The man who drags the smelly rag at Ambleside Sports : First published in Cumbria Magazine, Oct 2011
Over the years I’ve been a good sport at Ambleside sports. I’ve run the short and steep guides race. I’ve trudged round the Rydal Round. My kids once won £1 each in the children’s races. But this year I was ahead of the pack – in the hound trail. Not racing against the dogs, of course, but walking their route with one of the men who drag the smelly rag whose scent the racing hounds will follow.
Hound trailing is one of Lakeland’s oldest sports. It developed as a way of keeping the fox hounds fit when the hunting season was over, though the dogs today are a different breed, leaner and lighter, and their coats are clipped to give them extra speed. They race around the fells, not on paths but across the roughest and toughest ground, following a scented trail, a pungent mixture of aniseed and paraffin. (Once upon a time it was a dead cat, or dead fox, according to the earliest records.)
The trails might be up to 10 miles from the slip – the start – to the finish, in a time that should be around 30 minutes – certainly no more than 40 – according to the Hound Trailing Association rules. The HTA was formed in 1906 and established formal regulations governing the events.
The rules make fascinating reading. “The officials of the meeting may refuse to accept any entry, and they may, after the entry, on account of vice, reputed sheep attacking, disease, or sexual condition, prohibit any hound from the competition.” Sexual condition? “A bitch in season is going to be a distraction for the rest of the pack” says Mike Thornton, who’s laying the second part of the course at Ambleside, for the Senior Fell Classic, one of the most important events on the hound trailing calendar. There will be a Senior Maidens Trail later; not a race for the girls, but for the “maiden” hounds that have never won an open championship trail. Puppy trails as well, alongside the fell races and track races, the cycling races and the wrestling matches of this traditional sports fixture.
Mike knows every step of the way that the hounds will run, not just here at Ambleside but at hound trails throughout the district. He laid his first trail at Grasmere in 1969 after being shown the ropes by the legendary Ike Dixon who, with the late Tommy Graves, did so much to keep the sport thriving. (Ike’s daughter Beryl is Mike’s partner; his grandson, Paul Garrity, is an HTA bookie.)
A former member of the Ambleside Sports committee for 25 years, at any sporting event in these parts, you’ll find Mike either in action or behind the scenes. He played both rugby and football for Ambleside, his last soccer game being at the age of 46; now he follows the soccer team, home and away. When the English championship fell race was staged over Loughrigg and Silver Howe this summer, Mike was manning the final checkpoint at Lily Tarn. And when Beryl organised a charity “ladies day” during Ascot week at a local hotel, it was Mike, and his pal Rob Hunt, who ran the bookies’ stall – “Lay em and Fleece em”.
A retired horticulturalist, who’s been a retained fireman for 29 years, Mike is now 59, and one of the youngest trailers. “It worries me that there’s not enough young folk coming through to take it on.” It certainly keeps him fit – this is a task that demands stamina as well as very precise, instinctive navigational skills. “It’s the trailer’s nightmare, getting lost in the mist. If you lose your way, then there’s no race.”
But this is a fine, clear day as we leave the showground. We’re getting a lift in a Landrover Discovery to take us part of the way to the head of the Rydal valley. Our taxi driver is Barry Porter, a project manager who also runs a children’s play centre and learned to drive over rough ground when he was in the mountain rescue team. We follow the north side of Rydal beck to the very limit of motor access, which is a lot further than most mortals will imagine possible. Here Barry turns round and heads back to the showground; I get out with Mike and Gerry Meneaud, a veteran fell runner, who will lay the first part of the trail. We set off together towards Rydal head, then Gerry climbs off left near Calf Cove under Great Rigg, to contour under Heron Pike back towards the showground. Mike and I go round the head of the valley to contour our way back to the finish.
In all it’s a three hour walk, over the most tortuous ground, heading uphill and down but always contouring over boulder fields, bog and bracken, and several high walls. Mike drags a long and narrow rag on the end of a piece of rope, and every so often he stops to give the rag another soaking, from a plastic bottle of the “mix”. They use plastic bottles now; a glass bottle once fell and smashed as the trailers were setting off, and they had to mop up the spillage to use for the whole trail.
Above us on the ridges, walkers are tackling the Fairfield Horseshoe on well-trodden footpaths, but this is not fellwalking territory. Our only neighbours are a couple of shepherds and a couple of hundred sheep. It’s bleak, inhospitable. The views would be wonderful if I dared look anywhere other than where to step. Mike’s pace never falters, taking every obstacle in his stride.
Eventually we reach Low Pike and the welcome sight of a footpath, down which the Rydal Round fellrunners are hurtling. We cross it – and plunge on down through the bracken and boulders. I’d like to stop and watch the runners. More than that, I want to cut off and follow the path down, like a normal walker, but that’s absolutely forbidden. My feet are carrying the precious scent and any diversion from the route will cause confusion to the dogs.
Sometimes a strong wind will blow the scent about in the air, and the dogs might stop, or run around for a while; this is a “scale”. Any dog that takes a short cut gets a yellow card; four cards and their registration is cancelled. A more serious offence is “flogging”, when trailers show their hounds round a course before a trail to gain an advantage. If trail hounds knows a particular course, they can remember the obstacles and run faster. For a trailer, this offence can bring a five-year, or even lifetimes, ban. Of course, the hounds do have some “memory” of courses from one year to the next, and a dog will run well on a route that it likes.
The stories, of epic trails, and character dogs and their owners, keep me entertained, and eventually we top the last rise and look down on the sports ground. We are being watched from below, and the organisers are now confident that the trail is set, and the hounds can set off. They race around our epic course, the winner – the favourite, Huntsman’s Dazzler – in just 32 minutes. Mike’s now switched roles, and is a hound “catcher” at the finishing line; I’m lying on the grass in a state of exhaustion.
Mike has owned several hounds himself , among them Freedom, Wonder, Dexter, Druid, Crusader, and Mystic Meg, and he has a cupboard full of trophies, hundreds of rosettes. “I’ve had a lot of fun out of it. But I do fear for the future of the sport. There’s only a third the number of dogs and people since I first started. Then there were more than 300 registered hounds every year. Now there’s 100. Same with the bookies. There used to be 30 at an event like this. Now there’s only eight. I can see why – the price of fuel and vets’ bills are so high – but if we don’t get younger people coming through, what will happen?”