George Bott on days of hares and hounds Bloodless hunts

Date: Saturday 20th June 1998

drew politicians to

drew politicians to

Cumbrian fells

TO hunt or not to hunt? Is chasing an animal cruelty disguised as sport or is it a rural pursuit designed to protect the livelihood of country dwellers? The controversy rages, currently a little subdued, but likely at any moment to commandeer the headlines again as fierce passions on both sides erupt into a battle of accusations.

Imagine, however, hunting that doesn’t kill anything, that doesn’t involve riders in red coats leaping over fences or playing havoc with farmland, that doesn’t arouse the anger of the anti-hunting lobby or the attacks of the saboteurs.

A century ago, in June 1898, just such a hunt was inaugurated, with three men from Trinity College, Cambridge, as founding fathers.

Inspired and organised by Geoffrey Winthrop Young, G. M. Trevelyan and Sidney McDougall, “The Lake Hunt” brought together a group of academics who elected to play “Hare and Hounds” on the fells around Seatoller, in the Borrowdale valley.

The area of operation was roughly defined and stretched from Borrowdale to Eskdale, Wasdale, Langdale and Easedale — the toughest as well as the most appropriate venue for serious hide and seek.

In subsequent years, other equally demanding areas were tried but from the 1920s Seatoller reigned as the most favoured pivot of this particular form of masochistic activity.

Hares

Two pairs of “Hares” were deposited by a neutral umpire at widely separated locations, unknown to each other. For three or four days and nights, they tried to make contact, while the “Hounds” tried relentlessly to catch sight of their red sashes and capture them.

The “Hares” hid where they could — a cave on Glaramara, a disused mine, a farmer’s barn. They were expected to show themselves as much as they dared to give the “Hounds” a sporting chance.

A sighting spurs the “Hounds” into a hectic chase. The “Hare” weaves and wheedles until he finds a hiding place. He keeps still and quiet as panting “Hounds” gallop past his concealed eyrie. Then it’s resting time before he sets off yet again, all senses alert, all possible bolt-holes registered.

The gruelling process called for commitment and cunning, physical fitness and a touch of boyish adventure — and not a little acrobatic skill to cross boulder-strewn uplands or negotiate some tricky rock face.

Between the hours of ten o’clock at night and eight in the morning, the “Hounds” were allowed to watch and hunt the “Hares”, but they were forbidden to capture them.

The hunt was not a haphazard scamper over the fells but a carefully organised operation, with “Hounds” quartered in several valleys — Buttermere, Borrowdale, Wasdale, Langdale — covering specific ridges and summits and communicating with one another by prearranged signals. Binoculars were allowed.

The pattern altered slightly over the years. In 1908, for example, the headquarters moved to Stool End Farm, Langdale. Three “Hares” left at 7-30am and half-an-hour later some twenty “Hounds”, in groups of two or three and armed with maps, compasses and “a field-glass”, set off in pursuit.

If a “Hare” had not been spotted by two o’clock, it was considered he should make the sporting gesture of allowing himself to be seen so that the “Hounds” could have the chance of a chase.

Verses

The hunt ended at six o’clock unless the “Hounds” had run the “Hares” to earth before then.

Clues were eagerly seized on: A cache of food or clothing, a figure on the skyline, insulting verses left to taunt the frustrated pursuers. On occasion, innocent tourists were mistaken for “Hares” — a disconcerting experience for unsuspecting walkers out for a day on the fells.

Rain and mist could be allies for the “Hounds”, who welcomed any opportunities of concealment — behind the curtains of a farmhouse kitchen, deep in a rhododendron bush opposite Seatoller House, inside a convenient water-butt. But there was no skulking in the valleys or escape to the fringes of the district.

Hair-raising (or should it be hare-raising?) chases down rough fellsides, over precipitous crags and scrambles up shifting scree added zest and danger for both hunters and hunted.

George Trevelyan recorded the climax of the first hunt in a letter to his parents. “It was the most exciting five minutes I have ever had in my life,” he confessed.

Pursued by Geoffrey Winthrop Young, “we both went as hard as we possibly could over a chaos of wet rocks, not looking where our feet were planted but simply bounding by instinct … we both of us rolled over and over several times among the boulders”.

Kidnapped

The idea of the hunt may well have originated from a walking tour in Cornwall in 1898 when Trevelyan and Young discussed their appreciation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped.

Since it was published in 1886, thousands of readers have been thrilled by the chase over the Scottish Highlands when David Balfour and Alan Breck were hunted by English soldiers.

It could have been this famous pursuit that sparked off the idea of the Lake District hunt. Geoffrey Winthrop Young admitted that “the whole hunt was full of incident and fun and to many of us Kidnapped has now a new meaning”.

The Trevelyan family maintained its link with the hunt — Charles Trevelyan took part in 37 meets — but the list of those who took part over the years includes names such as L. S. Amery (a Conservative Minister), Herbert Samuel (leader of the Liberal Party), Raymond Asquith (son of the Prime Minister), Hugh Dalton (a Labour Chancellor), Professor C. E. M. Joad (a popular broadcaster), Sir David Wilson (governor of Hong Kong), and John Dower (the architect of National Parks).

The bond between the men who took part in the hunt was strong. Reunions and hunt dinners were arranged. Hunts elsewhere — near Brighton or St. Mary’s Loch in Roxburgh, for example — were organised; a quantity of celebratory and often amusing verses of varying quality was composed.