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Rigghead
Courtesy of Blencathra Foxhounds
© P Davies

Blencatra Foxhounds
Courtesy of Blencathra Foxhound
© P Davies

 

 

Westhead
Courtesy of Blencathra Foxhounds
© P Davies

"So what was it like to follow hounds when hunting was legal?" the email asked. There are plenty of accounts of the MFH taking the oxer after his tenth stirrup cup but little about the fell packs.

I wrote a brief reply. The best books to read are by Richard Clapham who wrote in the 1930s. Another account by C.E Benson in 'Crag and Hound in Lakeland' published 1902 is worth a look, but at a price of over 80 probably only a look in a bookshop.

I sat down and wrote 'The Meet'. Obviously it is a composite, every thing including conversation happened but not on the same day. I hope it gives a flavour.

It is based around 1974, unlike the first offering 'A Fell Fox Hunt' which is based in 1905, and taken from 'The English Lakes' published that year.

A Fell Fox Hunt

The English Lakes

Goats. Villagers of Coniston tell of a herd of over thirty observed not many seasons ago, while groups of over a dozen occasionally tempt the keen gunster out on to the chilly wastes. The goats, I am told, were introduced about a century ago in order to prevent fell-sheep frequenting dangerous cliffs for a goat is safe where a sheep will turn giddy, and, falling, be dashed to pieces. By nature the sheep is divided from the goat, and will not browse the same pasture. For long it was a custom of the quarrymen of Tilberthwaite to assemble on Good Friday morning, and attempt to hunt the goats haunting the fell near by. But though a kid or so, weaker than the rest, might be taken, I never heard that much success accompanied these chases. The goats from Coniston fells wander in search of toothsome grass to beyond the Duddon, and there is record of an exciting hunt among the rocks of Wallabarrow for a wandering goat. In winter only do these animals approach civilisation ; their usual haunts are the crags above sequestered glens. The snow crunches under our feet, and we speedily come down to where we again catch view of Coniston Water. Now it is clear of mist, the whitened fields, blotched with woods, limned with hedges, are in sharp contrast to the grey ice, and to the glittering unfrozen water in mid-lake. A glory almost approaching that of day spreads over the scene : the queen of the heavens is indeed "walking in brightness" here.

I NEVER think of Wastwater without recalling some exciting hours Wastwater surrounded by crag-set mountains and wide bouldery moorlands where foxes rule wild and strong. Under Tommie Dobson, that genius among fell-land huntsmen, a pack of wiry hounds has been raised in the bordering dales. In pursuit ruthless, untiring, determined ; a chase from dawn to night, over country bristling with difficulties, is no unusual thing to them. Screes, miles of frittering mountain rampart, Yewbarrow, ridged like a Napoleon's hat, Scafells, impending over great piles of fragments, Gable ; about these are benks and earths and borrans innumerable. Never a season do they fail the hunt ; never do they fail for redskins to plunder flock and poultry roost. Then the wilds to Ennerdale I had climbed the slope of Gable before the meet at dawn on a spring day, the crisp air became full of music what finer sounds than those from a foxhound's throat ! the turf was springy and dry, the sky flecked with high-sailing clouds. To climb the rocky terraces was delightful; to hunt the exhilaration needs experience, it is beyond my words to describe. No pink coat was in the knot of men below; and a follower on horseback is seldom seen at a meet by Wastwater. Hounds unkennelled as they left the short lane from the inn, and soon above the babble of eager questers rose the clear peal of a true find. To one line gathered the pack, and away! Not often does Reynard give so good a chance. Over the tall drystone walls surged the hounds, at first in a compact bunch, then, as pace began to tell, dribbling out into a line. Out of the fields, and into the intakes of Mosedale; and ever higher rose the note of the chase, ever smarter the gliding forward of the clan. A check! From Gable's lofty flank I saw hounds halt at a dark grey patch of stones, circle it almost in silence. Reynard has gone aground; the huntsmen and the fleeter followers come up. The scent drew the pack in and out, over wall and beck, through dead bracken and crackling heather, three or four good miles, but the huntsman, judging the true route, reached the borran in less than a mile. The hounds called away, terriers are put "in" and possibly will have Reynard out ere long. Nowhere but in the fells are terriers really used after foxes nowhere else, the dalesmen proudly say, are dogs capable of doing such work. After a considerable delay two white dots stray out on to the dark grey stones. Reynard has been killed in the dark recesses.

