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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

Our own special day

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The white rose was associated with the first Duke of York, Edmund Langley, in the 15th century, before it came to represent the whole of Yorkshire in later years

Of all the inhabitants of our nation, us Yorkshire folk have a justifiable claim to be the most proud of where we come from, as is demonstrated by the fact that ours is the most famous of all the county ‘days’.

Yorkshire Day fell this Saturday, August 1st, and it is celebrated not just within our own borders, but by thousands living elsewhere, some of whom may only have the slightest connection to God’s Own Country.

This special day isn’t actually that old, and was first marked in 1975 as a protest by the Yorkshire Ridings Society which objected to boundary changes placing the areas around Beverley, Driffield, Bridlington and Hull into a new county called Humberside. Residents of the old East Riding were understandably miffed, and never felt they were anything other than Yorkshire folk.

The new county lasted a mere 21 years before it was consigned to the dustbin and the old county of East Yorkshire was reinstated.

Yorkshire is believed to have existed for around 1,100 years from the time when invading Vikings were still active. The word ‘riding’ is derived from the Danish word ‘thridding’ which means ‘a third’ and the 600-mile boundary was divided into three, North, West and East. A kind of ‘Yorkshire Parliament’ was established, where representatives from each ‘thridding’ would have discussions and negotiations with one another. It also explains why we have only ever had three rather than four ‘ridings’.

If you were out and about on August 1st then you will have come across the Yorkshire flag, which features our white rose on a bright blue background. Although the flag has been flown for well over 50 years, it was only in 2008 that it was officially recognised by the UK Flag Institute, once again thanks to much lobbying by the Yorkshire Ridings Society.

The use of the white rose as a heraldic symbol dates back to the first Duke of York, Edmund of Langley, who died on 1st August, 1402. Although initially only associated with the House of York (particularly during the wars against the House of Lancaster in the 15th century, dubbed the ‘Wars of the Roses’ in the 19th century) the flower later came to represent the county as a whole.

One of the most well-known tales surrounding the white rose involves the Seven Years’ War when French forces had worked their way across Western Germany, capturing many important towns and cities en route. On August 1st 1759, the Anglo-German allies, which included the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, fought and defeated the French. The story goes that the soldiers plucked wild white roses as they passed the hedgerows in the town of Minden, which they pinned to their lapels or headwear to commemorate their fallen comrades. To this day, all the battalions in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry wear white roses in their caps on 1st August, Minden Day, to remember those lost in conflict. Their permanent cap badge is also unique in featuring a curled musical horn with a Yorkshire rose at its centre.

On the subject of roses, following my column a couple of weeks back about St John’s Wort and ‘Rose of Sharon’, I received the following from reader Neil Buckley: ‘There are some useful clues in a book I have called Wild Flowers of Britain…The fact that your dad linked it to St John’s Wort appears quite logical…St John’s Wort is from the genus Hypericum, of which there are a number of species…There are also trailing species (H. humifusum) and a bushy species (H. androsaemum) known as Tutsan. The book discusses the origin of this name, and I include some details below; “When fresh, the leaves of Tutsan have no particular smell, but a day or so after drying and for four years or so thereafter they emit a subtle, pleasant odour, which is likened to that of ambergris, the costly scent-base found in the intestines of certain sperm whales…Its dried leaves have been used as scented book-marks, particularly in prayer books and bibles….The ‘Rose of Sharon’ has biblical origins, and is another name for Jesus, which seems to link nicely with the use of the dried leaves in bibles…Evidently, Sharon is a plain and it is one of the largest valley-plains in all of Palestine.”

With many thanks to Neil for that fascinating information, and I wish you all a belated Happy Yorkshire Day!

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 31st July and the Gazette & Herald on 29th July 2020

A saint rushes in

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Bamburgh Castle which sits atop a great rocky hill rising 150 feet above sea level.         Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

In the mid-1980s I studied at Newcastle University and in our free time we loved to ride up into the wilds of nearby Northumberland, which (after North Yorkshire of course) has to be one of the most beautiful of our counties. Maybe the fact that it has its own share of remote hills and moors is why and I liked it so much.

In his column from 26th July 1980, Dad writes about a family visit there in which we saw various places, including Alnwick, Warkworth, Alnmouth and finished our day with an evening walk along the beach by Bamburgh Castle. This imposing fortress sits atop a great rocky hill rising 150 feet above sea level, its nine acres commanding views stretching miles over the surrounding land and ocean.

It is little wonder that this coveted spot was chosen by the sixth century Anglo-Saxon kings as their capital of Northumbria. Ida the Flamethrower was the first to build a significant wooden structure there in AD547, and when he died, his grandson, Aethelfrith, took over, sending his sons Oswald and Oswi to the Scottish island of Iona to be baptised and educated by the Christian monks there.

It was Oswald who became the most famous Anglo-Saxon king of Northumbria. Born in AD604, he was king from AD634 until his death in AD642. During his reign he was considered the most powerful king in Britain and is credited with promoting the spread of Christianity across the north. He was defeated and killed at the Battle of Maserfield on 5th August AD642 by the pagan king of Mercia, Penda.

