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.

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.




‘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!’

Works of wonder

Effigy of St Nicholas in Bari Photo from WikiCommons

This morning’s dawn was one of the most extraordinarily beautiful we have ever experienced. In terms of thermometers, it was the coldest morning so far this season, but because it had been so dry the last couple of days, the frost lay sugary and free, crisping the sand beneath  my paws in a way which was new for me. To the east, the sun played games beneath the horizon, producing a light-show almost unreal in its range of peach, Titian-blue and grey; where the sea met the sky, far far away, a low range of cloud extended unbroken, like a foreign land newly uncovered overnight; vapour trails from several planes dragged graffiti across the sun’s palette. Unsurprisingly, the moon hovered huge and high, unwilling to depart, staring straight at the sun across from above the castle to the islands, where the warden has now shuttered the windows and cleared off for the winter.

IMG_2220At home, young Nico (he of the velvet underneath) was resting in his crate after a plate-full of fresh mince. This morning was the first I sought him out for companionship and earned a treat for my trouble. Today is the feast of St Nicholas the Wonderworker, so it is our little friend’s name day. The residents of Bari, where the saint is buried, carry his effigy into and out of the sea every year on his feast, reliving the journey Nicholas made from Turkey, his homeland. The gift-giving of Christmas lies within his aegis, though so far removed from the world he knew.

IMG_2196Nico’s world is as yet small but its wonders daily astound him, even so. Uncle Nunu’s furry feathers fascinate him and already tiny tunnels under benches in the garden constitute a draw for the little digger. So vulnerable, as are we all; so in need of protection, like the rest of us. Be amazed by the wonders which lie all around: see them, and feel blessed and reach out for help to those who shield us.

Back in the saddle

20141118_080615This is sunrise over the very spot where Kemo Sabe fell yesterday – an astonishing burst of light, as comforting as egg, blessing our morning routine. While the shot was being taken, we three stood still beside the trail of hidden rock which did for her in the murk and nastiness of a morn from which the sun had apparently fled, and with it our hope. One can hardly credit it, but it was only yesterday.  Yet today the sun is clear, big and bright as August ninepence, the air warm and the wind resting in some cave somewhere, getting its breath back I suppose, until summoned forth again by the whirligig of time. Being a small spaniel whose life and heart are full, I know that good follows bad, light follows darkness: that there were steak pies for us all at dinner time in honour of Barbaby’s feast day and fresh salad leaves for Jo, when last night he eventually climbed out of his nest as we were on the way to ours. We must keep faith and think of the seal babies basking on the islands, and tiny Nicholas growing and growling and greeting his myriad relatives in the joy of such newness of life.

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.



Somewhere – and someone – new

Remember, remember, the 5th of November?/Gunpowder, treason and plot.

IMG_2144It is Guy Fawkes Night, and a soundtrack of exploding shells has put us all on edge. We are pushing together around Kemo Sabe’s chair, alert to the frightening screams which are rocking what is usually such a peaceful time of night. Beyond our homestead, out towards the islands, flames prance ferociously up into the darkness from a truly enormous bonfire which has been burning for well over an hour now. It is all very disturbing, and it is hard to see what pleasure people gain from it all.  It was, after all, originally a celebration of anti-Catholic fervour, long-outdated but still enacted at the culmination of Bonfire Night in the Sussex town of Lewes, where an effigy of the Pope is burned and a crowd of 80,000 cheers at what they take as fun. Yes, it’s a funny old tradition but, among many communities, one which has lost its focus as the very name of Guy Fawkes recedes into oblivion. For most dogs like us, however, explosions of various decibel levels remain an inescapable part of this time of year, the frolics of Hallowe’en now the more usual excuse for fire and brimstone.

IMG_2145Pondering on the flames and the fear flowering in the breasts of wild things has distracted me from reflecting on our extraordinary day out recently. The countryside was flat, fertile and stretched far, far into the distance, the roads prepared by legions long ago and, before retracing our steps into the encroaching darkness from which earlier we had emerged, there was a completely delicious cappuccino ice cream and a manic run on a deserted beach at Cleethorpes. You never know where your life is going to take you; that one day you will gaze into the North Sea – mare nostrum, if you like – from a different angle, beneath endearingly rusty instruments of innocent fun and gaze down the estuary towards the Humber forts at its mouth. The Greenwich meridian passes through the town, linking us as we sat on the prom with the Dickens Dogs’ former home, and a signpost points to the North Pole, a mere two and a half thousand miles away. Thank you for having us, little town, on this special day; you have your history, as do we all.

For sleeping within the coils of his closest relatives, we left a tiny new boy inland, awaiting our return to his rural birthplace when he is ready to join us for a life-changing journey in a few weeks’ time.  Nicholas:  a name at last. He has much to learn, like his namesake.

Blood moon and the ball from the deep

20141008_065339At this time of year, with its turbulent and increasingly changeable weather, astonishingly high tides preventing walkers from proceeding along the beach, winds from the continent whipping up the waves, it is the ever-darkening mornings we resent the most. The fingers of the night clasp our shoulders, delaying our fun by degrees a little more every day and we will soon be at that time of ‘no morn, no noon’ of which someone famous once wrote. Yet this undistinguished picture shows something of what this autumnal shift can surprise us with: an orange moon as big and bright as the dawn, blessing us with its morning glow as, facing it from over the North Sea, the sun itself slides up from the horizon.  Such a phenomenon came as a splendid surprise, a kind of pumpkin to remind me to change my Next Big Day widget in preparation for Hallowe’en.

