Posted by: Steve | January 8, 2012

A working cocker at home

Hooray Henry!

Well, we’ve made it through to Henry’s first birthday. It hasn’t been easy adapting our quiet, peaceful life in the sleepy backwaters of Northumberland to accommodate a working cocker spaniel. To say that Henry, also known as ‘the little tornado’, Henry hooligan’ and ‘the Ferrari of working cockers’ has been a bit of a handful is an understatement.

Handsome Henry - 1 year old

Handsome Henry - 1 year old

A great family pet

When reading-up on the best breed of dog to live with Barney, our nervous rescue cat, cocker spaniels came out high on the list. Recommended as a ‘great family pet’ we knew that they could be a bit lively, but it really has been quite a surprise to find out just how much energy the working strain of cocker can muster.

Henry at sea - 5 months

Henry at sea - 5 months

Henry came from a breeder in Morpeth. His mum was the family pet and his dad was a big, tough cocker. We hoped he’d take after his mum, but even as a pup he had a wilful glint in his eye. It’s amazing how stubbornly determined he can be when he decides that he’s not going to walk to heel, or jump back in the car after his walk.

Henry the hooligan - 3 months

Henry the hooligan - 3 months

That’s not to say that he’s been a bad pup. He’s been incredibly bright, and quick to learn lots of his basic training. He was top of puppy class when it came to recall, sit, stay, up, down, on, off, step, jump, spin, roll-over and go to basket. He’s a first-class traveller, happy to spend hours in the car, either in the boot or in his basket. Toilet training was a breeze, and he often sleeps for eight hours at night before waking us up for his morning walk.

Abseiling, paragliding and a trial for Newcastle United

Just when we were thinking of signing him up for abseiling, paragliding and a trial for Newcastle United football club we had to drop out of puppy school because he just couldn’t or wouldn’t walk to heel. He was also very disruptive in class whenever he had to wait for his turn to show off.

At about seven months we noticed that Henry was much more lively and disruptive after eating cheap, tinned dog food, or treats bought from the supermarket. We changed his diet to an additive free variety and cut out the cheap treats – he calmed down, a little, almost overnight. We use the various varieties of Burns kibble now. Though we do supplement it with home-cooked vegetable scraps, tinned pilchards or sardines. He’s in great condition and still has a nice, lustrous coat.

Although we never intend to take him shooting he has had some basic gun-dog training. This has been pretty intense, and not just for Henry. Dawn and myself have been on the receiving end of quite a few pointed comments about being unsuitable owners for ‘a dog like this’. As I’m writing this Henry is groaning with contentment on the settee while Dawn scratches his chest. He seems pretty happy as a family pet.

I’d agree with the trainers if we lived in a city with nowhere for Henry to run. Fortunately we have a very large garden and many miles of Forestry Commission woodland on our doorstep. Currently he gets about four walks every day. His afternoon walk is usually a long one, either along the banks of the Coquet or along one of the long local beaches. Please don’t even consider taking on a working strain cocker if you can’t do the walks. If you do take the plunge please check with your vet to see how much exercise your own pup needs as he or she grows.

Training with a dummy - 8 months

Training with a dummy - 8 months

A mouse-click away from being re-homed

We’ve still got a long way to go with Henry’s training. We found that he responded best to an ACME type gun-dog whistle, particularly for recall, which was excellent up to six months, then dreadful, and is now slowly improving again. Hand signals were good when we trained him to sit, lie down and stay. There have been quite a few occasions where we’ve been totally exasperated with his stubborn, unruly behaviour. On one occasion I was a mouse-click away from sending him to be re-homed!

No two trainers will agree on a single approach, and the whole business seems to be based on fad and fashion. There are a bewildering number of books available on gun-dog training – we’ve read a lot of them. All we can recommend is that you treat every activity – walks, meals and playtime, as a training exercise. Don’t worry about rushing things along. Personally I find that the ‘two voice’ idea works best – I try to use a pleasant voice when he’s good, and a harsh tone when he’s bad. He seems to get the idea.

Now, on his first birthday, we’ve managed to work our way through the troubles of puppyhood. Henry is a real joy to live with. He’s now a shining example of the ‘merry cocker’ always happy to meet human and doggy friends – old and new, with an enthusiastic wag of his stumpy little tail.

