“F****** hell Mark!” was a fair summation of my thoughts as my husband shoved a crumpled Ordnance Survey map onto my lap. As he stabbed his finger at his intended destination, just prior to performing a U-turn with our lorry, I might even have exclaimed this out loud, and with some volume. I followed up with,
“You cannot be serious!”
I had started to channel John McEnroe.
Mark had said we were going somewhere nice, but had omitted to fill in some essential details about our destination. Due to failures on the satnav front, he wanted me to navigate to Shooting Box car park via conventional means – i.e. with a paper map.
It might surprise you to learn that this was not the primary source of my discomfort. Even though the trusty satnav, with The Beast’s immense dimensions and mass pre-programed into it, had already taken us up a tiny dead-end lane in Church Stretton. When denied this particular path to pleasure, it circled back into the town centre and presented us with a three-tonne weight limit on The Burway, which is where you join us, mid-U-turn.
I wasn’t sorry that being a mere twelve-tonnes overweight barred us from The Burway. When I examined the route on the OS map, closely spaced arrows verified it was very steep (a 20% gradient), single track, and somewhat serpentine. Yet Mark’s Plan C looked even more shocking.
That involved three sides of a square on slightly bigger roads. At first glance, it appeared more sensible; it was the ultimate section up to Shooting Box that prompted my outburst. Shooting Box car park was just short of the summit of the Long Mynd.
“That looks like a footpath to the top of a mountain!”
“It will be fine,” he reassured me. “It’s good practice for some of the roads we’ll face when we drive to Mongolia!”
As I studied the map, I worried that Shropshire, a comfortable county in the heart of England, was already testing the limits of my bravery.
It was an ‘interesting’ run. As we passed small side lanes with no ‘No HGV’ signs, I felt slightly better. That obviously meant HGVs were welcome on the narrow country lanes we were winding our way through.
At one point, we crossed a bridge with a maximum advisory vehicle length of 13 metres, and several ‘unsuitable for caravans’ signs. Since The Beast is only 10 metres long, it was absolutely fine – in a marginally terrifying way.
As we embarked upon the tortuous final section of track at Ratlinghope, with the right-hand edge abutting a steep drop, Mark asked,
“How are my wheels?”
The Beast is left-hand drive, which put me on the O.S.S. – the Oh Sh** Side. The one adjacent to the precipice. I craned out of the window and peered down.
“They’re still on the road, if that’s what you mean. But only just…”
The edge of The Beast’s huge knobbly tyre overlapped the margins of the byway, and a cattle grid was simply an ‘aim and hope’. I opened my eyes when our 2.5 m wide majesty sailed through the barriers on either side without impact, and the metal bars didn’t collapse as we rattled across.
Not for the first time, we realised we couldn’t underestimate truckin’ with The Beast. Every journey took at least twice as long as planned. Driving such a large vehicle is like navigating through a maze full of dead-ends; limited at every turn by unexpected height and weight restrictions. Our trip from Wenlock Edge to Shooting Box was only supposed to be eight miles, but with the misdirections and humongous detour, it took five hours. We didn’t put on the brakes until 3 p.m.!
We took the pooches for a walk, gawping at the views. Sheep and wild ponies grazed among the moorland heather. Our little black girl, Lani, was not herself, so we didn’t go too far, but the outlook in every direction blew us away. The Shropshire Hills richly deserve their designation as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
We cooked some chicken for Lani, but she wouldn’t eat. She and Rosie, The Terrible Two, had raced around the woodland at our last stop, so we put it down to travelling, and assumed she would be fine the next day. Our plan was the spectacular ten-mile hike through Carding Mill Valley; listed among Britain’s ‘Hundred Best Walks’.
Our park up was right by a barrow; an ancient burial mound – and the only example of a disc barrow in Shropshire. Dated to nearly 2,000 B.C., the barrow had long outlasted the Shooting Box – a grouse-shooting hut that used to stand on the site.
As daylight faded, we were all alone on the moors, with no civilisation in sight. Thick cloud obscured the heavens – Shooting Box is a well-known star-gazing spot – but Mark still made me go outside purely to experience the rare sensation of total darkness!
It was late October, and all night, the wind howled and moaned around The Beast like the spirits of lost souls. Even so, I felt so cosy and content in our tiny cocoon. I only noticed the tight knot of anxiety in my stomach when it started to unravel, and I thought about how lucky we were to have everything we needed: warmth, shelter, food, companionship – the very seeds of happiness. I mused that perhaps this explains why people are so passionate about the time they spend in their caravans and motorhomes. Recreational vehicles spell unprecedented freedom, while paring life down to the simple necessities.
Unfortunately, in my experience, such moments of pure joy are often short lived, and frequently prelude a catastrophe.
