Thursday, 17 January 2013

Beagling

The local pack of Beagles were then the Aldershot Beagles and they were then kenneled at Oxney Farm which adjoined the army camp. Indeed the pack was a military pack at the time. What that meant in real terms was that the military, in this case the Army, owned the pack and funded it. The Senior Joint Master was always a serving office and all serving military personal hunted free of charge. The constitution said something like "The hunt existed for the recreation, exercise and free access to the countryside for serving soldiers." The huntsman was a civilian but often soldiers would be detached from normal duties to help in kennels. This was a normal state of affairs in that all three branches of the Armed Forces had packs of hounds both beagles and fox hounds and this continued until the Labour government, before last, put a stop to the funding and all of the military packs then became civilian and had to fund themselves. Happily close links still remain between the packs and their former military masters, indeed military insignia is still worn on hunt uniforms in many packs.
I became aware of the beagles when living at Woodfield and still attending Kingsley school. A small group of village boys came across the pack whilst they were hunting on a Saturday afternoon. Curious as we were we began following the activities. This, of course, was right up our street and for many of us it began a regular Saturday diversion. For myself it began a lifelong interest in hunting and one that my grandchildren now join me in. But it could all have been so different, in those days the divide between those that hunted and those that did not was much more obvious than it is today.
The class system was up and running albeit diluted by the two World Wars. We were, if you like, village oiks. There were some quite posh people that followed the beagles and certainly from much richer backgrounds than our own. The Senior Master was then Brigadier Gibson, of course, a serving officer in one of the regiments stationed at Bordon. He was, I suppose, just what a Brigadier should look like. Although not exceptionally tall, he was rotund, erect and had the sort of colour that, I imagine, many pleasant hours of devotion in the Officers Mess had provided. His hair was then grey and this was matched by an impressive military moustache. He was stocky and was carried on sturdy and solid legs, in fact he had what could reasonably be described as a rugby players physique. As might be expected he had the aura of command and as far as I and my companions were concerned the Brigadier was the nearest thing to God we had ever encountered. We held him in awe. But, notwithstanding his bearing and charisma he was kind and pleasant toward us. Ever watchful , he found time to explain to us in great detail exactly what was going on and what beagling was all about.
By contrast his wife, Mrs. Gibson was a tiny lady, very slim, petite I think is the word. She was one of twins and her sister would usually be out hunting, it was difficult to tell them apart. Mrs. Gibson dressed in the style of a country lady of her day. Heavy tweeds in greens, lovat and browns. When hunting she wore hunting breeks with heavy leather boots and a jacket that matched the breeks. The thing that most attracted me to her was the fact that she and her sister were always accompanied by a brace or two of Border Terriers. These were a delight and over the years I have owned a number of them, as I still do today.
One of the startling realisations of writing these episodes for the Kings Blog is, quite how much of an impact my childhood years formed and influenced the rest of my life. Whilst this might seem an obvious statement , it isn’t until one actually looks back that the magnitude of that process becomes clear. However, moving on, Mrs. Gibson, from day one took us boys under her wing. She would greet us and then between her and her sister we would be organised. Each would supervise a couple of us and we would receive the benefit of their knowledge and instruction. It was wonderful, they taught us how a hare ran, the vagaries of scent, the notes of the horn and they taught us to keep quiet. It was due, I have no doubt at all, entirely to Mrs. Gibson and her sister that I and other village boys went on to follow and enjoy hunting and beagling. It is, I believe, a great tribute to that lovely lady that she gave so much and so freely to a group such as ours. It would not be an exaggeration to say we worshiped her and, of course, her terriers which we were occasionally allowed to lead in the field.
As I grew up I went beagling a lot and this increased as I got older and during the years that Roy Clinkard was kennel huntsman for the Aldershot . Roy was an exceptional huntsman and a very great houndsman. He would usually do well in hound shows, almost always returning home with cups. He kept the kennels and surrounding area spotless and was very proud of his work. I covered many miles at his side in the hunting field and was always amazed at his ability to spot a hare. Many have been the times when he would whisper or hold out his arm towards me and say, "there she is boy". I would be looking in vain for the crouching hare and was seldom able to spot it in spite of knowing it was there. My first sighting would usually be when the hounds came near and the hare leapt up and raced away. Try as I would I could never match this, almost, uncanny ability. In later years I would join the hunt as a full member and whip in to Roy.
It was the custom to have joint meets with the Sandhurst Beagles, they too were a military pack from the Military Academy at Sandhurst. Their huntsman Michael Jackson and Roy were great mates and a healthy and jovial competition existed between the two of them. Much leg pulling took place between them as it was always an Aldershot hound that caught the hare when the Sandhurst visited Kingsley this generated great debate.
Many years later when in my twenties I was out with the Aldershot and whipping in when the hounds, in full cry, ran on to the airfield at Odiham. One of the masters, Major Dick Read, and I were frantically trying to gather the little devils up and get them away from the place when we were apprehended by the Military Police and driven to the guardhouse. Although dressed in full hunting gear and carrying whips our explanations went unheard. Several officers and much questioning later we were released having been found not to be dangerous, but probably, rural nutters!
Puppy shows were held each year at the kennels at Oxney Farm and these were always great social occasions. Neighbouring huntsmen would be invited to come and judge the new entry when they had been brought back from walk and a prize would be presented to the person whom had walked the best puppy. Handsome is as handsome does and Roy’s passion was to ensure that the new hounds, each year, performed well in the field. Most did.
Eventually the Brigadier died and left his fortune to Roy who, overnight, became a rich man. Such was the respect between man and master. Sometime later, and I know not the details, Roy formed his own pack, (Mr. Clinkards hounds), and I believe, continued to hunt successfully until his death in 2009.

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