Twenty or so sleek, lean hounds lined up at one end of the picturesque little arena, restrained by their owners, 10 miles of hard running ahead of them. A signal, and they were released, haring off up the fell on the aniseed trail - but not all of them.
One poor dog ignored its disappearing opponents and circled the arena, looking for friends or an interesting lunchbox to investigate, pursued by its frantic handler. "Catch that hound!" the announcer bellowed. "Give it a biscuit or something!" The owner picked the hound up under his arm and jogged back with it to the start. "My goodness," the announcer observed, "he's going to run the course with it. That should be some race." The crowd roared.
You needed three heads to keep up with all that was going on at Ambleside Sports day. The Cumberland & Westmorland wrestlers performed in a ring in front of the Members' Enclosure. Traditional costume was compulsory: Grandad-style combination underwear with red velvet shorts worn over the top made the grapplers look like rustic Supermen. In the absence of a phone box they used a little tent next to the Members' marquee to change.
The wrestling is not unlike Sumo: the fighters take a tight hold, heads together, arms locked across each others' backs, and use their legs to unbalance their opponents. But the physique is far from Sumo: the C & W men were spare and wiry, with the bronzed, craggy faces that amount to a Lakeland type.
The fell runners, who raced into the arena at the end of a mountainous nine-mile horseshoe circuit called the Rydal Round, were superb physical specimens: stomachs like washboards. "A lot of vests have been cast in the heat," the commentator accurately observed.
But the trailhounds were our favourites. Keen, friendly beasts, they looked like foxhounds crossed with greyhounds: the strong legs and biddable temperament of the former, the sleek ribcage and natural speed of the latter.
Their 10-mile course had been marked with an aniseed trail three hours earlier: with just their noses to guide them they set off barking and yelping, and little more than half an hour later loped down the long steep fell back into Rydal Park Sportsground, their tails doing figures of eight as they bounded up to their owners.
All the time the hounds were on the trail there was frantic activity in the betting ring. Knowledgeable old men with splendid white mutton- chop whiskers scanned the crags with binoclulars and conferred in mutters before putting a quid on Lady Sue, Lady Sara, or Griff. The hounds do not wear identifying jackets as greyhounds do, so it is quite impossible for the newcomer to know which hound has prevailed. But the connoisseurs know the dogs, and provided a collective commentary on the closing stages.
"Aye, that's Just So in front," they said, as the leaders of the Maiden Hound Trail gambolled down the hill, "and Little Joe behind. Just So will win." And he surely would have, had he not veered off the course having detected a phantom whiff of something fascinating just yards from the line. With a canine smirk, Little Joe nipped through to win.
"Loose dog by the gate," Jack Laidler told us. "That's what put 'im off." Jack, a veteran bookmaker and the vice-chairman of the Sports, sat in a little pavilion next to the hound trail's finishing line, dispensing wisdom and good humour. Earlier in the day, he had adjudicated in disputes about betting pitches: "Silly stuff. In my prime I could have put my pitch on top of that hill and still filled me bag."
Now he watched over his extended family and greeted dignitaries. Michael Jopling, the local MP, had stopped by. "He 'ad a lad with him," Jack told us. "I thought it was his son. Turns out to be the bloke who's standing for the seat when Mr Jopling stands down at the next election. I asked him: 'Does he have a dog? And does he like a drink?' He'll get nowhere around here without a dog."
In the main arena, it was prize time for the wrestlers. The announcer's microphone was switched on throughout, so we heard the local bank manager congratulate one winner: "That were bloody great." He was right. It all was.
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