Who was the Countryman?


The Countryman was my dad, Peter N Walker (aka Nicholas Rhea), who died on 21st April 2017 from prostate cancer.

He was a full-time writer for more than 35 years, and before that, wrote in his spare time from his job as a policeman. He wrote stories based on his experiences and they were turned into the hugely successful TV series Heartbeat. But he also wrote much more, including crime novels, detective novels, short stories, local history books, collections of folk stories and tales, and also columns for local papers.

When he was younger, he used to read the Countryman’s Diary in the Darlington and Stockton Times by a well-known writer and local history expert, Major John Fairfax-Blakeborough. The Major had always been an inspiration and source of encouragement to my dad, who dreamed of taking over his column, so when he passed away, Dad was thrilled to be invited to take over. He continued that column for 41 years, and another (Rural View) for around 30 years in the Malton Gazette and Herald. Despite his success, he had a huge sense of loyalty and would not give up the weekly columns, continuing right up until a couple of weeks before his death, although towards the end, they were a struggle for him.

After his death, I began to wonder what would happen to his columns, and felt it would be a shame for them to simply disappear after so many years. With support from my family, I called the editors of the papers who readily agreed to my taking them over, even though I don’t have Dad’s writing pedigree, nor his extensive knowledge of all things country and Yorkshire. But, as my brother pointed out, I do have access to my dad’s archive, 40-plus years’ worth of columns to draw upon.

So I decided to take each column from the same week 40 years ago and see what I could use to inspire my column for today. What I have found is not only a wealth of material, but that it is bringing back some memories that were long-since forgotten, memories of my dad, and of our family, of which he was so proud. And it feels like I am getting to know my dad in a way I never expected nor thought possible. It’s an honour to be able to do it and, step by step, week by week, it is helping me make my way along the long road of grief that his passing has left behind.

Sarah xxx

An egg-straordinary tale

My latest haul of fresh eggs from a roadside barrow
One of my regular stopping points for fresh eggs
The expensive canteen of cutlery that I ruined with silver dip 26 years ago before I had chance to use it
The effect of the silver dip on the knife blades can still be seen 26 years later

I came across a story in the news this week about a woman who has hatched ducks from eggs that she bought at the supermarket. After seeing a video on YouTube, Charli Lello, aged 29 from Hertfordshire, decided to incubate some Clarence Court duck eggs from Waitrose to see what happened.

After a month in the incubator, she was amazed to hear faint cheeping from inside the eggs and, sure enough, soon three little ducklings hatched. She has named them Beep, Meep and Peep, and is raising them alongside her chickens, explaining that as she’s on furlough she has the spare time to properly look after the demanding motherless babies.

It is such an amazing story because supermarket eggs are meant to be unfertilised, and therefore this shouldn’t happen. However I have discovered that this is not always the case, especially with eggs from the Braddock White duck, which is what Charli Lello bought. Normally, male and female ducks are kept separate, but if a drake does somehow manage to get in among the ladies, he is extremely difficult to spot because he looks exactly the same as the females.

I have mentioned before how much I love eggs, and that I eat them in some form most days. I would usually choose free range eggs from local shops that are produced on a largish scale by Yorkshire suppliers. During lockdown, however, I have found a number of places where fresh eggs are available to buy from roadside barrows and they are on another level of freshness and deliciousness. The shells seem thinner and easier to break, and the yolks are a vibrant orange-yellow that you don’t often get from supermarket eggs. The colour of the yolk depends on what the birds eat, so if its diet is rich in things like natural paprika and marigold, then you are likely to end up with a very robust colour.

When I took my dad’s 5th July 1980 column out of its folder to prepare for this column, a small cutting fell from between its folds. It featured a letter from a John Boulton from Leamington Spa who had written in response to an earlier column where dad had talked about the methods of cooking an egg (you might remember me referring to it back in March). Dad’s discussion had prompted a comment about the effect eggs have on silver and the fact that if you dip a silver spoon into an egg, it will be immediately tarnished with black stains.

This happens because silver reacts with sulphur and sulphur-containing compounds, such as eggs, and once a silver item is stained in this way, it is very difficult to restore it back to its previous glory. So, with that in mind, you would think you should not use silver cutlery at all when eating eggs.

However John Boulton pointed out that these compounds are soluble in hot water, so of all the ways of cooking eggs that my dad had listed, only poaching would bring the inside of the egg into contact with hot water. Therefore, rest assured, you can still use your silver cutlery to eat a poached egg. Well thank goodness for that, I hear you cry!

