Tirn’s page

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Successful classic crime writer Mary Tant, whose ninth Rossington West Country mystery – The Theme is Death – was published by Threshold in the spring, writes about her border collie, Tirn, from the Isle of Eigg, who died on 13 October 2013.


Tirn’s story…

ONE Our meeting

The island bus dropped me off at the entrance to the croft where I was to stay on the Isle of Eigg in the Hebrides. A short sharp bark greeted me, and there he was, a small collie puppy sitting in what I came to recognise as a very typical posture – upright and alert, watching what was going on around him. And then he came down to greet me, sure I was a friend, willing to be fussed.

Tirn on EiggHe and his siblings grew up in a tangle of chickens, with a cat prowling through occasionally and a small child toddling around. There were tiny fluffy chicks scurrying everywhere, and their mother had no hesitation in seeing off the puppy if she thought he was a nuisance. Once I saw her speed so rapidly into action that she bowled him over completely, leaving him to scramble up and retire abashed before her belligerent stance.

A short distance to the north, beyond the croft where Tirn's father lived, was a stony beach. This was backed by a green slope where the sea-going shearwaters came to land each year, appearing during the night and nesting underground in the spring, so that the earth resounding with their submerged calls. In the other direction, the island was dominated by the towering rock stack of the Scurr. It was a lonely place with a wild beauty, the kind I love, that Tirn has always been most happy in.

Tirn's mother was the croft dog, a beautiful bitch who had passed on her looks and her intelligence to her son. He was the puppy who followed her when the cattle on the common in front of the croft crossed an invisible line, whether it was their own cows venturing too far away or other peoples' cows encroaching beyond their accepted boundaries. He was the one who went with her to investigate passers-by, watching to see whether they stepped onto the croft or went uncontroversially onwards.

Wherever his mother went, Tirn and his remaining sister followed her, patrolling the boundaries of their land. But every time I met them he stayed with me, following and listening to me talk to him. On one return to the croft we found a huge buoy had been hung up on a wooden frame to dry, and he barked warningly, knowing that it wasn't usually there, not sure if it was a threat. As soon as I touched it and went past, he relaxed and walked by without a flicker of fear.

I was to become aware over the following years how acute his sense of shape and movement was. Anything out of the ordinary was noticed immediately. People with wide hats, people with backpacks, people with limps, people with walking sticks, people with prams or shopping trolleys. But he only had to meet them once and be reassured, and there was never any anxiety about that shape or movement again.

Breakfast at the croft was in a room with sliding glass doors, giving a superb view over the Sound of Rum. Living outdoors, Tirn nonetheless knew how house things worked. As I sat at the table one morning I saw him slide his tiny paws through the open crack of one door and try with all his strength to push it back. This didn't work, but he found by dint of squeezing he was able to fit through the gap. Once in, he rushed into cover behind the sofa. From here he peered out, half entranced, half appalled by his bravery, and was gently coaxed back outside by the crofter.

He had one sister still living with him and she was to stay permanently with her mother. All the other puppies had been homed, but Tirn, as the best of them, had been kept for a while. On the day I was due to leave, to go on to Rum, the crofter asked if I would like to have him.

'Oh, you can't,' my companion said at once, 'you couldn't get him home.' But I knew I could and would. I couldn't take him with me until I had finished my stay on Rum, where visiting dogs weren't allowed. But I arranged to collect him on my way back.

My last hours on the island were spent mulling over his name. I wanted something to reflect his origins, especially as he had been born on the day the islanders bought their island. But I quailed at the thought of screeching Eigg, Rum, Muck, some of the Hebridean island names, out over the fields and woods of southern England. It was the crofter who moved the discussion to island legends, and I remembered the Hebrides are known as Tir nan Og, the Isles of the Blessed. Tirn is a workable abbreviation to this, although he is called Tim by many new acquaintances.

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TWO Coming home

There I was a week later, marooned by high seas in the rather bizarre castle on the Hebridean island of Rum. It was a bleak deforested island, devoted now to a study on red deer. The castle was the creation of an Edwardian businessman, friend of Edward VII, who had designed the ballroom windows to be too high for servants to peer through – supplies were pushed through hatches. The bedroom I had may once have been grand, but now was gloomy with dark panelling and a four-poster bed still hung with the original curtains, moth-holed as they were. I couldn't wait to leave and be reunited with my puppy.

I had every hope that some kind of boat would reach us, for several other guests were stranded too. The inter-island ceilidh was being held here at the weekend and our rooms would surely be needed. And a small ferry did come at last, running up on the beach to wait for the turn of the tide.

I was the first out there with my bags, eager to climb up the ladder onto the boat and find out whether they would stop at Eigg on the way to the mainland. Fortunately the boat did, carrying as it was the necessary supplies of liquor for the island.

The seas were rough and the passengers suffered from the rolling and tossing of the waves, there was no looking over the side for dolphins and whales on this trip. But the Scurr came into view in the haze and soon we were in the tiny harbour, where all the islanders seemed to have gathered. There too, in a large crate, was my puppy, quite composed about the whole business, comfortable on soft baby blankets once used by the crofter's young son.

The trip over the open sea to the mainland was too much for nearly all the passengers, who were draped uncomfortably over the rails a lot of the time or heaving into paper bags. But my companion and I were fine, absorbed in the puppy, who thankfully was also perfectly well and intensely curious about this new experience.

Time was short when we moored, for the train connecting with the sleeper to London left the nearest station in less than five minutes. A crewman sprang to our aid, the puppy in his crate was tucked into the back of the man's three-wheeler, my companion folded long legs under his chin to get into the passenger seat, while I crouched on his lap.

We reached the station in time to leap straight onto the train and soon we were ready to board the sleeper, negotiating with the Glaswegian guard for Tirn's passage. He was enchanted with Tirn, who was wide-eyed, busy absorbing all the new scenes without the faintest tremor of anxiety. The early evening was disturbed only by the guard, first bringing bottles of water for the wee dog, then insisting he be brought out as we passed the border to say goodbye to the land of his birth. Other than that, it was a peaceful night, my companion in the top bunk, Tirn tucked on his blankets beside my lower one.

It was on arrival in London that things took on a surreal tinge. Queuing for a taxi at Euston we were puzzled to see that the people standing in front of us were all sombre in black, several of them weeping into handkerchiefs. With poor reception on the Hebridean islands we had only been aware of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, but had heard nothing more about it, so hadn't realised we were returning to London on the day of her funeral.

We shared a taxi to Paddington with a lady on her way to the service at Westminster Abbey with a single white rose clutched in one hand and a damp handkerchief in the other. Perhaps fortunately Tirn distracted her attention, as he took exception to the taxi's abrupt movements through the mainly deserted streets and puked up his breakfast. Settled with relief on the train from Paddington I found I had a lively puppy on my hands, keen to explore under the seats and visit the other passengers. Tirn coming homeAs a last resort, he settled on my lap to stare out of the window at the countryside flashing past us.

By the time we reached home Tirn had made a marathon trip for a puppy who had just left his mother, and he hadn't turned a hair. He started his life fully interested in his world, and he continued interested in it as his world expanded.

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THREE At home

Everything was explored. Every inch of garden was inspected, bushes wriggled under, flowers sniffed. The pond was examined, the water drunk regularly. Tirn had particular postures, distinctive then, very soon familiar to me for the rest of his life.

Tirn surveys back gardenIf he thought something was about to happen he sat firmly planted, staring up at me, his golden eyes fixed on mine, eager to understand, to take part in what I was doing. He liked to sit on the back terrace, surveying the lower garden, waiting for something to happen. A bird could land with impunity, a cat was chased out at once, a person could be enticed into playing, friends could be greeted.

