Featured image: Jack, Dukie and Denise
Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 20 September 2016
House-sitting, Buckinghamshire, UK
The Chiltern Hills form a chalk escarpment in South East England. We were house-sitters in two locations here in Buckinghamshire during the summer of 2014. The first place we spent one week, had a short break, and then looked after the house for another two weeks. The property was in a relatively isolated location in the hills, above and not that far from the Thames River — a drive.
The house was large and modern with a solar heated swimming pool outside. The grounds were about two acres, a large garden and two horse paddocks bounded on one side by woods. Our task was to look after three dogs and three miniature ponies. The dogs Jack, Maggie and Henry (names changed to protect the innocent) could look after themselves during the day, but needed to be nurtured in the morning and at night. The dogs didn’t need to be walked. They had a big area to wander in, but followed us around when we were at home, particularly when we went to do things with the horses. We were mainly just checking on them, but we also took it upon ourselves to clean up the horse ‘poo’ in the paddocks.
The tasks were not arduous and left us time to roam the countryside, walking, sightseeing and visiting National Trust properties during the day. In our first week it was unusually hot and we swam in the pool everyday, which exercised Jack.
The dogs were nice dogs and settled into a routine with us almost immediately. Jack was a geriatric border collie who seemed senile much of the time. He was also not close to the other two dogs, who occasionally ganged up on him. But, appearances were deceiving and Jack could look after himself, despite appearances to the contrary. He was sharper than he looked.
Maggie was a rather lovely gentle chocolate-coloured but arthritic hound or hunting dog, reminiscent of a German short-haired pointer or a Weimaraner, but of more generic English stock, and Henry was a small multi-breed terrier. Henry and the horses were rescue animals. Henry was a wire-haired, light brown terrier, quite good-looking and more dependent on humans than the other two. We sent emails to the owners while they were overseas and in one of them I incautiously described Henry as needy.
Rather than being annoyed at such a slur, our hostess, when she came back after the first week, was rather amused by the description. The dogs were no trouble. When we went away for a few hours at a time, Maggie and Henry had to be locked up in the house, where they tended to sleep on their beds. Even when the doors to the outside were open Maggie usually preferred to stay inside on her bed, unless it was quite warm. We often had to drag her bed outside to entice her. Nevertheless, when it was time for activity or to patrol, particularly at night she was vigorous and hound-like despite her arthritis.
The very aged border collie Jack preferred to be outside all day and could be trusted not to wander away. Jack had his own problems. He could see but not hear and sometimes you wondered if he was away with the pixies, permanently. Except, when it was food time, he had a mind like a steel trap. Henry was jealous of any attention Jack received, while treating Maggie as his mother.
Jack liked rounding up the horses and would rush into them very close and even bang against them. The horses to their credit put up with this though Denise saw Dukie one day get fed up and chase Jack across the paddock bucking and lashing out.
In our first week, when the weather was balmy, Jack also got quite upset when we were in the swimming pool, trying to herd or save us ineffectually. He got so excited that his jaw would quiver uncontrollably and he had an endearing habit of picking up a stick or grass to stop this happening. It was a classic example of obsessive compulsive disorder. Nevertheless, Jack was very endearing at times and could appear to be charming, despite his Alzheimer’s.
Maggie early in our stay managed to catch a hedgehog at night (a quite rare animal, we found later) and had chewed on it somewhat, before Denise paid attention to Henry’s sycophantic betrayal and went looking. Denise had never seen a hedgehog. I had in the Blue Mountains when I was young (another feral release in Australia, but not harmful). She was in consequence terribly upset about the hedgehog, which was all covered in blood. Maggie’s it turned out later. She’d been mouthing the hedgehog for quite sometime, ignoring the pain because she was so excited. For the next two to three days she was rather quiet, while her tongue, mouth and lips healed. We were unsympathetic.
The hedgehog was catatonic. Denise googled all the potential sites for wildlife rescue but it was too late to call. She wanted to keep it in the house in a box. But, I suggested that we should put the hedgehog in the garden in shelter, and see if it recovered enough to move away. She reluctantly agreed, particularly because it showed signs of slight movement and there appeared to be no visible injuries. I also suggested that rather than put it in a box, we should put a cover over it and pack some mown grass around it, in a corner near the woods. This was to keep it warm, until or if it decided to move of its own accord. We did this and it had gone by morning, hopefully not harmed or too traumatised.
The Great Escape
Our hostess had told us to take Maggie and Henry out to do their business and have a patrol last thing at night on lead, because otherwise they’d be hard to find. Denise didn’t mind going out with a torch and rousting them up, usually from the horse paddock (three miniature ponies). I usually accompanied her. Anyway, on our last night I said put them on lead and went to bed around 10 pm. Denise trustingly let the two dogs out — Henry (the needy little terrier) and Maggie the rather lovely arthritic hunting hound, to hunt around and do their business before bed.
