W3C "Waiting til the watter warms up" MEMORIES


A Meet of the Kendal and District Otter Hounds

In the 1963 season I hunted with the Kendal and District Otter Hounds for the first time. For a short few years after that we occasionally followed them when a meet was accessible. The following is my recollection of that first day.

The day started on a bus, as it jolted and rattled along beside the sun lit Lake Windermere. It was a midsummer's day in 1963 and I thought it was a strange way to go hunting.

Usually on a hunting morn, I awoke on a dark morning before dawn, dressed in the cold bedroom. Some mornings in winter there were rimes of ice on the window panes (no central heating in those days). Then I had a quick wash and the usual cooked breakfast. Today had been different. A sunlit bedroom, cereal for breakfast and light clothing. Instead of heading for the fell top, we had gone down the road to the Bus Station and boarded the 555 Lancaster bound double-decker bus.

It was a glorious summer's morning. The sunlight rippled on the surface of the lake in the gentle, warm morning breeze. We sat on the top deck at the front, as I recall. The bus was almost empty, the guesthouses and hotels not yet having disgorged that week 's collection of tourists.

Arriving at Kendal we got off the bus and walked up the road to Mint Bridge on the Sedbergh road. The day was heating up now as the sun climbed higher in the cloudless sky. At the bridge a crowd of people had assembled, a few carrying long poles. I looked at my father quizzically. "They use them to jump larl becks," he said.

This made my morning so much better. There is always pleasure in the thought of somebody getting an unexpected ducking. I had never followed the Otter Hounds before. To be honest it didn't really hold much appeal.

Otters in the 60s were in severe decline and most, if not all, hunts spent many fruitless days without finding any. The otter population was crashing, killed off not by hounds but by chemicals washed into the rivers. These were used in great abundance by farmers taking advantage of the benefit brought by the Labour government's "White Heat of Technology". A memorable pre-election speech from that time.

Otters were always a part of my childhood but you hardly ever saw them. They are shy, elusive creatures, happiest when the shadows of evening fell on the river or during the dark nights. I would see evidence of them on the riverbank as I fished. Sometimes prints in the mud or spraints and, on a couple of evenings, trails of bubbles across one of the dubs of water I was fishing, as I huddled, sitting quietly, in the roots of an old tree, the soil long since washed away by one of the many floods. I was hiding from the Beck Watcher who would demand to see my non-existent fishing licence. I liked otters and still do. Really I had no wish to hunt them but there I was.

My Uncle George had begun his career as Whipper-in to the great Joe Wear and the Ullswater Foxhounds but for some reason, now forgotten, had left to become huntsman from 1963 onward to the Kendal and District Otter Hounds. There must have been some sort of conversation between Geordie and his younger brother (my father), which led us to the bridge. Dad's view of the whole business was that of amusement. He couldn't understand why a man would want to wade " up to his neck in cold watter" in pursuit of a harmless otter. Foxes were a menace to poultry and lambs, but otters...

Anyway there we stood, Father making small talk and me just watching it all, taking in the detail and the glorious morning. A vehicle drew up and Geordie climbed out, walked over and said, " Hello" . I felt better. If you followed hounds you know, although you may not admit it, there was a certain pleasure in being noticed by the huntsman. Apparently with some of the mounted packs the amount of notice depended on the amount of subscription or the amount of design the Huntsman had on your wife or, heaven forbid, your daughter, but with the fell packs the huntsmen chatted to all as Geordie did that morning, having learned from Wear. Geordie was dressed, as I recall, in his uniform of blue jacket and trousers with a red waistcoat

I looked over the bridge; the water level was low, with a gentle current. Green slime covered some of the rocks indicative of the long period without rain we had experienced. A few small trout hung in a pool.

The hounds were let out of the vehicle and milled amongst the crowd. Most of them lolled around Geordie, laying on the ground and soaking in the warm sunshine. The puppies moved among the throng of people seeking a pat. Over the years I followed the Otter Hounds it never ceased to surprise me how a hound adapted to the person it met. It was a source of continual amazement to me how gentle they were with the elderly, children and the frail, almost as if they could sense.

I looked at my recently acquired wristwatch. It was quite late in the morning. "Late to start," I said, "why's that?" Dad thought for a moment. "Gives the watter time to warm up," he replied, casting a glance at his elder brother who was now deep in conversation with the Master. Geordie ignored him, and, after a slight nod from the Master, he blew two notes on the horn and we were off.

We joined the throng wandering along the bank. I noticed several followers had, beside the long poles, holes in the side of their shoes. This took me a bit by surprise for whilst we were never well off, I always had decent footwear. My dad noticed and said, "It lets the watter out when the daft bugger's wade in't beck."

I suppose you could be forgiven for thinking I have had a down on the followers of Otter Hounds, but the truth is quite simple. Even in high summer a Lakeland beck is bitterly cold. Tarns and the lakes themselves, despite being standing water, are no different. One day a few years ago I was messing around on Wastwater Lake with an inflatable. I was out in the middle on a hot summer's afternoon, where the heat bounced back from the rock and the air shimmered, when I tipped the airbed over and I was lucky to swim to the shore before the coldness of the water overcame me.

Geordie cast the hounds into the river beside the bridge. He had little or no hope of finding an otter so close to the road but the older folk, and those too infirm to follow, would enjoy the spectacle. Hounds then moved off downstream in the direction of Kendal with the current behind them.

A little way downstream the River Mint is joined by the River Kent, whose headwaters rise high in the Lakeland fells, and the river had been hunted for generations. At the junction of these two rivers hounds swung into the Kent. There had been precious little in the way of scent so far. I'd heard an occasional deep bark, totally different to the music of the hounds we normally followed, apparently an otter had been about in the night but was long gone, and the increasing summer heat wasn't helping the scent much.

The country we were passing through was mainly fields with large grass covered hummocks called moraine, dumped by the glaciers that formed Lakeland some 14 thousand years ago. Occasional trees stood on the river bank, their roots in the river, long tentacles, the soil surrounding them long since washed away.

Hounds paused at a small wood on the left bank and tried a known Holt, pausing briefly but all to no avail. We sought out some shade from the oppressive heat and watched with interest at the terriers working.

Back into the river hounds went. Occasionally taking briefly to the surrounding fields, they moved slowly, crossing the river and carefully checking along the banks and small brooks that flowed into the main stream, searching for a trace of scent. I was disappointed not to see Geordie up to his neck in the river. The water level was quite low due to the hot summer and lack of rain. There were few side streams necessitating the use of a pole to cross, but no one fell in either.

We had now reached Burneside, a quiet hamlet on this summer's morning but decimated by the flooding of 2009. We passed by the mill and continued through the open fields towards Staveley.

A short hunt then ensued. The deep throated sound of the hounds as they caught on to the remnants of a scent filled the air, but the otter had taken to the dry fields and the hunt petered out after a couple of hundred yards. A couple of casts failed to regain the line and we moved on.

Lunch was taken on the move. It was so hot that you didn't feel like eating much and it was obvious, even to me, that we would stop soon as the hounds appeared to be beginning to feel the heat.

We reached Staveley soon after and called it a day. Hounds were put in the van to return to the kennels and most of the followers went to the pub. And us?... we waited ages for a bus.

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