Henry's first snooze - 7 weeks

Henry's first snooze - 7 weeks

Posted by: Steve | January 2, 2012

New Year 2012

Lindisfarne – the holy island

New Year’s Eve 2012 proved to be bright and blustery, so we took advantage of favourable tides to visit Lindisfarne. Usually, at this time of year, there are large numbers of Brent Geese bobbing close to the shore in the sheltered bays around the island. We didn’t see any on this occasion. There were none of the local seal colony to be heard or seen either. Just a single juvenile grey seal, recently dead, on the beach near St Mary’s Church.

St Mary's Church - Lindisfarne

After walking Henry around the dunes and beaches at ‘The Snook’ end of the island, we made our way into the village for fresh crab-meat sandwiches. I still haven’t fully recovered from the birthday oysters that Dawn bought for me four years ago. But, with Henry’s help, I munched my way through the two crab sarnies, and I’m still here to tell the tale.

The Northumberland Gazette seems to have had weekly reports of numpties stranding their cars on the causeway all through the summer so we didn’t take any chances. We were heading home long before the tide turned.

 Little Terns 

Lynne and Pat joined us on New Year’s day for a spot of bird watching at Beadnell Bay. To gain access to the bay take the left fork in the road at High Newton, rather than the right fork to Newton by the Sea. A single-track road takes you down to a small car park, from there just follow the well worn path towards Long Nanny Burn. Another great Northumbrian place-name, with the curious ‘Robin Wood’s Rock’ sitting just offshore!

Beadnell Bay

Normally there’s no shortage of birds to spot in the streams and pools that feed the Burn, but on this occasion there was virtually nothing to see.

The beach around the mouth of the burn is patrolled by wardens during the breeding season, providing protection for a long-standing colony of Little Terns. There’s a famous hut on the beach, offering the wardens shelter from the elements when the winds blow and the rains rain.

Nanny Burn Warden's Hut

Toffs feel the pinch

Finding ourselves with a spare bank holiday on Monday 2nd January 2012 we nipped into Alnwick for some washing-up liquid. We found that the castle-end of the town was occupied by the horses, hounds and followers of the Percy hunt. It was refreshing to see that even the aristocracy were feeling the pinch of austerity, swapping their stirrup cups for a cheap plastic variety.

Percy Hunt first meet 2012

Posted by: Steve | December 28, 2011

A Real Victorian Christmas

‘Last orders’ on Christmas Eve

My traditional Christmas is a last-minute dash around the shops, trying to wrestle a few desperate presents from the grasp of other sad individuals like myself. Normally you’d find me in the scrum around the bare shelves just before the harassed shop assistants call ‘last orders’ on Christmas Eve. Happily, this year was a detour from the norm.

The first event on our Christmas calendar was the Swarland panto back in November 2011. This year’s show, The great Christmas pudding robbery, was penned by villager Helen Chambers. There were unforgettable performances by many of the Swarland Drama Group, but the star of the show for me was panto dame Mona Lottie, played by Arthur Yellowley. Combining the voluptuous charms of Dolly Parton with the allure of Marilyn Monroe it was almost impossible to believe that Arthur wasn’t a woman. OK, the beard did raise a shadow of doubt, but it was still a stunning performance.

The great Christmas pudding robbery

During the cold snap at the end of November we had a trip up to Ford to do a bit of early gift shopping at the Christmas fayre. With the nation slipping deeper into an economic slump we were just beginning to think about having a traditional Victorian Christmas, with a few home-made cards and presents. We were amazed to find that Queen Victoria had already started her come-back tour in Ford. She certainly looked quite grumpy. Possibly she was ‘not amused’ by the number of stall holders selling pricey jars of home-made pickles and chutneys.

We are not amused!

While we were trying to save a few quid this year we still made our annual trek to Rothbury Wines to stock up on a great selection of reds and whites. Not a supermarket brand in sight. Most of the wines we bought were in the range £7 to £10. All of them were better than £10 bottles we’d bought from Marks & Spencer.

With the wines, presents and dog all packed into the car we made our traditional festive excursion down to Lancaster to spend Christmas with Dawn’s mum in Halton village. This was Henry’s very first Christmas, but he soon got the hang of opening presents. It was all very exciting for him.

Henry's prezzies

Dawn’s mum, Pat, cooked up a superb traditional dinner, followed by all kinds of festive snacks and nibbles. With so many highly calorific goodies being consumed we felt the need to get out into the Lancashire countryside for some brisk walking. We made our way up through Eaves Wood to the Pepperpot viewpoint with its blustery views over Silverdale and Morecambe bay.

