The Boxing Day Meet
Children hug hounds, parents pat gleaming horses, and local pubs and hotels do a roaring trade. Catherine Austen takes a closer look at the most significant day of the hunting season.
What do you do on Boxing Day? Probably, given the title of this magazine, something sporting, more than likely involving a shotgun. But for everyone who goes hunting, Boxing Day is the most significant day of the season.
Traditionally Boxing Day meets have been held in the centres of towns and villages, and many hunts continue to meet in these places. Members of the general public flock to come and see the sight of horses, hounds and people in red coats. For the majority of the spectators, it is their only encounter with their local pack during the year – and therein lies its importance.
“It’s as traditional as turkey,” observes Gary Thorpe, professional huntsman of the East Essex. “It sets hunting’s image – it’s the reason people who have never seen a hound in their lives have placemats with hunting scenes on them.”
Polly Portwin, former master of the Bicester with Whaddon Chase and the Countryside Alliance’s head of hunting, says: “For many people – and not just those who are regularly involved in hunting – attending a Boxing Day meet is as much a part of the annual festivities as decorating the Christmas tree.
“It is an iconic day in the hunting calendar where everybody is welcome. With many meets held in public areas, passers-by can stop to enjoy the spectacle, while villagers nearby regularly host parties at home to see the hunt passing their door.
“Boxing Day meets can be very sociable days with friends and family congregating to show their support for this traditional activity while the local pubs and hotels do a roaring trade.”
The Countryside Alliance estimates that 250,000 people attend Boxing Day meets each year. Most of those will have no particular opinion on the rights or wrongs of (pre-ban) hunting; it’s just part of Christmas, some fresh air after the indulgences of the day before, and a change from the norm. Children hug hounds who are delighted to find so many affectionate new friends, and their parents pat the gleaming horses. Everyone is smiling. Protests from those who oppose country sports tend to be completely ignored – tiny numbers of anti-hunting fanatics are swept away in the tidal wave of goodwill.
Gary says: “It’s our one opportunity to break down barriers and dispel prejudices. We get to see and talk to a lot of people who never otherwise connect with us.”
The East Essex meet is in Castle Hedingham at The Bell pub. “Two or three pubs join together and put on a tremendous spread,” continues Gary. “The main street is absolutely choc-a-bloc with people as far as you can see.”
Philip Cowen, joint-master of the Fernie, who meet on the village green in Nether Green, near Market Harborough, where the hunt kennels are situated, says: “To my mind, Boxing Day demonstrates the strength of genuine support which hunting enjoys from all walks of life throughout the country. There really is no better sight than seeing large crowds of people gathering together, having fun and enjoying festivities, and being part of the tradition that transcends recent history.
“Thousands of people come to the Fernie meet – and in the past few years, the numbers have increased quite significantly. We get a huge crowd. The buzz of the Boxing Day meet takes a lot of beating.” It’s an important ‘display day’ for hunting, and it takes a lot of work on Christmas Day to pull it off.
Tony Stroud is the Heythrop’s stud groom. He gives his two members of staff Christmas Day off, and mucks out and exercises all the horses himself on Christmas morning. He nips over to his parents’ for lunch, then returns to the kennels and makes sure the horses which the hunt staff will be riding the following day, and their tack, are spotless. “I don’t send grey horses out on Boxing Day!” he laughs. “My horses are turned out immaculately on every hunting day, but it’s a matter of pride to all of us at the kennels that everything looks perfect on Boxing Day. I send horses that will stand quietly in a crowd – it’s a pretty intense environment.”
Tony also points out that the Boxing Day cap (the money people pay to go hunting) is, within many hunts, given to the hunt staff – a bonus that is much appreciated. “People are very generous to us at Christmas and often drop in with bottles, boxes of biscuits, that sort of thing.”
The Heythrop kennels are in Chipping Norton, and hunt staff and hounds hack half a mile up the hill to the town’s main street, which is jam-packed with people. The meet itself is lengthy, and then hunt staff, hounds and followers trot away to cheers and whoops.
“Christmas Day is a normal working day for us – but it is for anyone with animals. We work hard in the morning to get everything ready for the next day, and then enjoy a couple of hours of ‘normal Christmas’ in the afternoon,” says Gary Thorpe.
At least, unlike jump jockeys riding at Kempton on Boxing Day, they don’t have to starve themselves; if the odd button is put under strain after second helpings of Christmas pudding, what better way to work off the extra calories?
The actual hunting part of Boxing Day rather plays second fiddle to the meet. It is often a fairly short, one-horse day, designed to give the field some fun. It can have a slightly chaotic air – there are always people who only hunt once a year out on Boxing Day, and their horses may not have the manners of well-seasoned hunters. But they are made welcome and encouraged to come out more often.
For some ‘serious’ hunting people, Christmas Eve is more of a proper hunting day, where expectations of good sport are high. But they understand the importance of turning up on well-behaved horses on Boxing Day to be part of the show, even if they might slip away to watch the racing after an hour or so of hunting.
When the day is over and horses and hounds are safely tucked up and kit is cleaned, there is often a party in the valeting room at the kennels to celebrate the end of a successful day.
It certainly beats a day spent trailing round the shops at the Boxing Day sales!