Little gems

IMG_2179This week Nicholas and his sister, Tiggy, celebrated their second birthday. Joy was unconfined, gifts were opened and then furry dollies of various kinds were exchanged and energetically ratted, with Pupkin and the rest of us trying to get a look-in whenever we could. How extraordinary that so much time has passed since that tiny soul entered our lives and ate his first tiny meal from one of Jeoffry’s china bowls. His little wrinkly forehead and wrinkled legs endeared him immediately to the rest of us – the big boys – whom he took completely in his stride, 20160726_132501dachshunds being fearless and, ounce for ounce, among the most courageous creatures in the animal kingdom. Just the sort to fit well into our family of outdoorsy extroverts.

The chance meeting with Nico’s litter sister when they were six months old, and the fact that she lives only a short way up the coast – a truly remarkable quirk of fate, given that they originate from Lincolnshire – brought further joy and regular get-togethers into our lives. It’s now as though we have two dachshunds (three, including our beloved Pupkin) in our otherwise gundog pack. Tiggy and Nico, perfect young dachshunds, are vigorous, physically strong and outgoing; dachshunds love to be held and give affection, but they also love to sniff and search the outdoor world, pursuing the shrews and voles our human family members can’t see beneath the greenery. They are real all-rounders, hardy and adaptable.

20160415_102215We did a lot of research – about the breed itself and about breeders – and waited for over a year before Nico came into our lives, which is just what happened for Tiggy, too:  after their birth and babyhood  – marked by our travelling a long way south to see them – eventually they were old enough to leave their natural mother and begin the childhood journey to the young adults they’ve now become. Nico’s and Tiggy’s very existence was, therefore, carefully considered by their breeder before their parents were selected and our responsibility to them as owners and family was seriously undertaken when, at eight weeks, they trundled into our lives; little individuals we looked forward to getting to know as they started playing with toys we knew we’d have to share, just as the retrievers had shared theirs with me when I came along.

Now that there are more and more dogs in last-chance saloons of various kinds and, increasingly, folk thinking of getting a dog make a rescue dog their first choice, there is a growing popular notion that choosing a pedigree puppy is some kind of self-indulgence. They overlook the significance of the fact that too often it is indiscriminate, ill-advised and downright pernicious breeding that lies behind the majority of dogs being abandoned, abused or sickly.  It is important to know your breed; to know what you can expect from the breed you go for: that a dachshund will be a better guard dog than a golden retriever, for example, and that that means more noise! We have very close connections with golden retriever rescue, the Dogs Trust and indeed Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, whose work we support, and it always remains a possibility that we would give a home to a dog whose owner has died or can no longer look after him. But, for us, nothing can replace bringing that much-loved puppy home in one’s arms and then seeing what he has in store for us. One of life’s greatest joys – and privileges. Happy Birthday, Tiggy and Nico!


Bird in the hand


Today, with another magnificent sunrise, all are gone; well, apart from one or two very late migrators, that is. As the light gradually emerged, it was the sparrows and ducks we heard overhead  – not the sandmartins: their nesting wall was silent and abandoned, though basking in the autumnal sunshine as we passed beneath it this morning.

Film crews and stars have also packed up and 20160920_065657-2left us, after taking over all the car parks and bringing record crowds and traffic to the area over the weekend. On Sunday morning, the sky hummed with helicopters filming up and down the sands; only the security crew guarding the equipment and our little band were there, looking up into the dull, pre-dawn light at these extraordinary events, these sophisticated arrivals. But where there had been such frenzied activity and pavements-full of autograph-hunters, now there is only a forlorn line of lights, the last bits of kit awaiting collection, with nothing and no-one of note to illuminate any more. Yes, once again, things are very very quiet round here.

20160920_105243Yet, just up the coast, as we approached the causeway to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, there befell a small epiphany: a busy little bird suddenly swooped all amazingly through the open door of the barn-cafe where we we just about to sit with our elevenses and fell in confusion at Kemo Sabe’s feet. Like all truly miraculous moments it happened off-camera, like the reunion of Leontes and Perdita.  Kemo Sabe picked up the dazed little creature and held him to her, something she could never have imagined doing; steadying and encouraging him to overcome this setback and get him about his business, quietly astonished at the paraclete’s descent and the fact that it did indeed eventually revive, regain its equilibrium and fly away.

