Ann Treneman's Notebook: The white horse, four black dogs and a fat rat

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The Independent Culture
Most women are brilliant at reading maps. I say this because of all that sexist waffle that people write about women and maps. But I also must admit that I am the exception that proves the rule. Of course, I don't really try that hard. Usually I am driving and it is hard enough to unfold the thing, much less read it while not crashing the car. In addition, I really need to wear glasses but won't because that would mean I am getting old.

None of these excuses were valid last weekend when my friend Judy and I were trying to get to the White Horse Show. Judy was driving and the map was huge. But we were still lost.

"Where are we?" asked Judy.

"Well," I said, "We are east of Swindon, off the A420 and sort of near the Uffington White Horse."

"What do you mean near?" asked Judy.

I sighed. We were driving down a little road flanked by umbrellas of wild angelica. We seemed to have been driving down this road, or one like it, for hours. "Near," I said. "As in near."

Then we saw a sign that said "To the White Horse Show". I was thrilled. Judy was thrilled. Tension eased. We followed another little road (flanked by umbrellas of wild angelica) for a long time.

"Where are we?" Judy asked.

"Near Uffington," I said. In fact, I had no idea. Perhaps we should just go straight to the actual white horse which I could definitely find because it was carved into the hillside 3,000 years ago and absolutely gigantic.

Suddenly - amazingly - we were actually in Uffington. It is full of thatched houses, hollyhocks and Mr MacGregor gardens. You forget places like this exist till you drive through them by accident. The show was just outside the village. It was pounds 5 each to get in. Should we go? The jingle-jangle music of the fun fair seemed weird in the middle of all this angelica. We decided that we had to go because it had taken us so long to get there.

We must have looked pathetic because the woman selling tickets immediately offered to halve the entrance fee. "It's late," she said, "but you are just in time for the Tricky Tykes Terrier Racing. That is very popular indeed."

We heard the Tricky Tykes before we saw them. They were yapping in a makeshift pen alongside the Terrier-mobile. The man in charge of the Trickies was John Goddard-Fenwick. He was thin and shouting more or less non-stop into his mike. The set up was pretty basic. The dogs ran from one corner of the arena to the opposite corner, chasing something that looked like a large red hairball. "This is what a perfectly normal terrier race looks like!" declared John.

Every dog - and there are 60 in total - is described in terms of personality. There were hypochondriacs and attention-seekers, ratty ones and happy ones. Then there was Bonnie. She had been a rescued dog - though John prefers the word re-homed. It seems her previous owners had kept hamsters which Bonnie chased and chased and chased. John would not be drawn on whether Bonnie had also killed the hamsters. Bonnie has her own fan club, not because of the hamsters but because she has just had cancer and the chemotherapy seems to have worked. John says that she gets lots of mail and always writes back.

The dogs do not exactly run to order. Some of them just stop midway. John is relentlessly upbeat, no matter what happens. He introduces four black Scotties as "The Hovercraft" because "that's what they look like when they run in formation!" In fact, they looked nothing like a hovercraft. Instead they look like four black Scotties running completely out of sync. The most popular Tykes of all are called the Tartans. Evidently one of the Tartans disgraced himself at Cruft's by doing "big jobs" in the ring. "You just never see that at Cruft's," says John.

The terriers are exhausting to watch. We back away and are faced with a vulture tied to a post. There is also an owl who seems to be wearing make-up. It keeps turning its head completely round, opening its beak and squawking. I later discover this is an eagle owl and is named Popeye. The vulture is named Jack and is the only free-flying lappet-faced vulture in the UK.

We flee from Jack, only to be met by a long line of people who are all sitting behind pieces of machinery. The exhibit is called "Stationary Engines" and every engine - none of which are attached to anything - was rescued in bits from a ditch or a barn or something. Like the dogs, each one has a story. We turn around. Choices, choices. Did we want to drive a double-decker bus, visit the "human fruit machine" or go up in a helicopter? We are both terrified of flying but, in the circumstances, it seems the best escape route. It is pounds 18 for five minutes.

The next thing we know we are airborne. There are no vultures up here, only a stunning view of the most beautiful horse in England.

Actually, the Uffington White Horse is older than England. There are six or seven white horses carved into the hillsides here but most of them are newish. The Victorians thought they were status symbols and I suppose they still are. Anyway, I have been to most of them but the Uffington horse is by far the most elegant. "It was a tourist attraction when the Romans came," said one man. No one knows why it exists either, and I like that. The thing about white horses is that they look incredible from afar but, up close, you cannot make any sense of them. Every time I go to one I feel let down by this, though you'd think I'd know by now.

A few weeks ago I walked by the Victoria Embankment Gardens near the Temple Tube station in central London. It was early in the evening and warm. I glanced over and saw some rather sleek squirrels cavorting in the packed dirt under the shrubbery. I looked closer. These were not squirrels. They were rats and there were about six of them and they were having such a good time that it must have been a party.

I did what anyone would do. I shrieked. I jumped up and down and ran across the street. I then crept back across the street and peered under the shrubbery again. For some reason I was surprised that they were still rats.

There are lots of signs in this park that tell us humans what to do. No ball games, no cycling, no feeding the pigeons, no dogs except on a lead, no cycling, no radios or tape machines. On the sign - which was right in front of a huge rathole - there was a number for the park manager. I rang it and left a message. As I spoke, a big fat rat ran in front of me. I fled into the safety of the traffic.

A man named David from the council rang me back. He had had six calls which, given the apathy factor in this country, is practically an outcry. Pest control knew that it was a priority, he said. I said that people were sitting in the grass, oblivious to the fact that rats were frolicking only a few yards away. It was too much. David agreed but warned me that rats are hard to kill because they become immune to baits pretty quickly.

"Why not shoot them?" I said. David laughed. I repeated this idea which, perhaps because I am American, did not seem all that funny. After all, my brother-in-law has something that looked like a semi-automatic machine- gun to kill the rabbits on his farm. Why wouldn't the same do for the rats? David said there were too many rats to shoot.

The overall rat problem in London was huge. He painted a picture of a city built on rats. Occasionally they escaped from the sewers. That's where these had come from. The same thing had happened in the gardens down the way and the rats were so bold they had been running up and down the paths in packs.

"In the end we had to have a gassing campaign," he said. (My friend Mark says that rats are no big deal. "Rats are everywhere," he said. "In fact, there is some kind of statistic that says you are never more than a metre or two away from a rat at any time in London." I cannot accept this.)

I think that David is getting tired of me though he is still polite. He says I might want to discuss my various rat theories with pest control directly. One of these is that the park could do with a few cats (though they'd have to be larger than the rats, obviously). Then I thought of the Tricky Tykes. Terriers are great at chasing rats. This could be just the job for Bonnie and Co.