From the first moment I saw it I loved the fact that here was a mountain that looked the way a mountain should – pointy tipped and dark, way above anything around it. There were plenty of others around it too, but nothing that said mountain quite so distinctly.
A long time ago someone we barely knew came to stay for a week while he ironed out a glitch in the house purchase that he was three quarters of the way through. By the time we had been through a redundancy, a summer spent job hunting, the arrival of his girlfriend, a change of house choice and the infant Rosie experiencing another six months of life we had all become firm friends. Now he and Zara have a house in the Black Mountains and we were visiting for the weekend.
Hoover spotted the sheep before the car stopped and leapt from the car for a closer inspection.
“Hoover! No!” I shouted in greeting. “Come here!” I pointed at my feet. Hoover slunk back.
“What a good dog.” Zara and Chris were impressed. I glowed with pride as Hoover chomped her way through a biscuit.
“Right. Walk,” Zara had us organised and pointed at Sugar Loaf Mountain. We started off in the opposite direction and headed downhill through dappled woods. Flashes of light sprang through the branches, or pooled in glades, and soon we were heading upwards through winding lanes, past a tiny chapel and stone farms. Hoover stopped to look at more sheep. A collie came to see if she needed to be herded anywhere, walking along side us till we were off his patch.
Hoover sampled sheep droppings for both scent and flavour.
“Oh Hoover, No.” Hoover spat the droppings out. She’s not that keen on them really. Rather like the Duchess’s baby, she ‘only does it to annoy, because she knows it teases’. Sheep scattered when they spotted us, skittering off excitedly. Hoover studiously ignored them, waiting patiently by the gate for us to open it, while sheep darted away in all directions.
“What a good dog!” More biscuits.
“You won’t need a lead here,” Zara told me as we headed upwards through springy heather, but I wasn’t sure.
The friends you know best are the ones with whom you have the most to discuss. The only thing to pause the conversation was Britain’s last Vulcan flying slowly past, vast and instantly recognisable.
“Wow! Look! That’s a what’s it, isn’t it?” As we watched it disappear in the direction of Cardiff we strode past a necessary turning and suddenly we were running parallel to the peak rather than attaining it. Chris and Zara went back to find the path, but Hoover, Jay and I, not realising where they had gone, launched ourselves upwards. Hoover led me up the sheep trails until we came to part where it was so steep that I let her go free, and resorted to using hands as well as feet. Jay was negotiating rocks somewhere to our right. Chris and Zara had found the path and were sauntering up in a relaxed fashion. Hoover looked down at me from the top. Two feet good, four feet clearly better, I thought, and wondered if Orwell liked walking up mountains.
“That’s our house,” explained Chris pointing at a speck on a lower hill a couple of valleys away. I could see Jay itching to find a map, but we had none with us. Chris and Zara know this route well.
“What’s that? ” we asked, pointing at the horizon.
“And that?” Investigating a cleft in the rocks, Hoover had found the Essex Scout’s cache of emergency mountain rations.
The Vulcan slid past again, heading for Ross-on-Wye now and we launched ourselves back down the hill. Hoover darted ahead, keen to show us the way and, spotting sheep nibbling at the grassy verge, I fished out her lead again. Hoover ignored the sheep.
“What a good dog,” I tickled her ears. We were getting through the biscuits.
Down one hill, round another, up a lane and suddenly Sugar Loaf was far behind us, back to being the perfect mountain image as we stripped off the jerseys that we had donned to protect us from the buffeting wind at the top. The warmth of the valley seemed balmy.
Hoover glanced casually at some sheep in the field beside us while I opened a gate for us to take the final track.
“Was it easy to train her to be so good with the sheep?” asked Zara. My good dog. I rubbed the top of her head.
“Well, I don’t think she actually wants to chase sheep. Not that I’ve ever given her the option, but she’s never shown any inclination.” Ahead of us the track wound its way between gnarled blackthorns. Hoover ambled at my side, tired after a long walk.
“Last gate,” said Zara. Hoover waited patiently as she and I stepped through. I checked behind us, but Chris and Jay were still out of sight, lost in some discussion.
“OK, Hoover, you can come. Good girl.” She frisked through, all tiredness gone. There was a light in her eye; something had caught her attention. I turned to see what it was and was just in time to see Hoover vanish out of sight.
“Zara?” I called. Then I heard a sound of many hooves, running.
“HOOVER!” I bellowed. “BAD DOG! NO! BAD DOG! COME HERE!” I didn’t have to see what was happening to be pretty sure what was going on. There were sheep in Chris and Zara’s front garden. I ran. Hoover and I nearly collided. One glance at me and Hoover slid to the ground, that curious, slinking creep that only a dog can do; that sorrowful slither which means that Hoover is pretty sure that trouble is about to follow hard on the heels of high jinks.
All those misplaced biscuits; that misplaced confidence. Pride does indeed come before a fall and I was the one at fault. Given half a chance Hoover would have played a hearty game of tag with those sheep. She would have thought it splendid fun. They would not. No more chances.