Stag Hunting on Exmoor by Captain Redway

We sons of Devon are, I doubt not, too prone to dwell and enlarge upon the fact that we are not quite as other men, that when all things were made none was made better than this, our land of sunny skies and mystic moors, of lane and hedgerow, of sea and river, where the balmy fragrance of Torbay invites the winter, and the chill grandeur of Exmoor repels the summer's heat; with goodness overflowing from Porlock to Penzance; the home of traditions and folkspeech that mark us out a people meet to enjoy the wholesomest clime under the canopy of heaven.

I say we are too apt to allow these matters to weigh with us, and breed a smiling contentment and ease of living perhaps not good for those who shall come after us—for those who may be forced to quit their native soil and sojourn among aliens of sharper wits and noisier mode of life. Soft as a Dartmoor bog the South Devon man has been found by those of northern blood, who in mean ways despoil him. Yet if history doth not lie, there have been sundry occasions when, for stoutness of heart and a kind of obstinacy of courage, the men of the west of England had no need to suffer by comparison with any. To many of us now, alas, the home of our fathers, the haunts of our boyhood, are no longer daily present; but the exile's memory is strong and vivid, and, aided as is natural by not infrequent visits to them, yields abundant pleasure in the contemplation of spots hallowed to us by fond associations, the tombs of our sires, the scenes of early passion, and perhaps above all, to him of man's estate, the otter bank and Exmoor.

Stronger than death, more lasting than love of woman, is the passion for the chase, and of all those who ride to hounds, the hunter of the wild deer of Devon must surely bear the palm for all the qualities that go to make up the sportsman; and as I have been challenged to show that this at least is no empty boast, nor figment of the brain, I proceed to tell, for all but those who know it better than I, how the men of Devon hunt the wild red deer.

It was ordained that I should be the first of my race born out of Devon, and there was perhaps allotted to me lacking that birthright a keener relish for all that Devon yields, so that a certain home-sickness will often befall me, which that sweet air and homely speech and hospitable fare only may cure. It is then I go west, go where merrie England is merrie England still, remote from stir and traffic of modern life, forgotten of civilization and the so-called march of mind. Cathay within three hundred miles of Paddington Station!

Not many years ago there came over me the old longing. As summer merged into autumn it got into my blood and there being no help for it, ere September waned I packed my bag and set out for Exmoor. There, descendants of the tall deer whom the Conqueror "loved as if he were their father," were to be found in plenty, hunted with horn and hound, captured and slain.

As much in the spirit of the pilgrim as of the sportsman, I made my way to where the river Exe and its big brother Barle have union. To Dulverton I fared, even as John Ridd had fared two hundred years before, and as I crossed the threshold of the Red Lion, recalled John Fry's striding into the hostel, "with the air and grace of a short-legged man, and shouting as loud as if he were calling sheep upon Exmoor."

"Hot mootton pasty for twoo trarv'lers, at number vaive, in vaive minnits! Dish un up in the tin with the grahvy, zame as I hardered last Tuesday."

In these days Dulverton may be said to exist for one purpose only, that of hunting the stag—with perhaps a little fishing thrown in. The oldest inhabitant will meet you upon the bridge, and with true Devonshire garrulity discourse of stag. Sauntering alongside you the length of its single street, he will point out the abode of the tailor (who makes hunting garments), of the cobbler (who makes riding boots). A saddler's shop is almost an appanage of the inn under whose portico, on the day of my arrival, a fuming sportsman and a well "done" horse were eloquent of stag. In the town there was suppressed excitement, and what passes in those parts for bustle and stir. The traffic had a way of suddenly disappearing down an alley which led to the banks of the Barle, and so to Exford. Needless to say, the attraction at Exford was Mr Bisset's kennels, nor would any peace or comfort reign in Dulverton until such time as news should arrive of the find and the kill.

That evening we sat in the stone-floored parlour of the inn and drank cider out of blue pint mugs—no true son of Devon drinks from a tumbler—and by my side was the warped old man who had weathered eighty Exmoor winters, and who told of the season of bitter frost when the red deer would come by the score of a morning to the farmers' ricks of corn and hay and clover, and some of them so tame that they would present themselves at the back door for a drink of water.

