Finding somewhere to stay with dogs – particularly if they’re big, you have more than one, or other important requirements, isn’t easy. Finding somewhere truly great is even harder.

We have spent ten years holidaying in the UK with two Gordon Setters – now, we’re travelling with one elderly, slightly arthritic, blind and diabetic Gordon, so we can report back on how hotels deal with virtually every requirement a dog owner might have.

So what better to do than start a series of reviews of dog-friendly hotels? Here you will get the low-down on the best places, the best rooms, and tips to make your stay great.

And if you have a review you’d like to add, just contact me. Together we can make the country a better place for dog lovers to holiday in.

To start the ball rolling, here is a review of the Cricketer’s Arms, Rickling Green, Essex, where we stayed recently.

This describes itself on its website (www.thecricketersarmsricklinggreen.co.uk) as a ‘country pub with rooms’ and the website rightly describes the village as tranquil. The pub itself is a handsome red and white brick building of some considerable age (looks like a mix of Victorian and Georgian to me) that faces onto a truly beautiful village green where cricket is still played. It’s a great place for that early morning trip out with the dog(s) while you’re still half asleep, as the pub car park is directly next to the grass, so there’s no busy traffic to dodge.

The website also describes the menus as ‘thoughtfully created and changed often’. The food is very good although in terms of ‘changed often’, we were there just as their ‘spring menu’ was about to change to the ‘summer menu’ and I’d argue that if that means there’s a menu change for every season, that’s not exactly ‘often’.

Certainly in the three nights we stayed, the menu remained the same. The specials board was the same for two nights though Wednesday was ‘steak night’ – the steaks looked good, but were very expensive. Having said that, the chef is clearly very good – a ploughman’s platter turned up a home-made Scotch egg which was truly wonderful, and the fish platter was mouthwatering. They also do a mean burger, and I enjoyed the mushroom risotto very much. Portions are generous and you’re able to keep your dogs by your side if you dine in the tiled areas, which is unusual and much appreciated.

Having said all this, I have to deal with the accommodation, which we booked via their own website. The pub’s prices start from £69 for single occupancy, from £79 for a standard double (all prices per night), the junior suite is from £95 and the ‘Lord’s Suite’ from £125. There’s a levy that starts at £10 extra for Friday and Saturday nights.

The pub’s part of the ‘Cozy Pubs’ group which includes two other hotels, the Eight Bells in Saffron Walden and the Saracen’s Head in Great Dunmow. If you look at the Cricketer’s Arms website the rooms look fabulous. Certainly the junior suite looked fabulous and as we got a good deal, we were looking forward to our stay. With a large, partially-disabled dog the extra room would be needed and very welcome.

When we arrived, I was shown to a very small room by a smiling chap and left to my own devices – to wonder, basically, if the bed had eaten the suite. No explanation was given, so I went to break the news to my other half, who was looking after Lexie while I did the forward scouting.

He came to view the room and we both agreed it couldn’t possibly be the suite we’d booked, so he was duly sent to tell the smiling chap there had been a mistake.

The conversation, as reported to me, went something like this.

‘Excuse me, but I think there’s been some mistake. We booked the junior suite and we’re in a very small room.’

‘It’s what you booked’… Hubby at this point showed him the booking form which (fortunately) he had printed out and which confirmed we’d booked the suite.

‘Oh, the suite’s upstairs and we don’t allow dogs upstairs so we downgraded you. And we’ve re-booked the suite so you couldn’t have it anyway.’

‘We did mention we were bringing a Gordon Setter – there’s no way she’ll fit in that room. You didn’t mention that dogs aren’t allowed upstairs on your website! And I think, by the way, you would owe us a refund, wouldn’t you?’

‘You’ll have to take that up with your agent. We don’t deal with that. So are you happy to take the room then?’

‘Well no, not really. I’ll just go and tell my wife, the travel journalist…’

At which point he came back to report to me, and the chap came running out after him to say we could have the suite. A miracle, you may say.

