What makes a spaniel . . . ?

IMG_2508 . . . asks Nico, my little friend, fixing me with his Feathers McGraw eyes. Well, I answer, let me think . . .

Ball skills obviously. Every day now I practise them furiously on the beach, as I fearlessly drive hither and yon, back and forth in order to retrieve in double-quick time. It is safe to say that I am utterly obsessed, I admit it; feeling more and more as though I am living the spaniel dream as I bring the beloved ball back, again and again and again.  And, if I can swing another go, again. No ball is chucked too far, in too dense scrub or water too deep: I am fearless and relentless in my pursuit of the quarry. Today, I dodged the line of competitors in a long-distance run, as they slogged along from Seahouses to Bamburgh. I hardly noticed them, nor the horses exercising in the surf. My focus and concentration were complete. I am spaniel, watch me fly!

IMG_2516Utter dependability is vital, too. I am never far from Kemo Sabe’s side, no matter what she is doing. Nothing she does seems boring, nowhere dull, no matter how still she sits, how many hours go by. As I curl near her feet, above me on the screen she views I might hear the voices of pirates or detectives, or catch the hooves of a passing horse outside in the street. But throughout and no matter what, I remain her anchor, rounded into a ball as I rest, always near enough to tickle and treasure. Like patience on a monument, as someone famous once said.

Knowing how to raise the roof is important. I know the difference between Kemo Sabe’s footsteps on the gravel and the approach of a stranger and it is my job to let that difference be known with my broad vocabulary of sounds and signals. I am excitable, I admit it: it is –  –  I know, my worst thing, but when I think simply must speak. That’s a spaniel for you.

It is an uncomplicated package, Nico, and I can now recognise that you are quite a bit like me. Your courage in warning strangers is extraordinary, as is your determination to keep up with the big boys as we explore the rock pools; your intelligence in finding ways around them does you credit, little fellow. Your excitement when it’s time to put on your jumper for an outing is inextinguishable until you are safely on your way with the rest of the clan. When as quite a babe the outgoing tide threatened for a moment to carry you with it, as you floated in your sheepskin jacket, you were unperturbed: you were never in danger, a lesson you learnt without being taught, Kemo Sabe’s arms sweeping you up to safety in a trice. Though our days are even busier for your arrival, miraculously time has been made to indulge my greatest joy – a spaniel’s repeated return to its beloved owner:  as I heard someone say on the radio this week, if you want to be loved, get a spaniel.

St Cuthbert’s island: a thousand acres of sky

Photo by John S Turner WikiCommons
Holy Island of Lindisfarne by John S Turner WikiCommons

The sheer magnificence of the beginning of this week’s weather – sheer, clear sunshine, summer at winter’s door, the sun’s rays on our backs from dawn till dusk – has been a complete joy and our spirits have soared in gratitude. Only last week, after I’d posted my previous piece, as if in retribution the calm I’d been talking about was shattered by two days of the worst north winds we’ve endured in three years and, what is even worse, not a mention of it or its intensity on the national weather forecast – as ever.  It really as if the extreme north east has no existence for the rest of the country, as we batten our cat-flaps and protect Nicholas from being blown sideways as he toddles out into the garden for a wee.

Then things changed and, as quickly as the wind arrived, after battering us constantly for well over twenty-four hours, it dropped and an early July settled in January’s place. In celebration we ventured forth across the causeway to Lindisfarne, careful to note the safe crossing times, close by the poles which mark the ancient pilgrims’ footpath from the mainland to the island. There we careered through the dunes until we emerged on the north side of the island near the Snook, where low tide had left us miles and miles of empty sand to run on. Joy and over-excitement abounded; care was taken lest young Nico find a rabbit-hole he fancied and follow his nose down it like Alice but he proved sensible and obedient, always keeping everyone in view with that cheeky, intermittent sideways glance of his.

Lindisfarne is one of Northumberland’s ‘thin’ places, where heaven and earth mix freely in a magic water-colour of thought and feeling. Over thirteen hundred years ago St Cuthbert came from Melrose in the Scottish Borders to be Bishop in this place, and though the priory itself is but a physical ruin now, emotionally and spiritually much medicine thrives there still. Twice every day Lindisfarne is cut off from the mainland. Reaching it is always special, as though the sea’s encroaching and drawing back has cleansed one’s path. None of us would dream of running off in such a holy place, guarded by such natural magic.

