Going for a song

I was recently contacted by reader David Severs who used to be the sergeant at Helmsley Police Station when Dad was village bobby of Oswaldkirk in the 1960s. Towards the end of my dad’s police career when he was press officer in the early 1980s, they also had adjacent offices at force headquarters in Newby Wiske Hall. 

David writes: “I told him that I had seen an Oxford philosophy examination paper in which the first question was ‘Do birds enjoy singing?’”

He goes on to explain that Dad used this question as a topic for a subsequent column, and so I decided to see if I could find the column in question in his archives. With the help of my team of detectives (my mum and brother) we came across a piece Dad wrote in 2008 on the very subject. It might not be the original column, but nevertheless discusses this topic.

Dad writes: ‘If we think carefully about that query, it is almost impossible to answer because the first question must surely be: What constitutes bird song? And secondly, why do they sing?’

He states that we think of bird song as something musical and melodic, so therefore does the squawking of a herring gull count? Or what about the repetitive call of a cuckoo? Is the quack of a duck or the honk of a goose bird song?

Dad explains that birds sing for specific reasons, such as to attract a mate, to warn of the presence of predators, or to indicate where its territory may be. In other words, it is a tool of communication, so to know if they enjoy it is hard to judge. It’s a bit like asking us humans if we enjoy the act of talking (of course, we could all name at least one person we know who loves the sound of their own voice).

However, according to one study which was featured in The Times newspaper, there is now scientific proof that at times, birds do actually sing just for the love of it. And it is that which prompted Mr Severs to get in touch, as when he read it, it reminded him of his previous conversations with my dad.

The article was prompted by research on starlings that seemed to prove that although singing was a means of communication, there were also occasions where the birds sang just for the pleasure of it. This was termed ‘gregarious’ singing.

Biologist Professor Lauren Riters from the University of Wisconsin-Madison explains that the birds practice the notes in the songs: ‘They try out different songs, they order and reorder and repeat some sequences, they add and drop notes. It sounds a bit like free-form jazz and it’s quite distinct from the structured songs that male songbirds produce when trying to attract mates.’

She goes on to explain that when they sing in this way their brains produce opioids, chemicals which are known for inducing pleasure and reducing pain (the same as are found in the addictive drugs heroin, morphine and fentanyl).

Professor Riters’ team fed the birds low doses of fentanyl, and sure enough, this triggered high rates of ‘gregarious’ singing. They were also able to switch off the opioid receptors in the birds’ brains, and after this, the birds sang less.

When lockdown was at its height and there were very few vehicles on our roads, I really noticed the bird song around me. I liked to think that our feathered friends were thoroughly enjoying an environment free from polluting exhaust fumes, or was it simply the lack of traffic noise that meant that I was more able to hear them?

There are some very tall poplar trees in my neighbour’s garden, and I often see groups of starlings gathered in the highest branches, singing at the tops of their beaks, and they very much look like they are enjoying themselves. And similarly, on my dog walks, there is a particular hedgerow which is favoured by dozens of sparrows. If they don’t notice you coming, they all cheep excitedly and noisily among themselves. As soon as you stop to listen though, they go quiet. It reminds me of a school assembly hall full of noisy children before the head teacher signals for hush.

But are these sparrows singing for fun, or is their noise about something else? I wish I could ask them! 

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 18th September and the Gazette & Herald on 16th September 2020

A starling ready to break into song, and the empty A64 dual carriageway. During lockdown, the birdsong seemed so much more noticeable because there was no traffic noise


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

New kit on the block

Marmalade took a while to settle into our new home, but butter on her paws helped

Following last week’s feline theme, in his column from 11th April 1981, my dad mentions that a reader had sent him a letter asking if putting butter on a cat’s paws to make it stay in a new home worked.

Later that year we tried it for ourselves when we moved house. We didn’t go far, just to the other end of the village, but our cat, Marmalade, was most definitely not amused.

We relocated from an old cottage into a newly-built house, and all the carpets were brand-spanking, apart from a fetching brown, green and yellow swirly-patterned one that we rescued from our old front room and placed on the floor of my dad’s new study.

When we finally introduced Marmalade to the house, she crept slowly around the rooms commando-style, keeping as low to the ground as possible, her tummy almost touching the floor as she moved. She was quite bewildered, bless her, and found her way into my dad’s study and refused to come out for a quite some time. Obviously, it was because in there was the old carpet with its familiar scents which made her feel less disorientated.

She did eventually start to venture out of that room, but was still quite anxious, and so we resorted to the old butter on her paws trick. I think the idea is that they love butter, and by the time they have finished licking it off, they have grown so used to their new environment that they won’t try to run away.

