Tucked away in a quiet, shady courtyard near to the bustling city centre of Leeds are four lovely hounds sat around a large and ornate bowl. The hounds form part of a fountain and the water spouts in their mouths almost make them look as though they’re smoking! Not only do these hounds form part of a water display, they can also talk!
The idea behind talking statues seems to have taken shape in Copenhagen when the statue of Hans Christian Andersen was given voice in 2013. Now there are examples all over the world. In the UK, the project was masterminded by the arts project Sing London along with Antenna Lab and the University of Leicester. The organisers wanted to make it really simple to interact with the statues – scan a code with your phone and prepare to take a call from a stone hound or other historical figure. (I can confirm that the process is indeed idiot-proof having successfully used my phone to converse with Hodge the Cat in London!) The statues have been animated by a host of well-known actors and they each have a different story to tell.
But what of our hound dogs? How did they come to be in Leeds? In fact, the dog fountain was initially made for a mock-medieval mansion called Castle Carr near Halifax. Sadly the story behind the mansion is not a happy one.
The architect Thomas Risley was commissioned to build the house by Captain Joseph Priestly Edwards and construction began in 1859. The mansion really was huge, with a 60ft long banqueting hall and a giant fireplace guarded by two stone Talbot hounds. This breed of dog has long been extinct but it is thought that they were an ancestor of our modern day beagle. In medieval times “Talbot” was a common name for hounds, as can be seen in various old hunting books, and to this day pubs still bear the name “Talbot” or “Talbot Arms”, with their inn-signs often illustrated by a hound dog. Certainly Edwards seems fond of the breed as he also had the stone fountain we now see in Trevelyan Square created as part of Castle Carr’s impressive water gardens. But sadly Edwards never got to see his grand home in all its glory since he and his eldest son were both killed in a railway accident before it was finished.
After Edward’s death another of his sons saw that the building was completed but although the house functioned as a hunting lodge on occasion, it seems never to have been used as the Edwards family home.
In 1949 Castle Carr was put up for sale. This amazing old house failed to attract a single buyer and so fell into disrepair. In the early 1960s, unloved and unwanted, it suffered the final indignity of being demolished for its materials. However, once a year the beautiful gardens are opened to visitors and at least, as we have seen, the four Talbot hounds were rescued from the rubble and given a new home.
Down a little path, by some flats and opposite a rather inviting looking pub called The Fox under the Hill is one of those intriguing secret gems you can find all over London – unexpected, understated but wonderful! This is the Old Blue Cross Pet Cemetery.
It all began in 1897 when a kennels was opened on Shooters Hill to take in the pets of soldiers serving in the Boer War. The kennels were later taken over by the Blue Cross which opened a hospital there. During wartime, it provided a safe place for service men and women to leave their pets while they served abroad. According to the cemetery’s website, hundreds of dogs were kennelled there, not to mention cats and even guinea pigs!
What remains is a quiet oasis of 240 little gravestones set within a lovely walled garden filled with flowers. Many of the stones are for pets of service personnel from the world wars, however the earliest stone dates from 1906, and while it’s not possible to bury your pet here now, those wishing to pay tribute to their departed companions can buy a plaque for the cemetery wall. Reading the inscriptions on these plaques and gravestones can bring quite a lump to the throat:
“In mind a constant thought, in heart a silent sorrow.”
“Sometimes the smallest things take up the biggest space in your heart.”
“Polly. A dear little cat. The house without you is not a home.”
On August 10th I went along to the cemetery to see the wonderful way in which it has been restored and beautified by The Friends of the Pet Cemetery (FOPC) and to witness the unveiling of three special plaques. The previous day had been a typical British summer’s day, i.e. gale force winds and torrential rain! But thankfully, while it was still pretty breezy, the sun was shining and a good number of visitors attended the event, including some on four legs.
The first unveiling was performed by the Mayor Cllr Mick Hayes. I am always a bit star -struck around Mayoral types. I think it’s the impressive jewellery that does it. Anyway, after an eloquent speech in which Cllr Hayes paid tribute to the role animals played in conflicts for their country (over 16 million served in WW1 alone) a plaque was unveiled which bore a moving inscription from the Animal War Memorial Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne Australia:
They gained no crosses as a soldier may
No medals for the risks they ran
They only, in their puzzled, patient way “Stuck to their guns”
Next came one of those special stories where things just seem to come together perfectly. Nicola White is a mudlark. Now, despite what I thought at first, that is not some kind of mud dwelling, singing bird(!) but is actually someone who scavenges beside rivers for items of value.
