I am fairly sure that my husband never envisaged ending up with nine dogs. In some ways I too am not entirely sure how we have quite so many but, thinking about it, they are really all about family and friends.
It began with Percy, a yellow Labrador I bought from a friend when my son was about two years old. He sadly died over four years ago. He was followed in 2005 by Rosie, our chocolate working cocker spaniel, whom I bought from Eddie, our Head Keeper, as a Christmas present for my husband and son. She is a little like a walking cuddly bear, touched with grey, and much loved, and has remained an optimistic, kind member of our family ever since, even if she is now a little deaf (although I am not always entirely convinced that it is not a selective deafness).
Bella, the current matriarch of the Labrador family, is Percy’s daughter. A beautiful dog, kind and empathetic, she reminds us of how to grow old gracefully. Although she is becoming ever creakier, so that every step becomes an achievement, every now and again she makes it clear that she would like to be included in a walk. Sometimes a wheelbarrow comes to her aid or I drive and retrieve her from the various points of the garden to which she has laboriously hauled herself. Less able to bend and stretch, brushing and scratching her behind her ears, or along her back, means a lot to her.
Rosie the spaniel’s two puppies, Clemmie and Winnie, are always affectionate and have reached the grand age of 7. Winnie has an eternal predisposition to win the naughtiest dog competition but he is very handsome and just wants to be loved, especially when he has jumped out of a car to explore far flung fields, or eaten a loaf of bread, or is convinced the sofa is his.
Clemmie gave birth to Evie on the sofa in my study, watched by Luis (Highclere’s “Carson the Butler”) and his daughter Isabella. Two more puppies arrived that night in my bedroom in the Castle. One left us to live with friends but Isabella and Luis kept Ted or Super Ted, a very handsome brown cocker spaniel with white markings just like his grandmother Rosie. I just had to keep Evie: adorable, tiny, very fast and with a quick intelligence, she sleeps curled up at the foot of our bed every night or she howls.
In 2012 Bella had ten puppies in and turned even whiter overnight. Not surprising, but what a gift they have been to various families and, of course, to my friend Karine. Uncertain at first about the responsibility of a dog, she then fell in love with Finse, a life changing and life giving moment. Our love of these dogs, the walks we enjoy together, “the minute’s pause and moment’s thought” the walking with nature and chance to observe and listen and laugh whilst the family of dogs play, gives us both an anchor in a relentlessly busy life.
I kept two out of Bella’s litter – Alfie and Scooby Doo. I am not sure how I managed it but I think Geordie was so pleased to see eight puppies go, that just two more at that stage seemed almost a positive result. They are as keen on swimming as their grandfather Percy and we all go down to a small lake here and they swim whilst I paddle in a canoe (called Captain Percy) which Karine gave me.
Alfie is a lovely fox red colour, very protective of me and has his own view of walks. I stop to talk and he has slips away to inspect Sally’s gift shop stockroom, the bins in the Castle office and the remains of scones from around the tea rooms. He was particularly fond of Downton Abbey’s catering bus and enjoyed their afternoon tea and biscuits on the trestle table outside the front door. Conveniently he never hears us calling him. Scooby Doo by contrast is quite modest and a good working dog in the shooting field unless he is feeling shy.
Karine’s beloved Finse had puppies just last year and Geordie, accepting that they would not all leave, proactively agreed that I could keep one. In honour of Finse’s Viking life and Karine’s heritage he called her Freya, which is such a lovely name. As Karine’s puppies began to go off their new homes, the fate of one little girl remained unclear. Of course I knew that meant she should stay and keep her sister company. To try to save my marriage, the Highclere team diplomatically nicknamed her Mirage. For quite some time Geordie thought she was waiting to go elsewhere but, ten months later, Stella, as she is now named, so elegant and smart, is very much still here and, with her sister Freya, the mainstay of the office.
This September we shall have to have a reunion of our families of dogs which will thus be even more chaotic than usual but what fun. That is life – moments of happiness like bubbles in a stream.