20160920_115954 On Lindisfarne itself, where seals were playing in the shallows near St Cuthbert’s hermitage, we were greeted by plentiful late swallows and martins feeding up in the ever-darkening sky (for the clouds were forming and the sun crouching as the weather front began to approach from the west). We were visiting as a kind of celebration of my recent fifth birthday, in honour of which Nico and I enjoyed a tiny bit of ice cream and, returning home, sausages with our dinner. But my magic day was made by a magic martin who said hello and goodbye in one fell swoop, an ineffable privilege which blessed us as we could never have hoped. So with Paulina we also say: ‘It is required you do awake you faith.’






Dear Miss Tiggywinkle

20151007-800_4275Of all the many and varied doings of 2015 –  some carefully planned, some utterly  serendipitous – one stands out above and beyond all others: the chance reunion of Nicholas Nickleby and his little sister, Miss Tiggywinkle. What can the securing to safety of any number of stranded seals, or the myriad colours of the sunrises we’ve witnessed, compare with the bringing back together of two tiny little miniature dachshund souls, separated from each other when they left the place of their birth at only two months hundreds of miles away in Lincolnshire, never thinking for a moment they would ever see each other again?

20151007-800_4238-But last Easter, all innocent and unwary, the two converged on Berwick-on-Tweed and  trotted round to no avail in the Minor Puppy class, only to become precious winners when they recognised each other and rekindled their mutual love in joyous play.

Since that occasion, Tiggy and her hoomum have become a wonderful new presence in all our lives (together with dear Pupkin, a mini dachshund of very advanced age). Fate has brought Tiggy miraculously close as she lives in Edinburgh, just seventy miles up the coast, so we all get together regularly, enjoying the madness, fun and frolic all dogs love, especially when lunch and tea are involved. For Christmas, Tiggy sent Nico a lovely squeaky cow, an exact replica of her own personal favourite, to which was appended the utterly moving note: ‘To my darling brother Nico from your loving sister Tiggy.’ Nicholas, currently barking at the fireworks which have started prematurely this New Year’s Eve and therefore keeping us all a lot safer than would otherwise be the case, says it is his best thing ever, but best of all is the love and friendship of his dear, sweet sister – so pretty, so intelligent, so present in his life: in all our lives!

Spoiler alert: pictures of them in their matching Christmas Scandi-noir jumpers coming soon!

At the turning of the year
Curlew and Redshank photographed by Sylvia Duckworth

At five o’clock yesterday afternoon the sun started to move closer to us again and, from today on, there will be a little more light for us to enjoy at either end of the day. Although it will be a while until this increase in sunlight is very noticeable the fact is that, week by week, we are gaining ground gradually and by about February, the difference will be palpable. I was surprised and disappointed, therefore, to find that our afternoon walk today was swathed in premature murk just as profoundly as it was yesterday and that the beach as desperately lonely as the curlew’s cry would suggest. We see and hear them every day.

As one carols overhead, I love nothing so much as an empty stretch of sand on which to gambol and race. Nicholas and I are particularly fond of a trial of speed, the little fellow belying his size as his powerful nose helps him to track me instinctively, barking as he chases. He is a devoted dachshund, and Bamburgh beach is the playground on which I have learnt to respect his courage and persistence, however early in the day.

IMG00259-20131002-0745But the darkness, morn and night, curtails our fun, bringing us to Kemo Sabe’s heels, where although we can prove to be a bit of a nuisance, we are safe and can keep her sound. We haven’t seen a sunrise like this one for over a month now; no wonder the street is alive with tiny sparkles, hung from bushes and in windows – now is the time for humanity to bring its own kind of light to the party, whatever the time or place.  Glittering fairy lights throw the darkness and the waiting of Advent into relief.  The grass in our back garden is sodden and slippery; none of us wants to go out there and walk on it much. The sparrows have only a few hours to fill their tummies with fat-balls, seeds and bread before they disappear into the ivy, where they cling on through the hours of darkness, their knees locked against the wind. As we hunker down for sleep in the radiant warmth of the kitchen, the tiny brethren outside shrug and ask, ‘How long, O Lord, how long?’

