50 Years of Trialling Excellence

No anniversary could be more apt, says GRAHAM COX, than the one
June Atkinson is in the midst of celebrating

It was the Barrister who first caught my attention. Not some be-wigged denizen of the Inns of Court. No, it was THE Barrister. A dog whose burnished athleticism and gamefinding confidence seemed to carry all before it, and whose joy in his work was compelling. Anyone seeking a working definition of charisma needed to look no further. The name, meanwhile, proclaimed an authority which performance invariably confirmed.

But if I think of the names of Holway golden retriever field trial champions which best convey the image I have of these dogs at their best three spring immediately to mind. Zest certainly: but, before any others, Jollity and Gaiety. For those names capture better than any others the quality which Game Fair crowds, for instance, have always appreciated. These are dogs which are happy in their work. Typically, June Atkinson talks not of 'training' but of 'playing' dogs and it seemed only appropriate that she should move to a cottage called Merryfield shortly after her son Robert took over the running of Holway's 820 acres in 1976. Set in the heart of the Cattistock country, June ensured during her years of stewardship, after the death of her husband Martin in 1968, that the concern to avoid the worst excesses of post-war agricultural intensification was sustained and the farm's water meadows, ancient woodlands and mixed cropping with livestock remained a splendid gundog playground. Far from the madding motorways, Dorset is one of those counties you can't cross into without feeling that life has changed for the better and June Atkinson is very much the place.

In one sense though the 'playing dogs' image is in danger of masking a no less vital truth. As kind as she is tough, June Atkinson brings to her sport a fierce competitiveness and combines it with a marked reluctance to suffer fools, whether canine or human, either gladly or at all. You don't put together the sort of record which she has achieved over fifty years without massive commitment and talent to match. Indeed, for many years the latter was considered almost mystical and it used popularly to be supposed that only June Atkinson could handle Holway dogs. Not so. But what is certain is that she has the most remarkable ability with dogs - and horses for that matter - and that a formidable physical presence goes some way to accounting for it. Only some way though, for it is the understanding borne of years of experience and the tone of voice which more than anything secures the rapt attention of the dogs which are synonymous with her name. Whatever charisma is, the dogs patently think she has it in spades.

"Go anywhere in England", the playwright George Bernard Shaw once wrote, "where there are natural, wholesome, contented and really nice English people: and what do you find? That the stables are the real centre of the household." Well, there can be little doubt that he would have found Holway congenial. Turn from the Yeovil - Dorchester road and wind towards Cattistock through the high hedged lanes, freckled in the summer months with the carmine pinks of campion and foxglove, and soon, as the road bends, a small sign directs you into the farm drive. You pass horses and sheep grazing on the right; to the left a magnolia blooms by the kitchen garden wall; and there is a horse let into the iron work of the main gate. Park by the horse box and in no time at all - and it is the same whether you are at Holway or Merryfied - your car will be surrounded by an inquisitive pack of goldens of every age eagerly heralding your arrival.

There are stables, to be sure, but no kennels. And as you realise that moments before the dogs were stretched out by the Aga or curled up in an old suitcase in the kitchen, or perhaps lying in the back of June's car you begin to appreciate that the system at Holway seems to fly in the face of many of the cherished rules to be found in typical gundog training manuals.

Indeed, it would be hard to find anyone less cluttered by preconceptions or theories than June Atkinson and it is hardly surprising after so many years that the process of training a dog seems a self evident one to her. How many years? There can sometimes be an arbitrariness about anniversaries depending on when you start counting. This year, however, neatly avoids the dilemma: sandwiched, as it is, fifty years on from the year when June acquired her foundation bitch and the year in which she won her first field trial award. But 1947 was also the year in which her original mare Miss Muffet was bought as a yearling from a dealer in Sussex. There have, since then, been 65 home bred point-to-point wins from descendants of Miss Muppet, 53 of them ridden to victory by Robert and in equine and hunting circles the names Brown Spider, Express Spider and Baroness Spider enjoy a resonance akin to that of the Holway goldens. The racing interest is crucial, because until the point-to-points are over June does not even think of dog training and so, without it being a matter of conscious resolve, she avoids the temptation - to which so many succumb because they are more than capable- to push young dogs on too fast.

