Running Times
December 1, 1998

On the Scent of History


On the Scent of History

Tracing Cross Country Running's True Origins

Running Times
December 1998
Page 28
By Roger Robinson

I may be the only tourist in history to travel 12,000 miles to see a wet field. No, there's no buried gold at the end of this story, just a humble, low-lying basin of unkempt grass and spiky marsh reeds, about 100 yards by 50, with one arthritic tree and a straight, shallow ditch crossing the middle, eroded and overgrown with weeds, visible only by its line of darker green and lingering puddles.

An expensive round-the-world flight, a day's drive and three days of persistent map work and tough running, all to discover this ditch. Yet here lie the origins of a major modern sport.

I first traveled to Shrewsbury, in the west Midlands of England, to research a book about the Victorian satiric writer Samuel Butler, who attended a private high school there. Butler is not such a big name these days (not a television series yet), but his great mock-utopia Erewhon ("Nowhere" backwards, more or less), his wickedly irreverent notebooks and his autobiographical novel The Way of All Flesh made him a cult figure early in this century. He began writing during his five years as a sheep farmer in New Zealand's South Island, and I became interested while teaching literature there. Like Butler, I had moved from England. And like me, I discovered, Butler was a runner.

As a closet historian of running, I sat up when I noticed a paragraph in The Way of All Flesh where the hero, Ernest, then a schoolboy, runs across several miles of country to present a parting gift to a housemaid dismissed by his stern father. The narrator says that at school, Ernest joined in an" amusement" called "the Hounds, " so "a run of six or seven miles across country was no more than he was used to. " That's all there was to the reference. The other novels I was teaching that year were by Jane Austen and Henry James, and nobody ever goes cross country running in those. So I stored the little episode away.

I knew that Butler based Emest's school, Roughborough, on Shrewsbury, where he was (he always claimed) an undistinguished and unpopular student from 1848 to 1854. On a visit to England I dug out from my father's collection of old books a history of Shrewsbury School. It confirmed that a sport called the Hounds, or more formally, The Royal Shrewsbury School Hunt, was established by Butler's time, recorded in something called the Hound Books. Thus began my journey to the wet ditch.

THE INVENTION OF cross country running as an organized modern sport has always been attributed to Rugby School, mainly because of the paper chase Hare and Hounds in Thomas Hughes' best-selling novel, Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857). That chapter inspired the first adult running club, Thames Hare and Hounds, founded near London in 1868. Its founder, Walter Rye, paid tribute to Rugby School as the cradle of the sport in his seminal essay, "Paper-Chasing and Cross-Country Running" for the Badminton Library in 1887. Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modem Olympics, kept the Rugby myth alive. He read Tom Brown's Schooldays at age 12, and formulated his Olympiades during a visit to England's schools in 1883. He praised Rugby's famous principal, Thomas Amold, as the first to develop sports as part of education.

The truth, I was to find, lay 100 miles northwest of Rugby, at Shrewsbury. I went to Shrewsbury one September on official leave from my university. I did not expect to find much. Butler provided such a full narrative of his schooldays in The Way of All Flesh that his biographers have never tried to add to it. He was "listless and unhappy, " the novel tells us, "no greater lover of his school work than of the games. " He wrote that in his 30s, and repeated its unflattering version in autobiographical memoirs penned near the end of his life. There has been no reason to doubt it. It was more for sport than scholarship, therefore, that I asked the librarian at Shrewsbury to find those Hound Books for me. They are crackly old exercise books, such as you'd find in any dusty attic, their pages hand-written in scratchy black ink. The writing changes year by year with each generation of schoolboy secretaries. The oldest is dated 1831, and accounts elsewhere indicate that the sport was established at Shrewsbury by 1819-almost 20 years before Thomas Hughes played Hare and Hounds at Rugby.

The reports of the runs, twice a week from September to the Christmas holidays, are detailed, spirited and sometimes very funny. In imagination I joined those long-dead schoolboys in their zestful enjoyment of hard running over varied country. I also realized, as a scholar, that I held in my hands absolutely authentic documentation of the very early history of modern sport. In these stained and yellow pages, dating back to before the time of Queen Victoria, lie the origins of all the international off-road sports we call cross country, trail running, mountain running and harriers.

