WHAT a long breath the blackbird must draw to be sure ! Here am
I doing my best to feel that I have not risen earlier than
usual; trying to be as matter of fact as one can between the
pauses of tea and toast. There is a calm in that slow, deep-chested
alto of the blackbird that is beyond all words. And yet he is
telling me, for all his own self-possession and May morning
quiet, that there are for such inferior wingless animals as men
certain helps to loco-motion which can only come at certain
times, and unless taken advantage of, speed off and leave us
very much where we are ; and I seem to hear in the
oft-repeated, slow-drawn, black-bird's alto some such words as
these : " Now sir—make haste—sir—or—you'll--miss--your
One would not so much have minded what the blackbird out on the
laurel had got to say had one not looked at one's watch and
found it close to seven o'clock, and realised that in less than
thirty minutes, if one failed to catch the train, one would
fail to join the pack of otter-hounds who were travelling from
Cockermouth to Threlkeld by the said train, and miss the first
of their morning hunts along the river Bure and up the valley
of St. John's.
Just then a thrush in the lilac bush close by the
breakfast-room window began to aid and abet my philosophic
" Going, going," it said, " be quick, be quick,
be quick." This thrush must have come of a good French
family, or else high-schools have been the rage in the thrush
world also, for he immediately altered his tongue and called,
"Vite, vite, vite," as plain as any Frenchman ever
" You must really, sir, make haste, sir. Now look sharp,
now look sharp, look sharp, pray make haste, pray make haste,
pray make haste—vite, vite, vite, be
quick." The thrush's call was on
my nerves ; I could stand it no longer. Bolting the last
mouthful of toast, pouring the cup of tea into a saucer and
gurgling it down, I seized my stick, and away out of the house
I ran to catch the train that was conveying the otter-hound
pack, and to go with them to the meet.
It is not so easy a matter to fall in with the otter-hounds as
might be supposed. No meets are advertised, and except to an
inner circle no meets are declared.
"You see, sir," said a yeoman friend at the station,
" it 'ud never deu to hev a vast o' fowk come trailing oop
beck sides and river banks at sic a time as thissen. Seed-corn
already startit grawin', and a lock of ley-gurse (meadow grass)
to be kep' quiet for the mowing. As it is, otter-hounds stops
off for leygurse mowing."
I did see, and confess that the comparative quiet gained by the
fact that the chosen ones who followed the hunt were few, added
not a little to the rich enjoyment of the morning.
Theer's anudder thing as maks for a sma' hunt," said a
sportsman as we stood together on the platform. " Otters
is few-excep' for bloodin' young dogs we're not particular to
killin' them and if there's a gay lock o' fowk oot t' hunds,
and there's a drag, otter hesn't a chance, ye kna."
We were soon talking over otters' ways and otter-hound
characteristics with the huntsman. A dark-eyed man was he,
dressed in blue cloth with silver buttons whose sign was an
otter, and who wore knee-breeches, and was evidently made for
the ' running huntsman's' game. He was no salaried whip, but
just a friend of the Master of the Hounds, who in the Master's
absence took control.
I learned from him that both otters and otter hounds were on
the increase. There are now in the Lake District and its
confines four packs Kendal, Cockermouth, Carlisle, and Egremont.
As for the hounds, there are ten where there were two twenty
years ago ; and if only the rivers could be kept pure from
poison, so that fish would multiply, there need never come the
time when otters should be scarce.
Only a few weeks since otters had been seen at the mouth of the
Keswick town sewer, and otters had been tracked by their '
prints ' as the spoor is called, up the River Bure we were
going to hunt to-day, and also on the sides of Thirlmere Lake,
within the past few days.
" But what about the hounds and the size of the packs ?
" They vary. We," said my friend, " hunt with as
few dogs as we can ; six to eight couples are quite enough. If
you have more the otter has too little chance. As to breed
well, there is the pure otter-hound first and foremost, and
then we have strains between fox-hounds and blood-hounds. I
generally draft into the pack some of the older, slow-going,
safe old fox-hounds from the neighbouring fox-hound pack. You
will see all the varieties when we empty our horse-box at
Threlkeld presently. As for terriers, we generally take with us
an old British breed a Dale breed, as it is called the Ulpha
and Patterdale rough-haired terrier is of the hardiest. No one
seems to know its origin about here. Crib ! Crib ! " and
up jumped from under the seat as good. a specimen of an ancient
Briton as might be seen among dogs.
