In this photograph, taken many many years ago from a little boat on to a shoreline path he had often taken on his four paws, there is one thing missing: the lightbulb brightening above Uncle Jonny’s head when he recognizes the much-loved landscape from an entirely new perspective. Enjoying his boat trip around the tricky waters of the estuary, dear Uncle Jonny ponders, as we dogs constantly do, the circle of life, the deeds of the Dickens Dogs, and the extraordinary fact that, after all, you can get there from here. Last week we trundled along the muddy waterside again. We stopped in the silence of a misty morning and gazed together out over the flats at the few feathery waders who were still about – gazing out into the beloved eyes of Uncle Jonny in his careful little craft, suspended in time and real and true before us.
The afternoon he had looked towards the strip of beach the tide was high; last week the tide was out: Barnaby bounded joyfully to the very spot above which our dear friend had hovered all those years ago, catching him in his mind’s eye. Time stood still and all the years rolled back: the puppies and the learning and the rolling of the eyes! Can so much time have passed? The east coast of England is a magnificent and evolving wonder, and Suffolk in particular has a haunting and evocative nature. Our keen ears, wet with sea-salt, are attuned to the calls of our ancestors; the cries of those who have seen it all before but still listen out for us, and who watch for us as we cross the mud-flats, waving to their little boats.
Ten days or so have passed without my pondering aloud. My amanuensis and I have been elsewhere, throwing ourselves on the kindness of strangers and, when it comes to the weather, caution to the wind. This lovely picture illustrates Jack Frost’s handiwork along the lanes of Suffolk, adorning gorse bushes and spidery homes with his glistening crystal thread. Like some wonderful fisherman, he captures nature in his nets, holding it fast until the sun sets it free.
But unseasonal warmth and rain of all kinds all too soon replace the odd icy morning we’ve enjoyed this winter. There has been very little beauty, just a preponderance of damp and drizzle. Up in the extreme north east we’ve been luckier by far than those in the south of the country, as I’ve frequently noted. Day after day we’ve watched the news and gasped at cottages transformed into granges on the ancient flood plain around Avalon.
Here is the view from Snape to Iken, down the coast in Suffolk from where the floods have been most devastating in that region. The tide is out, the quiet is profound, pierced only by the cry of the curlew and chatter of the gulls. In the distance, beside the ancient anchorage where St Botolph drew up his coracle and staked his claim in Redwald’s land, is the place he made holy, still dripping with meaning to this day. The church is always open: always.
All of the Dickens Dogs are presented there when we are pups; shown the silence and the shelter from the rain, which is always falling, as it is today; whether tempestuously, as it was this morning, or tenderly, gently, as it is as I write.
When we set out on our morning run, as we just did, we always have a vague idea of where we are heading and are confident we will soon be dreaming about everything we’ve seen, safe and warm with our breakfasts inside us. My experience teaches me that their world is not so certain; that our dearest friends go out to and come back from mysterous destinations, smelling of all sorts. We cannot bear their sadness and mop it with our fur. Kemo Sabe will be away again today, at Ten Blankets’ bedside a fair few miles from here. As we boys cling to the fire and listen to the wonderful Britten music coming from Snape – one of our favourite landscapes, of which we think every morning while looking out to Inner Farne (how strange is the imagnation) – we will be waiting for that return; ready to listen, comfort and warm. What more can I, a little spaniel, say? It is like Uncle Jonny all over again.