A game called "Hunt the Fox" or "Hunt the Hare" had been played in English schools at least since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Shakespeare may have played it; he has Hamlet call, "Hide, fox, and all after" when he eludes the Elsinore security guards. At Shrewsbury School, sometime about 1800, the game was organized into an outdoor sport called the Hunt or the Hounds. It was a way for the young gents to practice their future pastime, fox hunting. Two runners called "foxes" ("hares" at Rugby and elsewhere) ran ahead laying a "scent" of shredded paper. After an interval of about five to 10 minutes known as "law", the "pack" was "coupled up" and "threw off' after the scent. There were "checks" (obstacles or false trails), a "view halloa" when the foxes were sighted, and then the "run in, " with the fastest hound getting the honor of "the kill. " Someone was also awarded "the brush. " I prefer not to know what that meant.

SOME OP THIS is still part of our sport. Cross country runners are called harriers, which means "hare-hunters. " The international Hash House Harriers preserve the old game, following a scent of flour now, not paper. A group of runners on a trail, road or track is called a pack. We all still run in the footsteps of the Shrewsbury Hounds. In Shrewsbury, I decided to do that literally;. The hunts each went in an agreed direction, with the foxes providing variety and challenge. Over the years these runs acquired names. So I did my best that week to run these old courses: The Bog, The Drayton, The Tucks and The Long (all 14 miles of it). Often I was turned back by urban sprawl and screaming highways, but I managed to trace some routes and locate landmarks cited in the Hound Books-the Sevem River and little grass-clogged Berwick Brook, Coton Hill and Sundome Farm(still there, squeezed next to a giant retail park), Battlefield (where King Henry IV retained his title in 1403) and the tiny communities of Hencott and Atcham.

In a car you would call this-country rolling, but for a runner it is hilly -and wet. I scratched my shins on stubble and plodded across what the Hound Book often calls "heavy ploughed land. " I ran with my historical antecedents across folds and gullies, even the natural bowls where cold water lurked. Being in my 50s, I could not match the schoolboys' eagerness for "good leaps" and "stiff fences, " wriggling instead inelegantly through the thick thorn hedges which they crossed by a technique known as belly-hedging. Nor could I "run in" on the narrow lanes as freely as they did, being pressed against the hedgerow every few seconds by some frenzied automobile. But I tracked them as well as I could. One day I ran to Hencott Pool, where they made their kill on November 3, 1851; and where the following year(September 25, 1852) they met the check of a "snarling dog. " Both times, it is documented, Sam Butler was among them. On November 3, 1852, after a heavy rain, he was one of the foxes who mischievously laid the scent so that it crossed a field covered in shallow water that concealed a "treacherous drain" across the middle. The Hound Book reported that "both hounds and gentlemen, some head first, some tail, were one after the other seen to disappear in the water; this however only cooled our legs without cooling our ardor, and we went along at a brisk pace up the fields toward Hencott. "Finding that field and its treacherous ditch became my last objective. It was to prove a challenging one.

FORTUNATELY, I made numerous other discoveries along the way that both piqued my academic interest and kept me well entertained. Like most runners, the Hounds were independent, even rebellious, and enjoyed a vigorous social life. Then as now the three great passions of runners, apart from running, were food, beer and trespassing. They liked to "refresh themselves" during runs. I read of them pausing to "imbibe punch at the farm of N. Lloyd Esq, "that they "washed the hounds' mouths out with some beer, " and "regaled our pack with punch &c. " While running The Long, they drank beer and sherry at the inn at Atcham. An early form of interval training, perhaps. On special occasions they took full meals ("were regaled with a substantial repast").

Perhaps not surprisingly, relations with local farmers and the school authorities were less than harmonious. Some farmers served them refreshments, but at others the Hound Books record "altercations, " "threats" and "burning execrations. " The boys apparently bore no grudges. After one infuriated old man threatened "a summunds" against them, "saying good for the old fellow we struck into the lane. "

The Shrewsbury School principal, the eminent classicist Dr. Benjamin Kennedy, tried to make rules about where the lads could run. But, the Hound Book records, "as stolen fruit is always the sweetest, we determined to . . . revive the good old custom of running out of bounds. " They vaulted hedges, enraged an irascible miller, defied farmers, chased off their dogs and ran, often wide-eyed, down the secluded road that the Hound Book calls Fornicators Lane. Dr. Kennedy tried making them wear mortarboards as they ran, locked their dormitories and stood out in the cold to take the names of those breaking bounds (they whooped by on the other side of the hedge). Once, they reported, "Ben nabbed the scent bag. " With an eloquent gesture of reprisal they shredded copies of his recently published Kennedy's Latin Primer and dropped the tatters as paper trail. "Frantic but fruitless" was how they described his efforts to undo the damage.

