Before hunting was banned August was well into the otter-hunting season. This month's posting is taken from a book published in 1902 describing a day with the hounds in the northern lakes.
WHAT a long breath the blackbird must draw to be sure! Here am I doing my best to feel that I have not risen earlier than usual; trying to be as matter of fact as one can between the pauses of tea and toast. There is a calm in that slow, deep-chested alto of the blackbird that is beyond all words. And yet he is telling me, for all his own self-possession and May morning quiet, that there are for such inferior wingless animals as men certain helps to loco-motion which can only come at certain times, and unless taken advantage of, speed off and leave us very much where we are; and I seem to hear in the oft-repeated, slow-drawn, black-bird's alto some such words as these: "Now sir-make haste-sir-or-you'll-miss-your train-sir."
One would not so much have minded what the blackbird out on the laurel had got to say had one not looked at one's watch and found it close to seven o'clock, and realised that in less than thirty minutes, if one failed to catch the train, one would fail to join the pack of otter-hounds who were travelling from Cockermouth to Threlkeld by the said train, and miss the first of their morning hunts along the river Bure and up the valley of St. John's.
Just then a thrush in the lilac bush close by the breakfast-room window began to aid and abet my philosophic blackbird monitor.
"Going, going," it said, "be quick, be quick, be quick." This thrush must have come of a good French family, or else high-schools have been the rage in the thrush world also, for he immediately altered his tongue and called, "Vite, vite, vite," as plain as any Frenchman ever cried it.
"You must really, sir, make haste, sir. Now look sharp, now look sharp, look sharp, pray make haste, pray make haste, pray make haste vite, vite, vite, and be quick." The thrush's call was on my nerves; I could stand it no longer. Bolting the last mouthful of toast, pouring the cup of tea into a saucer and gurgling it down, I seized my stick, and away out of the house I ran to catch the train that was conveying the otter-hound pack, and to go with them to the meet.
It is not so easy a matter to fall in with the otter hounds as might be supposed. No meets are advertised, and except to an inner circle no meets are declared.
"You see, sir," said a yeoman friend at the station, "it 'ud never deu to hev a vast o' fowk come trailing oop beck sides and river banks at sic a time as thissen. Seed-corn already startit grawin', and a lock of ley-gurse (meadow grass) to be kep' quiet for the mowing. As it is, otter-hounds stops off for ley-gurse mowing."
I did see, and confess that the comparative quiet gained by the fact that the chosen ones who followed the hunt were few, added not a little to the rich enjoyment of the morning.
"Theer's anudder thing as maks for a sma' hunt," said a sportsman as we stood together on the platform. "Otters is few-excep' for bloodin' young dogs we're not particular to killin' them and if there's a gay lock o' fowk oot t' hunds, and there's a drag, otter hesn't a chance, ye kna."
We were soon talking over otters' ways and otter-hound characteristics with the huntsman. A dark-eyed man was he, dressed in blue cloth with silver buttons whose sign was an otter, and who wore knee-breeches, and was evidently made for the 'running huntsman's' game. He was no salaried whip, but just a friend of the Master of the Hounds, who in the Master's absence took control.
I learned from him that both otters and otter hounds were on the increase. There are now in the Lake District and its confines four packs Kendal, Cockermouth, Carlisle, and Egremont.
As for the hounds, there are ten where there were two twenty years ago; and if only the rivers could be kept pure from poison, so that fish would multiply, there need never come the time when otters should be scarce.
Only a few weeks since otters had been seen at the mouth of the Keswick town sewer, and otters had been tracked by their 'prints' as the spoor is called, up the River Bure we were going to hunt to-day, and also on the sides of Thirlmere Lake, within the past few days.
