Posted by: Splosher | 09/05/2010

Walking and dogs: ready for a workout?

Now we have some better weather across the UK, due to spring whistling in and pushing out the worst winter of the last thirty years, and so with this warmer arrival, I’ve decided to take advantage and embark upon daily walks to my workplace rather than use my bike. As I usually whizz along some farm lanes to save time and cut the frenetic early morning cycling to a minimum, having a nice leisurely stroll along these lanes – which skirt a local country park called Tandle Hills – with my camera in tow to capture the awakening flora and fauna seemed like the perfect addition to creating a stress-free day. Well, this was the original idea but in practice things haven’t really panned out as intended and that’s all down to our canine friends and their many forms: whether that form takes the appearance of small and cuddly or huge and f**king frightening, there’s one constant I’m sure of; I despise all shapes and sizes of every barking, bleeding dog.

I’ve had this affliction of terror around dogs all my life, since I was attacked and savaged by an Alsatian at the age of four: I knew the dog in question and would pat and play with it whenever its owner took it for walks down the backings behind our house. This dog was really a guard dog and was left in the yard of its owner’s house whenever he was out at work, which just happened to be this particular day as I was running past the gate making noise as a four year old kid does. In a split second, the Alsatian was over the gate and pinning me to the ground as it bit into the back of my head: for whatever reason – whether it was me screaming or the beast realised it had strayed from its owner’s yard, I don’t know – but the dog let go almost immediately and allowed me to walk sobbing hysterically the hundred yards or so to my house without, thankfully, attacking me again. This traumatic inter-species experience sullied any future enjoyment I may have discovered from having a pet dog and so my fate was sealed, right through to today’s adult self and any daily interaction during my travels with the aforementioned tail-wagging fools.

The thing is, while I’m on my bike trundling along to work, if some moron happens to have their four-legged companion off its lead and is too far away to stop it roaring towards me in full-blown attack mode, I can usually pedal out of harm’s way with relative ease. However, if the worse comes to the worst and I can feel the hot breath of a rabid beast warming up my heels, then I’m safe in the knowledge I have a steel bike frame to hide behind – and smash into any teeth-barring, slavering snout – in the eventuality things become a little heated. What I’ve noticed in the past week though, as my feet are kicking up plumes of dust next to flowering hawthorn bushes, is that I cannot get lost in thought without already having weighed up the dog situation in the surrounding area and acknowledging all escape routes available to me. I know this statement makes me sound like I’m organising a well-planned bank heist’s checklist in order to evade capture but the circumstance calls for immediate action plan when trouble arises and believe me, when wandering in close proximity to Tandle Hills, there will be trouble if you dislike dogs.

I’ve spent most of my life trudging across its area; with its deciduous woods blending into its evergreen fir trees, interspersed with grassy hillsides and high, windswept vantage points, all crisscrossed with public paths and worn trails, Tandle Hills is the perfect greenbelt addition to the post-industrial landscape of its surrounding boroughs. This accessibility though is the problem as it allows dog walkers and walking ramblers to infringe upon one another’s lives, with each group doggedly (excuse the pun) defending each others’ personal right to proceed as they deem appropriate within the boundaries of this greenbelt vicinity. As I’m going to be striding across Tandle Hills and its nearby locales, taking pictures all over the summer months, I obviously fall into the ramblers’ camp: so, I believe in the right to walk without walkies interfering, which unfortunately is going to be a much harder task to achieve than you may think as the following examples show.

Just a couple of weeks ago during one of the early unseasonal warm spells we usually see in early April, I was wandering around with my eye fixed to my Canon camera’s viewfinder and framing all manner of shots through the lens, oblivious to much of what was occurring around me; that is until I reached the back fence of Tandle Hills. Just off the farm lane and through an open kissing gate you can enter the country park, where you’re greeted with a small patch of mown grass which is surrounded by hawthorn bushes to one side, a fir tree-covered hillock in front and a frog-filled pond to the other side. In the centre of the grassy area is a short but wide spread, elderly Oak tree; its lichen-covered bark shows how long the stunted little survivor’s been standing there and I can always remember its aged presence across my generation. Then, I spotted a Goldfinch on one of the Oak’s branches and swung my camera into position, slowly moving forward with each double-tap shutter press in the hope of getting a close-up shot and feeling much like an assassin taking down his target.

