If you mention Purleigh Barns to anyone involved in Chesapeakes in the UK , they will inevitably smile and drift into fond reminisence of past events. The home of club members Richard Playle and Tilly Thomas it is quite possibly the most perfect location to run any dog related event. As the following tale will likely demonstrate…
We arrived last Friday night after battling traffic across the breadth of Wales and England. It had been fourteen hours since we left home in Ireland. We were relieved to turn off-road and see the lights of Purleigh Barns at the end of the track. It is a home where one instantly feels at ease. The type where you feel you can flick on the kettle, sit back and kick off your shoes. After airing the dogs we were welcomed in, settled around a table, fed a warm wholesome meal and within half an hour I could feel the tension ease out of my shoulders and relaxation blissfully descend. Talk turned from traffic to what we expected over the coming weekend.
Saturday dawned bright and sunny. I rose early and headed out to walk the dogs. The farmhouse is set well off the road and sits surrounded by pasture land. No cattle or sheep in the immediate fields surrounding the house gives the added bonus of being able to excercise the dogs without worrying about roads or livestock. This was an invaluable asset since after travelling the previous day they really needed a good blow out to stretch and relax.
By early morning more chessies and owners had arrived and soon the little garden at the front of the house was filled with tents. Friends and acquaintances that we hadn’t seen in years, along with some new faces gathered in Tilly’s kitchen to enjoy the endless supply of bacon butties and sausage sandwiches.
The morning’s activities started with a novice gundog training session with Mr Jason Mayhew. I have been lucky enough to attend training sessions given by three different trainers this year and have been pleasantly surprised to find that each trainer brings their own special skill. Therefore, rather than conflicting they have complemented each other in their advice and techniques.
Jason has a talent for getting his message across in a very empathetic manner. He listens to each handler, what they do and want from their dog and builds on that. He also has extensive experience in having worked and competed with chesapeakes. He understands their quirks and foibles and therefore unlike most trainers who have never dealt with retrievers outside labs he has the ability and confidence to work round specific problems.
Late morning and it was time for an agility session, organised by Tilly. Everyone was encouraged to join in and they did. Young and old, novice and experienced nobody felt left out.
The afternoon offered a choice of activities. Jason took a group for advanced gundog work, Marilyn took an obedience group and Kirsty gave a demo on dog scootering (not as easy as it looks..I had a go..).I think the entire day was a wonderful opportunity to see just how versatile our dogs can be and no matter what activity you choose as long as both you and your dog get enjoyment from it by spending time together then that is surely a good thing.
We ended the afternoon by taking the dogs across the fields for a gallop. Puppies and adults, dogs and bitches it was lovely to see a group of brown dogs mixing and mingling freely in the late Autumn light.
A full house gathered in the kitchen that evening, spilling out into the garden to enjoy the barbeque. Analysis and post mortems of the day’s events discussed with the aid of a glass or two of wine. Talk and thoughts turned to the following day when we would head to the salt marshes for the penultimate event of the weekend, the CBRC Autumn working test
To understand chesapeakes properly, what they were bred for and how they work, the salt marshes in Essex are the closest you can get to near perfect habitat. Channels that are heavily silted with thick mud and treacherous tidal currents it is a place where a strong dog is not a luxury but an absolute necessity. Intimate knowledge of tides, times and terrain is also essential.
The ground we would be competing on today is a managed retreat. It is an area of incredible beauty but with a dangerous side if not treated with respect. The sea wall almost completes a circle except for one point where the sea has been allowed to breech. Within this area, which was originally farmland, the land has been allowed to return to it’s original state. Oak trees that were originally part of the landscape have succumbed to the rising levels of salt and stand with their blackened branches rising skyward on the horizon. Thick beds of sea grasses, formed in swathes, matted together thus making the going heavy as you have to lift your legs rather than push through . The broad basin which now forms the floor of the retreat was made up of thick black silt that pulled relentlessly on the legs as we walked through but within half an hour this same area was completely filled with thigh deep water as the tide rushed in through the sea wall breech. As I stood on top of the sea wall , that morning, it was easy to imagine just how tough a terrain this would be for a dog to work in during the winter months.
There were twelve entries in open. Our judge was Mr Phil Askew, a labrador man that field trials his dogs. He had no experience of chesapeakes working. The plan for the day was that each test would progressively bring us further along the sea wall, finishing at the point where it was breeched. It was here that we would meet high tide and a test had been designed to test the open dogs skill in tidal waters.
