The last great lurcherman.
This story was reprinted from Gary Hosker's Website
I drove north the three hundred long miles from my comfortable air-conditioned London office to interview a recluse, a self- styled eccentric, a man above men, a lurcherman. Name, John Higginbottom.
My journey started with a long drive north, then north and north again along the MI for what seemed an age. As the flat lands of the south turned first to gently rolling meadows of Northamptonshire and then to the hills of Derbyshire I drove ever onwards, finally arriving in the windswept dales of Yorkshire; a land where, if it's not raining one instinctively knows it must be snowing.
High limestone and millstone grit fells clad in an ever-present mist seemingly sweep up to the very base of the stratosphere. This North of England that lies on the wrong side of a theoretical line known as the north-south divide; a North of dark satanic cotton mills that belch black smoke out of imposing, discoloured and misshapen chimneys, chimneys reaching almost as high as the fells that surround them, blending with the landscape yet at the same time destroying it. A North of coal mines and colliers, of iron foundries and smelters, where work- hardened men lead lives so arduous their circumstances could best be described as an existence.
Yet, leave this industrial landscape that was once the pulsating heart of a proud British Empire and drive only a few short miles through the bitter driving rain and take a side road (track would be a more accurate description for metalled roads have yet to come to this part of Britain) signposted 'to the edge of the world' and one encounters an altogether unique England.
An England so blissfully isolated from the twentieth century that one feels encapsulated in an age long past.
Sheep hardened by many a long winter shelter behind 'dry' stone walls from the ever present torrent of rain, where men still scrape a meagre living for themselves behind horse and plough, cultivating crops on half an acre of boulder-strewn land, subsistence living that is this England. Yes this can truly be called a place on the edge of the world.
I took this path to find lurcherman John Higginbottom, John, a giant of a man with ruddy complexion, short greying hair, a beard of flaming red, and hands like the proverbial size ten shovel. Hands that were cut, bruised and contorted, he told me, through many a long desperate dig, rescuing his battle-hardened terrier 'Tootsie' from life or death conflicts with rabbit and other subterranean creatures, this reclusive, almost shy man refused to talk about.
John, a youthful forty-seven, a taciturn man who still retains most of his own teeth, was brought up in the Midlands and is a spot welder by trade. I asked him why? Why does any man try and live here, all alone pushing himself to the very limits of endurance in order to eke out a shallow existence in this particularly inhospitable place, with only the bark of his seven lurcher dogs and sound of the occasional crow for company. “Have you ever spot welded?” replied John philosophically. He sat quite still reading Kipling to himself.
Breaking the silence I enquired about the breeding of his battle-hardened terrier, Tootsie. “That,” explained John, ”is a Higginbottom terrier, the culmination of a twenty-five year selective breeding programme based on the Yorkshire terrier with just a dash of King Charles spaniel for temperament.”
Feeling that I had in some small way penetrated his rock-hard exterior and socialized myself with John, I asked, nay begged, to accompany him on one of his famous hunting expeditions - expeditions, on which I was informed, he uses his homogeneous pack of Higginbottom lurchers to hunt all legal quarry. For John truly is the last of the self-confessed great hunters.
John fell silent, gritted his teeth, pursed his lips, and went into deep thought, almost a trance as if he were going through a metamorphosis or having an out-of-body experience.
Then as suddenly as he had entered the trance he snapped back to reality, kicked his dog and snapped: “Yes, the mad are in God's keeping. Tomorrow morning, crack of ten thirty, not a minute later and I hope for your sake you have a high attention span.”
Glancing in my direction before walking into his meagre shanty home, shared with his pack of Higginbottom hounds, John continued “I insist upon complete and utter obedience from both my dogs and those who chose to follow me.” Fixing me with those steely blue eyes, he gave a penetrating stare, a stare that I would come to know as his force 7 stare. I felt as the Apostles must have felt on the banks of sea of Galilee. I was in awe of this demigod.
Next morning we set off across the fields at a quarter-past- eleven precisely. I asked John why he was late. “Time has no relevance here on the edge of the world,” replied he, wiping the sleep from his eyes.
'Ferrets, ferrets I must have ferrets,' he whispered gently. Suddenly he opened a hutch door, and plunged his gigantic hand into a cage of these ferocious little carnivores. Five ferrets bit deep into the flesh of each of his massive digits -- yet did this man flinch? Not he.
With blood trickling down his forearm he throttled each ferret in turn in order to prise them from his fingers. "Aren't you concerned about infection' I asked “No,” said he “The poker's in the fire. I'll cauterize the wounds when we return.” I glanced ominously at the cumulus clouds gathering overhead, said a silent prayer and thought – ‘If we return.’
With a steady stride we set out into the wilderness. At our heels trotted his seven lurchers’ beardie collie lurchers these, some of the best in the world (or so I was told) bred by David Ballcock. As with Tootsie, his Higginbottom terrier, these lurchers too were the result of an intensive twenty - five year breeding programme; a programme so genetically calculated as to make the breeding of thoroughbred racehorses or racing greyhounds pale into insignificance.
“John, why haven't you channeled your scientifically based genetic theories into creating the ultimate Waterloo Cup winning greyhound or a Derby winning race-horse?' Once again he went pale and then into a trance before replying: “Because my theories don't work.”
Suddenly a rabbit ran from under our feet and John turned to his dogs and yelled, 'Mayhem, go!' All seven dogs gave chase opening up in glorious song. 'Yip, yip, yip, yip,' they sang. After a life or death run of five hundred and forty-six yards two feet seven-and-a-half inches, the rabbit struggled into the relative safety of its warren.
