Years ago, when I moved from the outskirts of the city to the country, I thought I had hit the jackpot. This was before house prices had gone through the roof so a hard working bloke could still afford a little house in the countryside. I’d had enough of the view from my front window being that of someone else’s front window. It was no better at the back either as I looked out onto garages which invariably had burned out cars dotted around the place. I lived in one of those “new” towns that were built for professionals who worked in the city but couldn’t afford to actually live there. All the houses were the same, every brick was the same colour, the pavements were uneven with the subsidence and we lived in each other’s pockets. There was a park there where the gypsies would pitch up with their fair once a year and this was where I used to walk the dog. Being on the outskirts of a large city, there was plenty of wildlife there but it was hardly my idea of a rural idyll. After a short time I’d had enough of this and I decided to go home and try and find a nice little place where I didn’t feel suffocated.
It wasn’t long before I found a house, actually it was the first house I looked at and very soon it was mine. This house was one in a terrace of about ten that was situated on a lane in the beautiful Kent countryside. What a difference it was to my last place. Admittedly it was smaller but when I opened the curtains in the morning, no longer would I see bricks and mortar, no more rude awakenings from the junkie Rastafarian who lived across the way, no more police knocking on my door asking if I’d seen anything concerning the endless rows that occurred. Now when I opened my curtains I saw horses and Elder bushes and pear orchards. The noise of the tractor replaced that of the boy racer and traffic jams were more likely to be caused by the local pony club out for a jaunt rather than a broken down bus or crashed car.
At this point in time I kept bull terriers and my new neighbours would often see me out and about at all hours walking the dogs and mooching around in general. My dogs weren’t the tall type and certainly didn’t look intimidating to me, so I fitted in with village life pretty well I think. I was referred to as the “staff bloke” by people who didn’t know me and by terms far worse by a few that did! Living in a small village is great, especially as our terrace was effectively a community inside a community, if you know what I mean. It wasn’t long before I knew most of my neighbours and they were pretty good about the dogs. The terrace used to have a communal garden but over the years people had begun to fence off their own portion in order to gain a little bit of privacy. As our gardens backed on to orchards, most people didn’t fence the back in, thus giving themselves access to miles and miles of beautiful countryside and easy access for country walks if they were that way inclined. The only downside to this was that my dogs became a pain in the arse for a few people! My own garden wasn’t fenced in at all and I shared it with my neighbours either side of me. With my two bull terriers being greedy little buggers and my neighbours being generous with their birdseed, I was often called to come and retrieve the little buggers from people’s gardens. Not being content with their own food, they’d wait until I wasn’t looking and run round the back of the gardens to where they knew they’d get access to other gardens and the scraps put out for the wild birds. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a dog do this but birdseed comes out pretty much the same as it goes in. It would bloat the dogs up like barrels and bring on a bout of the two-bob bits like nothing I’ve seen before or since. This isn’t a problem if you keep your dogs outside but at the time I didn’t. Some of the sights I was greeted with when I got up for work in the mornings defy description…..
It was winter when I moved in to my little house, so I didn’t see much of my neighbours as the dark nights and cold weather meant that everyone rushed home from work and closed themselves in. I was the opposite though as I was out and about exploring, looking for places to hunt, fish and gather and generally looking over fences in pursuit of game. I had miles and miles of woods, orchards, streams, crop and meadow to explore and by the time the nice weather came around again, I had plotted most of “my” land in my head. I’d very rarely see many other people on my travels as the wood seemed to be permanently boggy in the winter and only idiots like me could be found traipsing along, rugged up in an old army coat with dogs in tow. I must have looked like I was up to no good I suppose as I met a lad in the wood once and the only thing he said to me was “I know where those badgers are so leave them alone!” I must admit I was shocked to hear this stranger come out with this and then walk off but he looked a bit simple to me so I put my spade over my shoulder and carried on walking.