We scraped up our bags and moved to the new room, which was a lot bigger. I have a shrewd suspicion it wasn’t the suite, partly because it looks nothing like the photo of the suite on their website (it didn’t have a separate sitting room, which is sort of how I’d define a suite).

Anyhow, the room was fine, it had a settee and very nice furnishings, and it suited us much better. At least the poor dog could lie out fully. Being upstairs was unfortunately a bit of a problem as the stairs are hard-edged and have narrow treads – for a blind dog, they weren’t good. Fortunately Lexie’s an enterprising girl and neat on her feet, so one trip up and down and she had it figured out, but it wasn’t ideal. The best I can suggest for other dog owners is to actually ring up and fully discuss your needs with this hotel beforehand, to avoid problems.

I have to add that the bathroom shown on the website also didn’t represent what I saw in either of the two rooms we were in. I have no idea about the other eight rooms, but both of those had very basic white tiled facilities, plain and municipal in feel. The bigger room had a very cramped toilet cubicle – I suspect some room has been carved off it to create a niche in the next bedroom, but it means you’re constantly fighting the toilet roll holder to sit down.

The shower itself was a nice modern one and easy to use with a welcome ‘boost’ function, but the effect was slightly spoiled by the fact that the small shower tray was badly chipped and the shower curtain far too long for the cubicle, so it wound round your feet while showering – and was also discoloured and slightly mouldy, which I wouldn’t call ideal.

The cleaning also left something to be desired – I think one day we were given a new towel, but as far as I could see the room wasn’t cleaned while we were there (having a black dog, hairballs on a pale carpet are a dead giveaway). I made the bed roughly, and it was not, to my eye, re-made. I don’t know what would have happened had I left it more untidy – one hopes someone might have helped out!

That is more or less it, for this report. The staff are friendly but they don’t seem to be able to deal with any problems relating to the room bill – we overheard them distancing themselves from this process again with another customer. If you have a query about the room charges, they clearly expect you to take it up with your ‘agent’ – though who this might be if you book through their own website I cannot imagine.

In conclusion, I’d say that there are some very good points to the Cricketer’s Arms (the food, the main pub decor, the dog-friendly eating) and some that really aren’t that good at all. My advice would be to make sure you sort out any requirements by phone or email very clearly beforehand. Be prepared for the bathrooms, and bring someone with bed making skills…

***Rickling_Green,_near_Newport,_Essex_-_geograph.org.uk_-_141768

This image was taken from the Geograph project collection. See this photograph’s page on the Geograph website for the photographer’s contact details. The copyright on this image is owned by Robert Edwards and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

There truly is nothing like a good mystery… I myself love those strange, secret underground places that occasionally you glimpse – for instance, on the London Underground between Liverpool Street and Aldgate, passengers can glimpse an old, disused platform on the left hand side.

There’s another, secret station somewhere in the vicinity of Westminster that used to serve Sir Winston Churchill and his staff during the Second World War – above ground visitors will see the strange ivy-covered building to the left of Horseguard’s Parade, which is also part of that complex.

A few years ago, travellers on the A414 between Chelmsford in Essex and the M11 were amused when brown signs appeared at the Ongar Road roundabout giving directions to the ‘Secret Nuclear Bunker’ – the locals added one or two exclamation marks at that point… It was indeed one of the locations, out in a rural field beyond Kelvedon Hatch, that the Cabinet was supposed to race to in the event that someone pressed the nuclear button – it’s now open to the public, hence the sign.

I’d love to hear of more oddities and mysteries hidden away under the countryside – please send me details of any that you know of! And here, courtesy of a company called Kaizen, is an interesting little infographic (hopefully, my website skills are limited) that gives details of some of the more significant weird mystery corners of the earth…


View Interactive Version (via Able Skills).

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Meet Pepi the cat… He is very special, and not just because he’s so handsome!

He came into our lives in late summer, a couple of months after the sudden (and devastating) loss of one of our beloved dogs, Hamish, to a terrible disease.

