Rootling Around the Old Town
Circa 1820 - spot the two windmills!
As is recognised far and wide the small market town of Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire is long famous for its introduction to the world of pork-pies and Stilton cheese, but before this time the area was to create great celebrity and recognition as the venue for the origins of fox-hunting. It is generally accepted that in the 1750's Leicestershire man Hugo Meynell was destined to become the accepted true father of English Fox-hunting when he began to study the concept of turning what was then merely the hobby or pastime of a few friends. He would experiment with his vision of creating a 'pack' of fox-hounds with which to hunt regularly, thus creating a sport for all - (who could afford it!). Of course 'Reynard' had been hunted from time immemorial in England, usually as an unwelcome and frequently vicious pest which not only beleaguered the landowners and farmers with their hunting forays, but were regarded as vermin due to the fact that they would often maim or destroy the whole population of a hen-house or field of lambs, rather than take one, or perhaps a couple to assuage it and its family's appetite. An interesting tale of a man in Melton who, in the 1880's maintained on his smallholding a number of chickens in a wired structure as a means of eking a living, was chagrined to find that a fox had not only entered his compound, but to discover all around the wrecked and savaged remains of some 60 chickens - his livelihood was gone at a stroke. Whilst clearing the carnage it is said that he disturbed Reynard and his vixen cosily ensconced in a newly-made lair under the soil, complete with 5 newly-born offspring. Man was required to maintain the upper hand in the pecking order of the animal kingdom if he was to survive and if the consequence of the chase or hunt inspired a popular sport, then logic was to prevail.
The famous Quorn Hunt created and housed its first collection - or pack - of hounds at Quorndon, near to Loughborough and by the end of the 18th century, as Meynell was approaching the end of his life, the only place in England which anybody who was anybody would choose to be found hunting, it was in the fields of Leicestershire and if you were a person of sufficient wealth or possessed gravitas of social order, the only place to reside during the season of the long and dark winter days was the increasingly important and affluent town of Melton Mowbray which was soon to gain the soubriquet of 'Cream of the Shires.'
Today, to hunt down a fox with the purpose or consequence of taking its life is forbidden by legislation, this being the political consequence of a lingering and socially divided population in a period of increasing social disapproval and political bias, but ironically, at the time of its very inception all those many years ago, Mr Meynell et al had urged circumspection of its participants and a plea for discipline amongst them in a desire to placate such dissenters and indeed, the long-term residents of the land over which they hoped to ride. A missive from an anonymous nobleman to the Sporting Magazine in 1792, addressed to his agent in these very shires read as follows;
"I must desire that all those tenants who have shewn themselves friends to the several fox-hunts in your neighbouring counties, Lord Spencer's, The Duke of Rutland's, Mr. Meynell's and Lord Stamford's - may have the offer and refusal of their farms on easy and moderate terms. But those who destroy foxes or otherwise interrupt gentlemen's diversions - send me their names and addresses! ... my sole object is the good of the community."
(See an excellent description of the sport of fox-hunting at this wikipedia page.)
"Where's Reynard Daddie?"
Some 100 years later, with the sport of fox-hunting now well and truly established in Melton Mowbray, the Quorn Hunt was accepted as top billing with royalty, politicians, educators, thinkers and all of high society's most famous characters would descend on the small town during the winter months to overfill its many 'lodges' and 'boxes', bringing much wealth and business to the area. Most newspapers of the day employed correspondents to supply regular columns of reports from the fields, direct to the to the breakfast tables of the day and in 1889, 'C. H.,' a correspondent for The Graphic, a weekly sports magazine, seems to have taken himself away from the office in order to spend a few days in the town during the quieter days just preceding the start of yet another season, which was usually just towards the end of October. His mention of names and places along his week's sojourn, ring very true of today's Melton Mowbray, even after a further 100 years have passed on by.
(The photos are mine.)
MELTON OUT OF SEASON
'September is hardly the month that a lover of the chase would select for a visit to the headquarters of sport, the Nimrods and “fair Dianas’ who form its chief attraction being at that period of the year, are as the French say, “conspicuous by their absence.” Wishing, however, to see the place in its normal state, and profiting by the offer of delightful quarters in the house of one of the leading patrons of the locality, I passed a week there very agreeably, and had ample opportunity of rendering myself as familiar with the town and its immediate neighbourhood as an “outsider” could reasonably desire.
