A Journey into Scotland … Part 12
Along the A66 from Threlkeld is one of the most redolent place names in the whole of lakeland: Troutbeck. In the early seventies a young Melvyn Bragg did a BBC piece on the village and harped heavily on its links with legendary huntsman, John Peel. My mother was at her withering best in her condemnation of the aspirant fount of arts and culture, and native of Cumbria. “He may have a bouffant hairpiece and trouble with his adenoids, but he doesn’t know his lake district.” Poor old Melvyn was walking up a valley a few miles to the north east of Ambleside. He was in the wrong Troutbeck.
I am a huge admirer of Melvyn Bragg but I cannot see him on the telly or listen to him on the wireless without hearing my mother’s rebuke. She did enjoy giving out a bloody nose and gained extra relish if the object of her verbal punches was an educated fellow. She loved learning but she wasn’t always so enamoured of the learned. She had a fine mind and a legitimate resentment of those who had been spoon fed the education she herself was denied.
Poor Melvyn isn’t the only one. There are a couple of inns in the other place that advertise a John Peel feature or two in order to bring in the trippers. Funny how hunting associations can capture the imagination of tourists. A horn, a red coat (pink for pedants), a stirrup cup, a Melton Mowbray pork pie. So few people hunt, so many find it the most disagreeable of pastimes. The few huntsmen, as in professionals, I have known are not the loveliest of people to look at. The rosy glow of their cheeks is seldom purely induced by the bracing morning air and a gallop over the fields of England. The stirrup cup has its part to play as does an air of righteous indignation.
Literature is no stranger to running with the pack and there is some fine writing given over to “the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable”. Oscar Wilde is in the minority. Most pens have been sharpened in favour of this countryside pursuit.
Tolstoy breaks away from the political background and the familial difficulties in War and Peace to give us a couple of the greatest hunting scenes. Though hunting in this book is often a device to bring out discord. Nicolai hopes to prove his manhood by bringing down a wolf. His borzoi almost achieves it but before the kill other dogs, belonging to rivals, appear and finish the wolf off and take the glory. The events lead into some of the most lyrical scenes in the book; scenes where the great writer introduced the ‘ordinary people’ of Russia as subjects of great literature. Meanwhile back in the Lake District, William Wordsworth was doing the same thing. Not many heroic odes about the victories over Napoleon in Wordsworth’s complete works. His heroes are leech gatherers, shepherds and in more than one instant; huntsmen.
His most famous is old Simon Lee who rode the hounds in Cardigan and made the valleys echo with his halloo, but who has now been left unlooked after by the lord he served and scratches out a bare and impoverished living, “the poorest of the poor”, from a scrap of unproductive land. One day while walking near, the poet comes across the once hail and hearty huntsman cutting feebly at a root with a mattock. Offering assistance, the narrator cuts the root with a single blow. The old huntsman’s gratitude brings tears to the eyes.
I’ve heard of hearts unkind, kind deeds
With coldness still returning;
Alas! the gratitude of men
Hath oftener left me mourning.
It is the same with me. I can cope with unkindness quite well and absorb it as I witness the petty cruelties of the world but little unlooked for acts of kindness are liable to make me cry.
Evelyn Waugh finds room for hunting scenes in both Brideshead Revisited and A Handful of Dust, in which a death in the hunt is the driving point of the storyline. And it isn’t the death of the fox.
It perhaps isn’t surprising that children’s literature, with its great legacy of pony books should be full of fox hunting. K M Peyton’s Flambards series are centred in the world of fox hunting and whole chapters are given over to the intricacies of the chase. The faults of the sport are brushed aside against the sheer adrenalin filled, blood vessel bursting energy of the chase. The Belstone Fox leads the reader to see it all from the perspective of the prey in order to open out discursive skills and liberal attitudes in the young.
None comes close to matching the place of John Peel though as the nation’s favourite huntsman. There seems nothing particularly of note about Peel. He wasn’t a particularly successful huntsman. He rode to his own pack of hounds until he found himself in considerable debt. He was known to drink himself blind after the event which may or may not have contributed to his financial problems. He was dedicated to the sport and even when horseless would join in the pursuit on foot. Known in Westmoreland as “Chasing the Ace”.
The song that made him famous was taught to us at junior school. A good galloping rhythm always helped and a little improvised syncopation; thirty unbroken male voices thundering for the leaps. We had no real idea what we were singing about but we liked the song. It was written during his lifetime. The tune is stolen from a Scottish folk tune and the Cumbrian dialect words show just how close this part of the north of England is to the Scottish border. D’ye ken John Peel? is dialect for Do you know John Peel?. We thought we were singing Dear Ken John Peel. The double barrelled forename was relatively unknown to us back then. We didn’t have so many Candice-Maries and Sharon Louise’s in those days. We thought of him as a sort of English John Paul Jones.
From Troutbeck I turn off the busy dual carriageway and find the quiet backroad I’d been looking for. It is to all intents and purposes the border of the lake district. To my left the vast bulk of the less impressive side of Blencathra rises and beyond that you can make out the rounded peak of Skiddaw. To my right the rough pasturage and rolling ground of Westmoreland stretch out towards the distant Pennine chain. This is true hunting countryside. Just over the brow is Greystoke, real place but fictional home to Tarzan himself. This is my kind of beauty. Bleak, Octoberish, browns and greys and lonesome. I see rabbits and a couple of hare. I see more ravens than I have ever seen before. They are almost spooky sentinels. If I am unsure of what they are by sight where distance on such a huge landscape can make telling size tricky, their voices give them away, croaking the fateful entrance of Simon into the valley.
The Troutbeck near Ambleside is every bit as beautiful as this one; perhaps more so. It certainly draws in more visitors and many a flagon of ale has been pulled from a pump with a huntsman on. This is countryside to gallop a horse in. This is more wild and free. There’s a little less fell and a whole lot more sky. At the end of this stretch is Caldbeck where the famous huntsman lies buried. Anti blood sorts protestors desecrated the grave in the 1970s. Hunting has now been banned. Occasionally a strange alliance of misshapen, squawky people decend on the capital to say that hunting is actually good for foxes and that townsfolk don’t understand the true ways of the country. The farmer who lived near us as children used to cry as he saw crates of gormless, hand fed pheasants released onto Kirby Moor just so they could be shot by huntsmen; most of whom donned their tweeds and deer stalker hats and came up from their nice houses in Barrow and Lancaster and Preston in order to blast them out of the sky.
I’ve been outside the argument for quite a while. We used to play John Peel as a march in the town brass band. It doesn’t take many notes to start the blood stirring. It’s a good tune.