"But what about the hounds and the size of the packs? "
"They vary. We," said my friend, "hunt with as few dogs as we can; six to eight couples are quite enough. If you have more the otter has too little chance. As to breed well, there is the pure otter hound first and foremost, and then we have strains between foxhounds and bloodhounds. I generally draft into the pack some of the older, slow-going, safe old foxhounds from the neighbouring foxhound pack. You will see all the varieties when we empty our horsebox at Threlkeld presently. As for terriers, we generally take with us an old British breed a Dale breed, as it is called the Ulpha and Patterdale rough-haired terrier is of the hardiest. No one seems to know its origin about here. Crib! Crib! " And up jumped from under the seat as good. a specimen of an ancient Briton as might be seen among dogs.
Colour a kind of American walnut; thicker set than most of the wire-haired English terriers I had seen.
" 'Crib' is a caution," said a gentleman beside my friend. "He houses with the doctor all the year, won't look at me when I meet him any time between mid-August and now, but I send down for him the night before we throw off for the season. He knows all about it, and nothing will induce him to leave me till after hunting is done."
"When is it done?" I asked.
"Oh, as soon as it gets too hot and water gets low—mid-August or September."
"And when does it begin?
"As soon as it gets warm enough for the clogs to face the water,"replied my friend.
This is an early start. We are often unable to go to the rivers till June, but this sea-son is mild no snow water in the rivers and so we are going to our first meet now, in the second week of May."
"But have you no close time for otters?"
"No; they don't need it. They have cubs at all seasons, so far as we can learn, and so that does not enter into our account."
"What kind of state of water in the rivers do you like best for your hunting?"
"Oh, neither too low nor too high. We are oft-times forced to give up hunting in a dry season because of the shallows. An otter, unless he has depth beneath him, is at much disadvantage. And the fact is, that the otter is 'game' whose life is too valuable to us to be sacrificed easily, for otters never seem to have more than two cubs, and appear to breed only in alternate years."
"What time," I asked, "do you usually like to meet?"
"We used to meet at five, and half-past five, in the morning; but the scent is so tearing hot at that hour that we have found it best policy, and for the sake of the otter's chances altogether better, to meet a couple of hours later, when the scent is colder."
As he said this, the train drew up with a 'girr' at Threlkeld Station.
What a picture of a meeting-place it was! Here, where Thorold of old whose mere the thirsty Manchester folk will never drink dry pastured his flock, and drank of the 'keld,' or cold spring from the Blencathra's height; here, where in later time that shepherd lord grew up amongst Thorold's descendants and learned "love in the huts where poor men lie" he "whose daily teachers were the woods and rills"—did not he, bethink you, on just such an exquisite morn of May, stroll, crook in hand, among the flowery meadows either side the Bure, startle the heron and flush the sand-piper, and watch with wonder the otter at his feast?
Yet, as one gazes from the vast buttresses of dark Blencathra, "that many-bosomed hill," so the Greeks would have called it — to look south and east upon Helvellyn's side, one goes in thought on this our hunting morn, to the shepherd lords of an earlier day, to hunters of an older time. For there, up above the quarries below the ruddy Wanthwaite Screes, there lie the remnants of the huts of primeval men, who, for aught we know, trained dogs of just such breed as today shall hunt for 'game' by the river banks they haunted and the river banks they loved.
Certainly about these otter hounds there is a most primeval look, thought I, as with a yelp the motley pack came tumbling out of their horsebox. I expect these animated doormats, for so these otter-hounds seemed, were just the kind of cross between a stag-hound and a blood-hound that would be needed to press the game through a bethicketed England in the hunters' days of yore.
Gazing at the pack we set aside the old foxhound stagers, and our eyes fell on what seemed to be bloodhounds. These bloodhound pups were in reality out of a pure otter hound by a shaggy father, whose father had been crossed with a bloodhound, and had thrown back into the bloodhound strain. Yet the Master of the Hunt assured me that the same mother and father had presented the world with hirsute hounds, and he doubted not that in all but the rough coat these pups were otter hounds indeed, and that their children would return to long-coated-dom.
We certainly got a good idea of the otter-hound build by seeing these smooth-haired gentlemen, for the otter-hound in his long-haired suit defied eye-measurement. The otter hound shaggy seemed a constant surprise to me. His heavy coat gave him a heavy look, which, however, belied him. Once in movement one saw his litheness.