Happy Christmas from the Pepperpot!

We headed for home on December 27th, still got a few more days free before I have to go back to work, but there’s a long list of chores to get through, and my dad is back in hospital on the 30th, so we’ve got a few more busy days ahead.

Posted by: Steve | November 25, 2011

Wellingtons meet their Waterloo

Farewell to the old Argyles

After twelve years of dependable service I finally have to say farewell to my Argyle wellies. OK, they’re not exactly the height of style and fashion, but I don’t think there’s a better brand on the market for anyone needing a hard-working, reliable wellie.

There are so many happy memories associated with these muddy boots… Catching brook lampreys in the river Aln at Whittingham Station, while our dogs Puca and Kelpi (now departed) lazed and sniffed through warm summer afternoons. Harsh winters in Glanton village – the wintry lanes glazed with sheet ice.

For twelve years these wellies were my closest allies in the war against weeds on two allotments, but last winter was just too much for them. This summer they’ve finally split, so I’ll be off down to Farmways at the weekend to kit myself out with a new pair.

Farewell to the old Argyles

Posted by: Steve | November 20, 2011

Cragside in a new light

… and the worlds beyond Cassiopeia

In contrast with the awful weather at this time last year November 2011 has been unusually mild. After the cancellation of the Northumberland Lights’ event at Cragside last year we were very keen to check out the event on Saturday evening (the 20th Nov, 2011).

We packed a few essentials, including a torch, and headed for the estate’s main entrance, on the B6341, about a mile from the centre of Rothbury as you approach from  the east.

Cragside lights

Cragside lights

After paying our entrance fee (£11.50 each) we found that a route through the grounds had been clearly marked by illuminated signs, with plenty of friendly guides on hand to keep the visitors on-track.

Modern Victorian marvels

Modern Victorian marvels

It was an unusual and interesting experience, with a slight feeling of taking part in a Victorian exhibition of ‘modern marvels’. The route had been transformed with light and sound. The crowds ambled through the eerie spaces and exhibits waving their torches like human glow-worms.

There was lots to see. My personal favourites were the curious glass globes filled with oddities by local schoolkids… then there was the fantastic carved trunk of a great fallen tree… and the storytellers in costume…

Spectacular carving

Spectacular carving

To top it all there were local astronomers on hand, with a variety of telescopes of different shapes and sizes. We were given a glimpse of the myriad worlds in the vast starfields beyond Cassiopeia by a very friendly astronomer with a compact, 6 inch reflector.

All in all a great evening under clear, crisp skies. If you missed this year’s event put it on the calendar for next November – it’s a great night out.

Posted by: Steve | September 14, 2011

Holiday in Sandhead 2011

Remote, rugged landscapes

Remote, rugged landscapes

We’re back in the cosy comfort of the Otter’s Holt after a week’s holiday in South West Scotland. We chose Sandhead, a tiny costal village a few miles from Stranraer, as our destination this year. We thought that the remote location and long beaches would suit our tearaway pup, Henry.

Little H was quite keen on the beaches, even though the walking can be pretty tough over the many miles of rocks and pebbles. Sun worshipers might be happier on the sands of the Spanish Costas.

The climate in this part of Scotland is mild, hence the abundant palm trees sprouting in almost every garden. They certainly add an exotic element to the remote, rugged landscape. This is a painter’s paradise, though the light changes minute-by-minute as blue skies become masked by rolling white cumulous, then a blanket of grey, then back to blue.

Ardwell House

The pace of life here is quite sedate. Long hours can be spent browsing the bookshops of Wigtown, or exploring the numerous well kept and interestingly stocked gardens of Dumfries and Galloway. One of the most impressive places we visited was Ardwell Gardens. For a very reasonable three pound entry charge you’re free to wander the pocket-sized estate of Ardwell House. The house itself is extremely pretty, especially when bright sunshine beams through the rolling clouds.

Slightly more exotic (and expensive) are Logan Botanical Gardens, just short of Port Logan. Here you’ll find examples of more exotic flora, particularly New Zealand ferns and various species of eucalyptus trees, peeling their colourful pallets of blue-green bark.

While you’re in the vicinity please call into Port Logan for a pint with the equally colourful and quirky staff of the Port Logan Inn. The food is good, wholesome, home-cooking, but I challenge you to finish a full plate of their beef stew and tatties. The portions are mountainous!