The woods themselves were extremely thick and once off the tracks, you’d only have to go about 15 yards before you would be invisible to anyone still on the track. This was great for me though as it meant a bit of privacy should the dogs and I bump into anything. I’d recently got myself a little red Lakie which was from a lad who showed them but also did a fair bit of digging too. He was Middleton bred mainly but had a bit of Border in there too from this lads own stock. This meant that I was doing a bit more digging than I had been and this thick wood meant that I was safe from prying eyes most of the time. Funnily enough, the bloke who owned this wood happened by one day when I was out exercising the dogs. Pulling up his Hi-Lux, he stopped for a chat and to have a look at my dogs. He had an “Irish” staff himself, which was in the back of his truck and it was twice the size of my own animals. A big blue dog he was and he must have gone 55lb easily but having said that, he was as fat as his owner. We got nattering as you do and me being a conniving so-and-so, I gradually brought the topic around to hunting and dropped in “….oh by the way, you don’t know anyone who hunts round here do you?” Well that perked him up a bit! Turns out he used to dig himself in days gone by but he gave it up when the local antis got on his case. He went on to tell me all about the russells he used to have and how a few of the lads would get out of an afternoon and have a good rake about. I was all “fancy that eh?” and then went on to ask him if he would mind if I had a crack at a bit of that business. Well he didn’t say no so I took that as a yes and went on my way, happy in the knowledge that my land was now legitimately “my” land. More often than not, I used to pass this blokes house (I say house but mansion would be a more accurate description) and his big “Irish” dog would come racing out and join us on our forays. I would like to say he was a great addition to the team but he was more of a hindrance than a help. I’ve never known such a placid dog in my life and he had no inclination to chase or catch anything. I didn’t mind him coming along though as he was did no harm. He got himself a hiding from my dog once though, as he tried to mount my bitch and he never came out with us again. He clearly wasn’t stupid then.
Once the fine weather had come around, I got to know my neighbours a bit better and there certainly were some characters. One of these lived two doors down and he was a birdwatcher by the name of Donald. Now I don’t know if Donald is still alive as he must have been pushing 75 back then. Tall bloke with a military bearing who always seemed to have a pair of binoculars around his neck. Being a friendly sort, he introduced himself and we soon got nattering about birds and he was delighted to talk to someone who was interested in natural history. It seemed we both shared a passion in our younger days for collecting bird’s eggs and this led to an interest in ornithology in general. I used to love talking to Donald whenever I saw him as he’d always tell me where he’d seen the Peregrines or the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers. I don’t think he had an interest in hunting but he never mentioned anything when he used to see the dogs and I certainly never brought the subject up with him. In those early days of village life, I could often be found out and about digging up old bottles from the many Victorian tips that were local to us, so seeing me with a shovel and a rucksack was nothing out of the ordinary. Incidentally, most of those neighbours would have bottles from long defunct local breweries in their cottage windows that I dug up and gave to them as presents.
About 20 minutes hard walk away from my house was a shallow stream that once powered paper mills but has long since reverted to a lazy brook once more. It was on the steep banks that led to this stream where I lost my Lakie. I wrote about that episode years ago so I won’t bore you again. It was on the same bank though, that me and the Hunchback were digging to one his bull/russells that he seemed to have an endless supply of. The Hunchback was one of the more insalubrious inhabitants of the village and I’d met him in the local “pub.” I put pub in brackets as it was more akin to something from a Hogarth engraving, but more of that later. The Hunchback was keen on hunting but looking back, I think it would be fairer to say that he was keener on killing things. Him and his brother were the ne’er do wells who were infamous to all of the locals and caused no end of heartache. I didn’t know this at the time so I was just happy to dig with someone who shared a passion for the dogs.
Anyway, we’d dug to this bull/russell thing of his but we were a yard or so off as the dog was messing around. Either that or we are rubbish diggers and that couldn’t possibly be true! We had my male bull terrier with us at the time so we thought we’d just use him to draw the fox so we could shoot it. The dog was about two years old I suppose at that time and he was hitting his stride. He loved his work and he was getting plenty of it. Up the tube he went and straight on. He worked his quarry well and got a little nip for his trouble which turned his normally white throat and chest to a lovely shade of red. The fox was shot and I got the dog off his quarry and The Hunchback took him away as I held the fox up. With the terrier going mental to get at what was, by rights, his fox, we kind of got distracted and forgot about young Kesh. We backfilled to a good standard and then gathered our tools up to go home. Expecting to see Kesh when I turned around, I was mystified to see nothing tied to the fence….not even his rope lead. I looked at The Hunchback and before I even said anything he was straight on the defensive….”I f’ing tied him back, I did! You saw me!” I could have thumped him there and then but I was interested in getting my dog back. I ran through the orchards shouting his name in vain. He’d clearly not been tied to the fence properly and had buggered off for some reason, covered in blood, trailing his rope lead behind him. It didn’t matter that the blood was from a little nick, if someone found him they’d think he’d been through a mincer. Further and further away we got from the stream and we were almost back to the main road through the village when I saw my next door neighbour. She was shouting my name from the other side of the field and I ran straight over to her, hoping that she would have seen Kesh and praying at the same time that he hadn’t been run over. When I got to her, the first thing I noticed was that she was slurring…the locals around here are fond of the odd half of cider every now and again. I can’t have made much sense but I got through to her that I was looking for my dog. She simply said to me “he’s down the pub.” Much like the bitch I used to have, Kesh would go home once he deemed that he’d had enough or if he was bored. Many’s the time I have been out looking for them only to find them on my doorstep when I went home. It turned out that for what ever reason, Kesh had left the dig and decided that he would just go home. Maybe he couldn’t find us again after he’d chased a bunny or maybe the miserable little bugger just thought “sod this for a game of soldiers” and left us to it.