Tirn's indoor puppyhood domain was chiefly the kitchen and garden room at the back of the house. But he was allowed into the front of the house with me, standing back politely at the hall door to let me and visitors pass first, then following on behind when told to do so. Every item within reach was picked up or mouthed. Only once though, if he was told not to touch he never bothered it again. He was curious about chairs and the sofa, seeing me sit on one or other of them. I put a blanket beside me on the sofa and encouraged him up to sit beside me every evening for a week. He came up eagerly, glad to take part, but soon realised he preferred to be on the ground. He did like sitting beside or in front of my chair, often with his head on my feet, whether I was talking, reading or eating. But my food was mine, he never showed an interest in taking it.

The butter put out overnight to be soft for breakfast was another matter. Morning after morning it had a suspiciously smooth surface when I came into the kitchen. Then one day Tirn didn't hear me coming down the stairs and there he was, stretched up to his full height, paws just reaching the work surface, neck stretched out to its fullest extent, tongue running carefully over the top of the butter.

That night I strung together a few small used cans of lemonade, half filled with pebbles, placing them in front of the butter. And in the morning I heard a terrific crash and rattle as I came downstairs. I shot into the kitchen and found an astonished Tirn staring at the tins rolling across the floor. As I watched, he began to pat them around, pleased with the movement and noise. But the butter was untouched.

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FOUR Beginners’ training

I was the real novice, not Tirn, in the puppy training classes that started the week he came home. For him they were just fascinating ways to see new places and meet new friends.

He sat in the small village hall beside my chair at the first class, surveying the others there with interest. To me it seemed crowded and it wasn’t the people that I noticed, and nor did Tirn. We spotted the big German shepherd sitting bolt upright in front of his mistress’s chair, the springer spaniel that was winding her lead around the chair beside it, the cocker spaniel that was hiding behind his chair.

To my alarm I was instructed to let Tirn off his lead first. It brought back all my student experiences, never be first, never be last, just stick somewhere in the middle where you’re not quite so noticeable.

But Tirn had no qualms. He sauntered off with great aplomb to exchange greetings with the other puppies. I noticed the worried expressions on the other human faces, but Tirn wasn’t concerned with them.

After a brief attempt to engage with the cocker, puzzled by his frantic efforts to hide behind his mistress’s legs, Tirn moved on to more enthusiastic playfellows. Soon more and more of the puppies were off the lead and mingling together, some more enthusiastically than others.

And then that first session was over and we retired, me exhausted with nervous tension, Tirn exhilarated by the fun of it all.

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FIVE Intermediate training

We progressed to the next stage, generally thanks to Tirn’s abilities, certainly not to mine. And now the training was more serious. He had to sit quietly on his mat beside my chair in a larger village hall – we all required more space now. Sitting and waiting was always hard for Tirn, and it wouldn’t be long before he stretched out to the full extent of his lead, flopping over onto his back and revealing the soft creamy hair of his chest and the golden freckles on his tummy.

There he’d lay, squinting round, waiting to see if anybody was going to take up the invitation to play. But the other dogs were all sitting rigorously upright, ignoring the maverick, and he’d eventually roll onto his back and look round to see what else might tempt them into anarchy.

He was, though, teacher’s pet, the juvenile who was brought out to demonstrate the next item on the agenda. And he would always do it instantly, getting it perfectly right, just like a novice dancing with the instructor, always getting the moves correct because their partner makes sure they can’t go wrong. It didn’t matter if it was a completely new instruction, or one that he’d got bored of practising with me, if he was doing it with teacher it was done instantly and with complete accuracy.

He always loved an appreciative audience and always enjoyed learning new things. Until he was very old I only had to touch the clicker that we used for his training and he’d still go wild with excitement.

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SIX Fun and games

My previous collie was terrified by the squeak in dog toys. Tirn was fascinated by them, mouthing all over each toy until he found the squeaker, then pressing it again and again. Tirn with toysHe loved to play with them, tossing them into the air to catch them, but he particularly enjoyed interactive games, so we had regular play times. I would take a toy, walk it all round him while he sat on the sitting room rug, eyes starting with excitement, mouth open, tongue just protruding, as he waited for the command ‘Take’. Once the word was said, the toy was taken, he pranced around with joy, mouthing it to show who was boss. Then back he’d come, offering it to me so we could play the same game again.

New toys, loosely covered in paper, were always quickly discovered and unwrapped. He’d examine them carefully, then search out the squeaker, trying it over and over again, until suddenly he returned to an old favourite toy. He never destroyed his toys, so over the years he acquired quite a few. They were stored in a large basket in the sitting room, and were carefully returned there one by one every evening (under my supervision). From time to time it was as if he remembered a toy from long ago and searched all through his toy basket until he found it again.

Tirn v food cubeI quickly found that these soft toys were what Tirn most liked. The food toys, like cubes, were of little use. He could empty the most complicated versions of titbits in a few seconds, and would then wander off to look for something else to do, and a friend to play with.

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SEVEN Dog friends

Tirn’s first canine friends were made as soon as he came home. Another neighbouring male collie looked askance at the young newcomer, but his female collie/labrador companion was keen to play. Tirn was in his element with her, prancing around, darting and jumping, pausing just for one second to rest on a wide garden urn.

Tirn and friendBut the companions he adored were a pack of rescue dogs that were walked locally. Small as he was compared to most of them when they first met, Tirn was up for all their games, particularly chasing, nipping in and out of the slower movers.

On their initial encounter in a local field the pack poured through a gap in the hedge, closely followed by Tirn, who didn’t want to be left out. I knew what lay beyond, but could only get there in time to see the look of surprise on Tirn’s face as the ground gave way to the canal. For a second he hesitated, but his friends were in there, so he went too with one great leap and splash. After the initial shock he was swimming happily, but he never took to the water in the way his predecessor did – my earlier collie loved to swim right down the centre of the canal, from lock to lock, at a time when there were hardly any boats using the canal.

The pack were walked at irregular times, but at the first distant bark, Tirn would prick up his ears, whether he was indoors or in the garden, and look at me expectantly. He was always drawn to his own kind, and in the rescue pack was a collie, uncertain and shy, that he most wanted to play with. And gradually he did, although Moss could never play enough to satisfy Tirn and eventually would slip off to hide in the crowd.

Over the years Tirn had many dog friends, and has had a particular fondness for lurchers and whippets. He loved the swiftness of their racing games, and could easily keep up with them and outlast their bursts of speed. But he could rarely ever tempt them into outright playing, try as he would. So I was touched when one more independent lurcher suddenly came springing to his support when Tirn was surprised by an over-boisterous young mastiff. Friendly relations were quickly established between them all, but when Jem the lurcher thought his companion was threatened he had appeared from his own pursuits and come to help.

Tirn outlived all of his old friends, but still enjoyed meeting other placid older dogs for a quick sniff and exchange of news for the whole of his life.

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EIGHT Fostering

Our first fostering experience was an accident. In the rescue pack one day there was a young collie bitch, six months old, the spitting image of Tirn although her colouring was more vivid. She could easily have been his sister, but came in fact from a farm in Wales. Tirn was so keen to play with her that I took her home with us, first for the day, then until she was re-homed.

She had only ever lived outside, and was clearly terrified of me, peeing and cowering in submission if I went near her. On reaching our house she rushed into the garden and hid under a bush. I left her in peace, but Tirn was puzzled. He took out toy after toy to offer her, to no avail. Eventually he ran up and down, and she couldn’t resist the movement and crept out of cover to join in.

Tirn shows Tash his toysIt wasn’t long before she got the idea of toys, although the principle of sharing took a little longer. The two of them would lie close to each other and Tirn would fetch a toy, tossing it around until she couldn’t resist examining it. He’d give it up happily, expecting a game, but she would take it off to chew over and resist all his blandishments. Eventually he’d sink down nearby and watch her, waiting his chance to grab the toy back.

I couldn’t really keep two collies indefinitely, so it was very fortunate that Tirn’s vet knew of a good home for the little bitch. She knew what was happening as soon as the couple arrived to see her, and sat looking anxious in a corner. But they were just what she needed; off she went to a very happy home and life, although she left Tirn and me disconsolate for days. I saw her from time to time over the years, and the likeness between the two dogs diminished as they grew up.