The Mull of Galloway

The Mull of Galloway lighthouse

Wildlife is abundant around the coast, with one of the best places to visit being the sheer clifftops around the Mull of Galloway lighthouse near Drummore. We were fortunate enough to see an unfortunate rock dove plucked out of the air by a peregrine falcon. This is not the ideal place to to walk a boisterous dog – Henry was doing his best to drag me over the cliff-edge. With an electric fence on the other side of the narrow cliff-top path I was very relieved to get back to the welcoming shelter of the Gallie Craig café – great cakes accompanied by misty views of Ireland out over the sea.

Portpatrick folk-fest 2011

Portpatrick folk-fest 2011

By curious coincidence we found ourselves in Portpatrick for the 2011 folk festival over the weekend of 2nd, 3rd, 4th September 2011. The Saturday afternoon was bright and sunny so we settled outside the busiest pub with beer and crisps. There seemed to be an endless stream of lone guitarists winding their way down from the harbour to join the throng in full swing and song. I recognised ‘The Lakes of Ponchetrain’, and later a lone trad musician played Shebeg & Shemore on the concert flute. With the emphasis more on folksong I didn’t expect that pure ‘twiddly-diddly’ on the banjo and flute would go down well with the assembled folkies. The banjo stayed in the car boot.

After a Guinness (one of the bland, new ones with no flavour) Henry had run out of salt and vinegar crisps, so we were obliged to move him on before he started chewing the chair legs. The festival went on without us.

Before setting off for home we had to re-visit Portpatrick to try the food at the renowned ‘Campbell’s’ sea-food restaurant. It’s a great place to eat, with attentive service and a cosy, agreeable atmosphere. All of this with impressive views of late summer sunsets over the harbour.

Locally caught seafood is prominent on the menu, but a few of us opted for duck, beef and chicken. I was very impressed with my succulent cut of inch-thick beef in a rich, creamy sauce. The liberal use of cream wasn’t quite so popular with the rest of the party. Dining at Campbell’s isn’t cheap – there’s even a charge for a bowl of veg, but it still gets my vote as some of the best food I’ve eaten in recent years.

Posted by: Steve | August 28, 2011

August holiday weekend

Warkworth, Sunday morning

Warkworth beach in August

On our way to the Scarecrow Festival at Rennington we stopped off for a walk along the beach at Warkworth.

To access the beach, heading North through Warkworth, you take a sharp right turn just at the end of the bridge. Follow the road for about 300 metres until you get to the car parks and picnic areas. There are also public loos, which is unusual but handy for the kids after a pop and crisps picnic. 

Warkworth beach is a stunning, vast expanse of flat, white sand, with large, grassy dunes as a backdrop. If you decide to picnic on the sand a windbreak is advisable as it can be a bit breezy. 

The beach is very popular with dog-walkers, but you really need to clean up after your pooch poops. 

Great North Bike Ride

Traffic flow in Warkworth had been upset slightly by the Great North Bike Ride – yet another event over this busy weekend.

If the central car park in the village is full, carry on down the lane running by the St Lawrence church. Bear left and you’ll probably find a parking space by the river.

It’s a great place for the kids to feed the swans and ducks.


Cabosse chocolatier

Walking back to the high street you really should forget any calorie-counting and visit the Cabosse French chocolatier and patisserie.

Yes, the hand-made chocolates and pastries are as good as they sound – just take a look in the window!




Rennington Scarecrow Festival

From Warkworth it’s quite a trek through the winding coastal back-roads up to Rennington.

Tasty hot dogs

The Scarecrow Festival has become a notable event on the Northumbrian calendar. As well as the humorous and topical scarecrows there are some good local craft stalls, and (our favourite) the hot-dog stall.

Please note that the three gentlemen in the photo are real people and not one of the exhibits!

If you find yourself in Alnwick during the summer holidays it’s worth remembering that there are a lot of other things to do just few miles from Alnwick Gardens.

The Rennington Royals

Posted by: Steve | August 28, 2011

Swarland Show 2011

Culture & entertainment

Despite the doom and gloom of life in austere Britain the crowds turned out again in force for this year’s show in Swarland village. The programme followed last year’s event pretty closely, with ‘Simply Northumbrian’ providing a backdrop of traditional Northumbrian dance music. ‘…Hey it’s a live band! I thought it was a CD!’. One of the visitors was definitely impressed by the music. 

