W3C “You came here to hunt, so bugger off and hunt!” DO U KNOW?

Helm Crag

Helm Crag

Lily Tarn, Loughrigg

Lakeshore at Rydal

Megs Ghyll

The Drunken Duck

Iron Keld

Christmas was always my favourite time, for beside the obvious reasons concerning presents my father and most of his friends would be off work for the holiday. This suited well as there was a lot of hunting over the festive season to which in the early years as a small child I could not go alone.

It began with the Christmas Eve meet usually at the Travelers Rest public house at the foot of Dunmail Raise near Grasmere; Boxing Day was the Market Cross at Ambleside for Loughrigg Fell overlooking Ambleside; a day in Langdale, and then New Year’s Day hunt at the Drunken Duck public house near Outgate.

I always liked the Travelers Rest Meet. We’d climb onto Helm Crag which overlooks the road and the pub, a good spot to look into the boulder field and borran under the summit. From there the ridge running up towards Gibson Knott is a fast mile with a 400 foot gain in height; from Gibson Knott another 1¼ miles with 450 feet of climbing sees you overlooking the valley of Far Easedale, from the top of Calf Crag. In other words, with luck you were pretty much set up. At the end of the day, the pub would usually put on a hot pot, no doubt followed by the usual singing, but I’d always gone home by then, it being a 6 mile walk at the end of the day from the pub, via the old Coffin Road above Rydal. Besides you never felt much like singing when you’re restricted to lemonade!

Some years later, my mate 'Doggie' and I were sat on top of Helm Crag on Christmas Eve morning. There was snow about on the tops, not a lot, but the wind coming from the North had that “edge” to it that chilled.

We had seen hounds “lowse” from the pub and almost at once find in the fields above Gill Foot under Helm Crag. The fox must have been of the type known as a “travelling fox” (not to be confused with the type of fox which travelled in a bag in the 19th century to be “hunted” by certain packs). This one had travelled from the Borrowdale Valley, near Keswick, because that’s exactly where it went in a dead straight line, the hounds in hot pursuit.

“Bugger it,” said Doggie, as the last hound disappeared over the skyline, giving the occasional bark, “bet they wa in’t come back.” “Give it a while,” I replied. And so we did, huddled up behind a couple of rocks against the wind, eyes and ears straining for the slightest clue as to the much hoped for return of the hounds. Minutes went by and then half an hour, nothing. After 45 minutes I’d had enough. “Mine’s a pint, it’s thy round,” I said as my binoculars showed the opening pub door. Doggie got to his feet smiling. “Warmer in’t pub,” he said,“which way down? “

We descended by the Greenburn side of Helm Crag, moving quickly over the frozen ground to thaw our frozen joints and soon we were standing outside the open pub door, it was about 11 am. We stepped inside; the familiar pub smell hit us, alcohol and old tobacco smoke, the smell of a cooking hot pot wafted in from the kitchen, the Christmas tree festooned with lights even looked new, decorations and even a few cards were in evidence. The bar was empty save for the landlord polishing glasses as landlords do. “Two pints, please,” Doggie said, taking out some cash. The landlord eyed us. “Bugger off, “he said, “you came to hunt, so bugger off and hunt!” And with that he disappeared into the back.

We went outside and looked at the fells, a clear sharp morning but there was nothing to be seen. We got the binoculars out and scanned the fells again drawing a blank, not a hound or even trace of a hound. The only thing moving on the fell was a group of walkers on Helm Crag, their bright coloured clothing standing out as they moved up the skyline.

“Looks like The Rule, “I said. Just at that moment the 555 bus from Keswick to Lancaster hove into view and we boarded, heading for Ambleside and its familiar (and welcoming) pub!!. That was the year (I think) when we tried to drink the Golden Rule out of bottled Guinness. God knows why we tried it, but it’s the thing young lads with nothing else to do start. We did quite well up to just after Christmas when we had it by the throat, the stock behind the bar being noticeably smaller, but a fresh delivery a couple of days before New Year saw us back on the bitter. Even today I struggle to drink a pint of Guinness.

Christmas Day by necessity was always a quiet time. On a couple of occasions I remember waking to a world of white. We would have a walk in the evening and assess the weather prospects for the next day as we wandered the darkened streets, lit by an occasional streetlight and Christmas trees shining in the windows of the houses. The silhouette of the mountains around the village discernable against a background of stars and the inky blackness of the nearby lake. It was an oft used expression in Lakeland that “hunting wud not be up to much til the first frost” which I personally subscribe to, and on more than one Christmas Day of my childhood the evening promise was good.

Boxing Day dawned and folk began to gather at the Market Cross to see the hounds, Loughrigg Fell was dotted with groups of hunters waiting for the “off”, Chappie and his whipper in (Dennis and then Chris) would bring the hounds down from the kennels via Fair View Road and North Road, usually having their photograph taken for the local paper en route. For a few years we joined the throng at the cross and then ascended Loughrigg Fell after, but because I was small my father and I fell so far behind we started going with many others to sit on top of Ivy Crag. It was a great place to be, as hounds usually went in to the fell below Brow Head Farm and worked their way around the fell towards Clappersgate and Todd Crag. The vantage point of Ivy Crag enabled you to see quite a bit of the countryside, although there were places where the fall of the fell blocked your view, in particular towards Ambleside. Should a fox decide to head for Great Langdale or Grasmere you were ideally placed to follow, without much effort, and keep up with proceedings and even if the hounds found a fox with a dislike of the fells which went to Hawkshead you still could see much of the hunt through binoculars. One year the hounds found more or less straight away and a screaming hunt ensued; we were on our way to Ivy Crag. After I left school I’d come home from work and after getting changed, run to the top of Loughrigg and back via Ivy Crag on a fairly regular basis, as part of my fell running training, but I never went up as fast as we did that hunting morn!

