Daily Telegraph
June 27, 1998

Manhunt on the Fells


OUTDOORS: Manhunt on the fells

The Victorians kept this savage sport secret; today's anti-hunting zealots might like to ban it.

Alice Thomson joins men behaving oddly

The Daily Telegraph
06-27-1998
pp 12
By Alice Thompson

SOMEWHERE in the North of England there is a hidden valley where once a year a band of men congregate to crawl through peat bogs, throw themselves over cliffs, hurtle down gullies and wade through streams in search of their prey.

Some of the men call themselves hounds. They're a stocky breed who wear breeches, tweed jackets and ties. When they find their quarry, the hares, they attack them with a ferocity echoed in their blood- curdling "tally-hos".

The hares wear red sashes and blow horns. They are possibly the fastest, toughest, leanest, stealthiest, most cunning creatures in Britain. They have the minds of nuclear scientists, the legs of whippets and nerves of titanium. For they know that if they get caught they will be dragged down, rolled in the mud and humiliated. Even if they escape, they will return covered in scratches and bruises, bleeding and weak with hunger.

In the Victorian era, the men kept this barbarous activity secret, worried that it would upset the ladies. A century on, it is more likely to be anti-hunting zealots who try to ban the game.

From the setting forth of Ahab and Obadiam in pursuit of Elijah, the art of manhunting has been cultivated. The Africans still know how to track on foot, but for the British it has become all but extinct.

A hundred years ago, three undergraduates at Trinity College, Cambridge, worried that the tracker genes would soon be lost. So they decided to set up their own game. Led by the historian George Macaulay Trevelyan, they pored over maps until they found the bleakest spot in Britain - 10 miles wide, with scanty cover, freezing lakes and vertiginous cliffs.

They divided into two camps, the chased and the chasers. The sport became so vicious that for a time the hares, then known as "cavalier couriers", had to double "as security for their own nerves and necks" .

The game was only stopped during the two world wars when numbers were depleted. But as soon as peace broke out, the manhunt reconvened; split since 1918 into two forays, one for undergraduates, the other for professionals. The only noticeable change was in the dress (from pipes and cravats in the Thirties to cheesecloth and flares in the Sixties).

Members were chosen by word of mouth. Fathers passed their horns on to their sons. They needed to be sharp enough to spot a broken branch, fast enough to chase for several hours, and hardy enough to keep going with swollen ankles and broken fingers - a list of qualifications which seemed to produce a bizarre mixture of PhDs, fell-runners, rugby players, MPs and eccentric aristocrats.

I first heard about the Trevelyan Lake Hunt from my father and brothers. I would watch them disappearing for the weekend and see them return with gaunt cheeks and tales of savagery, naked swims in the lakes and hours spent lost in the mist.

For years I thought they were mad. Then, three years ago, I ran a marathon in a snowstorm wearing only a pair of shorts and a T-shirt and became foolhardy. I suggested joining my brothers.

There was a long pause. Then one said: "I'm not sure we allow girls." The other added: "I think they stopped them coming after a bit of hanky panky in a shepherd's hut. Anyway, you'll be a distraction, and there'll be no one to look after you."

That did it. The next year I packed my running shoes, plasters and bobble hat and set off with them. "Please don't wear one of your little dresses and cardigans," my brother warned me. "Find some old jeans and borrow one of my jumpers. But for the hunt itself you should wear knickerbockers and tie your hair back." He'd never taken so much interest in my clothes.

When the Trevelyan hunt first started, the men would run all day and find shelter in a hut at night. Now everyone returns to a guesthouse for lukewarm baths and vast teas. As I walked into supper on the first evening, the conversation halted. "This is Alice," said my brother, as 40 men stopped shovelling lasagne into their mouths and swivelled in their chairs. They ranged in age from 16 to 60 - an exceptionally handsome group, tall with taut muscles and no hint of a paunch or flabby thighs. It was like stumbling into a Greek gymnasium.

THAT night, everyone studied the map and flicked through the old log books detailing past catches. I gleaned all I could about the game. Hounds were described as "grey, unrecognisable figures, with cruel, animal, nightmare faces advancing along by silent leaps".

They were involved in "stalking, bravading, cliff-scaling and scientific circumnavigations - resulting in the desperate chase and slaughter of the more injured hare". The most devious would drop prone on rocks, pretending to be injured, so the hare would feel obliged to come to the rescue. But the hares, the "vermin", could be equally terrifying. There were legends of some hares defending themselves with iron-shod beams.