The second fostering was also accidental, yet another, younger puppy from the rescue pack. Josh in basketHe was a happy little Labrador cross, who first rode home in the basket of my bike. He was fascinated by Tirn, following him everywhere and copying him in everything. On his first day with us he sat back and watched Tirn being brushed at the end of the afternoon. On his second day he stepped forward to have his turn, not really necessary as his hair was so short, but still he wanted to participate. Tirn though wasn’t so keen on him, but tolerated his presence. He didn’t seem to miss him when the puppy left, but I did, I was distraught as I was worried about the home he went to. And it didn’t work out, so briefly he was back with the pack, bigger and joyful to be with friends, and so happy to see Tirn again. Fortunately his next home was what he had been looking for – a place to belong to and be loved.

After that I gave up on the fostering, partly because I was travelling more with Tirn, partly because I found giving up the dogs so upsetting, even when I knew they were going to good homes.

Our first fostering experience was an accident. In the rescue pack one day there was a young collie bitch, six months old, the spitting image of Tirn although her colouring was more vivid. She could easily have been his sister, but came in fact from a farm in Wales. Tirn was so keen to play with her that I took her home with us, first for the day, then until she was re-homed.

She had only ever lived outside, and was clearly terrified of me, peeing and cowering in submission if I went near her. On reaching our house she rushed into the garden and hid under a bush. I left her in peace, but Tirn was puzzled. He took out toy after toy to offer her, to no avail. Eventually he ran up and down, and she couldn’t resist the movement and crept out of cover to join in.

It wasn’t long before she got the idea of toys, although the principle of sharing took a little longer. The two of them would lie close to each other and Tirn would fetch a toy, tossing it around until she couldn’t resist examining it. He’d give it up happily, expecting a game, but she would take it off to chew over and resist all his blandishments. Eventually he’d sink down nearby and watch her, waiting his chance to grab the toy back.

I couldn’t really keep two collies indefinitely, so it was very fortunate that Tirn’s vet knew of a good home for the little bitch. She knew what was happening as soon as the couple arrived to see her, and sat looking anxious in a corner. But they were just what she needed; off she went to a very happy home and life, although she left Tirn and me disconsolate for days. I saw her from time to time over the years, and the likeness between the two dogs diminished as they grew up.

The second fostering was also accidental, yet another, younger puppy from the rescue pack. He was a happy little Labrador cross, who first rode home in the basket of my bike. He was fascinated by Tirn, following him everywhere and copying him in everything. On his first day with us he sat back and watched Tirn being brushed at the end of the afternoon. On his second day he stepped forward to have his turn, not really necessary as his hair was so short, but still he wanted to participate. Tirn though wasn’t so keen on him, but tolerated his presence. He didn’t seem to miss him when the puppy left, but I did, I was distraught as I was worried about the home he went to. And it didn’t work out, so briefly he was back with the pack, bigger and joyful to be with friends, and so happy to see Tirn again. Fortunately his next home was what he had been looking for – a place to belong to and be loved.

After that I gave up on the fostering, partly because I was travelling more with Tirn, partly because I found giving up the dogs so upsetting, even when I knew they were going to good homes.

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NINE The visit of the Black Labrador

He was a large black Labrador, even if he was young. He came from the rescue pack that we walked with, and was used to life with a very elderly lady. Immensely boisterous, and full of enthusiasm for all the experiences of his new life, he came to us at home for a couple of hours to meet a potential new family.

We all looked on in astonishment, Tirn sitting beside us, as Hector the Labrador rushed out of the back door and plunged straight into the garden pond, creating a tidal wave that nearly engulfed us. Hector emerged exhilarated by his dip and pounced on every toy that lay around, tossing them gleefully into the air before rushing on to the next.

Tirn barely had time to greet his visitor, and was so taken aback that he didn’t join in the activities. Before we gathered our wits one of the visitors had decided, and Hector had a new home. The whirlwind departed, leaving us stunned and rather at a loss after all the excitement.

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TEN The home helper

Tirn was always keen to take part in everything I did, even the domestic chores. It started with the washing – he could lift items out of the linen basket and push them into the washing machine, piece by piece, and pull out his own washed towels and bedding. If I had anything delicate I used to have to smuggle it in, and avoiding his watchful eyes was never easy. This was a job I gradually weaned him from, moving him instead to the next stage, carrying the peg bag out to the garden and back in later on. I was given a meaningful nudge if ever I forgot to hand it to him.

As a puppy he loved to remove socks from my feet, and especially loved it if I wiggled my toes while he was doing it. He became very good at this, but again I gradually deterred him from it, as he expected to do valet duty every day and was unhappy to see me doing it myself.

When I tore a ligament in my leg he learned a new task without difficulty. With the handle of a light flat basket gripped firmly in his mouth he carried my plate and slice of cake from the kitchen to the sitting room, while I hopped with a crutch in one hand and a mug of tea in the other. This he only had, thankfully, to do for a short time, and not once did his attention flicker to the cake. But the other jobs he undertook were his for life and gave him a fierce joy to do, and weren’t relinquished until the last days of his life.

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ELEVEN The office worker

I have always had a regular working routine, which Tirn knew as well as I did. After breakfast we went straight upstairs to my study, where I sat down at my desk and he lay down nearby. When he was younger he liked to be beneath the desk, wrapped round and over my feet. As he grew older that was too uncomfortable so he lay beside my chair, his head resting against one of its legs.

When I had to move to look into a book or find some reference Tirn would watch to see if I needed help. If I showed signs of carrying the book or papers back to my desk he was beside me in an instant, determined to carry it from me. I rarely had to carry my own things around, he was always there waiting to do it for me. Box files and laptops presented more of a problem as he saw no reason why he shouldn’t help with those too. But once he was persuaded I could manage he would take the opportunity to saunter to the window and cast his eyes over his outside domain.

He might stay there some time, just enjoying his vantage point. But if he stiffened I knew at once that there would be action, for he’d seen a cat. Usually the intruder came to investigate the pond, or lurk under one of the bird feeders. Whichever it was, his reaction was instantaneous, rushing straight down the stairs and through the house to the back door, with me trailing behind. By the time I caught up with him as he stood seething by the back door, the intruder must have sensed his presence. As soon as I opened the door Tirn was out of it with the speed of light, racing behind the cat who was streaking down the garden. I’m convinced that the cat must have timed her departure carefully, she always made it to the fence in time to wriggle through it.

The only other disturbance to my working routine came with the postal delivery. I have one nearly every day, but its times varied over Tirn’s lifetime. None the less he always knew the postwoman was coming before she even opened the front gate, and would be ready and waiting for her. Sometimes we would meet her at the front gate, and the post would be handed over in bulk for him to take back to the house. Otherwise he’d purposefully leave the study and carried it up from the front door in twos and threes. He soon learned to push slippery evasive envelopes up against the skirting board in the hall so that he could get a grip on them.

Even in the last months of his life he was still getting himself up unaided and going to the pile of letters lying by the front door. Sometimes he would manage to fetch one or two without help to the study area I’d set up downstairs so we could still be together, but at other times they had to be put in his mouth for him to carry. Until the day he died he didn’t miss a delivery, in spite of his deafness and arthritis.

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TWELVE In the garden

Blackbirds and sparrows fed on the ground without fear around Tirn, who watched them curiously if there was nothing else to occupy him. Pigeons, though, were another matter. If he was outside Tirn barely gave them chance to touch down before darting at them to make them rise heavily into the air again.

All the birds benefitted from his presence and his regular boundary patrols which kept cats out of the garden most of the time. Occasionally one couldn’t resist the avian attractions or was keen to fish in the pond and I only had to rattle the back door handle to see it streak down the garden to safety beyond the hedge, sure that Tirn would be bursting out of the house in the next second.

