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Posts Tagged ‘dogs’

Green Withins Brook, Anglezarke

Today, I’m off over the Western Pennines, my usual haunts of Rivington and Anglezarke, a sort of willy-nilly ramble, just seeing where the mood takes me. It takes me up through Leverhulme’s terraced gardens, then along the rough old turnpike towards Will Narr. So far, so predictable, then.

I’ve got the camera, of course, but it’s a bright autumn morning, high in contrast, so it’s going to burn the highlights. To cope with that I need to shoot exposure brackets. And for that I’m going to need a tripod for stability, which I can never be bothered with. So I bump up the ISO up to 800, and keep my fingers crossed, snapping happily by hand as I go. The results aren’t great.

While we’re over this way, I check out a blocked footpath I reported to the council about six weeks ago. It’s still blocked. I wasn’t really expecting it to be cleared – councils are strapped; it was more that I wanted to be sure I’d not missed a way through, something that was perhaps just a little overgrown and easily remedied. But, no. The way is definitely blocked, by wire.

By chance, there’s this horsey lady, on the other side of the obstruction. Her lot – her and the other horsey folk, that is – are responsible for the obstruction. She’s surprised when my head pops up, looking for a way through, which is understandable, because not many people are likely to walk this way any more, on account of the impassable pathway. I’m trying to catch her eye to ask her if the path has been diverted, and where to, but she isn’t for engaging. She turns and walks away. I imagine she looks a little sheepish.

And speaking of sheep, later on, a sheep comes thundering towards me, on the moor. It’s being chased by a dog. The dog’s pretty much on it, a maniacal glint in its eye, when the pair of them whistle past me so close I can feel the draught off them. Like a fool I try to catch hold of the dog’s harness, but it’s going like a rocket and I don’t stand a chance. Had I managed to catch hold, it would have pulled my shoulder out, or had me over, and possibly torn a lump out of me as well – its blood being up that way. Sometimes, though, your instinct exceeds your abilities.

The owner appears, effing and jeffing like a proper boss, but, like the horsey lady, he doesn’t want to catch my eye. Indeed, it’s like I’m not there at all. But then he looks the sort who’d rip your ear off for sitting on his newspaper, so I’m content not to pass the time of day. The sheep has escaped by now, having led the dog, and now its master, into a bog. It’s standing on the dry side, watching, ready to bolt. It was a close shave, and I’m sure the sheep is shaken, but all the same, I can’t help thinking that was cunning.

It’s not the first time I’ve had a sheep come at me like that. The other time, it was being chased by a bullock, which frightened the life out of me as I could actually feel the ground shaking. So anyway, while the hills turn blue to the sound of the boss trying to catch his maladjusted mutt, by now up to his knees in bog, I head off, wondering if there’s something about sheep that we’ve overlooked.

A common feature of the British uplands, they’re credited in certain quarters as being one of the most destructive creatures known to man – at least when they’re farmed the way we farm them. Amongst other ecological catastrophes, according to the writer, George Monbiot, you’re likely to see more bird species in your back garden in five minutes than you will all day on a sheep farmed upland. This seems to be true from my own experience too. Also, much of the green baize, manicured nature of the Dales and the Lakes, which admittedly looks so attractive to us now, is, in ecological terms, better described as a monocultural disaster, wrought entirely by these woolly-backed ruminants, and the economics that drives our management of them.

But taken as a species, we underestimate the nous of the humble sheep. They’re clever enough to recognise faces, both human and sheep, and they’ve been known to defeat cattle grids by rolling over them on their backs. In certain tests of cognitive ability, they can outwit a chimp, and easily leave a dog standing. They have near 360 vision without turning their heads, and most remarkable of all, to me, is they can smell with their feet.

But how about this? You’re being chased by a predator. What’s the best way of throwing it off? Well, you could try veering close by an alternative source of prey, possibly one that’s slow-moving, and so an easier target, like, well a dozy human being. I’m speculating, of course, but it wouldn’t surprise me, given my experience in the wild, so to speak.