It’s that time of year again . . .

20150130_075839 . . . when the Trinity House ship ‘Galatea’ visits our north Northumberland coast, delving into and deepening the through-ways between the islands and checking the buoys which keep the shipping lanes safe. This splendid bark always seems to arrive out of nowhere, glorifying the murky morning with its blazing lights and keeping alarmingly close to the shore but, by the time we catch up with it and can try to capture the spectacle on camera, it has cut back out to sea like a spaniel following a scent. Perhaps tomorrow we will see it again, and imagine the crew breakfasting out there amidst the light-show before beginning their important duties for the day.

. . . when all around us the chill closes in. But, despite the weatherman’s doom-laden prognostications about snowfall, to which in a funny sort of way we’ve been looking forward as a novelty for our young charge, there has been none here.  Instead the sun has shone benignly and the wind been unremarkable. Inland and south of here snow has closed roads and airports but, once again, our magical coastline remains quiet and untroubled by such extremes – inexplicably protected like a magic land.

. . . when the dawn is earlier by the day, and our runs begin earlier too, giving us all an extra half an hour in which to honour the Great Spirit by our play and pondering; on wind-free days, as well, it is almost as if one can hear the snowdrops piercing the frost, and the gradual arrival of spring being numbered hour by hour, however distant it ultimately remains. Out in the garden Christopher Wren has been out and about quite regularly, eschewing his secret spaces for the titbits underneath the bird-table and feeders, darting under the ferns by the pond and even checking out his nest-box now and again.

20150130_075911 . . . when Crufts comes around, and the appearance of the goldies at Discover Dogs. This year young Nicodemus will join us on our trip away and no doubt fresh in everyone’s minds will be what his little presence has added to our relentless round of doggy life. To most people who haven’t had a dog before, the true nature of this turmoil comes as a truly astounding shock: the work involved, the intensity of feeling generated. No wonder I haven’t had much time to ponder; there’s been too much to do! My new routine of ecstatic ball retrieving on the beach has relaxed me a lot, and I feel happier in his enthusiastic company; as an enthusiast myself, I am surprised by how sedate it’s possible for a three-year-old to feel, though I can feel by how fondly she holds and talks to me that Kemo Sabe wants to reassure me and I know I must be patient as the little one matures. He puts on weight so slowly, being a tiny lad – about an ounce a week at most (note to those considering a Golden Retriever: Old Uncle Noggsy once put on seven pounds in a week). It’s that time of year again when corners of one kind and another are turned and, though it will be a while before daisies pied and violets blue are adorning the grass above the icy rocks we cross so carefully every morning, every now and then one can feel the hounds of spring catching up with us.


As the world turns upside down . . .

IMG_2363What a week it has been.

The depths of winter are expressed up here by incredibly varied weather; until recently it’s been peaceful, with splendid dawns, quiet days and starry nights, often when other parts of the country are beset by rain and raucousness.  Over the last ten days or so, however, the wind’s been knocking on our door much more frequently and we have had to be on our toes as things change, sometimes quite violently. Only yesterday, twenty-four hours after we had to abandon the beach because of the gales, stillness, calm and clear skies greeted us. High winds and foul weather were predicted overnight, though, so our hearts sank, our morning run looking unlikely. As it turned out, however, things were what we’d call normal, with a bright sky, a brisk wind but gusts which were quite manageable for us all, even for those of us fairly close to the ground.

As the day has worn on, however, the storm has intensified and outside now it is squally 20150105_080516and wretched, as we found on our afternoon outing. The sea is charging towards the land, white wave after white wave, across a disappearing expanse of sand whose swirling grains blind as you criss-cross the beach. Tomorrow’s run looks very unlikely. But who knows? We take each day as it comes, eyeing the dire BBC national weather forecast with scepticism until we see what the new dawn actually brings, as our part of the coast has its own little micro-climate. It is one aspect of life up here with the Dickens Dogs which helps to comfort and secure us, despite everything going awry elsewhere.

