Jason Goodwin: ‘They were more like beautiful professors of Hegelian dialectic than actual dogs’

Our columnist joins a group of golden retriever fans on a pilgrimage to see the tomb of the famous Ada.

The Germans, with the Swiss Germans, arrived as I was mowing the lawn, which gave me a chance to show off in Kate’s hearing. You can generally speak simple German by simply putting on the accent. ‘Here is my book’, for instance, or ‘Give me a drink’ sound much the same in either language but, to impress, you need to get into the loftier expressions, such as die Gelegenheit or die verdruckte Königin.

When I speak German, my voice drops an octave and I become, briefly, in Kate’s eyes, masterful and authoritative. I avoid streichholzschachtel, or matchbox, which is so hard to pronounce that it was used to unmask British spies during the Second World War.

Not that we mentioned that; the immediate and obvious subject of discussion was the dogs, released from their cages after an eight-hour drive involving the Channel Tunnel.

Prussian golden retrievers are doubly obedient. Far from streaking off after the local fauna, they merely inched politely forwards onto the tailgate and lay there with crossed paws and raised noses, wearing a look of intelligent interest. They were more like beautiful professors of Hegelian dialectic than actual dogs.

Golden retriever

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When I met the last visiting couple on the drive, I explained that their friends had arrived already and that there was cider down at the house.

‘Cider!’ Their faces lit up. Only the next day did they sheepishly admit that they had thought I’d meant Holway Cider, a champion golden retriever of legendary renown. Irish, Belgian, American, Norwegian, French – even the Japanese were here for The Golden Retriever Club’s jamboree on the Ilchester estate, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of a breed founded by the 5th Earl.

I went along – I couldn’t resist. It was a glorious day: the dogs and England looked beautiful. Over hill and dale, goldens retrieved canvas pads, called dummies, to whistled instructions.

‘Can’t you call to them?’ I asked my Swiss friend.

‘Nein, nein. Das zählt als Noisy Handling,’ he explained. To the dog, he said: ‘Sit!’

A new thought occurred to me. ‘Do your dogs speak English?’

‘A little.’

A steward frowned as I approached the lake. Her job was to stop the trainers seeing the dummy hidden on the water. ‘You’re not married to a competitor, are you?’

‘No, no. I only have lurchers. And a poodle.’

‘Lurchers,’ she said cheerfully. ‘Very common.’

Another dog slid into the water. Goldens scent higher than labradors so the water test is pretty hard – their eyes, after all, are only an inch above the surface. ‘It’s all good training,’ another German lady said. ‘It’s the first time my bitch has ever seen a hill.’

Everyone agreed that the 6th Earl had given the most authoritative account of the breed in a 1952 article in Country Life, which squashed an insidious rumour. ‘The belief a Russian dog originated the strain is not borne out by dates,’ the earl wrote. Instead, the first so-called yellow retriever was Ada, sired by a dog called Nous, bought from a Brighton cobbler.

Our day ended with a special pilgrimage to Ada’s grave in the animal cemetery below the big house. Within moments, 10 golden retrievers had formed a dutiful line around her tombstone: Ada With The Golden Hair. Everyone took the picture.

‘Nous,’ I told the club secretary, ‘means wisdom, in Greek.’ She was delighted.

‘Nous,’ I added, ‘was the name of Plato’s cat.’ I think it put me on a momentary par with the Germans.

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