It's 6pm on Hampstead Heath, LondonNW3. Three tubular kites are gaily flying on Parliament Hill, watched by an entranced baby in the arms of its father, a well-built athlete showing off his physique in grey cotton swimming trunks. The flattering late sun casts its benign marmalade glow on the joggers disappearing through a gap in the bushes leading to Hampstead ponds with their little regatta of sailing boats. The tennis courts are full of gaspingly focussed servers and volleyers. A Mr Whippy van patrols the perimeter discreetly, as if embarrassed to bring down the tone of this august neighbourhood.
Some of the walkers are taking a shortcut from the station to Highgate, past the furtive nudists in and around the Bathing Ponds' all are bathed in the serenity of this park, with its alternations of decorously classical landscape and romantically bosky foliage. Strolling west to Spaniards Road, one can just about imagine the days in the 1800s when the romantic poets Keats, Shelley and Byron used to call on their pal Leigh Hunt in the Vale of Health and envy his immersion in this tranquil rus in urbe.
Only it's not quite so tranquil around here any more. A ghastly spectre is haunting London NW3, and specifically the sainted Heath. It's a dog. In fact, judging by the headline on the hoarding advertising the Hampstead & Highgate Express ("Horror of Heath's Killer Dogs") it may be a number of dogs, all of which co- incidentally resemble a Staffordshire bull terrier. But after a recent spate of attacks in the park, local dog owners are on red alert.
Hampstead Heath is the key dog-walking patch of greensward in north London. Having a maverick, feral, Baskervillean poochkiller on the loose is likely to pitch this highly strung community into a frenzy of concern. And along with the "Beware of the Dog" signs that local people now carry around in their heads is a secondary concern, something more socially inflammatory, something more deep rooted and class based and fearful.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Come back with me to lunchtime of 10 April, when a girl of 14 called Tiffany Georgallides was taking her tiny Yorkshire terrier, Paris, for a walk. Near the ladies' bathing Pond, she saw a Staffordshire bull terrier apparently in the care of a middle-aged woman and two children.
Hardly had she had a chance to establish that the Staffordshire was roaming off its lead when the animal jumped at Paris, sank its teeth into her neck and shook her from side to side like a rag doll. The distraught child and the terrier's owner tried to separate the dogs, but poor Tiffany had to watch as her Yorkshire expired in front of her eyes and the mysterious woman took herself and the children off without so much as an apology. Tiffany's mother, Kalliopy - who, with her husband Malcolm, runs the Nozomi Japanese restaurant in Beauchamp Place, Knights-bridge - called on owners to control their dogs. "We don't want it to happen anywhere else," she said, "No one is saying all Staffordshires should be put down. Just be responsible' muzzle it, leash it and be aware."
It was a small, localised tragedy. But when the Ham & High reported it, calling for witnesses and confirming that police were investigating, a hiss of bush telegraph spread across the canophileclasses. The owner of aminischnauzer reported that it had been attacked by a "brown or white" Staffordshire, whose owner had "made no attempt to intervene". Another witness reported a similar brute attacking swans. A labrador owner rang in, aghast about the "powerful white dog" that had viciously mauled her pet. A City of London spokeswoman confirmed other attacks on small dogs. In a classic piece of small-town bitchery, local members of the Dog Watch organisation murmured that they knew who was responsible: and that the dog's name was Max.
Alarmist articles appeared in the local papers …