He left no footstep

Tommy 2As the old year passes and the new year begins, we remember things about the Old Guard: those wonderful Dickens dogs who have done their bit and gone ahead to join the great Newman Noggs, who himself died at the very beginning of January several decades ago. The day he died the earth was frozen so hard that it took two days to excavate his grave, under mature, majestic trees.  Left briefly alone to carry the banner through a long, harsh winter was Wilkins, the gentlest of bears but never a natural leader.

Tommy 1Shortly thereafter into the clan came young Tommy Traddles, seen here with Uncle Willie in front of Noggsy’s springtime grave, bedecked with daffodils. Were he still alive, Tommy would be twenty-two tomorrow, which is worth recalling, in view of the arc as long as a rainbow  – both familial and magical – which stretches back from Barnaby today, through our own Newman (Uncle Noggsy) to Jack (Uncle Johnny) and thus through Wilkins to the Great Noggs himself. The line of fun, frolic and foolishness remains unbroken to this day, a small but real comfort given that dogs like us live such short lives and our passing causes such pain.

Tommy 3Tommy – or Tonto as he came to be called – was an obedient, gentle creature, emotional and highly sensitive. You can see from his expression here how he hated the sensation of walking on the big pebbles at Brighton with Uncle Johnny, mainly because the unevenness hurt his arthritic joints; he preferred the smaller stones at Southwold, into which he would dig himself a cool scrape to avoid the sun. The palest of the Dickens Dogs, and at a time when it was unusual and not bred for, he had a ghostly, other-worldly air, which made him a sweet companion. As a pup he was a persistent chewer (an uncommon trait for our family), demolishing table legs, plaster-work (a particular favourite) and shoes, all without embarrassment. Greatly loved, his end was made more dreadful by his having two conditions, necessary medication for which conflicted, with dire results. He died at the vet’s, under emergency circumstances, which saddens us all even to this day. He alone of all the Dickens boys has no earthly resting place.

But what we always recall with joy was that Tommy had some time before he was born that January, so many years ago, to learn from the august Noggsy, who to this day maintains an eagle eye on all aspects of the canine afterlife. As we write, friends of ours are mourning their beloved terrier, Alice, recently recalled by the spinner of the years. And we learnt the other day that our dear friend, Bailey the shar-pei, has but a couple of months to live, beset by a terrible cancer which only noxious pills can keep at bay a little while longer. Only eight, she still delights in chasing me madly about, as she has always enjoyed doing when she gets the chance. We are truly indomitable creatures, which in itself makes our passing, when it comes, so much the worse. Dear Tonto, dear Alice, dear Bailey: God bless us, every one.

 

The night and a thousand eyes

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Recent snowfall at Bamburgh: photo by Alan Leightley

The deep mid-winter is upon us and with it the utterly dark mornings, in which we habitually run along the beach. Even when the wind is extreme and the tide unusually high, as it has been this last couple of days, we negotiate its difficulties with careful confidence; we respect the wildness and know where we could seek shelter, if need be. No photograph could record the strange world of shadows that is currently ours, but this one shows our castle sprinkled with snow, as it was at the beginning of this week.

The recent spring tides coincided with a sharp decline in temperature, snow on the sand and hazardous ice on the rocks which form part of our route and which cannot be avoided. This has been a dramatic week weather-wise for the British Isles, with more snow in some areas than has fallen in many years. Here we get just a smattering but it has been icily cold. On the worst days, it would be folly to venture forth until it is properly light, mainly because the road to Bamburgh is treacherous. Nevertheless, whenever we possibly can – and that means most days – we enter the world early. We pull together (just the three of us in conditions like this), Barnaby watching and waiting for Kemo Sabe as she picks her way gingerly across the rocks; me, usually getting in the way, so devoted am I, but otherwise ahead of the game, always within ear-shot and always attentive to the whistle. Our high-vis jackets do their job well, and Kemo Sabe’s head torch can easily pick us up as we skip about.

We haven’t seen a sunrise in weeks. If we are lucky – that is, a bit late in setting off – and depending on the cloud cover, we will eventually see a marginal lightening of the southern sky as we draw to the end of our run. Such mornings are accompanied by a sky-full of stars, and magic moons, sometimes as big and as colourful as an orange. Today there was even a shooting star, pointing our way southward.  Usually though, utter darkness is all there is. And we are placed in it, the sea to one side, the sand beneath us and the dunes to our right. In Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, folk would know their way about their territory by listening to the rustling of the different trees and shrubs which mapped their countryside: the scratchy holly bush, the smell of the bay, the furriness of the evergreen. They had no eyes but saw well enough, and so do we. We feel the nearness of the sea and the tables of the tides by the variation in hardness of the sand beneath our feet. We hear the ferocity of the approaching waves and get on towards the rocks, before its too dangerous.

