Now that the weather has taken a turn for the better, the country roads around us are full of people on horses, bicycles and their feet, with and without dogs. I am out there too, puffing up the hill with my two retriever friends trotting alongside. It is an outing we all enjoy, apart from an ordeal of about 50 yards where we pass the entrance to a livery yard inhabited by a pack of extremely nasty dogs.
They are obviously meant to be guard dogs and I have no argument with that, except that these dogs believe in attack as the best means of defence. As a pack they smell us coming and charge out into the road, hackles raised, snarling furious hatred and snapping at my dogs’ behinds. These two are now so frightened of going past the livery yard, they break into a run before we get there and try to sprint past unnoticed.
When we come back down 20 minutes later, the hounds of hell are often waiting for us. We are travelling faster now and can sometimes make it past the yard before they build up a full head of steam, but as we approach the yard entrance my dogs instinctively veer across the road in defiance of all their training to stay inside me on the left. It is going to cause an accident soon.
As a result of this unpleasantness, I feel slightly less antagonistic towards the typical French chien méchant who is such an annoyance to the passing traveller as he cycles quietly along the back roads of France. At least the French leave their dogs chained up or contained by a perimeter fence.
On return from today’s ordeal I looked up the dog bits of France on Two Wheels. Any excuse.
‘If people wonder, what do you actually see when cycling through France on back roads, the answer is: cows. You also see houses and front gardens, and occasional glimpses of laundry. There are lots of barking dogs too.
The French – sorry: many French people – consider it quite appropriate to leave a dog alone all day in the garden with nothing to do but race up and down the fence, baying hostility at passing strollers and cyclists and hurling itself at the gate with a heart-stopping howl of fury. The dogs that sniff you coming and start barking well in advance are fine. The terrifying ones are those that lie low until you are just passing the gate, no more than a few feet from its bars, dreaming of lunch or old girl friends, and then …. Crash! After you recover your composure, having just avoided wobbling into the path of an oncoming truck, you swear you will never again let a dog surprise you. But you will. They can sense unreadiness, and pounce. Some of the dogs we passed may have a collection of scalps in the kennel, of their cyclist victims sent skeetering across the road. Result!’
My cycling companion for the pilgrimage route through south western France adopted a policy of pre-emptive barking when he saw a reinforced garden fence of the sort that betrays the presence of a noisy dog.
“Ouah! Ouah!” he went, as French dogs do, as we approached a country homestead in the Béarn.
But there was no dog, only a family enjoying a quiet lunch in the garden. They may have been surprised to see a large man cycling past, yelping like the Old Berkshire foxhounds in full cry. “Pardon!” Paul shouted with a cheery wave.
About half way through the last of our rides through France I realised that I ought to warn readers about the barking dog problem that had been such a feature of our travels, and should probably try to take a photograph to illustrate my remarks.
For the three days that it took us to ride from Tain l’Hermitage to Avignon I maintained a tireless dog watch, camera at the ready. But, typically, we came across no more nasty, noisy dogs. Don’t they have any in Provence? All I managed to photograph was an unconvincing warning sign. The wire mesh that was intended to keep the dog in its place had been forced open, and the beast had presumably made its escape to wage war on cyclists far and wide.
Tomorrow I will take a camera with me and see if it keeps the livery yard hell hounds in their place. Somehow I doubt it.