Posts Tagged ‘walking’

On Easter Monday, between squally showers, Nora and I joined some friends for a walk along the Grand Union Canal in West London. Beginning in the surprising Georgian streets around The Butts in Brentford, we walked past the spot I had discovered a few weeks ago at Boston Manor for about four miles along the towpath to Hanwell, joining up the two ends of the walk with a quick bus ride back to the car.

On a bright bank holiday, the towpath was busy with runners, cyclists and walkers, and the canal and locks were full of waterborne traffic. Nothing like the odd atmosphere when we were last there.

The walk was inspired by Margaret Sharp’s Travelcard Walks and is well worth a look if you’re in West London.

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Victorian lock at Hanwell, Greater London, UK.

There’s a marvellous flight of five or six locks at Hanwell. Such an engineering achievement!

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The water’s stillness is remarkable. Even when it is disturbed, it quickly returns to its mirrorlike calm. Yet the canal divide and merges with the River Brent in a couple of spots and there’s quite a current flowing downstream.

Bridge over canal with boats on the water.

There are bridges of all kinds over the canal. Footbridges like this Hanoverian iron one and others that carry underground and mainline trains, as well as major roads feeding into London, such as the A4 and M4.

Bluebell glade.

The bluebells weren’t fully out but were starting to put in their glorious annual appearance in woody glades here and there.

Cormorant drying its wings on a roof.

Birds are everywhere along the canal filling the air with their calls. Here, an urban cormorant dries its wings on the apex of a wharf roof.

painted barges lining the Grand Union Canal

People live on the many well-kept barges that line the Grand Union Canal. There are also a fair number of  travelling narrowboats going through the locks.

Labrador on a canalside ramp

The canalside has ramps built into it. This was so that when a horse towing a barge fell into the water, as they inevitably occasionally did, it could clamber out again. Falling into the water was called ‘taking a look’. I was keen that Nora shouldn’t do more than actually look, so where it was busy she was kept on her lead.

The Fox pub sign on the canalside at the Hanwell end of the walk.

I rather wished that we had been able to go for a drink at this pub with it’s jaunty sign, but we’d started the walk with fish and chips at a pub in Brentford, so by the time we reached here we felt it was time to return home for tea.

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Nora and I went for a little walk along the Thames Path from Chiswick to Barnes today. It could have been somewhere quite rural at first but it got more urban as we went along. So we just turned around and went back again. London’s full of these quiet little spots. You just have to go a little off the beaten track and explore.

Chiswick Bridge Mortlake tree stump grown around fence black labrador on country path Barnes Bridge Train going under graffitied bridge jogger on urban path

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As a child I visited Boston Manor Park frequently with my father but nothing apart from the children’s playground had stuck in my memory. I often catch sight of the Jacobean manor house when driving along the M4 motorway’s elevated section; the bit that links Heathrow airport with London. If you’re travelling towards London, the house is visible on the left-hand side at around the same time as the shiny GlaxoSmithKline monolith appears ahead of you on the right.

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Curious to see what it’s like, I decide to take Nora for a walk there. Expecting more or less an ordinary park, I am first rather disappointed and then surprised. Disappointed because the grounds appear very small, with only a small lawned area and a large pond immediately behind the compact house and stable block. I almost regret having paid for an hour and half’s parking. But we are surprised and rewarded by the discovery of a ‘nature trail’ leading down under the motorway into a mysterious other world that co-exists with the impatient roar of the traffic over our heads.

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The trail is really only a hint of a dirt path that descends out of a flowerbed into a boggy, overgrown mass of ivy and untended greenery. It’s quite off-putting. However, we persevere, with me cursing a lack of waterproof footwear, until we see what I suspect is the Grand Union Canal but turns out later to be a canalised bit of the River Brent, complete with barge and lock (I’m not showing you the side of the lock with the graffitied penises all over it).

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Despite the filthy water, a swan swims up to greet us and we are surrounded by the echoing calls of hidden waterfowl. Nora finds the inevitable pile of human poo and what looks like the skin of a fish and evades my attempts take it away from her. The smell makes me gag and I worry that she will get ill from eating it.

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A cyclist passes on the other bank where there is a well-maintained path but our side seems utterly desolate until a brown-haired man in his thirties wearing a striped tee-shirt wanders by looking aimless. I wonder if he’s a part of this place where nothing looks official or managed. There’s a ramshackle, padlocked, chicken wire gate that leads to more wasteland littered with old bits of tractor and more rubbish. It seems odd to fence in such abandonment. I wonder if the barge people have claimed it for their own since no-one else seems to care.

