Guest article by George Kitching.
In Richard Adams’ 1977 bestseller, Plague Dogs, Rowf and Snitter are two dogs subjected to cruel experiments in a vivisection lab. When an unsecured catch and a loose bit of wire afford a means of escape, they find themselves in the Coniston Fells. Adams describes the landscape in vivid detail, and original editions of the book are illustrated in characteristic part sketch/part map style by one of Lakeland’s greatest apostles. Inspired by the story, George Kitching put on his boots and set off on the path of the Plague Dogs…
I’ve never read Watership Down. I was seven when it was published, but it didn’t cross my radar until the film of 1978. By then I was thirteen, and I’d just discovered Black Sabbath. I had long hair and a full-length leather coat from Oxfam, which I thought made me look like Geezer Butler. My mum had a different take. It was only after a year of people telling me the same thing that I came to accept that she might actually be right: the padded shoulders, pinched waist, faux fur collar and the particular arrangement of buttons meant it was unquestionably a woman’s coat, and if it made me look like anyone, it was Bet Lynch.
My teenage tunnel vision dismissed Watership Down as a cartoon about rabbits, soundtracked by Art Garfunkel and clearly aimed at girls; not the sort of thing a pimply, pubescent Prince Of Darkness should be watching, even if he was unknowingly experimenting with cross-dressing.
Eventually, I ditched the coat but never recovered sufficient good sense to read the book or watch the film. Now, in my fifties, I’m determined to put that right because I’ve been utterly bowled over by The Plague Dogs.
The Plague Dogs was Adams’ third novel. It tells the story of Rowf and Snitter, a big black mongrel and a little fox terrier who escape from a vivisection laboratory and make for the hills. At first, they incur the wrath of local farmers whose sheep they kill in an attempt to stave off starvation, but when an unscrupulous tabloid journalist, with a remit to embarrass the Secretary of State, gets involved, the story snowballs into a national furore, inflamed by an unsubstantiated allegation that the dogs could be carrying the bubonic plague. Questions are asked in the House, and the army is despatched to assassinate our innocent canine heroes.
It’s a rollicking adventure, an emotional rollercoaster, and a biting political satire, but it’s also a passionate anti-vivisection statement. The cruelty and utter pointlessness of the procedures beggars belief, yet in his preface, Adams confirms that “every ‘experiment’ described is one which has actually been carried out on animals somewhere”.
It’s not a wholly one-sided picture, however. No sooner do we sense that Stephen Powell, a young scientist at the lab, is becoming increasingly uncomfortable with his work than we learn his young daughter is suffering from a terminal illness. It’s Powell’s desperate hope that animal research will yield a breakthrough before it’s too late to save her.
And yet the experiments are as barbaric as they are futile: Rowf has been subjected to a succession of near drownings, repeatedly submerged in a tank of water, and only revived once he goes limp and sinks to the bottom. He has never known men other than the “whitecoats”. Despite his traumatic experiences at their latex-sheathed, disinfected hands, he still wants to be a good dog and please his masters; but he can’t face another day in the immersion tank. Snitter’s story is even sadder as he remembers a blissfully happy home life before his beloved master was knocked down by a lorry—an accident for which Snitter blames himself. The details are incoherent because the whitecoats have cut open Snitter’s head and rewired his brain to confuse the subjective and the objective. As a result, he suffers disorienting confusion and bouts of vivid hallucination. In his lucid moments, however, he’s smart. Smart enough to notice an unsecured catch and a loose bit of wire. Smart enough to figure out how he and Rowf might escape. When they do, it’s into a landscape very familiar to lovers of Lakeland.
The real Lawson Park was a remote fell farm on the eastern bank of Coniston Water; now it’s an artists’ retreat, run by Grisedale Arts. Never in reality has it been any sort of research lab, but it’s the fictional location of Animal Research (Scientific and Experimental), A.R.S.E. for short—the setting for Rowf and Snitter’s inhumane treatment in the interests of science. When they make a break for hills, they find themselves in the Coniston Fells, which Adams renders in rich detail.
My friend, Gillian, grew up in Coniston and suggested I should read the book for this very reason. “You could walk the routes and write about it in your blog”, she said. It sounded a fine idea, so I searched for The Plague Dogs on Amazon. I was one click away from buying the current paperback, when a customer review caught my eye.
“Before buying a copy of The Plague Dogs I took out a request from the library and ended up with an older edition. It was a wonderful hardback – the illustrations of the Lake District by the late Alfred Wainwright complimented Adams’ rich, vivid prose perfectly. Sadly though, the illustrations have been removed from this recent (2015) re-issue.”
The original hardback was illustrated by Wainwright? This was the edition I had to have. Google found me a second-hand copy for £1 + £3.99 p&p. It arrived two days later, and it looked wonderful. As well as hatched pencil drawings of the fells, there were eight characteristic route maps, rendered in the same part sketch, part map style, familiar to readers of AW’s Pictorial Guides. Indeed, for Wainwright fans, the book is a welcome supplement.