From the dunes pairs of yellow eyes occasionally peer down on us as we pass by; foxes, patrolling their territories beyond the castle, minding each other in their desperate hunt for food and watching us in silence, rather eerily as we pass.  Last week in the darkness one trotted in front of us, the whole width of the beach from the shoreline back up to the dunes, having found no carrion which would have helped to sate his appetite. This was another first for us and, respectfully, we held back, watching thoughtfully as this independent spirit made its way back into its secret world. We know there must be others out there, of whom we are unaware, not all of them foxes, either.

Signify this to the doctor

20171021_091654Tiny Nico’s skin problem is still very much under investigation, which has kept everyone busy over the last few weeks. Quite apart from regular visits to the vet (who calls this business a saga) to see the effect on his symptoms of different antibiotics, and subsequent medications, everything we eat has come under scrutiny and, as a result, we seem to have waited extra long for the bowls to be served up.  Feeding time is always complicated in our house, but it has become  still more deliberative now that sensitivity to something or other  – and it may well be food-related – is affecting Nico’s health.

20171021_091754.jpgAs far as the little fellow himself is concerned, he is as cheerful and full of beans as ever, though the return of the odd sore spot to the back of a paw means he is no longer with us on the morning beach trundle until we get to the bottom of all this. Now Autumn is here, he’s missing the excitement of completing our run entirely in darkness, but we greet him and Uncle NuNu at the end when we are all reunited, swathed in our fluorescent suits of lights, illuminated by Kemo Sabe’s head-torch. Apart from seeing one very pleasant holidaying husky a couple of times this week, we see nobody else at all, only the curlews crying at the shoreline, and we see them only with our ears, as it were.

20171021_091923 (3)What to give us dogs to eat has become a hot topic in the last few years and one on which Kemo Sabe finds herself frequently consulted, whether it’s about avoiding allergies, preventing weight gain or whatever. Innovative dog food manufacturers have cheerfully joined the grain/wheat/gluten-free/raw-food band-wagon  (perm any one from whatever angle you like) and many dog owners – perhaps most – now think seriously about what they put on our plates. Over all the many decades Kemo Sabe has been feeding dogs, only the great and original Newman Noggs ever suffered from a skin complaint, and that only temporarily as a young pup and it was easily treated. The Dickens Dogs have eaten widely and well. Every day we are given a variety of food; a mix of dry and wet; cooked and raw meat; complemented by raw and cooked vegetables – it’s quite a palaver! Now we are getting supplements as well: fish oils and sardines, things to keep our joints as well as our coats happy, too.

20171021_091638Nico is off the medication now and we all are curious to see what might flare up and when. For three years he has been perfectly well, without so much as a hint of allergy, but he this week had a skin test which will tell us much more about any allergens he has taken a dislike to. For what it’s worth, we all tend to think this is something to do with the summer flowering plants on the heath behind the castle. We await results: if infection isn’t involved, there has to be another way forward. In the meantime, it is almost lunch preparation time and I can barely control my anticipation. As she writes, I gaze up at the one I love most in all the world knowing she really does everything she can to keep us all on an even, healthy keel. Now, where’s my dinner?

Comings and goings

20170920_065540.jpgNicholas, three next Monday, has been really unwell lately and has made three visits to the vet on account of a mysterious skin condition which, tests reveal, is caused by two bacterial infections. Worrying as this has been for all of us, apart from this Monday –  when his demeanour nose-dived as a (thankfully short-lived) depression developed – he has been his usual buoyant self. That day the vet found he also had an ear infection, and a temperature of 103 degrees, which must have made him very miserable indeed but, once he started treatment for that, his old indomitable character returned and, by bedtime, he was full of beans once more. Another couple of antibiotics to go and then, we hope, his irritating patches and sore pads will, we hope, gradually fade forever.

20170920_064806It has been a challenging and mysterious syndrome, which has intrigued the vet and will lead to allergy testing once he is fully fit. Most striking of all is the resilience shown by this tiny creature as his feet have borne blisters and his beautiful conker-brown coat has lost fur in tiny round patches. Despite everything, he has remained a very shiny sausage and, thank heavens, a hungry one: surely nothing is so worrying to those who love us as when we cannot bear to eat. My brush with that awful abscess early this year rendered me wholly unlike myself, unable to think of food as the pain and sickness racked my overheated little body. We are lucky that our human loved ones read us so well and, speaking the wordless language of love, intervene in time to bring us careful help. Every time we see a rainbow – like this extraordinary one, which recently accompanied the most amazing sunrise – we are reminded of the covenant between us.