Beneath the motorway itself stretches an underworldly tarmac paradise, spacious and deserted. It feels strangely liberating to be somewhere so hidden from the mainstream of city life. It occurs to me that I should feel frightened but I don’t. However, I also don’t investigate further under the motorway. Not on my own with a rather unpredictable young dog.

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Looking at a map later, it appears that we might have found more open parkland had we gone on further towards the Glaxo building but, drawn in by the atmosphere of dereliction and isolation amid the busy-ness overhead and in the light industrial areas round about, this seems enough for one day.

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We resurface and return to the car, feeling mildly astonished to have been so close to tennis courts resounding to the noise of a game and council employees working in the children’s play area.

It turns out that I don’t even actually remember the playground.

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Today Nora and I went on a walk with some Twitter friends. How very modern, don’t you know. We’d already met at a tweet-up in Birmingham a couple of years ago and then, last summer, we realised that we were getting black labrador puppies at around the same time.

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Having someone to share your concerns with during those early weeks when your puppy is a widdling mystery that seems to have ruined your perfectly nice life, is a real support and I was keen to meet Lucca in person and spend some time with his humans.

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Like any individuals, the dogs turned out to be both different and similar. Nora (above left) is from a working background, while Lucca is a traditional ‘show’-type labrador. Even allowing for one being a bitch and the other a dog, Nora has a lighter build with a more delicate facial structure and a thinner tail, as you’d expect from the gundog strain. Both are typical boisterous, often clumsy, selectively deaf, giant puppies who had a great time play-fighting, sharing sticks and finding some inevitable water along the way. Both are totally gorgeous.

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stick

water

The walk, around the Devil’s Punchbowl in Surrey, was about halfway along the A3 between our respective homes. There was enough tree cover that we weren’t out in the sun the whole time (which would also be good for rainy days) and the gradients were just about right for chatting humans and juvenile dogs on an unusually clear and warm March day.

gibbet hill

hyde park cornerThe area is owned by the National Trust, which means that historic landmarks like this milestone that was found by the contractors when the old route of the A3 was being dug up, are well-explained. Seeing traditional woodland activities, like coppicing and charcoal burning, make it only a slight stretch to imagine yourself travelling along here between Portsmouth and London in a stagecoach a couple of hundred years ago. The views reach as far as London forty miles away and, with a café and a large car park as a base, I’d highly recommend this as a spare afternoon’s activity with or without canine companions.

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I don’t know about Lucca but Nora got home dusty and exhausted, and has barely moved since, other than to wolf down her supper.

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Drying out

Yesterday I noticed that it wasn’t windy or rainy for once. What a relief it is to see things drying out, even a little! The leak that began after Christmas seems to have stopped (my fingers are tightly crossed). Despite two professionals from the building trades coming to look at it, neither noticed nor pointed out that one of the tiles on the porch had slipped down a little – both were perhaps focused closely on their own line of work and source of income.

But the other week, I was staring up at the porch wondering how it could have sprung a leak so suddenly, when I noticed that the tiles in the top row under the flashing weren’t quite aligned, so I got up on a kitchen chair with Nora bounding around my feet with excitement, and tapped the tile back into position. Since then things have improved. I won’t say more than that as it hasn’t rained particularly heavily since then and it may be premature. But I’m hopeful that this will have fixed it. It makes sense: the porch was used as a support for one of the scaffolding poles during the chimney repairs last year and this may have loosened things.

Beach finds

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flooding on landward side at Stolford

This morning the clouds were gathering again as we walked up on the coast at Stolford. We walked along the sea defence, the Bristol Channel on one side and flood water on the other. A couple of fishermen crouched behind a bright red windbreak on the top, patiently tending their rods and lines, obviously made of stern stuff.

To get out of the wind’s buffeting, we headed down onto the beach and strolled along the shingle, noting an outflow pipe pouring into the sea. The concrete construction bears the initials S.D.B. – Somerset Drainage Board perhaps?

Drainage outflow

churned up seawater

Sandy brown waves churned back and forth as the tide went out. The waterline showed it had been right up to the top of the defence but hadn’t overtopped it. Very little manmade detritus had made it onto the beach today, which was good, but I really needed my “leave it!” command when I was photographing this washed-up sheep’s carcass and Nora bounded up intent on examining it. I wonder how it came to be in the sea, poor thing.

dead sheep carcass

And here’s a fairly unremarkable fossil, which I’m always pleased to find, although I leave them behind where they belong.

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Postscript: if anyone is having trouble seeing the pictures, or enlargements of them, please let me know and I’ll see if I can report it. One reader reports not being able to open them. Thanks.