The sun is now high, the cloud flecks are gone, the air has become warm. Long ago foxes ceased to be afoot, and hours of careful work by huntsman and hounds may be necessary to find another fox scent. But even the pattern of all wiliness, like the human votaries at his shrine, sometimes over- reaches himself. After a tedious march it is refreshing to hear hounds speak to a piping line. Reynard, lying out in a pile of boulders, has heard the coming pack. He steals away too late, for a keen-sighted dalesman has viewed him away. Ten minutes of frenzied rushing, and the fox is reached. Ruby in the van seizes him, and over go both at the impact. The hound, aged but plucky, loses his grip and Reynard is free again; down the scree, in the very access of terror, the redskin flies, but with a couple of bounds Chorister has him fast. The iron jaws crunch into the fox's spine, and though together they roll near twenty yards the grip never falters. There is no "worry" at the death; the hounds, now that their enemy is dead, take little further notice of him. Ofttimes the death is compassed a mile away from the nearest follower, but occasionally a fair number view the finish. And to do this you may have to come pell mell down some rotten "rake". We saw hounds stream over a patch of snow on a near-by hill: a dalesman pointed out Reynard dead beat a hundred yards in front. "The Gate," called some one, "who's going down?" Six of us rushed for the head of that precipitous scree-shoot. The angle of descent was terrible, but, hunting mad, we leapt and slid, stumbled and jolted down. A thousand feet plumb drop, with a hail of loose stones roaring behind us. The rake-foot was narrow, between perpendicular rocks, and in single file we raced down. No one tried to halt; if it were thought of, the gathering pelt of stones decided in favour of forward. Shades of Silver Howe! In the mad-ness of the guide-race you never saw the like of this. But after five minutes of real, tearing life oh! it's good to have lived through such a time! we were running down the smoother grass. The hounds were probably quite close by running mute for the death and across the roaring, flooded beck within a score yards came the fox. We halted in silence, back up, tongue lolling, moving stiffly and with evident pain, he was the scourge of the fells, but a respected foe at that. Thrice had he been chased far, now came for him the end. Two outstripping hounds shot across a cove which was bank-high in snow, leapt at him, and all was over.

The Closing Meet

I stood at the top of the hill by the church and waited, it was an early spring morning and the sun was attempting to shine through breaks in the cloud casting rays of sunshine onto the fell across the valley, these patches of sunlight moved across the fell leaving behind them dark shadows and the effect was magical with the different intensity of the light. One by one my friends joined me, in various stages of recovery from the inebriation of the previous night.

Where to go next morning had occupied most of the previous night's conversation in The Rule public house. One school of thought took the view that we should attend the meet proper with its gossip and coffee laced with rum and sandwiches before setting out onto the open fell. The other view was that we should forgo the hospitality and get onto the top in order to look down on the bracken bed where it was known there was a fox. In the end the latter view won, but only after several pints had been downed and due deliberation given.

Next morning saw our little group walking up the road towards the high fell waving occasionally at cars and vans as they pipped their horns heading for the venue and on one occasion even declining a lift. Daffodils were out in some gardens and in the fields beside the road new born lambs surveyed the morning sheltering from the cold strong wind close to their mothers, the odd bleat carried over to us. "Bad time to be born," someone remarked, "but better than if it were raining." A wet Spring can cause havoc with new born lambs, they never dry off and the cold wind kills many more than the roving foxes always active at this time of year.

At a lay by a car drew up and getting out, the occupant got his waterproofs and stick from the boot, whistled his terrier and locked the car, putting the keys in the adjoining stone wall for safe keeping. It always struck me as foolhardy, but not long ago he was still driving the same car.

We left the road and crossed through the gate that took us via an old track onto the fell, the pace quickened as it would soon be time for the hounds to be "lowsed" (loosed) onto the fell side and we had quite a bit of height to gain first.