I lost so many fish to cats that I gave up keeping them, so the garden pond was colonised by frogs. Every year a certain amount of pond cleaning took place in the autumn, and the resident frogs either jumped out to hide or were lifted out.

One year, early in Tirn’s life, the man who was doing the work was astounded at the numbers of frogs he was counting. I, though, approaching from the house, could see what was happening. Tirn was busily herding every escaping frog back towards the pond, where they were jumping in behind the man, only to be lifted out again. Forever after that if Tirn found a frog out of the water he would stand over it and wait for me, to see if I wanted to put it back in the pond.

His approach to hedgehogs became the same; after his first encounter he would just stand over it and wait for me to deal with it. This initial meeting was one of the few times I heard him bark, either because he had pricked his nose by investigating too closely, or because he was just flummoxed by the creature.

Late one summer evening, on his night trip to the garden, I heard a terrific splash and rushed out with a torch to see what was happening. And there in the pond was a huge hedgehog, which had perhaps been drinking when Tirn startled it. As I watched, wondering how to get it out, it swam strongly to the far end and scrambled up over the plants and out onto dry land.

Time in the garden was generally peaceful, whether I was working or just enjoying the peace. Tirn was constantly ready to help if I was gardening. If I carelessly left the trowel somewhere I could send him to fetch it, or get him to carry it beside me when I remembered to bring it. He’d lie so casually on the lawn near where I was weeding, not obviously watching me. But the instant I got up to move to another flowerbed Tirn was there, ready to take the trowel.

This exercise was extended to plant pots, empty and full, and gardening gloves, which were a special favourite, and garden twine. It couldn’t, however much he wanted it, be applied to the gardening fork or spade, or the wheelbarrow.

Summer tea time was always special, sitting beside the pond listening to the frogs croaking in the heat, watching the blackbirds watching us, with Tirn sitting beside my chair, used to the routine, perhaps enjoying the very things I did. Late summer evenings were special too, sitting in the rose arbour, watching the swifts and swallows darting over the sky until the given moment when they handed over to the bats. These swooped lower, often just past my nose, keen earlier in the summer to feast on the cockchafers that bumbled awkwardly around the nearby cypress tree.

Then later still in the evenings, with the stars appearing in the sky, the scent from the roses became stronger, the hedgehog would trot past and Tirn would sit motionless beside my feet, nose twitching, taking it all in too.

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THIRTEEN Tirn and his toys

Soft toys that squeaked came into our house on a regular basis. Often they were gifts from friends, sometimes they were presents from me after a trip to London when I couldn’t pass the pet shop that Tirn liked so much.

When he came to London with me I took him to the shop, whose entrance was one among many in a long street I frequently visited. Tirn always knew without fail which doorway to stop at. Once inside he walked slowly past all the tempting titbits to the toy section where he inspected the wares carefully before fastening onto the one he liked best. We went on one occasion up to the back of the shop to choose a new bed, and he sat staring in fascination at the macaw on its perch and the fish swimming in their tanks.

Tirn quickly recognised that his toys squeaked if he found the right spot. Every new one was mouthed carefully until he found that spot, then he pressed it repeatedly, making the squeak sound with great satisfaction. After this he would toss the toy into the air, roll on it, then come to find me to involve me with his games.

Sitting motionless, eyes fixed on the toy, especially if it had big glaring eyes of its own, his tongue hanging out with excitement, Tirn watched as I moved his toy around, jumping it on him, wriggling it under his tummy. When I told him to take it he savoured his moment before pouncing. But after minimal tossing and shaking it, he brought it straight back to play again.

Certain toys were for hiding and he would sit still, watching my feints, his ears pricked, straining to trace my every movement if I was out of his sight. Almost always he could find his toy at once, but just occasionally I had to guide him, with ‘Left’, ‘Right’, ‘Yes, ‘No’, directions he fully understood.

Tirn was gentle with his toys, so the only reason they were removed was when they became tatty through repeated mouthing or the squeakers failed. So over sixteen years he acquired a huge basketful. Fortunately he was able to tidy up after himself every evening, putting them back one by one in their basket, and this was almost as much fun for him as playing with them.

As he grew older he would sometimes excavate the whole basketful, sending soft toys flying as he searched for a remembered toy, not one of his usual favourites, but something that for a while he wanted to play with again. Eventually his favourites were left to lie with him in his bed, as he clearly liked having them around him. The three that he loved most in his last years were beside him when he died.

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FOURTEEN Tirn the watchdog

I did not really need a door bell as Tirn knew the times of regular callers. The milkman and the dustmen usually came early, but he would be alert, ears cocked, having heard them long before I did. For most of his life the post delivery came at a regular time in the morning and he was ready waiting to receive it. He was always particularly pleased to meet the postman on the path and receive the letters, or to be at the door to do the same if he rang. Extra deliveries were a particular pleasure, coming at unexpected times of the day, because then the front door bell was rung and he had the joy of racing up to meet the unknown visitor.

Tirn always knew when friends were coming, possibly from the last minute tidying up routine, and would make sure he was waiting near the front door long before they arrived. Greeting friends was always his duty and his pleasure. Even in his last week he unexpectedly dragged his weary body up from a deep sleep in the kitchen and walked unaided into the sitting room to greet old and dear friends, who thought he hadn’t noticed their arrival.

But Tirn’s awareness of the imminent return of a member of his own family to his own household was phenomenal. It was as if he was aware of the familiar car at least ten minutes before it reached the house. As household times were irregular, this was quite an achievement, for he hadn’t learned a routine, as none of us lived to one. Unless of course one of us was returning by train – Tirn knew the relevant timetable quite well, and clearly knew when one of us would be using it. I suspect he had worked out quite clearly the reasons for our leaving the house without him whether we went on foot or in the car – going shopping (with shopping bags), going visiting (changed into non-dog-walking clothes), going to London (briefcase, smart clothes). On the odd occasion when I went walking without him in the last few weeks of his life I had to sneak out my walking boots and coat before putting them on. But still when I left and when came back he knew where I had been going and what I had done.

Tirn soon worked out the purpose of the telephone, and made sure I was always alerted to its ringing. The handset was too slippery to carry, so when it rang he would leap to his feet, pointing first at it, then at me until I moved to answer it. There was no chance of being dilatory, he was determined that I should take the call as soon as possible.

The arrival of my mobile phone was a great relief to him. It was kept in a leather case, just perfect for a clever dog to carry to his mistress. And that was such a bonus for the times I left it somewhere and couldn’t find it. Tirn always could.

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FIFTEEN Tirn, the writer’s muse

My earliest books were written with Sammie, my first Border collie, beside me. He was there at the beginning of the Rossington series. Tirn took over the baton from him and saw the series develop, presiding over the revision of the first two books and the creation of the next six.

It was with Tirn that I first got into my writing routine. An early morning walk wherever we were – along the canal at home, beside the brook in the New Forest, out into the wooded Cornish valley beside the mill house that we loved so much. It was in these hours that we saw so much wildlife. There was often the kingfisher flashing along the canal, the water rat splashing into its hole in one of the banks. There were the stags emerging from the misty trees early one morning, coming out one after another in line, walking without haste towards the brook and disappearing out of sight into the curving cloud of mist that lingered there. There was the fox, halfway down the track to the woods, turning back to stare at us before trotting away into the trees.

Back at the house we sat over breakfast while I revised the previous day's work. Where we sat varied, according to the weather and the time of year. At home in the spring we had the bedroom window bay, with the scent of lilac and roses coming through the open window. For Tirn there was the view over the low sill into the street, where he could watch the comings and goings. In the summer there was the table on the terrace, sheltered even early in the day when the sun was fierce, with a view over the pond where the frogs occasionally emerged, wet and shining, and the birds bathed with an interesting fluttering and flapping of wings. In the later autumns of his life we sat at the window of the garden room, warmed by the nearby radiator, while Tirn supervised the birds feeding on the terrace. For the winter I often sat cosily in the bedroom, working at a small table as the radiators switched on and the house began to creak into life, but later when Tirn was old we sat in state in the dining room, albeit surrounded by books and papers, rather than the silver dishes of bacon and eggs that the room should have had.

