Hunting The Boot
In the early 1980s, by means of a circuitous route in career and change in geographical location, my father came to be living close to Windsor Great Park. One of the lesser known attractions of this Royal Park is its resident pack of Bloodhounds. He became associated with the pack and was, for a while, one of its Joint Masters.
Bloodhounds have been used to track humans for centuries. They represent the sleuth element of the canine world and have a bumbling seriousness about them which sets them apart and which engenders both warmth and respect for their uncanny abilities.
One of two, its sister pack was under military control in Germany - and like its German counterpart, the Windsor Forest bloodhounds provided sport and recreation for many. Riders and walkers across the length and breadth of Windsor Great Park spent many a thrilling (and spilling) day following the bloodhounds as they bayed their steady but sure way from start to finish. I was invited on a number of occasions to become their quarry.
On the first such occasion I was full of trepidation. I was not exactly put at ease either by the grins and knowing chortles of those responsible for my safety. "Hope you can climb trees, old son," I remember my father saying. "Don't worry," declared another, "when they catch you they just lick you to death." I'm not sure I felt any the easier for that.
Thus it began.
Time to set off. "Where's your rag, quarry?" demanded someone. My rag? What rag? What had not been explained to me was that I was supposed to supply a piece of cloth imprinted with my unique and unmistakable scent signature on it. I soon discovered that it was usually a shirt or similar - slept in the night before. I had not slept in it the night before - but it certainly wasn't a clean shirt I was wearing because I knew there was going to be a deal of mud along the way - so they immediately had the shirt off my back.
"You can do your boots on the other side of that far hedgerow. We'll lay hounds on there. You have a start of about twenty five minutes." Do my boots. I knew what that meant. I'd been primed for that one. Actually, males find it quite easy to accomplish this. It usually happens naturally after several pints of beer and is the result of a plot between a poor aim and a warped sense of distance. Urine on the boots is about as unique and unmistakable a scent signature as you can get. For those of you in danger of having to run from bloodhounds for real, empty your bladder way before you think about committing the crime in the first place.
The field at some of the big meets could be over one hundred and fifty horses strong with a pleasing mixture of adults and children - some of the latter for all the world like Thellwell kids - and the quality of horse flesh ranged from the beautifully turned out blood horse to the stumpy (and grumpy) back yard hack. Occasionally special, private lines were run in a closed area of the Park and special guests would ride the course set by some lucky (or unlucky as the case may be) quarry. The important aspect of the line was to ensure that the trail covered a good mixture of open ground and obstacles so that riders had an opportunity to stretch their horses and themselves. Some speed, some careful manipulating of gates, a jump or five and an overall feeling of cross-country travel ... the sight and sound of the bloodhounds ahead and a good, sweaty horse at the end of an hour's good riding. Marvellous.
For the quarry, however it's quite a different perspective. Without a doubt, it is the most surreal experience. On the one hand, it doesn't matter one fig if the hounds catch up with you; you're not in danger and it's not life and death and yet an unconscious mechanism kicks in that must have its roots somewhere deep down in the primeval gene pool. Once the twenty five minutes is up and you hear them laying on a few fields away you know you've not covered enough distance or made enough turns and leaps to keep them off you for more than a few minutes. There's this niggling nightmare that you'll be cornered within five minutes and, as the Master and field thunder up after galloping for all of two minutes, you'll get such a pitiful collective look from them that you'll wish the bloodhounds would lick you to death.
However, on that first occasion, I was spared any such embarrassment. It took well over the hour for the pack to catch up with me and that was only because I waited for them for at least fifteen minutes at the foot of a tree because I was physically broken!
From my vantage point I could see them at some distance off and it was a pleasure to watch them working the line. There were stops and starts, checks and re-casts. Then the cry would go up and they'd be off again. The lead hound, a wise old bitch, gave up trying to struggle over one gap I'd used to cross a ditch. Instead, she walked round through the open gate and picked up on the scent again at the point where some of the younger, less canny hounds were still tumbling down the bank.
I had often been to the kennels and helped out with the chores; spoken to and petted many of the hounds that were in the field that day. It took me all my self-esteem to remember that bloodhounds have a keener sense of smell than sight. It was almost humiliating to be approached by the first two, stared at and then sniffed at close quarters when I knew full well I'd actually walked one of them out on the lead the day before. The look of - "Oh, it's you. I didn't match your face with your urine ..." - was a bit galling to say the least.
Within a matter of seconds the rest of the pack were up and I was surrounded by a sea of sweaty, doggy-breathed, slobbering glee. The final irony was not that I was licked into submission but that I was targeted by one young dog who lifted his leg at my feet and left his own unique and unmistakable scent signature on my boots.