When we went to bed, Lani remained motionless on the sofa. This was unusual for a little girl who will follow us to the loo at midnight, just to be close to us. I lifted her on to my pillow so she would feel loved and safe in the bosom of her family. She didn’t move at all throughout the night. I checked several times to make sure she was still breathing.
The following morning, we took the pups for a run to the viewpoint on the summit of the Long Mynd. We got a few tuts from rufty-tufty ramblers with rucksacks and walking poles. The Gortex brigade had clear opinions on Mark cradling Lani, and determined we needed to know.
“Fancy carrying a dog on a walk!” they scoffed, loud enough for us to hear. I couldn’t be bothered to explain that normally, Lani had only two speeds; supersonic and stop. That no matter how many hours we were out, this pocket rocket would not stay still for a second, even if she had half a tree caught up in her tail.
At the cairn, I chatted with a couple of blokes who had stopped with a flask of coffee to enjoy the view.
“Shropshire is Britain’s best kept secret!” they told me. “Most people from ‘down south’ think it’s just a made-up joke county, because it’s the location of Blandings Castle in P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster!”
I saw what they meant. It was a sunny weekend and there was hardly anyone around, and the panorama surrounding us was 360 degrees of beautiful.
To the east, they pointed out The Wrekin, the conical remains of an ancient volcano; the lengthy escarpment of Wenlock Edge; plus Cow ridge and Haddon Hill catching the sun. To the west, they told us about the Stiperstones and its highest outcrop, the Devil’s Chair, reputedly placed there by Lucifer himself. Curiously, he dropped the stones out of his apron. Apparently the strings broke while he was transporting them from Ireland and couldn’t be bothered to tidy up after himself. This struck me as odd. Surely, such profligate littering of the countryside is out of character for an apron-wearing manifestation of Beelzebub!
In hot weather, legend claims the stones smell of brimstone, and on the longest night of the year, Old Nick returns to greet his followers, a bevy of spirits and witches, to appoint their king.
The chaps finished their virtual tour with two pub recommendations – The Ragleth and The Siperstones Inns, as well as pointing out,
“On a clear day, you can see Snowdon!”
I had no trouble visualising what poet A.E. Houseman, author of A Shropshire Lad, was raving about when he spoke of his Blue Remembered Hills.
Into my heart an air that killsA.E. Houseman
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
When we got back, Lani ate a small amount of chicken and drank some water, which gave us hope, although she was still very listless. It was Saturday morning, so we decided to forgo the joys of Carding Mill and the Long Mynd, and made a slightly hurried retrace of our precipitous route down the happy highwys to attend an emergency vet appointment we secured at 2 p.m. in Shrewsbury.
The vet gave a swift diagnosis.
“She has a temperature, so she’s telling us she’s fighting off infection. I’ll give her an anti-inflammatory, which will act really quickly.”
The injection did the trick. At 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., she ate a small amount of chicken, so we thought she was out of the woods. But by morning, she was lethargic again, and incredibly hot.
Our pups always seem to get sick at weekends. Since it was Sunday, we called our own vet in Bournemouth. When we explained Lani’s symptoms, they advised not to wait until Monday to get her seen. Our options were limited, so after a frantic internet search, we did a mercy dash at The Beast’s top speed of 45 mph to an emergency vet at Cheltenham Racecourse.
I dampened Lani’s fur to keep her temperature down, but I had a bad feeling as we drove through Herefordshire and Worcestershire into Gloucestershire. The whole way was littered with something I had never seen before – billboard after billboard advertising a pet crematorium.
“Her temperature is 40°C! I think we’d better keep her in,” the vet said. I will never forget Lani’s forlorn little face as the vet took her away from us, as limp as a rag doll. Sad puppydog eyes caught mine with an expression of shock and betrayal.
The veterinary facilities at the racecourse were second to none and the animal hospital had its own pathology department on site. I believe this saved Lani’s life.
An hour later, the vet rang and said,
“Lani’s blood results show her organs are all okay, but she’s fighting off an infection. That is why her white cell neutrophil count is very low. It’s 0.4. An immunosuppressed dog on chemotherapy would be 1.5, so she is very much in danger of sepsis. We have put her on a drip and intravenous antibiotics. We’re trying to get a urine sample to rule out a urinary infection, but she’s so dehydrated she’s absorbing all the fluid. She’s comfortable and sleeping, and not in any danger.”
I suspected the reassurance was all bedside manner. The vet had been very sympathetic to her previous customer.
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” she’d said quietly as a lady carried out a tiny bundle, wrapped in a blanket.
My heart broke for her.