Be afraid! Be very afraid!

IMG_3309 Nicholas – seen here in his fabulous bat-suit –  is ready for Hallowe’en, the first he has enjoyed with all of us, bearing in mind that he didn’t come to live here until the end of last November, when he was eight weeks old. Everything is new and exciting for him but, for the rest of us, the seasons and their celebrations, secular and even religious, can be dulled by familiarity.  On Hallowe’en itself, for example, we older boys know that the fun and barking must begin as soon as dusk falls, when the very youngest members of our community start calling in their ghostly make-up and masks, their adult minders waiting for them at the end of the drive while they tuck into the sweets doled out at the front door.  I even have a pumpkin suit in which to greet them!

IMG_3283But there is more to this extraordinary time of the year than fun; the time when we indulge these tiny terrors with individual packets of Haribo and spooky lighting. Our young neighbours’ innocent enjoyment of this one night of raiding stands as a kind of ghostly parody of the Viking visitors who centuries ago used to disturb the Northumbrian villagers along this coast on dark nights, bringing real havoc, destruction and fear. So these days when our shores are calm, the seas clear of longboats, and Lindisfarne is at peace, we reach into the collective spiritual memory, where paganism overlaps with the rational, when in truth we cannot escape the fact that all the time the days are shortening, the light diminishing and we are losing our ability to see the difference between what is and what is not.

For however happily we trot along in our regenerated rational world, fingertips from another one constantly reach out to touch us. Only this morning a black cat appeared out of the corner of the eye in one of the bedrooms being cleaned across the road – something we as a family have no problem understanding: in our previous home, everyone was used to the friendly cat which brushed against us in the kitchen; its one-time home remained its home, for ever, and she was happy to share it with Jeoffry.  And as for the footsteps on the gravel . . . Well, more of that another time.

This Saturday, on Hallowe’en itself, the film of Macbeth we saw them making last year on the beach at Bamburgh comes to Seahouses. Well hear lots of ordinary, honest, everyday creatures, domestic and wild, traduced in the Weird Sisters’ revolting and unnatural rhymes – dogs, bats, toads, owls – as the world turns upside-down in Macbeth’s murderous wake. Shakespeare’s imagination will pull down the veil between two worlds in a vision of self-destruction far worse than any modern horror film could devise. Banquo and King Duncan, of course, will remark upon the martins nesting high on the castle wall. And we simple, innocent creatures who make the beach our playground will reflect on how they will return. For we remember how they took down the ugly scaffold once Michael Fassbender had ridden away, leaving the ramparts – and the time –  free. Exciting times, then, not routine at all, once you ponder on them, Pip. Now where is my pumpkin suit?

Still tiny after just one year

IMG_3240Today we all enjoyed a sausage tea in celebration of Nicholas the Dachshund’s first birthday. It is hard to believe that someone so small was once so much smaller, smaller than any of us boys could even have imagined. His wrinkly brow and delicate frame, matched by his bird-like appetite, were a constant source of wonder, but thrown into relief by his exuberance and growing confidence as he encountered one new thing after another, taking everything in his stride.

IMG_2161At the first vet’s puppy party he attended, he humbly kept under the chair, or clung to Kemo Sabe, astounded that there could be other dogs as big as us (of whom he had absolutely no fear); within a couple of weeks, he was joining in the fun a bit more. His fragility was a kind of magic, evoking fascination from one little boy in particular, whose own puppy, a bold West Highland terrier, was named after a mathematician. To be a Dickens hero, a bit naive but honourable through and through, seemed quite ordinary by comparison. His first collar, visible in the picture below, was a cat’s – there was no puppy collar sufficiently small.

IMG_2192Before we brought Nicholas into the Dickens Dogs we’d been told how difficult dachshunds could be, both to train and to control, but all that’s unsubstantiated.  He was quick to learn and eager to please, his need for physical protection creating a bond even more quickly than might happen with a larger breed. Like the rest of us, he loves his family with a depth and constancy beyond the wit of man and, more than anything, Nicholas thinks only of being with us; unlike the bigger boys – and I have to admit this –  he is unfailingly obedient, and an eager (if somewhat unwelcome) companion of mine, in particular, whose ‘go-for-it’ outlook on life he shares. ‘Do they all get on?’ people will often ask. Of course we do. We are brethren, bound by love and knowledge of each other’s foibles, to live in the pack we know as home. Lucky us. Happy Day little chap!

