Lodge park Hounds Race, Cheltenham

PUBLISHED: 17:14 04 February 2010 | UPDATED: 14:52 20 February 2013

The hounds race in pairs, one with a red collar, one with white

The hounds race in pairs, one with a red collar, one with white

Two centuries on, Lodge Park's hounds race again...but no deer are harmed in the re-staging of this spectacular event.

The view from the grandstand at Lodge Park, near Sherborne, is one of the most tranquil in Gloucestershire. Quiet green parkland stretches out as far as the eye can see. But it was not always so. In the 17th and 18th Centuries the wealthy and influential would gather here in their hundreds to watch one of the 17th Century aristocracy's favourite spectacles - deerhound racing.

The great sweep of grass that extends to either side in front of the grandstand was the setting for a spectacular, but brutal, competition. The details have been gleaned from a copy of the rules found at Lodge Park. A stag captured in the park would be released from a pen at one end of the mile-long course, with two fearsome hounds in hot pursuit.

The deer began a run for its life. To make the finish more challenging for the hounds, there were two ditches at the end of the course - they would often be left floundering in the first of these while the deer bounded to safety in the park. If it failed, it would meet with a bloody end.

Now, thanks to the National Trust, you can watch the deerhounds racing again, for the first time in more than two centuries - though needless to say, no deer will be involved. On Sunday September 23 the staff of the Sherborne Estate are holding their fifth annual Deerhound Racing Day. With the help of experts from The Deerhound Club, they will put hounds from all over the UK - and a few from overseas - through their paces.

The deerhound has an interesting history. In the days when deer hunting was a popular sport across much of Britain, several similar strains were developed for the purpose. Speed was the first requirement, so dogs of the greyhound type were favoured. Size, strength and scenting ability were also important.

A variety of breeds were probably still in use in Dutton's day, and no doubt their owners had great fun arguing their relative merits. Some of them were gigantic - the original breed, the Talbot, was descended from the progeny of bloodhounds and American coon hounds and weighed well over a hundred pounds.

By the end of the 18th Century the big estates were beginning to be split up and sold off, and the deerhound's popularity waned along with the sport it had been bred for. Fox-hunting and horse-racing became the dominant sports of the gentry. But a small band of enthusiasts continued to cherish the breed. In 1886 the Deerhound Club was formed. The breed standard specified a height for dogs of 28 to 30 inches, with bitches rather less - it had been established that a dog taller than this would be too large and awkward for the job.

When dog shows came along in the 19th Century, enthusiasts were given an incentive to keep on improving the breed, and the deerhound's popularity began to spread once again. There are now deerhound clubs in Holland, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, Canada and the United States.

We do not know exactly when deerhound racing finished at Lodge Park, but the racecourse probably remained unused for a good two and a half centuries. Then a few years ago a National Trust steward, Patrick Joel, arrived on the scene. Patrick knew something about deerhounds - his mother has one called Dora, along with a whippet called Arlo. While he was living in a cottage on the estate, Dora and Arlo were regular visitors, and the two dogs would take great pleasure on morning walks in racing each other down Dutton's racecourse.

This gave Patrick an idea; to use the course for public deerhound racing again, though without bloodshed of course. In 2003 he organised the first Deerhound Racing Day at the property, and it was a great success.

Patrick has moved to a new Trust post up in Yorkshire, but in the hands of his successor, David Rawcliffe, and David's colleagues on the Sherborne team, the racing has become an annual fixture. Members of the Deerhound Club dress up in period costume, and the Sealed Knot are on hand to add a little extra spectacle.

32 hounds are accepted for entry and they compete on a knockout basis, racing in pairs, one with a red collar, one with a white. They pursue a mechanical fur-covered lure along a section of Dutton's original course, as in modern greyhound racing. At the end of the day the winning animal will have raced four times without being beaten.

Visitors take it in turns to watch from the balcony (there is room for only about 10 people at a time to watch safely), but there is plenty of space to view the proceedings at ground level. For obvious reasons there is no betting (except possibly between friends), but the excitement can still prove infectious.

We have a 17th Century hunchback and political manoeuvrer called John 'Crump' Dutton to thank for the park, its grandstand and its racecourse. Dutton had a passion for gambling. He knew how to hunt with the hounds and run with the deer in the metaphorical sense as well. A landowner and politician (he was MP for Gloucestershire), he got away with financing Charles II during the Civil War, despite being a friend of Cromwell.

Dutton loved to impress his high-flying friends with extravagant entertaining, and Lodge Park, built in the early 1630s and modelled on Inigo Jones' Banqueting House in London, is his legacy. We are lucky still to have it - apart from Hampton Court, it appears to be the only coursing racecourse left in the UK, particularly valued because it survives complete with its grandstand.

"Crump" Dutton's building had become little more than a shell when his descendant Charles Dutton, the 7th Lord Sherborne, left the 4000-acre Sherborne Estate to the National Trust in 1982. It has now been fully recreated by the Trust, the first time this has been done using only archaeological evidence. Visitors can once again appreciate Dutton's vision by going from the hall and up the monumental staircase to the Great Room, from which you can walk out on to the viewing platform on the roof.

From the grandeur of the balustraded roof Dutton's friends would watch the coursing, and bet large sums on the outcome of each race. A typical bet was around 20 (the equivalent of 4,000 today) - you had to be wealthy to be on the guest list.

Members of the public can take part in this modern form of deerhound racing for a lot less than 4000. Admission is free to Trust members, 4.80 to adults, 2.70 to children and 11.70 for family groups. The day begins at 11 am and continues until 4pm.

Call 01451 844130 or email lodgepark@nationaltrust.org.uk for more information.

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