Conversation and banter ceased much to my relief as I had long since become short of breath due to the pace and also the banter had been at my expense having recently been seen in conversation with a young lady of dubious morals. My protestations that I was only asking about the hunt carrying no weight what so ever.

The gradient increased and the pace did accordingly. I opened my jacket and then my shirt. "It's ten past nine," somebody said, "git a move on". I stopped and leaned on my stick for a breather, my calves ached like hell and my shirt stuck to my back with sweat, I gasped in lungfuls of air. "Tired lad?" somebody asked. "Course he is," another replied, "All he does all day is give out bedpans." I had recently become a student nurse which meant leaving the lakes to work in Preston 40 miles down the road. This was my day off and I had come back for the hunt.

"Hasta seen his hands?" A general chorus of "no" followed. "He has hands like a girt lass," continued my friend, "smooth as a baby's arse." I glanced at his hands which reflected his occupation as that of a quarryman and decided to keep quiet.

We started the upward climb again in single file now with gaps opening between the members; I brought up the rear steadily losing ground, and all that could be heard was the occasional click as a metal tipped walking stick came into contact with a rock and the sound of laboured breathing. Suddenly it was over and we had arrived, I leaned over my sick gasping for breath my calves screamed with the effort. Our little group stood on the ridge surveying the scene below, someone lit a cigarette and the smell of stale beer was overpowering, one lad disappeared to search for privacy whilst he had a pee.

Cloud hung low over the surrounding fells a mist blowing in and out with the wind, it did not bode well should a hunt decide to go in that direction. From where I stood the mist appeared to be accompanied by rain or perhaps sleet showers, the previous shafts of sunlight had all but gone as the cloud closed in.

Below us the throng of people and parked vehicles suggested we were in time, the cry of the boxed hounds carried on the wind up to us 1500 feet above. A crash denoted the opening of the ramp on the hound trailer and the hounds streamed out mixing with the groups of people, a few minutes later the sound of the horn and huntsman's voice denoted the day was about to begin.

Gathering his hounds together the huntsman passed through a gate held open for him and cast his hounds into the fell, they spread searching for the slightest scent, occasionally giving tongue. "Who says there is a fox in yon bracken bed?" I asked. Peter looked at me, "Sid it a couple of times this week," he said, "when I've been out wid t'dog." The hounds crossed the wall separating field from fell and almost immediately hit the line of the fox, a crash of music carried up to us on the ridge, it had happened so fast that several followers at the meet still had coffee cups in hand.

Towards the top of the valley and on a much higher level, a herd of seven deer had watched the events unfold seemingly unconcerned but with the music of the hounds filling the valley and bouncing of the rocks they made their way to the top of the ridge where they turned and stood in a line watching the scene below before disappearing out of sight.

I noticed the hounds appeared to be following the line the deer had taken and commented to that effect, this reignited the factions that had existed the previous night and a debate ensued. The issue was decided by the huntsman who with much horn blowing and a few oaths stopped the hounds and called them back to him.

Once he had gathered his pack he cast them off once again but this time into the bracken beds which lay beneath us. We watched the hounds seeking the line, white shapes against the brown of the dead bracken, occasional barks carried up the fell.

Slightly below us stood an old farmer of our acquaintance, slightly stooped and bow legged, he wore an old raincoat held together at the front with binder twine, this also accounted for the dog lead on the end of which was an old sheepdog, green Wellingtons well worn completed his attire. The farmer pointed with his stick. "Sister theer," he said. I looked in the direction he was indicating and there was a big dog fox quietly stealing away from the hounds. "Halloa the bugger," somebody said. "Nay," the old lad replied, "stay quiet." The sheepdog which until now had lain on the grass almost asleep suddenly sprang up and looked at the oncoming fox with rapt attention. "Settle mi lad," said the old farmer patting the dog, "thy days have gone."

A black and tan hound struck the line of the fox and a cry of excitement carried on the wind, several other hounds 'harked to him' and took up the cry, the pack swinging onto the fox's line.

Ahead of them the fox seemed unconcerned zig zagging up through the rocks at the head of the valley his white tipped brush streaming behind him. "Nice fox," I commented. "Aye," replied Pete, "grand un look good on't wall of t' pub."

