OUTDOORS: Manhunt on
Victorians kept this savage sport secret; today's
anti-hunting zealots might like to ban it.
Alice Thomson joins
men behaving oddly
06-27-1998 pp 12
By Alice Thompson
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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).
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
MY TIME came
with the Centenary Lake Hunt this year. Old timers
were allowed back, octogenarians and daughters could
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
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
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
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,
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.
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