Written by Bob Lomas
Between the end of the hunting season in Spring and the start of a new season in Autumn hounds need to be exercised every day. To this end the general practice is for the huntsman and the whipper-in, and perhaps a helper or two, to take the hounds for a gentle walk of a few miles, usually stopping in a field to allow them to play or even swim in a river or pond, much the same as one would with the family dog.
These summer walks are a delight, especially when the weather is fine, as they start the working day of the kennels which is usually at half past five or six o’clock in the morning. Where possible the huntsman and his assistants ride bicycles which suits the hounds’ comfortable trot of five miles an hour, too quick to walk for both humans or horse. As the opening of the next hunting season draws near the hunt horses join the exercise as they have to be brought up to working fitness also, but following the trotting hounds is not a comfortable or steady pace for either horse or rider, for a horse’s trot is quicker than that of a hound but his walk is slower, causing the horse and rider to gradually fall back when walking until having to break into a trot in order to catch up. But this is all in late summer when most of the corn has been harvested from the fields, the sloes, haws and hips are ripening, and woolly tufts of old man’s beard and the red bryony berries are beginning to adorn the hedgerows.
Throughout the summer months it was my delight to arrive early at the hunt kennels to ‘walk-out’, or in reality to cycle out with the hounds. The huntsman would open the kennel door and the hounds would eagerly pour out, he would then take up his bicycle and with the hounds obediently behind him he would push his bicycle to a gate which gave access to an old disused railway line, an ideal path along which to exercise the hounds. The huntsman would then open the gate with the quiet words, “wait, wait”, for needless to say the hounds were always very keen to be on their way, but no hound was allowed to venture forth until told to do so.
The huntsman would then mount his bicycle and we would be off, with all the hounds up together behind him. The whipper-in would ride behind the ordered pack to keep them together and I would cycle a little further behind to keep together the old pensioner hounds and the few that were temporally lame due to the inevitable injuries that bedevil both hounds and humans from time to time. As we moved away it was always sad to hear the woeful laments of those hounds that for one reason or another had to be left behind.
And so to all our pleasures our daily routine would begin. After a steady ride along the track for two or three miles we would turn off onto another that would take us through green fields to the river where the hounds would swim and splash about, explore the river bank and romp and play as all happy dogs do, whilst the huntsman and his assistants would make sure that none of the hounds strayed too far away and would call them back should they look as if they might be tempted by enticing smells further off.
Every day we would set off from the kennels in a different direction, and there were a number of different fields we would visit for the hounds playtime, but the green river valley and the river bank was my favourite place, where purple loosestrife fringed the river bank and golden water lilies and their broad green leaves floated on the water. Occasionally our arrival would disturb a kingfisher that would speed away in an iridescent flash of brightest blue, or a fishing heron would lift off with slow wing beat and his call of “Frank”, perhaps a blaspheme in the heron vernacular. The broad lush pastures stretched away for over a mile in both directions on which red bullocks contentedly grazed until their natural curiosity would get the better of them and they would stroll across to visit and inspect us and stand watching the activity seemingly bemused until we departed.
Despite our daily trips being routine, as with all things in the countryside every day was different, the best days being of course when the sky was azure blue, perhaps with a few puffy white clouds, and the clear and pure early morning sunlight cast long shadows across our path. Occasionally we would meet an early-rise walker or cyclists on the track and the hounds would be held up together to one side of the track while they passed before we proceeded. There were very few incidents of note and as I cycled right at the back I was in a good position to observe all.
Occasionally the hounds would pick up the scent of a fox, deer or badger on the track or the trackside and they would be reluctant to leave it and so be ordered to move on and keep up. Being a countryman I often picked up the scent myself. There was one such occasion when I could not, at a spot where the track crossed an old bridge. The call was given to “keep up, keep up”, but several of the old hounds were still very reluctant to leave their interesting find and I needed to chivvy them on. The same thing happened at the same spot on our return journey and again a few days later, but from then on the interest came to an end, or seemed to.
It was about a month later that it happened again, at the same spot on the old bridge. We were on our outward leg, so on the way back I stopped cycling to watch before insisting that the hounds moved on. It was then I noticed that it had always been the same few hounds that were most interested and reluctant to leave …
[To be continued tomorrow with Part Two which you cannot afford to miss]