Wainwright was also an ardent anti-vivisectionist, and Adams says in the preface, “I seriously doubt whether an author can ever have received more generous help and co-operation from an illustrator”.
It’s in the early hours of a crisp autumn morning that Rowf and Snitter make good their escape. As the sun rises, they find themselves on the wild expanse of Monk Coniston Moor. Snitter is appalled. What have the men done? “They’ve taken everything away, Rowf—the roads, cars, pavements, dustbins, gutters—the lot. How can they have done it?”
The pair head down hill, cross the road and trot along the shore of Coniston Water. Here, Snitter is entranced by how still everything looks beneath the surface. Would his racing mind be as calm if he was in there? Rowf is terrified of the water, however, and remonstrates with his friend not to go in. “You can’t imagine what it’s like”.
Buoyed up by the sight of houses in the distance, the fugitives head along the road to Coniston village, but Snitter is overcome by one of his turns and has to lie down. A car stops, and two men get out to help, but when they try to pick Snitter up, Rowf assumes they are trying to recapture him and return him to the lab. He springs forward in attack and frees his friend, and the pair run for the village.
Rowf is understandably wary of men, but Snitter knows they’re not all like the whitecoats. On the streets of Coniston, he remembers shops. In his former life, these were places where people made a fuss of you and gave you treats. They try their luck in a butchers’ shop. The friendly but fastidious proprietor comes over. He means no harm and crouches to greet them, but his hands smell of disinfectant, he’s carrying a knife, and a pair of scissors protrude from the pocket of his WHITE COAT.
The two dogs flee up the walled lane beyond The Black Bull and out into the Coppermines Valley. On page 46, Wainwright documents their route, and on a bright November morning, this is where I pick up the trail.
Above Miners’ Bridge, the Old Man, Brim Fell, Swirl How and Wetherlam are ablaze, lit orange and blue in the first light of morning, just as Adams describes. I follow the track beside Low Water Beck to the Youth Hostel. Here I pause to check the map and imagine the scene. As I do, I hear a faint patter and something soft brushes my leg. It’s a black dog. After a startled double take, I make friends with an excitable border collie, who can’t hang about because he’s just spotted a big stick. His loving owners are laughing as they catch us up, “that’ll be the first of many, today”, the woman grins. Proper masters, as Snitter might say.
The main track swings right along the lower slopes of the Black Sails ridge, but I turn left towards the quarry, its marbled face, a dark daubed cubist canvas below the tufts of russet scrub. The road is blocked by a gate. It’s padlocked, but perhaps only to vehicles. Beyond, the word “Footpath” has been scrawled on a slate. I climb the bars and start up the faint grassy trod to which it points. Above the spoil heaps, I join the path from Crowberry Haws. Two slate cairns stand guard, and a Herdwick grazes unperturbed.
I cross the footbridge into Boulder Valley and pause by the Pudding Stone. The path continues to Levers Water, but immediately above, Brim Fell towers, craggy and intimidating. Anxious to escape the reach of man, it’s up these steep slopes that Rowf and Snitter start. I feel duty-bound to follow, although perhaps not strictly in their paw steps. They have me at a disadvantage: for one, they’re dogs—replete with four legs and a low centre of gravity; and two, they’re fictional, so they have the intrinsic power to do whatever Adams’ imagination invents. He has them climbing on the line of Low Water Beck, clambering up its boulders, skirting its shallow falls and splashing through its brown pools. His co-conspirator, Wainwright, plots the path. But from where I’m standing, the beck is an angry cascade, crashing down a severe ravine. I see no way up for a meagre middle-aged mortal.
In his Pictorial Guide, Wainwright advocates a mildly more man-friendly route, which climbs a grassy rake on the opposite side of the crag. I detect what might be a path leading to the crag’s foot. It proves something of a mirage, and I’m quickly off piste, but I track around the bottom of the rocks toward the strip of mossy green. A brief scramble provides a short-cut, and soon I’m clambering up steep and slippery grass. It’s hard going, requiring hands and feet, and I can see why AW advises against it for descent. But it’s not far from the beck, so I feel I’m being as true as I can to the plot, and besides, I’ve always wanted to try this ascent, AW promises it furnishes a fuller understanding of the fell’s true structure.
I reach an old mine level, where the curled ends of rail tracks protrude like vestigial limbs. Here a path of sorts emerges; it’s a steep rocky staircase, skirting a river of loose stone, but the going is firmer than before, if no kinder on the calves. Eventually, the gradient relents, and I’m confronted with a vision that fills Rowf with dread—the limpid corrie tarn of Low Water, a pool of primeval tranquility, a dark oasis of serenity below the plunging slopes of the Old Man, but to poor traumatised Rowf, a huge, menacing immersion tank. He races away up the slope to the summit of Raven Tor. I sip coffee, catch my breath, and just as Snitter does, I follow.
