11 years ago I was introduced by a dear friend to Alston Hare Week which has become a regular feature ever since in my October calendar. Beaglers from all over the British Isles descend on Alston, some for the whole week and some like me for just a few days. I am not sure I could actually survive the whole week with two meets most days and I truly admire the stamina of those who manage all the meets for the whole week and all the entertainment too. From my very first time I was made to feel welcome and the company of like minded folk from the various visiting packs and the friendship that exists among hunting people from both the locality and the visitors was amazing.
Alston has been running for over 30 years and is hosted by the Weardale Beagles, many of the initial packs that attended then still return now. It’s another great reason for going to watch hounds from different packs performing on the Cumbrian Fells. The area as you would imagine is outstandingly beautiful, the views from and of the fells so breathtaking that even without hunting it would be a joy to be there. But I never forget that whilst we the visitors admire the beauty, the reality of making a living from it would be a different prospect and I admire and respect the farmers who do enormously.
The light changes the colours of the hills quite dramatically in just the blink of an eye, the clouds race over and give way to sun, then rain can descend and it can feel pretty bleak. It can be so challenging to dress for the weather and get it right! You need to pack every kind of clothing for outdoors and preferably two of each although the hotels have good drying rooms for coping with dripping guests and their clothes. Fog is obviously the worst weather as you see nothing. The meet goes on, hounds hunt, but very little is seen and fog distorts sound too, it can also dangerously disorientate so it’s better to stick with a path and not wander into the great unknown to get lost.
Alston has a wonderful appeal to all ages and has a rich diversity of characters who appear normal by day but come the night of the hunt sing show off their talents to the eager audience. We get old hunting songs about our quarry, terriers, huntsmen and of course hounds. Rhymes and ditties flow, some serious, some humorous and very un-politically correct and old tunes with new adapted verses which everyone loves. The singing and lubrication of throats continue well into the night, the older brigade gradually creeping off to their beds leaving the most ardent party goers still going strong. On another night a game of dominoes is played in a knockout tournament with much light-hearted banter and social intercourse taking place during the evening. Even novice players like me can make it through the first round picking the right dominoes in the luck of the draw. The final is played in an atmosphere of intense excitement helped along by plenty of liquid refreshment. The Farmers Draw ends the evening with those over whose land we have hunted entered into a prize draw, with a chance to win a bottle of whisky or port. It is good to see the famers being so appreciated, without their support our sport would not be possible.
From the start of the week to the end, eager Beaglers assemble at each meet hoping for plenty of scent and hound music to reverberate round the fells. The followers make an immense sight as they stretch out over the hills, some keeping to the easier route of roads and tracks, the fitter more energetic striding off behind the hounds over uncertain ground. It’s always uphill to start with so the followers soon get strung out but you will not be alone whichever path you choose to follow, there will be fellow beaglers and conversation abounds between friends old and new. On the fells a hidden danger lurks, ready to claim an unsuspecting victim who steps in the wrong spot. The bogs are abundant and can be anywhere, hidden by reed beds, tussocks of grasses and within the heather, waiting for the boot to go in and be swallowed up! One year I saw a lady go in both feet up to her waist, it took two strong men to pull her out, luckily her wellingtons stayed on but she was wet through and a little scared by the ordeal. A stout stick is good insurance against falling in them and for generally aiding the passage up and down the uneven terrain, in fact it’s one of the essentials to pack. I am always puzzled too as the higher you go the ground often becomes wetter and more bog-ridden as if defying gravity. As you get more familiar with the territory it does become easier to recognise where not to tread but getting complacent can lead to a wet foot or worse so it’s best to be watchful!
The hounds are always very eager whichever pack is hunting that meet, looking forward to their pursuit of the trails and working together to produce some good sport. Apart from our host pack the hounds are on unfamiliar ground but they do not seem to be concerned. Their job is to hunt and like us that keen sense of optimism is very apparent at the start, they look to their huntsman for that signal to be off and as more followers gather and the time draws near to go, that anticipation becomes intense. How much pleasure they give the field cannot be measured but it is one of the main reasons so many people follow hounds on foot. The visiting packs are kennelled at out-lying farms with B & B for the hunt staff available, many of which have been supporters of the Alston week since its start.
The livestock that graze the hills managing the vegetation as only stock can, usually stare at us unperturbed at our presence. With the sheep especially, most of their day is spent grazing on the grass that sustains them in the harsh climate. Hound activity does not trouble them too much although they do all congregate together and watch, sometimes looking very bemused. It is always imperative to close gates and not to knock over walls when climbing over them, there are already enough walls in bad repair without making matters worse. To survive off the land as the hill farmers have to, commands the greatest respect from those of us who have the privilege of enjoying walking over their property for our pleasure. For the few days we are in the area the scenery is breathtaking but to earn a living from it as these farmers do is a different prospect indeed.
The dinner on the Thursday evening is the focal point of the week when we all converge at the main hotel in Alston and usually over 100 diners sit down to enjoy a four course supper and the evening. All the visiting packs and their followers are present with the locals organising the raffle and auction which follows supper and the main aim is to extract as much money from people for each item as possible. Things reach fever pitch with husbands and wives often bidding against each other for lots, which causes much hilarity as you can imagine. Most of the items are generously donated for this and the raffle and there is always a huge range to bid for and raffle prizes vary from bottles of booze, beagling china and sporting prints to walking sticks and so much more. In fact something to suit everyone and is always hugely popular. Once the auction and raffle are finished the singing starts again with the usual songs that flowed from the night before this time with a bigger audience. Always a memorable evening and thoroughly enjoyed by all who attend, it has to be the highlight of week apart from the hunting.
So we have all had a great week and it’s time to leave Alston and return home but what a huge boost to the local economy this little area has had. Hotels, B & B’s, rented cottages all benefitting from people using them as are the shops, pubs and the local garage. My take home must is Cumberland sausage and black pudding from the local butcher in Alston which is distributed to family members and in much demand, I only have to mention where I am going for a few days and the requests flood in. Several years ago someone totalled up how much was spent during the week at all the places and it was not far off a three figure sum. I can’t put a value on what the week provides for me, it is a truly unique experience and I’m sure the same for others who return year after year. A most enjoyable few days, pretty exhausting, but one I would not want to miss.
Former Master and Huntsman of the De Burgh and North Essex Basset Hounds