A Pytchley Wednesday

September 5th, 2014

forgotten books

digitized by Google

Badminton Magazine of Sports and Pastimes

volume 24 March 1907

page 253

by Lilian E Bland

Lilbourne Covert consists of blackthorn, privet, and gorse enclosed by rails and a high-sheltering bullfinch, a snug, warm covert which the Pytchley foxes fully appreciate. A few yards away, on the summit of the hill, is what in Ireland we should call a “ Rath ” — a high grass-covered mound, which is used as a grandstand by the spectators, and from this point of vantage one has a bird’s-eye view over the surrounding country.

Acres upon acres of sound old grazing land, mapped into large fields by brown lines of fences; old trees like sentinels guard the lines, their skeleton branches outlined against a dull sky. The Hemplow hills are scarcely visible, a typical grey atmosphere softly blends the distant fields into grey haze; here and there out of the mist rise some pointed spires, landmarks to all fox-hunters, South Kilworth, Swinford; while, nearer, the woods round Stamford take a deeper shade of grey.

Down below in the valley winds the sluggish River Avon and the line to Market Harborough — fortunately both are easily crossed by gates and bridges to the hill opposite and the village of Catthorpe. And here at 10.45 a.m. you can if you like mingle with a crowd of some five hundred or six hundred mounted men and women, not to mention motors, carriages of every description, bicycles, and crowds on foot. The scene rather reminds one of a church parade; everyone turned out spick and span, horses and riders groomed to perfection, a kaleidoscope of pink coats, black coats, a good sprinkling of sporting farmers, horse dealers, here and there a parson, boys back for the holidays, little girls, some riding astride, as they all should do. Then the horses, mostly good hunters, and the general type clean bred, or very near it, with good bone and quality, averaging 16.1 h.h. Fashion decrees that their manes shall be either hogged or plaited, and very smart they look.

Their long tails are frequently adorned with red ribbon, worn as often as not to give the rider more room in the crowd. There are plenty of foreigners out, Australians who gaily jump wire, Yankees with their American-trained ‘timber-toppers’, Frenchmen who go in for sport with a capital “ S,” Austrians, Germans, etc. I remember one of the latter wrestling with his hunting kit, which from his peculiar appearance he must have hired from some theatrical show; but the climax came when his coachman’s tops worked up over his knee. Then his anguish was painful to behold ! One finds many amusing types. That fat, good-tempered man thoroughly enjoys the sport; to see him “ schaming” for a start you might think he was a hard rider, but like many others he only jumps his fences in imagination, after tea, when he will tell you how he successfully pounded the whole field, and had hounds to himself. What matter?  More than half the field came out for fresh air and gentle exercise; and as for hounds, they have probably never thought of their existence.

But the “ ladies” are in temporary safety, surrounded by their whips and second horsemen, mounted on bay hogged-maned longtails, which look as though they had all been turned out of the same mould to order. Frank Freeman, late of the Bedale, is huntsman; a nice light weight, very smart with his hounds, and a good man to ride, he has already accounted for eighty-seven brace of foxes. If you are interested in hound work get Freeman on the subject of ‘Despot’ and ‘Desperate’ by ‘Brocklesby Wrangler’, two champions to hunt their fox; while in ‘Palafox’, brother to his favourite bitch ‘Pancake’, he has a young hound of great promise. The dog pack are fifteen and a half couple, and they run with the big bitches, for the “ladies” are generous and forgiving, and not jealous of their rights, like the dogs, who object strongly to the cavalry brigade. But the small bitches are out to-day, and I’m sorry there is not time for separate introduction, but the Master, Lord Annaly, has given Freeman the signal to move off. Down across the fields to Lilbourne Covert, thus avoiding the splashes of the muddiest lane in creation, which leads to it from the road.

There are a few gates to get through, and if you are wise you will cut in sideways and let someone else feel the solidity of the gate-post. Once through, away they canter, with a flash of heels, bucks, and plunges. “  Whoa,  you  brute! ” gasps a dignified sportsman, as his steed bucks him off, and he lands in a sitting position on his best silk topper! “ Gone away! ” from a lady whose steed careers madly down the field while her hat comes off, and her golden hair (only it was not) streams wildly down her back.

Splash through a knee-deep cattle gap, and we are up to the covert, while still the procession streams back to Catthorpe. “Lew in there,  lew in;”  and in a second the bitches are into covert, the undergrowth swishes and crackles, one catches glimpses of lashing stems; a short silence, and then above the hum of voices, and jingle of bridle and irons, one hears a short, sharp squeak, more like the yap of a terrier. That’s ‘Maiden’, and Freeman cheers her on. Then a whimper long-drawn like the wail of a dog dreaming, the little black-and-tan ‘Pancake’ speaks to it, and ‘Rigorous’ answers with a deeper note; soon the stirring melody ripples through the covert, up and down, round and round. The cavalry are restless now; some crowd to the gate leading through the covert, other divisions block the gates towards Catthorpe, others keep an eye on the lane. And with what varied emotions their little hearts are beating!  The thrusters with hats jammed firmly down keep clear of the crowd, ready to turn and ride for their lives whichever way he goes.

Horses with twitching ears stamp and paw the ground, champing their bits and snatching at the reins, while a staid old hunter rests one leg and listens intently with his head on one side; and perhaps if your ears are as keen as his you will hear a low whistle. Freeman will not let his whips “ Tally ” a fox, for that only means the crowd charging round before a hound is out of covert; he has a soft little note on the horn, and “ Come along, coop ! ” and before anyone has realised that the fox is away, Freeman with the flying bitches is a field ahead. Then the horn toots a blithe “ Gone away! ” and now catch ‘em if you can.