Sunny sausage and thoughtful bear

20150924_073033This has been the most glorious Autumn day. On the beach this morning, a brilliant sunrise was enhanced further by the garish jerkin my tiny sausage friend was wearing for the first time.  Designed to make his whereabouts unmistakable in the murky mornings to come, today he became a veritable daffodil springing up behind this rock and that on the deserted beach. On morning runs, young Nico follows my lead with unerring dedication: on such exploratory missions, we are collaborators, that’s for sure, and this morning I treated him to a real bun fight, with lots of growling and rolling about. Once we get home, though, it’s another matter, and the sunny sausage cleaves to our biggest brother, Newman, who can do no wrong in the little dachshund’s eyes.

20150924_073025Despite the glory of the weather first thing, Uncle Newman seemed distracted this morning; more than usually self-absorbed and more than usually oblivious to both direction and correction. He had to stay with Kemo Sabe for nearly all of the run, unable to stay off the seaweed for more than a moment whenever released from the lead; what has got into him? NuNu is the sweetest golden bear: a kind of overgrown school-boy, to speak true, but also gentle and patient, especially with ‘the little fellow’.  He wants more than anything to love and be loved. In this he takes after Uncle Wilkins, who was one of the Old Guard, apparently always away with the fairies and, when having an epileptic episode, on an entirely different plane all together. I know that Kemo Sabe wonders whether NuNu also has more than a touch of Prince Myshkin about him; sometimes when we lie down to sleep in the kitchen at night, the moonlight through the window catches him full-length, upside down and out to the world, his innocence almost palpable as he dreams, once again, of the seaweed which makes Kemo Sabe so annoyed. When out for walks he stares into the distance, particularly at people walking quite a way off, as if hoping they will understand the language he alone of us can speak.

IMG_3245This afternoon Kemo Sabe did not understand when I refused to pose on Uncle Jonny’s grave. His spirit of great obedience and trust inspires our daily doings and I, for one, feel unworthy alongside him. Even Barnaby and Nicholas can tell they let him down. When I overcome the schadenfreude of seeing Newman reprimanded fiercely for  – what amounts to – not being able to remember for very long, I think of the faults each of us would do well to eschew: if I were half as compliant as Uncle NuNu (where all but seaweed is involved), I would be a blessed spaniel indeed. As it is, for us there is only the trying (as someone famous once said) . . .

Three (and now four) in a row

David Saunders
David Saunders

Late August is the time when the visitors start to go away, as though the chill in the air pushes them homeward, incapable of withstanding the wind unlike the rest of us, to whom the sand and sea are left. It doesn’t take much for the beach to empty, even in the midst of the sunniest of summer days: a sudden shower of rain, the sky clouded over – anything other than sustained good weather frightens off all but the hardiest of holiday-makers and they, to give them credit, will hang on in there come the most miserable of days, flying their kites, building their castles and surfing the waves.

But come late-August, after the Scots have returned to school, there’s a perceptible downturn in traffic and this coincides with the migrant birds leaving us as well. The puffins have long gone, off to the North Atlantic in the frightful swell of which they will bob about without sight or shelter of land until they return to us next April.  And though we saw the sand martins near Monks House this morning, still darting after insects around and about the dunes they’ve made their homes for the last few months, the silence outside the window beside which Kemo Sabe and I write suggests that our dear, sweet house martins, having raised three broods with so much wonderful chatter and chortling, may  – without so much as a bye-your-leave – have nipped off while we weren’t looking.

We cannot escape the sadness engendered by these changing, troubling times, with their uncertain journeys of thousands of miles, embarked upon by tiny creatures whose experience of life is restricted to a miraculous muddy shelter or a fragile, feathered nest. We wonder if, by any chance, we will ever see any of them again, even without knowing it, and ponder on how we have been of use to each other, providing fellowship, bed and board to those we don’t know but nevertheless, and in spite of ourselves, protect.