Serious work started in my study, where I sat at my desk, Tirn curled up in the space beside me. And there we stayed, me writing, him keeping me company. We had a regular break half way through the working hours – he went to look out of the window on the way downstairs with me, where he collected the post and I made a cup of green tea and did a few stretching exercises.

At the end of the next session of work we went straight out for a selection of walks, often taking a picnic lunch with us. We could go for miles along the canal, stopping by weirs or locks to eat, then catch the train back. We could go up onto the downs, walking with the valley world stretched out at our feet, lunching on the mounds of an ancient hillfort, watching hares box on a secluded slope. We could go further for a patch of woodland, where we nestled down among the bluebells with the bread and cheese, the subtle scent of the flowers gradually growing stronger around us.

It was on these walks that my plots developed. I thought about them not at all, but in my subconscious my characters were busy. They loved and laughed, squabbled and killed, planned their lives, resolved their difficulties, killed, worked out the culprit. By the following day knots in the story had unravelled, and I could sit down and write the next stages of the novel.

As I sit writing this in the window bay there are buds on the lilac, soon to burst into waxy white flowers. The roses are showing a cluster of buds too, and will open just as the lilac comes to an end. Tirn sits beside me in spirit now, as I maintain the routine he and I made together. My young Border collie, Bryn, doesn’t come up here yet, but one day he’ll be part of this routine too. He has already settled into the walking and writing times, and lays happily and relatively peacefully beside me while I write in the garden room – downstairs writing began when Tirn found the stairs too difficult, and has actually become a warm weather pleasure. By the time winter comes Bryn will be allowed upstairs and I’ll be back working in my study, where he’ll slot into the role his predecessor made.

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SIXTEEN Near escapes – The cat’s revenge

Once Tirn’s rush down the garden after a more blatant intruder nearly led to disaster. He disappeared out of sight and an instant later I heard him scream. Running down the garden, my heart pounding with fear, I saw him hanging from the paling fence. His eagerness to see the cat off had led him, most unusually, to jump at the hedge that grew through the fence.

By the time I reached him he had wrenched one of the paling planks off the fence and was trying to get to me, obstructed by the four-foot plank that seemed to be sticking through his throat. To my immense relief, he waited on command until I got to him and found the plank had penetrated between his throat and his collar, with the nails pointing outwards. He stood quite still while I released his collar and removed the plank, then checked him over to find there was no damage. Not even neck or back problems appeared later, so we were very lucky. But ever afterwards I checked the back garden for cats before I let him out of the door.

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SEVENTEEN Tirn out walking

The canal towpath near home, that meant moored narrowboats and ducks. Narrowboats had new scents, often of dogs, and interesting gangplanks, just like the agility dogwalk, asking to be explored. Ducks, especially sleeping ones, were just waiting to be startled into the water. He’d walk towards them quite nonchalantly, then at the second of passing he’d turn his head sharply towards them and have the exquisite pleasure of seeing them slither into the water with a lovely splash.

The fields and water meadows meant foxes and burrs. Foxes who made interesting tracks through the long grass, just begging to be followed. Burrs that stuck in his long coat if he did, and had to be removed with difficulty and patience (his and mine).

The downs meant sheep and pheasants. Sheep were to be avoided, other than a quick hard stare shot at them when he was walking beside me, daring them to mock a collie on a lead. Pheasants laid low, rocketed out of cover, flew with whirring wings just over his head, whatever they did he wasn’t interested in them.

His first encounter was with a flock of dizzy poults, just released from their pens, who came bolting towards us as we walked up a track towards the ridge. More and more of them joined in until Tirn, just ahead of me, was surrounded by waves of the hurrying birds, all hoping I’d come to feed them. He cast me one querying look over his shoulder, then walked slowly on, ignoring the flock that he inadvertently herded before him. Only when they gradually peeled off, hurrying aside into the bushes did he increase his pace. He clearly found them very silly creatures, not worth bothering with, and his attitude never changed.

Woods, now they were wonderful, they meant deer and holes, lots of holes. Deer lived in woods and Tirn loved their scent. He only had to lift his head in a certain way, snuffling the air, and I’d know deer were in the offing. There’d be the silent roe stag watching us from a thicket. There were the groups of stags standing silently in a forest copse, their antlers blending with the branches as the deer stared at our passing. He learned to stay quite still beside me, often lying resignedly behind a tree, as we watched deer moving silently through the woods.

And the holes – rabbits, rats, mice, badgers, foxes – he knew what lived where, who was at home, who’d moved out, who the newcomers were.

A walk was always so much more than a trip from one point to another. It was an exploration, a recapping, an adventure, a pleasure to be enjoyed at every moment. We walked together in a lot of places and for so many years, Tirn and I, that we could both have done most of those walks in our sleep. Even in his old age when I took him back to a place he knew well from earlier years he still knew the route, where to turn, what to look for.

For a while I walked those routes alone and was astonished to find how difficult it was to find my way in, for instance, the New Forest on a circuit I’d done so often. But before it was with Tirn, who always knew which way to turn at a multiple junction, no matter how much the scene had changed during the years.

Now I walk many of our routes with another dog, one who is picking up the directions and remembering the way as Tirn did. But so often I feel there are another set of feet pattering along with ours.

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EIGHTEEN Tirn's first pub visit

We sat innocently in the wide low salon of a Devon pub. We were the only ones in there, everyone else was in the public bar, and Tirn lay just in front of me, surveying the scene with interest. At nine months it was his first visit to the inside of a pub, rather than a garden outside.

It was pleasantly dim under the low beams, the old wooden settles were surprisingly comfortable and I was looking forward to my lunch. I saw the chef passing through without a qualm, until Tirn noticed him too and leaped to his feet, bursting into a fusillade of frenzied barking. The tall white chef’s hat was obviously disguising somebody with ill intent and he wasn’t going to sneak up on me, whether my food was on the table or not, without Tirn warning me of the danger.

It was a salutary lesson. I already knew he reacted to people whose shape was changed by their clothes, hats, or bags. I just wasn’t expecting a chef in full kit to walk in front of us at that moment.

Once he came over to talk to Tirn everything was fine, Tirn accepted him as a normal member of the human race.

But what I had learned was not to leave him in front of the table, in a position where he felt he had to guard me and warn me of potential danger. Ever afterwards he had a corner behind my table, or lay underneath it, with my feet carefully blocking his exit. And never again did he react to somebody approaching the table, except to emerge for a fuss.

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NINETEEN Walking the Lizard Coastal Path

Tirn above Mullion‘Hasn’t he been brilliant?’ The walker’s exclamation startled me. He’d been following us for the whole stretch of coastal path west from Lizard Point until Tirn and I had turned back towards the village, and he had seen Tirn walk to heel behind me the whole way. Apparently my left hand had been held out in warning for the entire distance.

I was hugely relieved, and very proud of Tirn. It made walking along potentially dangerous paths very much less worrying. And we both loved the walks here. We did them regularly in a certain order whenever we were staying down on The Lizard. He soon came to know them better than I did, every rocky slope, every hidden stream, every interesting hole or animal track.

He would without hesitation branch off the main path towards the granite outcrop where we rested for coffee or lunch on whichever route we were taking. And then he’d sit there gazing out to sea, or down on the beach where he knew we’d soon go for him to play in the water. When I’d been there long enough he’d fix me with a very determined gaze, willing me to move on. And as soon as I began to pack the rucksack he'd be alert, waiting to see if it meant more action. As soon as I stood up he’d be off, back towards the main path, his plumed tail floating out behind him like a beacon for me to follow.