Today, there is a lot more information available on the internet about how to settle your pet when you move house and, strangely, none seem to mention putting butter on paws!

To reduce the animal’s stress, what you should do is dedicate a whole room to it once you have moved, so that they do not feel overwhelmed by the size of the new home. Leave a litter tray, food and water in there with the door open so that it can venture out if it wants to. Make sure it has its own bed and perhaps a few items of your clothing so it has familiar scents around it.

One of the ways cats mark their territory is by rubbing themselves on walls, doors and furniture so that their scent is transferred, making them feel secure. Once they start doing this in your new home, that means they are beginning to feel more confident about where they are. If they are taking time to settle, you could try gently rubbing a soft cloth around their face and ears, then dabbing it around walls and furniture at cat height so that they are surrounded with a familiar smell .

Opinions vary as to how long you should keep a cat inside before daring to let it go outside. Some felines are quite content to stay indoors, while others resort to hovering by the door in the hope to make a dash for it when someone opens it.

We did keep Marmalade indoors for some time, although she soon began to want to go outside. I don’t think it was longer than a week before we let her out though, and it was a huge relief when she willingly returned. We had feared that she might try to find her way back to our old house, but I don’t think she ever did, and it wasn’t long before she began to feel at home in the new surroundings. She lived a long and happy life, and finally died at the ripe old of 18 in the late 1980s.

Advice for keeping them indoors ranges from a fortnight to four weeks, but I don’t know many adult cats that would be happy stuck inside for a month. One suggestion when it comes to letting them out for the first time is to sprinkle their used cat litter around the garden so that when they do go out, they know that it is their territory. It also acts as a signal to other cats in the area that there is a new kit in town.

Incidentally, that old carpet is still in my dad’s study, and I always think of dear old Marmalade when I look at it. It’s a bit tatty and worn now, but I’m not sure we will ever replace it.

Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 16th April and the Gazette & Herald on 14th April 2021

Hogging Time

A hogback carving at Durham Cathedral. Picture by Chris Booth

As I’ve mentioned before, to kill time during the most recent lockdown I’ve been watching some dramas based on historical novels such as Poldark which is set in 18th century Cornwall, and another called Outlander, which is set in 18th century Scotland. Poldark has taught me about coastal living in a tin and copper mining area, and Outlander about the Jacobite rising and the Battle of Culloden. I’ve recently stepped back another thousand years and am now slightly obsessed with the series ‘Vikings’ and ‘The Last Kingdom’, the latter based on Bernard Cornwell’s ‘The Saxon Stories’ novels. 

Artistic licence has been used extensively in these fictional adaptations. For example, my children and I laughed when we saw on screen a distant ‘view’ of Eoforwic, which is the Anglo-Saxon word for York. The 10th century city was nestling among rolling green hills. Those who live on York’s glacial plain know that the nearest significant hill to the city is about 15 miles away! The Vikings had trouble pronouncing Eoforwic, which is believed to mean ‘wild boar settlement’, so they changed it to the much easier-to-pronounce Jorvik, meaning ‘wild boar creek.’

Apart from some welcome escapism, the benefit of watching these shows is that it inspires me to read up on the real history behind them. I now know far more about the historical context that led up to the Battle of Culloden in 1746, and more about how the country of my birth was divided when the Vikings landed on our shores. 

This week, when I looked in the folder that contains my dad’s columns from 1981, I came across a clipping from the Letters Page from 28th March. A couple of readers had responded to a column he had written the week earlier in which he mentioned Viking ‘hogback coffins’ found at St Thomas’ Church, Brompton, near Northallerton. Similar examples had also been found in other places, such as Sockburn and Osmotherley, both not far from Brompton, while most of the rest were found elsewhere in the North and Scotland.

They were writing to tell him more about these fascinating things, but also to correct him. These stones, they said, were not coffins, but likely to have been grave markers. Ten of them were discovered at Brompton in 1867-8 when the church was being restored and are incredibly well preserved. Five remain there, but the rest have been moved to Durham Cathedral.

These sandstone blocks are around two feet high and three and a half feet long, have a curved top, and bow out slightly to the sides. They are carved with very distinctive patterns often seen in pagan art and were probably placed along the top of the grave. Many of these hogback stones have a lattice-type decoration running along the sides, believed to represent the tiles on the roof of a longhouse, a hall which lay at the centre of every Viking community and was home to the most important resident, the Earl.

Some theories suggest that the ‘hogback’ name derived from the carved pigs’ heads that often sit at either end of the stones. However, I’m not convinced, as those at Brompton are definitely not hogs, but muzzled bears complete with claws and fur.