It happened like this. We feed – fed – the local birds on our patio, and one day I realised that the shadow beneath the patio table was darker than usual. Inky black, in fact.

As I watched, at the speed of light the shadow detached itself and neatly made a meal of one of the sparrows. I opened the patio door to try to help the poor little thing, but the cat (for such it was) ran off.

Over the next few days we played a game that he always won. I’d remove his hiding places, and he would find a new one. The birds, seemingly unaware of the brooding black presence, kept being eaten. I even tried to make the patio cat-proof (no chance!).

To cut a long story short, in defence of the birds I started feeding him. (I also moved the bird feeding station down into the garden, close to some bushes where they have more natural protection). Mark decided the cat’s name was Pepi, after an Egyptian pharaoh. Pepi decided to stay.

We hadn’t intended to get a cat… We had cats and dogs for years, living happily together, but our last cat passed away at the venerable age of 17 before we got our two setters. Cats just seemed to come into our lives – waifs and strays mainly, which people from the nearby town would dump in the village, thinking that tiny kittens would be fine somewhere rural. (This, by the way, is not true. All pets need proper care).

As Hamish and Lexie had not been brought up with cats, they chased them, and we’d never had many in the garden as a result. But when Hamish died, Lexie – who is blind – could no longer help with the cat patrol, so I guess Pepi saw an opening for a stray. But how to care for our new arrival, who clearly doesn’t care much for humans?

Food has been the answer so far. He clearly appreciates having his grub presented in a bowl rather than having to catch it. I have to say, we’re not yet sure whether he’s a he or a she because we can’t get close enough to see… He comes running when he hears the little gate open as I go to put his food down, and stands back politely, a couple of feet away. Just far enough. If I try to get closer, he backs off, and he won’t feed until I’m safely back inside with the door locked.

This is a photo of him trying the new Purina Pro Plan wet food – Purina have kindly sent me some samples to try. When I realised it was fish, my heart sank because Pepi’s never been fond of fish – I guess because there aren’t many running round the local gardens or farm barns. I had to give a whole pack of a well-known brand of fish-flavoured cat food to our neighbour (to her delight), so I feared the worst.

However, about ten seconds after the photo was taken, the plate was licked clean. Success! Pepi has finally been introduced to fish!

The A470, or what passes for the main north-south route in Wales.

The A470, or what passes for the main north-south route in Wales.

It’s official: driving down those lovely rural lanes is ten times worse for you than driving the country’s crowded M routes. In fact, the figures for last year reveal 100 deaths on Britain’s motorways and 1070 on country roads.

This may sound unbelievable, but not to anyone who has been driving these roads for the past 40 years, as I have. In that time I have seen drivers doing things that would make even William Hague’s meagre hair curl.

I will long remember the man who simply accelerated at my elderly Mini Traveller on a single track stretch of country lane, taking its wing mirror off (it would have been more but I was in a small car, which I managed to part-perch on a verge). I managed this tricky manoeuvre while being certain he would – he must – brake, but he didn’t.

He did, however, stop further down the road after the collision – I thought, to apologise, as I went to his car. Far from it – he was furious. He bellowed at me, as if this explained all: “I’ve been driving these roads for thirty years!”. My daughter, who was in the car with me, said tartly that in that case, there was no time like the present to start learning to do it properly then… But he drove off in his grand car, his spinning wheels creating an impressive cloud of dust as he accelerated back to motorway speeds.

Over the years, he’s been far from unique. I recall another lady tearing round a blind corner and nearly taking our car out as it sat at a junction a few yards further down. This was another single track road, and she, having gone round the bend like Lewis Hamilton on steroids, was shaving the hedge as she approached and very nearly took out the car bonnet.

Again, this was another driver who “knew” she was right. She wound down her electric window (why is it always posh car owners?) and delivered a lecture on how she was in the right because “I am on the main road and you shouldn’t be there”. Apparently, nobody was allowed to sit at a junction while she was speeding down “her” roads.

I’ve seen cars stuck in ditches and telegraph poles, after their owners failed to negotiate icy bends. I’ve flinched as a motorcyclist bounced off the side of our car after he failed to stop at a junction. I’ve had a friend thrown off a bicycle into a ditch by a speeding car – he ended up in hospital with a broken wrist and concussion (the car didn’t stop). Our current neighbour’s boy barely escaped with his life after a high-speed collision with a bus on a narrow road.

We were all lucky, from the looks of the statistics. It is clear that those driving down country roads have a lot to learn, and I have a few humble suggestions that might make these roads a safer place.

1. On country lanes the national speed limit sign is often displayed. This is NOT 70mph. The national speed limit varies depending on the type of road and vehicle. On motorways and dual carriageways, it is 70mph. On single carriageway roads, including all country lanes where this sign is seen, the national speed limit is 60mph. If you’re towing a trailer or caravan, it’s 50mph. A handy guide can be found at http://www.drivingtesttips.biz/speed-limit-uk.html
2. Even though the speed limit may be 60mph, that does not mean you have to drive at that speed. ROSPA research says inappropriate speed contributes to 14% of injury collisions, 15% of crashes resulting in a serious injury, and 24% of collisions that result in death. In poor weather, or poor visibility (as on roads with sharp bends), DROP YOUR SPEED.
3. Even when you are on a through route, keep an eye out for any junctions. Vehicles may have to move forward and encroach onto the through route just to see if there are oncoming vehicles. Also, speeding vehicles do not always notice that there is a junction.
4. A related point: don’t travel at a speed so great that you are likely to miss a junction. Remember that country roads were not designed by modern engineers, but were created by Romans, herders of sheep and cows, and folks taking their carts to market. Such routes can stop and start pretty randomly, and their details are not always well marked on maps.
5. Aha, I hear you say, but I have a sat-nav: be very careful when following instructions in rural areas. Often these will take you on the most direct route, but that may by no means be the safest. If in doubt, check a paper map to see if you’re being taken up an inappropriate short cut. If you want to know what one of those looks like, watch this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ybzZP2FdiXs. That’s a short cut.
6. Keep your wits about you. If there are farms on your route, tractors can appear very suddenly. They can also appear from field entrances, and they rarely look or stop. They are definitely going to come off better in most accidents.
7. Herds of animals can also appear with very little warning. Farmers do move animals around by road, and it would be wise to adjust your speed to allow you time to stop before ploughing into a herd of cows, should one be round that next bend. In spring, lambs are also expert escapees and often manage to congregate on the road, having a little harmless fun – unless you are driving so fast you turn them into lamb chops prematurely.
8. In icy conditions, take bends on rural roads with extreme care. These roads may well have adverse cambers, due to their haphazard nature. Ice will also remain under stands of trees long after it has gone from clear stretches of road, so watch out for sections in the shade when it’s cold.
9. Watch out for other stuff on the road. It’s not just ice you need to think about – tractors often deposit mud, and animals deposit all sorts of other interesting things. If it’s wet, or you are flying round a bend, none of these substances will do anything for your traction.
10. Don’t just stop in the middle of the road. It’s amazing how many people stop dead to admire the view, or a cute baby animal. Check behind you before you hit the brakes. Think about whether another road user will be able to see you and stop before hitting you. If you really must stop, use a lay-by. If you break down, put your hazard lights on – push the car to safety if at all possible. But check the verge can take the car’s weight first, and that there’s not a deep ditch/gravel to trap you. Such things provide endless amusement for breakdown services.

Remember: don’t become a statistic! Let’s stay safe out there.

It is with some difficulty that I am writing this post, because thinking about losing Hamish still moves me to tears.

Hamish was a Gordon Setter – a big, beautiful black and tan dog with a heart like a marshmallow and a passion for tennis balls that passed all understanding. It was just under two months ago, on Friday 9th of May – my beloved father’s birthday – that he passed away, on a warm spring day with the bluebells and rhododendrons in full, glorious bloom. He would have been ten in September.