"Don't worry, only one person had to be collected by helicopter last time," a kindly old hound said. The master of the hunt, Robin Dower, a towering 6ft 4in Trevelyan descendant, patted me on the back: " You'll be fine." I began to panic. I would get lost on the moors and die of hypothermia. The valley had been chosen for its remoteness from any kagouled tourists who could be mistaken for hares and ripped apart in the heat of the moment.

At seven o'clock the next morning it was pouring with rain, but no one seemed to notice as they tucked into porridge, sausages, toast and margarine. The four hares were limbering up outside, in skimpy shorts and vests. They would have a 20-minute start up the hill.

At 8am they blew their horns and were off, while we were still struggling to locate binoculars, shoelaces and grab squashed banana sandwiches. Within seconds I was soaked.

We started jogging up the two-mile hill to the head of the valley. Suddenly, a horn blasted to the left, and a hare was framed on the top of the crest, just below the cloud. Several hounds peeled off to give chase. We kept going. We clambered past some old slate quarries and towards an area called Haystacks. For an hour we wound our way around precipitous rock faces, until our group spotted a flash of red a mile away, and started to run across the bogs. The hare sounded his horn and the chase began.

I trailed behind, as we scrambled over boulders and slid down waterfalls. Then I spotted our quarry swimming across a lake. He was running straight towards me, I threw myself at him, but he was too fast.

Years of training on the rugby pitch helped him to identify me as the weak link. Shattered, I sat on a rock and watched as the others forced him down.

Lunch, I thought, but there were three more hares to snare. By the end of the day my knee was screaming, I'd resorted to drinking from puddles, and I was desperate to get out of my soaking trainers. As we returned to mounds of biscuits and fruit cake, and shook hands with our still quivering hares, I was relieved that it was someone else who had been airlifted back with a hamstring problem.

The next day I woke to the smell of roasting socks. My brother was already up and away. He was a hare with a reputation to prove. I was on my own. In desperation I threw myself on the weakest man, an invalid with a twisted ankle. We hobbled through the forest, and clambered up the hills getting drenched in the thunder storms.

Any hares were lost in the heavy stillness of the mist. All we could hear was the rattle of stones as we crossed the scree. Then just as I thought of giving up, I saw my brother's trainer sticking out of a tuft of grass. I crept up behind and skidded down the boulder. He was gone but my blood was up. Some day I would return and catch him.

MY TIME came with the Centenary Lake Hunt this year. Old timers were allowed back, octogenarians and daughters could compete together.

It was still raining, but the 80 hounds gathered were already sniffing the air. Five hares had set off and I wanted to catch one of them. The master and his son took me under their wing, explaining that the only cardinal sin was to hide in a hollow all day.

For hours we crawled through the drenched young bracken, looking for tracks, before hearing a bugle and fanning out. The hare was only a foot away from me (he'd mistaken me for a walker). I reached out and he accelerated. We skidded down the hill but he was gaining ground. I was desperate.

Then Jethro, the leanest, meanest of the hounds overtook me. Barely out of his teens, he wore a British junior fell-runners T-shirt. He chased the hare for a mile before throwing himself at his red sash and grappling him to the ground. It was his third catch of the day.

The sun came out and we ate Marmite sandwiches sitting on parsley fern. One older hound worried that the game was becoming too professional, with computer print-outs of scores. Another admitted that it was his mother who had been caught kissing her fiance, causing women to be ejected for 20 years.

As we headed home for tea, a red sash suddenly shot past, with four hounds following. It was 4:55 pm, only five minutes before the game ended, and the hare was determined to make it home. He came within five yards of safety but the baying hounds were on him. In desperation, he started climbing the nearest tree, with the hounds barking at the base. The master sent them up.

My brother finally staggered back at 7 pm, having been chased eight miles down to the pub, before wending his way back in the gloom: he was the only hare who had escaped capture.

Everyone limped down to the village hall for the evening's sing-song, an almost equally terrifying event with hares and hounds competing for the best verse. The winner was the septuagenarian author of this rousing anthem.

Never stop at the top, never dally in the valley O,

Do not shilly-shally when you hear the shout of Tally-ho

Up, down, chase around, obey the master's call

Till hares are caught, no hunter ought, to take a rest at all.

1998 Telegraph Group Limited

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