tell you that in consequence of those confounded steam-engines the field gets flooded by cockneys who can't ride, who mob the covert, and effectually prevent the fox from breaking. Of course it is indisputable that railways have familiarised men who never hunted previously with horses and with hounds, and that persons now venture upon the chase whose forefathers may have scarcely known how to distinguish between a dog and a horse. Very likely, moreover, it would be much better for fox-hunting if a fair proportion of these new-comers had never presented themselves in this their new capacity. At the same time with the quantity of the horsemen there has been some improvement also in the quality of the horsemanship. Leech's typical cockney Nimrod may not have yet become extinct, but he is a much rarer specimen of sporting humanity than was formerly the case.

It is a great thing for all Englishmen that hunting should have received this new development among us, and for the simple reason that salutary as is the discipline of all field sports, that of hunting is so in the most eminent degree. "Ride straight to hounds and talk as little as possible," was the advice given by a veteran to a youngster who was discussing the secret mode in which popularity was to be secured; and the sententious maxim contains a great many grains of truth. Englishmen admire performance, and without it they despise words. Performance is the only thing which in the hunting field meets with recognition or sufferance, and the braggart is most inevitably brought to his proper level in the course of a burst of forty minutes across a good country. Again, the hunting field is the most admirably contrived species of discipline for the temper. Displays of irritation or annoyance are promptly and effectively rebuked; and the man who cannot bear with fitting humility the reprimand, when it is merited, of the master or huntsman, will not have long to wait for the demonstrative disapproval of his compeers.

Hunting has been classed amongst those sports—detestata matribus—by reason of the intrinsic risk which it involves. Is it in any degree more dangerous than cricket or football, shooting or Alpine climbing? In Great Britain and Ireland there are at present exactly two hundred and twenty packs of hounds. Of these some hunt as often as five days a week, others not more frequently than two. The average may probably be fixed at the figure three. Roughly the hunting season lasts twenty-five weeks, while it may be computed that at least ninety horsemen go out with each pack. We thus have one million four hundred and fifty-eight thousand as the total of the occasions on which horse and rider feel the perils of the chase. "If," said Anthony Trollope, in the course of some admirable remarks on the subject, "we say that a bone is broken annually in each hunt, and a man killed once in two years in all the hunts together, we think that we exceed the average of casualties. At present there is a spirit abroad which is desirous of maintaining the manly excitement of enterprise in which some peril is to be encountered, but which demands at the same time that it should be done without any risk of injurious circumstances. Let us have the excitement and pleasure of danger, but for God's sake no danger itself. This at any rate is unreasonable."

These observations have somewhat diverted me from the thread of the original narrative. Should, however, the reader desire more precise information as to the particular line of country taken up by the fox on that eventful day with the Chippington hounds, will he not find it written for him in his favourite sporting paper?

So we met, so we hunted, and so we rode home and dined; and if any person who is not entirely a stranger to horses wishes to enjoy a few days' active recreation and healthy holidays, he cannot, I would submit, for the reasons which I have above attempted to enumerate, do better than go down to the Lion at Chippington, and get a few days with the Chippington hounds.