It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Boots was about six inches long when we bought him, with the sweetest face and long, soft hair. I don’t think we ever checked the size of a fully grown English shepherd. Or if we did, we must have read centimetres for inches. For soon Boots was the size of a Shetland pony, an enormous hairy beast.
Our three dogs suited our 20-acre farm. Two spaniels and an English shepherd masquerading as a horse.
We could throw them out of the back door in the morning and they’d come romping back covered in mud straight on to the polished tiles.
After a while, Jo stopped screaming at them. She accepted mud as an essential ingredient in Northumbrian life. You just hose them down – first the dogs, then the tiles – and start again, till the next romp.
The spaniels loved our farm. Mabel, an occasionally golden cocker, liked nothing more than finding great big muddy puddles to spread around the house. While Truffle could spot a pile of fox poo at half a mile, and roll in it quickly before we could even shout “bad dog”. Once experienced, no one forgets the sweet, pungent smell of fox.
And Boots? Boots was particular partial to rounding up cattle. He really should be called an English cowherd. Even the bulls enjoyed the game after a while. I’m not sure the farmers agreed.
Apart from the summer, which in Northumberland means a couple of weeks in June, most of our time in that idyllic rural existence was spent cleaning mud off clothes, cars and dogs.
I even worked out an interesting mathematical formula: the exuberance of your dog is in direct proportion to the whiteness of your shirt – you’d be leaving the house smartly dressed for a business meeting when Boots would leap up with joy and wrap both muddy paws round your newly laundered collar. That’s why I generally wore black. And why I would spend the first hour of my weekly train journey to London getting caked earth and dog dribble off my clothes so I could face the city.
Then, reluctantly, we moved South. Our house is right on Hampstead Heath. For those who aren’t familiar, it’s a thousand acres of wild open land and woods overlooking the capital. It’s also full of dogs. Sounds perfect?
Well, it would be, except we no longer have a kitchen door we can throw them out of. We have to bring them through our hallway and sitting room, so the process of de-mudding is now seriously complicated. For, like everyone else in London, we have cream carpets and polished wood floors. Or we used to.
The destruction took three weeks. We tried keeping the dogs in the utility room. Boots ate the flooring, then the door. We built a kennel for them in the garden. Boots ate the door, then started nibbling our front door to get back in. Now it’s summer, and the demolition of our home is complete. And the cream and the wood are the same shade of brown.
The spaniels have never been so happy, or so fit. Mabel is favourite to win the all-London stick fetching championships, in the slimy pond event. She goes in golden and comes out green, wagging her entire body in excitement. Truffle has discovered that foxes live on Hampstead Heath too, and that their poo smells just as good as their Northumbrian cousins’.
And as for Boots? He’s found out that big dogs are even more fun than cattle. When he spies another big dog, he does that crouching thing that all collie breeds do. He waits and pounces. Posh owners scream in fright as the giant gallops up, mouth
open, tongue dripping with white glob.
He only wants to play. Look, he’s jumping up at you to lick you. See? He loves you. And your terrified mutt is fine, cowling behind you. The spaniels really love your new Prada jacket – look, they’re shaking their pond slime and fox poo all over it.
Yes, moving to London with three dogs seemed like a really good idea at the time.