TRADITIONS of the countryside were kept alive in Rivington as the Holcombe Hunt headed out on its annual Boxing Day meet last week.

Cheered on by hundreds of gathered spectators, dozens of riders and their hounds gave a dazzling display of equestrian prowess and control as they paraded and galloped through less than ideal conditions.

This year marked the 402nd meet of the hunt, but the controversial pastime now faces a fight for its survival. Hunting live quarry with dogs was banned in 2004, after the Speaker of the Commons invoked the Parliament Act to force the legislation through. However the sport continues in a legal format with around 40,000 people estimated to take part in sporting activities on Boxing Day.

There were no such worries in our selection of photographs, although as one picture from 1983 shows, opposition to bloodsports is nothing new. That year around 100 saboteurs tried to wreck the annual Boxing Day hunt with police making one arrest as they followed the hunt onto the moors.

According to the Holcombe Hunt history, it can trace its lineage back to the 11th century and its hounds are believed to be direct descendants of the Blue Gascoignes, who were brought across the Channel by the Normans.

The hunt has enjoyed royal patronage of three kings - Edward I, James I and George V. In 1617, when James I visited Hoghton Tower, he was welcomed and charmed by Sir Gilbert de Houghton with, according to legend, such extravagant gesture of laying velvet along the whole of the half-mile drive to the tower.

The cost of this entertainment nearly ruined the de Houghton family, but the king was so impressed with Sir Gilbert that he granted a royal warrant to hunt over 12 townships and the privilege of wearing scarlet livery.

Until the 1920s, although the Masters and followers had always been mounted, the hunt staff had to follow on foot.

By then, three generations of the famous Jackson family had hunted on foot with the Holcombe. They astounded strangers by jumping the fences like horses and landing on their hands and knees.

Prominent in the Holcombe Hunt were many of the titans of Lancashire textiles, including the anti-corn law triumvirate of Ashworth, Cobden and Bright. An Ashworth was often Master of Harriers and all three men were Quakers, thus enduring the criticism of the Society of Friends for hunting and shooting.

The booming Lancashire textile towns produced many rival harrier packs by the turn of the century, which led to the great point-to-point races.

The first one hosted by the Holcombe was in April 1921 when 40,000 gathered at Affetside, near Bolton. Mills and shops closed down to let everyone gather for the races which popular newspapers of the day dubbed ‘The Mill Workers Grand National’. Such was the respect that, during World War Two, a Warship was named after the Holcombe. In 1943, one year after the Hunt class Destroyer HMS Holcombe was launched, she was sunk by a U-Boat still carrying the six solid silver tankards inscribed with HH, presented to her by hunt members.

The hunt rode out right through the war years between 1939 and 1945 and when petrol rationing started to bite, the Hunt Secretary saw to it that the bus timetables for Bolton and surrounding areas were printed on the backs of meet cards to give foot followers the chance to support their beloved hunt.

This year, before the assemblage rode off onto the West Pennine Moors, senior master of the hunt, Sue Simmons, told the crowds of the heritage of the Holcombe Hunt and how it strives to maintain and support the countryside and rural economy.

Ms Simmons told The Bolton News: “The Holcombe Hunt is doing its bit to protect the traditions of keeping a pack of hounds in Lancashire.

“This area has a particularly strong hunting tradition and support from farmers ­— even in hunting in the modern way with a trail. And in that way we continue to provide employment for people in the countryside, whether that is keeping horses or hounds or livery yards.

“Today is very much an opportunity for people to come and see the traditions of the countryside and we are very proud that we continue to provide the golden thread of a social link through rural Britain. The Holcombe Hunt is a thriving organisation that attracts active support from hundreds of people of all ages and from all walks of life. We are law-abiding people, so our activities today conform to the law, but we remain deeply committed to safeguarding the traditions of hunting, the hounds, and the people whose livelihoods depend on hunting.”