This reminds me of an embarrassing story concerning a very expensive canteen of cutlery that our parents gave us as a wedding gift. A few weeks after getting married, I decided to polish the cutlery in readiness for visitors that weekend.

As there were 60 separate pieces to clean, I decided to take a short-cut and use a silver dip where you put a special solution in a bowl, chuck in your cutlery and, hey presto, it comes out sparklingly clean.

Fifteen minutes in, I checked the cutlery and to my utter horror found that every single knife blade had gone black. Although I furiously tried to polish them, the solution had stripped the blades of their layer of silver plate and, worst of all, we hadn’t even had chance to use them yet! To this day, 26 years on, the damage can still be seen.

I’ll never forget what I said to my new husband when he came home later: “You know when we got married, and we vowed ‘For better, for worse’? Well this is our very first ‘for worse’ moment.”

It took him a while, but he did see the funny side. Eventually.

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 3rd July and the Gazette & Herald on 1st July 2020

Green, green grass of home

The rampant ryegrass in my garden that grows so fast you can almost see it happening 
Me and my sister Tricia in our back garden in the 1970s. Dad used to cut the grass with a Flymo hover mower that was notoriously difficult to start

The house I live in now has recently had an extension added on to the side. Because of the building work, the lawn was ruined, so my landlord re-seeded the garden in the hope of repairing the damage.

Over time, the new grass established itself and the hour came for its first cut. It had grown very long by then, so I was looking forward to having a garden that did not resemble a young cereal crop.

I was delighted once the lawn had been mown, as it was so much tidier, and much nicer to look at. A week went by, and I realised the grass needed cutting again as it was already almost back to the original length. I assumed that must be what happened with young grass that still hadn’t matured. So we duly did the job, and spent the next couple of days admiring our handiwork. But by day three, the grass had visibly grown several inches, and by day seven, it was over our ankles again. This continued to happen week after week.

I was mystified, and informed my landlord that whatever seed had been sown was growing so rapidly that I could almost see it happening. He was skeptical, thinking I was exaggerating. So when he announced he was coming back to do more work for a week, I mowed the lawn as short as I possibly could on the Monday and, when he arrived, said: ‘Just wait until Friday’.

Sure enough, by Friday the grass was ankle-deep again, and the landlord confessed that it wasn’t your everyday ‘domestic’ grass that he’d put down. Never one to pass up a bargain, he’d been offered the mysterious seed for free by a helpful farmer who had too much. At the time he didn’t know what it actually was, but I have now identified it as perennial ryegrass, which is ideal for hay, silage and grazing, but not so good for a domestic lawn (unless you happen to own sheep).

He apologised and pledged to replace it with a more manageable grass. However, that was at the end of last summer, and before he got round to it, the weather grew cooler, the growth slowed down and it became less of a problem. More recently though, our bionic grass has taken off again, but with the current situation as it is, it might be sometime before we get a ‘normal’ lawn.

Thankfully, I have invested in a rather swanky lawnmower which is powered by a rechargeable battery. That means no petrol and no annoying electric cable, so it is very easy to use. It has certainly earned its keep since this grass arrived though!

According to my dad in his column from 28th June 1980, the lawn mower is a relatively recent invention and was the brainchild of a Mr Edwin Budding in 1830. Mr Budding was an engineer in the weaving industry and was intrigued by a machine that was used to trim the cloth’s nap. The machine had a cutting cylinder with a bladed wheel that rendered the rough woven cloth smooth to the touch.

His engineering brain realised that it could be adapted to cut grass, and if it was mounted in a wheeled frame and rolled across the surface of a lawn, it would be far more efficient and provide a much more satisfactory result than using a scythe, hand shears, or sheep, which were the alternatives of the time. Although these original machines were very heavy, the design is remarkably similar to many of today’s models. Significant developments over the years included adding an engine which could be powered by either steam or petrol, and in the 1960s Flymo introduced the very popular rotary hover mower.

I remember my dad’s 1970s Flymo and the struggles of trying to start the thing by yanking violently on a pull cord. It would tease him by sounding like it was about to catch, only to then fade and threaten to cut out. So Dad would pull furiously on the cord again and again until, after much persistence, the unwilling mower would finally burst into ear-splitting life.

As he says in his column, “I have had plenty of practice starting my mower, and sometimes I wonder if it should be in a museum.”  Well, forty years on, I bet that it is!

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 26th June and the Gazette & Herald on 24th June 2020

Warding off oppression

The beautiful domed ceiling of the Bar Convent Chapel in York, still hidden from the outside by a plain slate roof. Picture: Frank Dwyer
Brave pioneer Mary Ward who fought for women’s rights in the 17th century

I have mentioned before that as my dad was a devout Catholic, we girls were educated at the Bar Convent in York. We were taught how important Mary Ward was in our school’s story, but to be honest, back then the teenage me didn’t really appreciate just what a brave pioneer she was.