Ponycart rides

I was doing a brief stint on the raffle tickets at the main gate. I have to say a big ‘thank you’ to everyone who dug deep into their pockets to buy raffle tickets on top of the £2.50 entry charge. Luckily it was still free for the kids to get in, but there was one large group of adults who thought that the charge was just too much. Maybe something for the show committee to think about for next year if the recession is still biting deep.

New this year were Shetland pony and cart rides for the kids – they seemed to love it.

Henry and rottie

The dog show was back, so Dawn entered Henry and me in the ‘waggiest tail’ competition. Henry looked like the odds-on favourite as we did our first circuit of the ring.

Maybe he was afraid that this eleven week old Rottie pup was going to bite his little stumpy tail or something. Unfortunately we didn’t get placed, though first prize did go to another handsome black cocker. 


The alpacas were back, freshly sheared, and every bit as cute as last year. 

At this time of year every village in Northumberland seems to have some event to see. It’s also the Rennington Scarecrow Festival and Wooler Show over the bank holiday weekend, so visitors have a wide choice of local culture and entertainment.

Posted by: Steve | August 24, 2011

Wasps in the woodpile

 …it’s a jungle out there

The family in the bungalow overlooking our back garden hadn’t opened the kitchen curtains for a few days. Maybe it was my guilt or paranoia, but I took it as a hint that a spot of gardening was long-overdue.

Wood wasp

Northumbrian wood wasp

The petrol powered strimmer that I normally use at times like these had expired with an oily gurgle earlier in the year, so I had to resort to a feeble electric cutter that wasn’t really up to a task on this scale. About  half-way through the job I began to smell the distinctive, acrid odour of an imminent electrical burn out.

A machete would probably have been quite useful at this point, but all I had left to work with was a rusty little hand-sickle. I was hoping that the neighbours’ curtains were still closed as I hacked feebly at the weeds with my Grim Reaper junior sickle.

Our garden is always a bit of a wildlife haven but I have to admit that I was more that a tad alarmed when I saw these giant wood wasps fluttering around the wood pile.

I’ve had a few close encounters with garden wildlife since we moved to Swarland, including having a dragonfly using my head as a landing/basking/launch pad. The wood wasps are apparently quite common in Northumberland, and totally harmless! So if you do see these giant insects flying around your firewood don’t go running for the wasp killer – they’re actually fascinating to watch as they carefully lay individual eggs on your logs with that fearsome-looking ovipositor.

Posted by: Steve | July 21, 2011

Pup-perils – raising a working cocker spaniel

The six month surge!

Henry + hedgehog

We knew from past experience that taking on a pup would pose a few challenges. Originally we’d wanted a cat-friendly dog, preferably female, that wouldn’t be too demanding when it comes to exercise and mental stimulation. …things didn’t turn out quite as planned.

Over the last few months as our Cocker pup, Henry, has grown (and grown some more), we’ve seen him become more inquisitive and active. Over the last few weeks, as he’s reached the ripe old age of six months, he’s been surging with testosterone and seems to conveniently forget his training every time we need him to behave. His recall has gone from 99% perfection to zero overnight. His new teeth are a real set of bone-crunchers, and he still loves to demonstrate what a good biter he is whenever he gets overexcited.

After long hours of soul-searching, and as much advice as we could get, we sent him off to the vets to have him neutered.

On the morning of the op’ poor little H was giving me the saddest puppy-eyes as I left for work, making me feel even more guilty about our decision. We’re not expecting it to slow him down much, or instantly solve the behaviour problems, but hopefully we’ll avoid future difficulties with dog to dog aggression and reduce his reproductive urges.

Despite all the hassles we’ve had with wee Henry he’s still a totally unique and loveable little character. If you’re thinking of bringing a new pup into your home (particularly an active, working type), these are the top ten things we’ve found most useful:

  1. A big crate for play, sleeping, feeding, pooping through the early months.
  2. A garden for early exercise and toilet training.
  3. Training information on the web – YouTube etc.
  4. Patience
  5. Puppy classes for early socialization
  6. Travel crate – to keep the pup under control in the car
  7. Chews – rawhide, bones, old socks – anything but the furniture
  8. Home made training treat recipe – save a fortune and make healthy treats
  9. Toilet training pads – save loads of mess and hassle in the early weeks if you can afford them
  10. Time and attention – the more you can give your pup the happier he/she will be

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