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With another Atlantic storm forecast tonight and tomorrow but with blue skies momentarily offering themselves, Nora and I make the most of a short lull in the last few weeks’ stormy weather. This apparently endless wet weather is hard to bear, both physically and mentally.

Up on the heath, the soft, wet ground yields easily underfoot; the bridleways are stippled with the hoof-prints of shod horses – clear impressions of nailed-on shoes and, unusually sometimes, their frogs – and by the flatter signatures of the resident herd of small, unshod Exmoor ponies.

The grass, just beginning to spring back into life on paths worn bare last summer, now bows itself to walkers and riders treading hard into the spongy moss around trails already bathed in mud.

Driven by south-westerly winds, the day’s fine weather begins to abandon us and make its way towards the Bristol Channel and the north east.

Cothelstone Hill overlooking Bridgwater Bay

And the bad weather heads in from the west over Exmoor.

Cothelstone Hill looking towards Exmoor

Bundled-up walkers march briskly, keeping their dogs close, snatching this brief opportunity, mindful of not getting caught in a sudden squall.

Back in the warmth of home, the dehumidifier hums and daylight fades greyly as we await the incoming gales.

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Just thought I’d try a bit of positivity today. I’ve dashed around for much of the day cleaning and basically making myself feel more in charge of what’s happening to the cottage. The rain has stopped and, while the water is still seeping through a bit across the whole of the south-west wall, it is starting to dry out.

flooded road in Somerset

Having improved my mood a bit, if not my now chapped hands, I took Nora for a walk. Intending to drive to the shops first, I had to turn back as the road to Bishop’s Lydeard was flooded. Even in a 4×4 I decided not to risk it as it looked quite deep. I’ve had enough disasters of late.

blue winter sky

moss covered tree

dog walking in woods

Here are some shots of my almost completely private walk with Nora – only once we had reached the top of Cothelstone Hill did we meet some people and their dogs. Lovely!

dog on the heath

Nora the labradora

old stone wall

trees in winter sun

Nora heading down the hill

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On the way home we met toothless Graham from the farm on the road. He said we’d had 30mm of rain last night, which would explain a few things.

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cows in a field

Rather like when a new baby is brought home, a puppy requires adjustments to your lifestyle that can sometimes be frustrating, even though the new arrival is longed for. We’ve worked out how to do most things now but I’ve only managed to go riding once and, when I got home again, Nora didn’t seem very happy. So I haven’t ridden since and I really miss it. It’s one of the only times I get together with anyone local and it’s a wonderful way of being in the countryside.

a barn and trees  silhouetted

Even when it’s cold and rainy, riding through the woods under a canopy of beeches and oaks festooned with long strands of ivy that damply brush your face is very special. It’s so quiet when you ride along bridle paths, the ancient green roads that linked villages before wheeled transport, that the modern world recedes and it’s possible to imagine how life might have been in the past. On horseback you can also go much further than you would on foot and penetrate areas inaccessible to cars or bikes. In the relative isolation that this brings, the countryside’s smells and sounds become clear and vibrant.

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Without riding to look forward to I have sometimes felt reluctant to leave London and come to Somerset ‘just to be in a different place’, especially in winter. Of course it never is just being in a different place, as I’m always busy with things like the hedge-cutting once I arrive and happy that I came. But with the amount of effort involved in getting two cats and a dog and all our bits and pieces here, I do sometimes feel like not bothering. Yet while I’m always trying to resolve the tension between the two places, I think I also thrive on it because I both depend on familiarity and need new things to learn about.

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Anyway, to get back to the point of this waffle, tomorrow I’m going to get up extra early and let Nora have a big run outside to exercise her properly before I go riding. I’ve cooked her some mashed potato which I’ve mixed up with some softened kibble and squished into her Kong toy and frozen, so that she has this to play with and eat in her crate while I’m out. This sounds disgusting but she loves it. This is after all an animal that thinks nothing of eating cat poo.

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Today’s photos were taken at Hawkridge Reservoir, a couple of miles away, where we went for a walk today and Nora discovered duck poo. Yum.

