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Cowper's Hares
Weston Lodge, Western Underwood

Emerging from the realms of slumber, there’s perhaps no deeper bliss than to sense the encroaching warmth of one’s beloved, snuggling up with expectant longing. Yep, that flippin’ dog’s sneaked back on the bed again. But the hierarchy must be maintained, and so it’s no to pooch power, and definitely no to walkies, since not only is it pouring with rain, but the temperature is such that even brass monkeys are applying to emigrate. In fact for a moment it’s debateable whether dogs really are man’s best friend, but then of course they are, and no where was this more locally apparent than for William Cowper, the inspired but melancholic poet of Olney. Having arrived in the town in 1767, as a therapy for his malaise he found the keeping of animals, and the building of their hutches, of great value, and at various times at his home at Orchard Side he would accommodate a veritable menagerie, to include a tortoise shell kitten called Mungo, squirrels, canaries, guinea pigs, jackdaws, doves, gold finches and - of especial affection - a spaniel named Beau, whom he immortalised in the poem ‘The dog and the water lily.’ Towards the end of one depressive bout, William had been given a leveret (a young hare) by a neighbour, whose children had been less than diligent in the animal’s welfare, and soon William became the potential recipient of many more baby hares! However, he accepted just three - Bess, Puss and Tiney - and indeed their antics would prove extremely beneficial, for ‘Management of such an animal was just the sort of employment my case required.’ Especially the surly Tiney, for ‘I kept him for his humour’s sake, For he would oft beguile, My heart of thought that made it ache, And force me to a smile.’ Yet on one occasion Tiney made a bid for freedom, and, having lead his pursuers a merry chase, had to be rescued from a local tan yard pit - by his ears! Eventually William and his long term companion, Mrs. Unwin, would move to Weston Lodge, in the village of Weston Underwood, and here one of their favourite walks would be in a secluded, overgrown spot known as the Wilderness. This lay within the Park, attached to the Manor Grounds, and upon an ornamental urn would be inscribed the following verse, composed by William at the request of his friend, Lady Throckmorton, in memory of her spaniel, Fop;

‘Ye squirrels, rabbits, leverets rejoice,
Your haunts no longer echo to his voice
This record of his fate exalting view,
He died, worn out with vain pursuit of you.’

In view of his affinity for animals, no doubt William would have been pleased that in a later century the area was to become part of the Flamingo Gardens and Zoological Park, which, established around 1960 by Christopher Marler, included several rare breeds amongst the two hundred or so species, and sub species. Sadly this no longer exists, although supposedly a legacy still remains in the form of several escaped wallabies, who, it seems, are glimpsed quite regularly in the local countryside. So if anyone says that they’ve seen a wannabe kangaroo bouncing about, don’t tell them to hop off, for it might just be true.