She was born in Ripon in 1585 at a time when girls were not educated and it was extremely dangerous to be a practicing Catholic. She wasn’t afraid to stand up for what she believed in, a trait which ran in the family. Two of her maternal uncles, John and Christopher Wright, were shot in 1605 for their involvement in the Gunpowder Plot to overthrow Protestant King James I and his government.

Mary has been described as a ‘typical Yorkshire woman’, being straight-talking and determined, yet blessed with unshakeable good humour. Her faith meant everything to her, and although she wanted to be a nun, she hated the idea of having to live a quiet, contemplative life, which was the only option available. She sought the kind of existence enjoyed by her male counterparts which was serving God by travelling the world, teaching and spreading the faith. She entered an enclosed convent in Flanders but within a couple of years the charismatic Ward had gathered round her a supportive band of women and in 1609, at the tender age of 24, she established her own religious institution and began openly teaching local girls.

Her school was immediately popular, and over time Mary established schools and communities all over Europe. The Catholic establishment was outraged and declared her a heretic, and she was even imprisoned for nine weeks, and yet she remained undeterred. On her release, she secured an audience with the progressive Pope Urban VIII and her impassioned plea to allow nuns to practice the ministry in the open, and to educate girls, won him over. She was cleared of heresy and even allowed to set up a school in Rome itself.

Ill health brought Mary back to York in 1639, and she died in 1645. She left behind a band of followers eager to continue her legacy. Such a person was Frances Bedingfield, another very brave woman who in 1686 built a school on land just outside York city walls. It was still a very dangerous time to be a Catholic and the house was designed in such a way as to disguise the activities going on within. To blend in outside the convent, instead of wearing habits, the nuns wore plain grey dresses which were the fashion of the day. Nevertheless, the school was raided several times by the authorities, and Frances Bedingfield was even imprisoned for her actions.

The beautiful chapel that lies at the heart of what is now the Bar Convent Museum was built in 1769 at a time when Catholic places of worship were still illegal. Eight exits were included in the design should the congregation need to flee in a hurry, and its beautiful domed ceiling was hidden by a plain slate roof. From the outside, it was impossible to see that a chapel was there at all.

Another unique feature was a priest hole, hidden under the floor so that the celebrant could hastily conceal himself should it ever be necessary. The priest hole is still there and can be seen by visitors to the chapel.

Priest holes began to appear in the latter part of the 16th century when the penalty for shielding a Catholic priest was death, as my dad mentions in his column from 21st June 1980. It was an era when many great houses were built, extended or modernised, and wealthy Catholics seized the opportunity to incorporate secret hiding places behind walls, wooden panelling and even within the chimneys of their huge inglenook fireplaces.

There is a priest hole at Ripley Castle, near Harrogate, which has been home to the Catholic Ingilby family for the past 700 years, and yet it was so well concealed that it was only discovered in 1963 while the building was being inspected for death watch beetle.

I’d like to give the last word to the brave lady who sparked this piece, Mary Ward. She was several centuries ahead of her time when she declared in 1617: “I hope in God it will be seen that women in time will do much.”

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 19th June and the Gazette & Herald on 17th June 2020

A tale of two elephants

Maharajah Duleep Singh who lived at Mulgrave Castle for four years in the 1800s
The advert for the Lord John Sanger Circus in the Whitby Gazette in 1901
The front page of the Whitby Gazette from 7th June 1901

A recent email came from reader David Payne who mentioned that some friends of his ‘visited the school at Lythe and were able to view the school records and found therein mention over 100 years ago of an Indian maharajah who apparently was staying as a guest at Mulgrave Castle. The school records mention that this gentleman had brought with him his herd of elephants and it also mentioned that he regularly used to exercise them on the beach at Sandsend.’

Well of course, this had to be investigated, and I quickly found references to said maharajah, who did indeed live at Mulgrave Castle for some time. He was called Duleep Singh and was the last Maharajah of Lahore before the British annexed the Punjab in 1849. He pledged obedience to the British Empire, sealing his promise by handing over the famous koh-i-nor diamond to Queen Victoria. As a reward, he was given a pension equivalent to £40,000 a year, a huge sum.

He was exiled from India in 1854 and converted to Christianity, becoming a favourite among the British aristocracy, including the Queen herself. He leased Mulgrave Castle from the Marquess of Normanby in 1858 and lived up to his reputation for lavish parties and an extravagant lifestyle.