In the midst of all this, at a time when membership was high and rebelliousness rampant, was Sam Butler, the lad who later belittled himself as "a young muff, a mollycoddle . . . a mere bag of bones with . . . no strength or stamina whatever. " Often Butler was a fox, staying ahead of the pack while carrying the heavy scent bag. In 1854, his senior year, he was Huntsman, or club captain, an elected position.

The weak, shrinking, dispirited young Butler - by his own account and that of every biographer was looking more and more like a skillful burying of the truth. I began to understand also how that clergyman's son straight out of Cambridge had managed to become one of the most intrepid mountain explorers in New Zealand's history. It's not often a biographer can play hooky, as I was, and at the same time hit the jackpot.

One of Butler's duties as Huntsman was "fixing the ground" for two competitive events organized by the Hounds after their hunting season. One was the Annual Steeplechase, a cross country race of notorious severity. The first definite record of it is in 1834. It is thus the oldest cross country race of the modem era. The second, held each year in May, was the Second Spring Meeting, a series of mock horse races including the Derby Stakes, the Hurdle Race, the Trial Stakes and a program of throwing and jumping events. In other words, it was a track and field meet, again the oldest still in existence, with 1840 the earliest definite date.

In a scrapbook kept by a popular math teacher of Butler's time, and preserved now in the school library, I found some of the "race-cards" for these meets. Again, my discovery had both historical interest and entertainment value. Each runner was supposedly a horse, entered by an" owner" who gave him an appropriate horse-like name. After a while it dawned on me that many of these names were satiric-Adonis, The Wild 'Un, Mad-rig-all, Plate-Licker and Everlasting Pea (probably a disturber of the peace in the dormitories).

From this unexpected, almost illicit source I obtained information about how Butler was regarded by his peer group. I also gained insight into schoolboy humor, often in a sexual vein. Names like Miss Prettyman, The Perfumer, Smut Fancier, Frog's Spawn, The Beaver Hunter and two adjacent entries for Romeo and Juliet suggest that teenage testosterone was as active during the reign of Queen Victoria as in any other era.

IT HAD BEEN A good week, although I'd failed to find the "treacherous drain" into which Butler and his fellow foxes lured the pack in November 1852. Two or three years later I visited Shrewsbury again, this time with my 85 year old parents along. For two days I attempted again to pick up the scent. I went back to Hencott, where the pack ran "at a brisk pace" after their ducking. I searched through faceless 1950s housing developments to find their route into the open country. Most likely it was all buried under the shopping malls and highway interchanges that now encircle the old town. It hardly mattered, I told myself. I was only looking for a field after all. On our last morning, with a flight to New Zealand the next day, I searched once more for a footpath I'd found marked on an old map. After more checks, I found a promising narrow lane between Coton Hill and the railroad (a line built later than 1852). It led only to an opulent white house. The scent had died. Walking disconsolately back to the car where my folks waited for their eccentric son, I suddenly saw a tiny foot track I'd missed on the way up, twisting steeply down through long grass. I scrambled down. And there at the bottom of the hill I found it.

No doubt - a low lying field between two hills, clumped with marsh grass, with the dark green ditch running straight across it. Soggy in September, it would be flooded after the November rains.

Perhaps the roguish foxes secretly watched the pursuing hounds splashing across it up to their ankles until the ground disappeared and they tumbled headlong into the deeper water. I didn't tumble in, but I jogged a short way in the footsteps of those ghostly runners up the hill toward Hencott. My parents waited, patiently eating bananas. I suspect they have doubts about the seriousness of their progeny's professorial research.

Indeed, real biographers would laugh at all the trouble I'd taken to find such an obscure and boggy bit of England. But it gave me a sense of contact over 145 years, of the boy Sam Butler as he really was , and of continuity and history in the sport that has given me so much pleasure. As the Hound Book put it that wet 1852 day, I had cooled my legs but not my ardor. I drove away from Shrewsbury at a brisk pace.

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