"An Otter Hunt In North Wales"
published in "The Graphic", February 23, 1889
Llanfair-Talhairn is a picturesque little village in the heart of West Denbighshire. It possesses a pretty church, a pretty inn, pretty houses, and, best of all, a pretty prattling river which a pretty bridge spans. "Tomorrow morning, at half-past ten," our faithful Irish retainer had brought word to us the night before, and exactly at half-past ten, on that clear, bright, September morning, we drove up the incline of Llanfair bridge. The famous pack of otter hounds, of which Major the Hon. Geoffrey Hill is the Master, is well known in all the districts of Wales and the South of Ireland where the wily otter can find a refuge and a livelihood. A fine picture that group on the bridge makes -- the whips and members of the hunt in their blue serge costumes, red stockings, and caps, the tall commanding form of the Master, with beard grizzly as an otter's hide, the hounds eagerly howling for the fray, and the heterogeneous mixture of humanity, like so many camp-followers of an army, which always finds time to follow the hounds.
All the gamekeepers within a ten-mile radius have assembled, and with the ne'er-do-weels who are out of work, and who don't want any when there is a chance of sport, eagerly discuss the various "points" of the hounds, and the prospect of a good run. The Master moves to a path that leads down to the river's bank, the pack, whips, and all of us follow and we are off down the stream at a pace that would do credit to a professional sprinter. And after a slight delay we strike the first bridge, Pont-y-Geirion, along with the rest of the field. A five minutes' breather gives time for a look round to note the effect of the five miles' run. The flushed faces of the ladies, their gay apparel now drabbled with mud and water, the total absence of conversation on the part of the men, clearly tell that the pace is not one which they care to joke about. We start on again, for the Master means to have sport, if he has to go fifteen miles for it. We are well up this time, and are all eagerly hoping for the welcome music which tells of a find.
"Rusticus expectat dum defluat amnis." Yes, he was standing on the bank heedlessly contemplating the stream. A sudden chorus from the hounds, who now completely surround him, rudely rouses him from his cogitation, and Rusticus in his terror misses his footing, and takes an involuntary bath. He will not in a hurry again commit the unpardonable offence of heading the hounds. But there is a "find," the "drag" is warm, and down the river we go, the pace getting faster and faster. Through bog and brake, through mud and fen, spurred by that excitement which those only know who have experienced it, we follow on.
Presently there is a pause, then in full cry the hounds make for a mill-stream which flows out of the river to meet it again a mile below. Back again they come right across that meadow to the main stream. The shrill blast of the Master's horn and the continued music of the dogs plainly tell the least initiated that the quarry has passed here lately. As suddenly as it began the baying ceases, our hearts sink within us, for the scent is lost.
Pont-y-Ddol, with its quaint double arch, is the next bridge. Here sandwiches and biscuits make their appearance, and right well are they appreciated. A draught of the cool, clear water puts fresh life into all - perhaps not more than the welcome whisper which now reaches us that just before our arrival an otter was seen by those on the bridge stealthily stealing down stream. Our gamekeeper, bronzed by many a summer's sun, gravely declares that he is making for the rock a mile below, where in the spring a grizzly brood were reared. Another, envious of the kudos this statement arouses, boldly avers that he saw three fighting there in the early dawn. We press on, but not for long before a loud "Tally Ho" announces to the world that the quarry has been seen. Stragglers close up, forgetting their weariness in the excitement of the moment. Now he has sought refuge in a hole in the bank. Old "Chieftain" spots it, and at once the whole pack are around, tearing up the earth in their efforts to dislodge him. "Tally Ho!" again, this time a hundred yards below. The old keeper was right - he is making for that hole in the rock, and the pool which is his home. At last we reach it, and everyone crowds around. Off he goes again under the water. "Tally Ho!" He has taken to the land. The hounds and field rush after him; through the water frantically plunge staid men of the law - bankers and business men, parsons and painters - only to find that grand old "Ralley-Wood" has headed the otter back into the river, but at the expense of that purple stream now trickling down from his grey muzzle. Up and down we go, through and through the fiver, we are thoroughly wet now, but what care we? "To land," is again the cry. "Didn't you see him spring from that rock and disappear in the water," and "He's nearly done," the knowing ones say. "Tally ho." Just up the stream, and we feel that one last effort for life is being made. There he goes, the water is quite shallow, and we can plainly see him. The hounds are close up, the crowd shouts, the horns blow, and a deafening chorus from the dogs, and there is one otter less in the Elwy. Twenty-one pounds he weighs, his tail, pads, and head are severed, and then we realise fully the origin of the phrase "Gone to the dogs."
W. D. E.
"Rusticus expectat dum defluat amnis" - trans. A peasant waits on the shore for the river to flow away - Horace