“I hope they’re feeding Royally properly,” murmured my grandmother (ninety-three), as she departed peacefully from this earth. Sixty years earlier, back in 1926, the foxhunter and show rider had won the ‘Girls Hunter’ class at London’s International Horse Show, riding her beloved Right Royal side-saddle, and I don’t think anything ever quite matched up. I’m gazing at her huge cup as I write.
Little did anyone dream that I’d continue the family equine theme, but earlier this year I opened a new business for experienced riders from around the world, offering riding and hunting holidays direct from my home, Wydemeet. Nestled in the heart of remotest Dartmoor—the wildest, most open landscape in Southern England—Wydemeet sits at the cusp of all four Dartmoor hunts: Dartmoor, South Devon, Spooners and West Dartmoor, and the Mid-Devon Foxhounds.
No one in our family had owned a horse for fifty years until I bought Philbo, who took me hunting firstly with Dorset’s Seavington pack and subsequently with the adjacent Cattistock. With the latter, because I couldn’t afford the cap, I had to stay out all day in all weather as I ‘did the gates.’ Being a part of lawn meets held at places like Cricket House, the manor used in the 1970s sit-com, To The Manor Born, was the stuff of fairy tales for me.
I was brought up in the relative suburbia of Eton College (the famous boys’ school), where my father was scholar, teacher, housemaster and finally Vice Provost. As a child, I would trot over Windsor Bridge across the River Thames on a borrowed Welsh Mountain pony and gallop around the vast and spectacular grounds of Windsor Castle. The Great Park wasn’t all fenced in back then.
Later, like my sister, I became one of only about fifteen girls ever to receive an Eton education. The pressures were enormous, being virtually the only female amongst twelve hundred boys. No girls attend Eton now. But there were upsides. Both my sister and I were regularly pursued by various members of the aristocracy, though we preferred those less exalted boys who made us laugh
Twenty-five years ago I moved to rugged, romantic, Dartmoor, a land of yellow gorse, purple heather, eerie green mires, clear tumbling brooks, glittering grey tors, the cry of the buzzard, and the neigh of the wild ponies. I’d married an Old Harrovian (there’s always been great rivalry between Eton and Harrow) named Pen Hadow, who was determined to live in the West Highlands of Scotland and become a famous polar explorer. I suggested Dartmoor as a more sensible compromise—nearer to civilisation, better weather, and fewer midges.
Our home, Wydemeet, is a hundred years old and built from granite hewn from its garden as a luxurious fishing and hunting lodge. Wydemeet is now almost certainly the most remote high-end B&B in Southern England, and is surrounded by the four Dartmoor hunts.
Dartmoor’s Four Hunts
Each hunt has its own character; all are friendly and welcoming; none is particularly smart; and none of the fields are very big. Sometimes you might find yourself the only person amongst the staff, or there might be more than thirty following. This means that you can often be at the front, where the action is.
Anyone who has hunted Dartmoor never forgets it. There are many natural amphitheatres where you can watch the hounds working, and because the moor is so open, it is the ultimate thrill to gallop across the uneven terrain as the hounds stream ahead in full view. There is almost no jumping, but the going is sometimes steep and challenging and you’ll need a secure seat. There is usually a way round if you don’t want to cross a leat, a narrow, steep-sided, water-filled channel dug into the moor by the tin-mining community five hundred years ago.
Since the hunting ban in 2004, the only legal form of hunting in England is called Trail Hunting, and all our hunts operate within the law. As a result, there are even more foxes on the moor now, and you are quite likely to come across one or two.
The most demanding, and possibly most well-attended hunt, certainly by menfolk in search of adventure, is the Dartmoor. Their country includes the highest point of the southern moor, Ryder’s Hill, which is several miles away from the nearest road and much of the time there is no sign of human habitation save for the odd, ancient granite cross or stone circle.
You are likely to be expertly guided across the vast dangerous bog, Foxtor Mire, made famous by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles, in which it is referred to as Grimpen Mire and where a man drowns. This lies at the head of the Swincombe River, not far from Wydemeet.
Constantly looming in the background is the spooky, grey presence of Princetown’s infamous, huge Dartmoor Prison, completed in 1809 to house violent criminals and murderers. Now it is home to six hundred Category C offenders, none of whom has escaped since I’ve lived here...as far as I am aware. It is important not to lose the hunt, as getting home is dangerous without a knowledgeable guide, but our hirelings are fit and fast and have no difficulty in keeping up.
Young Harry Gosling, the new Master, has ably filled the boots of the even younger, much loved Tom Lyle (whose father was a contemporary of mine at school). Mr. Gosling has enjoyed a highly impressive first season. Field Masters, Deborah Treneer and Rebecca Welch, are sisters and have been hunting Dartmoor since before they could walk. As girls they both won a wild race (now sadly banned) across the moor, jumping the stone walls on their ponies. I am embarrassed to admit that they both know the lie of the land around Wydemeet even better than I do. They’ll take off across the most terrifying-looking bogs and rocky paths, galloping up and down the steepest, most uneven slopes, fording the deepest, fastest rivers; yet you are completely safe in their capable hands.
