Dog walks come in three flavours. The good. The bad. And the ugly.
Pretty much all my walks before I moved to this country were, I realise belatedly, of the first variety.
Strolling through the Botanical Gardens at sunset, our German shepherd, Rocky, bustling ahead, big ears swivelling, bigger nose twitching as he scanned the dusk for news while birds sang in the bushes and the sky turned to flame behind the banyan trees…those were good walks.
Splashing along the edge of Clearwater, much later, as my parents’ lovely Alsatian Mya lengthened her trot in the surf by my side. Show your pony!
Laughing with my sister and nephews as her crazy springer George zigged and zagged along the beach, curly ears akimbo.
Flash forward to the classic British dog walk, one of which I’ve just survived. My hair is plastered to my face in the sort of I, Claudius ‘do that I bet was a disaster even back in A.D. 41. My nose has turned Alex Ferguson red due to prolonged exposure to the elements. And the rain has dried on my glasses so it looks like spots are dancing before my eyes. No, wait…spots really ARE dancing before my eyes!
Before you protest, I accept that it is possible to have a good dog walk in Britain. For days, sometimes weeks at a time you can stop and smell the roses, or piddle on them, depending on your preference.
And the common or garden bad walks—the unsatisfying “Must you sniff every last lamp post!” battles when you want a quick one and he, sensing your impatience, does an excellent impression of molasses—well, they’re hardly worth mentioning.
But the truly ugly walks? They require a specific combination of ingredients. Rain, sometimes mixed with fog. Strong winds (to style that “Hail, Caesar” hair). And mud. Lots and lots of mud.
Add one dog who, jeepers creepers, doesn’t care what the weatherman says, and you’ve got the fixings for an ordeal with a capital “O.”
Luckily, there’s an outfit designed to protect against all of the above—and I happen to have it.
Rubber pants—rather sooner than I thought I’d need them but what the heck.
Hiking boots—tread like a Chieftain tank and weighing almost as much.
Waterproof, windproof coat. From Seasalt—a Cornish company that prides itself on functionality not fashion. (My sister refused to buy one on the grounds that people might think she’d stolen it from the Public Works Department.)
When I get to the Devil’s Dyke, where Oliver and I prefer to take our perambulations, I pull all these items on, over my normal, non-dog-duty duds. It takes a while.
When I’m done, zipped and cinched, hood battened down, I look like one of the brutes in hazmat suits who break into Elliott’s house in E.T. and make everyone cry. Or the Hartley’s Helmet Diving man, about to set off on his undersea walk.
Outside my waterproof bubble, where the day, as my mother-in-law would put it, has degenerated to “dreich,” the dog is doing his thing—bounding about, tail spinning like a propeller, singularly failing to retrieve the wretched tennis ball even though, as a golden retriever, it’s in his job description.
Inside my bubble, I can hear Kate Bush singing “Wuthering Heights” in my head (“Heathcliff, it’s me, your Cathy, I’ve come home!”), as I peer through my porthole, scanning my 15 degree field of vision for landmarks (“Where has the pub gone?!”) and the enemy of the dog walker, the cow.
For the record, I have nothing against cows when they’re in some far-off field, minding their own beeswax.
I have everything against them when, as now, we are bogged down in a turf war. (Thanks to the freakishly warm weather, the herd has been allowed to graze on National Trust land all winter long.)
Have you ever noticed how absolutely bloody enormous a full-grown cow is? (No fair, Mom and Dad, because I know you do.) Anyone else? I’ll tell you. Huge. Just two, standing nose to bony backside, can block off the low road to Poynings.
I hate their unpredictability. Will Bossy and Baby Bossy continue to chew their cud if I try to sneak behind them? Or will she get all maternal, take exception to my gooberish non-retrieving retriever, fix us with her great, bulbous, long-lashed eyes and crush the pair of us like a couple of Pringles?
And I really hate the trail of destruction they leave—ground churned into what Chancellor George Osborne would surely describe as a “dangerous cocktail” of soil and another “s” word that I cannot mention in a family magazine.
And let us not even discuss the cowpat menace.
But you know what? By the time we finally get back to the car, both of us exhausted, Oliver resembling some creature made of coarse-cut marmalade, in knee socks, and me looking like a health-care worker who has misplaced her Ebola patient, I always think: “Am I completely mad? And what possessed me to buy a light-coloured, long-haired dog in this country!”