On the following day, things had quieted down. The staghounds were in kennel; and although the Exmoor foxhounds met in the neighbourhood for cub-hunting, heedless people went their way and took no notice of a pursuit only distantly connected with stag.

At last the eventful or stag-hunting day is ushered in, and as usual one's preparations are discovered at the last moment to be incomplete. A refractory boot causes delay and consequent anguish to a small party who have to travel with me on wheels from Dulverton to the meet at Venniford Cross; for eighteen Devonshire miles are before us, and it is conceivable that the day would have ended before our journey, had our coachman been other than a native Jehu. A man must live in the west of England to get used to driving horses at a hand-gallop up and down hills of which the gradient is sometimes less than 1 in 4 and sometimes more. And so we go on, our driver singing—

"When the wind whistles cold on the moors of a night,

All along, down along, out along lee,

Tom Pearce's ould mare doth appear gashly white,

Wi' Bill Brewer, Jan Slewer, Peter Gurney, Peter Davy, Dan'l Whiddon, Harry Hawke;

Old Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all, old Uncle Tom Cobleigh and a—a—ll."

At noon we reach Venniford Cross and find our horses who were sent on yesterday, little short-legged animals with perfect shoulders and forelegs of iron; as well they may have, to climb almost perpendicular hills and gallop over the rugged Devonian slate country, which attains its greatest elevation on Exmoor. The stream of traffic was enormous, or so it seemed in those unfrequented parts. The countryside was agog, and for twenty miles round few Devonians able to sit a horse can have been absent from the meet. Here leaked out a change of venue: it had been determined to draw the gorse and the combes which seam the side of Dunkery, and so for some miles we jogged on by road, sometimes at a walk, often at a fast trot, but always ascending higher and higher. We seemed to be climbing heights of stupendous proportions.

Cloutsham is at length reached, and on the plateau assembled the sort of "field" that Devon and Somerset turn out when the staghounds are afoot. There are the sporting farmer, a doctor or two, boys on ponies, parsons on cobs, strangers from London, neighbours from South Devon, the master of Pixton and other "county" people, and of course every hunting lady of the district, not all of whom use the side saddle! Among this goodly company hardly one is there whose thoughts and anxieties are not centred on the chase—the chase stripped of polish and luxury, the chase divorced from good cheer and even from opportunities for vain display. The instinct and passion of the hunter possesses them all.

We have all come long journeys and have perhaps many hours to remain in the saddle; and now is the time to ease our horses. The field dismounts, and booted ladies are seen seated by the roadside, or seeking refreshment of milk and bread and clotted cream at an adjacent farmhouse. While the "tufters" are drawing, we look round again and inly rejoice that Exmoor is still a vast wild tract hardly civilised. Around it Brendon common lies unenclosed, and the miles from Alderman's Barrow to the east of Dunkery are unbroken by a fence. We are told of rare birds and beasts to be seen there along with the red deer which have had a home in Exmoor from time immemorial; polecats are found, though now somewhat rarely; the Montagu's harrier is occasionally seen; a snowy owl was shot some few years back, and only two years ago a pelican was found walking about on the North Forest if the story of a Somersetshire farmer may be believed. The stag-hunting country is a matter of six and thirty miles, which often the tireless hounds will cross from end to end after their quarry.

Surely the most important, interesting, and difficult part of the chase of the wild deer is the "harbouring," as it is called. How fine an exercise of woodcraft! The harbourer's best guide is the slot, or footprint of the deer, which, to the experienced eye, tells whether the deer afoot be stag or hind, and whether of proper age to hunt and kill. Four or five hours are often spent by the most skilful harbourer in tracking a warrantable stag to his lair. The deer duly harboured, the next thing is to rouse him, and force him to break cover and run for dear life. Selected hounds called "tufters" are laid on the drag, and master, huntsman, whip and harbourer, post themselves where they will be able to stop the hounds after this purpose is served.

Looking across the declivity in front of us, we see the wooded slopes where a stag has been harboured. The scarlet jackets of huntsman and whips move about in the distance, directing the tufters by horn and voice. "There he goes, sir," at length cries a schoolboy on his pony, whose sharp eyes have detected the graceful bound of a deer; but it is a hind, and the schoolboy is told that, although hinds are hunted later on, the present is a close time for them, and that our jolly company of sportsmen and ladies will not ride to hounds this day unless a warrantable stag be found. Our "harboured" stag had evidently wandered on.