20150115_123216Since Nicholas’s arrival at the end of November, routines have been paramount, and he is learning well what is expected of him. I have received a couple of bonuses: a daily chew for me alone to enjoy after supper and a daily extra outing with Kemo Sabe – my heart will surely burst, so much joy is now mine – in which I charge around chasing and retrieving my beloved ball, faithfully returning it, over-enthusiastically and noisily. This new routine obviously has something to do with the arrival of young Nico (whom I secretly think of as The Long Ranger), who takes up a good deal of everybody’s attention. Uncle Newman, being more mature and bigger-hearted than I, simply doesn’t mind and patiently smiles as the infant chews on his tail. He is settled and secure; gradually Barnaby and I are uniting round him, as our little pup grows in our hearts.




Hammy Jo’s first Christmas

IMG_2351One of my favourite daily routines, after returning from our run and eating my bowl of breakfast, is the morning ritual of making Jo comfortable for the day. Everyone loves Jo, for his sweet nature, enchanting heart-shaped face, extraordinarily charming fur coat and his tiny, perfect nose. At the drop of a hat we Dickens Dogs will rush upstairs and congregate in the Growlery where he lives, crowding in and hoping to see him come out, like the groundhog on that special day. And all this, despite the fact that he does very little to court our affection, confined as he is to his (albeit extensive) hamstery world of tunnels, nests and copious food supplies, Byzantine in the complexity of location and content. As I write I can see that a new pantry is developing along the connecting tube, weighing it down with peanuts, sunflower seeds and the various coloured biscuity shapes from proprietary hamster food which he actually likes (the rest being thrown to one side immediately his bowls are filled).

IMG_2356Every morning I alone am allowed to participate in the housekeeping routine. I sit patiently nearby as any remnants from his suppertime veg are retrieved, soiled wood shavings are cleared out and the surfaces cleaned; his red playroom and wheel are gently disinfected,  his tiny poos removed and fresh litter scattered about. This daily labour keeps him fresh and spotless and takes a little over five minutes while saving Jo from the major upheaval of the usual massive clear-out which he finds really disconbobulating. During the procedure, Jo begins rustling about in his deep, warm nest and pokes out his pink nose, as soft as a raspberry. He stretches forth and emerges, ready to eat something extra from Kemo Sabe’s hand – some dried mealworms, perhaps, or pumpkin seeds – and if he is particularly in luck (as he was today), he’ll get another monkey nut to strip down and store, even though he’s already got loads blocking the tunnel. When it’s all over, I get a slice of dried banana, which I love, my bonus and a secret between Kemo Sabe and me.

IMG_2353Hammy Jo is one tiny insignificant little creature in a world of millions such, yet his life is dignified and his care and comfort are important, perhaps all the more so because he will not see many Christmases (Kemo Sabe’s first hamster was with her but a year and a day, as in a fairy tale). Hammy Jo’s routines, morning and night – when he gets his beloved salad leaves, plus grated carrot and something gorgeous, like fresh jewels of pomegranate – calm me wonderfully and make me ponder on grace abounding, as it does despite everything. In the simplest things.

‘It was Christmas Day in the workhouse . . . ‘

IMG_2340I have had little time to post recently: there’s been so much to do, with our new family member’s routines adding to those already in place – four more meals a day, endless trips into the garden to build on the relentless house-training that’s needed and everything else a tiny puppy needs in these first vital months of a new life. And then of course, there is the time of year, with its own demands for food on the table and logs to be gathered. But today, Christmas Day, Kemo Sabe and I can pause and ponder – at last.

IMG_2322In two weeks, young Nico has put on forty-five grams, and his neck has strengthened sufficiently for him to graduate to a proper cat collar, even if it does have little silver crowns, making him look like a Romanov prince. If this picture looks familiar, be assured it is new; compare the two to see how he has grown! Nico has now successfully attended all his puppy parties at the vet’s, where he discharged himself with honour and won the affection of an intelligent little boy whose Westie played gently and won Nico’s trust. Having yesterday had his final vaccination, within a week Nico will be out and about, though carefully guarded by us all no doubt and only an arm’s length from the luxury of being carried down to the sea, where we can show him our best things. What will he make of them, we wonder, what someone famous once called ‘the brilliant smell of water, the brave smell of a stone’?

