Country: A hobnailed rising in the hills

Duff Hart-Davis was there at the start of the countrymen's great march to London

At 9am last Saturday, in the Lakeland village of Caldbeck, I swear you could feel the heart of rural England beating. On a grey and misty morning more than 400 people assembled to launch the first of the Countryside Marches now heading for London - and a more down-to-earth crowd you will never see. Their aim was clear: to convey to the Government the message that they are fed up with having traditional freedoms threatened and curtailed.

Hunting men naturally predominated, for in Cumbria the pursuit of the fox is an essential form of pest-control. Yet the crowd included country people of every calling - farmers, gamekeepers, doctors, fishermen, farriers, foresters, rabbit-catchers, postmen.

The focus of interest was the churchyard, and in particular the grave of the legendary huntsman John Peel. As we waited for the off, the local MP, David Maclean, spoke with feeling of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, in which he himself took part. One of the key principles agreed there, he said, was that indigenous communities play a vital role in sustainable development, and that their identities, culture and history must be protected.

"I know we were thinking about people like the tree-dwellers of Sarawak," he told me. "But the same principle applies exactly to Cumbria. Here, too, we have an indigenous community with its own culture and heritage, and the government has an absolute duty to protect it."

The hunting people all round were not the puce-faced aristocrats who infuriate antis in the South. Far from it: they were lean, hard hill-men, wearing nailed boots and short leather gaiters, for they chase the fox on foot, rather than on horses. Leader for the day was Barry Todhunter, present huntsman of the Blencathra hounds, John Peel's pack; and it was fitting that he should he set the crusade in motion by sounding Peel's own little horn.

The two raucous blasts sent a shiver up my spine. "We'm off!" cried somebody. "Next stop London!" - and away we went.

A slight, unemphatic, bespectacled man, patient and polite, Barry looked more like a librarian than a master of the fells; but when he led off at what he called "a nice, gentle stroll", the pace was so hot that it soon had most of us gasping. With him marched the core-walkers - those going all the 300-odd miles to London - conspicuous in their lemon-yellow T-shirts, emblazoned with slogans fore and aft. Their look of formidable fitness was increased by low-mow haircuts, one so short as to reveal that the owner's tattoos - which included the slogan "Drunk Punk" - continued above his ears.

As we climbed towards the huge, green sweep of the first fell, I found myself alongside Monty Farish, an amiable heavyweight mole-catcher whose work extended over 40,000 acres of farmland. Describing the weather as "gair rowky" (misty), he recalled how, when a boy, he would skin his victims on the move, between one set of traps and the next, finishing his round with a pocketful of fresh, velvety pelts worth about twopence each.

After a while we left the last track and tramped through heather and tussocky grass. When we stopped to drink from a stream, there were nostalgic murmurs about that traditional reviver, the rhubarb pattie.

It was impossible not to be impressed by the core marchers' dedication. John Harrison, the tall, long-striding huntsman of the Ullswater fell pack, could have been earning pounds 300 a week fencing or building dry stone walls in this, his close season. "With all these EC grants about, the lads are at it everywhere," he said wistfully. "Nineteen pounds per square metre of wall! It's money for jam."

Also at least pounds 1,000 out of pocket was Gary Bell, the sole volunteer from Northern Ireland. By the end of the first morning he was in trouble with his feet, because he had come wearing trainers, rather than the boots; even so, he did not regret that he had given up the chance of driving a catering firm's van round race-tracks in southern England.

Talk inevitably turned to hunting, in the view of the locals, the least cruel means of pest control. "Fox is either dead, or he gets clean away," observed one farmer. "He can't be wounded." Someone spoke of the tension between hunting and shooting fraternities: the fell packs regard anyone who shoots foxes with positive disfavour.

As we crossed a steep face, strung out along an old miners' track, fabulous views opened out below us: a wide green valley to our left, Derwentwater lying like a sheet of pewter ahead. "God's own country," said a Cumbrian voice. "But if hunting's stopped, He'll be the only one up here."

Next morning, the second march set out from the border town of Coldstream. Again the core-marchers, 25 strong, were bolstered by a big turnout, and as two pipers led us over the bridge into England, skirling out "Scotland the Brave", emotion ran so high that tears were streaming down many faces.

At such a moment it was easy to see every small incident as symbolic. A single swan flew down the Tweed, crossing our bows from right to left as it headed like a white arrow for the sea. Did that bird somehow represent freedom of speech and action? A few minutes later I came on a freshly- squashed fox-cub lying dead in the ditch: a sure sign that cars are a far greater menace to wildlife than all the hunts in Britain.

Once again the company was impressively diverse. Our leader was 30-year- old Ed Tate, formerly an officer in the Welsh Guards, now a self-employed builder. With various construction projects in train, he had tried to "set everything on remote control", but reckoned that, come a rest-day, he would have to leap on to a train and go south to sort things out.

A posse of deer-stalkers from Sutherland had left home at 1am in order to take part; but because their transport was the school bus, they could walk for only a few hours before heading back to base so that the vehicle would be available for the run in the morning.

When, five miles out of Coldstream, I caught up with two total strangers and asked them whose land we were passing through, they immediately named the farmers to left and right.

So the cavalcade headed south at the rate of 20 miles a day, shedding some supporters and gathering new ones at each halt. Tomorrow the two northern columns will unite at Catterick, and a Cornish march will set off from Madron, near Land's End. The main Welsh march starts from Machynlleth on Friday, and all will converge on London for a grand rally in Hyde Park on 10 July.

Whether the campaign will influence policy or even public opinion, it is impossible to predict; but there is no doubt that the organisers - a small volunteer group based in Gloucestershire - have caught the mood of the moment. All down the country hundreds of supporters are standing by to give the marchers food and shelter, and thousands more are poised to swell the core columns as they come past. Never since the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 have rural people made such a powerful statement with their feet.

My own abiding memory will be of the moment when the Lakeland march wheeled left into the grounds of the hospital in Keswick, to greet George Bell, a former huntsman of the Blencathra, now 95 and going strong. When I asked the old boy the secret of his longevity, he replied, "Go oop fell" - a brilliantly simple recipe for a long and happy life.

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