The story goes that the maharajah had brought his elephants with him from India, and would ride them on along the beach from Sandsend to Whitby. However, because the elephants didn’t like the sand rubbing between their toes, Duleep decided to build a road along the cliff top, making his trips to Whitby much easier.

However, there is little actual evidence to suggest that Duleep brought any elephants with him at all. I trawled through local newspapers from the time that he was at Mulgrave Castle (1858-1863), and although I found plenty of references to the maharajah, I could find no mention of him having any elephants, which you’d think would have been quite newsworthy.

Elsewhere on the Internet, I did come across an old, undated picture of two elephants, surrounded by crowds of curious onlookers, dipping their toes in the water at Whitby Beach (unfortunately I can’t include the picture here but if you Google it, it will come up). At some point, this picture and the maharajah have been linked, and thus, I believe, elephants were woven into the tale about the building of the road.

My own theory is that these elephants were in fact from a visiting circus, which again I found in the newspaper archives. Judging by people’s clothes, I would guess the picture was taken at around the turn of the 20th century. The Lord John Sanger Royal Circus visited the town, a rare occurrence, on 14th June 1901. Before the show, which was held in a field at Stepney Farm, the circus paraded around Whitby on a route that took in West Cliff, Khyber Pass and West Pier. The picture of the elephants has them standing in the water just below the Battery next to West Pier, and so it is my belief that they are two elephants from that very circus parade.

Maharajah Duleep Singh died suddenly in a Paris hotel on 21st October 1893 at the age of 55. I found an obituary for him in the Yorkshire Herald written ten days later. The unnamed writer claims to have known Duleep personally and says he was ‘the kindest and most liberal of men in every relationship of life, the best friend of the poor, the pleasantest of neighbours…’ and described how he regularly attended Sunday morning services at Lythe Church. He had spoken of his stay at Mulgrave as ‘the happiest of his life’.

The writer also talks about the famous road. Before it was built, unless you walked the three miles over the sand, the route to Whitby from Sandsend was ‘very circuitous and inconvenient’. He describes how Duleep built a new road at his own expense to make the journey quicker and easier for the locals. There is no mention that it was to provide relief for irritated elephant toes.

Yet, as mentioned at the start of this piece, the elephant story appears in Lythe School records. So are those records contemporaneous and verifiable? I’d love to read them for myself because perhaps therein lies the answer to this mystery.

(This story was so captivating that I’m afraid I haven’t referred to my dad’s 1980 column this week. Normal service will no doubt resume next week!)

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 12th June and the Gazette & Herald on 10th June 2020

Fancy a pootle, a potter, a bimble or a wander?

(Click on the individual images above to see the captions)

When you are told you can’t do something, suddenly you want to do it more than ever. So when the government announced on 23rd March 2020 that we should not leave our homes for any reason other than essential journeys and one hour of exercise, even the most dedicated couch potatoes were determined to get outside.

Because we were only permitted to go a short distance from home, I started off by cycling down roads I knew well. It was a strangely conflicted experience, because it was a delight that there were barely any cars, and yet the reason why was so worrying.

I soon began to explore new routes, and as the weather was mostly warm and sunny, I used my phone camera to record the sights and sounds that I witnessed. I had the time to really look at the world around me and began to appreciate more than ever what an absolutely beautiful county we live in.

I was building up quite a collection of pictures, and it struck me that if I was doing this, then perhaps others were doing it too. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was somewhere where we could share what we were seeing?

In late April, my son began to experience severe stomach pains and on guidance from the online NHS 111 website, I took him to Accident and Emergency. I was not allowed to stay with him, so had to wait in the car park outside and with nothing better to do than worry, I distracted myself by bringing my idea to fruition. I used my phone to set up a Facebook group called ‘Picture That Walk’ and invited my friends to share photos they had taken on their daily exercise, whether it be walking, cycling, or simply pottering about at home.

I posted a few pictures from that day’s excursion, and then left to make a couple of phone calls. I checked the group again about 15 minutes later and, to my astonishment, found that there were already around a dozen new posts and about 30 people who had joined. Within a week we had over 100 new members sharing pictures and videos from all over the country. Within in two weeks, we had 200 members, and pictures had started appearing from abroad. Now, six weeks in, we have over 600 members and pictures sent from England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, the Netherlands, France, Norway, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada, and Brazil.

The best thing about it is that it brings home that we are all going through this pandemic together, no matter where in the world we are. What also comes across is a sense of pride in where we live, and a communal desire to lift the spirits of anyone who is struggling, whether they are able to get outside or not.

