Rob Williams: The battle to keep ‘a fine old tradition’… and how to win it


  • We must be proactive to keep hunting in existence, says joint-master and huntsman of the East Sussex and Romney Marsh Rob Williams

    IN the last thousand years, Battle Abbey on the south coast has seen her fair share of defiant English men and women. She looked down on us being settled by William the Conqueror and she looked up at skies full of Spitfires over our sea. This Boxing Day, she saw another little by-line of defiance in our island story. Did the Abbey see a tide which is finally on the turn?

    It was a very happy by-line, written with foxhounds and scarlet coats against a bad law. It was written in a huge field of smiling riders – from children on hairy ponies to old ladies on farm horses. It found voice in the whoops and holloas of the country lads in the back corner, and the applause of the crowd as hounds trotted in.

    It was in the emotion on the face of the old man, when Buckle 19 stood up from the cobbles on to his chest: “Can they not see which way the wind is blowing?” he said. It wasn’t so much a meet that Battle Abbey was hosting; it was an expression of support for the hunting tradition – by the people and farmers of Sussex.

    And it was only a hair’s breadth from being stopped. Do you know? We were the only local hunt that managed to get permission from both the town council and the police to hold a proper meet. It’s worth understanding why, just to make certain every single Boxing Day meet goes ahead next year.

    A community coming together

    A WELL-orchestrated campaign targeting all the town councils was run by the few people who do not want hunting to continue. Hearing about the campaign to stop meets, I got on the telephone to the town clerk at Battle. She said it looked dicey. Her job was to report the truth before the council vote.

    The “truth” was a spate of negative emails, and nobody who wanted the meet had thought to write in support. So we got on the front foot; a bit late, but better late than never. The result was that a spate of negative emails was met with a rural tsunami of supportive ones. Crucially, they came from the people it directly affected.

    From Pony Club mums to the parents of local school children who always attend, from the coffee shop owners to the landlords at the Abbey Hotel. From the farmers who supply the shops on the high street to the estate agents who rent them out.

    Suddenly, for just a moment, people stopped being too frightened to speak up. They stopped feeling isolated and instead felt united. Every email had a name and a Sussex address on there – to prove this was the voice of the actual people the town council represented, asking for their hounds.

    Trotting hounds away down the high street in the icy rain with a massive mounted field behind me, a full-throated cheer went up for the 50-odd riders. It was to express – to express what exactly? Gladness at the sight of hounds and horses, probably… Support for tradition, certainly. Approaching drunkenness, in some cases, very likely.

    But overwhelmingly, the cheer expressed unity, because the people there had battled to keep a fine old tradition. And won.

    • Did you attend your local 2021 Boxing Day meet? We’d love to hear your stories. Please email them to hhletters@futurenet.com including your name, local town and county for the chance to be published in the weekly magazine – and you might also win a bottle of Champagne Taittinger too

    • This exclusive column is also available to read in H&H magazine, on sale Thursday 13 January

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