They cheered and jeered and rode to hounds. And it was all so very British

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As far as pantomimes go, one of yesterday's bank holiday hunts offered the full, traditional cast of baddies and goodies (depending on whose side you're on), cuddly animal characters and oodles of farce.

As far as pantomimes go, one of yesterday's bank holiday hunts offered the full, traditional cast of baddies and goodies (depending on whose side you're on), cuddly animal characters and oodles of farce.

At Maldon in Essex more than 8,000 people gathered for one of the day's biggest shows, neatly dividing in two along the High Street in time for the morning curtain-up, with supporters on one side cheering the assembled horses and hounds and the "antis" on the other shouting "Perverts!" and other pleasantries to the delight of watching media.

As if to milk the moment for all it was worth, the whole parade came to a halt in front of the picturesque parish church, allowing for a full 10 minutes of full-throated howling. "We love hunting. Oh yes we do," was the basic message from one side.

"Oh no we don't," responded the other, right on cue.

The celebrity parts for this section of the proceedings were filled by local MPs lining up with each camp.

Angela Smith, the Labour member for Basildon, had travelled up the road to put her weight behind the protesters, while John Whittingdale turned out to defend his patch and his pro-hunting Tory constituents.

Neutral observers put the show down as something of a draw in terms of numbers mustered but with the antis shading it with the quality of their shouting and for their placards declaring that hunt supporters were "Out Foxed, Out Dated, Out Voted" and, again, that they were "Perverts".

Then the fun got under way in earnest as the ladies and gentlemen of the Essex Farmers and Union Hunt trotted off in their red and black finery towards the killing fields, pursued by a crazy convoy of hunt followers in Range Rovers and similar four-wheel-drives and protesters in more modest means of transport.

Much confusion ensued through the afternoon as these all belted around the country lanes, hoping to keep up with the action and to encourage or disrupt it. But they often passed each other in opposite directions amid frantic flurries of mobile phone calls.

Undoubtedly the star vehicle of them all was a rather beaten-up red Sherpa van carrying the camouflage-clad members of the Essex and Suffolk Hunt Saboteurs. Always accompanied by a police vehicle as escort (and on one occasion as many as three) this humble van would frequently pull up to decant or collect several members of its fearsome-looking crew, at which point the police would also put men on the ground to follow their every move.

Mostly these seemed to involve walking nonchalantly along a lane or public footpath, to avoid prosecution for trespass, with their police shadows strolling faithfully behind. Indeed members of the audience were tempted to shout "Behind you!", but it was clear that everybody involved knew exactly what was going on.

Even the "sabs" leaders could see the funny side. "Everything's quite civilised now, not like it used to be five or six years ago when you couldn't fart without getting arrested," said Norma Dinnie-Weall, who has been on this particular beat for the past 18 years. "We actually get on quite well with the police now, and we laugh about it ourselves."

Most of the direct action involved blowing hunting horns or cracking whips to distract the hounds, she said. That and spraying the hedgerows with citronella, a lemon-based aromatherapy oil, to put the hounds off the scent. Ms Dinnie-Weall flatly denied members planted wires in the woods to hurt the horses, or that they were paid for their pains - accusations levelled yesterday by hunt supporters.

Away from the extremes, however, the situation got a bit more confused. One couple mounting a roadside protest said they lived in the country and their main concern was the way the hunt blocked up badger sets to stop foxes going to ground. The woman confessed that she had worked with horses for years, and had been hunting in the past.

Another couple, resplendent in green wellies and waxed jackets, seemed the archetypal hunt supporters and said that they kept horses of their own. But the lady said she wouldn't take part in a hunt because she wouldn't like to witness a kill.

The final score for the day was one kill claimed by the hunt and two escapes claimed by the "sabs', and the overall impression was of everybody having a very fine day out.

Elsewhere in the country too, the biggest hunting day of the year passed off with few of the predicted confrontations.Thames Valley Police said one arrest had been made at The Garth and South Berkshire Hunt, which met at Mortimer, near Reading, but would give no more details. There were no other reported arrests.

The Countryside Alliance declared that public opinion was swinging away from the anti-hunt lobby. "Oh no, it wasn't," said the League Against Cruel Sports. It was the protesters' good sense and peaceful intentions that had prevented serious trouble.

Tension has been building up for yesterday's meets with the news that Ken Livingstone was taking time off from his personal hunt for the London mayoralty to try to steer through Parliament a private member's Bill aimed at banning hunting with hounds. In a rare sign of seeming collusion with the man he is said to loathe, Tony Blair had pledged on the BBC's Question Time that he would ban the sport. Punch and Judy in agreement can only mean trouble for the hunting lobby.

If hunting is ever to be banned there will undoubtedly be a lot of people of both persuasions looking for something else to do at Christmas. Perhaps they could all take part in a proper local panto.

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