BARKLANDS: what dogs can teach travel writers

The newsletter gets rebranded the site this week in honour of my co-author – a rescue dog called Duchess

Duchess: back seat driver

January is National Walk the Dog Month. I’m usually allergic to these marketing-led assaults on the calendar, or ‘awareness days’, as we’re supposed to call them. But you’ve got to hand it to these particular awareness-raisers: in January 2021, they’ve chosen a perfect month for it.

We’re home. We’re not going anywhere. And if you’re a dog, that suits you just fine.

The only travel I have been doing for some weeks now is the daily walk with nine-year-old Duchess. We usually do around 4km around the village of Chartridge in Buckinghamshire, England. 

I’m going to hand over to her to offer some insights into what lockdown walking has taught us.

It’s NEVER the same walk…

“You wonder how I get excited every morning even when we cross the same road, go over (or in my case, under) the same stile, walk across the same field and into the same woods.

“Because it’s not the same. It’s never the same. Every day the world has changed. If you see and (more important) smell it as closely as I do, you’d realise you’re in a different land. The copses have been disturbed by a herd of deer. The foxes have changed the scent of the hedgerows. The ground is not the same ground it was yesterday: it’s softer or crisper or sludgier. 

“You can sense all the people and – of course – the dogs that have been here since we were last around. You think a landscape is made of trees and ditches and roads and gullies. It’s not. It’s made and remade by the living things that pass through them”. 

Humans are dozy, all the time

“You are lovely, but you walk along with your little noses – they’re hardly noses at all – up there in the skies, noticing hardly anything: not the sounds, not the signs and especially not the smells. You can do amazing things with your human paws, magical things. I am really in awe of you. But awareness, sensibility, alertness: you’ve got less than a day-old puppy.

“This is why you need protecting”. 

Admit it - you love routine too

“Yes, I know EXACTLY when dinner is due – the light, the sounds, the something in my brain that just knows. In the days when people went away to work, I knew when they’d be back to the minute: something about the way their scent dissipated and settled in the house.

“Yes, I get a bit troubled if we don’t do things in the right order at the time we always do them. Yes, it’s true, I find days like Christmas a bit unsettling when people don’t sit where they usually do or eat at the normal times. 

“All these things make life more manageable. Own it, humans! – you’re the same”.

I’m keeping calm, but there is a very weird thing behind me

Social media/updates

“We dogs have our own social media channels. It’s called weeing. We can leave messages on a number of platforms – fallen branches, clumps of old thorns and, of course, trees. I’ve signed up to Twigger, Peebook and Stinked In.

“There’s one in the local woods we call the Post Office Tree. It’s a big old beech with a double trunk and a smaller beech growing next to it: three surfaces for one wee. Every dog in the neighbourhood leaves a message there”.

Do we ‘live in the moment’?

“Here’s what people generally believe about a dog’s brain. First, that we live entirely in the present. Second, we’re not multi-taskers. They think this is a kind of compliment: that we have these superpowers – concentration, a Zen-like capacity to live ‘in the moment’. 

“Well, if you meet a dog like me you know we carry our pasts around with us. In my case, I was chained up in the snow and the heat of a mountain village somewhere in the middle of Europe. I was goaded, starved, shouted at, attacked. These things leave an impression. It takes time to acclimatise to a new environment, even if that new environment is a true paradise compared to what we’ve come from. For some dogs, that time may never comes. It was a close-run thing for me. All I could do was hide for the first few weeks. I didn’t dare bark for two years. That was memory.

“As for multi-tasking – come on. Haven't you seen busy processing several dozen sounds and smells at the same time as doing a poo? 

“But if there’s food going around, yes. That’s focus.

“Even the humans are getting around to discovering that there’s more to a dog than a series of pre-programmed impulses and predictable pack signals. We have moved on from Pavlov and all those notions that reduced all canines to a predictable sequence of evolved responses. Animal psychologists like Marc Bekoff now talk much more about our individual emotions (yes, dogs have them) and experience. 

“But back to walking: yes, we can focus in the way that few humans (foragers, botanists, hunters and the like) can”.

The Do Not Disturb sign is up

My walks

“I’ve been teaching Mark to dwell, think, explore and realise that the few square miles around his Big Den are really different lands and territories as diverse as a continent.  

“Head north….We trot down a pebbly path – all horse smells – past a house where the Labrador used to live. It’s a huge, wide sloping valley. Dog memories aren’t like yours. But in summer I think a dog very like me used to go running in long grass here with a Rhodesian Ridgeback. 

“We climb again into knotty, brambly woods with farmhouses beyond. There are as many horses as humans and the fields are tufty and short.

“Head west… I haven’t been to Scotland, but Mark says this is the Scottish walk. It’s different to the lush fields and beeches you usually get in the high Chilterns. Up Arrewig Lane, we are on a crest where there are barns and paths, with strongly-scented pinewoods down the hill. This is sheep country too. Unlike some of my clan, I’m not very interested in sheep. The sheep are very interested in me, though, and scatter as soon as I move my head a fraction.

“Head south… big houses, country lanes, beechwood after beechwood after beechwood. Narrow, muddy paths through woods, smells of deer and foxes and a thousand different dogs.

“Head East… human land, a road with scary cars, tight hedges, lawns and big fields and bare baths through open, flinty fields”.

