The Kimblewick Hunt met on Tuesday at Cholsey Grange Farm in the Chiltern Hills. How sane they were about the politics of hunting, and how hospitable to an unknown journalist.
Port, chocolate brownies, cocktail sausages and small pieces of tandoori pheasant were handed round in the yard; the Huntsman and Master, Andrew Sallis, wearing the tawny yellow coat of the Old Berkeley (one of the predecessor packs of the Kimblewick), removed his hat and delivered a short speech of thanks to our hosts, Jackie and Ted Howard-Jones; and a mounted field of about 20 moved off with the hounds.
A larger number of foot followers, including your correspondent, walked after them to a point of vantage, where a glorious prospect of chalky fields, wooded hills and narrow valleys opened before us. The weather was cold and wet, but that did not dim the spirits of the followers, who included small children who rejoiced to stump along in the mud. Rob Truscott, Kennel Huntsman at the Kimblewick, who is from Hull, said he was first taken hunting on a pony by his mother when he was four.
Two quad bikes swept past, red kites sailed to and fro above us, and a dozen deer crossed a distant field in single file. Someone recalled a hunt saboteur who had berated them for “bringing children to see foxes being ripped to pieces”.
A child replied: “I’m enjoying myself. Leave us alone.”
And that in a nutshell is what other followers said too, when asked what they thought about Theresa May’s announcement that she will not hold the vote on the repeal of the Hunting Act which had been promised in the Tory Manifesto. They feel, as one of them said, that they are “making the best of a bad job”, that the attention of an uncomprehending world will only make matters worse, that the Government just now has quite enough to attend to with Brexit, and that to engage in recriminations at the Prime Minister’s expense would be futile.
In the depths of the country, politics are less frenetic than at Westminster and judgments calmer, which is perhaps one reason why the Conservatives’ poll ratings are so far from disastrous.
Sallis himself remarked of May’s announcement before moving off: “It’s not a surprise. The mathematics don’t add up. I think it’s disappointing it had to be made so public. None of us expected it after the disappointment with the general election in the summer.”
He added that in the current situation “it’ll be a challenge to motivate the vast army” of hunt supporters who helped at recent elections to campaign for pro-hunting candidates in marginal seats, voluntary work with which he himself was involved in 2010 and 2015 as the South-East Director of Vote-OK.
“We’re all living in the Corbyn People’s Republic,” someone said.
“Not yet,” ConHome objected.
“Some people think they do,” Sallis said. “The Conservatives need to get ahead of the curve rather than behind.”
“How?” ConHome asked.
“I’ve got absolutely no idea,” he replied with a wry smile.
Jackie Howard-Jones, South Oxfordshire Secretary of the Kimblewick, said: “We want to try to get the law changed. But with Theresa May it doesn’t look very likely.”
Her son Harry, who is studying land management at Reading University, suggested of May: “She pandered slightly to the young vote.”
He observed that among students, “Nobody who has a non-rural background is pro-foxhunting. Social media are still really violently against fox-hunting. And there’s not much you can do about it. I’ve tried, I had great debates with my house-mates.”
Guy Portwin, who lives locally and drove me from Princes Risborough station to the meet, is a Director of the Countryside Alliance and said of May’s decision not to hold a vote: “It was pretty obvious. I never thought we should have pushed for repeal when there wasn’t a large majority. It’s such an emotive subject for socialists and some liberals. The fact that there were nine Conservatives saying they’d vote against us, it was a no-brainer.”
The mood among hunt followers was realistic rather than bitter. They do not want to pick a parliamentary battle which would be lost. These remarks were made before Labour called for a ban on trail hunting, in which hounds follow a pre-laid scent, which was what the Kimblewick was doing on Tuesday.
Several people said Labour is motivated much more by hatred of toffs than love of foxes. Foot followers come from all walks of life (a point I made at length some years ago in a piece for The Daily Telegraph), and as one of them put it: “That’s the trouble with the antis. It’s more a class thing for them. And now there’s so many youngsters going vegan.”
Christopher Harbord, aged 73 and retired from running his own business, said: “I think the great mistake is to fight the battle on animal rights. We should fight it on culture. My children feel very strongly their culture has been taken away from them. My daughter is a university tutor, and she always makes sure she’s got a nice calendar in the office from the Devon and Somerset Staghounds. You mustn’t be frightened.
“The French just say it’s a bit of our culture and that’s the end of it. Mind you, they’ve loads of rules about hunting, but at least you know where you are.”
We saw hounds working their way down the side of a wood, and some time later riders in the distance almost on the skyline and not far short of the M40, but at length there was nothing to be seen, and Harbord kindly offered me a lift in his car. In our hunt for the hunt, we saw Fingest Church, with its amazing Norman tower, passed close to Hell’s Corner Farm, where Barbara Castle, fiery Labour politician and strong opponent of fox hunting, once lived, and caught up with hounds and riders on the edge of the Getty estate at Wormsley.
Harbord, who had followed the hunt first on foot, then for 15 years on a horse, and now mainly by car, said of the political situation: “I thought we’d given up on the Conservatives. They’ve given up on us. Because they’re not Conservative.”
And yet this day with the Kimblewick was not depressing. It is invigorating and refreshing to be out in wonderful country with people who love their sport so much and who are so free and resourceful yet also so ordered. They keep up one of our greatest traditions, immortalised on the signs of innumerable pubs and in the novels of Surtees, and can say, with Mr Jorrocks:
“I am a sportsman all over, and to the back-bone. – ‘Unting is all that’s worth living for – all time is lost wot is not spent in ‘unting – it is like the hair we breathe – if we have it not we die – it’s the sport of kings, the image of war without its guilt, and only five-and-twenty per cent. of its danger.”