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 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.


Place in the sun

IMG_1710A new addition to the stumpery is this reclining stone spaniel, probably as heavy as I and now placed not far from Uncle Jonny’s grave where they can keep an eye on each other. It is old and lovely and, from a distance, incredibly life-like. I am thrilled to have been commemorated in my lifetime and shall do my best to be thought worthy by continuing to deliver the daily canine goods to all I meet.

IMG_1705As I write, England is expecting a heatwave, though up here where it never swelters, we should only get to the mid- or high seventies Fahrenheit. This morning, on a very high tide with very little beach left to run along, we all skirted the gentle foam as the fingers of the sea reached to catch our ankles and Newman was allowed a morning swim against the prevailing wind and tide, which helped to tire him out, though in this picture he is gazing up at Peter, Paul and Mary (who are merrily peeping continuously and maturing everyday). Up in their own sunny little world.

IMG_1712My small band of loyal readers includes a person in Brazil, and we all wonder what  someone in such an enormous and fascinating country could find of interest in my pitiful ponderings. Lately of course Brazil has been much in our minds, and we have tried to find out more about it; with every change of venue during the World Cup (O good, it’s Costa Rica tonight, we would shout!), we would check the atlas and locate the stadiums of the day in their disparate locations, so far flung, so exotic – the humidity, the sun!  Despite the woeful awfulness of our own over-indulged footballing side, we enjoyed others’ efforts in the sun hugely and saw some real heroism on occasion, too.  Running for the ball into the sea had never seemed such fun (‘And today I was Klose’, I began to compose in my head).

My little world is currently lush and green, with plenty of grass to chew and bees to watch and listen to, against the aural backdrop of Jussi Bjorling and Victoria de los Angeles at the end of La Boheme. The overwhelming emotions evoked by Puccini’s music throw into relief the fact that our dear Jeoffry is looking thinner these days and that, like the rest of us, he is not getting any younger. But at least he has the sun to sit in, as do we all.

And to our reader in Brazil: a special greeting and thank you for being there!

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

A dog’s life

Newman and JackToday is the birthday of our extraordinary, ebullient, energetic, affectionate, infuriating, incorrigible brother, Newman Noggs.  It is seven years since he entered the world, on a day and in a way none of us saw or knew about, in Leicestershire – a long way from here –  in a canal-side home with his siblings. Then nine or ten weeks later he came into our family, and in particular, to Uncle Jonny’s embrace, for he welcomed him with his open heart, making him his devoted friend for the rest of his own blessed life. Immediately Newman was introduced to Uncle Jonny, a moment captured in this picture, it was admiration at first sight, as you can no doubt see. When just over four years later his friend and mentor died, Newman was characteristically resilient and took on the mantle of senior dog to Barnaby and me in his own individual way.  We have all celebrated with him today, with a wonderful swim in his favourite pool by the rocks, extra treats at dinner time and reminiscences of his time on this earth. Newman’s single-mindedness marks him out: when he is focused – whether on the possible danger posed by another dog (he is very sensibly quite a coward) or the possibility of finding a mouthful of something or other (not necessarily edible, let alone food!) – only the most determined command can interrupt his concentration. Despite his size, he loves to sit on Kemo Sabe’s lap, cuddle and fall asleep. He really is a big, soft dog. Happy Birthday dear friend, now a Veteran in dog terms.

As birthdays notch up I cannot help thinking about how precious is each day, a dog’s life being such a fast and furious thing, particularly for a spaniel. When we take our leave of our beloved family, as I know from Uncle Jonny’s passing when I was a pup that we must, an ineffable bond is sundered in one sense but, in another, a different one is forged. This week we heard that our friend Tomas the Dalmatian (see the March post called Precious Winners All) lost his lovely grandmother, called Abby, aged twelve. She was taken seriously ill unexpectedly and was treated by the vet who discovered that her dramatic decline was caused by inoperable cancer, so she never returned home. Her daughter, Tomas’s mother, who is also with him with their own Kemo Sabe, is troubled by the inexplicable loss and the hole which has opened up within their special family. At such times our humans are full of self-reproach for the times they’ve ignored or reprimanded us, but they should not worry so:  their mourning is a tribute to the place we fill in their lives, lives we love and share and will do for ever, whether there in person or not. We salute you, Abby, gone to rest after a lifetime of love, friendship, puppies, shows and fun; now you live on, forever lively.


