The Holcombe Hunt - Tally-ho in the 21st century
The ban on hunting has not prevented this dedicated band of Lancastrians from keeping a 900-year-old tradition alive. Roger Borrell reports Photography: Glyn Ward
No foxes were harmed during the writing of this feature and it doesn’t look like that’s going to change any time soon. When it comes to the law on hunting, most politicians have followed the foxes by going to ground.
But whatever your feelings about hunting, you can’t help admiring the hunt - a dedicated band of Lancastrian men and women who work within the law to keep a remarkable tradition alive. Several years into the ban, you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s the preserve of an eccentric few, those longer in the tooth and determined to cling onto a bygone age. But it’s actually attracting more and more younger riders.
Despite the fact that hunting 21st Century style seems a bit like fishing without a hook, enthusiasm for chasing nothing more elusive than an artificial scent trail seems as great as ever. In fact, some have argued that removing the kill has increased its popularity.
From the middle of September until the end of March, rain or shine, the hunt meets twice weekly with up to 60 riders and a good number of followers who come to enjoy the spectacle. The riders follow trails across farm land stretching from the edge of Southport, into the grasslands of mid-Lancashire and across to the eastern moors.
The Holcombe Hunt has been doing this since the 11th Century. It is one of the oldest in the world with its roots going back to 1086 and the hounds they use today are thought to be direct descendents of the Bleu de Gascoigne breed brought across by the invading Normans.
Back then, the hunters would have been the all-powerful aristocrats who conquered and then subjugated the Anglo-Saxon peasantry. Nothing much changed until well into the last century.
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‘Today, our members come from all walks of life,’ said joint master Martin Kirby. ‘It’s certainly not elitist. The average age is much lower than it was and we have far more people in their 20s and 30s who enjoy riding with the hounds.
‘This is a very old established organisation and we regard ourselves as stewards who work to keep it alive for the next generation.’
The Holcombe Hunt has three masters – Martin, Steven Ashworth, and unusually a woman, mother-of-two and company finance director Sue Simmons.
Sue has been involved with the hunt for 20 years. ‘I’d worked away but I’d always had a passion for equestrian sports and when I came back this seemed a good way of getting to meet people.
‘There are people who get involved in the politics of hunting but we simply work to keep this tradition going. We spend a lot of time with the farming community, who give us tremendous support. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to carry on. They are part of the social network and I believe the hunt is part of the golden threat running through the rural community.’
Gone are the days of ugly confrontations between huntsmen and women and saboteurs. ‘We still get hunt monitors arriving in minibuses,’ said Sue. ‘There can be around ten of them and they carry out what they call surveillance. Some might find it intimidating, but our job is to keep pace with the laws and work within them.’
One hunt regular, now a follower, is 89-year-old Bill Nicholson, who starting riding with the hunt in 1936 and kept going for a remarkable 75 years.
Bill, who farmed near Orrell, said: ‘Back in those days there were a lot more well to do people in the hunt. Those people had grooms so all they had to do was turn up and the horse was ready for them.
‘Today, there’s a real mix – it’s tinker, tailor…you name it. You can have a typist who keeps a horse and enjoys riding with the hounds and socialising.
‘In fact, this hunt has always met at pubs and, back in the days of the old licensing laws, they always managed to get an extension to keep the pub open all day. The locals could take advantage of that too and it often ended in a good old sing song. In fact, the Holcombe Hunt was nicknamed The Boozers!’
Times have changed. As the traditional stirrup cup was offered around the riders gathered at the carpark of the Cavendish Arms at Brindle, there were few takers. More to do with the drink driving laws than the death of another old tradition.
Meeting upYou can see the hunt in full flight at the New Year’s Day meet, always one of the big events in the Holcombe Hunt calendar. It starts at the Dressers Arms at Wheelton and riders gather at around 11am, moving off at noon. The pub serves early breakfasts that day. One of the major social events is the hunt ball on February 2 at the Dunkenhalgh Hotel. There are normally 300 guests.
A glorious trailAccording to the Holcombe Hunt history, they have enjoyed royal patronage of three kings - Edward 1, James 1 and George V. ‘In 1617, when James 1 visited Hoghton Tower, he was welcomed and much charmed by Sir Gilbert de Houghton’s extravagant gesture of laying velvet along the whole of the half-mile drive to the tower,’ it says.
‘The cost of this entertainment nearly ruined the de Houghton family, but the king was so impressed with Sir Gilbert that he granted a royal warrant to hunt over 12 townships, the privilege of wearing scarlet livery and knighted the loin of beef that evening Sir-Loin.’
One of the most famous families were the Jacksons. Three generations hunted on foot with the Holcombe and they amazed onlookers by jumping the fences like horses and landing on their hands and knees.
‘Prominent in the Holcombe Hunt were many of the titans of Lancashire textiles, including the anti-corn law triumvirate of Ashworth, Cobden and Bright,’ adds the history. ‘An Ashworth was often Master of Harriers and all three men were Quakers, thus enduring the criticism of the Society of Friends for hunting and shooting.’
The wealth created by Lancashire’s textile industry led to the formation of several rival harrier packs and these led to point-to-point races. The first hosted by the Holcombe was in 1921 when 40,000 gathered at Affetside, near Bolton. Mills and shops closed down to witness what was called the ‘Mill Workers’ Grand National.’
During World War Two, a destroyer was name HMS Holcombe in honour of the hunt. Sadly, a year after her launch she was sunk by a U-Boat off the Algerian coast. More than 80 lives were lost along with six solid silver tankards inscribed with HH, presented to the vessel by hunt members.