Polly Portwin celebrates a variety of hunt kennels from the architecturally beautiful historical buildings set in idyllic settings to their modern day practical equivalent.
Ask any young member of hunt staff why they want to get a job with a particular hunt and the answer is rarely because they want to live there for their iconic or low-maintenance kennels. To carry the horn, hunt more days a week, have the opportunity to cross different country or because they’re fed up being the dogsbody/second whipper-in/third groom might be some of the responses you’ll get, but few will state that their main criteria when looking to make a career change is to enjoy idyllic surroundings while busy in the flesh house.
Considering the number of hours spent working in hunt kennels, some of which are no longer in their architectural prime, it might be quite surprising to those who appreciate the tireless hours spent painting metal railings and patching up collapsing brick walls that this isn’t a factor.
There is a number of distinctive kennels which stand out in the minds of anyone who has ever taken an interest in where hounds are kept. Often constructed using private funding where money was not, perhaps, a prohibiting factor and staffing levels were considerably higher than they are in the majority of hunts today, no expense was spared in terms of the facilities required at the time.
The quite dreamy surroundings in which the Duke of Beaufort’s and the Duke of Rutland’s hounds are kennelled are the envy of many, with the Beaufort benefitting from access to Badminton Park on their doorstep, while the glorious Belvoir Estate beckons for the Old English pack kennelled there. Not only do they have an idyllic base from which to conduct hound exercise, but they’re still in the heart of their hunt country and hounds often hack home to kennels after a long day, a moment that always feels magical however often you experience it.
John Holliday, huntsman of the Belvoir, praises the design of the Lincolnshire-based kennels and emphasises the importance of having sufficient space on the yards. “Aside from having a huge fondness for the kennels because of their history, on a practical level they were built to Victorian perfection with brilliant drainage and plenty of space, not only for the hounds but also for storage which people often forget about.”
The Fitzwilliam kennels in Milton Park near Peterborough are similarly blessed in their magnificent parkland surroundings. Their design is very distinctive, being described as “the most unique kennels” by Mark Hankinson, a former master huntsman and now director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association (MFHA).
Lizzie Thomas, joint-master of the Fitzwilliam explained more about their history: “The kennels, which consist of three hound lodges were built in 1767 and were designed to resemble a ruined medieval gatehouse. There was previously accommodation in the turret for the third whipper-in to live above the hound lodges, but it’s no longer used for this purpose, with one room now used as the valeting room.”
Sam Jones, in his first season as whipper-in at the Belvoir, admits to having been “incredibly fortunate” to have enjoyed being able to walk hounds out in the castle meadows when at the Berkeley and then enjoying similar surroundings at the Belvoir. His grandfather Peter was huntsman for over 30 seasons at the Pytchley where their kennels are still much coveted. “They are a manageable size but very well thought out on a practical level,” explained Sam.
These sentiments are echoed by the Pytchley with Woodland’s huntsman Daniel Cherriman, who has been based at the Northamptonshire kennels since 2011. “The wonderful configuration enables everybody to feel like we’re working together as part of a team wherever we are in the kennels which is especially important for morale, particularly after a long day.”
It’s not unusual for the layout of hunt kennels to be replicated elsewhere, with the South and West Wilts kennels being modelled comparably to the Fernie’s in Leicestershire, and the Portman and Middleton kennels styled similarly too.
Mark Hankinson nominated the Zetland as one of his favourite older-style kennels, which again share the same attributes as the Pytchley kennels, albeit on a larger scale. Huntsman James Finney describes the home to the North Yorkshire pack as “nearly perfect.” James continued: “They’ve got good drainage and plenty of ventilation which are both vital and our exercise routes are fantastic.The yards have got a good fall on them too which is vital to prevent hounds constantly having wet feet. Built in 1912, the kennels are quite palatial compared to some, but they’re big and airy and the hounds can see out both the front and back which keeps the hounds very settled.”
Over time, with increasing urbanisation and other factors resulting in changing hunt boundaries, some kennels may no longer be best placed within their hunt’s country, compared to when they were built. Martin Scott, renowned hound breeder recalls how Sir Ian Amory, a former Master of the Tiverton, once said that kennels should be moved every 20 years. He died as a result of a hunting fall in his 20th season in 1930 so the kennels are still where they were then, overlooking the town with the River Exe in the distance. Although unable to afford the luxury of moving every 20 seasons, or when sufficient change to the hunt country demands it, it is testament to the enthusiasm and determination of those involved in hunting today that so many hunts have decided to “build for the future” where their current kennels are no longer considered fit for purpose. Hunting practices may have adapted to comply with the Hunting Act, and staffing levels may not be what they once were, but priorities such as hound – and horse – welfare remain paramount for hunt staff and masters, with this continuing to be reflected in the designs of the more modern hunt kennels.
With exercising hounds becoming more difficult due to the location of their kennels in Chipping Norton, the Heythrop have made the decision to relocate their kennels. “Rather than spending money on repairing dilapidations but still having an issue with being in the same busy location, we took the decision to re-locate entirely,” explained Charles Frampton MFH. “We’re in the process of building a modern agricultural-style building, and although construction has been delayed due to the Covid crisis, we’re very excited about moving to the new kennels in Swinbrook in the spring.”
It was a similar situation at the Surrey Union where hounds have been kennelled near Ockley since 1920. In 2014, having considered a number of options, it was decided that new kennels would be erected from scratch. Although the project has taken time to become a reality, joint-master Camilla Swift enthused: “People have been incredibly generous in their donations and the project is extremely exciting, with the hounds due to move in over the next few months.”
Mark Hankinson, who has more insight than most having been involved in kennel visits in his capacity as Hunt Support Officer for the Hunting Office for many years, believes the Kimblewick’s agricultural-style new kennels are one of the best modern kennels he has visited. “They’re incredibly practical, low maintenance and well thought out.”
Building new kennels is no easy feat and the work involved, along with the financing required, would be the main reasons why the majority of hunts continue to manage where they are. Peter Beckford, who, when considering the building of the ideal kennel once commented in a letter to a friend, published in Thoughts on Hunting in 1781: “It will stand there with its original imperfections, unless it were the object of considerable expense, a memorial to the fact that insufficient thought has been given to its original erection. Even if it is changed, and changed again, it may still remain imperfect, so it is as well to ponder deeply before embarking upon the original building.” Wise words which are as true today as they were then.
This article first appeared in the Autumn 2020 issue of My Countryside magazine.