Hare and Hounds


For your running group’s next outing, you might try Hare and Hounds, a British schoolboy running game played since the days of Shakespeare (he makes a reference to it in Hamlet). It is also called Hunt the Fox or Paper Chase, and was intended to educate young squires in the ways of the more “adult” past time of fox hunting.

The game begins when one runner (the hare) takes off with a sack of torn paper (the scent), choosing whatever winding route he wishes through woods and over dales—the more confusing the better. He will have a head start of five minutes or so on the pack of runners (the hounds). As he runs, the hare scatters the scent behind him, and it is up to the pack of hounds to chase him down before he reaches the finishing point.

The routes can be several miles long, over challenging terrain. And of course the scent can be blown hither and yon by the wind, so the trail can be tricky to follow.

The hounds work together to find and follow the scent, and if they lose the trail they might pause as a group, with whoever sniffs out the next clue crying, “Tally ho!” and off they go again.

If a hound catches the hare, then it is his turn either to become the hare himself or choose another to be the hare.

The game is famously described in the Victorian classic Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes (publishing by Macmillan in 1857). Here’s an excerpt from the scene:

The only incident worth recording here, however, was Tom’s first run at Hare-and-hounds. On the last Tuesday but one of the half-year, he was passing through the hall after dinner, when he was hailed with shouts from Tadpole and several other fags seated at one of the long tables, the chorus of which was “Come and help us tear up scent.”

Tom approached the table in obedience to the mysterious summons, always ready to help, and found the party engaged in tearing up old newspapers, copybooks, and magazines, into small pieces, with which they were filling four large canvas bags.

“It’s the turn of our house to find scent for big-side Hare-and-hounds,” exclaimed Tadpole; “tear away, there’s no time to lose before calling-over.”

“I think it’s a great shame,” said another small boy, “to have such a hard run for the last day.”

“Which run is it?” said Tadpole.

“Oh, the Barby run, I hear,” answered the other; “nine miles at least, and hard ground; no chance of getting in at the finish, unless you’re a first-rate scud.”

“Well, I’m going to have a try,” said Tadpole; “it’s the last run of the half, and if a fellow gets in at the end, big-side stands ale and bread and cheese, and a bowl of punch; and the Cock’s such a famous place for ale.”

“I should like to try, too,” said Tom.

“Well, then, leave your waistcoat behind, and listen at the door, after calling-over, and you’ll hear where the meet is.”

After calling-over, sure enough, there were two boys at the door, calling out, “Big-side Hare-and-hounds meet at White Hall”; and Tom, having girded himself with leather strap, and left all superfluous clothing behind, set off for White Hall, an old gable-ended house some quarter of a mile from town, with East, whom he had persuaded to join, notwithstanding his prophecy that they could never get in, as it was the hardest run of the year.

At the meet they found some forty or fifty boys, and Tom felt sure, from having seen many of them run at football, that he and East were more likely to get in than they.

After a few minutes’ waiting, two well-known runners, chosen for the hares, buckled on the four bags filled with scent, compared their watches with those of young Brooke and Thorne, and started off at a long, slinging trot across the fields in the direction of Barby.

Then the hounds clustered round Thorne, who explained shortly, “They’re to have six minutes’ law. We run into the Cock, and every one who comes in within a quarter of an hour of the hares ‘ll be counted, if he has been round Barby church.” Then came a minute’s pause or so, and then the watches are pocketed, and the pack is led through the gateway into the field which the hares had first crossed. Here they break into a trot, scattering over the field to find the first traces of the scent which the hares throw out as they go along. The old hounds make straight for the likely points, and in a minute a cry of “forward” comes from one of them, and the whole pack, quickening their pace, make for the spot, while the boy who hit the scent first and the two or three nearest to him are over the first fence, and making play along the hedgerow in the long grass-field beyond. The rest of the pack rush at the gap already made, and scramble through, jostling one another. “Forward” again, before they are half through; the pace quickens into a sharp run, the tail hounds all straining to get up with the lucky leaders. They are gallant hares, and the scent lies thick right across another meadow and into a ploughed field, where the pace begins to tell; and then over a good wattle with a ditch on the other side, and down a large pasture studded with old thorns, which slopes down to the first brook; the great Leicestershire sheep charge away across the field as the pack comes racing down the slope. The brook is a small one, and the scent lies right ahead up the opposite slope, and as thick as ever; not a turn or a check to favor the tail hounds, who strain on, now trailing in a long line, many a youngster beginning to drag his legs heavily, and feel his heart beat like a hammer, and the bad plucked ones thinking that, after all, it isn’t worth while to keep it up.

Tom, East, and the Tadpole had a good start, and are well up for such young hands, and, after rising the slope and crossing the next field, find themselves up with the leading hounds, who have over-run the scent and are trying back; they have come a mile and a half in about eleven minutes, a pace which shows that it is the last day. About twenty-five of the original starters only show here, the rest having already given in; the leaders are busy making casts into the fields on the left and right, and the others get their second winds.

Then comes the cry of “forward” again, from young Brooke, from the extreme left, and the pack settles down to work again steadily and doggedly, the whole keeping pretty well together. The scent, though still good, is not so thick; there is no need of that, for in this part of the run every one knows the line which must be taken, and so there are no casts to be made, but good, downright running and fencing to be done. All who are now up mean coming in, and they come to the foot of Barby Hill without losing more than two or three more of the pack. This last straight two miles and a half is always a vantage ground for the hounds, and the hares know it well; they are generally viewed on the side of Barby Hill, and all eyes are on the lookout for them to-day. But not a sign of them appears, so now will be the hard work for the hounds, and there is nothing for it but to cast about for the scent, for it is now the hares’ turn, and they may baffle the pack dreadfully in the next two miles.

It sounds jolly good, right?