The Venerable Bede, writing around 100 years after Oswald’s death, provides the only record we have of his life and reign, and he describes him as a very ‘saintly’ king, citing his generosity to strangers and the poor. A story goes that a servant came to tell him that the poor were in the streets begging for alms. He ordered the food from his table to be distributed among them, and also that the silver platters from which his gathering were eating be broken up and distributed.

As a devout Christian, Bede’s version of the king is likely to be a rather biased, and he glosses over his reputation as a seasoned warrior. After Oswald was killed, the myth of his holy stature quickly gained momentum so that the place where he fell became renowned for inspiring miracles. It is said that so many people took a handful of earth from that very spot that a hole as deep as a full-grown man was left behind.

St Oswald was supposedly killed near the Shropshire town of Oswestry, or ‘Oswald’s Tree’, so-called because legend has it that a raven took one of Oswald’s severed arms and perched on a nearby tree, which then became associated with miracles. The raven is then said to have dropped the arm, and a sacred spring appeared at the very spot that it hit the ground. Whatever its true origins, that spring is still there to this day and goes by the name of St Oswald’s Well. However, according to historians, his true place of death is more likely to be much further north.

In days gone by, church floors were nothing more than earth, and so were covered in sweet-smelling rushes to absorb the muck and odours that were brought in on the feet of the faithful. These rushes were changed once a year in a ceremony known as a ‘Rush Bearing Festival’. Parishioners would parade through the village, usually on or around the church’s saint’s day, and the new rushes would be placed in the church, followed by a special service. The practice died out in the 19th century as stone flags replaced earthen floors. However, it survived in some villages including Kirkoswald in Cumbria, where St Oswald is reputed to have preached. Incidentally, my dad was village bobby in Oswaldkirk, which means ‘Church of St Oswald’, and became ‘Aidensfield’ in his ‘Constable’ (Heartbeat) books.

Today, though, only five Cumbrian villages still have a rush bearing festival and these are Ambleside, Great Musgrave, Urswick, Warcop and Grasmere, whose church is also dedicated to St Oswald. In fact, William Wordsworth and his family are buried in the graveyard, and while he was alive, the great poet himself is said to never have never missed a rush bearing ceremony.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 24th July and the Gazette & Herald on 22nd July 2020

A country mile

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It it believed to be the Romans who first introduced waymarkers, or milestones, into this country

It’s a constant mystery to me why we in this country have not settled on one system of measuring things like weight and distance. When my children were born, their weight was recorded in pounds and ounces, and yet their height was given in centimetres. I’m not sure how old they were when we started to measure their height in feet and inches, but today I know my oldest son is six foot three, but I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head what that is in centimetres (it is actually around 192cm, but I had to look it up!).

Similarly if I read that someone is 165cm taIl I have to really think about what that might look like. I will visualise how high a metre might be (because we were taught about metres and centimetres in school) then add about two thirds of a metre on to that to give me a picture of their actual height. If, however, I read that someone is five foot five inches tall (which is around 165cm), I wouldn’t need any time to think about that as I know what that looks like straight away.

Other European countries have fully adopted the metric system of measurement, using centimetres for height, kilograms for weight and kilometres for distance. If any of my European friends tell me they weigh 65 kilos, I would not immediately know that that it is around 10 stone. I’d get there eventually, but it’s not something that comes to me instantaneously.

The Americans are a bit like us in that they use metric for some things, and imperial for others. They prefer to use just pounds for weight and centimetres for height. However, like us, they are one of the few countries that still uses miles to measure distance.

I do wonder why the UK did not adopt kilometres like the rest of our European neighbours, although there was a time when we did seriously consider changing our system for calculating distance. As my dad writes in his column from 19th July 1980: ‘I wonder how long the mile will survive in our modern society? Already our children have learned nothing about inches and yards, and talk only in centimetres.’

As with many things, the Romans taught us a thing or two about measurements, and it was they who started to put distance markers at the sides of roads to help with understanding how far on your journey you’d gone, and how far you had yet to go. These markers were also a way of reminding Roman Britons of who was in charge, with the name of the ruling emperor often inscribed in prime position at the top of the stone.

There are around 100 of these ancient markers still in existence today, and one of the most well known lies just off Dere Street, the ancient Roman route that linked Eboracum (York) and Caledonia (Scotland). Some of today’s modern routes follow Dere Street, including parts of the A1 and also the A68 northwest of Newcastle. It is just off this road, at West Woodburn, that the ancient granite milestone can still be seen.

