Interest in the countryside and country life is booming. From the record viewing figures for the BBC’s Countryfile to the huge numbers taking up rural past-times from shooting to walking, it seems that we’re all country folk now. And then you read a book like Adrian Dangar’s True to the Line – A Hunting Life (Quiller £20) and realise that the sanitised, photo-shopped version of rural living many people aspire to is a million miles away from the real thing.
Dangar, who will be well-known to readers of Horse & Hound and The Field as a chronicler of hunting, is no ignorant rustic. But he writes about a rural England that will be as mysterious, exotic and other-worldy to the average urban Brit as the life lived by Amazonian Indians in the rainforest. Hunting – the pursuit of fox, stag and hare by hounds and followers, on foot or on horseback – is the passion that has underpinned Dangar’s life, from a Wiltshire childhood pursuing rats with a whippet and a terrier to becoming Joint Master of The Quorn, one of the most famous fox hunts in the country. But his book, written with style and intelligence, is as fascinating for its description of country people and places as it is for stories of horses, hounds and the chase.
After a childhood of almost feral freedoms in rural Wiltshire and Yorkshire, Dangar was sent to Stowe. He took a great interest in the school’s pack of beagles, hunting hares. He also became adept at ferreting, catching, skinning and selling rabbits. Among his fellow pupils was George Monbiot – now a conservationist and Guardian columnist who was as keen on fishing as Dangar was on hunting.
After Stowe and a gap year in Australia, Dangar won a place at the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester. But it is when he took his first proper job in hunting at 24 as Master of the Spooners and West Dartmoor that Dangar’s account uncovers the real warp and weft of rural life in the Westcountry. An essential task for any hunt master was the “flesh round” collecting fallen stock from farms on the moor to feed the hounds; a mutually beneficial arrangement that also helped build good relations between the hunt and the farmers, over whose land it hunted.
Dangar writes: “Within a few days of my arrival I was asked by Mary Anne and John Furze to collect a bullock from their small farm on the banks of the Tamar. The beast had expired at the foot of a steep cliff and Mary Anne had already carved the carcase into several rough pieces by the time I arrived; each lump was then fastened to a rope, which was in turn tied to a harness fitted onto a tough, dun cob named Orbit and slowly dragged up on to the field above. This was my first introduction to a wonderfully resourceful, kind and mustard keen hunting family that typified the Spooners Hunt.”
He goes on to describe kennelling a hound in pup with the family only to call to collect the bitch to find she had sadly aborted the entire litter. “I was surprised to find Mary Anne cooking up the still-born pups on the kitchen Aga,” Dangar writes. “Couldn’t let so much protein go to waste” was all she said, although I understood the meat was destined for her sheepdogs and not her husband.” This book, with charming pencil illustrations by Daniel Crane and photographs of the author’s various hunting exploits is not – despite the above – a relentlessly grisly description of the struggles of country life. It is, rather, a true and accurate account of the way many families lived and still live their lives in the countryside, working the land, caring for their livestock and taking pleasure in hounds, horses and the hunt.
Dangar’s ambitions saw him leave the Spooners after a couple of seasons to head to Yorkshire and the Sinnington. From there he went to the Quorn and, after initial success – including accompanying Prince Charles on a memorable day’s hunting – he resigned his joint mastership because of internal differences. he also describes run-ins with hunt saboteurs, inevitable at such a high-profile Leicestershire hunt. On one occasion Dangar received a letter containing a blood-smeared razor blade and a note reading: “The blood is AIDS” .He also writes of returning from a Quorn hunt ball to find every window in his rented house smashed and his terrier – with a litter of puppies – quaking in fear.
Readers who are avowedly anti-hunting are unlikely to pick up this book and Dangar does nothing to hide his absolute delight in riding to hounds. But anyone with an interest in the deeply ingrained details of England’s countryside that are rarely reported could learn a lot from its pages.
This article was originally published in the Western Morning News by Philip Bowern on Wednesday the 13th of September.