Dark of muzzle, back and tail, his ears and haunches, belly and legs were ochrey yellow, and when, as was frequent during the hunt, a hound dashed up the bank and rolled upon the grass, one could hardly for the moment think that this yellow, brightly-shining beast was the dark-haired, sombre creature seen below in the shallows just now.
We threw off the eight couples and a half, and soon found that our field was a small one not more than a dozen men at the outside. There was, of course, among these, the yeoman whose farm we had first entered, and the retired gamekeeper, who knew where the otter was last seen.
"Want-thet's handkercher's folding up," said a man at my side; "it will fair yet." And as he spoke a light veil of cloud on Wanthwaite's crags seemed caught up by invisible hands and passed out of sight.
Now we gained the river what scents were in the air! The birches just putting into leaf were fragrant as with paradisal odours; the bird-cherries poured out their honey perfume; larks filled the air with song; cuckoos cried as it seemed from every naked ash and budding oak. And oh! The flowers. First over carpets of anemone, then through little strips of pearly wood sorrel we went. At every bank primroses were sweet, and in the open meadows here and there in beautiful isolation orchids bloomed. Such marigolds, too, gleamed in the soughs! Such cuckoo-flowers freckled the grass! Such blackthorn blossom whitened the hedge-rows! Shundra was passed; Hollin Farm, fairly veiled in plum and cherry blossom, was now upon our left.
The silent hounds cast up the bank, not keeping close to the water, but spreading over the grass within 60 or 100 yards, then making for the water again. At last there was a sound of music, and Ringwood, the shaggiest of the doormats on four legs, put his feet well upon a projecting bit of boulder-stone by the bank, and, lifting up his head, seemed baying to the sun.
In an instant the whole pack gathered and gave tongue, and then all was silent again.
"Cush, they've spokken till her," said a man, "happen, and it'ill be lang eneuf afore they spek agean.”
It was lang eneuf.
But that note of music marvellously possessed us, and the fact of an otter's existence in this old valley of St. John's seemed to make the valley doubly interesting.
We scrambled down to the water's edge, and saw among the many 'footings' of the hounds who were not scouring away up stream a queer-looking footmark; a creature half-goose, half-cat, we would have said, had been there. It was the otter's 'print’, as it is called, and up stream we hurried.
Hilltop was passed, whitely shining on our left such an ideal spot for a farm. Ah! Here the weary Londoner might rejoice, thought we, to find the May dawn break above his head at such a valley homestead. Lowthwaite Farm, quite as enchanting, stood in its rustic loveliness beneath Helvellyn's side a little farther on. The hunters paused. For after crossing the road that leads up Naddle to St. John's School and Chapel, the River Bure runs into a noble horseshoe of liquid silver, and we watched the dogs cast and recast, speak and be silent from point to point all round the emerald meadow.
Music here and music there; music, music everywhere.
Yes, and music of a very different order floats wondrously upon the bird-cherry-scented fragrant moving air as the wind from the south drifts the sound of the bleating of the lambs from Naddle Fell. For there, as we cross another road and pass into the fields, where the vale seems to grow more narrow, and the river turns and glides west right under Naddle, some stepping-stones placed strongly in mid-current give to the river just the kind of natural harp the clear stream loves to twang.
But not with river melody nor the chiming of the hounds are our ears filled, for by a solemn yew tree, and overshadowed with tall dark pines and budding poplar trees, there stands beside the bank beneath the hill a very simple Cumberland cottage, 'four eyes, a nose, and a mouth' upon its white face in shape of dark windows, porch, and open door.
That cottage has sent forth songs that will not die songs born of sympathy with simple men and solemn nature.
There, till lately, dwelt a kind of Isaac Walton among men a village schoolmaster; one who himself was ever at school, learning what streams and winds and flowers in this beloved vale might tell him of high thought, and gathering from the words and faces of his yeoman friends the deeper melodies that make our common life a psalm so that even angels desire to listen thereunto.