One of the readers who contacted the paper said that the first ones to be discovered were found in the Lake District in the 1830s, and were so weathered that they thought the whole design was meant to represent a hog, which is how they got their name. However, if you stand back and look at the stones, their shape is very reminiscent of a curvature of the spine and the rounded belly of a pig or its wild cousin, the boar. So that’s my theory on the origin of the name, and I’m sticking to it.

The second reader mentions excavations at Coppergate in York where plans for Viking houses had been uncovered, showing the same overlapping roof tile design that was carved on the stones, confirming that they represented ‘houses of the dead’. Vikings believed that if you died a noble death, you would be rewarded with a glorious afterlife in the great hall of the gods, Valhalla.

If you want to see what they look like, then when you can, do visit the Jorvik Viking Centre which has stood on the exact spot of that discovery since 1984. 

Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 2nd April and the Gazette & Herald on 31st March 2021

From vermin to ermine

A stoat in its winter white coat. Picture by Liz Hornby

I’m getting quite excited as it is approaching 29th March, the date when I will be able to pick up my tennis racquet again and play outdoors. Apart from not being able to see my mum, playing tennis has been one of the things I have missed most during the latest lockdown. I play in the village of Coxwold, which is not far from the ruins of Byland Abbey.

The road between Coxwold and Byland was mentioned by my dad in his column from 21st March 1981 when a reader contacted him suggesting they’d seen a stoat that Dad had talked about a few weeks earlier. The one Dad had seen had been totally white, with just the tip of its tail black.

Stoats can shed their fur, but normally only change colour if the conditions warrant it. So in colder climates where there is a lot of snow such as in North East Scotland, a stoat will shed its summer coat of chestnut brown, turning white to blend into its frosty surroundings. Further south, where winters are milder and there is little snow, they keep their brown coats so that again, they are more easily camouflaged within the landscape. It was unusual to see a pure white stoat as far south as North Yorkshire especially, as Dad says, the winter of 1980-81 was not particularly cold.

By the time the reader had spotted the stoat that he believed was the same one as seen by my dad, its summer coat had started to show through the white, and this patchy appearance is known as ‘piebald’. Some stoats keep their piebald coats throughout the year.

The white pelt of a stoat is known as ‘ermine’ and down the centuries it was a highly prized piece of fur, not just because it was soft and thick, but also because it was so hard to get hold of. Apparently, for the coronation of King George VI in 1937, 50,000 ermine pelts were imported from Canada just for the occasion.

I always get excited when I see a stoat dart across the road in front of me, as it doesn’t happen very often. But I’m usually confused as to whether it is a stoat, or its relative, the weasel. I wasn’t very sure of the difference but, as is often the case, my research for this column has served to educate me.

The stoat and the weasel both belong to the ‘mustelid’ family of mammals, which refers to those that have long bodies and short legs, and otters and mink are also mustelids. Although their colourings are similar, the stoat is larger than the weasel, at between 24-32cm in length, with a tail ranging from 9-14cm. The weasel, on the other hand, is the UK’s smallest carnivore, at just 17-22cm long, with a shorter tail of just 3-5cm.

Often, we just get a quick flash of them when we spot them in the countryside, so what you need to look out for is the way they run. Stoats have a bounding gait, arching their backs as they go. Weasels, on the other hand, simply run, keeping their bodies flat and close to the ground. Also, if it has a black tip at the end of its tail, then it is definitely a stoat.

Both species are common throughout the UK, and can been seen all year round. They are fearsome hunters, and can kill animals much larger than themselves. Despite its diminutive size, a stoat will kill a rabbit with a single bite to the base of its skull. Weasels, because they are so small, raid the tiny burrows of small rodents, like mice, to catch their prey. Both can be seen hunting day and night.

Another fact I discovered while researching this column is that mink are not native to this country, but were imported from America and bred in fur farms, from which they escaped in the 1950s and 60s. As they were such excellent hunters and breeders, with a long lifespan of up to 12 years, they soon established themselves and are now quite prolific. They are a threat to our native water vole, the females being small enough to raid the burrows of these little rodents. Wildlife conservation organisations are on the case though, so hopefully our watery native might once again bounce back.

Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 26th and the Gazette & Herald on 24th  March 2021

Fishing for words

St Mary’s Church, Whitby, with the ruins of Whitby Abbey behind it. Picture by Martin Oates 

In my dad’s column from 14th March 1981, he talks about a poem written by a woman called Susan K Phillips who was born near Boroughbridge in 1831 and who often spent the summer months in Whitby. He was talking about her work ‘The Whitby Bells’ and discussing whether the title referred to the bells of St Mary’s Church, which sits atop East Cliff.

