TAXIDERMY FOR WANDERING WILLIE
Dogs have a way of looking at you. It’s possibly more about you than them, as trying to distinguish human characteristics in an animal’s expression is a pretty difficult task. We are breeds apart.
For example, Wandering Willie, a Border Collie, looks a bit sorry for himself, while a whippet called Jake’s Bonny Mary simply stares in a haughty manner – condescending, even. Then when you realise that both have artificial glass eyes it makes you think twice about considering canine emotions in the first place.
Wandering Willie is the star attraction at The Turk’s Head – dubbed The Stuffed Dog – in Tynemouth, Tyne & Wear, though the traditional main street pub’s beer offer, its comfort, tidiness and friendly approach also vie for that top spot. Willie is/was a sheepdog now immortalised in song and stage who takes pride of place in a glass case in the public bar.
Similarly, Jake’s Bonny Mary surveys bar-room customers in a self-aggrandising posture from her wall-mounted glass case at the Sun Inn, Beamish Museum, County Durham. And so a champion whippet should.
According to Willie’s accompanying citation, one day in 1873 he and his master were driving a flock from the Cheviot Hills to North Shields when the sheep, frightened by the noise of the town, scattered in all directions. While rounding them up, Willie got separated from his master and by the time he returned to the quayside where they had been loaded on board a ship, the shepherd had gone. Inconsolable, the dog remained on the spot for months, refusing to allow anyone near him, existing on scraps of food thrown by passers-by. Eventually, almost starved to death, he was taken on to the Shields ferry and thrown overboard to put him out of his misery.
However, he scrambled ashore on the other side of the Tyne and for months went back and forth on the ferry in the hope of finding his master. The story goes that about a year later the shepherd returned to North Shields but missed the dog by a few minutes. Willie finally died in 1880 and his body was preserved and mounted by the brewers who then owned The Turk’s Head (named, incidentally, after a mariners’ knot that resembles a turban).
Elsewhere, in The Sun Inn, among the pre World War I paraphernalia (Beamish Museum is dedicated to life in 1913), a portrait of jockey Fred Archer peers across the bar at a pose struck by bareknuckle boxing champion Tom Sawyer, a ten-stone-ten bricklayer who would fight anybody at any weight.
Stags’ heads, stuffed birds and huge advertising mirrors follow a similar framed-in-time theme. And there, above a door, stands Jake’s Bonny Mary. Apparently she won nine handicaps in races as far apart as Benwell in Newcastle, Carlisle, West Stanley (County Durham) and Cowdenbeath in Fife, so when you think about it, by hawking her around far-flung racetracks, her owners certainly knew a thing or two about stuffing rivals.
We can never look Mary or Willie in the eye without recalling the tale of the elderly lady whose two adored pet monkeys died on the same day. She called a taxidermist for advice on preserving them.
‘Do you want them mounted?’ he asked. ‘No.’ she replied. ‘Just holding hands would be nice.’