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Dog Sitting is not for a 'Stick in the Mud'

Early November, we find ourselves house sitting and dog sitting in a small village on the edge of Chichester harbour. The house is truly beautiful and the six and a half acre, labour of love, the owners call a garden is beyond glorious. As a result of the chickens we'd been due to look after being taken by Mr Fox a few weeks earlier, our only pet sitting task is dog sitting a hugely affectionate, high energy, water-loving, tennis ball obsessed, Springer Spaniel called Jingles.

By nature, Jingles was well suited to coastal living plunging into the sea, streams, rivers, ponds or lakes at any and every opportunity, even lying in puddles if they were sufficiently large. We nicknamed her 'Swampy' but thankfully, the location of her box right in front of the Aga meant she did get to dry out somewhat between walks. The house was separated from the glorious garden by a substantial stream that ran through the property and access to the garden was via a pretty wrought iron bridge. Somehow, the owners had persuaded the water-loving Jingles that this particular stream, just outside her front door, is out of bounds, the only area of water in Britain denied to her. This worked well for two tennis-playing house and dog sitters, as we could take it in turns to stand outside practising our forehand drives, hitting tennis balls as far possible over the stream into the depths of the enormous garden, for Jingles to search out and retrieve. Knowing she was not allowed in the water, Jingles would run along the side of the stream to the bridge, cross over, search out the ball and return via the bridge to bring the ball back.

While house sitting here on the coast, we discovered the importance of knowing the local tide times, as walking a water-loving dog on the shores of a harbour when the tide is out, is a sure-fire recipe for ending up with a mud encrusted dog. Add in a significant error in judgement on my part and you can also end up with a mud encrusted human.

Picture the scene... walking the dog along the coastal path on a sunny late-autumn evening an hour before sunset, the tide is out at Bosham Hoe but beginning to turn. The dog is keen to go to the waters edge and, lo and behold, there appears to be a circular path from the shingly shore stretching towards the distant water's edge. After 40 years of marriage, verbal communication is no longer necessary, it's intuitive and we instinctively know each other's thoughts, so I set off right and Lynn heads off left in the opposite direction. Jingles sensibly goes with Lynn. No problem, we'll meet in the middle methinks. Nope! Afraid not! My path arcs towards the water anti-clockwise but peters out some 20 metres short, whilst Lynn's path runs clockwise right to the water's edge. Can I mention at this point that gloating is a particularly unpleasant personality trait? Goaded by her smug expression, self-satisfied cackle and her repeatedly putting the famous 'loser' hand signal to her forehead, I decide to nip across the intervening eight metres or so of space. After carefully checking it will bear my weight, I set off and it does indeed bear my weight.. for the first three steps. On step four, my left leg disappears in the mud up to my knee. The mud closes round my leg and boot trapping it firmly in the mud. However, by pushing down firmly with my right leg, I am able to extract my left leg and free it which is a relief, apart from the fact that my right leg is now as firmly stuck as my left leg had been moments before. Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I can tell Albert this is true. It is also exhausting and each repetition put me an inch or so deeper in the mud which now reaches to mid-thigh.

Lynn is beginning to panic. I can tell because she has stopped telling me off. I'm sprawled flat out from the waist up on the mud, legs firmly in it but have managed to get my right leg bent at a 45 degree angle which prevents it sinking further. Nevertheless, I am up to mid-thigh in mud with my left leg and nothing to provide any leverage with which to extract it. I discover that if I stay very still it hardly sinks at all and we have plenty of time to play with since it is about 6 hours to full tide. Less cheering is the knowledge we have only an hour or two of daylight remaining! I try reaching down with my left hand to dig the gloopy mud from around my leg and off the top of my boot, hoping to be able to haul my foot out with my left hand while I lie, upper body prone, on the mud. Dogs are very self-centred in these situations and Jingles decides my strange behaviour can only mean I am reaching down to get a hidden tennis ball for her to chase and starts excitedly squeaking, barking and running up and down the path in anticipation. This is not helping.

Spotting other dog walkers on the shingle beach, Lynn rushes off to get help and, being persuasive, returns with three couples in tow, each with a dog. Needless to say, bedlam ensues! Five of the six people, plus Lynn, start offering ideas and suggestions on how best to extract me, whilst the remaining man who has a certain bearing and gives the impression of someone used to taking charge, totally ignores me, produces his camera and starts taking photos. My humiliation is complete. I'm vowing when I get out of here, even if I find out he is third in line to the throne, I'm going to throw him in the mud, camera and all. Thankfully, his utterly lovely and charming wife berates him and insists he help out, the others having gone off to retrieve bricks, bits of wood and breeze blocks to make a path from which they can reach me. The rudiments of a pathway are duly created by throwing one object in front of the other but only to a point about three metres away, so the chap with the camera imperiously instructs the oldest and frailest member of the rescue party to venture out onto the unstable stepping stones 'solely' because he is wearing wellies. I don't think our cameraman wanted to get his boots dirty. The elderly chap's dog seeing his owner going out onto the mud, realises this is not a good idea and sets up a constant barking to warn him it is not safe. The other three dogs, from of a misplaced sense of canine loyalty follow suit.

Next thing I know, a largish log has been tied to an extendable dog's lead and handed to the eldery chap to throw to me, so I can hang on while they haul me out. I try to discourage this idea as I doubt their ability to haul me out as the lead has clearly been well chewed and is likely to snap well before I am successfully pulled like a cork from a bottle. The chap throws the log anyway but almost over-balances and nearly joins me, predictably the log falling woefully short. I am trying to persuade the others to throw me Jingles' rope-lead as I reckon I can hook it under my boot and pull my leg out. The eldery chap throws the log again, again almost falls in and again it falls short. Lynn, bless her, understands what I need and is gathering up Jingles' lead to try and throw it to me.

