17 MARCH 2007, Page 79

Muddy dog story

Roy Hattersley

Only the howl of anguish spoilt last Sunday afternoon and even that turned out to have far less distressing causes than I had feared. So I enjoyed a perfect March day — technically still winter, but the sort of weather which exiled poets pretend is typical of England in the spring. The sky was blue, the air was clear and the temperature was at the point, just above freezing, that makes a brisk pace a necessity as well as a pleasure. And all around were the signs of the world coming back to life. The cows were out in the fields again and the first rabbits of the year leapt pointlessly about on the hillsides. Wild daffodils were in bloom and the the first leaves were visible on the hawthorne trees. As always in fine weather in these parts, the view stretched over the hills to eternity. It was a day to do something bold and imaginative. So I went on my usual afternoon walk along the accustomed route.

It begins on one of the tracks which were cut between the stolen fields after the enclosures, continues uphill across rough grazing, descends into a valley which was once a limestone cavern, swings right in the shadow of the escarpment we call an edge, crosses another mile of rough grazing and then — after another enclosure track — ascends through a couple of cultivated fields to the rocky track that leads to the churchyard and home. I was halfway round the circuit when I was approached by a family with a map. They had missed the ‘public footpath’ signs and were not sure of the quickest way back to the village. The older lady in the party — mother, mother-in-law and grandma — was sceptical about my assurance that I had chosen the least muddy route. At the time, her feet were buried up to her ankles. But the whole family struggled gamely on. They were with me when I heard the howl.

The noise came from the top of a little hill which is home to one of the romantically ruined barns which, for some reason I cannot calculate, always reminds me of Silas Marner. I recognised the lady who stood in its shadow as the owner of two golden-haired retrievers, which she walks (although in the opposite direction) along my favoured route. Neither the retrievers nor the husband, who usually accompanies them and her, were anywhere to be seen. The howl (for which, we were relieved to discover, she was not responsible) seemed to be emitted by something or somebody near her feet. On closer inspection we noticed that the source was a black-andwhite spaniel which — as well as being covered in mud — was standing with its paws splayed and its legs rigid in a posture which meant that it was unwilling to move. It was attached to the lady by an emergency lead — clearly part of the harness of her retrievers, which had gone sensibly home to warmth, comfort and biscuits. Every time she gave the lead a slight tug in the direction of the village, the spaniel howled.

I knew exactly how she felt. She had clearly done a good deed. But there was, nevertheless, an obligation to explain how she came to be in the predicament. And the explanation sounded like an apology. ‘We were on our way home and we found him sitting by the gate, all alone and feeling sorry for himself.’ I was by no means certain that she had correctly identified the dog’s gender. Buster was behaving in a way which, although best not described, suggested that he was in the presence of a lady. It made it necessary for both of us to keep our distance. The father of the oncelost family took the initiative. The dog had a collar from which a tag hung. The tag was engraved with a telephone number and, thanks to the miracle of mobile telephones, the anxious owner was contacted. So we walked on, leaving behind a much relieved lady and a still howling dog.

There ought to be a moral in this story. Several are, I suppose, possible. One concerns the risks involved in going off on the promiscuous razzle. For I am sure that is how the spaniel got into trouble. I could also use the anecdote to demonstrate that, here in Arcadia, we ungrudgingly give our time and increase our mobile telephone bills to help others. But I think that the story proves neither of those things. The howling dog — its predicament and its rescue — only goes to show that life in the country is full of excitement. I shall talk about the adventure for days.