Truly, as long as men know what pathos is, they will, as they read Richardson's Cumberland Tales and Other Poems, be glad that the River Bure sang sweetly at yon humble threshold, and of these stepping-stones made so rich a harp for his hearing.
"I dunnet kna," said a yeoman friend, "much aboot potry and sec like, but I kenned many and many of the men as he put down in verse. You couldn't be off kennin' them. It was o' t' vara life, his mak' of potry; ye kna naw nonsense nor nowt, but just to t' life to t' vara life. But what thar, dogs is at wark; otter ull happen be in one of the soughs twixt here and Fellside."
Away we went, splashing through the wet ground, leaping the soughs full of rich golden light from the thousand mary-buds that had inlaid them, till suddenly Ringwood laid nose to ground and broke away from the bank, and in a moment the dogs seemed to have forgotten all about the windings of the liquid Bure, and to have gone mad across the meadow towards Helvellyn's side.
"Didn't I tell ye sae? " said the gamekeeper, and after them we scurried.
Away across the meadows to the road beyond the wood and to the rocks. We had run the otter to earth nay, we had run it to rocks; and such a 'beald' it was that all the 'Cribs' in the world could never have stirred his ottership from there.
So back we came, and up the stream we went through the meadow haze; the cushats cooed sadly from the 'Fornside' larch wood, the sand-pipers flitted with sharp and piteous complaining hither and thither; but we were as light-hearted as boys, old men and grey though some of us were. Over the bridge we passed along under Naddle, through Low-Bridge-End Farm byre, and the men ran out and joined us, and the dogs barked and shrank back into the house. Presently the leading hound cast among huge boulders on our left, opposite the Manchester Waterworks gauge-house.
"Game's afoot," shouted a yeoman. "Didn't I tell ye sae? " said the gamekeeper and all the hearts beat faster as upon the terrace path towards Smethwaite, or Smith-thwaite ‘Brig’ we went.
I doubt if Sir Walter Scott ever saw the Castle Rock he speaks of in the Bridal of Triermain in greater glory than today, in the pleasant May light, the chinks upon the natural bastions emerald green, the castle walls gleaming as if the wandering sun had found that here was rest and peace at last. The little white houses of Legberthwaite, called "The Green", shone out as if they had gathered beneath the castle hold for sweet security, and could laugh in their peace and hearts' content. The moist fields between the Castle Rock and the Howe were just cloth-of-gold with the mary-buds; and as we neared the bridge all travellers know, we could see beneath the woods on the Howe, as yet not fully leaved, a veil of white anemone, woven, it seemed, into a lucent damask, and broidered with rich parsley fern.
Like a star upon the deep-brown amber of the stream (for there had been rain in the night and the pools were discoloured) flashed by a water-ousel, and settling on a stone, ducked and curtsied, and showed us her little white bib and tucker over and over again, as she bobbed and bobbed her salutation to us.
"Otter's noway n'ar if Bessie Doucker's about," said a yeoman. "Bessie's vara shy of much disturbance, whether of man or beast."
"Bessie Doucker!" I said. "What in the name of fortune is Bessie Doucker?"
"We ca' them dippers Bessies hereabout; they git Bessie Doucker and nowt else," my friend replied.
"But whist! That's Ringwood, he's hit drag, he has howivver! And seest tha' he's gaaing reet across owr for Helvellyn Beck theeraway.” The yeoman was right we dashed down to the river bank, and how we got across the Bure is more than I mind. Soon we were knee-deep in marigolds, splashing away for the beck that flows down from Brown Cove Crags, and leaves the smithy beneath the Howe that Wordsworth's 'rosy-cheeked schoolboys' have made immortal, and makes a straight course by ash and sycamore tree to join the Bure just the low side of Smethwaite Bridge.
The otter had been too swift for the hounds. A splash down stream, a flash of a brown body that looked like a seal's cub, a cat, a beaver, and gigantic water-vole in one, was all I saw; and away the hunt dog, man, otter-hound, terrier, yeoman, gamekeeper, huntsman, and whip tore down the beck towards the river.
