Sunday, 13 January 2013

A dog's life on a bracing day

‘Bracing’ is a great word, isn’t it? It does for weather just what ‘interesting’ does for a film, the kind you didn’t walk out of, and which you didn’t exactly dislike, but for which you can’t actually point to any redeeming features.

On winter walks, ‘bracing’ means it was wet, cold and muddy, but somehow you didn’t enjoy it any the less for all that, though on the face of it there’s no good reason why you wouldn’t find it frankly miserable. We spent a couple of hours today picking our way round the muddiest bits of rutted paths, hands stuffed in pockets despite the gloves, noses glowing like traffic lights on stop.

That was in Ashridge forest, one of our favourite places. We particularly like it in May when the bluebells are out, or in the autumn when the leaves are turning, but even with bare trees and ice floating on the puddles in the tracks, it was full of charm today. We saw a colossal herd of fallow dear and a monkjack dodging between the trees; we saw my favourite white horse who, as usual, I fed with some handfuls of grass though it hurt to take my glove off to pick it and all I could get was some miserly tufts; and naturally we saw huge numbers of dogs, including our own Janka who’s never so delighted as when she can be in that forest.

She was barking in pleasure from the moment we pulled into the car park.  Once out the car and into the field that leads to the edge of the woods, she was wild with excitement. Belying her twelve years, she reverted to puppyhood, racing in every direction and barking at anything that caught her attention, from an unusually high grass blade to a glimpse of her own shadow.

We met a woman walking two dogs who said she always took them for a long walk before going to Ashridge, so that they wouldn’t be that excited when they got there. Clearly Janka isn’t alone in getting carried away by the sheer joy of the place. On the other hand, why would we walk off her exuberance beforehand? If Janka can’t be a little wild in a forest, where else should she be?

Sharing Janka’s pleasure would have made the walk worthwhile anyway, even if we hadn’t enjoyed it for its own sake: there’s a strange quietness in winter woodlands which is gently soothing, and it was good to share it with Danielle and our middle son Michael, over for the weekend from his home in Madrid. We wrapped the expedition up with a burger which exactly fitted the appetite the walk gave us, especially as what we ate wasn
’t any old burger, but one made of veal and topped with bacon: Ashridge is managed by that venerable institution, the National Trust, and not even its burgers are ordinary.

Besides, just before we reached the end of our walk, the sun slipped below the clouds and flooded the landscape with light. No particular warmth, for sure, but golden light that transformed every prospect.

As the sun flooded in, we enjoyed Ashridge as much as Janka
Despite the bracing cold and the mud

It was a useful reminder that a winter walk can be just as rewarding as it can be bracing. A sentiment which Janka entirely endorses.

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