You often hear people say that there’s no community any more, but Fiona Taylor, founder of Walking in the Woods, a dog lovers’ WhatsApp group, is passionate to tell another side of that story, writes Michael Holland.
Fiona’s love of animals has been part of her life forever. She swears she vividly remembers seeing her first ‘dog, cat, donkey, fish and pigeon.’ She also spent many years from the age of 7 helping out in Surrey Docks Farm: ‘I used to feed the chickens, milk the goats, groom the horses…’
The idea for the group began while walking her Old-Fashioned Basset Hound, Banjo, round Russia Dock Woodland where she got to know several other dog owners through conversations being struck up about each other’s pets. ‘I was quite isolated at the time, caring for my mum with dementia, so meeting people was good for me,’ she remembers. ‘But bumping into these new friends in the woodland was a bit hit and miss, though, and I knew some of them didn’t like walking alone in the dark winter months, so I suggested a WhatsApp group so we could stay in touch and all meet at the same time.’
Fiona, the Outreach & Pastoral Support for The Open Book Project at Goldsmiths University, started the group 5 years ago, initially for friendship between the six founding members who could meet up at the field at the heart of the woods. Consequently, whenever Fiona saw other dog owners she would ask if they would like to join the group. Numbers quickly rose. At the last count there were 92 members, plus their partners, with some former locals now living in China and Hawaii who still keep in contact.
Members now call themselves the Six o’clock Club, as that is the time they usually congregate before setting off down the many paths that criss-cross the woodlands. On a normal day the group’s communication would include local conservation news, photos celebrating the birth of cygnets and chicks, and invites to parties: ‘We’ve had birthday parties for dogs and people on the field,’ Fiona declares as if it was the most normal thing in the world. ‘One member set up an agility event for dogs, jumping over hurdles, and through hoops, that kind of thing… Banjo was just interested in the food table,’ she adds.
And local crime alerts: “After a spate of muggings by kids on mopeds, members would post news of sightings of potential robbers to alert others to be careful in certain areas – Plus, with the moped gangs, if your dog was off its lead it could get run over.’
An added benefit for members was that if owners and dogs were together the dogs were less likely to run off to chase a fox or a scent. ‘This was a common problem,’ she begins. ‘but if a dog ran away we could quickly put a photo up to the members, who would look out for it and get it back to its owner.’ Fiona told of many instances of lost dogs being reunited.
‘Another reason why I wanted to start the group was because I kept hearing people say “there’s no community any more”, but there is community, the dog-walking community is very friendly and very helpful, it’s people saying hello to one another, which is great.’ That initial idea has now evolved into something bigger, the members are a force in local housing issues and building projects that encroach too heavily on the woodlands. ‘Information will be shared to the group about when meetings are on and what they can do in order to fight against new developments… Many members lobbied against a tower block going up, and it wasn’t built,’ she says with a smile before listing other achievements the group has been involved in, such as a shelter to honour Bobby Honeyman who loved being out with his pet but would always go home if it rained. ‘He always said that it would be nice to have somewhere to sit if it rained, so when he died a local man, Steve Cornish, raised funds to have something built by volunteers; now we have Bob’s Shed.’ Fiona explained how the group helps each other with canine health advice: ‘Our members have a wealth of experience and can save someone a lot of money in vet’s fees. People post the symptoms their dog is showing and others will chip in with remedies that won’t cost them a fortune.’
There is also a social side to the group. ‘Some of us meet at dog-friendly pubs, we go out for dinner (without our dogs), we have a night out at Christmas, and I know how good it is for making friends… To be honest I don’t know what I would’ve done without them when my mum passed away; being out there with other people just watching the dogs playing together takes you away from all your problems and sadness.’ Banjo’s owner then emphasised the benefits of the group for those who feel lonely or isolated: ‘It is a sharing, caring community whose main aim is to come together to do loving things with animals and help others, and that to me is really important.’
The Walking in the Woods group is a diverse clan. ‘It’s amazing the different kinds of people who are in it now,’ she says to change the mood: ‘Roofers, fish market porters, an opera singer, children’s nannies, project managers, office workers, teachers, keep fit instructors, TV producers, journalists, gardeners, all walks of life and all ages.’
What about the future of the group. ‘You have the little kids with their parents who have formed their own WhatsApp group and hang around together, so they will be the next generation – I really love that.’ Fiona was on a roll now. ‘And then there was a mini-group of local kids who were scared of dogs, so some members arranged to talk to them about dogs and dog behaviour to try to take the fear away by showing how to approach dogs, how to handle them, the signs to look for in a dog to see its mood,’ she says excitedly. ‘And now they all hang out with us and they ain’t even got dogs!’
It was time for Banjo’s walk and while Fiona was putting his lead on she told me she buys him the best ham from the Plough Way Deli and pie & mash from the Blue. I felt jealous and hungry. Banjo was also on Jo Good’s Barking Hour radio programme: ‘He’s the only dog that’s ever been in her studio, and he got in because he’s a therapy dog who is on the staff at Goldsmiths in his role of helping people from challenging backgrounds with stress problems.’
I gave Banjo a stroke as they left to go to walkies, and actually felt better.
For anyone interested in joining Walking in the Woods they should go to the field in Russia Dock Woodlands at 6pm where they will be sure to find someone to help them.