IMG_2306Today he joined us in tearing apart the wrapping paper we all so enjoy, and shared the Lily’s Kitchen Christmas biscuits with their tangy turkey and cranberries, cinnamon and herbs. I am seeing him more generously now, aware that Kemo Sabe still leans on me for steadfastness and good sense; that she values my comradeship, obedience and fearlessness, not to mention my sense of humour. Above, you see us after the worst of the detritus had been cleared, the little one in his favourite spot at Uncle NuNu’s side, various creatures of the forest and woodland (rabbit, badger, gorilla) scattered around. His fragility and neediness still frighten me, though, and I know I must be more mature, as time will make me.

Photo by Hank Gillette from WiKipedia

On Monday’s Tweet of the Day: World Birds on BBC Radio 4, we learnt about the once highly-endangered Hyacinth Macaw, a parrot of stunning magnificence which can be found in Brazil’s Pantanal Conservation Area. We love parrots  – their intelligence, their wonderful feet and footwork, the daintiness of their demeanour, their beaks – and though we would have loved to home one, we know that it is cruel to keep them unless you have them from childhood and can be with them all their lives and make them emotionally secure. Our little blog has at least one loyal reader in Brazil, so far away from us in Northumberland, and we send a special thank you to you today, this special day of celebration throughout this torn and troubled world. Christmas is a time when, traditionally, it is said the animals speak. We Dickens Dogs raise our voices to our loyal followers, few though you be. Happy Christmas, peace and good health be with you all! And as Mr Dickens himself writes, ‘God bless us, everyone!’

Rocks, hard places and paving slabs

20141104_122931Today Kemo Sabe began our day by tripping on a small rock concealed beneath the wind-swept sand near the horrid pool and falling onto another hard place, which hit her in the chest. Behind us, the boiling sea roared on in a truly Byronic way; sea-foam blew in all directions, the wind whistling round the headland while Mr Sensitive, aka Newman, continued to tie his lead in knots, unconcerned by the unfolding drama. But Mr Barnaby Sensible and I rushed to give comfort and get her to her feet. It was an inauspicious start to Barnaby’s fifth birthday, particularly as only shortly before she had protected him from the consequences of his own over-enthusiasm by throwing behind her after a couple of half-hearted throws the yellow ball the thrilled birthday boy had just found on the deserted wintry beach.

We Dickens Dogs are all in a sense like children. Cared for, guided, protected – sometimes from ourselves; we are so lucky to have those who love us and how fearful we are when we are reminded of their vulnerability. Older, not necessarily wiser (both Barnaby and dear old Uncle Noggsy have a seaweed obsession), with this landmark birthday Barnaby leaves the foothills of a dog’s life behind.  To me, he and Uncle Noggsy are the elders. At three, I have a long way to go, though my recent portrait indicates the mark of experience, I feel. It is an age before Jo the Hamster is one and tiny Nicholas is still so small and so far away that we can hardly believe in him yet: the little toe of our great assembly. After our breakfast Kemo Sabe began dachshund-proofing the garden against young Nickleby’s arrival, sinking paving slabs beside the fence to keep him in and the badgers out. Something new for us all to learn, having survived to live another day.



In praise of Mr Pip: Kemo Sabe writes

20140826_163349So, you are three, my little friend, and I am taking over for a special post, to tell your readers what you mean to me. I know how you would react if you knew we are all looking at and talking about you: your clear brown eyes would widen, your shiny cheeks would puff out, your whiskers would spring forward and, as your neck lengthened, you would begin to bark – let’s move on, you’ld say.

Well, little friend, although I am still unsure how a spaniel found himself in a golden retriever household, every day I give thanks for what you bring. Above all, your signal honesty and straightforwardness; in three years you have never deliberately disobeyed, only pondered a little longer over an all-consuming scent and, once brought back to reality, rushed to do your duty. You so want to be with us, and share your joie de vivre with us. You love us all, it’s obvious. And that makes it possible to feel a little better about the world.

Your cheerfulness is infectious, your interest in everything profound. Your energy is exemplary and, as I watch you rush back to the whistle (as you have done so efficiently since only eight weeks old), I sometimes find myself wondering when time will eventually overtake you and make you slow down. I see you high-five Barnaby and Newman as you seek out trails along the beach, eloquently sharing your happiness at the natural world, no matter what the weather, no matter how much rain is lashing down nor how horizontal the wind.  Your thoughtful profile has directed us to beasts of fur, feather and fin, but you are always respectful, never chasing, never touching, never lurching: the perfect observer.