I know many of you might not use Facebook, so I’ve included a few pictures from the group here which I hope might bring a smile to your face. If you’re able, perhaps ask a family member to show you some of the wonderful pictures from the group on Facebook. It is open to all.

In my dad’s column from 7th June 1980 he complains about drivers who ‘potter’, clogging up country roads by going really slowly, regardless of the queues building up behind them.

The word ‘potter’ has cropped up a few times in the group, as have several more, such as pootle, wander and bimble, and it depends on where you come from as to which one you prefer to use. But they all mean the same thing, which is to move about in a relaxed, leisurely way. Do you have a special word for this?

(By the way, my son had a stomach infection, and was allowed home with antibiotics later that night!).

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 5th June and the Gazette & Herald on 3rd June 2020

Is that a snake in the grass?

Adders are the UK’s only venomous snake, but are very timid. Picture: Stephen Barlow

It’s easy to forget that we live in a country that boasts several species of snake as we rarely have the pleasure (or displeasure?) of coming across them. I have seen a native snake in the wild twice, and then only for a very brief moment each time. I assumed they were both grass snakes, but they didn’t hang around long enough for me to be able to identify them.

Snakes start emerging from hibernation in March, so spring is the best time to spot them, as they may still be a bit groggy from their long sleep and like to bask in early morning sunshine to warm themselves up.

We have three species of snake native to the UK, the adder, the grass snake and the smooth snake. The first two can be seen all over England and Wales, and the adder in some parts of Scotland, although the smooth snake is far rarer and is found only in Dorset, Hampshire and Surrey. All of our snakes are protected by law, so it is illegal to injure, kill or trade them.

As my dad says in his column from 31st May 1980, locally, the adder is sometimes called the hagworm, but it is also more widely known as the European viper, a name which to my mind sounds far more threatening, and in some ways is deservedly so, as it is the only one of the three that is venomous.

However, humans are very rarely bitten, as adders are extremely timid, and they are sensitive to the vibrations of our footsteps on the ground which warn them of our approach. We are only likely to be bitten if we accidentally stand on one, or if it feels threatened. Even then, the bite is rarely dangerous, causing no more than temporary pain and possibly nausea and dizziness. The venom is strong enough to stun prey, like small mammals, birds and reptiles, that it eats whole, but it is very unlikely to be harmful to a human. That’s not to say there have been no recorded fatalities here, but the last one was back in 1975 when a five-year-old boy sadly died after being bitten on the ankle while on a day out in The Trossachs in Scotland.

The adult adder can grow to almost a metre long, and the brownish female is larger than the more silvery-coloured male, although they both have a distinctive black zig-zag pattern down the spine with either a V or X-shaped marking on the head. They reproduce in late summer, giving birth to up to 20 exact mini-replicas of themselves, each about 17cm long.

The most common snake in the UK is the grass snake, which can grow up to 1.3 metres in length. It is completely harmless, so there is no need to be afraid if you come across one hiding in your compost bin. It is different to the adder in that it is grey-green in colour, with black bars down its sides and a black and yellowy collar at its neck. They also have round pupils in their eyes, while adders have narrow elongated pupils. They are excellent swimmers and often live close to water so they can feed on the resident amphibians and reptiles. It uses stealth to surprise its prey, before squeezing them to death and eating them whole. If it comes under threat from a predator, it will sometimes play dead and emit a foul-smelling odour from its anal glands. It is the only native snake that lays eggs, which take about ten weeks to hatch, usually in July.

There is another reptile that is sometimes confused for a snake, and that is the slow worm. About 40-50cm in length, the slow worm is in fact a legless lizard, with a smooth, glossy grey-brown body. If it blinks at you, then you know you’re looking at a slow worm because, unlike lizards, snakes do not have eyelids. It also has a clever trick when under attack, which is to shed its own tail, which then keeps moving for a while to distract the predator enabling the slow worm to escape.

Over the past weeks, many of us have taken advantage of the extra spare time by walking in the wonderful countryside near our own homes. Has anyone spotted any of these fascinating creatures while out and about?

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 29th May and the Gazette & Herald on 27th May 2020

Scotched by the Scots

Byland Abbey, where Edward II may have taken shelter during the Battle of Byland in 1322.
John Bunting’s Chapel near Sutton Bank
The view from John Bunting’s Chapel towards the village of Kilburn and Vale of York beyond.

When I was little we used to go on holiday for a week every year to the Lake District, and an en route landmark was Scotch Corner, the point at which the A66 from Penrith joins the A1. We were always excited to reach it as it felt like a good chunk of the boring car journey was already behind us.