In 1947 Britain at last began to feel the war was over. Denis Compton scored 18 centuries that summer, and there were lock-outs at Lords and Headingley. England went sport mad. The first Edinburgh Festival was held and the Land Rover, symbol of dependability, was born. And June Atkinson acquired Musickmaker of Yeo, a foundation bitch who gained her working title after failing to impress early on. We can surely all take heart from the story behind the phrase 'Lot 10' which is scribbled on the top right hand corner of Musick's pedigree. June had seemingly felt that she was not making much progress and had placed her in a sale at the Dorchester Fair which used to be held in those days. But, typically, she could not go through with the sale and withdrew the bitch who was to begin a remarkable sequence of results.

To date June and her son Robert have achieved twenty times over what most gundog handlers dream of doing once: and that understates the achievement because many of her dogs have won enough Open stakes to become Field Trial Champions many times over. It is a record of amazing consistency, achieved with a breed which matures rather less quickly than Labradors or springers. Add the names of the nine Holway dogs made up by others both here and in Europe and America and the roll of honour is a long one. FTChs Musickmaker of Yeo, Mazurka of Wynford who won the Retriever Championship in 1954 when it was held over three days at Six Mile Bottom and Shadwell Park and was second the following year at Sandringham, Holway Flush of Yeo, Holway Lancer, Holway Bonnie, Holway Zest, Holway Westhyde Zeus, Holway Gaiety, Holway Barrister, Holway Jollity, Holway Chanter, Holway Gem, Holway Dollar, Holway Grettle, Holway Ruby, Holway Trumpet, Holway Corbiere the swashbuckling 'Desert Orchid' of the gundog world, Holway Crosa, Holway Eppie and Holway Quilla who, with an unparalleled sense of occasion in 1995 won the first Open Stake which the Golden Retriever Club was able to hold after a period of enforced de-registration.

Asking June to name the best is to ask the impossible. Dogs, no less than humans and horses, are individuals and she has no preference for dogs or bitches. Mazurka was the first golden to win the Rank Routledge trophy in 1957 but it is one of his last offspring who took it in 1970 and again in 1971 that has a special place in June's Holway pantheon. FTCh Holway Gaiety, out of FTCh Holway Flush of Yeo who was the dam of five English, one American and one Belgian FTChs, won a staggering eight Open Stakes. Possessed of a wonderful nose and absolutely fearless in the thickest cover, she was a delight to handle: epitomising the combination of biddability and gamefinding that June looks for before all else. That powerful bitch line is the golden thread that runs through the Holway tapestry

That unswerving appreciation of priorities and determination to accept only the highest standards is wedded to a delightfully uncomplicated approach which has only one rule at its heart. With young dogs, says June, "only give a command if you are in a position to make sure it is carried out." Needless to say the sheer magnetism which makes such simplicity possible is not so easy to put into words.

June has judged the Retriever Championship no fewer than six times and, over a period which has seen the sports of shooting and trialling transformed, has sustained her commitment to a fiercely competitive yet Corinthian ethos. The achievement has been truly remarkable and nothing has been more perennially irritating than hearing her described as 'the leading Lady handler'. No sexist qualification has ever been so utterly unnecessary.

Graham Cox - This article first appeared in The Shooting Gazette, Issue 83, Sept 1998

The Happy Half Century was celebrated at a dinner on the middle night of the GRC 2 Day Open Stake at Sandringham in November 1999, where June was presented with a Blackthorn and horn stick with a solid gold oval inset into the top of the shaft, engraved with her initials.

Above is a photograph which will become a collectors item. These are the 3 owners of the post-war Golden Retriever winners of the I.G.L Retriever Championship.
Right to Left 
Mrs Jean Lumsden (nee Train)1952 FT Ch Treunair Cala
Mrs June Atkinson1954 FT Ch Mazurka of Wynford
Mr Robert Atkinson1982 FT Ch Little Marston Chorus of Holway

©GRC2001