This is a time of year when things are afoot, and no mistake. Attached to the house has grown of late an opulent kind of bunkhouse, both upstairs and down, giving NuNu and I much more room for our sleeping bags and, for Barnaby, the prospect of a sunny room where his enormous memory-foam bed can fit. Patiently we three have watched and listened as the work has speedily progressed; I have inspected it and found it all good. I have not wandered when the side gate disappeared – what need have I of wandering? Rumours abound that a Dickensian name suitable for an addition to our clan may shortly need to be decided on; a long name, perhaps, for a small pup. Within a few weeks we will undertake a journey to see to which he seems most suited. This is my best thing for a very long time.

Except that this morning, as we clung to the rolling waves on the tide-filled beach, before my feet rolled out of the surf a perfect sea urchin, whole and entire, thrown up into my path with remarkable ordinariness as though such bounty were commonplace. Thank you, Great Spirit, for the kaleidoscope we call our days: on a dark and dingy morning, to find the perfect ball.



On a beach in summer

IMG00401-20140607-0645In a county of magnificent castles, this is certainly one of the grander ones we’ve found on the beach which extends beneath the glory of the real Bamburgh fortification. Mornings are the time we view and judge the previous day’s sandcastle-making,  varying in complexity and success, it has to be said. We were on Bamburgh beach on our daily run even earlier than usual, just after six, and the early start brought intensified pleasures – a very low tide, nobody about at all, just us and the sea, and – of our little band – me alone off the lead for the entire long run! Though the smallest and youngest of the Dickens Dogs, this little spaniel has proved the most trustworthy, the most obedient, the least greedy for seaweed, and consequently I am free to roam and follow my spanielisms wherever they take me – which in fact is never very far from Kemo Sabe and the boys. There’s been a smelly old dead seal (poor creature) on a far shore for a while now, but I pass it by with but a distasteful glance, and from a distance, quite unlike the boys who always want to get up really close and get covered in its appalling scent. When the magic mood moves me, I run across and high-five Barnaby, sharing my joy and exuberance when I want. Natural things are so wonderful right now: the days are extra long, the birds are thrilling us with their songs all day, the grass keeps growing, Springwatch is on BBC2 and the creatures in our homely menagerie  provide constant comment.

IMG_1633How incomparably lucky we are to enjoy the peace and striking beauty of the miles of Bamburgh beach! As I write, we are constantly and quite rightly reminded by what we hear on the radio and read about the D-Day beaches, and what was happening on and around them seventy years ago. Our hearts and imaginations are filled with gratitude and humility as we stand in a gentle breeze and breath the pure air from the North Sea, remembering the endurance and courage of all those for whom, that day, interminable noise and horror were inescapable.  And the journey to Berlin had only but begun. We will remember them, all of them.

It was broad day-light and a summer day,
a secret. We were taken in:
enigma once again.
A cry in memory – a beautiful day
like a phoenix, we showed them

a different kind of dawn
then; I wonder if we could again.

It’s always been when the sun is out
when you tell the truth –
shame the devil – that it happens all right.

So, today, I think for the first time
of others, waiting in the back room
waiting in vain behind the wrong blockade –
‘This is no time to try to worry us:
The sun is shining. This is no place to land.’

Written in 1969 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of D-Day

One very special Dalmatian

DSCN0005This is Abby, about whose sad and unexpected death I wrote briefly last week. She is the mother of Jasmine and, in turn, the grandmother of Tomas, and was herself the daughter of Joshua: all of these beautiful creatures were bred, owned and shown in the ring by their loving human, who is still struggling to get used to a bed bigger by one big Dalmatian girl. No words can really serve the purpose, except to say that everyone in the world knows what it feels like to say goodbye to a beloved; there are no words and none are needed – as someone famous once said.  Dear Abby and her family had not that long ago moved to a special new house with a really big garden and a special room for the Dallies to relax in just to themselves, new sofas included. But rather as happened with Uncle Jonny, she had too soon to move on and leave everyone wondering which woods she had wandered off into on that next bit of the journey we must all undertake one day. Her time came, unexpectedly as it turned out, but she was very seriously ill and thus was quietly let go as the extent of her cancer was detected.

The finality of death is chilling and therefore some folk go to really extraordinary lengths with the help of ingenious and innovatory veterinary science to postpone the parting as long as is possible. However, I know that when Uncle Jonny began to fail everyone saw it at once and it was natural for us to let him go, rather than intervene, operate or whatever, in order to keep feeling we were doing something useful and so have him with us for perhaps only a few months more. Kent’s words about Lear come to mind:

Vex not his ghost: O! let him pass; he hates him
That would upon the rack of this tough world
Stretch him out longer.

In Supervet, the ground-breaking work of the truly-heroic orthopaedics specialist Noel Fitzpatrick brings worthwhile life back to animals who have been broken by disease, accident or congenital abnormality. We all sit fascinated by the stories and comfort Kemo Sabe when she cries. But every now and then we wonder who is best being served by complex and repeated operations on some of the fragile, broken bodies old enough to long for peace and rest at last.

As a young, small spaniel I still do not know when I will be called to leave Kemo Sabe and the boys, though I hope it will be years to come. But what we as best-loved beasts want most of all is the chance to die in our own homes, in the arms of those who have always held us, in good times or in bad. We want the inevitable and appalling sadness on both sides to be respected; for our all-too-short little lives to be celebrated upon the lips of those whose lives we touched and be held in their hearts until they in their turn shuffle off into the woods themselves. So Uncle Noggsy, Uncle Willie, Uncle Jonny, and many more – as well as Hennessy and Simon, the other beautiful Dalmatians in Abby’s clan – reach out to us who knew them (or who know someone who loved them) just as year after year in casual Crufts encounters, countless retriever folk reminisce about the lost loves of their lives on the golden retriever stand.

For her part, Abby will never be forgotten: God bless you, dear girl.

If you would like to watch some of the truly amazing work down by Noel Fitzpatrick, you will find the series here on the Channel 4 website: