Some of the walkers are taking a shortcut from the station to Highgate, past the furtive nudists in and around the Bathing Ponds; all are bathed in the serenity of this park, with its alternations of decorously classical landscape and romantically bosky foliage. Strolling west to Spaniards Road, one can just about imagine the days in the 1800s when the romantic poets Keats, Shelley and Byron used to call on their pal Leigh Hunt in the Vale of Health and envy his immersion in this tranquil rus in urbe.
Only it's not quite so tranquil around here any more. A ghastly spectre is haunting London NW3, and specifically the sainted Heath. It's a dog. In fact, judging by the headline on the hoarding advertising the Hampstead & Highgate Express ("Horror of Heath's Killer Dogs") it may be a number of dogs, all of which coincidentally resemble a Staffordshire bull terrier. But after a recent spate of attacks in the park, local dog owners are on red alert.
Hampstead Heath is the key dog-walking patch of greensward in north London. Having a maverick, feral, Baskervillean pooch-killer on the loose is likely to pitch this highly strung community into a frenzy of concern. And along with the "Beware of the Dog" signs that local people now carry around in their heads is a secondary concern, something more socially inflammatory, something more deep rooted and class based and fearful.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Come back with me to lunchtime of 10 April, when a girl of 14 called Tiffany Georgallides was taking her tiny Yorkshire terrier, Paris, for a walk. Near the ladies' bathing Pond, she saw a Staffordshire bull terrier apparently in the care of a middle-aged woman and two children.
Hardly had she had a chance to establish that the Staffordshire was roaming off its lead when the animal jumped at Paris, sank its teeth into her neck and shook her from side to side like a rag doll. The distraught child and the terrier's owner tried to separate the dogs, but poor Tiffany had to watch as her Yorkshire expired in front of her eyes and the mysterious woman took herself and the children off without so much as an apology. Tiffany's mother, Kalliopy - who, with her husband Malcolm, runs the Nozomi Japanese restaurant in Beauchamp Place, Knightsbridge - called on owners to control their dogs. "We don't want it to happen anywhere else," she said, "No one is saying all Staffordshires should be put down. Just be responsible; muzzle it, leash it and be aware."
It was a small, localised tragedy. But when the Ham & High reported it, calling for witnesses and confirming that police were investigating, a hiss of bush telegraph spread across the canophile classes. The owner of a mini-schnauzer reported that it had been attacked by a "brown or white" Staffordshire, whose owner had "made no attempt to intervene". Another witness reported a similar brute attacking swans. A labrador owner rang in, aghast about the "powerful white dog" that had viciously mauled her pet. A City of London spokeswoman confirmed other attacks on small dogs. In a classic piece of small-town bitchery, local members of the Dog Watch organisation murmured that they knew who was responsible: and that the dog's name was Max.
Alarmist articles appeared in the local papers about the army of Staffordshires registered in Britain (250,000 - it's the nation's fifth most popular dog) and the curious paradox that not only is the breednot on the police's Dangerous Dogs List, it's one of only two breeds classed by the Kennel Club as "good with children". A lady from the Staffordshire Bull Terrier Breed Council bridled with indignation: "They are fabulous family dogs. Unfortunately they get a bad press because people see them as macho, but they are only likely to lick you to death." So what on earth went wrong with the Hampstead variety?
The investigation moved on. An anonymous busybody at the head of a whispering campaign darkly told the Ham & High on 5 May, "Most of us dog walkers could point out Max and his middle-aged woman owner - she says she only walks the dog for someone else - pretty quickly..." The hapless Max's walker, Ms Vesla Milovic, then came out of hiding to confront her accusers. It couldn't possibly be Max, she said, because he was always leashed and muzzled, she huffed. "He doesn't even match the description. I was very upset when I read the article, because it seems people have been pointing the finger." (You don't say.) The Heath Constabulary, which patrols the 880 acres of parkland, confirmed that Max had been ruled out of their inquiries. Which means the Hound of the Staffordshires is still out there. On the loose. Inexplicably feral and unprecedentedly hostile to life and toy dogs. How are the locals taking it?
