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Hundreds attend funeral for Bedford
By Deborah Fitts
Times-Mirror Staff Writer
December 16, 1998

From the church it took well over an hour for everyone to the reach the graveyard. In dark coats, under a leaden sky, they streamed across the grass and corn stubble of Old Welbourne to the final resting place of Erskine Bedford.

Farmer, stockbroker, father, lover and friend, Bedford, 65, was best known to hundreds who attended his funeral Thursday as the exuberant and incomparable master of foxhounds of the Piedmont Fox Hounds, the oldest hunt club in America. He was killed Dec. 6 when his horse collapsed under him during a chase.

At Trinity Episcopal Church in Upperville, more than 300 had squeezed into the building and another 200 stood outside for the 45-minute service -- weather-burned faces, patrician faces, white faces and black, young and old. We heard soaring music, tributes, reading from the Bible.

But it was at the burial afterward that we came closer to the man. Not a conventional, civilized cemetery for him, but the lovely, half wild hillside graveyard at Old Welbourne, Bedford’s 385-acre estate near Unison.

Bordered by pasture and cropland and guarded foursquare by a handsome stone wall, the cemetery falls abruptly from a tilled field to the marshy bottom and a tributary of Beaverdam Creek.

They dug the grave in a topmost corner, a stone’s throw from the broken chimneys that mark the ruins of Old Welbourne. In the early 1800s this was the original home of the Dulany family, and Nat Morrison, of neighboring Welbourne, was there to represent his family’s wholehearted acceptance into their ancestral graveyard of Erskine Bedford’s earthly remains.

Halfway down the cemetery slope is the polished black granite cross marking the grave of Richard Henry Dulany, who founded the Piedmont Fox Hounds in 1840 as a family pack. As Commander of the 7th Virginia Cavalry, Dulany also made some of the Civil War history that Bedford so much enjoyed.

The crowd is gathering outside the cemetery wall, looking in. Randy Waterman, Piedmont’s joint master and huntsman, has clustered the hound pack, 60 strong, at the foot of the hill. His three whippers-in confine them in a happy, milling crowd, tails a-wag, in a corner formed by the wall and a pasture fence.

Nearly two dozen huntsmen gather inside the lower wall, chatting across to Waterman and studying the pack. They are in their red coats, the color of their collars identifying most of the region’s hunts. Watchman is among the pack, one of the most famous hound sires in America. Venerable in the dog-years, he is too old hunt now, but he is here today. Waterman points him out to the huntsmen; he is the only one with a collar.

We wait. The cavalcade of cars still proceeds up the drive to Bedford’s home, 400 yards distant, and people keep on coming across the field.

Among them is B.J. Webb, Leesburg’s vice mayor. As a child she escaped the anxieties of home life into the shining world of horses, and Erskine Bedford was one of the stars in the firmament.

He taught her and countless others a love of horses and hunting. He made everything fun, even the chores of making hay and cleaning stables. She remembers his civility and "truly caring about others."

"There were so many people who truly loved him," Webb says. But his legacy, she believes, was his love of the land, his commitment to the countryside. He was instrumental in helping young people realize how important it was to save it."

Also in the crowd is Jimmy Young, master of Orange County Hunt in Loudoun and Fauquier. "Erskine just would not take himself too seriously," but he inspired others, he says. "He made everyone feel they could do more than they thought they could."

Bedford epitomized all that’s best about foxhunting, Young says, and "in many ways it is a microcosm of life." Bound by tradition and the demands of the sports, "We are a community of neighbors. There’s tremendous loyalty and trust.

"There must also be a zest for the chase, just as for life. But it must not be unmanageable, it must be disciplined." The hounds are the embodiment of that spirit -- so keen that they approach the edge of control but always respond to the huntsman’s commands. "It’s almost an oxymoron."

The committal is brief. The air, turning towards dusk, is dead calm, the only sound that of chickadees singing in the boxwoods near the cemetery gate, wild geese calling far off, and the gentle whimper of the hounds.

The service is quickly over. At the last, Waterman speaks, using the traditional salutation to the master of foxhounds at the end of the hunt, no matter the time of day. "One final time - good night master." Huntsman Andrew Barclay of Green Spring Valley Hunt in Maryland, a champion horn blower, puts a hunting horn to his lips and a long, staccato blast pierces the air. It is the call "gone away", which alerts the hounds that the fox has broken covert and it’s time to take off after him.

The hounds freeze, electrified. Waterman swiftly recrosses the wall and mounts up. The whippers-in take positions on the flanks of the pack and Waterman leads them around the lower corner of the cemetery and up the steep slope.

Somehow, whether it is a trick of atmospherics or because I’m on the far side, the hounds and horsemen seem to move soundlessly: no word spoken, no hoof beat, no hound’s voice.

As they pass the cemetery gate and squeeze through a barway, Waterman gives a low whistle. All at once, as though upon some urgent but unspoken mission - as though some invisible fox beckons them on - the horses dash into a gallop, and within two or three breaths, all have disappeared form sight over the top of the field, heading west toward the dark hulk of the Blue Ridge.

We gaze after, spellbound.

And I don’t think anyone who was there will quarrel with my sense that they bore away the spirit of Erskine Bedford with them.