New Year’s Day – a hunting tradition

It’s January 1, 2008 and an unmistakable plume of smoke rises over Gottenleaze in Calbourne, the 100 acre farm owned by local farmer David Biles, and acquired by his father in 1928. It must, therefore, be the joint New Year’s Day meet of the Isle of Wight Foxhounds and the Isle of Wight Foot Beagles.

The ‘new’ tradition of holding a meet on New Year’s Day was the brainchild of Richard Standing, huntsman of the Isle of Wight Foxhounds from 1998 – 2003.

“Richard came to me and said he wanted to hunt hounds on the last day of the old century and the first day of the new one,” explains David Biles. A New Year’s Eve meet was arranged at Alan Aylett’s Rolands Farm, Havenstreet, and David hosted the now traditional gathering on New Year’s Day. “We set the meet time at 12 noon so as to give everyone an extra hour in bed to recover from the night before,” says David. Since the ban, most meets of the Isle of Wight Foxhounds are held at midday, but back at the ‘turn of the century’ it was more usual to meet at 11am.

And the plume of smoke? “This was David Biles’s marker that hounds would meet by, on the first day of the new Millennium,” said Richard Standing at the time. It has been a tradition ever since. “Mr Strickland [a neighbouring farmer] builds the bonfire throughout the autumn and lights it,” says David. “All the local people from the outlying villages are invited. This year we had about 1,000 people on foot. It is important to make everyone welcome and it has the atmosphere of a village garden party.”

Several traditions were begun on the first New Year’s Day meet. David Biles decided to provide bacon so that the field and foot followers could enjoy a hearty bacon roll before their day’s hunting. Jo Ewell, a local caterer and follower of hounds, prepared the food that David donated and Eve Ablitt, chairman of the Hunt Supporters Club, brewed up the punch that David and his wife Di donated. David thought that this would be a one off occasion, but like many other hunting traditions, this has now become a regular occurrence and one that everyone looks forward to.

A box is on hand to take donations towards the hunt from the crowd and this year £300 was collected. The Cap – the money that is collected on the day from the mounted field and the foot followers – is shared equally between the Isle of Wight Foot Beagles and the Isle of Wight Foxhounds. £700 was raised this year, an indication of the strength of support hunting still has on the island.

The first New Year’s Day meet, on the first day of the new Millennium, saw a huge mounted field. To add to the occasion, former MFH Anna Reed and Kim Standing, the then wife of Richard, both rode side saddle and Ruth Daniels, who sadly is no longer with us, brought her delightful pony, Jimmy, with his trap. Foot followers arrived early and stayed chatting by the bonfire long after Michael Poland, the Master, had called for hounds and Richard took them streaming away across Mr Biles’s rolling farm, the field jumping timber in front of the crowd who had a grandstand view.

Eight years later and the scene is much the same. Mr Biles is there with his family and a host of grandchildren. No longer mounted – he has hung up his hunting boots although he is almost tempted to hunt again on the lovely young horse Sheriff (Costalot!) he bred for himself, but 10 years too late, he says.

Children pat the beagles enthusiastically, while hounds search for morsels of bacon whenever they think that Stuart Trousdale, the huntsman, isn’t looking. Liam Thom, the whipper in, is kept busy rounding them up. Mulled wine is handed to the riders who juggle it with their hunting whips, reins and even a bacon roll. Adults chat, take photographs and discuss the day ahead, as well as the night before. And then Master, Johan Christofferson, stands in his stirrups to address the crowd. He thanks David, Di and the rest of the Biles family for hosting such a pleasant occasion, explains what form of trail hunting will be taking place during the afternoon. Stuart Trousdale gathers the pack, the crowd claps as hounds stream away and Stuart sails effortlessly over the big timber fence and up the hill towards Brighstone Forest.

The crowd watches with interest as the rest of the field negotiate the substantial first timber fence straight out of Gottenleaze. A testing fence for the first one of the day, especially if hungover. Mr Biles has made a concession this time and included a smaller option for the children and those who are less brave than they might have been years ago.

To mark the first New Year’s Day meet at Gottenleaze in the year 2000, Mr Biles treasures a book given to him by Claire Hayles. It is a collection of memories from the day including photographs of the meet, a poem written by Claire, a letter from former Master JJ Kingswell and report of the day’s hunting by Richard Standing, whose original idea it was to meet on New Year’s Day. Mrs Poland, wife of the master at the time, included a watercolour of the mask of a fox, but that’s another story…

In the beginning of the book, Richard Standing wrote, “This was certainly a New Year to remember. The Best.” And it is still is. David and his family are all looking forward to see everyone again next year to continue the tradition.