I have happily and regularly hunted through horizontal blizzards with the Dartmoor. After our meet last Christmas Eve, we had the most exciting run for about six miles—much of that time unable to see where we were going Experienced Dartmoor field hunters are agile and pick their own way. You simply need to hold on. If you try to choose your own way around a rock or gorse bush, it is likely your horse may opt for the other, and you’ll part company!
The most gentle hunt is the South Devon, which is more popular with the ladies. You’re never far from one of the many narrow lanes which criss-cross the moor, and there are lots of smooth, grassy areas like vast lawns, kept neat by the grazing wild ponies and sheep. During days out with the South Devon you will often pass Hay Tor and Hound Tor—famous Dartmoor landmarks popular with tourists. You can even stop for an ice-cream there!
Spooners & West Dartmoor country varies from billiard-smooth green vistas, to wild, steep, boggy and rugged. Included are two golf courses open to the Dartmoor ponies and War Horse country, particularly bleak and miles from anywhere. Much of the more northern part of Spooners’ country is owned by the Army, who erect a flag to warn you if they’re practising shooting their guns.
Enormous tracts of hunting country are otherwise owned by the Prince of Wales’ Duchy of Cornwall. Spooners’ fields are quite small. On some weekdays you could find yourself enjoying the feeling of participating in quite a private hunt with the friendly Old Etonian Master, Guy Morlock.
The Mid Devon Foxhounds hunt the north-eastern section of Dartmoor. If you’re lucky, you’ll find your Field Master is George Lyon-Smith, currently the best known and loved character of hunting on Dartmoor. He’s a dramatic sight—fit and tall, sporting side-burns and an ever-present smile, with a traditional hunting seat, leading fast and furious on his enormous Thoroughbreds.
Based in Chagford, one of the largest and most attractive villages on the moor, with the Mid Devon you’ll find yourself travelling through lots of tiny, wiggly lanes to reach a wide variety of terrain. Some of it is open, wild, boggy and bleak—some of it, around Fernworthy Reservoir, a forested beauty spot.
Authentic Rural English Hunting Experience
As well as hunting regularly, my years at Wydemeet have been spent exploring Dartmoor’s 365 square miles alone, learning intricate routes between the dangerous bogs, un-crossable rivers, and impenetrable rocks. Over time I’ve become an accepted part of high Dartmoor’s local life, knowing most people around my hamlet and much of what is going on.
Wydemeet is littered with traditional hunting prints and memorabilia, and polar trophies left over from when Pen did indeed achieve global fame, becoming the first person in the world ever to walk alone from Canada to the North Pole with no outside assistance.
At the peak of his career we rubbed shoulders with all sorts of interesting, well-known people. Prince Charles was patron of one of Pen’s expeditions, and once we attended a dinner party of ten, whose guests included Her Majesty The Queen and HRH Prince Philip Unfortunately Pen then walked out of my life, and Wydemeet B&B was born.
My guests have exclusive use of the house, whether you come alone, as a couple, a party of three, or the maximum of four. My guests are welcomed into my home as old friends. Only the most discerning, determined and curious ever discover Wydemeet. We are totally private—a family home with no public signs, notices, or other hint of commercial enterprise. Our appeal is clear and unusual, quite unlike that of any public inn or hotel. Only the sort of people I really like ever find me! At any rate, it all seems to work, as guests leave me lovely reviews, and we are the highest ranked accommodation available on the high moor.
And now that I have become the proud owner of the two easiest, best-behaved field hunters, I have added escorted Riding Holidays and Hunting Breaks to my B&B package. Up the road, my friend Loraine provides a selection of top quality, experienced, forward-going, sure-footed, safe, well-schooled and beautifully turned out hunter hirelings, and guests can hunt across Dartmoor’s magnificence for four days out of a five night stay.
On arrival, you are welcomed with cake and crumpets in front of a roaring log fire. English tea is served from a solid silver antique teapot. We discuss which traditional local hostelry to visit for supper, and you are left to settle into your large, luxurious, en-suite room, which is decorated in a traditional ‘Romantic Jane Austen’ style, with deep carpets and original oil paintings. Breakfast can be anything you choose, from a Double Full English to avocado, spinach and poached egg, all cooked to order.
Horses are taken direct to the hunt meet, and, unusually, guests are welcome to stay out for as long as they like. You will need a safe seat to manage galloping up and down steep muddy hills, negotiating deep, fast-flowing river-crossings, and dodging the rocks and gorse bushes. At the end of a memorable day, tea is again taken in the sitting room, followed by a glass of sparkling white wine in the hot tub to relax those aching muscles.
The day is completed with a candle-lit four-course dinner, served in Wydemeet’s elegant dining room, using our family heirloom antique crystal glassware. All just how a proper traditional rural English life ought to be lived—and, presumably, often was!
Posted March 16, 2020