One day, when Nicola was searching on the Thames beach, near Greenwich, she came across a circular item, much corroded. Nicola took it home and, thinking it was a coin or shopping trolley token, left it on a work bench for several weeks. It was only later when she got round to cleaning it up that she saw what it really was: a dog tag for a certain Bonzo Tabner of 21 Pelton Road, Greenwich.
With the aid of the internet, in particular Ancestry.com and good old Facebook, Nicola managed to find out that Bonzo had been a much-loved pet during the Second World War, and amazingly, she even traced his owner, a very old lady, who did indeed remember her dog, Bonzo.
Intrigued, Nicola went on to discover a book by Clare and Christy Cambell called Bonzo’s War. In it the Campbell’s reveal much of what it was like to be a domestic pet during the Second World War. It’s a fascinating, if at times heartbreaking read, since under misguided official advice, 2.9 million dogs and cats were put to sleep in the autumn and winter of 1939. The thinking behind this was that pets would not be able to cope with the aerial bombardment, the noise, possible gas attacks, and all round chaos of war. There were also concerns that animals would be fed food needed for humans.
In fact, it was soon realised that many animals did cope and that dogs, in particular, were of great assistance in helping the rescue services find people buried in the rubble following bombing raids.
Nicola got together with Clare and Christy and they raised funds for a plaque to remember these pets who lost their lives. At the unveiling, was 85 year old Tony Weedon whose dog ‘Fluffy’ had been one of those euthanised. Tony was just 5 years old when he and his mother had gone to the vets, along with so many other pet owners trying to do-the-right-thing. Despite this being 80 years ago, Tony revealed how he still finds what happened upsetting, today.
The inscription on the plaque includes an anonymous quote from the end of he war:
“Dogs have dug into wrecked homes looking for their owners.
Cats have mewed for days outside piles of rubble, telling rescuers their owners are buried there.
Animals have quietened distressed children. Yet when the history of war is written these things will not be recorded.”
Now they are.
(I happened to mention Tony’s story, this weekend, to my own mother, who is now 93, and she told me how she and her father had taken their cat, Dandy, to the vets at the start of the war in Southampton for ‘a bad eye.’ As they left, Dandy safely cradled in her daddy’s arms, my mother had seen a heap of dead dogs piled up just outside the surgery wall. She has never forgotten it.)
So, there were indeed plenty of poignant moments at the Old Blue Cross Cemetery event, and yet it was also very uplifting. Uplifting to think that we have not forgotten these animals and never will. Uplifting that while times have moved on and many things have changed, we still love our pets just the same, they still play important roles in our lives and we are still, very much, a nation of animal lovers. I suspect we always will be.
Yesterday Boris Johnson became our new Prime Minister. Needless to say he received wall to wall news coverage – it was Boris, Boris and more Boris. Will he stick to his pledges on Brexit? What is his domestic policy agenda? And, perhaps most importantly, what are his feelings on cats?!
At least that was the question occupying the thoughts of many of our most popular news outlets. The BBC, Sun, Mirrorand Daily Express all set to wondering whether Larry, the moggie currently living at Number 10, would be allowed to stay on.
There has long been a cat in residence at 10 Downing Street. During the Blair years it was a beautiful black and white long-haired version called Humphrey. However, when Humphrey mysteriously disappeared the Blairs were accused of having had him put down! Downing Street insisted that this was not the case but that he had simply been sent to the country for reasons of his deteriorating health.
After Humphrey, Number 10 had a feline-free spell for a while until it was noticed that they might have a little bit of a rodent problem when a rat was seen scurrying across Downing Street during a live TV broadcast! Perhaps somewhat embarrassed, PM David Cameron and his family went forthwith to Battersea Dogs and Cats Home to adopt former stray, Larry.
Larry settled in well at his new home, greeting visiting dignitaries nicely (even allowing President Obama to stroke him) while engaging in the occasional turf war with Palmerston, the Foreign Office cat. However, some did ponder just how popular he was with the PM.
During Prime Minister’s Question Time on the day of David Cameron’s resignation the soon-to-be-ex PM was forced to roundly refute rumours from Jeremy Corbyn that he and Larry did not get on:
“[I have heard] the rumour that I somehow don’t love Larry,” he said. “I do and I have photographic evidence to prove it!”
And here he brandished a picture of said puss curled up on his lap!
According to The Sun, aides at Number 10 have now confirmed that Larry will indeed stay on. Phew! So, while Boris has just carried out what is rumoured to be one of the most ruthless cabinet reshuffles in history – Larry has retained his role as chief mouser. A role, it must be said, that he is rumoured to be not very good at. There again, when has not being good at your job hampered the ambitions of those in parliament 😉
If you’d like to read more about the UK’s parliamentary cats and their history, you can do so in the book Monumental Tales