Mad dog and Englishman

School outings aren't what they used to be. David Thomas (below) reminisces as he takes a four-legged friend on an educational tour

In semi-retirement, I was gently dozing in the mid-summer sunshine and my mind drifted back to those long-gone days when, if the sun shone, you'd drop everything and head off down the lanes for a nature walk. This was, of course, the era of Hesse sum books and Unstead history books (bliss). There was no national curriculum science but you did go out on nature walks about three times a year. Before any such venture these days you'd have a plethora of restrictions and guidelines to consult first. Then you'd need six assistants, a mobile phone and a first aid kit. All for a walk down the lane to where the buttercups grow.

I do a bit of supply work now, and on my days off I head off down to the canal with my scottie dog, where we wander along and I tell him all about the things we see. A scottie is the perfect dog for a nature walk. If you want a dog that bounds and leaps, runs and chases, dives about and never wears itself out, a scottie is not for you. But if you want a dog that wears itself out doing nothing, that plods along like an old man before its time, which abruptly sits on its haunches and refuses to budge, the scottie is the dog of your dreams.

Mine is called Scamper, but Saunter would have been a better name, as scamper is what it does least. It's an hour from front door and back again and the first obstacle comes in about 200 yards. At the end of a row of cottages (these used to be for farm labourers, I tell him) live the wild bunch. These are two sheepdogs that patrol the field and live in the end house. Like all sheepdogs, their sole aim is to round up and herd along anything that comes their way. Thirty kids would be ideal, but now they make do with mutt and me. Having escaped them, we turn right at the bottom of the hill and take the old industrial flagged road down to the ancient canalside industrial remains.

History is my thing, and my mouth waters at the prospect of telling Scamper all about our industrial past. We usually feed the two old ponies, Ned and Giddyup, in the field nearby. Imagine the front page headlines and the accident reports you'd have to fill in if you let a kid do this and the pony nipped off a couple of fingers.

From here, it's across the canal by the old swing bridge. On a lucky day, a barge will be coming through. There's a mill owner's house down here converted into a trendy des res. Two elephant-sized rottweilers, Dervish and Slobber, who live in a compound surrounded by 8ft fencing, guard this place. As a general rule, they go berserk as we pass by. If they could climb, they'd be out. Thirty kids would keep them well fed for a fortnight.

Along the quiet stretch of water there are all manner of birds and waterfowl to tell him about. Ponies and goats wander down to the water's edge on the other side. There are a few renovated cottages and boat workers' houses. Brightly-coloured barges nudge their way along from the marina just round the corner.

Some days we've seen the deer that wander about in the woods and clearings. They belonged to a farmer who decided the way out of debt was to start a venison business. His debts got bigger; he went bankrupt and let all the deer run loose. They flourish quite happily.

We leave the canal a little further on and cross back over via the perfect stone bridge, which, in the right conditions, makes a wonderful circular reflection in the water. My dog is the only one in Leeds that can spell reflection and refraction. He'd get level 4 SATs easily. Turn right and we're into thickets and narrow pathways - this is fox country, and we usually see one. This time there's a pair sloping off up the lane. Heaps of pigeon feathers are scattered around. (Now then, Scamper, can you tell me what else foxes eat?) Mutt starts to pull on the lead a bit further on. He knows our friend Cynth lives at the top of the hill, where he always gets a biscuit if we call. If we had 30 kids with us she's the sort of person who'd be out with 30 glasses of lemonade and biscuits all round. We call it the house of 100 cats. There aren't actually 100 but it looks and feels like it, as they drape themselves all over the place. They're all indolent things and cost a fortune in vet's bills. (If one cat was poorly and the vet charged pound;25 for a visit, how much would he charge for five?) Cynth has a hen called Cluck. Cluck doesn't know it's a hen and thinks it's a human and tries to live in the conservatory. It is a little disconcerting, the first time, to see a hen sitting on the sofa. (Now then children, write me a story about a hen called Cluck.) Not far from home now and we are back on the main road. (Check risk and danger assessment notes here.) And so we return home. If this was indeed a school nature walk (circa 1960) we'd be busy writing about it and talking about it for the rest of the week. If you knew the day before that the weather was going to be good, you'd have the children bring a picnic, walk a bit further and sit by the locks. While you ate you'd watch the boats, chat, lob bread to the ducks and maybe even do a bit of sketching.

If I remember rightly these were the days when the sun always shone, it never rained, children said "please" and "thank you", parents were deferential and respectful, and my glasses were rose-coloured. But as the dog always says: "Do I have to write about it, Sir?"

David Thomas is a retired primary head. He lives in Leeds

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