For me, missing the Texas-OU game was supposed to be the hardest part of this trip over to England. But considering that the Longhorns are currently losing 47-10 at the end of the third quarter, it appears I didn’t miss much. And I have a feeling that we’re enjoying our weekend more than those 50,000+ Texas fans watching David Ash throw interceptions, Colt McCoy drop fumbles, and Blake Gideon miss tackles.*
Here are a few highlights that made this weekend great: 1) Zoe finally got some decent antibiotics that seem to be helping her infected eyes; 2) for the first time ever, I drove on the wrong side of the road (Mom and Dad, hopefully I’ve already called you by now and told you about this); and 3) we went to Newcastle-upon-Tyne for an evening and saw sheepdog trials in Alwinton, England.
Last week, Zoe and I decided to travel to Alwinton to see the beauty of the English-Scottish border region and to see the distant relatives of my collie, Cowboy, in action. Neither of those disappointed. Instead of the state fair in Dallas, we opted for the Alwinton Show in Northumberland National Park in the far north of England today. Instead of football, we watched sheepdog trials and wrestling. Instead of the Longhorn band, we heard bagpipes.
Friday morning we caught the train to Newcastle, where we quickly rushed Zoe to an eye doctor. After five days of a swollen and bloodshot right eye, Zoe dialed her American optometrist on Wednesday. He informed Zoe that both the pharmacist (day one) and the general practitioner (day four) she visited in London had prescribed her antibiotics that were outdated and ineffective. Upon his advice, we rushed to the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle and sought fluoroquinolone eye drops. Unfortunately, the emergency eye clinic was packed, so it took almost three hours to see the doctor, who agreed with Zoe’s eye doctor’s assessment (and gave her the appropriate antibiotics for no charge!). As Zoe said after leaving the hospital, “It might take forever and it might take a few tries, but at least the NHS [National Health Service] is free.”
That night we returned to the hotel in Newcastle, visited the castle that gives the town its name (apparently being built in 1080 AD qualifies as new!), ate a nice dinner at a bar on the river, and took the metro to the airport to pick up our rental car. Yes, Mom and Dad, we rented a car in England.
The ride back to the hotel was surprisingly easy and driving on the other side of the road didn’t bother me much. Zoe, on the other hand, was visibly nervous at first. She soon calmed down upon realizing that I was working quite hard to be a cautious and thoughtful driver. Today she was even comfortable enough to say that “the only two people I would trust to drive over here are you and my dad.” I felt honored.
At first, however, it did take a bit of time for me to adjust from my natural tendency to drift to the left hand side of the road. This was very difficult since the driver’s seat is located on the right side of the car. But once that was taken care of, the driving was quite easy. Through rote memorization I had learned the route, so that there were no surprises. I drove slower than every other person on the road, and kept mentally reminding myself that I should always yield when turning right. After making it safely back to the hotel, Zoe calmed down and we both went to the restaurant attached to the hotel for some dessert.
This morning we woke up at 6:45 and made our way to the fair. Alwinton is about 40 miles north of Newcastle, but our trip through the back roads of Northumberland National Park took almost an hour and a half. It was definitely worth the extra time. On the narrow, curvy, and abandoned park roads we saw pheasants and sheep dotting miles of hilly countryside.
The weather was quite typical for the northern half of England: rainy and cold. The temperature hovered around 48-50 degrees and the constant drizzle was just enough to soak our feet. But everyone told us that “we were just getting a piece of the Northumberland character,” and it was a very nice break from last week’s hot weather.
Each sheepdog trial began with a farmer at the opposite end of a half-mile field releasing three startled sheep. Then the collie (they’re known simply as collies in the border regions, rather than border collies) would sprint the length of the field and attempt to chase the sheep back in a straight line. The collie takes only about a minute to clear 800 meters, and then the shepherd’s whistling begins. It’s hard to believe a dog can even hear the whistle at that distance, but the slight differences in pitch instruct it to sit, run left, or run right and the dogs would usually obey perfectly.
After racing back to the shepherd, the dog would try to chase the sheep through a slalom course and then back around to a square pen with one gate open. Then things get hard, as all three sheep need to end up in the pen. The dog and the shepherd cooperate, but the sheep seem to actively fight the process of being herded. By now, the dog is close enough that the shepherd can use commands instead of whistles. “Lay down” puts the dog in a stalking position that calms the sheep, “come away” commands the dog to run to the right, and “come by” is the call for running to the left. If the dog nips a sheep, the dog is disqualified and “that’ll do” will tell the dog that it is done.
We watched six runs, and only two of the dogs were able to corner the sheep into a pen. The most skillful dog-shepherd combination was an old man and an all-black border collie who seemed to enjoy the routine. Unlike some of the other shepherds who used gruffer commands, the old man constantly included “good dog” in his repertoire and never once yelled sternly at his dog. That’s something I try to emulate when teaching Cowboy new tricks.
After the sheepdog trials, Zoe walked through a craft tent, where she bought fresh currant jam. For lunch, I ate a bacon sandwich (their bacon is quite different), Zoe had lentil soup, and for dessert we shared twelve mini-donuts that rival Mrs. Johnson’s and Café du Monde! The rest of the show included a bagpipe performance, a terrier judging, and the “dog and duck show.”
The dog and duck show was one of the funniest things that I have ever seen. The same dogs that herd sheep can apparently herd anything, including ducks. An agility course was placed in the middle of a large field, and the dogs herded ducks and geese through a nylon tunnel, up a ramp, and down a slide! (We can’t upload video to this blog, but if you want to see the video of the ducks, email Zoe and she’ll send it along – it’s pretty funny).
After the dog and duck show, we watched some of the wrestling competition (Northumberland style) before deciding that we were too cold and wanted to see some more of the countryside. Unfortunately, because we needed to catch the train back to London I could not participate in the fair’s “fell race,” a three-mile run up and down a “fell,” or giant hill. I am planning to find another one soon, because I need something to train for besides my marathon in February.
After the show, we drove to Morpeth and had tea next to a cathedral in the town square. We then returned the car to the Newcastle airport, took the metro downtown, and caught the 7:30 train to London. While writing this blog post on the train, I’ve tried to pick up piecemeal details of the UT game on Twitter from the free Wifi at each of the stations where we stop. Considering how poorly the Longhorns are playing, I’m pretty happy we spent the weekend in the English countryside instead of watching the disaster in Dallas.
* This statement should not be taken as any indication that I am a fairweather fan. Had I been in the States, I would have done anything to attend that game. It would have been miserable to watch, but I would have endured that misery for four hours because of the glimmer of hope that Texas could stage a second-half comeback.