Tirn%20013There was the stretch from Mullion Cove to Lizard Point, which we always walked on our first day here. It started with the great green swell of cliff above the cove, went up and down, winding round granite spurs, with a tremendous view down over the sea, turquoise, deep blue, aquamarine, green, black, and the island in the bay covered with nesting seabirds. It was on this walk that we quite inadvertently passed a pair of choughs, busily pecking the turf of a wide clifftop while birdwatchers had passed us earlier, going in the other direction as they rushed to the last sighting further north.

The narrow cliff path here opened into the broad expanse of Lower Predannack Down, where helicopters occasionally still came in to land on the nearby airfield. Tirn soon grew used to these, but the real danger, to my mind at least, was in the Highland cattle that always grazed the land between here and Kynance Cove. We always managed to skirt them, but my worst moment came when an approaching walker warned me about the cow who was chasing every dog walker that came by her. Apparently she had very big horns. My heart was in my mouth, but we crept down the smaller paths, glad that I knew the area well, and we luckily didn’t bump into her round any of the blind corners.

We avoided Kynance, always a hive of activity both on the shingly beach and in the café. And we avoided the rest of the cliff path to Lizard Point, so often crowded with walkers. Instead we went inland, taking the walk that led to the village, leading us along the tops of the field walls, where we always hoped that oncoming dogs were friendly as we had to squeeze past each other with no room to spare for evasive action.

And once in the village we went across the green and down the path with the sea ahead of us gleaming and glinting in the sunshine as we aimed for the Point. Strange how it never seemed to rain or be cloudy on that first day of walking. Lucky too, for when we arrived on The Point we were able to sit outside at Polpeor Café, looking down on the bay, getting our eyes adjusted to the difference between the glistening rocks and the occasional seal that popped its head up to stare at us. Getting my eye adjusted, actually, because Tirn never had any problem.

And then, replete with Cornish heavy cake (me), we returned to the village to catch the bus back to Mullion.

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TWENTY Garden visiting

This was really part of the Cornish experience. Heligan was the first garden where he came with me. The steps up and down round the edge of the garden were a tolerable experience for him. After all, it was fairly wooded here and the scents were clearly exciting. And sometimes he passed other dogs at close quarters.

I think he found the nooks and crannies of the kitchen garden interesting, but I may just have been reflecting my own feelings onto him. Overall, the impression he gave after the first half hour was one of bored toleration. I was doing this, so he would too, but really, wouldn’t we both be better off in open fields and woodlands where he could run free.

When he was young the one thing that really engrossed him in gardens was water. Running water, especially if he could drink it. And sometimes there were lakes and ponds. Tirn%20015On his first visit to Trebah he suddenly looked down from a vantage point and saw movement in the lake. It was the first time he’d seen fish and he watched them for a long time. Ever after he’d always look in lakes to see if there were more fish in them.

As he grew up I rarely inflicted garden visits on him, unless I could compensate the trial with good woodland for free walking. But as he entered extreme old age gardens came into their own as safe, fairly level places to potter beside me on the lead and still vicariously enjoy good scents and the occasional scurrying of a moorhen or running of a squirrel. And places to sit quietly just enjoying the atmosphere and watching the changing scene.

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TWENTY-ONE Lizard Point to Church Cove

Tirn%20012The glistening black rocks around Polpeor Cove are often hidden with bright splashes of colour in the summer and autumn from garden escaped flowers like mesanbryanthemum. Gulls hover over them, catching a breeze which generally seems to be brisk here.

The path leads steeply down to Polbream Cove and up again, out of the wind at least. Tirn always had to stay to heel as I was nervous of the steep drops that edged the route in places, and I never paused to enjoy the views here. It’s less of a problem around Housel Bay, walking beneath the white hotel perched on the slope above, where elephant grass is one of the invading species that waves in the wind like flags signalling distant ships.

White seems to be the colour of choice for prominent buildings along this stretch of coast – the lighthouse shines out when the sun sparkles of its pristine paint, the Lloyds signal station is a white block. The exceptions are the Marconi huts and the old lifeguard look-out point, now the coastal watch station, although even its base is white. It’s beneath this that Tirn liked to stop for a drink, in the bowl that’s always provided near the steps leading up to the building. He’d really have liked to go up them to explore the garden there, and visit the observers who record all traffic that passes by on sea or on land, in case of accidents that have to be dealt with later on.

It was only further on, where the path winds narrowly through blackthorn thickets down to Church Cove that Tirn could range ahead, sniffing at the low tunnels that lead beneath the bushes. He was able to resist the urge to wriggle down them, keen as always to move on. But he could never resist the temptation to dart down the steps and round the lifeboat station above the boat house, dashing back up on the far side meet me on the top path. It gave me such a shock the first time he did it that I greeted him with huge relief when he reappeared rather than dived into the sea. That was enough for him to do it every time we went that way, perhaps just for the welcome he got on the far side, perhaps just for the sheer joy of being able to do it.

This was always a busy route, the side of the Lizard peninsula with more shipping and communication landmarks for visitors to see, so once Tirn’s puppyhood was past we usually only came here in the evenings when it was quieter. And if we walked the route in reverse we could easily have been tempted to follow the wide golden path that the sinking sun laid across the sea, leading on to the distant horizon.

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TWENTY-TWO The shape-changers

The men coming towards us had hats on, broad-brimmed hats in case in rained. They carried heavy rucksacks, obviously with lots of rainwear just in case. Tirn hadn’t seen any person looking like this before and he wasn’t going to take any chances. He barked and barked, warning me of their approach.

As soon as I spoke to them and they answered he was fine, rushing up to greet them, tail wagging frenziedly with relief. This was to be the pattern for any person or object that looked different from his first encounters, and for anything that was out of place on walks and visits that he knew well. As for anybody emerging unexpectedly from behind a tree, or out of a hidden gateway … well, nobody was going to creep up on me unawares.

His attitude in these early years affected my behaviour when out with him. I always called cheerful greetings to approaching walkers if they looked at all out of the ordinary. I stopped to speak to anglers huddled under their fishing umbrellas. Cyclists stopped to let Tirn inspect their bikes. I blocked the gangplank as I chatted to people travelling on narrowboats while Tirn sniffed around their bankside perimeters.

This soon became unnecessary. He learned that people did look different, and did behave differently. Walkers generally wanted to greet him, so that was okay. Anglers had lots of interesting wriggly things in pots, and often wanted to greet him too, perhaps to distract him from their bait. Boats were fine, they often had dogs who wanted to meet him and sometimes to play.

There were only two things he hated all his life. One was hot air balloons. I always knew if they were approaching the garden, because he’d hurry indoors to shelter. Then he’d come back to urge me to follow him, and would eventually lurk in the back doorway watching me anxiously when I insisted on staying in the danger zone. I think his concern was mainly due to the noise of the burner, but that may simply have been because it announced the arrival of oddly shaped objects in the sky. And over the years some strange balloons certainly loomed above us, passing eerily by.

The other thing he hated was a one-man band. Not an ordinary band, not groups of musicians, not single instrumentalists. Only a one-man band. And that wasn’t because the cacophony made by the ones we encountered. It was due to the shape that the instruments made of the man they were strapped too. Nothing ever reconciled Tirn to this shape, so to avoid frenzied barking, the only times it ever happened, we had to avoid one-man bands. And until he grew very deaf, whenever we were at countryside events, we always knew one was in the vicinity because of the way he suddenly looked in their direction, long before we could hear or see the source of his concern.

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TWENTY-THREE The first Christmas

Tirn%20017The entrance into my sitting room of an eight-foot pine tree was taken without a blink by Tirn on his first Christmas. He came to look curiously at it when I encouraged him and was definitely interested in the little dog biscuits that fell out of the branches.

I’d got into the habit of hiding these for Sammie, my first collie, who’d initially been scared by the tree. He soon got used to it with this incentive, and still remembered to look for the biscuits even in his extreme old age when he was quite blind and rather confused.

