Country diary: a stone dog marked by time and tides | Environment

Even before the stonemason struck soft rock with hard metal for the first time, he must have known that he was destined for imperfection. Three hundred years later, the evidence was plain to see on an animal sitting on the terrace of the big house, haughty, imperious and mildly deformed.

The mason had chiselled a block of sediment from an ancient sea into a guard dog of the land. The sculpture was well executed – the claws on the beast’s forepaws overlapped the plinth, making a pleasing break to the block’s rectangularity. A loop of its tail coiled daringly beyond the straight edge.

Its mouth was set in a permanent snarl, growling all the way down the manicured lawn to a baroque pavilion. The dog was impressive from a few metres away; close up it was simply fascinating.

The honeycomb surface of the light stone might have given a good approximation of an animal’s leathery hide, were it not for countless blemishes. Every feature of the dog was pitted and scarred with marine fossils. Its belly wore the scar of an oyster; its feet, studded with pieces of broken shell, had the texture of woodchip paper. Even its genitals were cankered.

2000 - Country diary: a stone dog marked by time and tides | Environment

Paw of the dog in Wrest Park, a country estate in Silsoe, Bedfordshire. Photograph: Sarah Niemann

The dog was slavering at the mouth, threads of spider’s web drooling like spit. There was a full web inside, strung out and anchored to its teeth. A little down the animal’s throat, a cavern less than a centimetre across was the lair of a tiny spider. When I leaned forward it scuttled back into its sentry box. There was another animal on the move down the dog’s chest – a black springtail barely a millimetre in length pattering along at an even pace.

On the plinth, and down the dog’s back, nature was painting the future and it appeared – to the organisation’s credit – that English Heritage was letting it do so. Spots of lichen were spreading into blotches. Yellow patches coloured its shoulders and all down its spine. A sooty black lichen had begun to speckle its haunches, turning the dog slowly and inexorably into a dalmatian.

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