Hounds hit a marshy spot and checked, casting around for a scent in the watery area, the sound of splashing reached us, suddenly a black and white hound hit the line of the fox and with a bark summoned the remainder of the pack. Together they began to ascend the ground leading to the fell head strung out in a line their music deafening.

We were joined by the huntsman and his little group of followers who had come up from the valley bottom much quicker that I had, two terriers linked together completed the group. There were no greetings, we all knew each other and it would be superfluous. "Which way?" he asked. "Went through by yon big rock, it's about 10 minutes ahead," somebody said, "we hunting deer now?" The huntsman jabbed his stick into the ground and leaned on it, cleared his throat and said, "It crossed their line, the bugger, hounds got confused except for old Music." "Nice fox mind," I opinioned. "Whose the off comer?" the huntsman asked looking at me. "Bugger off!" was the reply, "tha knars who I am." "Not one of us now, left to be a nurse," he said, "hasta seen his hands?" There was a roar of laughter. "I heard that thou was knitting nowadays."

Just at that moment a rain shower which had been threatening for some time arrived, big drops of rain carried on the wind sweeping down the valley, we huddled in the lee of a rock. Only the old farmer who had by now joined us had anything remotely waterproof. Rain ran down my neck and soaked my shirt. My jacket tried to deflect the weather without much success. As soon as it had arrived the rain shower passed us by leaving the fell glistening with the rain, water ran down the small rocks nearby and a patch of sunlight caused a brief rainbow.

I turned my attention back to the hunt in time to see hounds crossing the ridge bound for the next valley, their music fading. "We been on this bugger before?" someone asked. "Willie says so," replied the huntsman, "a couple of months ago, he got a good look at it, says it's the same fox, with a big white tip to its brush."

"What happened last time?" I asked. "Went round the moor," replied the huntsman, "and dropped in to yon borran." He pointed with his stick. This was potentially bad news, the borran he indicated was infamous, riddled with entrances and dangerous tunnels and drops once inside, it had accounted for many terriers over the generations. Some men would not even attempt to put their terriers in and the hunt was then called off for that day. Such was the notoriety of the place that explosive had been used on it in the 1920s and it still showed the scars.

Anyway, off we set up the fell in search of the hounds, the huntsman striding out effortlessly over the grassy terrain, around and over small crags and through the occasional marshy area, we followed behind spread out with the pace and the incline.

I brought up the rear, even the old farmer with the sheepdog on the string lead was ahead. We next assembled at a point where the fell ahead of us could be well observed and also into the valley below, there was no sign of anything resembling a hunt. A farmer was out in the low fields with his tractor and there was a Land Rover or two parked on a farm track which led high into the next valley, their occupants leaning over the bonnet searching the fell with binoculars in an effort to see the hunt. All you could hear where we were was the wind, although occasionally the sound of the tractor carried up to us and in the very far distance the intermittent sound of a chain saw could be heard.

In those days there were no CB radios, the bane of hunting in the years leading up to the ban, you relied on skill, knowledge and a great dollop of luck to follow a hunt such as this one. We all stood quietly listening, eyes searching the surrounding fells for any sign. On the high fell to one side another rain shower was forming.

"Good to nowt," somebody said. I banged my stick into the turf and leaned on it, grateful for a chance to catch my breath. The old farmer standing close beside me suddenly pointed with his stick across to the right. "Theer," he said. On the fell running over onto the side visible to us were the hounds, spread out their music carried over to us quietly at first but increasing as they got nearer. "First un's not far behind," somebody said, "but t others are well spread out." The hounds dropped to the valley head near where we were standing before climbing again into the cloud on the top, they emerged again and dropped out of sight on the other side of the fell. The fox must have passed very close to us but neither we nor the dogs with us had been aware. We set off in pursuit climbing up the fell side of the valley head, another shower of rain hit us, soaking again just after we had recovered from the previous one. Reaching the top of the ridge we could look in to the borran beneath and there were the hounds marking where the fox had descended into that underground bunker. There had been several people on the borran in order to prevent this happening but their efforts were to no avail - Reynard had gone to ground.