Anyway, further along, with the guy still shouting after his dog, I find the path has been settled by a herd of cows with calves. They’re pricking their ears at the commotion behind me, and checking me out with furtive glances to see if I’m anything to do with it. I make soothing noises, and they’re happy to let me pass without breaking their composure. But I wouldn’t like to risk negotiating these dun-coloured beauties with a dog as mad as that. On the lead, they’re likely to flatten the owner as well as the dog – both being tarred by the same brush as potential aggressors. Off the lead, the dog would either have to get the hell out of there, or be trampled to a pulp. A sheep has its nous, a cow has its collective, and its tonnage

In the end, the guy and the dog somehow survive the gauntlet of the cattle, but then it’s off the lead again. There’s a family picnicking at a pretty little spot, by the stream at Lead Mines Clough. Their placid pooch is mooching around beside them, but suddenly finds itself prey to the hound from hell, which comes barrelling at them like a torpedo. I can’t bear to listen to the yelping and screeching, so crank up the pace, put as much distance between me and the commotion as possible.

I’ve wondered about keeping a dog. I understand how a decent, placid little hound might be good company, but I guess I’m just not the type who could be troubled with licking one into shape. I’m more of a cat person, really, but I’m allergic, so don’t keep one of those either – or at least not any more. For me, the best company by far, on a day out, is a like-minded, fellow human being, or, failing that, just one’s own self, and a camera.

I manage only one picture I’m happy with. I took it at a pretty little spot by Green Withins Brook, near the source of the River Yarrow. It’s somewhat soft, because of that high ISO, but it’s inspired me to head back with a tripod sometime. Hopefully on that occasion I can avoid aggressive boss-men with their bonkers dogs, and the machinations of crafty sheep.

Really, they can smell with their feet.

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throstle's nest

So, today I went back to Marsden, setting for my novel Durleston Wood, also the place I was born. There’s a walk here I’ve been doing since childhood -woodland, meadow and riverside. I used to walk it in company with the Faery. Don’t believe in the Faery? Doesn’t matter; they don’t live here any more.

It’s impossible to overlook the changes that have taken place, the suburbanisation, the population increase, and its effect on the quiet places. Durleston is tattered around the edges now, and worse, it has been labelled by the council as amenity,…. as uggh,… country park. Meanwhile the spread of neighbouring Middleton drifts south year on year, its developments an artist’s impression, cast upon the blighted green; another meadow gone, and then another, until we reach the bounding Saracens – waste bins overflowing with bags of dog waste. Little wonder then the Faery have fled, gone gagging for cleaner air.

There was a time when Durleston meant something. Entering the wood from the hurly burly of the world you could feel the silence. It slowed the pulse, slowed the pace, drew you into the gentle currents of its ancient spirit ways. And there were voices, whisperings of imagination, of ghosts and sometimes you would hear the song of the Faery.

durleston wood cover smallBut to know Durleston, even as I knew it in the 60’s, was to know it in its dog days. Its intimacy was a comfort through the trials of childhood, its Faery song a familiar refrain, but a song also in part a lament, foretelling the subsequent decades of decline, of insult and injury. And my grief for its loss I have long carried like a thorn in my heart, long before it was lost, but lately I feel something else, too, something hostile, as if Durleston itself is rejecting me. It feels now like a former lover possessed by an unfamiliar and disturbing spirit. Her emissaries are the troll, the gnome, and their minion – the yapping dog.

Of which:

Descending into the wood today, I am accosted by a dog. It runs loose, aggressive, teeth bared, yapping. And ambling along the path comes the gnome. He is a corpulent youth, sweating in shorts and tee shirt, supermarket-bag of junk to hand. The gnome speaks:

“Better watch him mate,” he says, “or he’ll obliterate you.”

He seems a pleasant enough simpleton, sees no need to control his dog, thinks perhaps if it bites, it is my fault – not his concern. He does not think ahead, or through the consequences. Notwithstanding his odd and pointedly literate use of the word “obliterate”, his ignorance is his bliss.

My canine assailant is not a fighting dog, not a Pit Bull. Thank heavens then for small mercies. No, this is just a small yappy dog of indeterminate breed, daft as a brush, and domesticated only in the most token sense of the word. But even such dogs as this can draw blood, and draw it quick. I risk a nicked vein, torn flesh, and a trip to casualty. Some dogs too have a penchant for the buttocks. Perhaps the gnome would laugh at that.

“Got you there, didn’t he, mate?”

None of this is inconsequential, but neither is it the dog’s fault. The dog is being a dog, runner and rabble rouser in a pack of ignorance.

man strolling in a wooded landscape - detail - A A MillsIn quieter times, before the spread of Middleton, before words like “amenity” were dreamed, I have meditated for hours in the dappled, shady quiet of Durleston, times when the wood revealed its hidden treasures: the nuthatch, kingfisher, water-vole, all the shy creatures, and sometimes the perception would broaden further to reveal the Faery.