Let us leave the field to indulge in that gossip for which Devonians are famous, and follow at a respectful distance the tufters now moving across Cloutsham Ball to Ten Acre Cleeve. We of course find it necessary almost immediately to negotiate a combe, that is, to descend the sides of one of those deep ravines with which Exmoor abounds. We yield the reins and see our horse's head disappear between our knees, his croup rises to our neck, and so we slip, shuffle, and slide down the precipitous pathway. In the bottom of the combe, we meet the tufters returning; they have roused their stag, and now rejoin the pack. Jogging forward, we see a noble beast of chase, large as an eastern donkey, the antlered monarch of Exmoor, trotting in a leisurely way, and evidently making for Holm Wood.

Jumping the fence into the fields by Bucket Hole, our stag has met a woman and two children, who flourished a pink apron at him, so he has turned back, showing how easily sometimes a stag may be headed if he has formed no definite plan as to where he will go; within five minutes we were to see how hopeless a task it is to head a stag when he is determined to make his point. Crossing the combe towards us, the stag came up to the edge of the bushes and coasted along the side, while we rode along the heather on the ridge, in the vain hope that we could keep him out of the Porlock Coverts. Just by Whitestones he turned up, and, undismayed by the shouting and smacking of whips, trotted up to our horses. Riding at him was no good; a sudden stop with lowered antlers—all his rights and three on top both sides—a bound to one side or another, and he is behind you, and perfectly ready to encounter the next one; horses, too, will not go near a stag if they can help it.

Although we did all we knew to turn him, I do not think we forced him fifty yards from the course he would have taken had he been left to himself. Andrew Miles always declared that there was only one way to turn a stag, and it would have required an exceedingly well-drilled field, proof against the temptation to look at the stag, to carry out his plan. "Get right in front of the stag," Miles would say, "and ride as hard as you can go for the point to which he is making; he will dodge round you if you ride at him, but he will not deliberately follow you."

But now our stag, with an air of insulted majesty, turns his back upon us and sets out for his long last journey. He must rouse himself, for the soul-stirring notes of the hounds float towards us. The pack is at length laid on, the sweet scent fills the big hounds with delirious joy, and in long drawn file they race forward, and the chase begins.

We had a nice gallop over Skilgate Common and down a steep, root-grown slope, through the Bittscombe plantations. The stag turned down the valley to Raddington. Despite the blazing sun and intense heat, hounds ran fast, but Devonia's wilds are not everywhere to be invaded, and here the sobbing horses must pound along the road, while the hounds turn up over a grass field as steep as the side of a house; some riders indeed climbed up, some cast forward, others like myself cast back towards Skilgate, on the chance of the stag swinging round towards Haddon again; but we were wrong, as he went straight over the top, past Hove and Quarterly, into the Exe valley by Morebath, running through several little coverts. From this point I was beaten out of my country and hardly know how to tell of our wanderings.

The stag worked the line of a brook past Shillingford as far as Hockley bridge where he soiled, but the eager hounds gave little respite, and our new-found stag went away up a little valley to the left. Hounds ran on fast, keeping about a hundred yards from the lane, which helped us to get along, for Devonshire banks with the leaves on cannot be ridden over in September. The heat and dust were something to be remembered, but hounds pushed on, hovering a minute where bullocks had been over the line, and again where a mare and foal charged them in a most determined manner doing, luckily, no harm. Huntsham seemed to be the point, a good old-fashioned line often travelled by deer fifty years ago, but most unusual now.

Leaving Huntsham on the right, we went on by Cudmore to Hole Lake, hounds running on grass, horses again pounding along the road. Now we turn into the fields and gallop alongside the pack, which kept on in most determined manner, and with more music than is usually given on so hot a day. We soon got into a maze of small combes running down to the brook which passes under Huntsham Wood. From gate to gate, and gap to gap we hie, keeping as near hounds as may be, and passed a farm which I was told is Redwood. A patch of ferny gorse-covered ground is Bere Down, across which hounds ran fast, much disturbing a pony at grass, who jumped the fence down the biggest drop I ever saw anything except a deer come over in safety. The stag went down the line of the brook till its junction with the bigger Loman Water near Chief Loman. Here a long check refreshed us, the stag having worked first the road and then the water for a long distance. The pack puzzled it out slowly, both Anthony and Col. Hornby dismounting to keep close to them through the impassable places. Then we heard a holloa ahead, and hounds were lifted about a quarter of a mile to Land's Mill, when they hit off the line, just owning it down the road, and so recall us to the chase.