Colour a kind of American walnut ; thicker set than most of the
wire-haired English terriers I had seen.
" 'Crib' is a caution," said a gentleman beside my
friend. " He houses with the doctor all the year, won't
look at me when I meet him any time between mid-August and now,
but I send down for him the night before we throw off for the
season. He knows all about it, and nothing will induce him to
leave me till after hunting is done."
" When is it done ? " I asked.
" Oh, as soon as it gets too hot and water gets low—mid-August
" And when does it begin ?
" As soon as it gets warm enough for the clogs to face the
water," replied my friend.
This is an early start. We are often unable to go to the rivers
till June, but this sea-son is mild no snow water in the rivers
and so we are going to our first meet now, in the second week
" But have you no close time for otters ? "
" No ; they don't need it. They have cubs at all seasons,
so far as we can learn, and so that does not enter into our
" What kind of state of water in the rivers do you like
best for your hunting ? "
" Oh, neither too low nor too high. We are oft-times
forced to give up hunting in a dry season because of the
shallows. An otter, unless he has depth beneath him, is at much
disadvantage. And the fact is, that the otter is 'game' whose
life is too valuable to us to be sacrificed easily, for otters
never seem to have more than two cubs, and appear to breed only
in alternate years."
" What time," I asked, " do you usually like to
meet ? "
" We used to meet at five, and half-past five, in the
morning ; but the scent is so tearing hot at that hour that we
have found it best policy, and for the sake of the otter's
chances altogether better, to meet a couple of hours later,
when the scent is colder."
As he said this the train drew up with a ' girr ' at Threlkeld
What a picture of a meeting-place it was! Here, where Thorold
of old whose mere the thirsty Manchester folk will never drink
dry pastured his flock, and drank of the ' keld,' or cold
spring from the Blencathra's height ; here, where in later time
that shepherd lord grew up amongst Thorold's descendants and
learned "love in the huts where poor men lie " he
" whose daily teachers were the woods and rills "—did
not he, bethink you, on just such an exquisite morn of May,
stroll, crook in hand, among the flowery meadows either side
the Bure, startle the heron and flush the sand-piper, and watch
with wonder the otter at his feast ?
Yet, as one gazes from the vast buttresses of dark Blencathra,
"that many-bosomed hill," so the Greeks would have
called it — to look south and east upon Helvellyn's side, one
goes in thought on this our hunting morn, to the shepherd lords
of an earlier day, to hunters of an older time. For there, up
above the quarries below the ruddy Wanthwaite Screes, there lie
the remnants of the huts of primeval men, who, for aught we
know, trained dogs of just such breed as today shall hunt for '
game' by the river banks they haunted and the river banks they
Certainly about these otter-hounds there is a most primeval
look, thought I, as with a yelp the motley pack came tumbling
out of their horse-box. I expect these animated doormats, for
so these otter-hounds seemed, were just the kind of cross
between a stag-hound and a blood-hound that would be needed to
press the game through a bethicketed England in the hunters'
days of yore.
Gazing at the pack we set aside the old fox-hound stagers, and
our eyes fell on what seemed to be blood-hounds. These
blood-hound pups were in reality out of a pure otter-hound by a
shaggy father, whose father had been crossed with a
blood-hound, and had thrown back into the blood-hound strain.
Yet the Master of the Hunt assured me that the same mother and
father had presented the world with hirsute hounds, and he
doubted not that in all but the rough coat these pups were
otter-hounds indeed, and that their children would return to
We certainly got a good idea of the otter-hound build by seeing
these smooth-haired gentlemen, for the otter-hound in his
long-haired suit defied eye -measurement. The otter-hound
shaggy seemed a constant surprise to me. His heavy coat gave
him a heavy look, which, however, belied him. Once in movement
one saw his litheness.
