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Melton and foxhuntingThe market town of Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire (UK) is the cradle of foxhunting. For nearly 350 years, the pastures of Leicestershire and the neighbouring counties have been home to the most famous names in hunting: the Belvoir, the Cottesmore, the Quorn and more recently the Fernie and the Atherstone Hunts.
The boundaries of the three senior Hunts converge on Melton (the marker on the map), and the Hunts take it in turn to meet there at New Year at the invitation of the Town Estate, a landowning charity whose origins date back to the Reformation.
+ + +Throughout the 18th century, 'enclosure' – the replacement of the ancient system of common-field farming by grazing land that was, in principle at least, drained and fenced – had created large tracts of grassland in East Leicestershire, West Lincolnshire and Rutland that, fortuitously, carried a good scent. Coverts were planted in the open countryside to improve the habitat for foxes. Melton lay at the heart of this country and, ever since the opening of the Wreake canal in 1794, had been well provisioned with coal and other essential supplies. It became a magnet for foxhunters throughout Europe and beyond. Accommodation in Melton was vastly expanded with the building of hunting 'boxes' (or 'lodges') that wealthy foxhunting men (and they were almost all men) would take for the hunting season. Melton also had hunt clubs – exclusive establishments where a handful of hunting men would live communally. From around 1800, the huge influx of money into what was otherwise a small market town and the need to look after the requirements of large numbers of top-class horses and hard-riding men were met by a commensurate number of farriers, livery stables, forage suppliers, saddlers, loriners, bootmakers and so on. Melton became the place everyone went – if they could afford it.
+ + +The Hunts still meet up to three days each week in the season although their activities are, for the time being, constrained by the UK’s 2004 Hunting Act. Until the 2014-15 season, the Quorn hunted four days a week, but the increasing difficulty of finding areas in their Saturday country over which to hunt (the M1, A6 and A42 go through the middle...) led them to abandon hunting on Saturdays in favour of organised rides; the more rural parts of the Saturday country are, though, still hunted on Tuesdays.
But the numerous livery stables, saddlers and related trades that were once widespread in Melton have disappeared almost without trace. Hotels such as the George ("Residential Hunting Quarters") and the Harboro once displayed Hunt Meet cards (the Harboro only ceased doing so in the early 1980s); Rowell and Sons, the last bootmakers ("riding boots our speciality") who were established in 1837 shut up shop in the 1980s but by then just sold shoes. Nottingham Street tailor and breeches maker B J Woolerton ("By Appointment to the Quorn Hunt") is no more. The twisted sign of saddler E. Hollingshead and Son, also of Nottingham Street, has long stood mute witness to what Melton once was; the name itself lives on ... as a café. Some hunting boxes have been demolished; others have found new uses. But what remains almost intact is the countryside itself: the fox coverts – ideally small gorse and blackthorn copses of between 2 and 20 acres (say 1 to 8 hectares) – are still carefully preserved and new ones planted, and many are owned by the Hunts themselves. Hunting is still a serious business around Melton. The county emblem is still a fox, although a depiction of a fox standing erect and alert is now used in Leicestershire's logo in preference to the running fox that is its heraldic crest; Charnwood Borough still retains the running fox, however. Leicestershire's motto remains for'ard, for'ard
+ + +Countryside apart, it is a vanished world. But Leicestershire County Council (LCC) has had the prescience to collect and document its unique history for the benefit of residents, for those who come from far and wide to find out at first hand what things were like, and for posterity. The centre for this collection is appropriately in Melton itself at the town's Carnegie Museum which holds the UK’s only extensive foxhunting collection and gallery.
Museum of Hunting TrustBuilding up this collection and gallery and displaying it a way which meets the needs of both the casual visitor and the researcher has been a difficult and costly undertaking that was brought to fruition in 2012 with substantial financial assistance from the Heritage Lottery Fund and from the Museum of Hunting Trust, a charity which works with LCC to bring information about local hunting history to the widest possible audience. The Trust has close links with the surrounding Hunts and organises hunting history evenings and other events at the Museum and other local venues.
Since 1999, the Trust has donated £135,000 to the museum, raised by hosting hunting history events and through generous donations by those who recognise the unique importance of the Museum's displays and collections. If you would like to help continue this development, you can donate now online — please see the Donations page. The Trustees and Management Committee are all volunteers; if you can help either with a donation, a legacy or with your time and effort it would be greatly appreciated.