ImageThis is one of our dogs, Lexie, making herself comfortable on a luckless chair, fortunately already so battered I think it was beyond caring. No, I have no idea how she managed to get into that position, though there are ladies of the night that would pay a small fortune for her secrets, I’m sure. 

Perhaps I should have called her Miss Pretzel, but we settled for Lexie – she and her big pal Hamish are Gordon Setters, therefore from Scotland originally, so we were trying for a Scottish sort of feel. The naming was very quickly (and I feel unreasonably) followed by several major stars calling their offspring Lexie, which does I suppose make a change from Apple or Peaches Fifi Trixiebelle. While appreciating the compliment, our Lexie wishes to point out that she is the original. She also wishes to point out that while Fifi Trixiebelle is undoubtedly a good name for some dogs, if anyone ever tries to apply it to her she will sue.

Being an original, Lexie was determined from an early age (seven weeks) to be impossible to train. Hamish, a year older, was a darling boy who never did anything wrong. He even learned to pee on command, which he was particularly proud of. Lexie, on the other hand, felt that peeing anywhere she didn’t particularly want to was beneath her… along with any other sort of command I might be tempted to try to inflict on her Person. 

This may explain why I have a stack of dog training manuals a yard high, and have watched every single episode ever made of Dog Borstal and the Dog Whisperer. We also went to the local training class, where we caused much hilarity as we bounced and fought our way around while all the nice doggies paid attention to their masters and did as they were told. Paying attention, Lexie explained, was not what a Setter was supposed to do. And anyway, I was nowhere near as exciting as all the other stuff that was going on.

We persevered, and perspired, anyway  – all sorts of treats were tried, but Lexie is not much of a one for food treats. She is the sort of dog that lies on her back while you peel her a tiny morsel of fillet steak. She might eat it, if she’s in the mood. But she might not. However, grannies are not without their wiles and I discovered that tiny dog toys, stowed up my sleeve, were guaranteed to catch her eye… This improved things no end! 

However, there was one troubling issue that we struggled with – one that began when Lexie was six months old and we were out for a walk in our local fields. Both dogs were off the lead, happily sniffing around as we headed down towards the small river. 

I didn’t, unfortunately, spot the sick pigeon in the ditch but Lexie sure did. With cries of delight she pounced on it. I mentioned she loves dog toys – well, to a bird dog, a bird is the ultimate dog toy, unfortunately, and that was the day she found out. I dived into the ditch after her while Hamish fretted and fussed at the top and watched us wrestling for the pigeon – feathers everywhere… I won, to her disgust, and watched the pigeon wobbling away into the breeze with much relief.

I was, however, relieved too soon. The next day, on our walk, Lexie vanished. Just scampered away, and would not come back. A couple of minutes later I heard a ‘squawk!’ and to my dismay realised she’d chanced upon a pheasant that had decided to take a nap right in her path. She brought this one triumphantly back, waving it around by its neck as if to say ‘look what I’ve done! Aren’t I good?’… I could see the blessed thing was on its last legs, so I furtively stuffed it in a ditch and dived for the dog. No use – she skipped away happily, in search of more feathered fun, leaving me puffing in her wake. After ten minutes of trying in vain to entice her back I resorted to yelling ‘aaAAAAUUUrghhhhle!’ very loudly and keeling over in the stubble – it’s a good job it was a lonely field or I’d have been carted off by the men in white coats, I’m sure…

Lying prone and pretending to be dead, I squinted out of one eye to see Miss Dog standing peering down at me, obviously wondering what the heck mum was up to. I leaped up like an electrocuted salmon, rugby tackled her, and somehow got her back on the lead – but that was just the start…

After that, we very quickly discovered just how dog-proof our back garden fence wasn’t. No sooner did we mend one  hole, than she found another. And if we went to the playing field to throw balls, or toys, she would sooner or later run for the gap at the end and that was it.  Each time she would scamper happily away and we would see her in the distance, streaking over the fields, searching for another pheasant that might be kind enough to come out to play. 

The last straw was when our neighbour remarked in passing ‘I nearly ran over your dog yesterday… She just came out of the field onto the road…’ That same day, we bought a large roll of small-mesh chicken wire, 6ft high, and surrounded the back garden. We stood back proudly – Lexie snickered, and leaped over the five foot gate. My hubby and I just looked at each other askance… we hadn’t even realised she could jump that high. 

The following day, with a new, seven foot gate in place, training began. With advice from the experts, we started with a normal leash, practising recall over just four feet or so, moving to a longer and then an extendable lead as she got better at returning. Eventually we got to a long line – probably about ten metres or so. By this time she was nearly a year old – it wasn’t a fast process.

Finally, someone mentioned spray collars. These fit round the dog’s neck like an ordinary collar, but have a little box that is located just under their chins. You fill them with water, or lemon-scented stuff, and if you press a button then this is squirted in a fine spray into their noses. There were three settings – small, medium and large spray, which sounded just perfect to us as the final guarantee… We bought one, and took Lexie out to the playing field, where we at last took the lead off.

God knows, we tried to keep her busy and interested, and the training seemed to be paying off – but in the end the lure of the pheasant was just too strong and she made a break for the gap. Panicking, I hit all three buttons on the spray collar at once and an amount of water roughly equivalent to the Niagara waterfall squooshed up Lexie’s nose in an instant. 

Peering from a distance, all I could see was that the dog had disappeared into a fine mist… I held my breath. A heartbeat later, a soggy dog ran very fast back towards mum and dad, clearly not keen to go further in the direction of whatever the hell had just hit her. Feeling terribly guilty, we lavished praise on our prodigal pup.

Was she cured? Well, nearly. A few more, slightly less extreme squirts were needed, and even now I don’t walk her off lead anywhere that gives her too much scope to bolt. Nowadays, seven years on, she is much more inclined to want to be with her family – thank goodness, but I would never like to take the chance of some passing pigeon inviting her to play!


Granny and dog, Llanberis

Granny and dog, Llanberis

Death, as someone once wisely observed, is Nature’s way of getting you to slow down. Some of us, luckily, have no intention of stopping until we actually get to that point, and I was rather pleased to discover I have company during a recent outing to Llanberis.

Llanberis is famous for many things, including being at the foot of Snowdon and home to the Snowdon Mountain Railway, the Electric Mountain and the Slate Museum, the latter charting the history of the local slate works. The cafe by the mountain railway terminus sells a mean Cornish pastie as well, but that is by the bye…

We go there often – the lure of the Cornish pastie is hard to resist! In addition Parc Padarn, beside the Slate Museum, is a great place to walk the dogs. They lollop around, splashing in the many lakes that were carved out of the slate in the days when the area was full of slate workings, and generally having a whale of a time.

I, being a granny, am getting to the age where my aches and pains do not help this process (the walking, not the pastie eating. I am still pretty good at eating pasties). Occasionally, while marvelling at the wonders of nature and the energy of the dogs, I find myself wondering if the whole experience would be better if I were, say, 30 years younger.

The answer to this wondering came at the end of a walk, when I was taking a well-earned rest near the craft shops. One of the shops is home to a couple of collies and, clever dogs that they are, they had found their own amusement. One in particular was having a wonderful time – it had a ball, which it would place temptingly in front of passers-by, dodging around in a hopeful way. If it had had a big sign with ‘please kick this ball for me’, it couldn’t have been any plainer.

I was surprised, though perhaps I shouldn’t be, by the number of people who obliged, giving the ball a quick shove to the dog’s evident delight. Most moved on quickly, as people tend to do, but then the dog had the good luck to meet the lady pictured above. She may not look like the most likely footballer to you, or even me, but to the dog, she was perfect.

Indeed, she really was – she began to play ball with the dog with gusto, and before long the pair were having a jolly good kickabout worthy of Pele himself. The dog had all the energy of its youth, but the granny clearly had turbo-boosters on her perseverance, because she kept at it. When I left, with a big smile on my face, she was still having fun with the collie.

I realised then – life isn’t about aches and pains, or feeling you must reach point B faster than the person next to you. Life is what you make of it – and in particular, it’s about how much enjoyment you are prepared to gift to others, and yourself. For this insight, I salute a great old lady, one granny to another. Next week, I’m going back to see if I can arrange a rematch.

The parish of Maenan and Llanddoged, Conwy Valley.

When we moved to Wales from deepest, darkest Essex, we took the precaution of renting a house for six months – we knew nothing of the area, and it turned out (in some ways) to be a wise move. North Wales is not one uniform, lovely green place you can randomly land in. Take Blaenau Ffestiniog, for example, the ultimate Slate Town, where the rain never stops falling. Or Trefriw, much of which sees no sun at all during the winter. Those things you learn from experience.

The place we rented was no run-of-the-mill house, however. It was an old school – Yr Hen Ysgol in Welsh, in the rambling parish of Maenan, which meanders along one side of the Conwy Valley, between Eglwysbach and Llanddoged. It’s not so much a village as small collections of houses, dotted here and there on steep and meandering country tracks. The school was a massive, grey granite building, sitting on a slight rise with a forest crowding behind it. The only other house nearby was a tiny cottage right next door, which had once been the schoolmaster’s house and was now home to a lovely young family. There was nothing else for the best part of a mile around.

The short road to the school was insanely steep and tortuous – when we went to see the place for the first time I just stared at it, started giggling wildly and hid under the seat. Fortunately hubby was driving, but I suspect I’d have done the same had I been behind the wheel. I never did drive in or out, once, in the time we stayed there. Frankly, it is a road for mountain goats, not people.

First impressions were wonderful – the school had stopped being a school some years before, and had been bought by our landlady, a pleasant woman who lived behind the property in what had been the school kitchens. So the isolation was not total, but the feeling of remoteness, the proximity of the forest and the stern beauty of the school itself made us agree to rent in a heartbeat.

I still remember it fondly, although there was the odd shadow. One related to a particular room in the school’s rambling interior, which had been almost entirely, and idiosyncratically, redesigned.

The school had four bedrooms divided into two completely separate pairs, one at each end of the building, which were accessed through their own set of stairs. In between was the massive full-height lounge and kitchen area, large enough for a small football match, had we cared to start one.

The master bedroom was at the far end of the school, up a modern, curved staircase. The bedroom next to it we managed to fill entirely with boxes – those possessions that we’d wrapped, and stowed, till we reached our final destination.

The other pair of bedrooms were accessed through an old, original staircase at the back of what would once have been the cloakroom but now served as a hallway. One of those was also stuffed full of boxes and the other was the spare room, in case anyone visited. It was sparsely furnished with a bed, dressing table and cupboards and a couple of anonymous pictures.

I thought very little about it, as I was constantly busy trying to arrange viewings of houses, trekking up the steep forest path on dog walks and somehow fitting in my writing. Then one night, feeling unwell, I decided my restless sleeping was disturbing my other half and the dogs, so I quietly tiptoed through the cavernous, darkened lounge, up the far set of stairs and into the spare bedroom, thinking to spend the night there.

This proved to be easier said than done. Sleep did not come easily, partly because I was feeling bad but also because of a strange sense of being watched. This grew stronger and stronger, as time passed, but in the end I dropped off – only to wake with a huge start, heart pounding, with a vivid feeling of dread, and threat.

Needless to say, I scuttled back to the other room quickly, and it was several days before I entered the other bedroom again. From that time on, every time I entered that room I had the distinct sense of another presence, and a faint whisper of the fear that had come to me that night. It was nothing tangible, but nevertheless, I did not go there often.

I am curious, though. At a safe distance in time and place, I wonder why this should have been so? What was it that made that particular room seem so threatening? Is it something in the school’s history, perhaps, that I know nothing of? I heard vague tales of a strict headmistress. Perhaps this was the room where naughty pupils were brought for punishment? I would love to know.

Perhaps it is something more esoteric, such as infrasound, which has been found to be at the root of a number of reports of ghostly happenings and sudden changes of mood. I would welcome ideas.

While gently warming up for another blog, Grumpy Green Granny came across a notice telling her she had eight comments – but that they were all junk! What could this mean? On peering (shortsightedly) further, it became clear that most of these were long spam posts explaining that her blogs were short of SEOs.

SEOs? short energetic otters? slapdash editing options? Some head scratching ensued, and as usual off to trusty Google, where the phrase ‘search engine optimization’ was revealed and some light shed on the topic. SEOs, which I’m sure people younger than Methuselah already know, are key words within text and headlines of web pages that  affect its ‘visibility’ in search results.

In short, more people will see what you have written – even if it is complete rubbish – if you use certain key words. I understand this, partly because I was writing headlines back in the days when you had to measure them with a ruler to make sure they would fit (note to the young, a ruler is a piece of wood that is marked with regular, er, markings that denote inches, centimetres and other things you will know nothing about). I am not saying that my headlines were complete rubbish, I add hastily, just that the principle of using words that attract the reader’s attention is not unfamiliar to me.

SEOs, however, are slightly different and – it seems to me – rather more unsavoury. If a reader of a magazine sees a headline that says, oh, for example, ‘Brad Pitt sex scandal’, they might expect to find within the body of that article some mention of Brad Pitt and a sex scandal, presumably related to each other. If they found no mention of either, then they might feel justifiably miffed and fire off a letter to the editor. They might not buy that publication again, thus depriving the editor of a lunchtime pint (oh woe!).

It seems to Granny that SEOs, on the other hand, are words that can be used to pepper (and salt) text and bring that all-fired wonderful ‘click’ rate up regardless of whether everyone who sees what is written there goes ‘oh ffs!!!! *@£$£%Q£$%!!!’, and moves instantly somewhere else. What is the point of writing complete gibberish just to get people to visit a particular page?

One presumes the answer to that (as it is with so many things) is money. Money money money free lamborghini wolf alpine extinction anniversary diamonds. This explains why, when Granny steps outside her somewhat esoteric field of interest (wastewater treatment! not naked men! honestly… *seraphic smile*) sometimes the web search results are spectacularly bizarre.

Let me tell you, Granny deeply resents being gulled, pulled, and downright cheated into getting some idiot’s click rate up. And if that idiot is making money, well… the old brain cells are whirring here… *Clears throat* All I am prepared to say on this topic, and it is my final word, is: Porsche sadism bilateral Royal Family Cluny Moonie Snow White. All proceeds to helpagreengranny, which will go towards buying a computer that has a hashtag symbol, enabling Granny to be grumpy in a pseudo-modern mode. I thank you.

Hang on to your life saving equipment, things are getting stormy…

I suspect around about now Mitt Romney, that charming silver-haired young fellow currently running for what I understand is a top spot across the Atlantic, is wishing he had never heard of FEMA, the US Federal Emergency Management Agency.

If you do a bit of light Googling, still one of granny’s favourite hobbies, you will find that back in 2011 Mr Romney (and what kind of a first name is Mitt, by the way? Isn’t that a type of wooly glove?) was all for cutting the FEMA budget. He said sternly: ‘We cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids.’

He went on to explain that emergency response should be the responsibility of states. It may be that he has never heard of multi-state catastrophes – goodness knows, these are busy people… However, Hurricane Sandy rather inconveniently hit just before the presidential elections, leading some in the GOP to suspect that Sandy is a secret Democrat supporter.

FEMA, of course, is playing a crucial role in coordinating the response to the massive, multi-state catastrophe that has ensued. So now, of course, Mr Romney finds himself saying, as you do: ‘As President, I will ensure that FEMA has the funding it needs to fulfil its mission…’ I could quote him at greater length, but politicians put granny to sleep faster than her evening cocoa.

Anyhoo, the upshot of a good FEMA response is that NJ’s (Republican) governor Chris Christie is now saying terribly nice things about that lovely President Obama, saying his response has been ‘outstanding’. Personally, I think they are both fine upstanding young men. But I bet Mr Mitten wishes he’d kept mum about FEMA.

While at the Conwy Food Feast this weekend, I acquired myself something I didn’t expect. All aglow with bonhomie, meandering with the crowds, I took pity on a young man selling calendars for a great charity, our local children’s hospice. I beamed at him shortsightedly as he slipped the thing into a brown paper bag – how kind, I thought. When I got home, I realised why – the darn thing was full of naked men…

You are thinking, she is older than I thought, complaining about naked men! And in any case, is it not practically law that charity calendars nowadays must feature naked people? (Thank you very much indeed, Calendar Girls). You are thinking of bronzed and buff young chaps, no doubt, which would be slightly off the mark. The photograph of them playing snooker is particularly disturbing, partly because I think someone has used Photoshop to remove one of the balls (the blue, I think).

Well, all this got me a-thinking. Species extinction is a fairly sexy topic, there are millions around the world trying to save tigers and pandas and suchlike. But what about the poor, unsexy ones – the ones that have ended up at life’s metaphorical snooker table? Like the poor freshwater pearl mussel, large numbers of which were wiped out at Ennerdale in Cumbria this year.

The charity Buglife mourned these long-lived creatures (they live 150 years, so are even older than me!), saying: “The bloated corpses of animals born when Charles Darwin was alive have been floating out of their beds and (are) being swept into the Irish Sea.” Everyone else, I suspect, was looking up recipes for moules marinere… Yet these little creatures are on the list of the world’s 365 most endangered species, along with the tiger.

The UK is the lucky home to a host of rare bivalves, including the depressed river mussel – one supposes the poor beast’s unfortunate name probably doesn’t endear it to folks who would rather see it on a bed of rocket with a white wine sauce. Such creatures also suffer the very real problem of poaching, which has been happening (in both senses of the word) to Roman snails. These sadly tasty little chaps are being hoicked out of their native woodlands and sold to restaurants despite the fact that they are rare and protected in the UK, and doubtless will get even rarer if the poachers get their way.

In some places, local activists are doing their best – a news story this summer recounted one snail vigilante’s story of catching a poacher red-handed with his slimy swag. ‘“I said ‘you’re breaking the law’ and he said ‘so what?’ the good chap recalls. “I grabbed hold of the bag and wouldn’t let go; he had two choices, he could go but the snails stayed.”

It warms the cockles of my crusty old heart to know they are out there, people who see beyond the unglamorous surface to the worthwhile cause. It’s good to know, if only because it puts me in with a fighting chance of preservation. But I bet these poor creatures would be faring a lot better on the world stage if they just looked a tad sexier. I envisage a charity calendar – all I need is a dozen celebrities prepared to have their vital assets covered in various assorted slugs, snails and mussels… Anyone?

Some nice seawater...

A Welsh beach in summer, with atypical sunshine.

Well here I am, this is my blog. The ‘gravatar’ is one of my dogs, Hamish, who is much prettier than me.

I am an environmental journalist and have been for some centuries, or so some people think. I write a lot about water, for some rather wonderful publications that somehow put up with me. For that I thank them from the bottom of my crusty old heart.

Like many journalists, I suffer from the vice of Googling myself. This is not yet illegal, though some governments are working on it. Usually, all I find are links to articles I’ve written (which is good) but yesterday I found a webpage which lambasts a small news story on a UN report on oceans and climate change. Not good!

The poor little blameless story, which simply summarises the report’s findings, is lambasted as ‘highly inaccurate’ and ‘climate change brainwash’.

Since the opinion is from a Learned Doctor and I am only a Grumpy Green Granny, far be it from me to argue. But my simple brain cannot quite wrap itself round one of his arguments about seawater entering aquifers (Basically rocks that hold water, like a big rocky sponge. Water utilities pump it up for drinking). Apparently salt water getting into freshwater aquifers is a Good Thing.

The learned chap says, and I quote: ‘any intrusion of seawater into freshwater aquifers raises (not lowers) the freshwater water table. That’s a simple consequence of the physics, i.e. higher density of saltwater compared to freshwater. Therefore, any such freshwater reservoir will not diminish in size or volume by any seawater intrusion, it will just become raised.’

So, as I understand it, he is saying that the heavier seawater will simply push the freshwater up – there will be more water, and it will be closer to the surface and handier for us to reach. Oh deep joy! Break out the furnaces, onward with climate change!

But hang on a tick. I vaguely remember some physics too, or is it cookery? It is to do with mixing. You can test this yourself at home. Mix two tablespoons of salt with 100ml of water. Then add 200ml of freshwater.

Look carefully to see if you can see the helpful saltwater pushing up the freshwater. Take a sip (carefully! I don’t want anyone’s mother writing to me to complain I’ve made their child sick!). Does it taste fresh to you? No, I didn’t think so… And neither will your aquifer. It may take a bit longer, particularly if you don’t use a spoon, but it will happen. Is this a Good Thing? You tell me!

Well, hello world indeed. I am, for my sins, a grumpy green granny – an environmental journalist of long standing, specialising in the world of water (which may or may not account for the wrinkles).

I have three grandchildren, much adored, and two dogs (ditto). I live in deepest, darkest Wales and have a husband as a pet. I am currently writing a ‘care and training of husbands’ book for anyone who may be interested – I am intending to send a review copy to Cesar Milan!

I hope the blogs are enjoyable. Writing will occur when the old brain fuses and flickers into life.