The infamous traveling foxhunter heads to Central Virginia for some banner days behind hounds.
Central Virginia may not be “up north” to most folks, but from East Tennessee it’s a road trip up into cold, northern air.
When I went to hunt in February, I was looking forward to skipping the airport and TSA agents accusing me of a form of naughty domestic terrorism when they searched my luggage to inspect the tall leather boots, spurs and hunt whip that I carry when I fly out west for a hunting trip. Jeesh, some people need to get out more.
I drove up with my hunt’s honorary secretary, Judith Craw, in her rig to stay with the joint masters of the Tennessee Valley Hunt, Grosvenor and Rosie Merle-Smith. Yes, they are masters of a hunt that is a five-hour drive to their own kennels, which are in a different state, and yes, they drive it back and forth every week. If I had to drive that every week I would weigh 500 pounds from eating all that cheese with my whine.
You may think they’re crazy not to move to Tennessee, but upon seeing their amazing Sunny View Plantation farm outside of Charlottesville, Va., it’s clear why they haven’t moved. They have more than 300 acres, fenced mostly in split-rail locust, with a lake, a cozy barn and a unique home.
Their house is two historical buildings dismantled nearby and then put back together like a puzzle. The front part is a 1700s clapboard tavern that still has the original decorative paint swirls on the wood. The tavern has two stories with high ceilings, but it’s only one room deep.
There are records that George Washington had lunch in that building once (which is significant to Gro, since he’s descended from Martha Washington). The back half of their home is a log cabin (also circa 1700s) with an enormous 6' tall fireplace. The story of how he found the buildings (already dismantled) and the reconstruction of them is worthy of its own article.
Inside the house are Gro’s numerous collections of antiques, which include hunting horns, swords, long rifles and photographs from their long hunting careers. Judith and I had as much fun exploring their home as we did out hunting!
Gro cooked us roast chicken that first night, and we all shared Judith’s growler of dark ale. We did not have a bad night, I assure you.
Saturday morning arrived, and Rosie, Judith and I headed out to hunt with Deep Run Hunt Club. They had a large turnout of almost 50 riders despite the fact that their hunt ball was that night. We three ladies rode up with MFH Polly Bance and MFH Ginny Perrin in first flight. While we waited at the first check as their huntsman, Richard Roberts, cast the hounds in the covert, Polly asked about my breastplate. Dr. Pat Hodges, a good friend from Red Rock Hounds based in Reno, Nev., made it for me, and it’s very distinctive.
I told her that Red Rock has a tradition of stamping the hunt’s name down one shoulder piece of the breastplate and the rider’s nickname down the other. I then realized what I had opened myself up for and regretted saying anything. Because of course Polly then asked, “Well, what is yours stamped with?”
I hemmed and hawed, trying to figure out a way to get it out gracefully when my dear friend Judith, whom I now wanted to strangle, piped up, “She has ‘The Naked Foxhunter’ stamped on hers!”
Polly smiled but didn’t ask what that meant, then she decided that the field needed to move again. Sigh. I would love to think that one day I will be thought of as a respectable, dignified foxhunter, but alas, after publicly admitting to donning underwear donated from multiple people I’m afraid that is a pipe dream.
The Crossbred hounds hit on a coyote soon after that, and we were off. We were hunting in a suburban area dotted with horse farms containing stately homes, private little barns with arenas and horse pastures all with connecting access to trails around the paved roads. There were hardly any fences in our way, since the interconnecting trails were laid out so well.
The hounds were coming toward us out of a covert into the field where we were waiting. I’m pleased to report that when the four deer jumped out ahead of the pack and went one way, the pack (not 30 seconds behind) never batted an eye at the haunch and continued on their line of the coyote.
The pack then continued on to a piece of property that the fields did not have permission to ride on, so that meant going the long way around. And we had to fly to get around in time. My borrowed horse, Phillip, had been cooped up in a trailer and then a stall the entire day and night before.
He’s used to being turned out, so he was very happy with the speed. As long as we were flat-out galloping or economically trotting in the woods he was happy, but the in-between speed of a fast canter/slow gallop had him frustrated and pulling. We had a few discussions, or I should say, I attempted to start a few conversations while Phil continued to flip me the finger.
Judith was beaming every time I looked at her. Her Anglo-Arab was eating up the ground and loving it, despite his 23 years. She used to live in the area and remembered the trails. A few jumps she pointed out were ones that she had crashed over. Good times!
We finally found the pack several miles away, but by that time they had decided to call it a day since everyone wanted to get home early to ready for their hunt ball.
Big Coops And Great Views
The next day we were scheduled to hunt with Thornton Hill-Fort Valley Hounds (Va.) at their Chancellor’s Gate fixture. As Judith and I were tacking up in Rosie’s barn she told us to hold off, as the meet had been changed to 1 p.m. due to it being 19 degrees and frozen ground. I was not unhappy.
So we went back to the house to warm up and waited for Gro’s friends to arrive. They were falconers bringing their hawks to hunt squirrel and rabbit on the farm. Judith and I were thrilled to watch a few minutes of it before we had to trailer out to the meet.
We saw a female red-tailed hawk named Kira dive amongst the thick branches of the hard woods for a squirrel (that escaped into a tree hole). She would fly up into the trees and watch us below. If we moved, she followed, and a few times she moved so we followed her. She wore a bell that we could hear and a GPS locator in case she got lost.
That afternoon, we arrived at the meet and rode up with MFH Brett Jackson in first flight. The territory is a few thousand acres in the thick cover of the foothills of the Shenandoah Mountains. It was steep, muddy and rocky with big, trappy coops that opened out into fields with great views of the mountains. Phil and I loved it. He was like riding butter that day, and I never had to do more than whisper to him with the reins. The big coops were a blast to ride, especially since I didn’t know when or where they would turn up.
Huntsman Billy Dodson put his Penn-Marydel hounds in the covert, and they hit quickly. Their full voices echoing off the hills gave me goose bumps; they sounded glorious and were so loud. They were on a red fox, which Brett said was the first they’d seen in a few years since the coyotes had moved in. We got a view of the fox from a distance. We covered a lot of ground, keeping up with the hounds for the most part. I loved seeing all the houndwork and hearing those Penn-Marydel voices.
The hounds were gathered up, and we headed back to the Merle-Smiths’. We were three tired pups after two days of hard, fast riding. My calves were already giving me fair warning that they would not be showing up to do any work in the next few days.
As Judith and I loaded up to drive home we made a pact. We had won this weekend trip at last year’s hunt ball auction. This year’s hunt ball was just a few weeks away, and the trip was up for bids again. Judith and I decided to tell everyone that we hated it, had a terrible time and recommend that no one try to go.
“Gro can’t boil water,” I shamelessly told anyone who would listen. But alas, word got out, and a few weeks later that trip was one of the highest bids in the whole auction. Judith and I were out-bid, but no worries. I’m sure I can sneak in for a weekend hunt trip again.
I’m sure Gro and Rosie would let us come back as long as Judith promises to bring more growlers of ale, and I promise to stay in my own underwear. I’m confident Judith can manage that, but you never know with me.