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The Countryside Stewardship Scheme was still operating properly when I first moved here just over four years ago. Then, as local authority cuts started to bite in the aftermath of the meltdown in the financial markets, my neighbour over the road commented that he was going to close the permissive paths across his land maintained by the scheme. He had been warned that no further money was likely to be forthcoming, meaning that he could no longer afford to maintain the paths appropriately for public access, and he was afraid of insurance claims from people injuring themselves.

gate with closed sign

Last week, however, I thought I would make my way down to where I knew there would be some early (for here) blackberries. John had said that I wasn’t to mind the ‘closed’ signs on the gates if I wanted a walk, but the undergrowth now had other ideas. The paths, once clear and wide, were almost completely overgrown by nettles and brambles.

overgrown path

If I hadn’t known the route, I would definitely have turned back. As it was, I did almost give up a couple of times, boiling in the heat of my windcheater pulled down close over my hands for protection, and exhausted by tramping down shoulder-high nettles and unhitching myself from the brambles that caught and re-caught me at every turn.

little lake

But it was worth my efforts. At the lake, ducks quacked as they paddled away across the still water between the water lily leaves. Lovely spots of cool widened out here and there beneath the canopy and the sudden rustling of the undergrowth, as rabbits lolloped away and horses came nuzzling up on the far side of the beeches to see who was passing, signalled the creatures that live here.

trees against the sky

I came home with not very many blackberries and a lot of sadness. I just have to consider myself lucky that I arrrived in time to experience these neglected byways at their best.

stile

There are other paths to the lake and across the land and I will have to content myself with those in the future.

public footpath sign

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What’s better than good friends, good weather and good exercise?

The views up at Will’s Neck, the Quantocks’ highest point (about 15 minutes’ drive from Spring Cottage) were fabulous at the weekend. As clear as clear can be. When it’s like this, you can see Exmoor to the south and the Bristol Channel and the Welsh coast to the north.

Apparently Will’s Neck is a Marilyn or a type of ‘relative hill’. I find this hilarious.

I don’t know why more people don’t come up here, although I’m glad that they don’t. Even on such a lovely day we only passed about ten people all morning.

It isn’t always like this at an altitude of 1,261 ft (384 m) – for reference, Spring Cottage itself is at 210 m (I talked a lot of rubbish about this to my friend at the weekend and got my Imperial and metric measurements completely confused). It’s often shrouded in low cloud and drizzle up here, and it can be very windy, like the last time I was up here, when it was possible to believe that you were completely lost. And not everyone was having good weather either, as we could see in the distance below.

I took these pictures with my phone, which is rather unpredictable. I’ve kind of given up taking my DSLR out with me these days, particularly when I go to places I’ve been before. Perhaps it’s time for a smaller camera?

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The winds got stronger and stronger last night until, at about quarter to three, I had to go and sleep on the sofa in the living room downstairs, as I had convinced myself that the chimney was going to come crashing down on my head while I slept in my bed. In the great storm of October 1987, the chimney of the house opposite us in London was blown straight through their roof into the house; miraculously hurting no-one, so worrying about this was not completely stupid, if a bit night-brained.Perhaps because of my lack of a good sleep and or because I must admit that, for some time now, I haven’t been in the greatest of moods, I woke up to a beautiful, if still blustery, day feeling massively negative. So to try to fight my lethargy, I took myself out for a bracing walk. I meant to go up to Lydeard Hill but the road was closed, so I carried on down to Cothelstone Manor, where I’ve never actually walked before, although I’ve stopped and taken pictures. I didn’t have my big camera with me today, so these are just phone photos but I think you’ll get the jist of what a lovely place it is.

As if to make up for yesterday’s ghastliness, the sun shone and everything looked brilliant and clean and, um, bracing. The wind was still howling. But I walked for a while, although footpaths were a bit hard to follow, electric fencing in their way here and there, which always makes me cross. I could still get round though, and made my way up the elegant drive and round to the tiny church.

Cothelstone must have been quite a thriving community when it was originally built in the 12th century to have warranted such a church – although it is tiny. It’s certainly more than a family chapel. There are a quite a large number of buildings here, some in total disrepair, some well maintained. The estate was hugely renovated in the nineteenth century, having been through many changes of fortune. Having a place like this must be such a burden – it’s certainly not for everyone. There are a number of parts that are obviously inhabited: cottages, the main house, and a secondary, quite large, house and lots and lots of outbuildings. All built out of the local red sandstone, softened by age to a wonderful, delicate pink.

Unfortunately, the church was locked but it was clearly not in any way abandoned; the porch being full of the usual watering cans, flower rotas and lists of charities. There was a also a small war memorial to those who fell in World War I. One family had lost six members and there were two names from at least four other families. This is always terrible but really does not bear thinking about the effect in a place as minute as this.

As I walked over the meadow back from a small boating lake to the road, the churchyard looked like the archetypal place that you think of when calling to mind a quiet country resting place and it was sad to think that those men had not made it back to lie here.