Now the paths are torn open, deep wounds oozing mud, cut by the passage of muscular men in fetish gear, on bicycles. You cannot meditate for hours in the silence of Durleston any more. A minute is your lot between the passage of town folk in their careless packs, yapping as loud as their dogs.

So,…

I’m thinking I should say something to this man, ask him to put his dog on a lead, but he has a plump child in tow and might be inclined to yap assertively in order not to lose face, and his dog might take his tone then as permission to engage. I say nothing, feel instead my magnanimity ebb, my greeting smile fade to stone. The dog stands its ground. I have seen a dog, like this one, attempt to bite a passing lorry, so I do not suppose myself immune. Nor am I confident I could dispatch my assailant as efficiently .

A child was recently mauled by a dog running loose like this amid Durleston’s amenity. There were many dogs loose that day. The owner melted into the crowds and did not come forward to claim the child’s blood as his responsibility. But children are small, men are big. It is a doggish thing, and natural to take down the easier game.

That I do not threaten its pack permits the dog’s attention to wander. It loses interest, shoots away into the wood. What larks! I am saved, and move quietly on, but have lost my train of thought now, my ease, my meditative stride. Where was I? Believer in Faery, indeed! Where are the buggers when you need them!

The route is busy today, more packs of careless, flat-footed folk with loose dogs at every turn. I find it tiresome, negotiating safe passage in a kingdom to which I once had free reign. A springer bounds towards me – not aggressive this time, so I an not afraid. It leaps playfully, splats a dash of drool upon my pants, slaps there also its filthy paws then bounds away. It is with a fixed grin I ready myself to accept an apology from the lady owner, but none is forthcoming. Perhaps she is embarrassed. Perhaps she feels I am the strange one here, a man alone, walking without a dog.

I abandon the route, come up instead by the Throstle’s Nest, a less trodden way. In the long ago, the meadows here were a steaming tip. The plough still brings up fresh shards of pot and glass with each pass, so that in the early spring, when the sun hits right and the crop is low, the way is all a glitter. The plough also breaks the shards into a fresh, keen sharpness, so I would not like to lose my footing for the ground is seeded here with teeth. It ensures I am little troubled by dogs though.

rye3I concede the loss of Durleston, conceded it even before it was lost. I got a novel out of it, so I count my blessings – parting gift of the Faery perhaps. There is town and country, and their ways are not alike. The country that abuts the town will always suffer the town’s corruption. Unlikewise, the town is never healed, never cleansed by its proximity to the shady dell.

The Faery shake their heads, bewildered. They move on at the sound of our footfall, and at the yapping of our dogs who seem more often our delinquent masters. I understand I too must move on, that this lament for a lost Arcadia is part of the human condition, something welling eternal from the soul of the world. Indeed I have moved on, moved away, feel it now on the in-breath as this antagonism in the spirit of Durleston, as on the out I still grieve its loss, feel myself floundering and in search of something I was surely nearer grasping as a child than I am now.

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pooI have a special relationship with the countryside, some might say eccentric, even a little Victorian. I see in it reflections of what the old Romantics would have called the sublime. I am a countryman, I suppose. I was brought up in it, still live in a rural village, and have resisted all my life the siren call and the bright lights and the fast food outlets of the ever encroaching environs of  Urbania. Unlike the countryside, Urbania to my eyes is the same wherever you find it, and it is always growing, always flowing, bustling, hustling, and always blowing out its litter into other people’s hedgerows. And to me, for all of its bright lights, Urbania is void of colour; it is a uniform, uninteresting grey.  You don’t need to go anywhere to find it; stand still for long enough, and it will come to you.

The sublime cannot be found everywhere in the countryside; it is a fickle thing, but for sure it is least likely to found where our constructions, or even our footprints encroach too greedily upon it. This is not to say we are always spoiling nature – we can find ways of living in harmony with it, but more often we don’t try, and the closer the borders of Urbania draw near, the less likely we are to care about such cerebral niceties as abiding in nature, and the quest for the sublime.

Rural communities understand how the moods, and even the shape of the land can inform and uplift the soul. The smaller the community, and the further away from Urbania, the more keenly will the rhythms and the currents of nature be felt. Urbanians though, take a different view. They see nature more as an “amenity”, or a convenient open space, allowing them to do those anti-social activities the towns and cities deny them, even if this is so basic a thing as providing somewhere for their dogs to run and dump (no I really do mean dump), or a convenient slope up which they can take their bicycles and churn the paths to slime on the downward run.