You have a wonderfully strong constitution, a powerful rib-cage that protects a mighty heart and strength of all kinds, and that strength is never far from me, whatever I am doing. After a tiring and eventful day, nothing is better than taking you in my arms, cradling you as you sleep, trying to imagine what you’re dreaming about, and thanking you for your chunky friendship. The simplicity of your existential goodness will never change, never degrade; a constant joy. Brought among big golden bears as a tiny pup, you are confident, sensible and patient, more mature at three than NuNu will ever be and utterly devoid of jealousy, unlike Mr Rudge. Your knowledge of the past life came only from Uncle Jonny, whom you were privileged to know. He looked at your tiny form and smiled. He knew you would do. Merry, energetic and companionable:  quintessential attributes of the cocker spaniel; to which I would add amusing, thoughtful and devoted. Mr Pip, I salute you. Thank you for opening our eyes to the world you love.


Use me but as your spaniel

IMG_1252No dog appears to us to become so personally attached to his master or mistress as a Spaniel: it cannot endure to be absent; it will come to the room door and scratch and whine to be admitted, and even patiently wait for hours, until entrance be granted. We had a small high-bred female . . . which displayed towards her mistress the strongest affection. This dog was remarkable for beauty, having long glossy hair like silk, and for admirable symmetry; she was besides, as spirited  as elegant . . .

These appreciative words of a nineteenth century spaniel aficionado are quoted in the introduction to Jennifer Lloyd Carey’s splendid work, Cocker Spaniels, first published twenty years ago, a fine work on the history and care of my kind and newly acquired second-hand by Kemo Sabe to add to our growing collections of historic works on my honest little breed. I can tell from all the time she takes looking at such works, pondering on the pictures of my ancient forbears, that she is more and more taken by my sort. When she comes across a thought like the one above she is often moved to draw me closer to hearth and home, knowing that my kind have long proven devoted and constant companions.  I understand and I am quietly proud. Such comments are typical, and pepper the prefaces of instructional works about keeping little spaniels like me.  Only yesterday Kemo Sabe read to us about Rogue, Charles I’s spaniel, who was with him until the end: despite the fellow’s shortcomings of character, I am glad that Rogue remained devoted and gave him friendship when the world was turning upside down.

200px-Hs-lloyd-and-luckstar-of-wareMrs Lloyd Carey, mentioned above, comes from a family which knows more about Cocker Spaniels than most as three generations have bred and loved spaniels. True to form she was with her dog Robin at Crufts last week, though she has been attending since childhood and showed her first Cocker Spaniel in her own right in 1948. When her dear Robin failed to trouble the judges this year, Mrs Carey wasn’t perturbed: the vicissitudes of dog shows are all one to her! Mrs Carey’s grandfather was a pioneer Cocker Spaniel-man, founding a famous line; her father, Herbert Summers Lloyd, won Best in Show at Crufts no less than six times, twice indeed with Luckystar of Ware, the sweetie in the middle of this picture, who looks a lot like me. Peas out of pods, as the boys will no doubt say!

If you would like to see more about this remarkable family of dogs and their loving humans, you will find an interesting little video here:


220px-Canigou_Cambrai_1996Cocker Spaniels have won Best In Show at Crufts more than any other breed, the last one being Albert, professionally known as Champion Canigou Cambrai, in 1996. I wonder if a Cocker will ever win Crufts again, or is that a fond hope? In an age when dog show glamour is increasingly located in the weird and wacky, breeds are no longer fit for their original purpose, and untraditional breeds and those contorted into unhealthy shapes seem to capture the popular imagination, it is good to celebrate the well-roundedness and vigour of the Cocker Spaniel whose only drawback when being shown is the length of his furry skirt! We are a really lovely companion dog: merry, active, modestly-sized, kindly, loyal and deeply, deeply affectionate. We give ourselves wholeheartedly to everything we do and, for most of us, that means being there for you, for as long as you need. By the way, the orange roan in this post is one of my relatives of the Lynwater line: a gorgeous girl and very like my mother.