"Bugger it," said Jack, "be here all day now." Descending down the fell side and over the piled rock that surrounds the entrance we arrived to find that a terrier was inside and a man with his head inside the borran entrance claimed he could hear the sound of battle in the underground chamber. "Who put terrier in" asked the huntsman. A young lad looked at him and replied, "It's my bugger, tried to git hod of it but it got in." Nothing to do but get comfortable and wait to see what would happen. This we did, I lay on the grass wet from the rain, my elbow supporting my head and looked around.

There really wasn't much to see, to my left the head of the valley known as Park Fell Head was just under the cloud layer, which covered the tops of the fells facing me Yoke, Ill Bell and Froswick. Lower down the valley to my right lay Troutbeck Park Farm one of the farms purchased by the late Beatrix Potter in whose will it states that fox hunting is to be allowed on this piece of land for ever, a fact the current owners The National Trust would rather you do not know. A great supporter of the Coniston hunt Mrs Hellis, as I know her, not only gave money and walked hounds for the hunt but followed it too. On one occasion marvelling "at the hounds bravely spilling down the crag and fell in pursuit of their quarry." She was given the brush at one hunt which ended around here somewhere in 1924 attended by my Great Uncle Brait.

Above the farm is the piece of land called Troutbeck Tongue a magical place with stories of superstition and its alleged remains of a stone aged circle which I could never find, but on it's Eastern flank is the remains of a Neolithic burial chamber beside the path which leads to a place known as Scots Rake, which is a track leading to the High Street track and legend has it used by raiding Scotsmen in the 16th and 17th century.

On the other side of the valley are old quarry workings near a place called Low Mere Greave, why it is named such I have no idea but the spoil heap is a fearsome spot and best avoided.

All this musing took some time and when I returned my attention to the job in hand I saw that hounds had been taken well up the fell away from the entrance to the borran and a supporter armed with the huntsman's whip was ensuring they stayed there while the huntsman supervised work on the borran. Occasionally he flicked it in the direction of an errant hound accompanied by a deep throated growl and sometimes a threat of violence. Occasionally a hound would bark but the cries had in the main, died away as the scent lessened.

At the borran entrance attempts were being made to enlarge the opening, a slow dangerous job with the ever present danger of dislodging stones from above. One of the many good reasons for taking hounds well back from a borran is to prevent this kind of thing happening. Two of the most serious accidents to huntsmen over the years to the best of my knowledge were caused by hounds dislodging rock.

I suspect with hindsight that it might have been better if the terrier had not got and hounds had left the fox, but these things happen and now we were for better or worse stuck with it. I got up to take my turn at the borran entrance.

"What do you want?" somebody said. "Bugger off before thou damages thy hands." Another roar of laughter. "Go and keep t' hunds back." So up the fell side I went.

I spent the next hour or so following in the footsteps of my predecessor flicking the lash at any hound which looked like straying towards the borran and utilising a full range of growls and not a few curses. Finally I was relieved and I retuned to the sheltered spot where I had been previously.

Over the valley the cloud base had dropped and it had become noticeably colder, more rain was on the way and it was heading towards one o'clock well past lunch.

Jack gave me a sandwich and opened his flask. Seconds later the rain hit us, driven on the wind it stung your face, little rivulets ran down the rocks and small pools began to form in the hollows on the ground. The rain got heavier and the mist lower until the Borran itself was covered and visibility almost none existent. We huddled against the weather, the work on the Borran ceased; the rock had become slippery and even more dangerous. "Season's finished," said Jack, "in more ways than one, lets ga t' pub." And so we did, splashing down the valley dropping a long way down the fell side before we were below the mist level, the fell side sodden and water quickly rising in the beck.

Sequel:
"What happened to the terrier and the fox?" I hear you ask. Well, hounds were taken home not long after we went. A few of the lads stayed around the borran although working on it was almost impossible due to the weather, a few tools such as a pick, hammer and bar were brought up from the valley bottom, but proved to be ineffectual against the borran which over the generations had defeated so many. Night was drawing in when the terrier emerged blinking in the day light, filthy and covered in mud.

The outcome of the hunt was never known but there had been a long battle underground and it showed. It was lucky that the terrier emerged from that borran, many before it had not.

This story is of a hunt that never happened, however everything in it did at one time or another, the conversations are as best as I remember them.

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