It was only when reading my dad’s column from 24th May 1980 that I was reminded that there was a second Scotch Corner much closer to my home village of Ampleforth. This Scotch Corner, sometimes called Scot’s Corner, lies between Oldstead (now famous for Tommy Banks’ Michelin-starred Black Swan restaurant) and the White Horse above Kilburn.

I’m ashamed to say that I never took the trouble to find out anything more about it, nor troubled myself to work out exactly where it was. In fact I have lost count of the amount of times I have climbed the steps up to the White Horse without ever realising this Scotch Corner was just a stone’s throw away.

I checked on an Ordnance Survey map, and sure enough, the less famous Scotch Corner is marked upon it. It lies in the woods, high above Oldstead, and you will find it if you go down a track known as Hambleton Road that leads east off the narrow tarmac lane running past the Yorkshire Gliding Club. The track isn’t shown on less detailed maps, although it is, I believe, a public right of way.

The area around Sutton Bank and the White Horse was the scene of intense fighting in the 14th century, and thanks to reading Dad’s column and conducting my own research, I feel far better educated today than yesterday on the moment in mediaeval history that became known as the Battle of Byland.

This spot, hidden among the Hambleton trees, is said to be where King Edward II’s army was defeated by the Scots during the Scottish Wars of Independence. Since his victory over Edward at Bannockburn in 1314, Robert The Bruce had wanted to be recognised as the King of Scotland and he made his way south with his armies in pursuit of the defeated king.

On 14th October 1322, Edward is believed to have been taking rest in one of the abbeys at either Byland or Rievaulx, despite knowing that the Scots were ransacking nearby Thirsk. He thought they were safe from attack, his armies having taken up a defensive position atop Roulston Scar, the plateau now occupied by the gliding club. The vantage point offered unrestricted views of approaching enemies, with the seemingly impenetrable sheer cliffs giving them the confidence to think they would be able to ward off any approaches.

Unfortunately, while the English forces were distracted by a Scottish attack from below, a unseen breakaway band launched a surprise offensive from behind and Edward’s men fell into panic and disarray.

On hearing that his army was being routed, Edward fled the abbey, abandoning not only the Crown Jewels and the Great Seal Of England, but also, according to some accounts, his wife, Queen Isabella. He ultimately found his way to York, and the reputation of the fortified city meant the Scots did not attack it, and Edward was never captured.

Interestingly, on a detailed map you might see the letters ‘PW’ near Scotch Corner. PW means ‘Place of Worship’, and is where renowned Ampleforth artist and sculptor John Bunting converted derelict farm buildings into a memorial chapel. Bunting was educated at Ampleforth College, and later returned to teach there, while continuing to work on his sculptures. He dedicated his chapel to three former pupils, Hugh Dormer, Michael Allmand and Michael Fenwick, who all died as young soldiers in World War II. A fourth name was added when former pupil Robert Nairac was killed while serving in Armagh in 1977.

Although the chapel is kept locked, you can visit the site and see some of John’s remarkable work, which was influenced by his strong Catholic faith, and by mentors such as Robert ‘Mousey’ Thompson and Henry Moore. Bunting spent time working with Thompson in his Kilburn workshop and was encouraged by Moore to go to art school after visiting him in his studio.

There are still some people who think the Battle of Byland was fought in a different spot, further north, nearer Old Byland. What do you think?

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 22nd May and the Gazette & Herald on 20th May 2020

A moment to say thank you

Me at my temporary ‘lockdown’ desk with some of my dad’s books that have just been republished 

A couple of weeks ago, I sent out a plea to you to keep buying your treasured local papers to support the editors who are working so hard to keep them going through this crisis, and I also asked you to get in touch to let me know what you think of this column.

Thank you to all of you have contacted me, either the through the paper or through my contact page at countrymansdaughter.com. Without exception, I have received warm words of encouragement which have lifted my spirits no end. I’m featuring a few here, not only to pander to the narcissist within me, but also as a way of saying thank you to all of you who are reading this. Unfortunately I don’t have room for them all, but if I haven’t included you, please rest assured that I read every single one and treasure them all.

Clare Proctor wrote: ‘I love reading your column so please don’t stop. I like the randomness of the subjects and I learn new things, or it reminds me of old things! I hope you do carry on, and one day they may pay you again!’

And Jerry Swift sent this very moving message: ‘Yours is always a column I take the trouble to read…I lost my wife of 34 years to leukaemia in November last year. Your column was always one we both enjoyed and reading it now brings back memories of the things we enjoyed together…so on a purely selfish note, please carry on.’

And David Payne said: ‘I always find your weekly column of great interest, especially when you mention local events that were once headline news in the past.’