The tests set were fair and really showcased the dogs strength and game finding ability. It was not ground where speed was of the essence although dogs with drive did stand out. Due to the height of the vegetation the chesapeake’s ability to air scent (as opposed to ground scenting which labs are good at) really came into its own. Most of the tests had an aspect of realism in that it would have been extremely difficult to retrieve a duck without the aid of a dog due to the many tidal channels that cut through the retreat.
For the past couple of years the top honours at Chesapeake working test events in the UK have been shared by a small group of dogs and up until this past weekend this group have never all competed against each other. For some reason or another up until now there had always been at least one missing. Today in the Open test they were going to battle it out on the marshes.
The first test in Open was a double. A dummy thrown into a tidal pond to the right of the dog and handler, then shot fired at a ninety degree angle to a blind approximately seventy yards away. The blind was to be retreived first. The tempatation here, of course, is for the dog to pull for the dummy which they could clearly see on the pond. Most of the dogs completed both retrieves without difficulty but the cleanest retrieve at this point had been done by Mark Greenhough’s Echo.
The second retrieve in open brought us out to the sea wall breech. The tide, by now, was at its highest point. The basin , where we had been standing for the first retrieve only half an hour earlier, was now thigh deep. The channels were now also covered making areas even deeper. This is where knowledge of the terrain is vital. The retrieve was to be a single blind across a channel which was seventy yards wide and up on to an island with water that was moving at a rate of 5-6 knots. The only other access to the island, other than swimming , was via a narrow path which only Richard and his friend knew as it was under water!! We watched as Richard’s friend steadily made his way across, feeling and prodding the ground with his stick. I have to admit I was relieved to see him making his way to the higher ground on the island. His job was to lay the blind.
The first dog was sent. It is difficult to describe my admiration of these dogs when watching them make a retrieve in these conditions. Watching them take on the current as they make that swim across. Seeing the strength in those front shoulders and their ultimate confidence that they can do this. There is no panic. They feel completely comfortable in this type of environment and you know just why wildfowlers trust them to do the job they were designed and bred for. Then when they bank that head lifts and they can pull in scent from such a huge distance.
The top five were pulling clear at this point as we headed for what was to be the final retrieve of the day barring the need for a run off.
Back along the sea wall the tide was now receding. As quickly as it had filled it was as if someone had pulled a plug and the water trickled away. The retrieve was to be a single seen approx one hundred yards into a channel of water. However by the time the first dog had completed their retrieve and the second dog lined up the channel was fast becoming a mud bank. Again the strength of these dogs came to the fore pulling though such heavy mud, sometimes sinking up to their bellies in pursuit of the retrieve.
The judge then called forward two dogs for a run-off. It was to be Sue Worrall’s Kes and my Winnie. We were called up to an area where earlier the beginner dogs completed a retrieve. It was to be a seen with the dogs sent from the top of the wall across a channel, then a bed of sea grass, then another channel through a boundary of dead oaks where the retrieve was thrown into mixed grasses. Both dogs completed the retrieve in almost identical fashion. The judge was satisfied . We made our way back along the sea wall towards the cars. It had been a test that had promised much and delivered. No matter what the final results I was happy my dogs had managed the terrain and worked well.
There was a real sense of excitement as we gathered in Richard and Tilly’s garden and waited as the judge and working test secretary checked the final scores. The tension was eased with the abundance of delicious salads, quiches and cakes spread across the table in Tilly’s kitchen.
The final result saw age and experience, Echo, get the upper hand over the young pretender, Bertie ( owned by Des and I ). Echo proving once and for all that he has been a worthy winner over the past few years. That is not to take away from the fact that the overall standard meant that the top five dogs were only separated by a total of six points.
In summation the judge complimented the standard of dog work and handling. He was impressed by the drive and style of many of the dogs on the day.
I guess to some field trial purists the chesapeake can often be protrayed as a headstrong, cumbersome retriever when working against field trial labs on open ground. However, if you take the time to acknowledge their work on the foreshores and estuaries around the UK and Ireland you may learn to value and respect their unique set of skills which they bring to the sport of wildfowling.
For anyone interested in taking a weekend in Essex and are looking for accomodation with their dog Purleigh Barns is open for business 01621 741 274