Brian Viner: Country Life

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The Independent Online

More than a fortnight has now passed since New Year's Day, but still I am incredulous at a turn of events that I will now attempt to describe for you.

We had arranged to go for a long, hangover-busting dog walk with our friends Claire and Tom and their four children. We had suggested going to Bircher Common, but Tom was underwhelmed by that idea, explaining that they had walked there a million times before. I suppose his sniffiness shows just how absurdly spoilt we are for scenic walks in this part of the country.

Bircher Common is one of the loveliest spots imaginable, with some staggering views, on a clear day, over about five counties. But Tom thought that we should have a go at the Malvern Hills, to which we readily agreed. We live scarcely half an hour away from Malvern, yet the only time that I've worked up any kind of sweat there was when accelerating towards the wine section while in Waitrose. A walk in the Malvern Hills represented a huge gap in our country-dwelling CV, and the first day of a new year seemed like a pretty good time to put that right. However, when we arrived at Claire and Tom's house in the early afternoon, the rain was sheeting down. I legged it to their front door feeling certain - and, if I'm honest, hoping - that they would want to knock the whole idea of a long walk on the head, and stay indoors drinking tea instead. But Claire and Tom are made of sterner stuff than us. "We're still going for it, aren't we?" said Tom, with his trademark sunny smile, when he opened the door. The rain was still monsoon-like. "Of course," I said.

By the time we reached the top of British Camp, an Iron-Age hill fort, I felt no drier than I had in the shower that morning. But the discomfort was drowned by the exhilaration: the rain had at last begun to ease, and the view eastwards was spellbinding. Everyone was having a good time, not least the dogs - our two, Fergus and Bonnie, and their two, Lucy and Widget.

After a couple of hours we got back to the car park, and once there realised that Widget, Tom and Claire's young Jack Russell, was missing. The light was starting to fade, so everyone except for Tom and me piled into their Land Rover and headed home for some tea and crumpets. Manfully, we turned back to start searching for Widget.

We decided to split up, but after 45 minutes I had found no sign of the missing dog, and occasionally I had heard the hopeful cry of "Widget!" from the other side of the hill, so I assumed that Tom hadn't managed to find her either. I walked back towards the car park, thinking somewhat despondently that their children would always remember their New Year walk with us as the day that they lost their little Widget. When I reached the car park, however, there was Tom with Widget in his arms. "She was in the pub," he said.

Like me he had been on the point of giving up hope, but had gone into the bar of the Malvern Hills Hotel to ask if anyone had by any chance handed in a missing dog. He was promptly handed a wet but happy Widget, who had seemingly wandered into the building on her own, and had subsequently been cared for behind the bar.

We put Widget in the car with Fergus and Bonnie, and Tom kindly offered to buy me a fortifying drink before we headed back. Rarely has the thought of a large brandy seemed so appealing, so we phoned Claire to break the good news, and then headed back across the road to the hotel. But just as I was removing my boots by the door, the woman who had handed Widget back to Tom - whether she was the barmaid or the landlady I wasn't able to work out - approached us. "I'm sorry," she said, sounding anything but, "but if you're wet you can't come in."

The Malvern Hills Hotel, I should emphasise, stands at the foot of the Malvern Hills, across the road from a car park that is used exclusively by walkers. I was literally speechless. A damp dog had been given shelter; two damp human beings, with money to spend, had been turned away. From a pub. On New Year's Day. Sometimes, this is the maddest country on earth.