MANCHESTER, England — We were sampling the country pleasures of Northumberland, that "undiscovered" tourist territory in the north of England where you're a lot closer to Edinburgh than London in more ways than one.
We had spent the night in a manor house hotel with topiary trees lining the driveway in front and swans floating on a pond in back. Fortified by a substantial English breakfast, we chugged along a zigzag, two-lane road that seemed all the more narrow because waist-high limestone walls hugged both sides.
Our only complaint: no pull-offs for photo opportunities. Scenery was the essence of post-card pastoral--crumbling castles and grazing sheep all over the place. So this was how the British country gentry lived.
Our expectations of an idyllic, rustic weekend hadn't included a traffic jam caused by sheep crossing through a hole in the wall on one side of the road to reach the entrance to their barnyard on the other. The asphalt was covered with wall-to-wall baa -ing bedlam, with honking cars backed up around a dangerous curve. Nothing the farm boy could do seemed to speed the protesting animals' progress.
In our frustration at the delay, we almost missed the hand-lettered marker: International Sheep Dog Society Dog Trials. The arrow pointed off somewhere to our side of the road. A friend had told us sheep dog trials are as British country gentry as it gets. Why not go see for ourselves?
We made a sharp turn onto a rutted dirt lane, then bumped across undulating fields until we spotted what we figured had to be the trials in progress.
Spectators of varied age and status, seated in folding chairs or sprawled on blankets, were lined up along the edge of a large meadow dotted with white fence barriers. They watched as a black and white border collie dashed this way and that, moving 10 sheep around a course the size of a football field.
The canine workaholic moved the flock a lot further, a lot faster and with infinitely more ease than the farm boy back on the road. When the dog finished by driving the sheep into a pen at the end of the field, the onlookers applauded politely, muttered things like "Good show" or "Well done," and made notes on their scorecards.
The drill on the field was as incomprehensible to our American urban eyes as cricket or rugby, but the action on the sidelines was better than Masterpiece Theater for insight into what makes the British tick.
And what a setting. Alnwick Castle, an 11th-Century border fortress high on a hill, overlooks lush green fields crosshatched with ancient limestone walls and dotted with thick clumps of trees. On this hazy September afternoon last year, cotton-ball clouds scattered around a Wedgwood blue sky made the landscape reminiscent of a 19th-Century oil painting.
Families gathered around picnic lunches spread on plaid blankets bordering the course, calling out greetings to friends passing by. Aging gentlemen propped up by canes became animated discussing sheep dog bloodlines. Genial nods in our direction indicated we were welcome, and if we had any questions, answers would be provided at length.
The only tense faces belonged to the handlers getting themselves and their dogs ready to start their turn on the course.
Dogs were everywhere, not only the black and white border collie competitors but the garden-variety pooches that accompany their British masters wherever they go. Spectators and best friends on leashes took breaks from the action on the field to stroll along the meadow midway.
Crayon-colored tents offered sheepherding mementoes of every description, from health dog food and formal canine portraits, herder's whistles and crooks to lanolin cosmetics, sheepskins and sweat shirts with randy ram motifs.
A canteen operated by the local women's club offered coffee, tea and scones, dry sandwiches, mediocre stew and lukewarm ale, to be shared at wobbly tables while sitting on wiggly benches. Our guess was that the gentry came prepared with their own picnics. We wished we had, too.
The knee-deep north country dialect thwarted conversation for us (our Midwest twangs didn't do much for them, either), but there could be no mistaking the unbounded pride in the dogs out there on the field.
When it comes to working sheep dogs, the United Kingdom considers itself kennel to the world. One good sheep dog, anyone at the trials will tell you, is worth many thousands of dollars. A well-trained dog can cover 20 to 30 miles a day gathering sheep on the hill--a job that would take 10 people on horseback. And that same dog can guard 1,000 sheep settled in for the night.
A. Philip Hendry, the dapper, brisk-mannered International Sheep Dog Society secretary-treasurer, took time to fill us in on the significance of the competitions.