Having always been an avid second-hand book collector, mostly on country related topics, I came across a series of books, published by Methuen, and written by Robert Smith Surtees. Surtees was the creator of one John Jorrocks. Jorrocks was a cockney tea importer with a passion for foxhunting and a fanatical desire to become a Master Of Foxhounds, (M.F.H.). This he did by buying his way into the hunting community somewhere in the Shires. Most of Surtees books surround the activities and adventures of the, somewhat, hapless Mr. Jorrocks. The books are highly amusing and a great insight into Victorian society, Surtees was nothing, if not, a great observer of people. His observations are recorded in the form of the many and diverse characters he created within his books. I am sure anyone interested could obtain copies of Surtees work in second –hand book shops. Many of his works have been republished in various forms over the years.
However, having discovered Surtees in the early seventies when I was serving as a dog handler at Wandsworth Prison, I was in the habit of taking a copy to work with me whilst on night duty. The editions published by Methuen are pocket sized which was helpful. It is strange how, so often, apparently insignificant events in life go on to be the trigger for much greater and more significant happenings in the future. So it was with my discovery of Surtees and his books.
It was during the period I was reading my way through the Surtees books that an article appeared in the Shooting Times written by their, then, Hunting correspondent Douglas Leslie. In his article Douglas told of his fondness for Surtees and wondered if anyone still read his work. He went on to say how sad it would be if modern day hunters lost touch with such wonderful hunting literature and asked anyone whom might be a follower of Surtees to let him know. To, I think, his great surprise Douglas was overwhelmed by the number of replies he received from readers at that time. One of those replies had been sent in by myself and Douglas was much amused to learn that I was reading my books whilst on dog patrol in a prison! He went on to write a follow-up article in the Shooting Times regarding the people that had responded to his request regarding Surtees readers. In my case Douglas wrote a personal letter to me by way of reply and this proved to be the beginning of a long friendship. We would often bump into one another at places like the Game Fair and hound shows, which Dougie covered for his magazine, and spend much time talking hunting. He was a true gent and a delight to chat with, not least, for his vast knowledge of all things hunting.
Quite by chance, sometime later, actually several years, I found myself dispatched to Durham on one of our annual dog handling refresher courses. I say by chance, as in those days the Prison Service did not have its own dog handling school. It relied upon a number of police dog schools up and down the country which provided courses for the Prison Service. As courses came along individual handlers were allocated a place upon them and there was no provision for choice of location, you went where you were sent. I, therefore, found myself dispatched to the north, with dog, heading for the Durham Police dog training establishment which was located several miles west of the city of Durham. In fact it was a combined dog and mounted establishment but more significantly for me it was located in one Hamsterley Hall, a large country mansion with lovely grounds. This had been the home of Robert Smith Surtees and his residence during the time he wrote his books. It was a delight to be able to wander throughout the house and gardens where the great man had gone before. In addition to this I found myself, for the duration of the course, lodged in a nearby pub, The Surtees Arms, named after Robert Smith Surtees. This was the norm as most courses did not have accommodation with them and lodgings were often in pubs but this one proved to be a gem. The pub was owned by an elderly lady and she kept an excellent house. The food was superb. The course itself was also very good although the weather was rather dodgy, lots of snow.
Apart from the fact that having gone back home to Surrey for the middle long weekend of the course, and left Surrey on Sunday afternoon in bright sunshine, I arrived back in Durham train station at ten o’clock at night to find a white out. The snow was so bad that busses and taxi ’s had been cancelled. I had no choice but to walk. It was very clear from the lack of car tracks that few vehicles had passed and I settled into what was potentially a long walk. However, having trudged two or three miles a passing driver pulled over and offered me a lift, what a gent. It was quite a hairy ride in his little sports car but he dropped me off within striking distance of my lodgings.
As was the case at the Surtees, Ma, as we all called the landlady, had left me a hot pie in the oven and a note telling me to help myself to a pint if I wanted one. It doesn’t get much better than that. The other interesting matter regarding that particular course was the fact that the police had permission to enter Branspeth Castle which was on the outer edges of Durham city. It was, at the time, empty except for the caretaker. Having be used by Pyrex, the glass people for laboratories and offices, it was then on the market. The caretaker had an Alsatian and would join the course with his dog, no doubt as part of the deal for use of the location. In any event, use it we did, and took advantage of the fact that the dance hall within the castle was large enough to allow dog training to go ahead undercover when it was raining or snowing outside. The other great benefit, in dog handling terms, was the fact that the dungeons below ground provided complete darkness. There are not actually many places where this can be achieved. The underground rooms were ideal for search and find exercises as the eyes were of no use and the nose was the only way of locating a hiding person. Many years later I read an article in a Sunday supplement regarding the couple whom had bought the castle and devoted years of love and money upon it’s renovation and restoration.
As mentioned earlier in this article, the link from the purchase of a few books from a second-hand bookshop in Surrey had extended far beyond the books themselves and opened up all sorts of unforeseen events and meetings etc. However there was much more to come and future events were to virtually take over my life for several years. That will be revealed in my next article. Watch this space.