Bedtime Stories: Guy Wheeler

In his charming book The Year ‘Round, Guy Wheeler takes the reader through a foxhunter’s calendar. It makes for comforting reading. When you’re suffering through a heat wave in mid-July and hunt season seems impossibly far away, it’s nice to open The Year ‘Round to the chapter titled “November: The Opening Meet,” where the description will keep you going in the certainty that there will indeed be cool weather and another opening meet. It’s also nice to read about the month you’re in and know that you are on a schedule that foxhunters have followed for many, many a year, making you part of the continuum.

As we’re on the brink of August and our hours among hounds have been taken up with summer walk, we present “August: Still Earlier Mornings.”

“If in mid-summer you think you, or with the approach of cub-hunting, your horse, could do with a little exertion to help dissipate what Mr. Delme Radcliffe MFH calls ‘inside fat,’ I can think of no better advice than to suggest that you ask permission to accompany hounds on exercise.

“You can exercise hounds on foot, on a horse or on a bicycle; that is, of course, you are on the bicycle or horse–hounds have difficulty reaching the pedals.

“The form is first to ask the Master. He will say–

‘Yes, of course. Delighted if you would help. I can’t get out as often as I would like. Will you see Tom about it?’–and leave the rest up to you.

“The next step is to go to the kennels. Tom, the kennel-huntsman, will say–‘Very happy to have you come along, sir. We’ll be walking ’em out tomorrow morning if you care to come to kennels at five, sir?’

‘Walking out? On foot? At five?’ You try to say all this nonchalantly, as though you expected it. …

“There you are at five in the morning, standing by the grass yard gate, in a gentle, warm drizzle, wondering how you are going to stay awake at the rather pompous dinner party in the evening. Confidentially, that is the least of your worries. Just remember to say to your hostess as soon as possible after your arrival and loudly enough for everyone else to hear–‘Sorry if I seem dull tonight, I was out exercising hounds at five this morning.’ That will explain everything, including falling asleep in your soup; but remember to say it before you do; it doesn’t sound nearly so effective through a table napkin soggy with Vrown Windsor. …

“Back to the yard gate. There you stand watching the hounds circling, playing, rolling, galloping hither and yon and rearing up against the wire fence shouting at you to hurry and let them out.

“Your cap is down over your eyes, your hands are deep in your pockets and your shoulders hunched against the weather. You think of the warm bed you have left. The drizzle oozes over your fourth vertebra.

“Tom comes bustling round the corner of the fence. Ben, the second whip, strides down the yard. Their cheery alertness shames you out of your misery and you try to look more alive than you feel.

“‘If you’ll just stand over there,sir,’ says Tom. ‘They’ll come out a bit sharp like, so you don’t want to bein their way. Right, Ben. Let ’em on.’

“Ben pushes his way through the hounds. ‘Get back, Marvel! Get back, Somerset, get back will you! How the hell d’you think I’m going to open the gate with your fat backside in the way. Get back! You, too, Thrasher. Get on out of it.’

“He heaves the gate open against the weight of the close-packed hounds and out they pour, squeezing, shoving, leaping over one another in a tumble of tan, white, and black. Most rush over to where Tom stands, calling them quietly by name as they surge round him. Some swing over to have a look at you, more out of curiosity than courtesy. …

“Though my memory is the despair of my associates, I have never had any difficulty in learning and remembering the names of hounds. The first and easiest feature for recognition is, of course, the colour. But many hounds share the same pattern of colour, so this means can often be misleading particularly at a distance. The trick, I was taught, is to study the way the hounds moves and carries itself; and to learn how it speaks. It fascinates me how when, with a minor gale blowing and the width of a thick wood between them, a huntsman will listen to a solitary hound speak faintly once and say–‘That damn Sextant! What he’s babbling on about I’m sure I don’t know. And he don’t neither, I warrant you!’ or, on the other hand–

‘Hark to old Counsellor there!’ A pause, and the hound speaks again more insistently. ‘Counsellor’s got it! Hark to Counsellor! Hark to Counsellor, all of you!’

–and be right both times.

From a summer hound walk: The Day of the Decoy. Photo by Eloise Penn.

“… It comes from a real love for hounds and understanding of how they think. This is not learned from the study of pedigrees and books on hound management, but by being with and observing hounds in kennel and out at exercise. One never learns exactly how any hound will behave in the hunting field this way; but one will get a very good idea. For those who ride to hunt there is no better way of increasing your enjoyment of a day’s hunting than by this sort of knowledge of the hounds you follow. And such acquaintance enables you, in times of crisis and a divided pack, to offer valuable help to th ehunt staff.

“However, there you are striding alongside Tom behind the hounds, feeling a touch better now that you are on the move, and your instruction begins.

“‘Now this bitch here by me is Silence, entered last season and done well, she did. Bit light you’d say and her neck’s on the short side too. Statesman there, you can always tell him by the white line between his shoulders, he’s out of the same litter; and so’s Stamper, him with the black saddle, he’s a good sort. Takes after his sire old Pageant up in front there. Always in front those two, Pageant and Paragon. Good hunting hounds those two, sir, go all day they will; they’re the devil to stop when you want to. They’re by Blankly Chaplain out of our Parasol, that old dark bitch what’s getting under your feet there; get on, Parasol girl!–can’t abide roads, she can’t, sir, her feet’s none too good, poor old girl, but get her on grass and she ruddy flies.’

“And so on. At the end of the exercise your head is full, so to speak, of Parasol’s feet, Stampers saddle, and Silence’s short neck and you wonder if you will ever get them straight. You find yourself looking forward to the next time you are invited to be at the kennels at five in the morning and wondering why it was all so difficult earlier.”

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