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When I was waiting to move to Spring Cottage, I remember being very excited about the fact that there was a footpath virtually on my doorstep. Then, when I arrived, I found it was impossible to gain access to the path at the point shown on the map, as the bank was too steep and it was blocked by all kinds of old ironwork and other rubbish. Deliberately so. My neighbours told me that it was simply too dangerous – and I had to agree with them, having once done a running jump up the bank and found myself in a nettley heap.

public footpath

I found other ways across my neighbours’ land to the path. They said they didn’t mind. Then, a few months ago, I noticed that the council had been along to clear the bank and build some steps, which I wrote about here. This made me very happy because this footpath is actually useful for me, in the way that footpaths must have originally been meant to be.

Leading directly from my lane to the stables where I go riding, it’s the quickest and safest way to get there without driving, although I admit that I’m rarely on time enough for a ride to allow for the 15-minute walk over there, and often end up driving anyway. On the other hand when I have time – it’s certainly worth the walk. The scenery’s pretty lovely.

country scenery

The other day, I thought I’d walk over there, and found the entrance to the path completely blocked by a huge fallen tree branch, weeds and other stuff that had fallen onto the steps. A path that’s not used falls quickly into disrepair and I must make a point of doing so more often. Anyway,  now I’ve decided that the upkeep of this path’s entrance is up to me and I will be going there regularly to make sure that access remains open. After all, no-one else is going to bother and I seem to be one of the few who stand to gain.

And sometimes, I meet these boys:

young steers in a field

And we have a little stand-off about who is more scared of the other…

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After much arguing family discussion, we finally went for a walk yesterday after visiting the Spaxton village show. Deciding not to go far, we headed to Cothelstone Hill, where I have been a number of times on foot and on horseback but which the Boy hadn’t been to before.

On the tops of the Quantocks, the vegetation is sparse and typical of maritime heathland, of which there’s very little left in England. At the most exposed reaches, heathers grow low on the stony ground and scrubby hawthornes, bent and twisted, begin to vye with oaks and beeches on the more protected slopes, giving way to vibrant wild flowers and ferns lower down.

There was also this tree trunk, which seemed to be eyeing us up…

At the top, we looked down and saw a rainbow, right over the cottage. Even on this very low resolution picture from my phone, you can just make out our roof peeping up about two thirds of the way across the fields.

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We have wonderful local footpaths here. There are more public places to walk not very far away and people don’t seem to explore much off the beaten track, so you never encounter anyone else, ever. There are no pylons to spoil the views, only occasional telegraph poles. There are no modern buildings apart from the odd barn; the countryside studded with a few farms, cottages and outbuildings. The nearest village is two and a half miles away, as we are in what is amounts to only a hamlet with not even a sign on the road to mark its existence.

countryside and farm

Two years ago, when I was looking forward to moving in to Spring Cottage, I was delighted that there were public footpaths virtually on my doorstep. Trying out the local walks, I was disappointed to find the nearest footpath, a little way up the road, inaccessible with a steep bank and obvious attempts to block its entrance with old ironwork and lumber. You could still reach the path from other points nearby but none was as convenient. John and Sue, whose land the path is on, told me it was simply too dangerous to leave the access to the path open at that point because of the steepness of the bank. Something I can vouch for, having nearly come a cropper on the road as I foolishly tried to scale the bank on my first walk.

So I was delighted, a few weeks ago, to find a new entrance to the path etched into the bank by Council who look after such things, in collaboration with the landowners. What is even more amazing, is that this should happen in these days of cutbacks and under-funding. I can only imagine that the money for this project had been set aside prior to the present period of austerity, so that the work could still take place.

public footpath

When I set off up through the gate, I noticed these two old, carved planks of wood, which must have been part of the junk, with which the entrance was blocked. The workmen had reverently left them there by the side of the new gate. The text on them seems very relevant to where they were found.

bits of old carved wood

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Qualms, qualms

This is so embarassing. After my last post, there was this odd clerical slip-up, where my email to the dog rescue didn’t get through. So after two days of feeling very bereft and sad, I suddenly got driving directions to the place where Angel Dog, henceforth to be known as Tilly, is currently fostered. From the way this just put me straight back into the previous quandary, I realised that I do want to go ahead with the adoption.

So I’ve pulled myself together, have bought her a harness for the long trip back from Yorkshire and our fortnightly drives to Somerset, have Googled dog walkers and discovered that it shouldn’t be a problem to find someone to help me cope with the additional family member. So now it’s all systems go. Here she is on the Westies in Need site – scroll down until you get to Jill.

I’m still feeling slightly queasy about losing my independence again but I think the benefits will outweigh that. I’ll definitely keep you posted.

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