. . . and today I was Tonto 2

IMG_1576Now it’s candle-light, and I’m glad to say that a dragged-out Kemo Sabe is finally resting up beside us all, even the endearing Boy Named Jo who now lives downstairs. My, is she bush-whacked, achey and weak, especially in her poor hands; enough to make me cry.  Kemo Sabe has certainly had an heroic week, and had to hang on in there much longer than she’d planned, as the construction of our beautiful new bunkhouse was real strenuous, that’s for sure. It took much much longer than even a real smart small spaniel like me ever expected, no matter what the boys might say, and a whole lot of nip and tuck was involved to get it all dandy-like. Newman watched from the window; Barnaby blamed the plans but I hung about helpfully, ferrying call-outs for hot drinks and heave-hos from Eats No Vegetables: I was always around. We told the IMG_1578other boys how we were getting on, night after night as we sat around the campfire, warming our mitts: they heard tell how she cut them logs herself, rolled them down the river and then cleaved them in two with that great big saw, then getting the whole darn thing to work as one. Lord, there was cussing and fighting when planks didn’t fit so well, but she’s as great a tailor as she is a faithful scout and one way and another it all looks dandy now, waiting for another coat of paint or two and a bit more studleying-up.  From inside, where it’s warm, dry and insulated, comes the fragrance of coffee waiting for us cold and hungry wranglers; think I’ll take mine on my bunk, after that bowl of bacon and beans. Come on in, Berry; this is a fun place to shelter after a hard day’s graft.

Jack’s poem about spring

IMG00017-20110402-0914Today, after a few days away from pondering, wandering free beside the byways of Stepney Green, bathed in warm sunshine, the chilly north east to which we have returned urged us not to get ahead of ourselves, to wrap up again, re-light the fire and turn our minds to the footfalls of history. We have heard many familiar voices, emerging from abandoned courts behind historic churches, from under cobbles where cabbage leaves were once strewn – things that have hardly altered at all, and others gone without a trace, except the imprint which time always makes and which cannot be eradicated.

Summer 05 043Under the circumstances, it’s a really good day to turn again to Uncle Jonny, our dear Jack, and the love he bore us. Let him speak for us today about a glorious past. Regular readers will know what a legacy he left us – we who knew and loved him. Here he is, mud-besplatted, in his prime, many many years ago – about the same age as  Newman is now.  Jack’s thoughts came to him on an ordinary day, made extraordinary for him by the brilliance of the light and warmth which flooded into his heart when he entered Nunhead Cemetery for his daily perambulation. As we grow older it often becomes more difficult to express our deepest feelings, so here is a snapshot from Jonny’s favourite album, a testament to love, joy and the Dickensian belief that something good will always turn up.

Jack’s Poem About Spring

sun on the cemetery
sun on my golden face
my smile a ray
broadening like footprints across my Mummy’s heart
mirroring her
bright like a living daffodil
bouncing stride
it’s back
another season’s yolk
for me to suck the juice from
the dew gone
come morning.

(Taken down for me on 21 March 2000)









The sense he was born with

IMG00315-20131211-0838Newman, dear Newman, this is all about you. Nobody knows you like I do; I who spend the night hours snuggled beside you, me on my Boggis-bed, you on the vast green mattress, six inches deep and wide enough for all three of us. When the wind in the cat-flap wakes me, I hear you snore, I watch you lost in upside-down-world dreams, where you can rush about as madly as you wish and no amount of jumping-up could ever be unwanted.  Stretched out upon your back, arms and legs straight as a diver’s, you go headlong into imagination’s pool, your long, slim form as golden and as glorious as Chewbacca. Ever the child and like a child able to see beyond the bounds of reason; a little lad inside a big, strong soul.

Kickass Photography
Kickass Photography

Being the only spaniel in this family flock, I have made my own way, and all the spaniels in the world  are now pretty much measured by the paw-prints I have left. But you, dear NuNu, you took on the mantle of the great Noggs from the very start, wearing a name of legendary status but being a beast, as is said, of very different colour, and that was apparent to me from my early childhood when the simple, straightforward, fun-loving soul opened his strong arms to me, rolling enthusiastically on the floor as I nipped his ears and sides. There was nothing to fear and I knew it.

IMG_1298Even from that time it was obvious to a small spaniel like me that he was not like other dogs. As unselfconscious as a boy with rolled-down knee-socks and scabby knees, string in pocket and fun afoot, Newman is a wonderful big brother. Full of energy, which bursts forth uncontrollably and can so easily get the best of his better judgement – so a huge mouthful of seaweed is as speedily downed as the time it takes Kemo Sabe to shout out ‘No!’ When he sees folk coming towards us on the sands, though as small as ants, he stands to attention as though transfixed or side-winds towards them in his elegant dressage, desperate to offer warmth, friendship and his inner joy. When asked to pose for a portrait for this post, this was the response!

IMG_1300Even as I write, I can hear the snortling and throat-clearing which marks a bundle between him and Barnaby, the still centre of our canine world. Most remarkable of all, and now most firmly proved from repeated experience, is NuNu’s uncanny ability to read the human mind. Without any clue – neither movement nor word – he will instantly know without fail when someone is even just thinking about the briefest of outings, two minutes down the road; he prepares himself like a guardian angel, with whom it would be unthinkable to venture forth.  Get the coal or wood in, by all means, garden at your will, tidy the shed or garage, work upstairs – move about as much as you want, take as long as you like, he’s as relaxed and happy as a sunbeam in his own sunny world, wherever that currently may be. But believe it: our new Prince Myshkin will know your thoughts and understand your plans, even before you have made them. Emotional and often seemingly distracted, by nature passive and fearful of confrontation, he is on another plane; an endless childhood which we are only gradually coming to understand. It is a privilege to try.  Bless you, beautiful boy! My sleeping companion and my special friend.