I made for the bridge the most picturesque, but the worst bridge for its particular purpose between Keswick and Windermere. Who does not know that bridge? —How many hearts have leapt into how many mouths as to the cry of "Sit hard, gentlemen! " the coachy has dashed at the narrow, crooked, low-parapeted viaduct, and gone with a crack of his whip at a hand gallop up the steep pitch beyond *.
* Since this was written, a new bridge has been built at this spot, and travellers have gained security though they have lost the picturesque.
Running round I stood on a kind of miniature escarpment beneath a long-tasselled flowery poplar, and saw the hounds dive into the dark pool, struggle up against the stream, then turn, and with their mouths full of water-stifled music, allow themselves to be swept back to the bank.
Then a fleck of silver whiteness rose under the bridge, and a cry of "Forrard on! " came through the archway, and the dogs dashed and swam on forward, and their melody died away. I stayed on the bridge, with good view of the river pools either side, and scarce had the hounds owned the drag in the meadow below Bridge-End House, and seemed to be going away beyond the stepping-stones and the tiny-arched upper bridge in the direction of Raven Crag and the Thirlmere thickets, than I noticed bubbles rise 'beaded bubbles,' not 'winking at the brim', but breaking in long line across the still backwater of the current. Another moment, and a shadowy something that seemed almost like a black fish might have been a seal shot through the pool, and a brown body, swift as light, hustled along under the over-hanging brow of the bank, and with a flop dived into the pool higher up.
I confess I had no heart to halloo for the hounds; my sympathies were with the 'game'. It was, as one analysed one's feelings after, not the chance of being in at the death of an otter that had brought one out into the glories of a May dawn, but the chance of a sight of one of these ancient dwellers from primitive times in the old valley of St. John's.
And doubly serene did great Helvellyn seem, and the Naddle Fells shone out in sweeter beauty, as back by the rippling Bure and the otter's 'beald' among the rocks near Low Bridge we passed with certainty of that otter's safety. Thence we turned by Fornside and the Green, and went along under Castle Rock to the quaint old farm upon the Fellside known as Stanah.
There, where the water leaps down from Helvellyn's shoulder in ceaseless cataract, and sends upward such rainbows that the miners, as they pass up the zigzag path hard by the ghyll to go to their work at Glenridding mines on the Monday morning, are more than comforted, we too found comfort and guid cheer for a time.
As we sat and cracked on over our few poddish in a cosy old kitchen, and enjoyed a downright good 'rust,' as the saying is, in the easy-chair, the farm lad came in to tell us that "dogs had spoken till anudder otter, and gone gaily weal intil middle o' lake efther it." But lack of boats on Thirlmere had frustrated the hunters' aims, and with some reluctance the hounds had been recalled by way of Dalehead Pasture, and were now going down road to Threlkeld. I sauntered out, and followed down the Vale of St. John's homewards and station-wards, "in silent thankfulness that still survives."
I confess the freshness of the morning and all the first excitement of the chase had passed away. The day was much more ordinary in its general appearance now. I had seen skies bend just as sweetly over Naddle Fell; Blencathra had seemed a hundred times before as full of witchery and shadow. Yes; there is a difference between the ways of sun and air at seven o'clock of a May morning and at noon for us slug-a-beds that words cannot describe.
But as home we trudged, with the pack twinkling along the dusty road before us, we blessed the otter and the hounds for that sense of "all the beauty of a common dawn" they had been the means of giving us; blessed them for glimpses of dewy meadow-lands and May morning joy in an enchanted vale, and vowed to meet the huntsman at his favourite haunt, Oozebridge, below Lake Bassenthwaite, at the earliest hour of the earliest day the Master of the Hounds should next appoint.
Abstract from A Ramblers Notebook at the English Lakes by The Rev. H.D.Rawnsley. Pub. James MacLehose & Sons, Glasgow 1902