Higginbottom astounded me with his ability to judge distance so precisely. My astonishment must have shown on my face, for Higginbottom said modestly: “Oh, I forgot to mention, I’m the best judge of distance in the world.”
Six lurcher dogs stood over the hole 'marking' as John called it, while he explained in some detail the complexities of the chase or 'course' may be a more accurate description for such a distance, telling me how each rabbit must be given sufficient law and how, he had calculated, in a couple of years time he would have the best rabbit match-dog.
One lurcher, however, lay panting on the ground halfway between ourselves and the other Higginbottom lurchers, unable to move or catch breath. “Is this dog suffering from hybrid vigour?” I asked. With a look of total bewilderment Higginbottom turned on me, his steely blue eyes glinting in the midday sun. “I value that dog at ten thousand pound,” said he. “But why,” I queried. “Because that lurcher has the intelligence to know when he's beat, thereby saving valuable energy for the next grueling encounter with the most formidable of all quarry, the rabbit! No longdog in the world has comparable intelligence.” “Looks knackered,' said I, and walked on.
We left 'Myrtle' to recover and approached the six other Higginbottom lurchers that lay panting all about the warren. John pulled a ferret from his 'poacher’s pocket' and secured some electronic device or other around the ferrets neck. (There is story behind the locator, its invention and John Higginbottom, which will appear in later revelations from the diaries of Miss Wilhelmina Wordspinner.) Slowly, hesitantly, the ferret entered the rabbit’s subterranean refuge, but turned and came back to the entrance, all the while peeping in cuckoo clock fashion, in and out, in and out of the hole. John said this ferret had been trained by him to be especially wary of strangers (Higginbottom can train almost any animal to a very high standard).
Then as the ferret's head disappeared into the hole for the twenty-ninth time, John kicked in a clod of earth behind it. We waited five, six, seven minutes but nothing was seen or heard of either rabbit or ferret.
John pulled a small box from one of the numerous pockets in his coat (each pocket filled with hunting essentials -- tape recorder, camera, stopwatch). I was informed this box would locate the ferret, and if the ferret it had managed to find its quarry, the rabbit, we would dig down to the combatants.
As Higginbottom swept the ground in a methodical fashion, the box burst to life, first with a loud crackle then a burst of the BBC's World Service. “Does this mean you have located your relentless little hunter and rabbit deep within the very bowels of the earth?”
John slapped his forehead with the palm of his hand, fell to his knees and in a gasping, strained voice said: “Ughhh, the locator's interfering with mi pacemaker.”
After John had made an almost full recovery we walked deeper into the hills, the weather deteriorating with every step of his enormous feet, while he recounted his many and varied hunting stories; stories so unbelievable I said he should write a book. How, thinks I, has one man managed to cram so much hunting into just one short lifetime?
John then started to tell me of his passion for collating data and statistics, and how bullshit baffles brains. I stood listening intently to the great man as he told me how, in his opinion, he was the greatest authority on the lurcher ever to have graced the face of the earth and how many young people regarded him as a latter-day 'Grizzly Adams'.
From nowhere, a crippled sheep sprang. Instantly without a word of command the lurchers gave chase. After a course that lasted thirty-eight point seven five seconds (John always times each gallop with a stopwatch) all seven dogs eventually came to terms with the sheep. John gave a great hysterical cry, begging me not to use my camera, as this would impair the lurchers' hunting ability. Calling each dog by name, then turning to look sheepishly back in my direction, he shouted : “Kill!” and his lurchers delivered the sheep into Abraham's bosom.
“That's the kind of obedience I insist upon,” said a blood-covered John as he fought his way into the mêlée to rescue a leg of mutton from the snapping jaws of his hellhounds.
We turned for home, cold and wet and dejected, my mind at its lowest ebb. John saw my bedraggled state and showing his concern for the weaker sex, he began to sing a hunting song. “Do you ken John Higginbottom at the break of day, do you ken Jon Higginbottom as your hounds view away, do you ken…..”
Back at the cottage that night, refreshed by a hot drink of cocoa made from ewe's milk, we dined as the Saxon kings of old, on the rescued leg of mutton John had so courageously saved. He talked endlessly of his many adventures with both rat and rabbit.
I asked John if he had any burning ambitions left to fulfill. “I'd like the dogs to catch a rabbit,” said he, casually tossing a tidbit to one of the lurchers that lay contented at his feet. After dinner we sat, John reading a book while he puffed at his short clay - pipe, blowing the most enormous blue smoke rings (he loved smoke rings) that seemed to hang in the air indefinitely, or curl round and round the ceiling.
I couldn't quite make out the title of the book John was reading. Without further ado I asked what book could so totally absorb such an articulate, self-confessed intellectual? He tossed the book casually over to me, a wry smile covered his face, as he said: “My bible.”
I opened the book and read the title 'The Big Blue Book of Lurchers' by John Higginbottom.
The hour being ever so late, John, seven very tired Higginbottom lurchers a Higginbottom Terrier and I, lay in front of an open log fire. John, however, could not sleep. His fingers that had been so savagely attacked by his ferrets were giving him jip. Yes, he had conveniently forgot to cauterize his wounds.
Driving home, I felt each long mile the car covered was taking me nearer to reality and civilization. I had left a giant of a man completely alone in his cottage at the edge of the world. Little did I appreciate the power of John's force 7 stare. As my diary entries will reveal, there was intrigue, scandal and mystery surrounding John Higginbottom Esq.