A brush with an invisible dog
"ANIMALS are such agreeable friends. They ask no questions. They pass no criticisms." That was the view of the writer and poet George Eliot.
Guardian Country, this week, takes a look at animals and birds and how many of them enrich lives.
First, a remarkable happening relating to Paranormal Investigation at the Davidstow Airfield and Cornwall at War Museum on the edge of Davidstow Moor. During a research session in the officers' mess – an incredible setting because the mannequins are so lifelike and beautifully dressed – one of our members from Devon, Louise, felt an invisible dog brushing against her legs.
"A big or small dog?" we inquired.
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"A small dog," she replied, indicating its height. "I'd say it was a terrier."
We later learned the animal was indeed a terrier called Ciapec, which, in Polish, means 'slippers' and that he was the mascot of Polish airmen based at the station in 1943.
Moreover there is a photograph of him, in another area of the museum, standing on the guns of a stationary plane. Louise was thrilled to see him.
Some time ago discussing old airfield patterns with a flying officer, who had served in the last war, he said: "Life was so dangerous, airmen here today and failing to return from a raid over Europe tomorrow. Consequently superstition was rife and belief in mascots strong. They became quite station characters."
The spirit of the phantom dog at Davidstow, of course, reopens the debate about whether some animals progress to another life after death.
Spiritual characters as eminent as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the healer Harry Edwards both expressed the view that "some animals go on" – a reassuring thought for many owners.
John Wesley though was more cautious. He advocated making an animal's life as "good as possible here on Earth, just in case there is no afterlife for animals".
My love of horses is lifelong but it was the influence of painter-writer Charles Simpson that really deepened my interest in these beautiful creatures.
Charles acknowledged his good friend Sir Alfred Munnings "is the finest horse painter of us all". But Charles was an accomplished painter, enjoying Cornish point-to-points or famous racecourses like Ascot and Newmarket. He told me he had loved drawing and painting animals as a child and later, when he joined the Bushey School of Painting, the distinguished animal painter Lucy Kemp-Welch had been a major tutor and inspiration.
He greatly admired Winston Churchill's involvement with horses – the famous prime minister was still riding at the age of 74. He had played polo as a young officer in the Army and once declared, "no hour of life is lost that is spent in the saddle". He later bred and owned racehorses.
Charles too was also a big factor in encouraging exploration of Bodmin Moor. I think of him often when travelling across the moorland. He had painted at Dozmary Pool and naturally ponies grazing. He was drawn too to the tors and those ancient stone circles – and stayed at Lostwithiel, a town he admired.
Any essay such as this must contain handsome reference to Sprog, a black cat who came in from the wild and became our dearly loved pet: an astonishing transformation. Sprog was straight out of TS Eliot's Cats – what a London production that was.
He had a great sense of intuition, tuning in to our outlook – or the day. An extremely good judge of character too. He was sustained in his last year or so by spiritual healing. Again you could see how well he responded – to vets as well. He is buried in our garden and there is scarcely a day when I do not think of him.
Another influential figure in my commitment to animal welfare was John Hobhouse, the great reforming chairman of the RSPCA. Both his grandfather and great grandfather had been Liberal Cabinet ministers. So he knew all about the importance of lobbying Parliament, and getting laws that would improve the lives of animals.
John also made a special point of getting out and about meeting members. I remember him making an excellent speech at Liskeard and answering questions. He gave great encouragement in rehoming unwanted dogs in Cornwall and internationally set the tone for equine welfare. John was strongly opposed to the export of live food animals, advocating a carcass-only trade.
Here in Guardian Country South West Equine Protection (SWEP) continues to do marvellous work in rescuing and rehabilitating wild moorland ponies. Currently the organisation is asking for support in building a new yard. You can buy a brick or donate towards other building materials. Having a purpose-built yard will make a big difference – rehabilitating the ponies will become easier and they will be rehomed more speedily. Telephone 01822 854823 for further details.
SWEP was founded by that exceptional lady, Maureen Rolls and patrons include Angela Rippon, Judy Spiers and Julia Scantlebury.
One of my greatest regrets is never having seen a Cornish chough, a bird so symbolic of Cornwall. At magical Dozmary Pool we think of Morgan le Fay, Arthur's half-sister, ruler of the enchanted island of Avalon where Arthur was taken for the treatment of his wounds. They say Morgan had the powers of an enchantress, including the ability to transform herself into a bird.
This morning I saw a rabbit in the lane outside – though the size of its ears made me wonder whether it might be a hare. Its appearance set me thinking about Robert Hunt's belief that a fatal accident in a Cornish mine was sometimes presaged by a hare or white rabbit in an engine house.
Times were when these matters were taken seriously. In 1862, for example, the Colliery Guardian said that if a little white animal, like a rabbit, crossed the miner's path this was a warning not to go underground that day.
Feeding birds throughout the year gives Sonia and myself considerable pleasure: their variety and airborne activity fascinating. A blackbird with a beautiful yellow bill is in the yard as I shape this paragraph.
How his birdsong adds quality to the day.
It's interesting to reflect on the genesis of an interest. On a visit to Lamorna years ago, I saw a whole colony of wild birds feeding in a garden belonging to John Tunnard, the distinguished painter.
The Cinnamon Trust, with its headquarters at Hayle in west Cornwall, has to be the perfect finale for this essay: a charity for the elderly and their pets – and it does really worthwhile, caring work all over the country.
That special relationship between an owner and his or her pet brings an important something to many lives and this is understood, encouraged and preserved by the trust.
To find out more about this splendid organisation, masterminded by its founder and chief executive Averil Jarvis, MBE, telephone 01736 757010. You may need their help one day and, in the meantime, you may be able to help them.