Willy Poole: ‘hunted hounds all his life on nothing a year, paid quarterly’

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HE WAS A MAN of roughly my shape, size and weight and he commanded an audience that I coveted. Beyond those vital statistics, I and the late RWF ‘Willy’ Poole, who has died aged 76, had little in common.

Willy was a hunting man, an unreconstructed Right-winger happiest inhabiting tweed caps, plus fours and the company of foxhounds and most likely was too right-wing for UKIP; nevertheless,  I loved his country columns in The Newcastle Journal, the weekend Daily Telegraph and Horse and Hound.

When I quit Fleet Street and moved full-time into our wee cottage in the ‘Godzone’ village of Crookham in north Northumberland I contacted then Journal editor Brian Aitken to ask why Willy no longer appeared.

Said Brian, sadly: “I’ve had to let him go,” a term fully understood among newspaper editors to mean ‘I fired him.’
In Willy’s case it was a reasonable decision: his North Northumberland column based upon and beloved of the huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ farming fraternity had sharply changed direction following his decision to confound the UK’s 2005 fox hunting ban by decamping to France to hunt whenever and whatever he pleased.

Nonetheless, I and the county’s rural community still loved Willy’s words, be they by column or book – among others, ‘The Cheviot Ranter’, ‘A Backwoodsman’s Year’, The Rustic Scribe and a couple of racy hunting novels which were banned by WHSmith supposedly because they contained too much sex, violence and. . . hunting.

And so I was flattered beyond belief when Aitken hastily brushed over the circumstances of Willy’s departure with the words “. . . so there’s a vacancy for a column, if you’d care to fill it?” I leapt at the chance to follow in such footsteps.

‘Robert William Frederick Poole was born on December 18 1940 at Yeovil, where his father Robert was stationed before being incarcerated in Changi jail in Singapore in 1942. His grandfather, Major General Sir Frederick Poole, had commanded a Cossack regiment at the beginning of the Russian Revolution, from which his grandson inherited a Cossack sabre. . .’

I might as well own up to plagiarising the above facts (or culling them, the term a huntsman and former Master of the West Percy Hunt might have preferred to use) from his recent obituary in the Daily Telegraph. In his time Willy also mastered the Dartmoor, Taunton Vale and Sinnington hunts as well as the West Percy, which he commanded from Breamish Parks, the smallholding in which he and his wife Sue lived with panoramic views of the Cheviots.

Willy’s favourite pastime: a country writer, he loved nothing more than telling tales and tally-ho!

He was never rich, conforming to the description of a Master of Foxhounds in an earlier century by ‘Jorrocks’ author R.S.Surtees as a man who “hunted hounds all his life on nothing a year, paid quarterly”. But it was a life he loved.

When in 1990, by now weighing a meaty 18 stone, he gave up his position with the West Percy (admitting later in his diary “I had lost my nerve”), he continued to hunt on a quad bike with The Border Foxhounds.

He loved the tale-telling fellowship of journalists and countrymen and was gregarious in their company, returning often to visit for an evening of drink and yarns. So it was fitting that he received an MBE in the 2001 honours list for services to journalism and the countryside.

Willy Poole spent the last two years of his life on the Isle of Wight with his wife and their Pomeranian terrier Bella. They survive him with his son, Martin.

But, dare I say it, he is missed just as much by me and the farming community of north Northumberland.

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