Dark of muzzle, back and tail, his ears and haunches, belly and
legs were ochrey yellow, and when, as was frequent during the
hunt, a hound dashed up the bank and rolled upon the grass, one
could hardly for the moment think that this yellow,
brightly-shining beast was the dark-haired, sombre creature
seen below in the shallows just now.
We threw off the eight couples and a half, and soon found that
our field was a small one not more than a dozen men at the
outside. There was, of course, among these, the yeoman whose
farm we had first entered, and the retired gamekeeper, who knew
where the otter was last seen.
" Want-thet's handkercher's folding up," said a man
at my side; " it will fair yet." And as he spoke a
light veil of cloud on Wanthwaite's crags seemed caught up by
invisible hands and passed out of sight.
Now we gained the river what scents were in the air ! The
birches just putting into leaf were fragrant as with paradisal
odours ; the bird-cherries poured out their honey perfume ;
larks filled the air with song ; cuckoos cried as it seemed
from every naked ash and budding oak. And oh ! the flowers.
First over carpets of anemone, then through little strips of
pearly wood-sorrel we went. At every bank primroses were sweet,
and in the open meadows here and there in beautiful isolation
orchids bloomed. Such marigolds, too, gleamed in the soughs !
such cuckoo - flowers freckled the grass ! such blackthorn
blossom whitened the hedge-rows ! Shundra was passed ; Hollin
Farm, fairly veiled in plum and cherry blossom, was now upon
The silent hounds cast up the bank, not keeping close to the
water, but spreading over the grass within 60 or 100 yards,
then making for the water again. At last there was a sound of
music, and Ringwood, the shaggiest of the doormats on four
legs, put his feet well upon a projecting bit of boulder-stone
by the bank, and, lifting up his head, seemed baying to the
In an instant the whole pack gathered and gave tongue, and then
all was silent again.
" Cush, they've spokken till her," said a man, "
happen, and it 'ill be lang eneuf afore they spek agean.
It was lang eneuf.
But that note of music marvellously possessed us, and the fact
of an otter's existence in this old valley of St. John's seemed
to make the valley doubly interesting.
We scrambled down to the water's edge, and saw among the many '
footings ' of the hounds who were not scouring away up stream a
queer-looking footmark ; a creature half-goose, half-cat, we
would have said, had been there. It was the otter's ' print,'
as it is called, and up stream we hurried.
Hilltop was passed, whitely shining on our left such an ideal
spot for a farm. Ah ! here the weary Londoner might rejoice,
thought we, to find the May dawn break above his head at such a
valley homestead. Lowthwaite Farm, quite as enchanting, stood
in its rustic loveliness beneath Helvellyn's side a little
farther on. The hunters paused. For after crossing the road
that leads up Naddle to St. John's School and Chapel, the River
Bure runs into a noble horseshoe of liquid silver, and we
watched the dogs cast and recast, speak and be silent from
point to point all round the emerald meadow.
Music here and music there; Music, music everywhere.
Yes, and music of a very different order floats wondrously upon
the bird-cherry-scented fragrant moving air as the wind from
the south drifts the sound of the bleating of the lambs from
Naddle Fell. For there, as we cross another road and pass into
the fields, where the vale seems to grow more narrow, and the
river turns and glides west right under Naddle, some
stepping-stones placed strongly in mid-current give to the
river just the kind of natural harp the clear stream loves to
But not with river melody nor the chiming of the hounds are our
ears filled, for by a solemn yew tree, and overshadowed with
tall dark pines and budding poplar trees, there stands beside
the bank beneath the hill a very simple Cumberland cottage, '
four eyes, a nose, and a mouth' upon its white face in shape of
dark windows, porch, and open door.
That cottage has sent forth songs that will not die songs born
of sympathy with simple men and solemn nature.
There, till lately, dwelt a kind of Isaac Walton among men a
village schoolmaster ; one who himself was ever at school,
learning what streams and winds and flowers in this beloved
vale might tell him of high thought, and gathering from the
words and faces of his yeoman friends the deeper melodies that
make our common life a psalm so that even angels desire to
Truly, as long as men know what pathos is, they will, as they
read Richardson's Cumberland Tales and Other Poems, be glad
that the River Bure sang sweetly at yon humble threshold, and
of these stepping-stones made so rich a harp for his hearing.
