It’s not often that I ever have the need to travel north, not ‘digging north’ I mean ‘back home’ north, but late last summer me and my two eldest lads did just that. We set off on a bit of a voyage, destination Whitworth, Lancashire. Not because it’s where I was born and bred, no, it was to collect a couple of seasoned black terriers from a pal, the legendary dog man Albert Radcliffe who, after more than fifty years at the top end of the game standing back to back with the great names of the past, had decided to take life a bit easier (he was working as a doorman into his sixties!) and keep himself busy with his little European ferrets and marking lurcher bitch.
We landed mid afternoon and there was still a bit of heat in the sun so we sat on a bench outside the farmhouse having a cup of tea. We talked of those days with his good mate the late Raymond Walker, of old dogs and their pedigrees, all interspersed with his random one liners; he’s one of life’s characters is Albert and I had a nice hour with him and I’m glad my lads were there to meet him. It was long overdue.
Facing us on the opposite side of the valley, perched on the hillside was Cockall Farm, once worked by Ernie Chadwick whose pig herding Lakeland terrier Ruff was foundation to the now extinct old Whitworth line of non descript grafters. That’s pronounced ‘Witterth’ by the way. On the moor behind Albert’s stead is an ancient mineshaft, a dungeon of a place where me and my early dogs copped for our first ever fox on one of our many, mostly fruitless, but never pointless wanderings.
I would often be ‘famished with the hunger and half starved with the cold’ as we followed the old marker stones of the pack horse trails, or we would slip and slide on well worn sheep trods, trying drains, rock piles or old shafts as we went; these would have been eight to ten mile round trips. A hundred years or so previous the same tracks would have felt the passing of the feet and hooves of Alice O’Fussar (Mary Alice Hartley) and her string of Galloway ponies. They would have carted baskets full of agricultural lime from Clitheroe to Rochdale, used to bring some life back into the dirty fields of this small industrial town or occasionally, fuel from Shawforths ‘Land Coal Pit’. She lived on Pot Oven Farm on the breast side, high above the village where my grandparents lived for most of their lives.
On this same moor, in my day, lived another character, though truth be told I’d never come across him in the hundreds of hours that I roamed that hill and didn’t know he existed, not until he appeared on the horizon as Blue and Jock worried the carcass of that very first fox at the Dungeon. ‘What the hell is that’ I recall thinking as my eyes blinked, squinted and strained; fast approaching was what appeared to be a World War One fighter pilot, leather helmet, ear flaps and goggles, bouncing along the clumps of coarse grass on an old army motorbike with a sheepdog in the sidecar!
I don’t remember what we spoke of when he finally reached me, I think he just showed a bit of interest; he was all gapped tooth grins though when his collie went to ground, and then he was gone in a cloud of back firing smoke! On Albert’s yard I pointed the Dungeon out to my boys, or rather the rough location just over the dry stone wall and I mentioned the incident. “Aye, old Eddie, he bin gone a while now” said Albert.
Another time, out following fox tracks in the snow, school Christmas holidays, probably 1985 and I was with a cousin. We had tracked this fox through deep snow, right up to the Dungeon and it was a hell of a day, howling wind and proper, big flakes. Just the sort of day that two sixteen year old lads should be out on a barren moor! Anyway, the place was like glass, shiny smooth with use, and in went Max, a black, rough coated leggy dog. We draped a net over each of the four open holes and stood behind with a peg in each hand. We couldn’t hack it for long; the elements soon had us beating a retreat to the relative comfort of the old wall and we watched and we waited. As the day wore on and night started to fall we took my cousins jumper off and laid it into the hole where Max had entered, then blocked up using the stones of the old Soldier Course that topped the wall. My cousin then only had to drop down his side of the hill and he was home. I had a two hour trek facing me before having a hot shower, ‘Fiery Jack’ on my legs, neck and shoulders, shovel down a plate of food and then off to bed.
For the next week I would rise early, walk the moor, open the holes, spend four or five hours waiting, watching and listening with my head in the entrances before blocking up again and retracing my deep steps home. You know what, I can still sense the journey back as the moon lit up the frozen snow and the smell and intense sting of the ‘Fiery Jack’ after the nightly showers. On the eighth morning I arrived ‘on site’ to find a new hole open, dug through a snow drift from the inside to the out and wet, black splatters on the snow with loose back hair from Max as he shook himself clean. I never saw the dog again. The dungeon shares the distinction of being the first place I had a fox and the only place where I lost a dog. It would be nice to think of him ending his days at old Eddie’s fireside, both looking at each other with gap toothed grins!
I have a lot to thank Albert for, not just these two additions on the yard but for the stories in my youth of his dogs and their exploits and for breeding those ‘chinless wonders’ of old that I saw and which instilled in me the want for a proper digging dog of my own one day.