Catherine Wilson wrote: ‘I enjoyed the column when it was your dad’s and still enjoy it. Please keep on as you are, I do enjoy the historic and nature and wildlife themes. But basically anything you fancy writing about.’

Rosemary Scott emailed with the following: ‘I’m writing to tell you how very much I enjoy your column and how I look forward to seeing it every week…I enjoy your natural way of expressing yourself and sharing information with your readers. Mind you, I appreciate that it probably takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears to sound that natural.’

You know what, Rosemary, sometimes it does, but also some columns just seem to write themselves. And this week, thanks to all of you, very little blood, sweat and tears were spilt in the production of this piece!

Sue Barton grew up with the paper, and upon moving to Scotland after marrying, her mother posted it to her. She says: ‘I really enjoy reading about occurrences that have almost silently slipped into the past. The two accidents at Blue Bank were tragic but sadly almost forgotten. The ghosts of Sutton Bank, whether we believe them or not, should be treasured as part of our folklore…They may not be of national importance but they are important to our local area and history and should be kept alive.’

And Patricia Crack said: ‘My ‘must-read’ is your article…I love the variety of subjects covered and often wonder what I would write about…This local paper keeps me in touch with Darlington/North Yorkshire/Dales news and events. Long may it reign!’

Mike Morrissey reveals that he and his wife argue about whether, with my dad’s reputation with more than 100 books and various columns to his name, it is wise that I mention him so often. Perhaps it isn’t, as they are very hefty shoes to fill, but then, I do like to let people know what he was writing about all those years ago. I also love to read them, as it takes me back to when I was a child, and when he was younger than I am now. So mentioning his old column has become a bit of a ‘thing’. I wonder if people would miss it if I stopped mentioning his columns altogether?

On that note, Andy Brown said: ‘I think it is great that you are keeping his legacy alive for a new generation, and I also like that you give it your own personal perspective.’

Perhaps my favourite comment, though, is this very succinct contribution from Kevin Hunter: ‘Keep writing for paper lass if ya can, and thank editor for keeping paper goin’.

I think, for this week, that is the perfect ending.

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 15th May and the Gazette & Herald on 13th May 2020

Spotting a lady in the garden

The UK has 46 species of ladybird, the most common being red with seven black spots, which is the one that had colonised our garden. Picture: Carolyn Givenchy Large

There was a very warm reaction to my column of three weeks ago in which I talked about the bumble bee that landed next to me in the garden when I was little, and how my dad explained that there was no need to be afraid of it. It’s funny isn’t it, how such small and seemingly insignificant moments become the memories we most treasure.

Whenever I write a column, I post about it on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter and the responses to that piece have been particularly heartwarming to read. Today, I’m writing this on the third anniversary of Dad’s death (April 21st), and as anyone who has lost a loved one knows, even though we think of them every single day, it’s on the anniversaries that their loss is even more acute.

So I was delighted this afternoon when I read my dad’s column from 8th May 1976 to find that he mentions his family: ‘My recent exertions in the garden, aided by my wife and four children, revealed more than the usual number of ladybirds. They seemed to be everywhere and became a source of great delight, even to those who would normally be very wary of beetles!’

He went on: ‘I made sure the children appreciated their value to the garden, explaining their insatiable appetite for small insect pests like greenflies and mealy bugs.’

I do recall that day in the garden, and the wonder that my nine-year-old self felt at finding so many of those pretty little red and black creatures, their bright spotty wing cases distancing them from their scarier beetle relatives. There is an old belief that large quantities of ladybirds indicate an event of great importance in the forthcoming year. Well, they weren’t wrong, were they, for 1976 became known as ‘The Year of the Drought’.

Although there were many ladybirds around in May, it wasn’t until later in the year that the real ‘plagues’ arrived. The period from May 1975 until August 1976 was the driest since 1717 when records began, and that had followed a five-year spell of the driest weather since the 1850s. By the end of the 1975-76 winter, most reservoirs in England and Wales were barely half full.

There was very little rainfall in the first months of 1976, and the whole of Western Europe experienced five months of severe drought from May onwards. In June, temperatures soared, and by July, the UK had to introduce hosepipe bans, with the slogan ‘Save water, bath with a friend’ becoming popular. We were encouraged to reuse our bath water for drenching our parched gardens or washing our dust-covered cars. In south-east Wales, the situation was so bad that the mains supply was turned off for up to 17 hours a day, and people had to carry water in buckets from standpipes in the street. By late August, Leeds was down to a mere 80 days’ supply.