As I got within ten feet of the twittering, multi-coloured songbird, I became aware of rustling bushes off to my rear and twigs being snapped in the undergrowth, but as I was focusing upon my quarry I pushed the sounds to the periphery. Suddenly, with a flit of wings, the Goldfinch was gone and I was left to quickly check the last shot I’d taken on the camera’s LCD screen, which was interrupted by the sound of a low rumbling growl emanating from behind me. Slowly turning my head around, I was faced with one of the most troubling sights possible for a person with a phobia of big dogs: there, standing about twenty feet away was a near-150 pound Rottweiler, teeth barred and snarling in a rigid stance of imminent attack. Then, the bastard Devil dog bolted towards me…

The only option available to me – and one which had to be taken without a second’s thought – was to jump at some low boughs on the nearby Oak tree and then shimmy my near 14 stone upwards as far as my adrenaline would carry me. This turned out to be a lot lower than expected and was probably due to me still thinking I’m in my early twenties and not a couple of months off the middle-age spread of forty; so, as I hung there, knackered and breathless, I could get a better look at my doggy nemesis. The beast was so single-minded in its ferocity towards my form hanging from a branch six feet above that it appeared to be trying to bypass millions of years of canine evolution and climb up the tree like a feline, but luckily for me Darwinism appeared to be holding firm.

To look downwards through post-adrenal gland flooded eyeballs, whose vision had already started to narrow and flash with black dots due to a lack of oxygen and my impression of a human ape, and see flakes of tree bark being torn from the trunk by a slavering, barking beast intent on viscerally shredding me was indeed quite worrying. I gripped my branch a little tighter as I stared into the Rottweiler’s cold, dead eyes and realised my camera was still dangling from my neck, its 300mm telephoto lens dangling downwards and swinging erratically; quickly, I checked the condition, fearful I’d surely find cracked glass. Luckily, everything was fine but I couldn’t help notice that I was now coated from head to foot in bright green algae which must have rubbed onto me from the surface of the tree’s bark during my accelerated clamber: now, with my growing anger beginning to spill over at this preposterous situation and the owner-less, quadrupedal cretin below, I was rapidly beginning to resemble an arboreal Incredible Hulk, partly hidden by spring foliage
and spitting shrill obscenities for all to hear.

“F**k off, you evil f**king c**t!” rang out from my dry mouth and reverberated across the pristine countryside.

Luckily, my screaming is what alerted the dog’s owner to realising his animal had fallen back to its primordial savagery and for all intent and purposes was separating someone’s body parts at the joints. Through the spring flourishing of leaves, I could just make out a wave of relief pass across his face when he spotted me up the tree and not in meaty sections and just as quickly, his expression took on a stern appearance as he bellowed at his dog.

“COME HERE, NOW!” rang out from a man whose age revealed him to be closer to octogenarian than the usual archetypal big dog owners’ appearance of short, stocky with a skinhead and tattoos. The dog immediately became placid, turned and trotted across to its owner with ears down and the stump of its tail wagging nervously. The lead was slipped on and obedience was resumed, so I started to clamber back towards solid ground.

Just as quickly, the elderly man began to profusely apologise, “I’m so sorry but he doesn’t usually do anything like this, honestly”. Regardless of age, I was too far gone for the respect of generational pleasantries and retorted in as much as my breathless, post-adrenal throat could muster.

“WHY THE F**K DON’T YOU KEEP SOMETHING LIKE THAT ON A F**KING LEAD, YOU…” and as I tried to rationalise using personal insults, I thankfully managed to hold my tongue as I swung from the last branch and landed on the grass. Without looking directly at the man and his dog, I checked my camera over as I continued with my rant, “It never ceases to amaze me that dog owners will always defend their f**king pets with lines like ‘Oh, it won’t bite, you’ve got nothing to worry about!’”

At this point, I looked up to face the approaching gentleman and his heeled Rottweiler to deliver my Pièce de résistance; “Well, that’s all a load of f**king bollocks,” left my mouth as we met eye to eye, “and you’re all the same shower of shit as far as I’m concerned!” I stated with a final hint of annoyance as I brushed the green lichen powder from my clothes.

Almost immediately, the man’s face turned from shock, to a confused squint and then onto a scowl of recognition. “Oh, hello… fancy seeing you up here!” Then, focusing, it was my face’s turn to rapidly change expression as I realised that the person I’d just been swearing at and who was now standing before me was the father of my ex-girlfriend and someone I’d always respected greatly, regardless of problems between myself and his daughter.