20170908_162416All the swallows and martins are now well on their way south. We said goodbye and bon voyage to this last family, who remained a while after their fellow nesters had left, braving some miserable days in order to give the little ones extra flying and feeding practice around Bamburgh.  We wonder how they are, and the local swallows who gave us such a splendid aerial display only the day before they too disappeared. A bientot! And welcome pink-footed geese, crying as they traverse our coast and settle on the stubble, even as I write this.

When God closes a door  . . .

 

 

 

 

Just one of those days

20170710_064337This morning, trundling along the beach (so far, so routine), it felt different. It was just one of those days: magic, despite evidence being to the contrary. Rather grey and utterly still; the sea quiet, and almost indistinguishable from the sky. A tide drawing ever nearer (by the end of the week, we’ll be watching our step), but plenty of sand still stretched ahead of us, and the waters themselves touched the shore tentatively, gently. Looking about, you might expect it to be chilly, were it not 14 degrees and so a good five more than yesterday, when the sun was bright and clear. Obviously, the clouds were on our side. The unexpected nature of perfection can surprise us; it is true that – often – we get what we need.

20170710_064625.jpgIt seems months, and probably is, since we left the dark morning runs and Kemo Sabe’s vital head-torch behind. It will be several months until they resume. Meanwhile we sustain an ever-growing number of holiday-makers for whom a morning such as today’s, and the deterioration in conditions which followed it, is usually a disappointment, deterring all but the weather-hardened from the beach, and crowding the coastal castles, their galleries, gardens, grounds and tea-rooms instead.

20170510_074634On such a morning, there’s a kind of hush, as though a great juggernaut has just past by, as visitors sigh and rest a while longer on their pillows, gathering their thoughts and changing their plans in the face of the weather forecast, while the locals quietly look about them, the veil lifted in the peace.  Above the kitchen window, some resident sparrows  – who’ve already raised one brood (pictured here) in their house-martin box – decide to mate again, committing themselves to each other for more weeks of tireless work, placing their faith in something bigger, and another day. Part of the joy of this area of England is the changeability of the weather, sometimes from hour to hour. Only this Saturday, it was sweltering and the place was full of folk. But this morning was magic and then the rain came, and the birds took to the mere, bringing the bird-watchers joy. ‘The Poet sees!/ He can behold’, as Longfellow writes:

How beautiful is the rain!
After the dust and heat,
In the broad and fiery street,
In the narrow lane,
How beautiful is the rain!
How it clatters along the roofs,
Like the tramp of hoofs
How it gushes and struggles out
From the throat of the overflowing spout!
Across the window-pane
It pours and pours;
And swift and wide,
With a muddy tide,
Like a river down the gutter roars
The rain, the welcome rain!
The sick man from his chamber looks
At the twisted brooks;
He can feel the cool
Breath of each little pool;
His fevered brain
Grows calm again,
And he breathes a blessing on the rain.
From the neighboring school
Come the boys,
With more than their wonted noise
And commotion;
And down the wet streets
Sail their mimic fleets,
Till the treacherous pool
Engulfs them in its whirling
And turbulent ocean.
In the country, on every side,
Where far and wide,
Like a leopard’s tawny and spotted hide,
Stretches the plain,
To the dry grass and the drier grain
How welcome is the rain!
In the furrowed land
The toilsome and patient oxen stand;
Lifting the yoke encumbered head,
With their dilated nostrils spread,
They silently inhale
The clover-scented gale,
And the vapors that arise
From the well-watered and smoking soil.
For this rest in the furrow after toil
Their large and lustrous eyes
Seem to thank the Lord,
More than man’s spoken word.
Near at hand,
From under the sheltering trees,
The farmer sees
His pastures, and his fields of grain,
As they bend their tops
To the numberless beating drops
Of the incessant rain.
He counts it as no sin
That he sees therein
Only his own thrift and gain.
These, and far more than these,
The Poet sees!
He can behold
Aquarius old
Walking the fenceless fields of air;
And from each ample fold
Of the clouds about him rolled
Scattering everywhere
The showery rain,
As the farmer scatters his grain.
He can behold
Things manifold
That have not yet been wholly told,–
Have not been wholly sung nor said.
For his thought, that never stops,
Follows the water-drops
Down to the graves of the dead,
Down through chasms and gulfs profound,
To the dreary fountain-head
Of lakes and rivers under ground;
And sees them, when the rain is done,
On the bridge of colors seven
Climbing up once more to heaven,
Opposite the setting sun.
Thus the Seer,
With vision clear,
Sees forms appear and disappear,
In the perpetual round of strange,
Mysterious change
From birth to death, from death to birth,
From earth to heaven, from heaven to earth;
Till glimpses more sublime
Of things, unseen before,
Unto his wondering eyes reveal
The Universe, as an immeasurable wheel
Turning forevermore
In the rapid and rushing river of Time.

