A Dartmoor Day

It was one of those days when an awful lot happened.

On that day, for example, Sarah and I saved about five or six foxhounds from drowning. In front of only one witness, the crabby and sometimes disgracefully ill-mannered old Lord Carnock.

 

Sheepstor
Sheepstor

On the same day, my little brave pony, Chiquita drank a bottle of beer and felt a lot better for it.

That was the day, too, when one of my childhood heroes, the formidable and possibly androgynous Mrs Douglas-Pennant, the Master of the Dartmoor Hounds was found guilty of dereliction of duty and cowardice, by a committee of men who weren’t there, because it was too cold for them. And summarily sacked.

On that day too, Chiquita’s hooves rattled so much from the cold, on the hill outside the Two Bridges Hotel, that six strong men had to pick the poor little thing up and carry her into the horse box.

Oh dear, that was quite a day. No wonder I’ve never forgotten it.

On the evening of the same day, when only the few of us had seen and witnessed what happened, there was a Hunt Ball. And mischievous old Lord Carnock, whose father had been Foreign Secretary and whose brother was Harold Nicholson, managed, without Lady Carnock having an inkling what was going on, to send Sarah a bottle of Scent for saving the hounds’ lives. And I, who suffered the same torment in the freezing waters of the West Dart as Sarah, got nothing at all.

Let’s start with the weather, because if it hadn’t been so cold, none of the rest would have happened. ‘Too cold for snow,’ Miss Hawker said, shivering her bleak dewdrop’t nose. Colonel Dewhurst, ex-Royal Marine and a bullying, blustering, old man, on a horse built like a medieval knight’s, nodded sagely but said not a word. He was scared of Mrs. Douglas Pennant.   Most people were. Only a few of us, too young to have caught the rough edge of her tongue, were so in awe of her, she could do no wrong.

As a simple precaution, I always called her ‘Sir.’ Just in case.

The wind was screaming straight out of the North. It came down the valley of the West Dart, past Wistman’s Wood and from many miles beyond there. You could feel its fury and spite as it spat and whistled down off the high moor, where the bog we called the Gut used to swallow horses.

From Fur Tor, it howled and froze and out beyond there, over Cranmere Pool and Okehampton and the North Devon coast. Over Hartland Point it came, over Lundy and Pembrokeshire and down the Irish Sea, by way of the Mull of Kintyre and across the Hebrides.

Iceland and the frozen Arctic wastes had formed and shaped this vicious thing and hurled it like a icy arrow straight down the valley of the West Dart and into the little tree sheltered car park of the Two Bridges Hotel.

Not more than twenty of us huddled there, wondering, hoping Mrs. Douglas Pennant would call the whole thing off and send us all home. But she didn’t, she gulped her glass of Cherry Brandy down, nodded at Piper, the Whipper-In, sounded the ‘Off’ and set us few mad ones to a day’s hunting in the coldest weather I’d ever know in the few years of my life, so far.

‘Chilly day, Colonel,’ she muttered at Colonel Clark who sat drawing greedily on a final Turkish cigarette on his fine looking thoroughbred.   He was always over-horsed, ‘too much money, not enough brains,’ they used to say.

Mrs Douglas Pennant had a stammer, which was why, maybe, she didn’t speak much. She managed, though, a dry smile in my direction, though no words. She seemed to have a soft spot for me and a couple of my friends. There were others out that day, too but I can’t remember well who they were.

Buttoned and collared up and with our string gloves already sodden and frozen, we set off at a trot, up the slight hill, crossed the main Moretonhamstead road, left the old quarry on our right and barged our way through the moor gate and out into the open moor.

We hadn’t gone more than half a mile further up the track when things started to go wrong. Mrs Douglas-Pennant put the hounds into Wistman’s Wood and they found a fox at once and set off, howling down the hill and across the clittered rock till they found the river.

Most of the hounds took the river in a single bound and charged up the steep opposite side, driven mad by the scent of the new fresh fox. But, not all of them. Some of the younger ones, not knowing quite how to judge distance, tried to swim across or, misjudging the distance to the far side, landed badly and tumbled backwards.

The Dart, normally a gurgling, babbling, whispering baby in the earliest days of its headlong rush down to the sea at Dartmouth had become a raging, evil tempered, furious maniac. Swollen by days of heavy rain, a gentle moorland stream had turned into an insane torrent.

Up there, on the horizon, the Gut was trying to push all that rain out of the way down this little narrow valley and there simply wasn’t enough room. Flecks of orange foam curled around the backwaters. The torrent was trying to push giant granite boulders out of its way, as if they were mere pebbles and the simplest of little twists and turns had become fearsome waterfalls.

And the noise. Against that barrier of sound, you had to shout to the person on the horse beside you. The river was roaring.

Then we saw it, Sarah and I. Under one of the waterfalls, five or six hounds were struggling helplessly, coming up, going down, disappearing, reappearing, vanishing for ages, then being there again, for a second, then being pushed under again.

They were drowning and no-one was there, apart from us to see it.

In a second and a moment of selfless madness, we, both of us, leapt from our horses, flung the reins to the astonished Lord Carnock and jumped into the torrent, and started pulling the hounds out. We were up to our chests and not caring. Not then, though later we did. It was all over in a second. The rescued hounds, flung back onto the bank, simply tried again, jumped over the river and were gone, without even a backwards glance. They had the scent of fox in their young nostrils and were gone, streaming up the steep far hill to join the rest of the pack.

Sarah and I clambered out and as we retrieved our reins. Carnock, reverting to role of Captain Nicholson, Royal Navy, retired, which he was before the title came his way, barked ‘you two bloody idiots, back to the hotel, now, get those clothes off you backs.   Now Go!’ And he meant it.

After that, the memory fades, details crash into each other, cancel each other out, contradict each other. One time, Sarah’s mother was there, another time, old Betty Hawker played a role, sometimes, as I now recall, some of this happened on a different day altogether, another cold one, at other times it all happened in one continuous sequence.

Shock must have played a part, what we now call ‘Hypothermia’ another. Though our young fit teenaged bodies didn’t know it, we were two very dangerously sick little bodies as galloped back to the hotel and some kind of shelter.

I wonder if it was that day that little dainty Chiquita’s hooves started to rattle shiver on the road outside the Two Bridges Hotel. She wouldn’t or couldn’t more like, scramble up the ramp into the horse box. Then some old timer, seeing what was wrong and summoned from the bar where all day drinking took place, muttered that a bottle of warmed up beer would do the trick and a few moments later a bottle was being forced between the little thing’s rattling teeth, her head tilted back and than she stopped her shivering and took the ramp like a lamb.

Or was it that, after the bottle of beer, she still remained rooted to the tarmac and more drinkers were called for till they were six and between them they lifted the by now passive creature into the box? I just don’t now remember. But both of those things happened. That I do know. But when? I’m not so sure about that.

That evening there was a hunt ball, or a children’s dance, or something. Mrs. Douglas-Pennant wasn’t there but that wasn’t odd. Imagining her in a sequined ball gown is taking imagination a stage too far. But, somehow, a rumour started on that or some later day told that she had been sacked for abandoning the hounds to her Whipper-in and going back to the hotel for a bath when she should have stayed up on the moor.

I don’t know, I really don’t now remember what happened but what I do know is that in that or some similar way, a childhood hero of mine was knocked over and men were shown to have the feet of clay, I later came to expect of them. After all, they weren’t there that day. I was.

1999

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