" I dunnet kna," said a yeoman friend, " much
aboot potry and sec like, but I kenned many and many of the men
as he put down in verse. You couldn't be off kennin' them. It
was o' t' vara life, his mak' of potry ; ye kna naw nonsense
nor nowt, but just to t' life to t' vara life. But what thar,
dogs is at wark; otter ull happen be in one of the soughs twixt
here and Fellside."
Away we went, splashing through the wet ground, leaping the
soughs full of rich golden light from the thousand mary-buds
that had inlaid them, till suddenly Ringwood laid nose to
ground and broke away from the bank, and in a moment the dogs
seemed to have forgotten all about the windings of the liquid
Bure, and to have gone mad across the meadow towards
" Didn't I tell ye sae ? " said the gamekeeper, and
after them we scurried.
Away across the meadows to the road beyond the wood and to the
rocks. We had run the otter to earth nay, we had run it to
rocks ; and such a 'beald' it was that all the 'Cribs' in the
world could never have stirred his ottership from there.
So back we came, and up the stream we went through the meadow
haze ; the cushats cooed sadly from the ' Fornside ' larch
wood, the sand-pipers flitted with sharp and piteous
complaining hither and thither ; but we were as light-hearted
as boys, old men and grey though some of us were. Over the
bridge we passed along under Naddle, through Low-Bridge-End
Farm byre, and the men ran out and joined us, and the dogs
barked and shrank back into the house. Presently the leading
hound cast among huge boulders on our left, opposite the
Manchester Waterworks gauge-house.
" Game's afoot," shouted a yeoman. " Didn't I
tell ye sae ? " said the gamekeeper and all the hearts
beat faster as upon the terrace path towards Smethwaite, or
Smith-thwaite 'Brig' we went.
I doubt if Sir Walter Scott ever saw the Castle Rock he speaks
of in the Bridal of Triermain in greater glory than today, in
the pleasant May light, the chinks upon the natural bastions
emerald green, the castle walls gleaming as if the wandering
sun had found that here was rest and peace at last. The little
white houses of Legburthwaite, called " The Green,"
shone out as if they had gathered beneath the castle hold for
sweet security, and could laugh in their peace and hearts'
content. The moist fields between the Castle Rock and the Howe
were just cloth-of-gold with the mary-buds ; and as we neared
the bridge all travellers know, we could see beneath the woods
on the Howe, as yet not fully leaved, a veil of white anemone,
woven, it seemed, into a lucent damask, and broidered with rich
Like a star upon the deep-brown amber of the stream (for there
had been rain in the night and the pools were discoloured)
flashed by a water-ousel, and settling on a stone, ducked and
curtsied, and showed us her little white bib and tucker over
and over again, as she bobbed and bobbed her salutation to us.
" Otter's noway n'ar if Bessie Doucker's about," said
a yeoman. " Bessie's vara shy of much disturbance, whether
of man or beast."
" Bessie Doucker ! " I said. " What in the name
of fortune is Bessie Doucker? "
" We ca' them dippers Bessies hereabout ; they git Bessie
Doucker and nowt else," my friend replied.
" But whist ! That's Ringwood, he's hit drag, he has
howivver ! and seest tha' he's gaaing reet across owr for
Helvellyn Beck theeraway." ; The yeoman was right we
dashed down to the river bank, and how we got across the Bure
is more than I mind. Soon we were knee-deep in marigolds,
splashing away for the beck that flows down from Brown Cove
Crags, and leaves the smithy beneath the Howe that Wordsworth's
' rosy-cheeked schoolboys' have made immortal, and makes a
straight course by ash and sycamore tree to join the Bure just
the low side of Smethwaite Bridge.
