Christine Palmer likes walking. She walked the Pilgrim Trail in northern Spain and wrote of her adventures in Walking Back to Happiness. She also likes to walk around her adopted corner of rural France with her big shaggy dogs...
At this time of the year, especially if it’s cold and wet, I often try to persuade myself that I do not really have to walk the dogs. I argue that they have a big garden, and even an arch into the court-yard where they can shelter. However, this very rarely works as Custard who is nearly 13 years old, has a very subtle approach where he puts his head on my knee when I am in the office at the computer, and then sighs deeply. If this doesn’t have an immediate effect, he puts his paw on my knee. If I say ‘go away Custard’ he walks around the office a couple of times and then arrives back to go through the whole procedure again. Crumble on the other hand has a much more dramatic approach. At the slightest hint of me picking up the car keys, or going near either my coat or boots triggers him to bark loudly whilst jumping high into the air. He resembles one of those large long-haired Chinese dragons/dogs that you see at Chinese New Year festivities, accompanied by fire crackers. If this was anyone else’s dog I feel I would be tempted to ‘tut’, and express my doubts about anyone owning a dog they couldn’t control. I have tried, but the only thing that works is if I stand completely still with the lead in my hand. Eventually, he calms down and sits quietly whilst I attach the lead, but as soon as it’s attached he leaps into the air. He’s only two, so perhaps he’ll grow out of it.
Anyway, today despite the cold and drizzle we ventured out. As Crumble also chases anything that moves, livestock, cars, deer, and his favourite, rabbits we have to be choosy about where we walk, particularly at this time of the year when there are hunters about. I hadn’t realised until we moved here just how much the French are wedded to their hunting. During the hunting season there are constant reports of hunters, being injured or killed whilst out à la chasse. Strangely these reports have a slight triumphant air to them, and the final death count, - last year I think it was 6 - does not provoke any kind of outcry from the public. Although I wear a yellow jacket and the boys wear yellow collars, I do try to avoid the forests that surround us.
Today we walked along the river. Our river is called Le Serein, and during the summer it really is beautifully serene, but during the winter it often floods, bursting its bank and flooding the surrounding countryside. As our village is on a hill we can, on occasion feel we are an island, as the fields and lanes flood around us. Today, it was calm and grey, with its banks I can only describe as looking bedraggled, or that wonderful phrase my mother used when describing me as I came in from play ‘looking like I had been pulled through a hedge backwards’. Many trees have fallen during the high winds, their branches scattered along the path. The reeds and grasses appear forlorn just a mass of tangled and brown leaves.
As we walked Crumble spotted a white heron standing in the middle of a large ploughed field. He was a little hesitant at first but then hurtled across the field towards his prey. The heron didn’t move even with the prospect of a large hairy bearded collie bounding towards him, but waited until Custard was only a leap away, then it leisurely spread its wings, like opening a large umbrella and slowly rose into the air. Crumble jumped as high as he could to catch it, but in vain. Surprisingly the heron didn’t fly off at first but circled high above us, with Crumble continuing to bark. Custard is of course used to Crumble’s antics by now, and gave me one of those ‘what is he on’ looks. Eventually, the heron flew off, with Crumble in hot pursuit barking and leaping into the air. As it crossed the river Crumble came to a sharp halt, as understandably with his long coat he hates water. Always after these incidents he runs immediately back to Custard and me, like a mischievous child who wants to share his exploits.
Arriving home, we were all cold, wet and very muddy. The dogs retired to the barn where it is reasonable warm, and they can dry off, whilst I retired to our log fire with a cup of tea. My husband who was reading, never looked up, just commented as I warmed myself in front of the fire. ‘More tales from the countryside?’
Well I thought, he has every right to be amused by my decision to walk in such unpleasant conditions, and without the dogs I certainly wouldn’t have ventured out. But to be honest I had enjoyed our walk, and could argue that the exercise had given me the right to indulge in a slice of cake. And the white heron experience, shared with the dogs, was magical.