Thereupon confusion reigns; the roar and thunder of hundreds of galloping hoofs on sound turf makes one wonder why every young horse does not bolt, and also makes one devoutly thankful that the  ” earthquake ”  does not last for more than a field or two, that in a very short time they will be scattered to the four winds of heaven, and split up into numerous divisions, each following some leader like a flock of sheep. However, in this case the fox has gone away past the “ grand stand,” and, the crowd being chiefly packed at the lower end of the covert, we get a good start through the gate by the farm buildings, then over a stile into the next field, on to the Watling Street road. Here people who have missed an easy corner are taking headers on to the road over a particularly stiff stake-and-bound, always an uncomfortable thing to fall on (the road) ; meanwhile hounds have gone straight across to Sir Albert Muntz’s plantations, and we cut through the gate down the fields to the gorse. Most of the fences are wire here, and the Master blocks the next gate, but the bitches run through the covert and are away again. For a few moments the gate is held to give them a chance, and then — well, that gateway resembles a champagne bottle when the cork has popped off; horses cannon through and spread out like a fan, one lady gets heaved out of her saddle and hangs over the off side until someone hauls her over again ; now we are through, and heading for the boundary fence, a double-oxer with the Hillmorton Brook beyond.

Now you will hear a little artillery practice, a crashing and splitting of timber, with many an empty saddle, and then for the brook! There are four ladies down; one horse lands with his legs doubled under him, the rider in her efforts to get out of the saddlepulls him over backwards, and they take it with a splash; another is being hauled out, while her horse gallops away on the far side. A soldier comes with a rush on a chestnut weed, and clears it with feet to spare. John Darby, who hates getting wet, rides with caution ; a lady charging it at the same moment, there is a collision in mid-air, and her opponent scrambles out like a water-rat, the same side he went in. Further down, a man over six feet high, who has been shot over his horse’s head, in terror of being drowned is swimming for his life, churning up the mud at the bottom, while delighted spectators cheer him on to further efforts. There is yet another strange sight: A lady, apparently in black silk tights, is being held up by her boots to let the water run out !

In the next field the fox has been chased by a cur dog, and hounds are brought to their noses. “ Hold hard, gentlemen, please stand still !”  from the long-suffering Master. But there is one thing a Pytchley field will not do – keep still ; at a check it is a case of the first shall be last and the late-comers first ; but ‘Rigorous’ holds a line up the hedgerow, and they flash away left-handed and cross the Watling Street again, a difficult in-and-out for any but a handy lepper.

A heavyweight crashes through the hedge, making a useful gap; others prefer a flight of rails, but the ‘take-off’ is bad, the ground dips down; the first man clears it, and a voice in the crowd yells, “Go on, someone will smash the top rail ! ” but, alas, the posts give as they are hit, the top rail remains, and the next three land on heads and knees in the road, narrowly missing being galloped over. Now we leave Hillmorton behind us, and swing round, leaving Crick on the right, and on over the cream of the country towards Yelvertoft.

Oh! the joy and keenness of life, galloping over springy turf with a long-striding thoroughbred under one, flying through the air over a cut-and-laid, swishing through a bullfinch head down, arm up, while you catch a glimpse of a yawning ditch flashed over, and forward on, with the wind whistling past one, the thud of galloping hoofs, and the sweet smell of the grass, while the white and tan beauties stream away beyond. They are running mute now, for the pace is too good for babbling, only occasionally a lady will throw her tongue in pure ecstasy.

Now we get a ridge and furrow, covered with ant-heaps; the hunter shortens his stride, changes legs, and it’s a case of bump bump, up and down, until you wonder where you will hit the saddle next. Crash through the next binder –  your pilot has landed on his head. “All right?”   “Yes, go on!” and looking back one sees another hunter roll into the ditch, and, thoroughly cooked, he intends to lie there, while his anxious rider pulls at his head and wonders if his back is broken. Past Yelvertoft we hit off the ford across the river, and while waiting our turn to cross are enveloped in a thick fog from the steam of sweating horses; some do their best to plop down in the mud and have a refreshing roll, while impatient riders push forward; but this ford requires knowing, and they vanish under water in a deep hole with much spluttering and plunging, one man being with difficulty fished from under his horse in a half-drowned condition.

On again, up the hill towards the Hemplow, where a line of gates comes in very welcome, for foam-flecked necks and heaving sides tell their tale, and the best of hunters can have enough. The first gate was kept open by the weight of a horse who was hanging across it ; the poor brute turned its head with a piteous expression to the horses galloping through; it was a case of lifting the gate off its hinges. Looking back from the hill, one could see people scattered in every field as far as the eye could reach, some galloping on, others at a standstill, some walking after loose horses, while nearer a group stand round some invisible object.

Meanwhile the good fox, disdaining that stronghold of his brethren, the Hemplows, pointed his mask for Kilworth and made a gallant effort to reach the canal; but his strength was fast failing him, and the bitches ran from scent to view. Then the music! – the melody of the pack singing for blood!  On they strain, and the gallant fox turns at bay with a flash of bared teeth; but the white-and-tan wave rolls over him with a growl and snarl. Who-whoop! The last rites are finished, the ” ladies ” chant the death-song as Freeman holds a tattered mass before their eager eyes, and then scuffle, worry worry, loo-loo-loo-o!  low growls and snarling tugs of war over some crimson morsel, and all is over.

Forty-five minutes over the grass, without the ghost of a ploughed field, and the last twenty at racing pace. There are many seamy sides to fox-hunting, but the charm of the sport lies in its uncertainty, and all past misfortunes are forgotten, while the few red-letter days remain to be a joy and consolation to us when we can only ride them over again in memory.

The illustrations used in this article were not available on the digitized copy.
These are the captions:

    [Evidently the writer is the lady here and on page 259.—ED.]
Photo      GONE AWAY !
Photo      A FLY FENCE

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