Melton Mowbray, statistically speaking, contains nearly six thousand inhabitants, and according to the railway manuals, is distant from the metropolis one hundred an five miles. The town is pleasantly situated in a valley encircled by gently sloping hills, and approached by well-kept roads which, were they endowed with speech, might say, with Wordsworth’s little girl, “We are seven.” With the exception of a fine old church, whose chimes play the “Blue Bells of Scotland” every Thursday at mid-day, Melton boasts nothing remarkable for architectural beauty; its principal streets are narrow and ill-paved, but by way of compensation, asphalte is laid down on the footpaths of most of the aforementioned seven roads, in some cases for nearly a mile, thereby ensuring a dry walk in winter to the delicately-shod Meltonian belles. There are three capital hotels - the George, the Bell, and the Harborough - affording comfortable quarters for hunting bachelors; the two latter, moreover, are renowned for an excellent cuisine, the staple product of the locality, the celebrated Melton pork pie, being doubtless an invariable adjunct to the breakfast table.
Burton End in the rush hour!
It may parenthetically be mentioned that, whereas in other parts of the country, the term “hall” is usually, and indiscriminately applied to villas and hunting-boxes, often possessing no more claim to the distinction than the classic abode of Mr. Squeers, almost every one of any pretension in and about Melton bears the more modest designation of “Lodge,” one of the few exceptions being the house in the High Street [Sherrard Street] occupied of late years during the winter months by the Duke of Portland, and known as The Limes. By far the most important of these is Egerton Lodge, the residence of Elizabeth, Countess of Wilton, and her husband, Mr. Arthur Pryor - a large house, or rather, two houses in one, situated on a rising ground at the entrance of Melton from the Leicester Road, and overlooking a pretty garden. The two remaining “Lodges” in the town worthy of the name are Coventry Lodge, opposite the Railway station and North Lodge, formerly occupied by Mr. John Coupland, for fourteen years the popular Master of the “Quorn.”
Leaving Egerton Lodge on the right, and proceeding for a short distance along the Leicester Road, we turn to the left above the railway and pass the pretty cottage inhabited by Lady Grant, Widow of the late president of the Royal Academy, adjoining the house and grounds of Mr. William Chaplin. On the summit of the hill, facing the north, is Mowbray Lodge, a brick villa of rather pretentious architecture, formerly rented by Mr. Barclay, the owner of Bendigo; and from thence runs the road to Dalby, of which, from a picturesque point of view, the less said the better. Eastward from the railway station begins the more frequented Burton road, on the left of which stands Craven Lodge, the residence of Captain Baldock, his nearest neighbour being the popular Mr. Beaumont Lubbock. Two miles further on, another nobility of the hunting field, Captain Ashton, has established his quarters, within easier reach of the “meets” than falls to the lot of the lady equestrian par excellence, Mrs Sloane Stanley, who lives five miles from Melton.
Passing under the Great Northern at the end of the town, we come to Scalford Road, and notice on the right the ivy-covered snuggery until recently tenanted by the late Mr. Behrens, one of the most hospitable Amphytryons [host] of the sporting fraternity. Higher up the hill are the respective abodes of two local tradesmen facing each other on the opposite sides of the way, and forming the last link in this direction between suburban civilisation and the open country. It is worth worth while prolonging our walk beyond the village of Scalford, from which point a magnificent view is obtainable of the vale of Belvoir and its distant castle.
To my mind, the prettiest road in the neighbourhood is that leading to Nottingham, bordered on either side by the freshest and greenest pasture lands, every now and then disclosing a glimpse of of some rustic homestead, with its well-piled hayricks and browsing cattle. About a mile from the town, on the right, stands a large white house, built on a rising ground, but sheltered from the north-east winds by clump of trees at the back; this is Sysonby, the residence of the Hon. Major Stirling, and his deservedly popular wife. Three miles beyond it - although I can only speak from hearsay, having pushed my investigations so far - is the seat of another staunch supporter of the hunt, Mr. Turner Farleigh.
The village of Thorpe, a mile and a quarter from Melton, had been recommended to me as a suitable object for a morning stroll; a quaint old church, however, its sole attraction, hardly repaid me for a flat and uninteresting walk, and I marvelled how the owner of a (then) unfinished hunting box, plainly visible from the road on my way thither, could so possibly have selected so unpromising a site.
In the course of my rambles through the highways and byways of the little town, I discovered in the High Street a public-house bearing the curious sign of “Old Bishop Blase” and in a more remote locality came across a lane on uninviting aspect, but dignified by the imposing name of Pall Mall. Shortly after, my attention was attracted by an announcement in a shop window, purporting that the occupier of the premises exercised the profession of “razor rectifier.” Whether the phrase be peculiar to this part of Leicestershire or not I am unable to say; but it struck me as original, and I made a note of it.
St Mary's C. of E.