Tirn searched out all there were in his first tree, had a desultory sniff over the lower branches, perhaps tracing the squirrels and birds that the pine used to harbour. Then the tree was ignored until Christmas day itself. The gilded leaves and fruit garlands and ropes that decorated it were left untouched. So were the presents. Tirn%20018In fact, his favourite resting place became just in front of the tree, surveying the sitting room.

Christmas day was different, heralded no doubt by the smell of the cooking turkey. Tirn certainly noticed this, stationing himself in the kitchen doorway to make sure that he didn’t miss anything. He also learned very early on when friends were due, and on this day he tore himself away from his vigil to be waiting in the front hall for the first arrivals at midday.

The excitement of the day kept him alert and eager, and he had to restrain himself to lying quietly under the dining table while we had our meal over a leisurely couple of hours. Then at last Tirn had his titbits, long-awaited and rapidly consumed.

The exhilaration continued with the crackling of paper as presents were unwrapped, an attraction that was enhanced by the little biscuits that dropped out of the folds. Tirn%20019This again was because Sammie had originally been frightened of the noise, and is of course how traditions are formed – biscuits in the tree and in paper wrappings are now part of ours.

It was an exhausting day for a puppy, just six months old, so he was able to take full advantage of his present – a new bed.

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TWENTY-FOUR In Cornwall – Goonhilly Down

My heart sank as I scanned the open expanses of flowering heather and gorse. It was a beautiful scene, all gold and shades of purples, stretching out far ahead of me, with the huge satellite dishes of the earth station on my right and the Bonython wind turbines spinning their blades beyond. But there was no sign of a year-old collie anywhere. I’d brought him through the gate and let him off the lead and he seemed to have instantly vanished.

I’d called until I was hoarse, turning round to view the heathland from all angles and nothing flickered or moved. It was only when I glanced down that I saw him, tucked into the shelter of a ditch, almost hidden from view by the heather. He’d found himself a warm sheltered little den right by my feet and lay there, his tongue hanging out, his bright eyes watching me, and no doubt he was wondering why I kept yelling for him when he was there all the time.

We paid many visits to Goonhilly, exploring the tracks, negotiating the bogs, and investigating the tiny patch of fields and ruined buildings that lie at its heart. It was only much later on, when he was about ten, that we arrived as usual and he was instantly terrified by the sound of either the neighbouring dishes or turbines. So terrified that nothing I could do would reassure him and so his visits to the heathland stopped.

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TWENTY-FIVE In the snow

Tirn was a whirling figure, rushing backwards and forwards, his eyes bright with excitement as he sprang again and again into the air to catch the white flakes of snow that were falling all around us. Eventually I had to catch him to take him indoors, where he lay on the kitchen floor, pink tongue hanging out of his mouth as he panted. Snowflakes melted on his dark coat, and he was quivering with excitement at this new experience – he was just over six months old and this was the first snow he had ever seen.

For nearly all the rest of his life he got a huge thrill from being out in the snow. There was the day we were walking over a whitened downland, all sound completely silenced by the snowfall. It began to snow again, large flakes falling more and more thickly as we went down from the ridge into the valley and then back up again further along. Soon we could only see the path under our feet. Both our coats were layered thickly with snow, and walking became slower and more difficult as the flakes settled and deepened the layer on the ground.

Tirn and I had learned early that the snow froze into thick lumps between the pads of his paws, making it painful for him to walk. The first time I saw him limping was alarming, but by the time of this winter walk he had learned to come back as soon as he began to limp. And I had learned to take his paw and prise out the lumps. It was certainly a relief to be experienced at this exercise, for he had to come back several times on this walk. It was also a great relief to be together or I would have been far more worried about losing my way in such limited visibility. But Tirn knew this walk well, and wasn’t slightly unsure where to go at any point.

Later in his life there were several winters when we stayed in the New Forest and enjoyed heavy falls of snow that cut us off in the cottage. To begin with, it meant that we had to go straight out into the garden, out into the forest where Tirn would find a new burst of rejuvenating energy. He visibly perked up, striding jauntily over the cold snow, brushing against gorse and sending showers of frosty covering down to the ground as he sniffed the freshly laid trails of rabbits and foxes.

If snow had fallen overnight I could watch him in the garden, hurrying backwards and forwards, tracing the night visitors. It was fascinating to see the trails they had left, which he followed so exactly that his footprints made a replica trail close beside the originals.

It was only the last couple of winters there that the cold and discomfort of outings in the snow became too much for his aching back and legs. He would pause distrustfully in the outside doorway, sniffing the air, before going out as briefly as he could before hurrying back to the warmth of the house and lying by the fire or the Aga.

But if I sat in the sun lounge he would join me and we’d watch the winter scene together. Snowflakes fell so thickly that shrubbery on the slope down to the brook became a changed scene. The water in the brook rose inexorably until it was shooting straight over the small waterfall and creeping over the brookside path. A blackbird and a robin came close to the window, busily scooping up the mealworms scattered there. Once a fox crossed directly in front of the windows, forced out in the day to find food. And Tirn lay there beside me in a patch of sunlight and watched it all.

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TWENTY-SIX Favourite walks

1 The hillfort

A regular walk of his youth was over the one of the many Iron Age hillforts we explored, and where we often picnicked. We walked up the drovers' road from the valley below. It was wide at first, hidden by tall hedges, and narrowed higher up to a winding path around the ramparts, screened by thickets of blackthorn. These were studded here and there with apple trees that had perhaps grown from a core discarded by a shepherd many years ago, and in the autumn I gathered both apples and sloes here for many years.

There were many special spots, favoured at different times of the year. The space among the thickets of flowering blackthorn along one of the outer slopes was where we sat at the top of a hidden ride watching the March hares. They lolloped around, suddenly bursting into speedy races, which occasionally ended in a bout of fisticuffs as a female saw off a pestering male. Sometimes one of the hares came close, grazing so intently that they were unaware of us, sitting there so still and quiet. Tirn never stirred, he just watched with as much fascination as I did.

In the spring too, we sat within the grass-covered mounds of the fort circle itself. The breeze blew onto our faces, lifting my hair and ruffling his fur. Around us the ground was studded with primroses. Above us larks sang piercingly clear in the cloudless sky.

By the summer the open expanses around were often colonised by sheep, so then we didn’t stay, but walked over the wide flat circle of the inner fort, pausing on the northern edge to see the view of the valley that opened below us. The breeze made the wild flowers in the knee-high grass around us shiver and sway on their delicate stems. A rustle nearby revealed one of those earlier hares, which suddenly burst out of cover and down over the steep ridged slope to the field at the bottom. Sometimes, though, the sheep moved on and we were able to cross the open interior to the stand of oaks and beeches that marked the north-western corner. Here I sat on a fallen trunk, dreaming of the people who had been here centuries before, while Tirn lay in the shade beneath the canopy, dreaming too perhaps, but more likely drinking in the traces of who and what had been there more recently.

The autumn saw us pausing on the northern slope, as we picked our way down an old farm track, grassed and nettled for decades. A single beech grew at an angle across the track, helping us to keep to the way. Late bees hummed over the knapweed that studded the grass, a few harebells still dangled delicately on the ends of their slender branches. A hare lolloped across the distant field, a buzzard hovered high above. And now there was only the sound of the wind around us.

And even in the winter, I brought a flask of soup to sit up here, especially when it had snowed. The going was hard, especially up and down the slope, but the view was stunning, completely changed when snow lay over it all. And Tirn loved it, racing through the thick coverlet, leaving his paw marks beside those of the fox and the rabbits that had been there earlier. Ice rimmed the fur on his ears, and clung to his coat where snow had sprayed over it. Ice formed in clumps between his paw pads too, and suddenly he would be limping painfully, coming back to have the clumps prised loose so that he could set off at speed again.