The otter had been too swift for the hounds. A splash down
stream, a flash of a brown body that looked like a seal's cub,
a cat, a beaver, and gigantic water-vole in one, was all I saw
; and away the hunt dog, man, otter-hound, terrier, yeoman,
gamekeeper, huntsman, and whip tore down the beck towards the
I made for the bridge the most picturesque, but the worst
bridge for its particular purpose between Keswick and
Windermere. Who does not know that bridge ?—how many hearts
have leapt into how many mouths as to the cry of " Sit
hard, gentlemen ! " the coachy has dashed at the narrow,
crooked, low-parapeted viaduct, and gone with a crack of his
whip at a hand gallop up the steep pitch beyond 1.
this was written, a new bridge has been built at this spot, and
travellers have gained security though they have lost the
Running round I stood on a kind of miniature escarpment beneath
a long-tasselled flowery poplar, and saw the hounds dive into
the dark pool, struggle up against the stream, then turn, and
with their mouths full of water-stifled music, allow themselves
to be swept back to the bank.
Then a fleck of silver whiteness rose under the bridge, and a
cry of " Forrard on ! " came through the archway, and
the dogs dashed and swam on forward, and their melody died
away. I stayed on the bridge, with good view of the river pools
either side, and scarce had the hounds owned the drag in the
meadow below Bridge-End House, and seemed to be going away
beyond the stepping-stones and the tiny-arched upper bridge in
the direction of Raven Crag and the Thirlmere thickets, than I
noticed bubbles rise ' beaded bubbles,' not ' winking at the
brim,' but breaking in long line across the still backwater of
the current. Another moment, and a shadowy something that
seemed almost like a black fish might have been a seal shot
through the pool, and a brown body, swift as light, hustled
along under the over-hanging brow of the bank, and with a flop
dived into the pool higher up.
I confess I had no heart to halloo for the hounds ; my
sympathies were with the ' game.' It was, as one analysed
one's feelings after, not the chance of being in at the death
of an otter that had brought one out into the glories of a May
dawn, but the chance of a sight of one of these ancient
dwellers from primitive times in the old valley of St. John's.
And doubly serene did great Helvellyn seem, and the Naddle
Fells shone out in sweeter beauty, as back by the rippling Bure
and the otter's ' beald' among the rocks near Low Bridge we
passed with certainty of that otter's safety. Thence we turned
by Fornside and the Green, and went along under Castle Rock to
the quaint old farm upon the fellside known as Stanah.
There, where the water leaps down from Helvellyn's shoulder in
ceaseless cataract, and sends upward such rainbows that the
miners, as they pass up the zigzag path hard by the ghyll to go
to their work at Glenndding mines on the Monday morning, are
more than comforted, we too found comfort and guid cheer for a
As we sat and cracked on over our few poddish in a cosy old
kitchen, and enjoyed a downright good ' rust,' as the saying
is, in the easy-chair, the farm lad came in to tell us that
"dogs had spoken till anudder otter, and gone gaily weal
intil middle o' lake efther it." But lack of boats on
Thirlmere had frustrated the hunters' aims, and with some
reluctance the hounds had been recalled by way of Dalehead
Pasture, and were now going down road to Threlkeld. I sauntered
out, and followed down the Vale of St. John's homewards and
station-wards, " in silent thankfulness that still
I confess the freshness of the morning and all the first
excitement of the chase had passed away. The day was much more
ordinary in its general appearance now. I had seen skies bend
just as sweetly over Naddle Fell ; Blencathra had seemed a
hundred times before as full of witchery and shadow. Yes ;
there is a difference between the ways of sun and air at seven
o'clock of a May morning and at noon for us slug-a-beds that
words cannot describe.
But as home we trudged, with the pack twinkling along the dusty
road before us, we blessed the otter and the hounds for that
sense of " all the beauty of a common
dawn " they had been the means of giving us ; blessed
them for glimpses of dewy meadow-lands and May morning joy in
an enchanted vale, and vowed to meet the huntsman at his
favourite haunt, Oozebridge, below Lake Bassenthwaite, at the
earliest hour of the earliest day the Master of the Hounds
should next appoint.
A Ramblers Note-Book at the English Lakes
The Rev. H.D.Rawnsley
Pub. James MacLehose & Sons, Glasgow 1902