The pub is on the way home and my neighbour had been drinking (heavily) outside and saw him trotting along, covered in claret without a care in the world. When I got to the pub, there he was, pleased as punch to see me and still covered in now dried blood. Not one person asked me why he was covered in blood…..not one. Someone bought me a pint and I sat outside of that pub on a bench and shot the breeze with about a dozen locals, thinking to myself “this is alright!”
Now this pub I have been referring to was what you might call a “rat’s nest.” It was one of two in the village and most decent folk went to the other one. This one was frequented by the local gypsies, wannabe gypsies, psychos, brawlers, poachers (at least in their own minds), thieves and liars. Needless to say I fitted in quite nicely and I soon became a regular. Not being the cleanest of joints, they had no problem with allowing my two bull terriers in. They were both house trained anyway but I had an awful feeling it wouldn’t have mattered much if they weren’t! I used to prop the saloon bar up with a pint of John Smiths draught (one of only two beers they sold) and a cigarette in my hand, while the dogs lazed at my feet, where they’d occasionally drinking the contents of the drip tray once it was full to overflowing. Stood next to me could be anyone from an armed robber to a bare knuckle fighter but I kept out of most of the conversations which involved crime, which was most of them to be honest. Once people realised that dogs were welcome in the pub, a few others would bring theirs down and it was at this point that mine went back on their ropes. One of the locals was a fella by the name of Chalky who was a little bloke from Yorkshire. He’d come in wearing a vest, tracksuit bottoms, tan brogue boots and a thick tweed trilby. He was covered in gold, as were most people in this pub and he was always talking dogs. To give you an idea of class of this place, Chalky decided to bring his little white Stafford down to show me one night and I passed comment that it was nice, which it was. Chalky was sat over the other side of the pub and all was going fine until he got up to go to the men’s room. His dog’s lead slipped from under the leg of his chair as he got up from the table and his Stafford shot across the room straight into my bitch. With that, a cheer went up along with cries of “let them go!” and “leave them fight!” when I tried to break it up. I couldn’t believe it but that’s the sort of place it was. I am not exaggerating when I say that it was like you’d imagine the pubs in Georgian England to be. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they had told me that they had a rat pit out the back!
You won’t be surprised to hear that The Hunchback and his brother used to drink in there. Actually his brother was barred which was some honour as you’d really have to go some to get kicked out of there. Now The Hunchback was bad enough but his brother Chas was worse! He been in prison when I first moved to the area but we got acquainted when he got out. Chas was the more serious one about killing things than his brother and had a yard full of ferrets, dogs and chickens. I’d had no experience of chickens up to this point, other than eating them anyway. That all changed one day when I found a fertiliser sack in the woods that was twitching. Clearly there was something alive in there and I gingerly crept over and prized the mouth of the bag open with a stick to see a load of dead and near dead chickens inside. God knows who they had belonged to so I just killed the ones that weren’t dead and left them for the foxes and badgers.
Chas’s other vice was drinking and when he wasn’t drinking, he was hunting and vice versa. Things started to go down hill when he began to combine the two and that’s when the trouble started. Once I agreed to go out lamping with the brothers and when I got to their house, there was a whole gaggle of kids there too, armed with everything from air rifles to bread knives. It became apparent that they looked up to Chas and this was all part of emulating him. It was like watching Fagan at work. I should have gone home that instant but I tagged along, swearing to disappear if anything went wrong. As you can imagine, we got nothing. It was like that scene from Rocky where all the kids follow him when he is running. It was an absolute shambles. I disappeared as soon as they all got bored as I could see it turning ugly. What happened was The Hunchback went over to a hedge to answer a call of nature and as soon as he did that, all the kids, egged on by Chas, raised their rifles and shot The Hunchback! I didn’t even say my goodbyes…I just slipped away, leaving a screaming Hunchback curled up in his own piss on the floor of a muddy lane, crying his eyes out in pain. He got his own back though as the next time Chas was in prison, The Hunchback killed all of his chickens and ferrets from spite. They were better off dead I think though as Chas had taken to getting smashed on sherry in the mornings and pitting a ferret against a chicken. Scum of the earth.
