Never leave the dog behind - Our love of dogs and mountains by Helen Mort

By Alice Peyredieu

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Dogs specialise in getting on with humans, and tales of faithful hounds in hostile environments form part of our cultural history. Award-winning writer Helen Mort sets out to understand the singular relationship between dogs, mountains and the people who love them. Along the way, she meets search and rescue dogs, interviews climbers and spends time on the hills with hounds. The book is also a personal memoir, telling the author’s own story of falling in love with a whippet called Bell during a transformative year in the Lake District.

I have been running for a long time. Unravelling a spool of breath. I’ve not lived here long enough to know the landscape by name, but I’ve found a tarn, a frozen rut of track, the place where a stream used to be. All the time, the lean dog runs ahead of me. I can’t call her mine, not yet. She is the colour of musical notation. Something about her body makes me think of a harp. Perhaps it’s the broad curve of her chest, its half-wing shape. Or the way her legs grasp up the path like quick fingers, fingers plucking at strings. Sometimes I whistle out her name and she comes back to me for a moment. Bell. It is a high, thin sound. A clear thought. We reach the plateau and the way curves back down into Grasmere. Everything is visible for a moment. Everything is open, white and pale grey. And then she is gone.

A whippet is built to run. Not far, but fast. Its heart is large and slow-beating, often arrhythmic at rest, skittish. But that heartbeat settles when the dog can run, sets into the rhythm it knows best. Whippets run with double suspension gallop: all four legs off the ground twice in each stride, once when the legs are totally extended and again when they tuck under the body. And whippets are built to chase. Rabbits, squirrels, hares. Sometimes a deer. They are quick enough to catch, not always strong enough to kill large quarry. When they track their prey, they excel at leaving the world behind.

The winter I moved to Cumbria, my grandfather was dying. Nobody told me because nobody knew yet. I paced around a house too big for me, putting things in place and then putting them somewhere else. Arranging, admiring. The rooms leaked into each other. On the drive up from East Anglia with all my possessions crammed in the boot, my car had broken down fourteen miles away from the city I’d just left. I sat by the roadside, wondering if it meant I should go back. Then my friends Al and Dor came to the rescue in a shiny people-carrier. I arrived in the Lake District as a passenger, opening bottles of beer with the metal of the seatbelt fastener. It took me a week before I noticed the village silence, the way the rain on the roof amplified it. When the first snow came, I phoned a local animal shelter because I wanted to volunteer as a dog walker.

‘Do you mind if I ask you a bit about yourself?’
‘I’m a writer. Poetry. I work from home.’
‘And what else do you do?’
The pause lasted a half-beat. A whippet-heartbeat. ‘I climb mountains. And I like to run.’

‘On your own?’
‘Yes, I live alone.’
‘You might suit a sighthound. Lurcher, maybe. Or a whippet.’

All my life, I’ve been terrified of dogs. The shape of one in the distance was once enough to make me cross the road, or detour for miles out of my way. I remember the gnat-like Yorkshire terriers from the farm by my parents’ house that fastened themselves to my dad’s ankles. I remember how he picked me up and held me when I screamed. And in some earlier, vaguer thought, I remember another dog, another more violent encounter. Teeth and breath. When I met Bell, I tried not to flinch from her. She jumped at me and I stood my ground. It was only when I walked her on a lead through Ambleside for the first time that I realised she was more nervous than I was. Cowering. Her face was timid and fractious. Her dark eyes reflected my own face, my own fear.

In her award-winning memoir H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald describes the way her solitude merged with the proud isolation of the young goshawk she was training, a bird she’d taken on while she was still grieving for her dead father. As they lived together, their habits began to merge. She ate little, or ate greedily. She slept at strange times. She avoided people. ‘The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.’

All creatures change your habits. When you walk alone with a whippet, you train your eyes to look for movement. Height becomes crucial. A rustle in the bushes is amplified. You’re not content with the invisibility of sound; you want to see everything. From the first time I ever went to Scotland with my dad and looked down from the top of the Easians to Loch Treig, I’ve been obsessed with high places. I go to the hills to help me think. I run up a mountain when I want to leave my mood at the bottom, balance up tiny gritstone holds when I want to forget. The first time I saw Bell leap up on to a drystone wall on the way down from Easedale and walk along it carefully, I realised height gives you control. A vantage point. She padded along for a stretch, head darting to either side. Then she leapt down gracefully and trotted by my side.

Whippets were originally small greyhounds, deemed unsuitable for hunting because of their size. Over time, they became popular for catching rats and hunting rabbits. They were often taken on by families in mining communities across the north of England who used them for racing and sometimes gave the puppies to their children for warmth – a whippet curled up on the bed at night makes an admirable hot water bottle. There’s something almost comical about a domestic whippet: the way they lie on the sofa all day, shiver at draughts and pace the house until they’ve found the comfiest spot. Their devotion to human company is almost heart-rending. But out in the open, everything changes. The first time I lost Bell in the woods, I scoured the undergrowth for what felt like hours, crashing through wet bracken and whistling for her, pausing to catch a sound from the heart of the trees. She was chasing a young deer, alive to a shape I hadn’t even seen. When she came back, panting, she seemed to have a cool disregard for the hunt she’d just been on, pacing at my side without a glance back into the woods.

The part I’ve always loved most about running is setting out. The route before you. Closing the door to the house. The faint dream of never coming back. Even when you know where you’re going, there’s always the sense that you could take another path for no good reason, run on and on until your legs give out. Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve been escaping down canal towpaths and up mountain tracks, setting out without telling anyone where I was going or how long I’d be. Cross-country races, trying to get ahead of the pack. I’d sometimes run with other people, half-disdainful if they couldn’t keep up.

When I went to my grandad’s funeral in Birmingham, I had to take Bell with me. She looked tiny on the end of her red lead. None of my family knew about her. When we turned up at my step-gran’s door, she was vague with grief. She let the dog in, wide-eyed. In the sad days that followed, I often wished I was back in Easedale, my thoughts tracking Bell, metres ahead of me. I wasn’t used to company any more, except the half-company of the local pub, the old men who propped up the bar and only spoke to you if it was important. I walked Bell round the new estates, the suburban streets that held no interest for her, the loud cars. But when I fell asleep with Bell curled up on the end of the bed, I allowed myself to think of my grandad. We were at the athletics track in Wyndley, on a day so hot the red surface seemed to store the sun and reflect the heat back. He was almost completely blind and leaned on a white cane. He wore a pale blue short-sleeved shirt. He had a stopwatch in his hand, even though he couldn’t read it. I was too skinny in my red county vest and shorts, uncomfortable in my own skin, squinting and pushing my fringe out of my eyes. He didn’t know what I looked like, not really. But he was proud of how I trained. He stood in the sunlight and held the watch. He turned his face towards the sky as if he was checking the sun was in the right place. Then he told me to run.

All pictures shot by John Houlihan.

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