On that Monday he had been happy, healthy, splashing about in Llyn Brenig with his friend Lexie. On Tuesday evening he ate his turkey but didn’t seem interested in his biscuits. I wasn’t unduly concerned, but on Wednesday my instincts told me he just wasn’t well, so I phoned the vet. I could see that the inside of his eyelids – he had very baggy eyes – was very pale, which just didn’t seem right. I couldn’t get an appointment till 4.30, which worried me but not knowing what was wrong, I waited… Now I wonder if that was a bad decision. I have wondered many things since that day.

When we went in, a short walk before his appointment produced a stool with blood in it – which I took along to show the vet. She took blood samples, and said to call her back if he got worse – she prescribed, as I recall, some interesting goo to calm his stomach and antibiotics. At that stage, none of us knew what was wrong.

That night, he wasn’t interested in his food. I squirted some of the goo into his mouth as instructed, and that was all he had to eat. Other than that he slept, and when he got up to go to bed he was wobbly. I phoned the vet, and at 11pm we were back at the surgery, where she did the blood tests on the spot. I could see from her face that the news wasn’t good.

She also looked at the inside of his lip, which was pale, almost  yellow and said that was typical of IMHA. This, I now know, stands for immune-mediated haemolytic anaemia, which is where the body’s white blood cells turn against the red blood cells and attack them. She gave him steroids straight away (I know now this was prednisone), and broke the news then that only 50% of dogs survive this terrible disease. Hamie stayed in overnight with her watching over him. I worried about him, of course, he had terrible separation anxiety, but what can you do if your dog is terribly ill?

Through the next day, the news was in turns good and bad – he had responded a bit, then he didn’t seem to be responding. He stayed in on Thursday night too – all I could do was to cry and send healing wishes in the direction of the surgery. On Friday, the vet said he wasn’t responding well and we went in to see him as soon as we could.

I was shocked by how weak and ill he looked – poor Hamie, our lovely big bouncy boy, so poorly he couldn’t stand… The expression in his eyes broke my heart and still does, when I think of it now. The vet suggested we take him to the Small Animal Hospital in Liverpool and my husband went home to clear the back of the car to carry him. When he returned Hamish was carried out, with his drip, and placed carefully on his comfortable dog bed, and we set off, Mark fretting about finding the place but luckily my phone turned out to have a sat-nav app. I vaguely remember the journey and how hard I tried to make sure we didn’t take any wrong turns, and we didn’t.

It made no difference. I rushed to book him in, but as we went to get him from the back of the car I could see how weak he was – he was lying down, panting heavily, his big head hung low. I just knew – I pleaded with him to stay with us, feeling his heart still beating in his chest and willing him on… He just put one of his big paws gently into my husband’s hand, and died. 

There is a blur, where the hospital rushed him in and tried to revive him, and then I remember a vet gently telling us that he hadn’t survived. She said he had probably suffered a blood clot – it’s the most common cause of death with this illness. Something unrecoverable, she said. And I remember the bluebells, and the rhododendrons on that terrible, empty journey home. 

I am writing this with tears running down my face, but I have to write it. He was the best, most wonderful of dogs, and there is a huge gap where he used to play, and rush round making sure everything was right in the world of Hamish. He was so sweet, so kind, so gentle and loving, and this cruel, awful disease cut him down and took him from us in a matter of days.

I am haunted by memories and fears – fear that I did something that could have caused this, though the cause is often unknown. Fear that I should have spotted something was wrong sooner, or taken him to the hospital earlier. All sorts of things. I would give anything to have him back. His friend Lexie – his aunt – misses him dreadfully, as we do. I don’t think that terrible gap can be healed.

But what I would say, I would beg people if you see your dog has unexplained bruising, a pale inner eye or lip, bloody stools, lack of appetite or weakness, do go to your vet. Don’t wait. And if your dog is found to have IMHA, try to get the best possible help as soon as possible. I will never know if I could have done more – if I could have done something to save him. I have to live with that, if I can.