It was this prolonged dry spell that led to an infestation of aphids, mostly greenfly, causing one observer to liken it to a curtain of green wafting down the street. The aphid invasion peaked in August, and was closely followed by a plague of ladybirds. Pictures of ladybird-covered cars, phone boxes and buildings filled our newspapers and the pavement crunched under our feet as we walked. The drought eventually ended in September when the weather returned more or less to normal.

We have 46 species of ladybird in the UK, the most common being red with seven black spots, which is the one that had colonised our garden. But there are also those with red spots on black, black spots on yellow, yellow spots on black and white spots on orange. As well as seven spots, there are some with two, some with 14 or even some with 22!

However, in 2004, the most invasive ladybird in the world landed on our shores. The harlequin is native to Asia, but has become firmly established and is being blamed for a decline in our own species due to its reputation for devouring them. It is quite difficult to tell between the two species, but the main difference is that the harlequin has orangey legs, as opposed our own lady’s black ones.

So why not head into your garden to see if you can spot a lady or a harlequin.

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 8th May and the Gazette & Herald on 6th May 2020

M’aider on Mayday?

Maypole dancing has been a long-held tradition in parts of North Yorkshire.                 Picture: Frank Dwyer

So another month has passed and we are coming to my favourite time of the year, springtime in May. When the sun comes out in May, it is so uplifting, with trees in blossom, flowers in bloom and insects and birds busy and active all around.

Although warmth and sunshine are not guaranteed, it is nevertheless a time when we start to put our winter woollies, hats and scarves away and venture outside without having to don our big coats.

This year we were due to move the early bank holiday to Friday 8th May to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe, when the fighting in World War II came to an end. The bank holiday has only been moved once before, in 1995, from Monday 1st May to Monday 8th May to mark the 50th anniversary. The planned street parties and group celebrations cannot go ahead for obvious reasons, so instead, the weekend of 15th and 16th August is being earmarked for postponed celebrations, to coincide with Victory in Japan Day. Now, on 8th May, lone bugle players and town criers are expected to highlight the occasion from safe locations around the country. This year, it will be particularly poignant as we think of those on the front line fighting a different kind of war.

I didn’t really appreciate quite what a recent addition the early May bank holiday was to our calendar, and it was only reading my dad’s column from 29th April 1976 that I was reminded that it hadn’t been introduced by then (there was no Darlington and Stockton Times produced between 19th April and 17th May 1980. So I decided to go right back to the first year Dad took over the Countryman’s Diary, which was 1976).

In that column, Dad writes, ‘Today is May Day. The present government has announced that it will soon be an official bank holiday.’ And by ‘soon’, he meant 1978.

May 1st has been a significant pagan festival for many centuries, and one belief was that if a lady bathed her face in the first dew collected on May Day, it would bestow on her an ever-youthful complexion. It was a belief that persisted across the class divide and in 1515, the Queen herself, Henry VIII’s first wife Catherine of Aragon, is reported to have gone out with 25 of her ladies in waiting to gather the May Day morning dew. Droplets were collected on silver spoons and kept in tiny glass phials. But the benefits only lasted for a year, and so the ritual had to be performed annually. Samuel Pepys reported in 1667 that his wife ‘has gone away with Jane and W.Hewer to Woolwich to lye there tomorrow and so gather May dew tomorrow morning.’

Another custom was popular among the young women of the parish who wanted to know to whom they were destined to be married. To find out, they had to find a snail in the first light of May Day morning, then place it in the cold ashes of the fireplace. They then had to wait until the snail’s trail spelled out the initials, or even the name, of their true love.

Pagan celebrations of May Day were banned in 1644 by the ‘Long Parliament’ of 1640-1660, and the maypole was cited as ‘a heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstition and wickedness.’ Parish constables and churchwardens were tasked with pulling them down, and any that failed in their duty would be fined five shillings for each week the offending pole remained in place. The prohibition meant that the maypole became a symbol of defiance, and with the dissolution of Parliament and the dawn of the Reformation in 1660, they reappeared in abundance.

In 1889, the Paris International Workers’ Congress demanded limits to working hours, and improvements to conditions for women and children. They called for an international demonstration on May 1st 1890 to show support for an eight-hour working day, and it became known as ‘International Workers’ Day’. Over the years, the day became strongly associated with workers’ rights and has seen many protests, marches and riots in the pursuit of improved conditions for the employed.

And if anyone is wondering, the international maritime and air distress call, ‘Mayday’ has nothing to do with the day at all. In fact, it is taken from the English pronunciation of the French ‘M’aider’ which means ‘Help me’.

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 1st May and the Gazette & Herald on 29th April 2020