He came to the conclusion that they were the bells mentioned in the poem:

‘The Whitby bells, so full and free,

They ring across the sunny sea,

That the great ocean god, who dwells

‘Mid coral groves and silvery shells,

Wakes to the summons joyously.’

Mrs Phillips had several collections of poetry published in the mid-1800s and became known as the ‘poet of the fisher-folk’ because many of her works celebrated the lives of the men and their families who were such an important part of coastal life.

I didn’t find a great deal of information about her online, but I did come across an obituary written not long after her death at the age of 66 on 25th May 1897, in which the writer said: “She was a frequent visitor to Whitby and was beloved by the rough, but kind-hearted, fishermen. She was a true friend to them in their time of sorrow, and in the hard lot of those who are engaged on the perilous waters of the North Sea.”

Mrs Phillips became a widow herself just twelve years into her marriage to the portrait artist Henry Wyndham Phillips and was no doubt greatly empathetic to the plight of the wives of fishermen who were drowned at sea. One of her most moving poems is called ‘Lost With All Hands’ and when you read it, you can’t help but imagine that she must have witnessed the devastation of families whose loved ones did not return. The poem tells of a wife preparing her small home for Christmas, with the Yule candle waiting to be lit by the husband who never comes back.

The title of another, ‘The Fisherman’s Funeral’ is self-explanatory, and describes how he is laid to rest up on the cliff top, presumably in St Mary’s graveyard:

‘And the widow’s sob, and the orphan’s wail, jarred through the joyous air;

How could the light wind o’er the sea blow on so fresh and fair?

How could the gay waves laugh and leap, o’er sand and stone,

While he, who knew and loved them all, lay lapped in clay alone?’

While researching this, I also came across a picture of the stone memorial cross that stands at the top of the 199 steps up to the church. Erected just one year after Susan Phillips’ death, it is dedicated to Caedmon, who is credited with composing the first Old English poem ever to be written down.

Caedmon, a reportedly tuneless, uneducated and illiterate man, lived with St Hilda’s monastic community in the 7thcentury at Streoneshalh, which was the predecessor of today’s Whitby Abbey. He was a herdsman and tended to the animals, sleeping with them in their sheds. One night he had a dream in which he was visited by an angel who told him to compose a hymn about ‘The Creation’. He rushed to tell Hilda, and despite the fact he was not known to be able to sing, immediately sang the hymn in a ‘heavenly voice’. Hilda urged him to write down the words which, miraculously, he could also suddenly do.

Encouraged by the abbess, Caedmon became a monk and began to write many works, hymns and poems about Christian life. His story was told by the Venerable Bede in his 8th century ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’. Bede included a Latin translation of the words of Caedmon’s original hymn which became known as ‘God the Creator’. It was subsequently translated back into Old English, so it not possible to know how true it is to the actual words penned by Caedmon. No version of the original is still in existence. Caedmon is said to have died in the monastery hospice in AD 680. As he had a premonition of his own death, he was able to gather his friends and loved ones around him as he took his last breath.

Despite Bede’s account describing Caedmon as a prolific writer, ‘God the Creator’ is the only example of his work that still exists.

Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 19th and the Gazette & Herald on 17th  March 2021

Let’s March into Spring

Daffodils are an uplifting emblem of Spring

The wonderful Spring weather during the first lockdown last year allowed me to get out & enjoy the countryside on my bike

Isn’t it lovely to finally have the feeling that we have seen the back of winter (although I am touching wood as I write this because it is not unusual for winter to still have the last laugh and send one final ferocious slap in March). For a number of reasons, one being the current lockdown, this one has seemed particularly drawn out and so the longer days, the lighter nights, the buds on the trees, and the emergence of long dormant plants offer us a sense of hope that better, warmer weather is not far away.

I was reading a column my dad wrote from March 1978 where he explained how difficult he found it to adequately describe these fascinating weeks when the countryside starts to wake up and come back to life, and the feelings that it generated within him. He instead resorted to the writings of others whom he thought did a better job, such as these words from Alexander Pope:

‘In that soft season, when descending showers

Call forth the greens and wake the rising flowers;

When opening buds salute the welcome day

And Earth relenting feels the genial ray.’

And these from H.G.Adams:

‘A bursting into greenness,

A waking as from sleep,

A twitter and a warble,

That make the pulses leap;

A watching, as in childhood,

For the flowers that, one by one,

Open their golden petals,

To woo the fitful sun,

A gust, a flash, a gurgle,

A wish to shout and sing,

As, filled with hope and gladness,

We hail the vernal Spring.’