Beyond the summit, the ground drops abruptly to Levers Water. Strangely, despite its larger size, the tarn holds no fresh dread for Rowf. It’s just as well because Snitter spots a line of sheep by the western shore. They’re being pursued by two border collies and a man. The man is whistling and calling to the dogs, encouraging them to chase the sheep, and the dogs are listening and responding. Man and dog, working as a team. Here at last is a proper master. All he and Rowf have to do now is bound down the fellside and join in. If they chase the sheep too, perhaps the man will give them a home, and food, and a happy life away from the whitecoats.
My descent is more circumspect. The slopes below the col look precipitous. In his Pictorial Guide, AW shows a route beside Cove Beck. I follow a narrow trod over the spine of Gill Cove Crag, in the shadow of Brim Fell’s summit, and as the contours diverge, I descend through increasingly soggy ground. Eventually, I hear the sound of running water, and the beck appears, a narrow scar trickling elusively through scrubby moorland.
Beyond, a cairn marks the path up to Levers Hause. Between here and the waterline, Rowf and Snitter make their ill-fated attempt to gain a master by chasing his sheep. Luckily, his sheep dogs reach them first and vent their anger in broad Cumbrian:
“Art out of the minds, chasing yows oop an’ down fell, snappin’ an’ bitin’?”, fumes one. “Wheer’s thy farm at? Wheer’s thy master?”.
When Snitter explains, “we haven’t a master. We want to meet yours”, the answer is unequivocal: “He’ll fill thee wi’ lead”.
I turn and follow the forlorn fugitives’ escape route up steep rocky steps to Levers Hause. Here, the dogs ruefully acknowledge they’ll find no welcome in the world of men. They must become wild animals. Still stoked from the chase, Rowf attacks a mountain ewe. He makes the kill but takes a fair battering in the process. With his hunger satiated, exhaustion takes hold, and the big black mongrel lies down in the bog myrtle to nurse his injuries. Meanwhile, Snitter despairs at the bleakness of their prospects. As his synapses start to misfire, he scampers down the steep slopes to the Duddon Valley in a firestorm of neurotic confusion.
A right of way runs from Levers Hause to the far shore of Seathwaite Tarn. Or at least it does on the map. There’s little sign of a path on the ground, and the gradient is frightening. I’d have to be as mad as Snitter to attempt it, and yet somehow, I do. I climb down a little way to test the going, stepping sideways from grassy tuft to stony shelf. Emboldened, I soldier on. Part way down, I imagine a path, but it’s just a loose spray of scree, too shallow to offer much support. Zigzagging avoids the severest sections, and earlier than I’d reckoned, I’m approaching the tumbling waters of Tarn Beck. Here, the ground grows marshy; the valley bottom is a quagmire, red with reed beds as it reaches out to Seathwaite reservoir. I keep to a contour to stay out of the worst. The sun is streaming over Dow Crag, bleaching the fell sides and blinding me with its glare.
Here, Snitter does what I decline to do. Lured by the fevered machinations of his scrambled mind, he breaches the beck and splashes through the boggy ground on the other side. The kindly man in the brown tweed coat that he imagined was there is an illusion, but as the fit passes and the world comes back into focus, he spots something else. Something welcome. Something real. Just shy of the reservoir he finds a small spoil heap:
“On top was a levelled space of turf and small stones, perhaps half the size of a lawn tennis court. It was completely empty, but on the further side, where Great Blake Rigg, the south face of Grey Friar, rises like a wall was a symmetrical, dark opening, lined and arched with stones”.
I’m looking at it now (through binoculars). It’s an old level of Seathwaite copper mine, and in the book, it becomes a temporary home for Rowf and Snitter. Here, they meet the tod, a wily fox, well-versed in the ways of the wild. His savvy, calculating instinct for self-preservation contrasts markedly with the dogs’ innocent loyalty. He’s appalled by their naivety and sees them as a liability, likely to draw the attention of farmers and their shotguns. Yet, in Rowf he also sees a valuable asset: there’s not many a wild Lakeland beast can bring down a full-grown ewe. The dogs might have their uses after all, and an uneasy alliance is formed.
Short winter daylight hours dictate that here, for now, I must take my leave. But as I make the day’s last ascent out of lonely Dunnerdale and up to Goat Hawse, the peace is broken by an alarming bark, fuelled with feral bloodlust. A chilling chorus of murderous howls swells into an amplified echo, and on the lower slopes of Grey Friar, I make out a swarm of white dots moving fast across the fell. With binoculars comes comprehension: fuzzy points resolve into a pack of foxhounds. They’re coursing an aniseed trail. It’s profoundly unsettling because it’s a scene straight from the book. In all my years on the fells, I’ve never witnessed this, yet later in the story, Snitter sees the self-same thing. Only this time, it’s not aniseed they’re hunting… it’s the tod.
Here’s Where The Story Ends – On the Path of the Plague Dogs part II
George Kitching’s Website – Lakeland Walking TalesBack to top of page