Goodbye, my darling boy. I miss you more than I can say. 

 

Your last day

 

If I had known that it was your last day

I would have thanked you,

Though my thanks are small and mean

Compared to all the love you gave.

But I did not, so when you told me that you loved me

As you did, always, all I said was ‘yeah’

And went about the grey-grind morning.

 

Now all the time is spent, and there is no return

To that warm land where we once played

And you would frolic, love in every minute

Grasping every moment as a gift

Smiling at the sheer joyness of it all

Lighting all the world by being.

 

And now I know, and knowing is such pain

How much you meant, too late –

Too late to say you lived in everything

My heart, my life, my noonday sun,

My boy. And never once again

To see your dear, dear face,

Or light my day the love that filled your eyes.

 

Now I howl, into that vast absence

My thanks, too late, for your brave, generous heart.

My day is still, for you gave me my action

The hollow of my soul breaks, I would give

My all, just for the chance to say

I love you, always, there on your last day.

 

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With the confirmation that the missing Malaysian Airlines plane, MH370, was  in all probability hijacked, its communications systems deliberately disabled, a raft of new questions arise about the airliner’s fate. The most tantalising is the possibility that the plane could have landed somewhere, intact. 

Again, it is necessary to look at the questions that arise from this news. Who took the plane? Suspicion appears to be falling on the co-pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, with the confirmation that he gave the last ‘all right, good night’ message to air traffic control, minutes after the first plane communication system (ACARS, the Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System) was disabled. 

After the transponder was also switched off, the plane continued to communicate with an Inmarsat satellite on an hourly basis for over six further hours – for more than seven hours after takeoff in total. The satellite positioning is inexact – it was never intended to pinpoint airplane locations – so the ‘best guess’ location for the plane is a massive swathe of the earth that ranges from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to the southern Indian Ocean.

One big question, which was obvious from the outset, is why the alarm was not raised. If one of the pilots took control of the plane without the consent of the other, the other pilot must have been neutralised immediately to ensure that he was unable to punch in the four-digit code to the transponder that would have alerted air traffic control to the hijack. This of course is not outside the bounds of probability, and is something that a hijack plan would have had to take into account.

The other big question is why there was no communication from passengers. During the 9/11 hijacks many passengers phoned home or their offices. However, those planes had seatback phones and the Malaysian Airlines plane did not, so passengers would have had to rely on being able to get a mobile signal. As the plane is reported to have been flying at an unusually high altitude for parts of its journey, it is possible that passengers were simply unable to connect. 

However, during the early part of the hijack the plane was flying over the Malaysian peninsula, where it would be quite likely a signal could be obtained. It is possible, though, that at this stage the passengers were unaware that there was a problem.

The other issue is the plane’s complete disappearance. It does not seem to have appeared on the radar systems of other countries along its possible northward route, such as India. However, its unusual flight height, which seems to have varied from extremely high to extremely low, may mean that it managed to evade detection.

Given this, the problem of finding the plane is immense. Some of the southern part of the search area is over extremely deep water and if the plane crashed into the water here it will be extremely difficult to find. If it was put down somewhere on land in the northern search area, it has been pointed out that although in theory it requires a runway of considerable length, any large flat area might have been considered a possible landing area by the hijackers. It has to be added that while planes have landed successfully off-runway, for a large passenger plane to achieve this without serious damage would be unusual.

However, the hijack scenario presents another uncomfortable question. It is now over a week since the plane vanished. No terrorist group has claimed responsibility for the hijacking, so if this is what happened, the hijackers must have been acting alone and for some reason have not made contact since the plane was taken. Presuming that the plane was taken for a purpose, the fact that the purpose has not become evident suggests that at some point it met with mishap. 

In perhaps the most tantalising puzzle of this century so far, the fate of MH370 remains shrouded in mystery. Who took the plane, and why? Most importantly, where did it land? Is it possible that some of those on board are still alive? Remarkably, in an age of seemingly blanket surveillance and satellite supervision, it seems likely at the moment that the airliner may never be found.