February. We’d arranged to look after Sophie and Bobby in the New Forest. Two labradors. One golden. One chocolate. Both gorgeous.
Sophie is nine. A dog with selective hearing. Always hanging back, rolling in something unsavoury, eating something disgusting. She’ll come back when she’s ready, tongue lolling, looking up at me as if she’s laughing; sticking her nose into my pocket hoping for a treat. Then she’ll race off through the forest trying to get Bobby to join her. Bobby has arthritis in his front left elbow. He follows but pays for it shortly afterwards, limping by my side, pleading with his big brown eyes, as if to say please put me on a lead and save me from her. Bobby is a cuddle bunny, and a big softy.
In the mornings we walk them through the forest; Horseshoe Bottom, Longslade Bottom, Yew Tree Bottom. Open grassland, bracken, woods, and wild horses. We walk through fog, frost, drizzle, and once or twice a hazy, diluted sunshine. Grey, indistinct, but far from featureless. Horses nibble gorse and grass. They are wild but used to people and dogs and hardly acknowledge our passing. Shaggy, hairy creatures, manes ruffling in the breeze, forelocks hanging haphazardly into eyes. Sue told us not to worry if we got caught in a stampede – ‘they appear out of nowhere – just stand still with your arms spread out wide – don’t worry if you can’t get hold of the dogs, they’ll just crouch down’. One morning we came close. It was the noise that made me turn around. A rumble, gathering strength and power. Indeed they came out of nothing, conjured out of the murk like a magic trick – a string of ten or so horses unfurling across the plain – hooves drumming against the ground, manes flying. Sophie and Bobby, noses to the mud, were only interested in the nearest puddle of filthy water.
The horses are the sculptors of the Forest, all that grazing, munching and chewing – over the two thousand years that they’ve been around, moulding and managing the landscape. They roam freely but are owned by commoners who live in and around the Forest and occupy land to which certain common rights attach. Once a year the horses are rounded up in annual pony drifts and checked over, wormed, and fitted with reflective collars (if the owner wish it) otherwise they are free to go where they please, and cross roads without warning, wander through villages, and dawdle in car-parks.
In the afternoons we abandon the horses and Forest and deflect to the coast. Sometimes we walk from Highcliffe Castle, once the home of the famous Mr Selfridge. Sometimes we walk from Steamer Point to Mudeford Quay and the quaint Haven House Inn. ‘Children and wetsuits not allowed’ proclaims a little board tacked to an outside wall. But dogs are. It cannot be possible, but sometimes it seems that there are more doggie patrons than human ones. We settle down for cups of tea, or glasses of the locally brewed Ringwood beer and occasionally on Fridays, the fish and chip special. Bobby and Sophie, in spite of the proliferation of canines, always gather a fan club.
But mostly we just walk. There’s something beautiful about the seaside in winter in a melancholic kind of a way. The coloured beach huts are boarded and shuttered, waiting for summer; and there are few people. Only dog-walkers, bundled in layers, swathed in padded jackets, reams of woollen scarves and furred hoods. It’s an environment stripped back, pared down, and all my attention goes to the sea – vast, grey and empty – and a noise reminiscent of the sound made by the horses hooves –a roar, a primevil sound that takes me back to I’m not sure where. Back to nature. To my own beginning. An emptiness full of possibility.
But then Bobby and Sophie pull me back. Bobby barking because some random dog has kissed Sophie on the lips; or Sophie barking because she’s spotted a Westie (the only sort of dog she doesn’t like). And I’m back with a snap, of, and enjoying the world. But that out of season feeling, and those grey days are great. Down time is great time.
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