In his new book Steve Jamieson reveals the special bond he shared with the 14-stone Newfoundland dog which saved three lives while on patrol at Cornwall’s Sennen beach.
The 14-stone Newfoundland dog Bilbo saved three lives while on patrol at Cornwall’s Sennen beach
For 11 years, retired lifeguard Steve Jamieson and his beloved, 14st Newfoundland dog Bilbo were local celebrities in Cornwall. The pair were inseparable and as integral to any day at the picturesque seaside spot of Sennen Cove as ice cream and surf.
For five of their years together, Bilbo even worked alongside Steve as the UK’s only trained lifeguard dog, and became a familiar sight riding pillion on his owner’s quad bike. Tourists from as far away as America and Australia flocked to see the glossy haired dog, clamouring to have a photo taken with him.
So when Bilbo died in May last year, an ‘“old man” at 12, unsurprisingly the sad news was reported around the globe.
Eager that his four-legged friend should never be forgotten, Steve has now written a book in tribute to him, which is released this month. “The amount of love I had for Bilbo and the devastation I felt when he died was something I’ve barely been able to cope with at times,” confides Steve, 64, unable to contain his emotions.
They first met in August 2003 when Steve’s boss bought Bilbo as a puppy and showed off his new arrival at the lifeguard depot one day. “He was only 14 weeks old and was the cutest thing I’d ever seen with the most beautiful amber eyes,” Steve remembers.
“He was hilarious to watch, sliding on the floor excitedly and crashing into furniture. He rushed over to me and when I picked him up he was just like a complete ball of energy. After that, whenever he came to the depot he’d come to me, snuffling and waggling his whole body. He and I connected right from the start but I certainly wasn’t expecting to fall in love with him.
“I liked him, but that was as far as it went – or so I thought.”
That all changed one day in spring 2004 when Steve nipped to his boss’s house to deliver some paperwork and discovered Bilbo home alone, wandering sadly around the garden. Though they hadn’t seen each other for months, the dog remembered Steve and, clearly lonely, tried to climb over the fence to get to him.
Their bond was cemented when Steve suggested helping look after Bilbo, walking him when his boss and his partner were out at work. But before long they called Steve with a burning question: would he be interested in having the dog full time? “My heart leapt,” recalls Steve.
“But I insisted that if I was going to take him on it was on the condition that he was with me all the time, which meant on the beach during the summer and at the office in the winter. He was a year old by the time I got him. I promised Bilbo that I would never leave him and I never did. He was with me 24 hours a day.”
Steve hadn’t planned on his four-legged pal actually becoming an honorary lifeguard but the dog showed such aptitude that he became his protégé.
“I trained him to use the kit that any surf lifeguard would use, including a float called a Peterson tube that I’d attach to him with a two-metre line. I taught him to swim around a casualty, drawing the tube close to them so that they could grab it, and as soon as he felt their weight on it that was his signal to turn and swim back to me on the beach where I would be whistling and shouting instructions.
“We never used Bilbo to execute rescues when there were lifeguards there because if it went wrong we’d have been slaughtered.
“But he was an instinctive dog and if he thought children were playing too close to the sea when there was a swell, he’d stand between them and the water barking while I went to alert their parents.”
Bilbo was also a great asset when it came to educating children about beach safety
Bilbo had to pass fitness and swimming tests before he could join Steve on patrol on the beach at Sennen Cove and was credited with helping to save three lives. “Everywhere we went people would fall over themselves to get photos with him and stroke him,” adds Steve.
He’d worked as a lifeguard for over 20 years and quickly realised Bilbo could be the greatest asset they’d ever had when it came to educating children about beach safety. "Before I had Bilbo, I’d do talks in schools and the kids would sit there poking each other and not paying any attention to me. But with Bilbo by my side they were captivated.
“I once hosted a whole assembly at a junior school in Truro and afterwards the head teacher came to me and said he’d never seen 300 children sit and listen like that.”
Sadly, not everyone was so enchanted. In May 2008 the organisation that had recently taken over the running of the beach from the local council decided Bilbo’s services were no longer required. Steve was outraged, as were several thousand people who signed a petition titled Keep Bilbo On The Beach but to no avail.
“In the end I had to resign because it all got too much. I was fighting a huge corporate machine that was never going to give in,” says Steve. “We came as a package so if they didn’t want Bilbo then I couldn’t carry on either. My whole life just vanished in the space of about six months but you’ve got to take it on the chin. He was my best pal and my life revolved around him. We didn’t really go to the beach after that because it was a bit upsetting for me to go back.
Steve said Bilbo 'was a phenomenon' that he 'could never replace'
“At the time we lived in a wooden hut on the cliff side above the beach so we used to spend our time there relaxing in the shade, playing in the stream and walking. It was fantastic. Bilbo never really played with toys, he just liked being with me and grew increasingly clingy with age. Like most dogs he adored food and would salivate at the smell of roast chicken, and loved to eat vanilla ice cream from a spoon. People used to come to Cornwall just to see Bilbo, so the tourist industry really benefited from him too and he is greatly missed locally.”
There is talk of raising funds for a bronze statue of Bilbo on the Jubilee Lido in Penzance as a further tribute to Steve’s famous dog. “I miss him desperately, and sometimes it overwhelms me,” adds Steve, who keeps Bilbo’s ashes – all 40lbs of them – with him constantly.
“He was a phenomenon I could never replace. There’s no question he had the best life any dog possibly could, and I take some comfort from that when I’m feeling sad.”
To order: Bilbo The Lifeguard Dog: A True Story Of Friendship And Heroism by Steven Jamieson (£9.99, Pan Macmillan) call the Express Bookshop with your card details on 01872 562310 or send a cheque to: Bilbo Offer, PO Box 200, Falmouth, Cornwall, TR11 4WJ or visit expressbookshop.co.uk