Heading north

The best bit 

“Home to the Big Den. Dried paws. The harness and lead is off. Bed Number One. Legs and tail tucked under. Chin over the side. Dreams”. 

Songs that take you places

Don’t Stop Me Now

Scott Bradlee’s Post Modern Jukebox, featuring Melinda Doolittle

Duchess has two official songs. The first is Steppenwolf’s Born to be Wild. It’s an excellent song for a fast yomp through the woods: but just now I don’t feel much in the mood for American guys with big beards telling us to fire all of our guns at once.

So let’s go for her other favourite: Queen’s 1979 song from the Jazz album.

I prefer this jazzier version by Scott Bradlee. At first, you expect a doo-wop big band treatment, then – dunk-dunk-dunk-dunk – we’re into the  sheer joy of a Junior Walker soul beat with Melinda Doolittle’s wonderful voice – both controlled and uninhibited.

Brian May didn’t like the song that much, written as it was when singer Freddie Mercury was at the height of his own bout of uninhibited hedonism. So put aside the drug-fuelled orgies you saw in Bohemian Rhapsody. Much nicer to think of a dog like Duchess trotting through the woods on a cold, sunny morning.

A dedication to my co-worker

What are a dog’s favourite acronyms? No contest: OOO and WFH – both sounds, incidentally, they have no difficulty making.

We’ve been working closely together for a year now. Duchess is at her best straight after the morning walk, when she’s either in Bed No 1 or curled up on the rug behind me. As the day wears on, she gets more and more interested in her surroundings, especially the surroundings that harbour edible things. Right now, post-dinner, she is sniffling at my leg, scratching the chair,  sneezing, gulping, whimpering and BARKING. It’s post-dinner WALK time. 

It’s 30 minutes later.

P G Wodehouse once dedicated a novel to his daughter Leonora. I am going to appropriate his words to describe my working relationship with Duchess:

"To my dog, Duchess, without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement this blog would have been finished in half the time."

A brainstorming session back in September

Hard graft in Dubai

Influencer Gabby Allen and boyfriend in Dubai. Photograph: Instagram

I thoroughly enjoyed this article about travel influencers struggling to justify their essential work trips to Dubai. The Guardian loves this stuff. No paper, except perhaps The Daily Mail, can do a sustained sneer quite so well.

And everyone loves to see an influencer come a cropper. The idea that silly people in too much make-up (that’s both sexes) get paid thousands of quid for standing in foreign shopping malls is so appalling we have to laugh or we’d cry.

No-one is more savage about the new breed of travel influencer than a journalist who is middle-aged, poorly remunerated and working predominantly in print – or worse, all three.

Well, I for one am going to defend the influencers.

Not all are alike. There are some who take their craft seriously and want to build a career as well as a ‘brand’. Then there are people who have been on reality TV shows and get to travel the world posing alongside products. 

The mistake we make is to think the latter mob are somehow rivals in the content game. They’re models. And like models (and sports stars) they have a very short shelf life. And while we’d like to think our carefully-crafted, brilliantly nuanced 800-word articles bring in thousands of visitors to a given destination – I fear our numbers are somewhat eclipsed by someone from Love Island with a cocktail pointing at a stretch of sand. 

So they do earn their money and their freebies. In its own way, all that posing and schmoozing and pointing IS hard work.

Mind, I’d certainly give it a go. I reached out via Linked In to Tim Herman of Trending Travel, the influencer king mentioned in The Guardian.

His answer is still Pending.

Envy Corner 

@lottiecgross

I’m a big fan of Lottie’s Twitter feed.  She does a great job sharing the pain and the (occasional) pleasure of being a travel journo in 2021. She’s also a fellow substacker, through Talking Travel Media. Now she has a dog called Arty. 

Arty: cute as a Duchess (almost)

All geared up 

Skellerup Quatro Sport wellies

I know Hunter wellington boots are very fashionable. Mine are also rather pious, as they came with a donation to Water Aid. They’d be great on the streets of Soho (London) or SoHo (New York) or Soho (Hong Kong).

Unfortunately, they’re not very good in wet weather or when there’s lots of mud around, or walking the dog along a Chilterns path when it’s been raining for as long as it takes the Government to make a sensible decision on COVID (a minimum of 10 days). I’ve been slipping around like Bambi on a skating ring.

So the time came to upgrade the wellies. I was rather taken by the provenance of the Skellerup brand  – Scandi name, New Zealand ownership. I was also taken in by the name. Quattro Sport? I could see myself skimming through the slush like an Audi 4x4.

Well, I don’t know if Standing in Several Feet of Farm Slurry is a sport in New Zealand. I suspect it is, in which circumstance the Quatro is the perfect boot. For my 5km walks around Chartridge they’re a bit… heavy. ‘Heavy’, as in the kind of boots you’d wear for deep sea diving or if you were going swimming in the Hudson River after a business dispute with the local Mob. 

But I’ve persevered. With the help of welly liners and a lambswool insole they are now hugging the calves and ankles like a tackle from an All-Blacks scrum half. As the puddles have turned to fords and the fields into something from a World War I film, those layers of neoprene and fleece and rubber have come into their own.  But we are definitely talking Land Rover Defender rather than Audi. 

Let’s end with a triomphe of creative planning in Paris

They’re turning the Champs-Élysées into a garden street. For all the allure of its name it’s been a pretty tawdry stroll in recent years. Could this begin to mark the renaissance of Paris?