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Ancient sport lives on in Cheltenham



By Peter Neville-Hadley

Meridian Writers’ Group

CHELTENHAM, England—One of the last surviving sites of the ancient sport of deer coursing, Lodge Park, about 25 kilometres east of Cheltenham, has itself to be hunted down. Despite maps and instructions, my approach on winding lanes was unintentionally cautious and circuitous, but I finally caught sight of the property down a long, straight and very narrow road, marking the edge of the grand Sherborne Estate it had once served.

The compact, two-storey hunting lodge of 1634, constructed from the warm yellow stone of the region and now prettily dappled with lichens, was described as “built at the great Cost and Charges of a noble true hearted Gentleman, more for the pleasure of his worthy Friends, then his owne profit.”

This was one John “Crump” Dutton, who was given permission by Oliver Cromwell to take bucks and roes from nearby Wychwood Forest to fill the park he had constructed on a swathe of otherwise useless wasteland.

The grounds and lodge are today owned by the conservation charity the National Trust, but “Crump” Dutton was also public-spirited in his day and he made the facility available to his countrymen — or at least to those rich enough to indulge in such expensive pleasures:

“It is agreed upon that the keeper shall put up his Deer at a days warning for any Gentleman to run his Dogs paying his Fees which is half a Crown a Dog and twelve pence to the Slipper for a breathing Course.”

Coursing is hunting by sight rather than smell, and the principle entertainment of deer-coursing was to race a pair of dogs against each other for gambling purposes, not to obtain something for the pot. A “breathing Course” left the deer alive. Half a crown in those days would be more than $25 today, a very handsome sum of money for the time.

The “Slipper” was the man who held the dogs in a special double collar allowing them to be released at the same time. The winner was the one closest to the deer at the time it leapt a small ditch opposite the lodge, before leaping to safety across a second ditch too wide for the dogs to manage.

Deer-coursing gets a revival each October when modern deer-hounds are let slip in a recreation of the ancient sport, but in pursuit of a mechanical lure in what is described as “the Formula One of 1634.” Dogs are brought in from as far away as Switzerland, and many participants dress in 17th-century costume.

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