An emergency appointment had undoubtedly been the right course of action for Lani. A delay could have been fatal, but what followed was the most drawn-out night. The lack of one small black dog leaves an incredibly large gap in your life – and in your bed. Neither Mark nor I could contain our sobs.
I dreamed that I was in a museum and could see Lani’s face underneath the display cabinets. She was okay, but faint, and out of reach behind the glass.
As a scientist, I don’t really believe in such things, but sometimes, I do wonder if I might be a witch!
I frequently voice Mark’s thoughts, however random, as if I’ve read his mind. I also get premonitions. One that particularly sticks with me took place years ago, when I experienced an intense aura of dread as I hugged my brother just before he left to drive back to University after the holidays. An hour later, when the phone rang, I knew instantly it was him, and that some disaster had befallen him.
He’d been in a car accident. Thankfully, although the car was written off, he was unhurt. Still, I have never forgotten the weirdness of knowing with such certainty something I could never have known.
Unfortunately, my psychic superpowers have yet to yield any really beneficial premonitions, like what is actually going to happen – or the winning lottery numbers!
With Lani, I experienced an overwhelming sense that she would be fine. I told Mark, but almost didn’t dare to hope. The omen of the pet crematorium haunted me. Then, as we were walking our seven-year-old pups in Cheltenham’s Pittville Park, a lady shared that her 5-year-old King Charles Spaniel, Boris, had died of liver failure.
“Although Dragon Vets were excellent,” she assured us, not very reassuringly, when we told her the reson behind our visit to Cheltenham.
The following day, we called Dragon Vets as soon as they opened at 8.30 a.m. Reception said,
“The vets haven’t done their rounds yet, but Lani is stable and having a cuddle with the nurse.”
The vet didn’t return our call until 12.30 p.m., four hours later. Mark and I were in bits!
“Lani’s had an ultrasound and X-ray, and is doing well. We’ll keep her on fluids for the afternoon, but she’s eaten, and she can come home this evening. We’ll book you a discharge appointment with Alan at 6.15.”
It was the best news and the most interminable wait. Less good news was the bill, although if a four-figure sum gave us our baby girl back, we didn’t care. We pre-paid some money on account, as we don’t have pet insurance. It’s too expensive for four dogs, particularly as they age, and only gives limited cover. When we got the pups, we made the decision to take any veterinary expenses on the chin, but as I told the vet,
“We’d re-mortgage the house for her if we needed to!”
Without treatment, she would have died. What better cause to spend money on than saving a life? I was just so glad we were able to do this for her.
When we picked her up, Alan explained she’d had a bladder infection. He’d noticed some ammonium bi-urate crystals in her urine, which may have been an anomaly of the test, but could also be a sign of a very rare genetic disorder of which he was aware, because he happened to have dealt with it before.
“We can’t test for it while she’s on antibiotics. Your own vet will be able to run it, although it has to be done quickly, because the crystals can form in the sample after it is taken.”
She needed a check-up in a few days, but I knew then that we would return to Cheltenham for Alan to perform the test. Our vets are great, but don’t have labs on site. Our fur baby would receive only the best and most expert care! In any case, other than the obvious, we had enjoyed our stay in Cheltenham. Our park up was glorious; right next to Pittville Park, and within walking distance of the town centre. We had made friends with a whole selection of dog walkers, all of whom kept coming back to The Beast to ask about Lani.
Other than it being the land of lost content for both us and Houseman, we had found Shropshire (and Gloucestershire) to be incredibly friendly counties, but most importantly, we would not be taking any chances with our precious wee girl!
It was such a tonic to see Lani back in action, chasing squirrels and racing around with Rosie; The Terrible Two reunited. Her tummy and legs were shaved, and she tired quickly, but otherwise, she was none the worse for her ordeal.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the end of our troubles.
Who knew what strife a flat leisure battery might lead to?
Exciting News: My New Book – Plus Special Offers!
The ebook is available to pre-order on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com for the special pre-launch price of 99p/99c. Click this link to go to the pre-order page.
To celebrate the launch, my previous books are all on 99p/99c special offer over the coming weeks.
This week, my first book, Fur Babies in France – From Wage Slaves to Living the Dream is discounted. Bag yourself a bargain! – or a super Easter Present for the caravanner in your life!
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- 10 – 17th April – Fur Babies in France – From Wage Slaves to Living the Dream
- 15 – 22nd April – Dog on the Rhine- From Rat Race to Road Trip
- 22 – 29th April – Dogs ‘n’ Dracula- A Road Trip Through Romania
- 29th April – 5th May – Pups on Piste – A Ski Season in Italy
- 6th May – Release! It Never Rains But It Paws – A Road Trip Through Politics and a Pandemic
Click this link to go to my author page on Amazon for more information about my books.