I was always up early in the mornings, which anyone with greedy house dogs knows all about. Generally they’d wake me up about five-ish and I’d take them for a spin over the orchards for some exercise and a bit of a run if anything was about. We’d had a few foxes in the mornings and I had taken to caping them out and bringing their heads home to bury in my rockery. The idea was that the worms and ants would strip the heads and I’d be left with immaculate skulls which I had a view to hanging on my shed door. I had been using a Victorinox multi-tool to cut the heads off but this was too much of a hassle so I decided that the next fox we caught, I would take home and cut the head off with my axe. Not long after this, my bitch stumbled upon a fox in the orchards and quickly accounted for it. Bingo, thinks I. The problems started when I tried to walk home, holding the fox by its scruff. The bitch would not let it go and every time I got her off, she’d just grab hold again! Putting her on her rope made no difference so it took me ages to get home, through the gap in a neighbours fence and into my garden. I had to drag that fox and a bull terrier all the way home and my arms were aching. The very next time we dropped onto a fox, I had a brainwave! I removed the wire mesh protective covering from one of the hundreds of apple trees and used this as a cradle for the fox. Once I’d tucked the tail inside, there was nothing for Nell to grab onto, so progress was swift! One problem was that the gap in the fence had been “fixed” by someone wrapping barbed wire around the posts. This meant I had to double back on myself and actually walk down my road carrying a dead fox in a wire mesh cradle. It was only a short walk though so not that risky. As I was about 200 yards from my house, I saw one of the new neighbours, a lady from Scotland, come out of her front door with her German Shepherd and start walking towards me. Keep calm, I told myself….just smile and say good morning. I needn’t have worried though as her brute of a dog kicked off, trying to get to my two, which in turn set my two off. It must have been a comical sight though, with me trying to balance two enraged bull terriers and a takeaway fox into the bargain! Luckily she didn’t notice the fox, or at least I don’t’ think she did, and she was relieved to get away without having lost her dog.
Another early morning jaunt found me heading in the direction of the local council estate which had some neighbouring fields that always held a rabbit or two. I must admit to still being a bit asleep as I walked along the footpath towards the fields. Being very friendly, my dogs pulled when they saw someone walking towards us, which alerted my interest as I generally didn’t see anyone at that ungodly hour. As I looked up I saw a “woman” walking towards me in a blue gingham dress, bright red circles painted on her cheeks, bright yellow, woollen, knitted hair and lipstick. Hand on heart; I thought I was going to die at that moment. I genuinely believed that I was confronted with one of those sick serial killers and that she was going to do me in. I entered some sort of trance and thinking back, I should have run in the opposite direction but I just kept walking towards her. By now I could see the stubble on her chin and as we passed, she greeted me with “morning” in a deep, gravely voice. I kept walking, not looking back, expecting to feel a knife in my ribs at any moment. After a few minutes, I stopped and turned around but “she” was nowhere to be seen. I seriously doubted my own sanity now, had I imagined it? Did I drink too much the night before? It was one of the creepiest moments I’ve ever experienced and the dogs didn’t get much of a walk that morning as I was keen to get back into the house. One thing I did remember though was “she” had an unmistakable military gait.
A few days went by before I dared venture in that direction again, so genuinely shaken was I by the whole incident. Shrugging it off, I went to check a few earths one morning before work. These earths were down by the rail tracks and apart from a few rabbits, there didn’t seem much about. As I looked up, something caught my eye at the top of the field which sloped steeply in front of me. It was “her!”
I ducked into the next lane of pear trees so she wouldn’t see me and whispered the dogs over. Putting a few lanes between us and the woman, we made our way up the field until we must have been within 50 yards of her. I sneaked a glance through the trees and saw something no man should bear witness to. I won’t go into details but “she” was lifting “her” dress up with one hand and I’ll leave it to your imagination as to what “she” was doing with the other!!! If the stubble on her face hadn’t confirmed that it was a fella, then what I saw that morning surely did! Now my dogs weren’t aggressive to people in the slightest but he wasn’t to know that. I shouted “you dirty bastard” and set the dogs after him. They wouldn’t have touched him in a million years but he wasn’t hanging about to find out! With his skirts flying around him and woollen pigtails blowing in the breeze, Donald the birdwatcher was off! I stood there thinking to myself “he moves well for an old bloke” and I laughed all the way to work. It turns out Donald had been making a nuisance of himself with a few neighbours, with a particular favourite vice being to drive around naked in his car late at night and then start washing it when he’d finished…enough was enough and he moved out soon after. One truly scary, fruity old man!
I had a lot of good times in that village and looking back, it was heaven to work dogs there. I’m sure I’ve made it sound better than it was in reality but that’s how I genuinely remember my time there. I got out after I was threatened with a knife in the rat’s nest one night all because I’d been seen talking to the local policeman’s son. Time to move on. I’m pleased to say that the pub is now a house and looks very nice as it happens. I wonder though, do the owners of it know just what exactly used to go on there all those years ago?