The routine of the beetleypete household has been disrupted of late. I am doing two weeks of Cycling Proficiency training at the local school, which means I have to go out with Ollie at different times. Regular readers may recall that my normal practice is to leave home around 2pm, and walk with the dog until at least 4.30, sometimes later in good weather. This week and last, I have had to split his walks, with the earlier start of 10am until 12, and a second walk from 3.30 until 4.30.
This may seem of little significance to you as a reader. But as a dog-walker, Beetley Meadows is a very different place, before midday. The majority of the locals have left for work, the children are at school, and most regular walkers do not appear until after 2pm. This fairly large area is completely deserted, apart from abundant bird life, some water-fowl, insects, and rabbits. Despite the heat, the grass is still wet, especially in the areas shaded by trees. With no extraneous sounds to disturb the air, the singing of birds is more noticeable than usual, as is their rustling in the high branches, or in the long undergrowth fringing the paths.
On the stretch running alongside the small river, we can even hear the sounds of fish, trying to take insects from the surface of the water. Ollie’s head snapping round, reacting to this rarely heard sound. A gentle breeze stirs the long grass, making a rushing sound, like the amplified swish of voluminous skirts. The whine and buzz of insects close to my neck warns me to keep up a steady pace, not allowing them time to bite. A large grey heron takes off some fifty yards ahead, the flapping of the wide wings clattering in the silence. On the lower tree branches, squirrels quarrel and chatter, sending small leaves floating gently down. At the bend of the river, by the picnic tables, children have made a small dam from stones. The water bubbles over it, at the point where it flows fastest.
Ollie, like many dogs, is a creature of habit. If he were human instead of canine, he might be diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, perhaps even mild autism. He likes to approach the meadow in the same direction every time. He sniffs intently, scent-spraying where he considers it necessary. He negotiates the paths in the same fashion every time, zig-zagging from left to right, gently sniffing the extended tips of plants, examining every molehill. At certain places, he stops to violently paw the ground, leaving scars on the path; he is announcing his presence. When he gets close to the river, he accelerates, finally running in. Never too deep, just enough to be in control, but to get cool and take a drink at the same time. If the ducks are unlucky enough to have remained in range, he takes off after them. He probably knows he will never catch them, but is telling them that this is his territory, at least for a time.
He continues around the back path, remembering where he once saw a deer, and looking to see if it is still there, even though it was months ago. Last week, he chased a large squirrel up a tree, so he goes back to the base of that same tree every time, just in case. Arriving at the northern boundary of the meadows, the path runs close to the busy Fakenham Road. Ollie is scared of traffic, disturbed by the noise, and by being so close to the moving vehicles. However, this is also the site of one of the entrances, so frequented by many dogs. Even his fear of the road is not enough to overwhelm his desire to sniff every inch of the area.
A full circuit of Beetley River Meadows takes less than fifteen minutes to complete, at a reasonable walking pace. In a walk of almost two hours, it is easy to manage no less than eight circuits of the same area, allowing for brief pauses. For Ollie, each circuit is like the first. He takes off as if he has never seen the place before, just as excited to be going around again, as he was at 10am. For me, an element of boredom sets in. I know where to avoid all the nettles, and which areas of the shaded paths are still muddy. I walk past the deserted playground and football court for the umpteenth time, still noticing the discarded rubbish, abandoned despite the presence of a large litter-bin, in the shape of a friendly bear.
I have got the words of a song in my head, and it plays over and over. Despite trying to force it from my mind, it comes back time and again, until I fear it will drive me crazy. I think of things that I might write about, tasks I have to do later that day, and the cycling course to be supervised in the afternoon. But nothing takes the song away, so I try to listen to the sounds of nature instead. The starting of a motor-mower breaks the tranquility, and I can also hear the distant hum of high-flying military aircraft, visible only by vapour trails in the sky. I check my watch, 11.50. Time to head back.