IMG_2964Yesterday, as we trundled along the shore, we looked up to see our first geese – just the three of them – blazing a trail across a steely sky, to their feeding grounds.  There were four of us boys, for young Nicholas is now accompanying us on our morning runs, experiencing for himself the sights and sounds of our magnificent Northumbrian shoreline. He listens and is full of wonder, too; the miracles are entirely new to him, little lad who is not yet one year old. Where have they gone? Where have they been? Like the souls of the faithful departed, in a sense they are always with us; one great communion of nature, moving ever onwards in the cycle of life.


IMG_3021The free dogs of the world, loved and protected by their human families, are uniting and tweeting pictures of themselves posed beside something yellow in the #YellowAgainstYulin Twitter campaign. Our little family group – two golden retrievers, me, the cocker spaniel and Nicholas the dachshund – cannot actually bear to think about what the poor creatures in Yulin, China, actually go through, though it has been reported widely.

If this controversy is news to you, you could read more here:


Please use your voice against the cruelty involved in this event which someone apparently felt would make an attractive tourist draw. Some things make me so angry, so unhappy, that words fail me. But a lovely picture of your beloved dog, with a blaze of whatever kind of yellow, with the hashtags #YellowAgainstYulin and #fortheLOVEofDOGS will publicise our canine voice of opposition on Twitter.

When the hurly-burly’s done!

IMG_2975 (2)Here is our hero, Horatio, the tiny herring gull baby, who is growing up on the roof, divided from the rest of his family since he fell from the chimney shortly after hatching, but attended lovingly by one parent or another and growing steadily every day, despite gasping for refreshment when it’s a bit too warm, hunkering down when it’s breezy and doing his best to keep dry. His condition is concerning at the best of times – for he is mostly alone and heaven knows what he is thinking; but, after what he went through last night, we really didn’t expect to see him again. Let me explain.

Yesterday turned out to be the hottest day of the year in Britain, though up here on the Northumberland coast we had rather a mixed bag of splendid sun, overcast skies and a continuous blustery wind which kept everything pleasingly fresh. So, while we listened to the out-of-touch-as-ever-when-it-comes-to-weather-forecasts BBC, rattling on endlessly about rail tracks buckling, office workers taking sickies and the wilting folks at Wimbledon, everything carried on as normal here.  However, while the rest of the country got the day-time scorcher, we up here in the north east suffered its after-effects when, at about 1.30 in the morning, the drama of a massive electric storm – unlike anything we’ve ever seen before – began.

In the kitchen, Newman and I dug our heads into our bedclothes, hiding from the frightening flashes of lightning which brought a kind of daytime to the middle of the night. As the heavens resounded with cracks and rolling thunder, I could sense as I stole a peek out the cat flap the eerie stillness which had replaced yesterday’s wind, providing a scary backdrop to the drama of light and noise which tumbled all around us. Nico started barking at his first experience of the truly frightening and utterly baffling, the swathes of white light one moment, the fractured fingers of light piercing the black sky the next.

What could the infant bird be making of all this, we thought; his feeble frame and downy body, his incapable arms? Just when you’d think the night had done enough beneath the enormous moon, torrents of rain began to lash the roof and windows, a downpour in the truest sense, enough to drown the creature utterly, we surely thought. But there was nothing any of us, even a tearful Kemo Sabe, could do, as there never is when the little bird is so far above us and we are so useless below. In truth, though, as our thoughts of him contending with the hours of horror disturbed any chance of finding peace, we commended him to the Great Spirit, praying that somehow, however unlikely that might be, he might be spared.

IMG_3011And, wonderful to relate, he is. The herring gull family has triumphed again, though we shall never know how and, as this morning’s picture shows, all is calm and bright, parent on guard and chicks in order against a cloudless sky. Hang in there, somebody famous once said, and indeed Horatio did. He deserves a hero’s name because, like so many creatures, he faces life’s vicissitudes with equanimity and determination: a Wellington, or a Nelson. If only we could all be so brave.  How ironic that King Lear’s words had never cut so deep:

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these?

That we could care so deeply about a creature considered by many round here to be so insignificant and two-a-penny, if not a downright nuisance, says a great deal about the capacity to care.