Milestones became much more important with the dawning of the age of the stagecoach, helping coach operators establish timetables for the drivers to adhere to. Having said that, the distance between each milestone wasn’t always accurate and some ‘miles’ were much longer than others. The Roman mile was about 1600 yards, but in 1593 Queen Elizabeth I introduced the ‘modern’ mile which was 1760 yards. Despite this statutory measurement being passed down by Royal decree, many localities kept their own measurements for the mile, and so there were wide variations depending on where in the country you were. In Yorkshire alone, there were ‘miles’ measuring from 2,200 yards to 3,300! It was the Turnpike Act of 1766 which decreed that milestones be compulsory at every crossroads, although it wasn’t until the 1800s that the 1760-yard mile became a nationwide standard.

In 1980, Dad was convinced that we would eventually adopt the kilometre: ‘I suppose we’ll soon have kilometre posts in place of milestones, and when that day comes, I very much doubt whether the Yorkshire kilometre will be any different from the others. Well, that’s the price of progress.’

Well, Dad, clearly we haven’t made any progress yet!

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 17th July and the Gazette & Herald on 15th July 2020

St John and the rose

 

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St John’s wort. Is it only in Yorkshire that this plant is also called Rose of Sharon?

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The roses in my mum’s garden are doing really well this year

This year seems to be a very good one for roses. The ones in my mum’s garden are thriving, producing so many blooms that her flowerbeds, borders and patio are bursting with wonderful explosions of colour. I am not very knowledgeable when it comes to varieties, but the scented ones are especially lovely, filling the air with their glorious perfume as you walk past.

But when is a rose not a rose? When it is the Rose of Sharon, a name which is commonly associated with the hibiscus syriacus, a shrub from the mallow family. Trying to get to the bottom of why it is called ‘Rose of Sharon’ is nigh on impossible as there is a plethora of different plants with this name, including species of iris, peony, apple, and Chinese hibiscus, but no actual roses.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the name has biblical associations, as my dad mentions in his column from 12th July 1980, appearing in the Old Testament (Song of Solomon): ‘I am the Rose of Sharon and the Lily of the Valleys’. There is debate to this day as to what the ‘Rose of Sharon’ actually was, and what the phrase really means. Floral contenders include the crocus, the tulip, the lily and the narcissus.

According to Dad, this flower of many identities is also known as St John’s Wort. He explains, though, that very few of his reference books mentioned Rose of Sharon in association with St John’s Wort and he had to refer back to the notes of his esteemed predecessor, Major Jack Fairfax-Blakeborough, to find one. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to lay my hands on the notes Dad was referring to, although he does go on to say that the flower was one of the major’s favourites and he occasionally sported one in his buttonhole. I did eventually find out that it is mainly in Britain that St John’s Wort is sometimes known as Rose of Sharon, so I wonder if it is an old Yorkshire name? Perhaps one of you knows the answer, and can shed some light on why Rose of Sharon is linked to St John’s Wort.

St. John’s Wort can be seen both in gardens and growing wild, although it has to be treated with caution as it spreads very easily and can dominate other less robust plants. Common St John’s Wort has upright woody stems that grow up to a metre tall, with bright yellow star-shaped flowers speckled with black. It is also known as ‘perforate’ thanks to the fact that its narrow oval leaves are covered with translucent dots that can be seen when held up to the light making it look like it is covered in tiny perforations.

The plant has been associated with mystic qualities for centuries, not least because when its stems are broken, a blood-red substance seeps out. Some likened the tiny holes to the wounds on Christ’s hands and feet, and on the eve of St John the Baptist’s Day (24th June), the plant would be burned to ward off evil spirits and the charred herbs would then be hung in houses, stables, byres, or upon the necks of horses and dogs. One reference to the herb which dad found came from 1525 and states: ‘If it be putte in a mannes house there shall come no wyked spryte therein.’

I’ve recently rediscovered a small book written by Dad in 1995 called ‘Yorkshire Days’, a collection of notable dates celebrated within the county’s boundaries. It is St John’s Wort day on 29th August, the day when Roman Catholics commemorate John the Baptist’s death. You might be familiar with the story of Salome, King Herod’s step-daughter, who danced for him at a banquet and he was so enthralled that he granted her any wish. She asked for the head of John the Baptist to be served on a platter. Interestingly, John is one of only two saints (the other being the Virgin Mary) who have days to mark both their birth and their death. Most saint days occur on the date they died.

Although St John’s Wort can be poisonous to livestock, it has long been highly prized for its medicinal properties and, when applied in the right way, it has been shown to help heal wounds and burns, and ease the symptoms of insomnia, the menopause and depression.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 10th July and the Gazette & Herald on 8th July 2020

An egg-straordinary tale

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My latest haul of fresh eggs from a roadside barrow
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One of my regular stopping points for fresh eggs
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The expensive canteen of cutlery that I ruined with silver dip 26 years ago before I had chance to use it
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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

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The rampant ryegrass in my garden that grows so fast you can almost see it happening 
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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

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The beautiful domed ceiling of the Bar Convent Chapel in York, still hidden from the outside by a plain slate roof. Picture: Frank Dwyer
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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

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Maharajah Duleep Singh who lived at Mulgrave Castle for four years in the 1800s
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The advert for the Lord John Sanger Circus in the Whitby Gazette in 1901
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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?

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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?

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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