In the 167 years that the blue riband of hare coursing, the Waterloo Cup, has been run, there have been just 21 slippers. For those unfamiliar with coursing, perhaps I should explain that I don’t mean over the years people at the event have been spotted wearing carpet slippers, and a record of these sightings meticulously kept. No, the slipper is the red-coated official who holds back the competing pair of greyhounds until he judges that the hare has about 100 yards’ start and both dogs have it in their sights. Then he runs forward with the animals frantically bounding under their leashes and releases them with a balletic flourish. Done well — that is to say, an even slip on the upbound — and the tableau of red-coated man, pure-bred sighthound, curling leash and retreating hare is enough to make time stand still and the office of slipper more sacerdotal than purely functional. Last week, at a press screening of The Last Waterloo Cup, a documentary film by Paul Yule (shown on BBC2 on Friday, 30th), I met Arran Atmore, the last slipper of the last Waterloo.
After seeing the film, I was ashamed. I went to see the Waterloo Cup by accident in 1999, loved it, went three years subsequently, and assumed I knew nearly all there was to know about hare coursing. More ludicrous still, I’d plunged in and written a newspaper article about it. But at this year’s Waterloo Cup, where I saw old men cry, and again during the film, in which I glimpsed areas of knowledge about dogs and hares I hadn’t dreamed of, it dawned on me how little I knew and felt and understood about the subject compared with everyone else.
Take for example Mr Atmore, a hefty, fit-looking 35-year-old Lancashire man. (Slippers need to be strong. A coursing greyhound, clapping eyes on what has been the object of its desire for over 3,000 years, takes a bit of holding. The previous Waterloo Cup slipper, Mr Gary Kelly, was a relatively small man, whose slipping sometimes resembled not so much a man restraining a pair of greyhounds, as a pair of greyhounds flying a kite.)
Atmore told me he went to Altcar and saw his first Waterloo Cup meeting aged eight. He went with his Uncle Alan, a dour Lancashire joiner whose catchphrase was ‘I’ve knocked some nails in to pay for that!’ Away from his workbench, however, Gledhill was a keen coursing man. He was dedicated to the acquisition of knowledge of hares, dogs, ground, climate and scent in much the same way as, say, a serious artist is to his or her particular art.
From the moment Atmore saw his first hare being coursed, he knew he wanted to be a slipper when he grew up, and to slip the Waterloo Cup. Gledhill took his nephew at his word and dedicated himself to teaching him everything he knew about hares and coursing. For four years, before Gledhill allowed his nephew even to attempt slipping a dog, they crouched together in fields, man and boy, simply observing hares together.
By his late teens, Atmore was slipping at small meetings. Gledhill kept a teacherly eye on him, always reminding him that the welfare of the hare comes first, second and third. (Hare coursing under National Coursing Club rules must be the only ‘blood sport’ in which the organisers’ shame increases proportionately to the number of quarry killed.) And by 2001, Atmore’s star had risen and he was appointed slipper of the Waterloo Cup, aged 31.
It was a proud day, indeed, for both teacher and pupil, as Atmore walked out to his hide on Withins Field for the first day’s coursing. But Gledhill couldn’t make it that day. He was lying in a hospital bed dying from a brain tumour. Atmore slipped that day, he told me, with as much concentration as if his mentor were there watching, and honoured him, he thinks, with a near-perfect performance. As Atmore left the field, he learnt that Alan Gledhill had died.
Three weeks later, Atmore returned to Withins Field. He poured some of Gledhill’s ashes into a salt-shaker, strapped it to the collar of a greyhound called Sun Crest Tina, and coursed a hare. The rest of Gledhill’s ashes he scattered on the ground. Atmore accidentally swallowed some, Sun Crest Tina ate the rest.
And now the Waterloo and hare coursing have gone. So much love of the countryside, so much knowledge — squashed, by a few hundred MPs ignorantly putting their blind eye to the telescope. Last season 160 hares were killed at National Coursing Club meetings and 10,000 hares that would otherwise have been shot as pests were conserved. For the people involved, the ban on coursing and hare hunting is a tragedy. But for the Brown Hare it’s a catastrophe.