Notes on...

Beautiful, wilful, never dull: in praise of Clumber spaniels

Clumbers require careful handling, but you lose your heart easily to them

7 May 2016

9:00 AM

7 May 2016

9:00 AM

For the first time in more than 30 years we have no Clumber spaniel. We have had five: Henry, Judith, Laurie, Persephone and Wattie. The last of them, Wattie the gentlest and sweetest of dogs, died a few months ago. We feel bereft. Clumbers are special: beautiful, affectionate, wilful, sometimes difficult, never dull.

They take their name from Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire, once the seat of the Dukes of Newcastle. Different in appearance from other English spaniels — heavier, low-slung, with large sagacious heads — their origin is uncertain. According to one story, they came from France, being a gift from a French friend, the Duc de Noailles, to his fellow duke. In a pleasingly romantic version of the tale, the French duke sent his kennel of spaniels to England for safe keeping at the time of the Revolution. This is a charming idea — so much so that I have often happily repeated the story, proclaiming its authenticity — but even setting aside the unlikelihood of a French aristo having more regard for his spaniels than his own neck during the Terror, it seems to be a myth, unsupported by evidence. It is more likely that Clumbers emerged from selective breeding of other spaniel types, with perhaps an admixture of some short-legged hound. Certainly the Clumber’s head is quite hound-like, sometimes as melancholy-seeming as a bloodhound’s. In 18th and early 19th century paintings, the Clumber’s head is more like a springer’s than it is now.

Be that as it may, these white spaniels with lemon or orange markings were worked at Clumber Park and other estates in the Midlands, their build and determination making them adept at pushing through undergrowth. Later George V had a kennel of Clumbers at Sandringham. It was said that the King’s ‘predilection’ for the breed was ‘largely attributable to their special suitability for the covert shooting in which His Majesty delights and to the fact the Clumber, almost alone of shooting dogs, can be worked in packs’. Indeed Clumbers were prized for their ability to work in concert as a team, and this has always puzzled me, because each of our Clumbers has been markedly individual, and by no means notable for team spirit.

So absent was it that if we gave Laurie, Persephone and Wattie each a hide-chew, it wouldn’t be ten minutes before Persephone had acquired all three. Her passion was digging, though we never knew what she hoped to unearth. I think she dug simply for the joy of digging; art for art’s sake. Laurie’s favourite game was to pounce on an open dishwasher and remove a piece of cutlery. He was, sometimes, a difficult dog, with a will of iron; I adored him. He loved seizing things, once attempting to remove the cloth from a table set for Christmas dinner, on another occasion grabbing the rug that covered a sofa on which my wife was sitting and dragging the sofa, my wife still on it, across the room. Clumbers indeed are not dogs for everyone, certainly not for anyone who is house-proud, for they shed their hair freely. They require careful handling, but you lose your heart easily to them; as puppies they look like bear cubs. The adult Clumber is the king of spaniels; ours is a sad house without one.

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  • Jeremy Poynton

    Yes but – all the Spaniels I have know smell dreadful when wet. Are they the same?

  • Radford_NG

    I’ve been trying to think where I’ve seen this mournful image before.
    Isn’t it in a movie cartoon where the dog is a US sheriff (or maybe a Canadian Mountie) who movers doggedly along to always be ahead of the villain ?

    • Ade

      Droopy? Deputy Dawg?

  • #toryscum

    Labradors are born half trained, spaniels die half trained

  • PaD

    Moving and informative.
    Sorry to hear of your loss.