The eldery chap is preoccupied with his third attempt to throw me the log, the cameraman is busy taking further pictures and, being a total sexist, I urge Lynn to give the rope-lead to the remaining male to throw to me, as everyone knows women can't throw. He duly ventures out onto the stepping stones behind the elderly chap and I reach both hands out in front, cupped, as if about to receive the sacrament and he half-heartedly tosses the lead into the mud at a point where I cannot reach it. Neither can he and neither can the elderly chap. I'm thinking Lynn would have done better and shout that it needed to be thrown a lot harder. The elderly gentleman, perhaps thinking I was talking to him, chose that exact moment to hurl the large log a lot harder while I am looking the other way, hits me square in the chest, knocks the breath out of me and renders me speechless which was probably just as well.

Time for a reconsider! During the lull in proceedings and despite the gathering gloom, I try to lighten the mood by suggesting that looking on the bright side it is still 5 hours to high tide. Somewhat perversely, the cameraman offers the observation, 'It's not high tide you need to worry about, most people who get stuck in the mud, die of a heart attack induced by the exertion of trying to free themselves.' As I'm a tadge overweight, this is sobering news and he adds, 'If you get out of this alive, I'll show you some photos I have on my camera of British Army toops training in this area during World War 11 when loads of soldiers died in this very mud round the harbour.' It seems he keeps them on his camera to show people how dangerous the mud is. Jeez, he's a real bundle of laughs!

Fortunately for me, Lynn discovers another of Jingles' rope-leads in her coat pocket and shooing the others aside throws it exactly into my hands. Bearing in mind my earlier lack of faith, I try to look pleased at her success and she tries not to look overly pleased with herself. We both fail... but, suitably equipped at last, I manage to hook the rope under my foot, round to the front of my ankle and am able to haul my left leg first backwards, then upwards, finally freeing myself. All that remains is for me to swim breast-stroke, fully clothed, across the muddy surface of the remaining gap, watched by seven curious adults and four uninterested dogs. Finally arriving, spreadeagled and utterly shattered at the path I should have chosen, I look up for a handup and find everyone studiously looking the other way. Looking at my hands, I can understand why, so I scrape the worst of the mud, seaweed and tar off my right hand and look beseechingly at Lynn who takes pity on me and hauls me to my feet. She is surprisingly strong for a little 'un. In truth, I no longer have the energy or the inclination to chuck the cameraman in the mud, especially as his far too lovely wife comes over and offers me a cuddle despite me being covered in mud and muck from head to toe.

Having been appropriately thanked for their sterling efforts, the other couples make a discreet and considerate exit. However, despite his wife urging him to leave me in peace, the cameraman walks back with us and insists on showing me the photos of the soldiers stuck in the mud, many of whom died, which is akin to the emergency services turning up at motorway pile-ups and showing pictures of car crash victims to those still trapped in their vehicles. Never one to wallow in self-pity, I tried my best to look interested. Let's face it, my traumatic experience was over, I'd been extracted, no harm done and the worst was over, or so I thought, until he departed with the words, 'I'll send these photos of you to the Bosham Life magazine, so they can do a piece on how dangerous the mud is.' Heck, thanks very much, who knows, if I'm really, really lucky, the good folks for whom we did the house sitting and dog sitting might send me a copy after publication. I'll treaure it!

Anyway, finally I am alone with Lynn, able to catch my breath, night has closed in, I'm exhausted, soaking wet, freezing cold and thankfully the coast is finally clear, so we creep back to the car. Mentally, I'm already anticpating the hot shower, sat in front of the log-burning fire, decent glass of red wine to hand, Lynn fussing round me and bringing me dinner. Instead, Lynn's expression says I can't sit in the car like that, so we amass a collection of old carrier bags, now worth about 50p and the left boot loaded with mud and silt goes in one, the right boot in another, socks in another and my coat is turned inside out and folded dirty side to dirty side and placed in a further bag. My favourite, but in retrospect, inadvisedly chosen, white jumper, is removed and bagged, leaving me barefoot at the side of the road in a t-shirt and jeans. The back seat of the car has been covered in dog towels and I start to ease in when Lynn suggests I should remove my jeans as they are the single dirtiest item of clothing. Seeing my horrified expression, she adds, 'Don't be a wimp, I'll have the heater on full while I drive you home'. Clearly, this is the time to mention that under the jeans, I am 'going commando'. I suggest we not make a bad day worse! She is sorely mistaken if she thinks I'm going to risk the Police pulling me over on a dark November night, being chauffeured by my wife while I sit in the back seat, wearing only a t-shirt, naked from the waist down and only able to offer an explanation nobody in their right mind would believe!

Fortunately, the house where we were housesitting was very private, so the neighbours were spared the sight, and I'll spare you a description, of me being stripped of my remaining clothes on the wooden decking by their stream, hosed down with the nearby garden hose and dried with dog towels before being allowed in the house for a much needed hot shower. On the plus side, I do now have a better understanding of what dogs go through after being walked in winter. See 'Before' and 'After' shots of jeans being hosed down the following morning.

We're booked again, same place, same dog, for a return house sitting and dog sitting assignment in January but I reckon the homeowners may decide to reconsider their choice of house sitters once they've read this.

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