Once you were sitting on top of Ivy Crag the temptation to eat something usually overcame you, and people began unpacking their sandwiches, despite the early hour. Ours was always a slab of Christmas cake, wrapped in tin foil. This was something of a tradition and a slab of cake in your pocket whilst hunting lasted for weeks to come.

Loughrigg is a funny sort of fell, even if you are on the highest ridge a lot of the fell cannot be seen at any one time, there is a geological fault which runs from the top of Colwith and over Dunmail Raise going through the fell with a subsequent drop in elevation to add to complications. Wet spots and bracken abound in summer, and on the top there are countless little pools of water. There are however plenty of sheltered spots in which to sit and on a hot day become very soporific. One unusually sunny morning we came across a certain follower who despite a nice little hunt going through beneath him was laying on the ground oblivious. ” Is he dead?!" I asked. “Only dead drunk, “said Tommy Armer who was with us, “they had a lock in at the pub last night.” There was a pub in Ambleside which had a back bar, down a little alley. This bar was for locals only and any “visitor” who went in was asked to take his potential custom round to the front bar. The landlord through most of the time I lived in Ambleside had a casual view of the licensing laws with fairly frequent lock ins. Our friend on the fell was an avid supporter of such practices.

On occasions the hunt went round and round the fell almost all day, with frequent glimpses of proceedings. Loughrigg was a great place to follow a hunt.

Between Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, there was a hunt usually in Langdale from The Langdales Hotel at Chapel Stile. In the early days we would walk, setting off from Ambleside in the pre-dawn light, a few stars still twinkling in the blackness of the sky, and walking along by the shore of Rydal Lake, and then on the ridge above the Wyke Woods to the top of Megs Ghyll. I have memories of these mornings with the sunlight suddenly flooding down the fell called Silver Howe, our breath in plumes in the cold morning air, water ice cracking on the path under our boots, a clear blue sky overhead, the surrounding tops white with snow.

As the sixties progressed and finances improved we purchased a car, a little Austin A35 puddle jumper. This put an end to the early starts as you could have a lay in bed and still get to the meet before they “lowsed”. We would park up near what is now the Youth Hostel at the top of Red Bank and join up with the track we took when walking up to the top of Megs Ghyll above Chapel Stile, another good spot to be which gave easy walking to either Grasmere or Great Langdale with good views of the valleys below. Even if the hounds went to Lingmoor Fell across the valley you got a decent view.

There was usually a good turnout from Langdale, and the tops would be dotted with little groups of followers. “Like bloody Indians,” someone who had recently visited the local flea pit and seen some Western film or other commented, “waiting for the wagon train!”

But the year slowly drew to an end, and after celebrating the arrival of the new one, the break of day would find us at The Drunken Duck for the New Year’s Day hunt. A large throng was always present and as the sixties moved on there were more and more cars, an example of the truth when some politician or other told us, “we had never had it so good.” I never much liked the Duck as a place to follow hounds, there isn’t anywhere where you can get really high and look in bank except on the fell behind (known as Black Fell), and the borran at Iron Keld was always troublesome. Much of the surrounding countryside is fields and patches of woodland, and hounds could go round and round all day allowing you to see bits of the hunt. One year some farmer decided to grow kale and that year his field was well visited as the fox soon realised how badly the stuff affected the scent. Another time there were some kids’ ponies in a field, which got more exercise that day than in the preceding weeks as the fox unerringly visited them as it lapped the countryside, causing one old lad to make dark utterances about “glue” as hounds lost the line for the umpteenth time.

On New Year’s Day 1972 I leaned on a gate near the Duck watching the hunt with two others. On New Year’s Day 1973 I leaned on the same gate alone, death having taken my two companions during the year, a reminder that nothing lasts for ever and I would not enjoy their company anymore

It was at the Duck, one New Year’s Day, that I saw Chappie lose his temper, the only time I ever recall it happening - it happened like this.

Chappie, like many in those days, was a dialect speaker, not the now long gone pure Lakeland dialect, but quite a few dialect words were used in conversation, and when he became excited, I at times had difficulty in understanding him.

On this particular day we were standing on a piece of fell known as The Iron Keld which overlooks Tarn Hows. On that side of the fell a screaming hunt was in progress, the scent being breast high. Below and on the other side of the fell stood Chappie who could hear everything and see nothing. He shouted to us, “Wither w how?” and then again. No reply. “What’s he want?” somebody said. “God knows,” another replied. "Wither w how" once more rent the air. “Ignore the daft bugger,” a third person said, and so we did.

The hounds killed in the fields of Black Fell and we all trooped back down towards the Duck public house. On the road we met Chappie with a little group of hangers on, he did not look a happy huntsman. His terriers didn’t look too chuffed either. “You daft lot of buggers,“ he raged. I took refuge behind a large follower. There was much shuffling of feet. “Why the bluddy hell,” he went on, “did you not answer my question?” He must have seen the blank expressions. “All I wanted to know,“ he continued, “was which way the hounds were going!”


And so Christmas ended, soon it was Twelfth Night and the tree was taken down and consigned to the tip, decorations were packed up in a box whose destination was the attic. Hunting continued of course and usually improved with the onset of hard frost, which is associated with good scenting.

The Christmas cake first eaten on Boxing Day usually lasted for the weeks ahead, on one occasion until mid-March before the sandwiches returned. As the year turned so did the hunting season, although a few months away, the prospect of the best time of year, that of spring, loomed and with it my favorite time, the early morning lamb-worrying meets, for there is nothing better than ascending a fell in the dark and greeting the dawn from the tops while the valley below you still slumbers.

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