Pupkin passes

20161220_124446Rest in Peace, tiny Pupkin, who died last night after an emergency admission to the vet’s. He was inordinately loved and, as you can see from this picture, taken only yesterday afternoon on his last visit to us, a miniature dachshund of consummate flair and self-possession. Nearly sixteen, he had lived a full and active life in a loving home in Edinburgh, a city suited to his genteel ways. Mentor, protector and best friend to Tiggy, Nico’s little sister, he always enjoyed coming to see us all in the madhouse here, every visit marked by a warning that this might be the 20161220_144228last time we saw him, so frail was he getting. Yesterday, as though transfixed in catatonic fascination, he watched Nico and Tiggy tumbling and chasing like baby otters, all the time guarding their space on the rug provided for his extra comfort. When lunch arrived, he ate it purposefully and with as much pleasure as ever: food was the love of his life. We watched as he meticulously 20161220_144518pursued  a piece of cucumber around his bowl (a bowl designed to slow down gobbling eaters!), identifying it by scent rather than sight – his eyes being weak. At last he found it and, with that, rested once more. It was clear yesterday, however, that he was thinking about moving on; that Uncle Johnny had a special place ready for him and that his family and friends (particularly Uncle NuNu, who adored him) would soon have to say farewell. He gave us all the privilege of sharing his last full day with him and we will never forget his stoicism and loving presence. God bless you dear little friend.

Let there be light

barnaby-watching-attenboroughMid-winter is here, the days are depressingly brief and daylight itself is definitely rationed. Though it’s exciting, checking out the daily change in temperature and wind speed before we begin our trundle, some days it looks as though the sun will never rise but usually  – at least by the time we get to St Aidan’s Dunes at Seahouses – there is a glimmer across the horizon, and illuminating hope returns, if only for a few, unimpressive hours. This is the time of year when our routine days begin with a run entirely in darkness and, depending on the cloud cover, this darkness that can feel quite unyielding. Getting ready takes a good bit longer: quite apart from the various layers to keep her warm and dry, Kemo Sabe now must wear a head-torch over her beanie hat so we can see her, whereas we four are decked out in dashing, high-vis jackets so she can spot us running round. Strangely though, she complains because we tend to stick beside her, threatening to trip her up, transfixed by the shadowy, flickering something in the beam of light which shines before her – our lighthouse in more ways than one. This is not a time to be especially adventurous.

Despite the defining darkness, every morning is slightly different. Some are eerily still and misty; some are windier and more hostile, initially at least; so far, few have been perishingly cold. But, whatever the prevailing atmospheric conditions, once in our stride (which means with Newman back on the lead and, indeed, back on task), it’s all rather familiar and, in its own way, unremarkable.  These dark, December days are undistinguished and, for that, we are most grateful. We like these days of waiting; these ordinary days. In a world blighted by more than one kind of darkness, where all around worry and suffering supervene, we are lucky that our fireside calls us and we creatures wait for the day we can light our first candle and celebrate the turning of the year – in joy, and not because we lack warmth. How out of sorts this earthly state must be, that change is so eagerly anticipated when what is needed more, to calm and comfort so very many, is the ordinariness of which it is so easy to tire. In which regard, let us ponder the complexity of this poem by Thomas Hardy, ‘A Commonplace Day’:

The day is turning ghost,
And scuttles from the kalendar in fits and furtively,
   To join the anonymous host
Of those that throng oblivion; ceding his place, maybe,
   To one of like degree.

   I part the fire-gnawed logs,
Rake forth the embers, spoil the busy flames, and lay the ends
   Upon the shining dogs;
Further and further from the nooks the twilight’s stride extends,
   And beamless black impends.

   Nothing of tiniest worth
Have I wrought, pondered, planned; no one thing asking blame or praise,
   Since the pale corpse-like birth
Of this diurnal unit, bearing blanks in all its rays –
   Dullest of dull-hued Days!

   Wanly upon the panes
The rain slides as have slid since morn my colourless thoughts; and yet
   Here, while Day’s presence wanes,
And over him the sepulchre-lid is slowly lowered and set,
   He wakens my regret.

   Regret–though nothing dear
That I wot of, was toward in the wide world at his prime,
   Or bloomed elsewhere than here,
To die with his decease, and leave a memory sweet, sublime,
   Or mark him out in Time . . .

   –Yet, maybe, in some soul,
In some spot undiscerned on sea or land, some impulse rose,
   Or some intent upstole
Of that enkindling ardency from whose maturer glows
   The world’s amendment flows;

   But which, benumbed at birth
By momentary chance or wile, has missed its hope to be
   Embodied on the earth;
And undervoicings of this loss to man’s futurity
   May wake regret in me.