'Agree With Everything - Deny Nothing - Embellish All

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Going To The Dogs

The Renaissance Couple & myself spent Bank Holiday Monday having a profoundly Cumbrian experience: we went to a hound trail. A what? A hound-trail. Hound-trailing is a specifically Cumbrian form of dog-racing, and there's really nothing else quite like it.
Some background: hound-trailing takes place between April and October, races follow an aniseed & paraffin drag over ten miles of rough fellside, starting down in the valley & ending in a nearby field. The dogs cover the course in under 30 minutes, there's prize-money and smalltime on-course betting. It's popular with farmers and ordinary West Cumbrians, and has been going on in a quiet, unremarkable, but utterly intense way, for over a hundred years.
We drove to Grange in Borrowdale on a bright spring day & found our way into a field where a procession of cars with dog cages in their backs were driven past baffled tourists taking tea. We arrived just in time for first slip: fifteen senior hounds were lined up, howling with excitement in their owner's hands and at a signal sped across a field, round a wall, and vaulted over a four-foot fence, ecstatically airborne. Before we could train our binoculars on the hills they were rampaging up Catbells before turning sharp left along the ridge to Maiden Moor, leaving a trail of non-plussed fellwalkers in their wake. Twenty minutes later they were back, shooting along the path below the fell, intent on the gate of the finishing field. The winning post of a hound-trail is pandemonium: the owners line up, jostling for position, and shout for their dogs, yelling, whistling, screaming their lungs out, simultaneously banging together bowls full of food. There's a moment, about a hundred yards out, when the individual hounds discern their owner and suddenly find an extra edge to their sprint, knowing that rewards await. (It should be said here that canine brains seem to have no notion of tactics, the entire race is a breakneck sprint).
The Bank Holiday meeting is the first big race-day of the year, and last year's champion hounds were all racing. There are a variety of classes: Seniors (adult hounds), Maidens (not bitches, but hounds that have yet to win a race), Puppies, Veterans, and something entitled the 'Open Restricted' class. We're still trying to work out what that means.
We watched three races, enraptured by the sport, impressed by the sheer physical stamina and condition of the dogs. Trail-hounds are an odd breed, part foxhound, part greyhound, part bloodhound (though there's also some retriever genes in there too I think) unrecognised by the Kennel Club (who clearly don't know what they're missing). Judging from the names on the roll of honour and the 2004 whelping lists, there must be a dangerously small gene-pool. But trail-hounds are trained to do something that most dogs must find counter-intuitive: not to come at the word of command but to go. Those who don't make the grade are taken in by the trailhound rescue trust & found good homes - like the Renaissance Couple's.
The meeting took place in the valley-bottom, enclosed by the Gates of Borrowdale, where Castle Crag sits astride the valley: this is the landscape that, in the 1760s, the poet Thomas Gray found so intimidatingly sublime that he turned back, unable to endure the wildness of the fells. Between races, we turned our binoculars round, focused on Shepherd's Crag and enjoyed some serious rock-climbing action on Little Chamonix and Crescendo. Eventually, a wall of cloud slipped off Great End and brought rain down into the valley and we headed for the pub. We agreed that hound-trailing is fasacinating, compelling and absolutely authentic. I think there'll be a few more posts about the 2005 season on this blog.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Janey said...

This is a lovely post -- sounds like a grand day out. But there must be lots of dogs that go rather than come? Pointers, bloodhounds, sheepdogs? And if you cry havoc and let loose the dogs of war, you don't want the bloody things clustered round your knees begging for a biscuit ...

5/5/05 12:58 pm  
Blogger Nick said...

Ah, those would be labradors, the dogs of war . . . fair point - but I think there's the essential difference that trail-hounds are following a scent that takes them away from where they can see that rewards lie (their owner). Some of them simply won't go & never make the grade as racers, so it must be a carefully trained-in response that not all dogs learn . . .

5/5/05 5:16 pm  
Blogger RenMan said...

Dog namimg conventions: In the puppies race ( apuupe being a hound in it's first season of running (though they all look the same age to me)there was a bitch by thename of Miss Dido and adog by the name of Bendigo. Now, either somebody is copying the names given to our mutts or we were trailing after hounds in a previous existence. Nick you forgot to mention the curious 'hair-cuts' of your modern hound: sort of half bald half poodle.

5/5/05 9:04 pm  
Blogger RenMan said...

In the puppies race (a hound over 1 but under 2) there was a bitch by the name of Miss Dido and a dog called (a)Bendigo. Strange that we have 2 mutts of the same name. Maybe me and RW trailed after hounds in a previous life.

5/5/05 9:08 pm  
Blogger RenMan said...

Now there's a strange thing: trhe blog said that my comment (Nr3 ) had been refused so I did what I remembered again and hey presto Nr 4. aaargghhhh - techology!

5/5/05 9:11 pm  
Blogger Nick said...

Strange haircuts, training methods, all will be coming to the blog in future posts . . .

5/5/05 11:10 pm  

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