By contrast, the countryman will walk a path and leave no trace of his passing, not a bent twig nor torn piece of moss, nor are you likely to hear him passing. But Urbanians will yelp and squeal and eff and blind their way, and they will spill litter from their pockets as they go, like a trail of breadcrumbs as if they fear getting lost; they will set fire to stolen cars in the back lanes, and they will leave calling cards in the form of little bags of poo.

Yes poo!

rivington pike

Rivington Pike

I have written of the despoliation of Rivington before. Rivington is one of Lancashire’s most celebrated and most visited beauty spots. But visiting it again myself after the Easter Bank Holiday weekend, I find matters reaching a crisis point, though I say this every year. The first thing my eyes alighted upon after parking my car and fastening on my boots, was a little bag of poo hanging cheekily from a tree. Beneath, and scattered around it were beercans and plastic bottles. As I moved off, I spied another bag of poo in the grass, another hung from a nail on the fence. More beercans were revealed at every turn, also polythene bags, food wrappers, and of course more little bags of poo.

For those of you not acquainted with this peculiar custom, the poo in question comes from dogs. It is painstakingly collected by their owners, and then hung up for all to see. The poo transcends your normal detritus, which seems scattered more in a careless way indicative of the Urbanian’s normal insensitivity for nature. The poo however is a definite statement, obviously, being all the more carefully arrayed so that it can only be taken as a banner, or a bowel churning war-cry:

“I have been,” it says. “And I shall come again.”

There it hangs, or lies, preserved in its entirety, and for eternity, more bags of poo accumulating week on week of course, until one cannot progress literally more than a few paces without finding yet another one. I have no wish to offend doggie people, am very fond of dogs, and know many responsible owners, but these bags of poo are offensive to a countryman. Human beings have a natural aversion to faecal matter, at least that issuing from the bowels of carnivores, including ourselves, and for the basic reason it is alive with pathogens, and can do us harm.

It must be said this is something of a recent phenomenon. In the long ago, dogs would dump in the open while owners looked blithely on. And there the said pile would steam and fester until the rains washed it away. This is now an offence, punishable by a hefty fine so dog owners must pick up their turds and take them home. It is not a task I would enjoy, speaking personally as a non dog owner, but owners do seem most diligent in this nowadays, placing the faecal matter ever so carefully in a bag, and I’m sure many do then take it home. However, obviously, as any walk around Rivington or indeed anywhere else in the countryside these days will tell you, many do not.

rivington village green

Rivington Village Green

I am at a loss to understand this quirk of human nature. Having done the really hard part, I mean handling it and bagging it, why then hang it up for all to see? Really, it makes no sense! Urbanians please explain! Is this a territorial thing? Are you really at war with us country folk? Cease, or we shall drive our herbivorous cows and sheep into your cities, and create perpetual gridlock!

A walk around Rivington, especially after the Easter Bank Holiday makes me wonder if others believe that care of the countryside is always someone else’s responsibility, that if we leave our beercans, our plastic paraphernalia, discarded underpants, brassieres, prophylactics, fast food cartons, shoes, nappies, and little bags of poo strewn about, someone else will tidy it all away. They won’t. Care of the countryside is everyone’s responsibility, so please take your litter, and your poo home.

Oh, it’s easy to rant, and I shall resist the urge, because there’s an inevitability about it. Such detritus is a natural tide, a line of flotsam that projects beyond the boundaries of Urbania, a high water mark to drown all in its path. To avoid it one must travel further afield than Rivington now. I accept it. I mourn it. It is lost to the greyness.

“What is greyness, please?” asks the passing Urbanian, dog bag at the ready.

It is a lack of colour, a lack of depth, mate. It is the subliminal life drained from nature, as it abuts the incoming tide, its roots shrinking as if at the advance of a glyphosphate spillage. It is in short that bag of dog poo you are for some mysterious reason hanging from a tree.

In response a committee is formed, and we put up a notice claiming the land as “Amenity”, as if its authoritative fonts alone will protect it. Then we put up prohibitive notices, which are themselves as ugly as the things they prohibit. Meanwhile we leave the litter to rot because you have to pay someone in man-hours to pick that up, and why bother when several tonnes more will be deposited as soon as the man goes home.

You can still find places unmarked by bags of poo, but they tend to be where the land is large and scary and the wind blows hard all winter. Only there my friend do Urbanians, and their doggies, fear to tread. I should add here in conclusion I do not mean to imply all town or city dwellers are Urbanians. You don’t have to live in the sticks be a countryman at heart. But remember to be a countryman you must leave no trace of your passing, and that includes taking your dog poo home.

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