Copyright Wendy Fraser

The following piece by Blencathra huntsman Barry Todhunter first appeared in Hounds Magazine some while ago. Thank you to Hounds Magazine and Barry for allowing me to use it.

THESE boots are made for walking—and that is just what they do. On a hunting day in the Fells a huntsman and his whipper-in can walk up to 20 miles. If the boots are not made for walking, the huntsman comes home crippled. Traditional boots in Lakeland—‘strang beeats’ as we call them—are made of the best leather, laced to the toe, high-topped, steel-studded and fitted by a blacksmith with toe-and-heel plates, or corkers, that were so hardened and hard-wearing that they were fitted on to a new pair of boots after your old ones were worn out.

Once, these Fell boots were worn by everybody in every trade, alongside clogs. They were seriously heavy and would last about two seasons, perhaps being re-soled twice in that time. Their final days might be spent with a wooden clog sole fitted, to potter about the yard. The looked clumsy but they were warm, and lasted their wearers another few months.

All the villages had their own boot and clog makers. In our village of Threlkeld there were two serving the community and throughout the area names became prominent for their own different styles of hand-made boot. There were Bells, Bowness, Otways and Mars to name but four.

The buying of a new pair of handmade Fell boots always produced plenty of sarcastic remarks, such as, ‘Whoe built thee beeats: Swan Hunters?” Or stories of people having to walk straight into pubs and then back out of them because there was too little room to turn around with them on. And while we are on the subject of pubs, it has been said that the reason Fell or strang beeats are turned-up at the toes is so, no matter how drunk, the wearer would not go down, he just rocked gently backwards and forwards in his boots.

There is some truth in that, and a good reason for the turned-up toes. The flat-toed boots available now mean that you have to dig in your toes when climbing. The turned-up, or ‘sprung’ toe gives the wearer a lift up the hill, and much less energy is used. When walking all day behind hounds, that extra lift really makes a difference.

Boots are not mere pieces of leather covering the feet. I remember as a young lad at home on the farm, I could not wait to get my first pair of strang beeats. For most young country lads this was a first step to being a man. Every young lad used to like to scrape his feet on the road with his new boots, and see sparks fly off the studs. Usually the boots were bought two sizes too big, to be grown into, and make them last longer. Fell boots have always been pricey, as my predecessor as huntsman, Johnnie Richardson, said when he started at the Blencathra, a new pair of boots were a full week's wages. Little changes.

Goose grease and horse fat were used, first to soften and then protect the boots from the elements, water, snow etc. Horse fat is still used occasionally, but when the wearer sits in a warm farmhouse kitchen a smell goes up that would test the hospitality of the friendliest host. A new pair of boots would have to be worn around the house or farmyard and kennels for a couple of hours every day for a week to break them in. Some people used to put seives (rushes) inside their boots, to act as inner soles for cushioning and insulation. But it is the soles that decide whether you live or die on the Fells. Hobnail boots are by far the best for gripping on wet rocks and slimy wet ground. They have two flaws. The snow freezes or ‘balls’ on the bottom of your boots (as it does in a horse-shoe), and they have no grip on dry rock, sending their wearer skating along like Torvill and Dean. Boots with thick rubber soles (known here as Commando soles) are best on dry rocks and in snow, when they ball-up less badly. But they are hopeless in wet or slimy conditions. What happens if you start out on a fine hunting morning in rubber soles and it starts to rain? It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Also important is to have a high-topped boot to give plenty of ankle support, and leather anklets or gaiters for added support and to prevent small stones and snow getting into the tops of your boots and working their way down. Sadly, hand-made, made-to-measure boots have not been available for about 30 years. In the last few years you would either get your boots ‘off the peg’ from Scotland or from Yorkshire.

The Scottish boots were always the heavier, stronger boot. They had ‘half-sprung’ toes (better for rocking as well as for climbing), but unfortunately that source has dried up and the heavy boot cannot be found any more. There is a lighter version, mainly with Commando rubber soles, but sadly the leather is very thin and when wet it goes purple. And acts like blotting paper. The laces snap if you pull too hard on them.

On my last pair of Fell boots the laces snapped the first time I wore them, even after treating them with neatsfoot oil, my modern successor to horse fat. Probably the ‘forced’ leather of today—with cattle being quickly brought to size and the leather treated faster than it used to be—is a lot to blame, and the old craftsmen cobblers have either retired or gone. So unless somebody starts up afresh, the days of hobnailed, laced-to-the-toe shepherd's Fell boots are all but gone.

For the last few years, we have been wearing hiking or climbing boots from either Austria or Italy. They are hardwearing, double-lined and after three hard seasons, are still waterproof and have good treads.

So, like it or not, footwear in the Fells is a far cry from years ago.

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