Try asking Jonathan Bergman that, and you'll get a 25-minute diatribe about the importance of community, the iniquities of petty crooks and graffiti artists, and the role that dog walkers can play in saving the world. Bergman is an estate agent who founded Dog Watch with Clive French, a Metropolitan Police inspector, earlier this year. Their aim is to sign up local dog owners to report to the police on "issues of community concern"; i.e., to keep an eye out for anti-social behaviour or the evidence of theft and burglary. Bergman is a very organised person. He offers newcomers to his Grass-along-a-Fido initiative a densely written, printed brochure outlining Scheme Objectives, Responsibility Co-Ordination and what you should know about human rights and the Data Protection Act. You know that no fresh graffiti tag, no outdated tax disc and no dubious stranger will escape his attention. Things he would like to see reported back on include "Regular incidents of poor driving, speeding and disobeying traffic signs ... Reporting and collecting information on suspicious persons ... Persons watching cash points. Suspicious addresses, persons coming and going, Brothels, Drugs addresses etc ... Licensed premises, noise, opening hours etc... Persons leaving etc."
You get the impression that Bergman has developed something of a siege mentality. But he laughs off any suggestion that his gang of dog-minding Neighbourhood Watchmen might turn into something more alarming in their search for a white Staffordshire - something like the villagers with flaming torches marching on the Baron's castle inFrankenstein. "There's nothing remotely vigilantish about it," he said. "If you have more people out there, keeping their eyes peeled, certain people may be less inclined to do certain things." His eyes glinted behind his steel spectacles. You get the feeling that Mr Bergman would be happiest somewhere in the southern states of the US, with a pick-up truck, a short-sleeved shirt and a gun-rack.
On Hampstead Heath itself, you encounter the true heart of NW3 dog loving. Around a park bench near Parliament Hill, five local matrons and their attendant mutts are throwing a birthday party for Oly, a 15-year-old ("and therefore 95 years old actually") Tibetan terrier who is deaf and blind. Jo, Suzy, Ann, Jenny and Karen are drinking champagne surrounded by their pampered associates (Snowdrop and Tryffid and Obi-Wan and Monty) who are fed cold cocktail sausages and never bark. The ladies converse in memsahib shrieks and are immensely proud of their pets. "We're pure-breed NW3 dogs," said Jo Konrad, who acted as their de facto spokesman. "Mostly Hampstead Heath dogs are impeccably behaved, because they have more space here than anywhere else in London." So how did they account for the curious incident of the feral Staffordshire?
"Well of course, NW3 is an extremely mixed region socially these days," said Jenny. "Those roadsthere are nice, those beyond are the roads where we live, which are even nicer - and over there" - she swept her hand in a dismissive arc - "it's all council estates." So the killer dog is, basically, a chav pet? "Well ... you see a lot of these shorthaired terriers from the estates, specially trained."
"Drug dealers and so forth like them," put in the lady called Ann. "Do you remember that German Shepherd called Wagner, who'd been abused and was kept by a woman who didn't treat her properly, who insisted on walking him unleashed and unmuzzled. He attacked lots of dogs and one woman and one child."
So there we have it at last. The killer dog represents an irruption of rogue, one might almost say working-class, one might possibly say foreign-johnny (remember Max's owner?) genes into the doggy playground of Hampstead. So what would they do if one of their beloved dogs was attacked by the crazed killer dog?
"I'm quite into Ack-see-on Dee-rect," said Jo (in French). "Well, we all know people who know people who..." she concluded darkly. "So would I," said Suzy, in sudden deadly confederacy.
It remains to be seen who owns the canine culprit. But the suspicions currently racing like Jack Russells across the Heath are clear enough: Hampstead has gradually become lost to the locals as an exclusive territory.Reuse content