I spent some time apologising and grovelling and he returned the favour by trying to excuse his dog’s behaviour and in-between our explanations, we then discussed his daughter and some of my current circumstances. I avoided all eye contact with the hound from Hell and when he assured me the dog was fine and I could give it a pat if I liked, I immediately passed and changed the subject with a quavering voice. We left one another slightly repaired I suppose, but I’m sure of one thing: I never want to see that dog ever again, no matter whether he’s with it or not, unless I have a gun loaded and cocked in my pocket.

Further down the lane is an old dairy farm, which at this time of year has resident Swallows return to nest in the cattle sheds, so the air above your head is thick with darting birds feeding on every type of flying insect you can imagine and perfect for photo opportunities. The lane itself turns at a right-angle at the gate of the farmstead and this is usually the way I cycle to work, so I know the area quite well. During numerous occasions whilst on my morning travels, I would spot a most curious sight at this farm in the form of three or four full buckets of water lined up along the top of a wall: even in deepest winter, the surface ice would be already broken as I passed by, no matter what time of day, but always I saw no-one else around.

Except, that is, the farmer’s Jack Russell, who regardless of doggie common sense or the lack of it, hurtles towards me and my rotating cycle crank, yapping like a furry fool possessed and desperately trying to nip my rapidly moving heels. No matter how far beyond the farm you have gone, this tiny whirling-dervish runs Hell for leather to intercept any perceived trespasser – regardless of size – and will bark and yap at your disappearing shape until it decides enough energy has been expended. As I’m always plugged into my MP3 player while cycling, the shock of seeing a white and tan blur trying to bite my front tyre, accompanied with a high-pitched growling usually brings me to my senses just in time to avoid running over this over-exuberant dog.

I found out just last week, as I sauntered apprehensively through the farm, that it’s not only me who is on the receiving end of this nasty greeting when I bumped in to the farmer, who appeared amused at my glancing around of the nearby vicinity.

“Looking for something, lad?” came his statement, pushed through bent lips of a wry smile. I turned and gave him a nod of my head.

“Er, just wondering where the Jack Russell is, really… everyday it chases me on my bike as I come through here going to work,” I said, watching the farmer take his hands out of his blue overall’s pockets and start making a pipe ready for smoking.
“Is it your dog?” I asked.

“Eye, she’s in the house at the minute,” he expelled, along with a couple of puffed-out mouthfuls of tobacco smoke. “Don’t worry, you’re not the only one she harries… she’s a pain in the arse that one!” A waft of the smoke reached my nostrils and suddenly a lifelong craving for cigarettes was instigated for a split second and the last three years of abstinence were forgotten.

Then, the farmer turned and pointed off towards the gate, “That’s why I have those buckets of water lined up over there… see them, there…?” and lo and behold, the buckets were all there once more, brimmed with water.

Laughing but slightly baffled with his statement I said, “I wondered what they were for!” and waited hopefully for the farmer’s further explanation of the buckets; he sensed my confusion and carried on.

“Well, I’ll tell you as I’ve told others who come through here,” the farmer continued as he crossed over to the first bucket, “If she comes at you barking and bloody messing about, just pick up one of the buckets,” and picked it up. Grasping it with one hand on the handle and the other on its base – and his pipe now stuffed into the corner of his mouth – he said, “and show her you mean business by throwing the water over her!” and with this, the farmer chucked the water out of the bucket, splashing it across the dried dust of the lane.

The penny now dropped. “Are you sure? I mean, is it alright…?” I apprehensively said, partly convinced he must be joking: he wasn’t joking though.

“Course I am! I love her to bits but she’s a bloody menace and she’ll only stop if you scare her to death” the farmer said, “take it from me, you drench her and she’ll not bother you again, okay!” With this, he turned and started opening the gate, “Right, I’d better fill this back up as there’s a jogger comes through here any time now who needs a couple of these just to get past here!” He stepped through the gate laughing and shaking his head at this comment and it swung to with a clang, “Don’t forget, use the water if you need it… be seeing you, lad.”

I thanked him and continued on my way, buoyed with a new-found sense of purpose for the upcoming future as I’d just been given a green light, with no hidden costs, to reap retribution from my greatest adversary: suddenly, I now felt like a super-hero preparing to battle a super-villain after discovering their weak spot and given the weapon to beat them. I think I’m really going to start to enjoy cycling to work from now on…

There we have it, then; Tandle Hills and the surrounding area is perfect for walkers if you can dodge the dogs by running, so it’s probably a better bet for joggers who can be guaranteed a good workout.


  1. If only I had a buck for every time I came to! Amazing post.

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