I haven’t mentioned before that Maggie and Henry had battery collars that warned them by vibration when they approached the boundary fence and zapped them if they got too close. They’d had these for eight years and we’d been assured that the batteries were new. If they got very excited, our hostess had told us, it was possible for them to ignore the collar and make it through the fence, but that this hadn’t happened in a long time.
Originally, before the collars, we were told later, they would disappear for days and occasionally turn up back at the house or somewhere far away, sometimes a pound. Maggie had also injured a sheep of a local farmer once.
Back to the fateful night. The dogs didn’t come back and at 10.30 pm, Denise went to get them. She had Maggie on lead and Henry beside them, until she reached the garage and Henry disappeared probably behind it. She took Maggie in and decided she’d wait ten minutes for Henry.
Then she went to look for him. She’d searched the property and woke me up at 11.00 pm in a state. Then I got up, we all went looking with Maggie on lead. I must admit I was a model of restraint and a better person than I usually am. Although I did think dark thoughts about my partner, I managed to avoid voicing them.
We both searched the grounds again. I went outside the front gate and up the road in case Henry had got out and couldn’t get back.
Denise said in retrospect that she thought she’d heard him in the woods barking, before I got involved. Anyway by this time we were sure he was in the woods and we could occasionally hear a dog barking. So at 11.30 pm, having locked Maggie and Jack up for the night, we headed into the woods with torches to see if we could find the barking dog.
We wandered around for a long time, following a dog’s bark deeper and deeper, until I went ahead and listened in silence and realised that it was a farm dog and not Henry. We didn’t follow the noise further, as we certainly didn’t want to appear in someone’s farmyard out of the woods after midnight.
It was very dark in the woods but not unpleasant. We could see moonlight through the trees at what we thought might be the edge of the woods though later we found that was an illusion. We also came across deer in the dark and caught them briefly in our torches, before they moved away. We even disturbed some owls and other night predators in our meanderings. We’d wandered around in circles, sometimes one of us staying still while the other investigated an apparent path or route. We were lost but not embarrassingly so, or so we thought. We’d also had the experience of night rogaining and had been comfortable wandering (sometimes stumbling) around in the dark in much larger areas of bush in Australia looking for hidden check points, though we’d had a map and a compass then. This was only England after all.
We’d called and called without success, and had come across the same fence into an open field a couple of times. We wondered if this was the farmer’s field near the house, where we often saw deer during the day.
We’d decided to give up and call it a night, when Henry turned up. Denise was so happy and relieved to have the dog, who was quickly put on lead, that she thought she could handle being lost in the woods all night. I was more sanguine. Henry was excited to see us and we initially thought he might help to lead us home. But, we were disabused of this quickly. His attitude was isn’t it wonderful and nice to be with you. Let’s explore over here or what about this delightful smell. He had no interest in taking us home!
We searched for a while. I went ahead while Denise stayed in the same spot and tried to follow sources of light, but it quickly became apparent that all light from the edge of the woods was ambient light. We saw more deer and night birds.
We knew we were lost, but we didn’t think that we could be that lost. We found our way back to the fence, and the farmer’s field. We climbed over the barbed wire passing Henry between us like a package. He was still pleased to see us and happy to have us as companions in his great adventure.
The farm paddock turned out to be the one we recognised and not far from the house. But even when we were close to the house, the lights we’d left on were not that obvious, even through the hedge. We pondered taking Henry’s collar off when we reached the electric gate, via the road, but were not going to let him go. Anyway he went through the gate easily. His collar was not working.
It was now 1.30 am and the other two dogs locked in the house were not so pleased with us disturbing their nightly routine. Next day Henry was very quiet, perhaps disturbed at our preparations for leaving, but also very tired.
Beyond the Wildwood
I tested his and Maggie’s collars next morning. Hers worked. His was dead. The batteries were not common ones.
With help from the overseas owners, who were not overly concerned and told us about Henry and Maggie’s previous escapades, and a relative, we eventually located the supplier of the collars and I went off to get them tested, while Denise cleaned. We had wanted to get away by 2 pm because skirting around London on the ring road motorways is usually gridlock in the late afternoon. The dog fence business was not easy to find, even though Google Maps took me to within a hundred metres. After testing, it was just the battery.
We’d had a somewhat stressful morning and not much sleep, but we still headed off just before 3 pm and had a trouble-free drive to Cambridge (2 hours). The children of the family were arriving at 4pm and their flight was on time, so the dogs were only alone for a short time.
In some ways you take on a high degree of responsibility looking after pets. We were a little frustrated that we couldn’t take the dogs for long walks. In the next place, we couldn’t walk the dog as much as his owners did, because they were very fit and ran and cycled with her for long distances in all weathers.
posted in Seville, Spain
Key Words: Chiltern Hills, Buckinghamshire, dogs, horses, English countryside
National Trust houses we went to nearby
Chenies Manor House (private ownership)