The field seemed hardly to diminish, though it kept changing; many of those from the Minehead and Dunster side stopped and went home, but every hamlet, every farm we passed, brought out recruits eager to see the hounds, for they do not often come this way. The whole country was in a wild state of commotion and excitement. A capital gallop over a ridge of hills, where the chase went through a field of roots, which some gentlemen were just beginning to shoot over (and much I fear we spoiled their sport), brought us to the Western Canal, where the stag swam over, while we crossed by a bridge, and went on again to the Halberton lane. In the field beyond, sheep had foiled the ground, but hounds cast forward, and were soon running again down to the canal, which here "ran a ring." Hounds feathered down the towing-path and over the railway, where we had to make a détour. We had just rejoined them when there was a burst of music, and the stag was seen swimming in the canal. He scrambled out, ran down the road a few hundred yards with the pack at his heels, and then jumped over the fence into ploughed ground, where he fell, and was rolled over a moment afterwards, when he was found to have a broken leg. The fatal stab to the heart was dealt as soon as our stag was taken, and now the hounds must be given their portion. "Look at that!" exclaims a sporting farmer as the body is turned over and the legs are seen standing stark and stiff in the air. "Ay, properly runned up, poor thing," answers the huntsman, who is busy anatomising. "Brisher, bother your old head, you'm always after the venison." And Brusher, who has stolen forward and began licking the haunch, beats a hasty retreat, not without a taste of whipcord. Then the hounds' portion is made over to them, the huntsman reserves his perquisites, and the head being claimed by the Master, all the farmers of the district account for the venison share and share alike. The run lasted exactly seven hours from the lay on; the last hour and a-half we hunted in the dark. Eight only of us saw the finish.

And now looking over my record of this memorable run how bare an itinerary it seems, lacking the mental eye to fill up the scene with luscious autumn tints, and lacking too the stir and movement of the chase. Then the blood boils in veins of horse and man, then a fierce energy urges on the pursuers. What can compare with it, but the wild charge of cavalry? The occasion past, however, our pulse resumes its normal beat, and presently in slumber the scene and all its glories fade away. But not the memory fades! Year by year while trouble, sickness, hopes and longings get blotted from our recollection, the printed page or glance at whip and spur, shall revive with more than pristine splendour, the memory of the chase.

And what of the stag? Well, the stag's life is not, I fear, a happy one; for him no sooner is one trouble past than another is upon him. During the summer his horns are growing and keep him in constant irritation and anxiety. The velvet is hardly lost when the fever of the rutting season consumes him. Then there is the hard winter to live through, and with the return of spring returns also the period for the shedding of old horns, and sprouting of new ones. Indeed, it is only for a few weeks in every year that the stag is his perfect self, and those weeks, with a small margin before and after, constitute what is called the stag-hunting season, a season of relief to the farmer whose turnip crops have been ruined by the herd's depredations, a season of anxiety to the master of the Devon and Somerset staghounds, a season of delight to him who loves the chase. Pleasure unalloyed, indeed, for so long as fortune favours him, but assuredly the day will sooner or later arrive when a grip or cart rut on Exmoor will turn horse and rider over, when the red grass or white bog flower that should warn the horseman to "take a pull" is overlooked or disregarded, with alarming results. The least of the ills that flesh is heir to, when stag-hunting on Exmoor, is to lose one's way twenty miles from home, and be found a solitary horseman wandering on the moor, soaked to the skin, out of hail of any living creature but forest ponies, and uneasily musing on the old nurse-tales of pixies. If, in such case, you are fortunate enough to stumble upon a moorland farm, do not fail to accept the shelter which will surely be offered; and so shall the congratulations of your friends sound sweet in your ears when you return safe and sound on the morrow. Your landlord also, if you are staying at an inn and hunting on a hired mount, will welcome you with such evident sincerity that you feel sure it is not unconnected with the recovery of his horse.