It was February 2008, and I was walking along the banks of the River Arun, East Sussex.
The path was on top of an embankment which in turn followed the course of the river. There was a large herd of Jersey Cows in the field next to the embankment. Three of them were on it, blocking my way. So I avoided them by looping around them, going down the slope of the embankment and coming up.
As I came back up the slope to rejoin the path, I glanced around and one of the animals was giving me something of an ‘evil eye’. If I could describe this look, it was the look of someone whom I owed money. Not a nice look. But I dismissed this sense of apprehension. I grew up in Somerset and walked through fields of cows umpteen times without much ado.
But I had a bad feeling about this cow, and I was about to have that sense of foreboding vindicated.
As I got back on the flat top of the embankment, I heard a sound and saw that cow was charging me, head down, with only several meters of distance the between me and it – closing fast.
Outrunning it was out of the question. I think I said something like ‘Sh*t!’, but I reacted quickly. I swung at it with my day sack and yelled cusses, which deflected its charge. That reaction may have saved me from serious injury, or worse, because there was no way I was going to stop it by saying ‘nice cow’ in a gentle voice.
It came for me again, and I deflected it a second time, swinging with my bag. And then a third, I think. I can’t remember.
However many times it was, I was now off the embankment and down onto the flat plain next to the river. I was conscious that the ground was soggy and damp, and I was thinking two things. First, I might be driven into the river – bad news, as I cannot swim. Second, the entire herd might join the attack, in which case I knew I was really in for it. But, for some reason, the others carried on grazing indifferently during the whole incident. Just as well.
For around five minutes, there was a kind of stand-off between me and the cow – it clearly wanted to charge me down, but my aggressive response was deterring it.
Escape was problematic. I needed to get back up that embankment and out of the field but I could hardly do that while I had a 1000kg of meat, fat and bone wanting to trample me into the mud, blocking my escape.
I picked up some stray pole which, happily, was lying at my feet, and started trying to lunge at the cow’s eye. I was beginning to get a bit desperate and panic was starting to rise. The confrontation finally ended when I yelled ‘F*ck off!’ with as much vehemence as I could muster. That did the trick. The cow turned tail and ran off.
Relieved, I dropped the pole and then made my way along the sticky mud to the stile – about a 100 meters distant. Phew!
As I cleared the stile, I saw two young women on the path, more or less on the same spot where I had just been attacked. I was tempted to yell a warning to them but, as they were walking unmolested, I thought better of it. They would have thought some lunatic was harassing them. I was still stunned by the experience and could scarcely believed what had just happened.
That incident was toward the end of the walk and I jumped on a train at Arundel, back to London, shortly thereafter. As I looked out of the window at the very embankment where I had just had this drama, I reflected on my experience, a very unsettling one.
I told work colleagues the story. The episode was so ridiculous that the it made a great anecdote to tell people down the pub. Given the whole point of the walk was to walk off a hangover from an evening of alcoholic excess the night before, the whole thing was quite comical, from one perspective. But I was not laughing at the time. I nearly ended up with something a lot worse than a hangover!
Reflections after the attack
Since then, I have been on loads and loads of country walks and there have been occasions when I have had to walk through herds of cattle, which have always been tense experiences. It’s not always possible to avoid them – not on places like the South West Coast Path, for instance, unless the advice is to clamber down a cliff and then clamber back up to get around them.
This was a strange incident. None of the triggers one normally associates with these attacks was there. There were no calves. I had no dog. Yet it happened anyway. I never thought of reporting it and I regret doing that. If the experience is ever repeated, I certainly would. But I am in no hurry to go through anything like that again.
I have used humour to lighten the story as that is my way of coping. I do not want to give the impression that I felt amused at the time. Not at all. When it was happening, I was scared and, at one point, very scared.
Still, the compensations of country walking are too great to give it up on account of this one ‘cowfrontation’. But when I so much as see a dried cow pat in the field, I think that there could be trouble if I am not careful. I make sure I walk with the bag slung around my shoulder … ready to do battle.