A-hunting we will go (even after a night in the cells)

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The Independent Online

Just after 6am yesterday, John Holliday put on a scarlet jacket, tight white jodhpurs and braved the pouring rain and dawn cold to spend the next few hours chasing - in vain, as it turned out - a fox across the countryside.

Just after 6am yesterday, John Holliday put on a scarlet jacket, tight white jodhpurs and braved the pouring rain and dawn cold to spend the next few hours chasing - in vain, as it turned out - a fox across the countryside.

Barely six hours earlier, he had been released from a central London police station after 32 hours in custody on suspicion of causing violent disorder in the House of Commons. But even a sleepless night in the cells and the unseasonable weather were not enough to dissuade Mr Holliday from his usual Friday morning outing with the Ledbury Hunt.

The Ledbury - one of the oldest and most renowned hunts in Britain - meets twice weekly. This is what Mr Holliday is determined to defend in the face of the Government's ban on bloodsports. Today, along with fellow protesters and Ledbury members David Redvers and Andrew Elliott, he will be hailed a hero at a celebratory party held at the home of the president of the hunt.

The Ledbury Three, as they shall no doubt soon be known, are being lauded as ordinary Middle Englanders who invaded the cradle of democracy in order to defend the common man. The common man, however, would require around £4,000 to buy a horse, a sizeable income and the guarantee of every Monday and Friday off work to enjoy the kind of lifestyles that the Ledbury hunters take for granted.

For their welcome home, an entire pig has been roasted, bunting has been hung out and the champagne put on ice for the return of the three men after their storming of the House of Commons on Wednesday. Three packs of dogs have been brought in for separate hunts, which will last from 1pm until later afternoon.

Hunt lovers will be able to choose between hunting on foot behind a pack of Bassett hounds chasing hares, or riding to a second hare-hunting pack.

The third, and final, hunt of the day will be a traditional fox-hunt, on horseback, with up to 100 members of the Ledbury hunt - and hundreds more supporters - expected to attend.

Donald Haden, president of the Ledbury who has ridden to hounds for 35 years, said: "The festival is a charity event that has been planned for some time, but it is now going to be a bit of a 'welcome home and well done' celebration for the protesters. They are all well-known within the hunt, and we want to make a bit of a stand about the ban."

Nestling in the heart of the Wye Valley, Ledbury is a picturesque market town which is so quintessentially English that it borders on the twee. Black-and-white timbered buildings line the High Street, which features a family butcher, a cider brewery and a blacksmiths.

Until Wednesday's protests, the biggest news in Ledbury was that the town had been crowned regional winner of the Britain in Bloom contest for the second year running. With a population of only 9,000, just a couple of hours from London and surrounded by rolling countryside, it is the kind of place that city dwellers dream of.

According to Mr Haden, the hunt is a vital and much-loved part of this rural community. "We are very well supported by the town, and in turn a lot of businesses are well supported by the hunt," he said. "On Boxing Day last year, more than 3,000 people turned out. There was a wonderful atmosphere, with people cheering as we went off."

The hunt itself has around 100 members and meets every Monday and Friday. It has the run of 200 square miles of prime countryside in Herefordshire and Gloucestershire, and its hounds bag around 90 foxes a season. It neighbours the Beaufort Hunt, which counts Camilla Parker-Bowles, Princes Charles and his sons among its members, and the two hunts regularly attend each other's balls and social events.

But Ledbury members are keen to stress they are not the stereotypical "toffs" portrayed in the press. Tim Lewin, the town's dentist and current joint master of the hunt, said: "I came to hunting late in life and with no background to it.

"About 14 years ago, my wife and I decided to learn to ride, and the people teaching me suggested I came out on a hunt with them. I got the bug instantly. It's just wonderful to be out, riding over land that you never normally get to see. I get angry when people say we are just all upper-class twits.

"We have a complete cross section of society - doctors, lawyers, self-employed people, nurses who come hunting. This is a traditional farmers' hunt for local people." As evidence, he points me in the direction of Sue Peckham, a 39-year-old single mother who moved to Ledbury 18 years ago and is now a keen hunt member. On top of her full-time job in a dairy, she milks cows for a local farm every weekend in order to pay to go hunting.

"The only way I can afford to hunt is to do the extra work, but it's worth it. When you're hunting, it doesn't matter whether the person next to you is a Lord or whatever. It's about whether you can get your horse over a fence or not."

But scratch the surface and the egalitarian veneer of the Ledbury hunt people wears a little thin. Robert Oliver, the other joint master, is a former showjumper and friend of Prince Charles and the Princess Royal. His sprawling home at Upper House Farm in the village of Upleadon, near Ledbury, is a frequent starting place for the hunt meets.

Within the hunt is the so-called Ledbury Set - a circle of close-knit, well-connected and wealthy friends that includes Robert Thame, another Commons protester and friend of Prince Charles who rides with the Beaufort, and Luke Tomlinson, a polo playing friend of Prince William.

And while the hunt is keen to portray itself as a vibrant part of town life, others seem less impressed. Estate agent Sue Jagl said: "I think two-thirds of the people in this town probably don't even know that there is a hunt here. The hunt turns out on Boxing Day and make a lot of fuss, but other than that you wouldn't even know they exist."

Gill Purser and her husband David are local farmers who banned the hunt from their land 15 years ago. Mrs Purser said: "I am against hunting anyway but we just got fed up with the way they behaved. They knocked down gates and fences and charged along the lane whooping and screaming. Once it spooked one of my own horses so much that it ran out and trampled one of my own chickens to death."

When the Pursers asked the hunt not to use the lane or their land for the meets, they say they were met with an unreasonable response.

"The master of the hunt told us he could go anywhere he wanted," said Mrs Purser. "They're so arrogant. When we made a stand we were told that no other farmer would lend us any farm machinery, in the way that farmers normally do.

"These are people who only a century or so ago were the landowners and lawmakers. People like us didn't even have the vote and they could basically do what they wanted. I think they find it difficult to accept that they can't act like that anymore."