For ten years we walked here, and even now when I walk it again without him there are still the spots that were especially his. The thick fallen tree trunk that he used to spring onto and walk along like a tightrope walker. The next fallen tree trunk under a huge beech where he waited for me, knowing I’d stop there to enjoy the view across the western gap between the hills to the fort that topped the far one. The point where he waited again, when the path emerged between the thickets onto the open downland on the ridge and where hares crouched like lumps of earth at certain times of the year. The stop at the dewpond beside the hillfort, whose clay bowl was pierced now with grass and towering teasels, but still occasionally held patches of water. Further on was the tumulus that marked the resting place of some of the inhabitants of the fort, isolated now among wide fields, overgrown with grass and wild flowers. An animal track led up it, one Tirn would follow and stand staring triumphantly down at me as I reached him.

There isn’t a place on this walk where I don’t remember him, the wind in his fur, his eyes bright, his white-tipped tail streaming out behind him.

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TWENTY-SEVEN Favourite walks

2 Walbury hillfort in the snow

It was completely silent on that winter walk. As we crossed the hillfort, another that we visited frequently, the snow had started to fall, lying more and more heavily on the ground. We went on, turning into one of the southern valleys and the flakes grew bigger and more numerous, screening the view and falling into a thickening blanket under foot.

By the time we had reached the southern base of the downs all the landmarks had been hidden from view on this, one of our more complicated walks. It was fortunate I walked with Tirn, who never hesitated to take the right path, leading us steeply back at an oblique angle up the downs when I would have missed the turning. I knew we were passing along a tree-lined path, rough with flint, often slippery with exposed chalk. But I could see nothing except the snowflakes, and could feel nothing under foot except the clinging snow.

Not a bird called, not a creature moved. There was certainly not another person out in the wilderness that we were crossing. It seemed like an age, and was at least an hour longer than usual, before we were ploughing our way through almost a foot of snow over the drovers’ track that comes steeply up from the south. This is a wide path between banks guarded by hazel trees, whose outlines were not even faintly visible. There was no crunch of nutshells underfoot nor any whisper of wind in the branches, which were not even faintly visible. There was not the slightest chance of seeing the hillfort on the towering spur of the hill that cuts into the valley like the prow of a giant ship.

Iron Age men and women must have used this track, certainly shepherds over many centuries must have walked here in all weathers. And now we had joined the group of shades, who knew what it was to find our way over the ancient routes in silent blinding whiteness. Tirn stayed close beside me, quite unconcerned by the snowfall, never doubting the way. If he hadn’t been with me I should have been afraid, I would certainly never have found my way alone.

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TWENTY-EIGHT Favourite walks

3 Kennack Sands to Coverack

Tirn at KennackThe car wound down a narrow lane between the high grassy banks that hid the cove below. But Tirn knew exactly where we were, and had almost certainly known from the moment we took the crucial turning towards the village of Kuggar.

Tirn was out of the car as soon as the rear door was opened in the small car park, and heading for the path that led up through the scrubby sloe bushes and gorse towards the sandy headland that screened the second cove of Kennack Sands. He paused from time to time, waiting for me, willing me to move faster. But once we reached the top of the headland his excitement mounted and he rushed down towards the derelict sea wall that screened the beach. There are wide breaches in the wall, a scree of small boulders beyond it and then if the tide is out there is a stretch of sand ideal for an eager dog to play on. The ball throwing session was never long enough for him, although he was soon wet from retrieving the ball repeatedly from the sea. He shook himself from time to time, never taking his eyes from the ball, which he always brought back to put in my hand.

He was deeply reluctant to leave the beach, and I was usually more than half way up the steep steps of the eastern cliff when he came panting to join me. But once the walk got underway he became enthusiastic about the trails that led beneath the thickly packed thorny blackthorns or under the protruding granite outcrops. He learned early only to sniff at them, not to try to follow them, as the drop down to the sea on one side is often precipitous.

The long grass peninsula of Lankidden was sometimes a distraction, chance to for him to run around while I explored the remains of Carrick Luz, the Iron Age fort the crowns the promontory. He’d soon come to sit beside me as we gazed down at the sea. I was imagining the traders who sailed across the waters to this site, their ships’ sails suddenly appearing out of the distance and growing slowly closer – and the farmers who worked the inland fields who might come to watch them arriving, standing perhaps in curious groups near where I sat now, so many centuries later. Tirn was undoubtedly imagining something more practical – the route ahead of us, and the little beaches that he might be able to visit.

There’s a small cove east of Lankidden, but although he cast longing looks down towards it he knew that it wasn’t on our usual agenda. We walked on, up and down, past the small fields that still lie inland, sometimes with grazing cows.

It was early in his life, on our first walk here, that one of the fields was screened from the path by an electric fence. In a particularly narrow section of the path Tirn brushed against it, and yelped with pain and shock. There were never cows or an electric fence here again in all the following years that we walked this route, but always as we approached this section Tirn would fall back behind me and walk very carefully to the right – unnerving, as the drop down to the sea was close.

He picked up speed as we rounded an outcrop to see the path going steeply down into Downas valley. Most often we perched on the headland to the west, sheltered from the wind by outcrops of rock, and looked down to the cove below as I ate my lunch. We could see the high steps that would take us up to Beagles Point, but Tirn’s gaze was fixed on the sea, watching the hypnotic roll of the waves and the flight of the white spray. The roar of the water was loud in our ears, and we could tell from our vantage point if the tide was out. If it was we could hurry on down into Downas valley to the small sandy beach that lay beyond a slithery slope of rounded rocks.

This was actually the walk of the three beaches, yet still Tirn was reluctant to leave this, the second, after a short spell of ball playing and rock scrambling. But I was always keen to get the steep climb up the steps over with, and move on towards Coverack, especially as there was a bus timetable to keep in mind if we didn’t intend to walk back.

And if we were in good time, and the tide permitted, there was the extended walk down through the reeded hinterland behind Porthbeer Cove and the beach that waited at its far end.

Arrival in Coverack was celebrated with an ice-cream to share as we walked around the wide semi-circular bay. Sometimes we had time for tea, looking down over the sea, and sometimes there was even time for another beach and another game in the sea, if the tide was out so that we could walk across the beach that fringed the bay to get to the bus stop. It was perhaps fortunate that the tide was generally coming in by the time we got this far, as a wet and sandy dog would probably not have been too popular on the bus that took us back to Kuggar.

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TWENTY-NINE Favourite walks

4 Blackberrying at the hillfort

Most of the fort itself has been ploughed over, but the network of ramparts on the northern side is still visible, particularly in the autumn when the sun lights the ridges and dips into sudden clarity.

Tirn and I walked up from the north, along a path that skirted the foot of an outpost. Sheep graze on the slopes on both sides of the path, and in one place an ancient sett pocks a field. The badger routes down to the pastures are clearly marked over the chalky path, which is sometimes lined with a row of dung pits marking a territorial boundary.

The very first time we came here was in the autumn, just after the pheasant poults had been released. I’ve described that encounter earlier, and it set the pattern of future meetings with pheasants – he ignored the creatures, passing them by. The only time he stopped was if one was hiding in the grass, then he’d point at it until the bird lost its nerve and rocketed out of cover to fly away, squawking loudly. Then Tirn would resume his walk, his serenity undisturbed, satisfied that he’d flushed out the hidden watcher.

Autumn was the blackberry season here, and the bushes at the top of this path were usually heavy with fruit. We weren’t often the first to come here. Badgers and foxes had visited, taking lower fruit and creating neat spaces among the brambles for Tirn to lie in, patiently waiting while I picked. He was happy to accept the odd berry, and took to helping himself off the bushes, plucking the fruit daintily one by one, but blackberries were never a major attraction – three or four were enough for him.

We often picnicked here, and had several favourite places. When the wind was high there was the fallen log in the wild cherry copse, where the snowdrops grew in wild abandon just before the tree blossom appeared. When there was just a gentle breeze and warm sunshine we sat on the turf of a field, gazing down at the woods and fields laid out like a map below us.

This was perhaps my most favourite spot here, walking over the ridge to see this view with my dog beside me. I wondered how many other individuals had done this over the centuries.

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