Just reading those short verses brings a smile to my face and a sense of hope that my favourite season of the year is just around the corner.

It is well documented that the arrival of Spring brightens our moods, and Seasonal Affected Disorder (SAD) has been a recognised condition since the 1990s. This is where it is believed that a reduction in exposure to sunlight, longer nights, colder days and extended periods of bad weather can cause some people to suffer melancholy, lethargy and even severe depression. It has its own entry on the NHS website, with treatments ranging from increasing outdoor activity, lightbox therapy, counselling and antidepressants.

But a large-scale US study published in the journal ‘Clinical Psychological Science’ in 2016 casts doubt on whether it is a bona fide condition. The study showed that levels of depression in adults were consistent across different latitudes, seasons and levels of exposure to sunlight, and that they didn’t increase in winter.

Of course, that may be true, and I do wonder if there are people who get depressed particularly during hot sunny weather? Not everyone likes the heat. The thing is, there are people I know who are definitely less happy in winter, and if sitting in front of a lightbox helps, then why not?

I recently heard that the light emitted from the screen of a tablet or mobile phone has the same effect as daylight, so if you are struggling to get to sleep at night, then you need to stop looking at your screens at least an hour and half before you go to bed. I’m not very good at that, and often find myself tuning in to something on my tablet late at night, and even occasionally fall asleep while watching. I also know my boys definitely do not switch off their screens until just before they go to sleep. But we still seem to manage to nod off fairly easily, thankfully.

I can imagine that some may have found this latest lockdown more difficult thanks to the wintry weather and those of us forced to stay at home have spent far more time inside staring at screens than we would otherwise do. First time round, which unbelievably is almost a year ago now, we were blessed with a lot of fine, dry days, so it was easy to get out on walks and bike rides, which hasn’t been the case this time around.

Thankfully, as I write this, the signs are that the restrictions will soon be easing and, fingers crossed, we might be able to return to some kind of normality, just as the warmer, brighter days of Spring are upon us.

Now wouldn’t that be welcome!

Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 12th and the Gazette & Herald on 10th March 2021

Just a Stone’s Throw

The Yorkshire Dales are criss-crossed with hundreds of dry stone walls, some possibly dating from the 15th century and earlier

One of the most identifiable features of the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors is the dry stone wall that is as synonymous with the landscape as the sheep it is built to contain.

It’s amazing to think that some of these walls have been around for hundreds of years, built so sturdily that they still do the job as well they did when they were first constructed, despite the fact they have nothing but gravity, friction and the skill of the builder to hold them up. Part of their longevity is down to the fact that they move and give when battered by the elements, with rain, wind and snow able to pass through as well as around them.

There is evidence to suggest that Britons were building dry stone walls since before Roman times, often as a way of keeping predators away from settlements. Some early examples in the Yorkshire Dales have distinct overhanging top stones which it is believed were designed to stop wolves leaping over them because the design died out at the same time as wolves became extinct at the end of the 15th century.

It was during the medieval period, as people moved to live on higher ground, that they became very popular. The higher you lived, the fewer the trees that grew there, and therefore less wood was available to build a structure to contain your livestock. But stones were plentiful, even though it was a laborious and backbreaking process, digging the rock out of the ground then transporting it by cart or sledge to wherever it was needed.

Medieval monks also favoured the technique during the construction of their churches and abbeys, and fine examples can be seen at Fountains Abbey near Ripon.

As the feudal system in England died out, common land was divided up during the period of ‘enclosure’ in the 18th and 19th centuries and private owners became responsible for their own parcel of land, which in upland areas was marked out by dry stone walls.

As my dad mentions in his column from 28th February 1981, the strength of the wall depends on it having good foundations and correctly-placed ‘through’ stones. A through stone is a larger piece that spans the full width of the wall and is paced at regular intervals along and up and down the wall. It keeps smaller stones below it place, and increases the stability above it.

The shape of the wall is like the letter A, wider at the bottom then gradually narrowing towards the top. Stones are sorted into sizes, with those that will make suitable through stones set aside. A channel, slightly wider than the wall, is first dug out of the ground, up to a foot deep, and the largest stones are placed in it for foundations, with small stones filing the gaps. A skilled craftsman will know which shaped stones should go where, where to put those with curved edges, and where to put those with more angular shapes. Once it is built, it is often finished with a tightly packed row of stones placed vertically with curved edges pointing up.

The whole lot will then stand for many, many years, without any need for cement or mortar, with simply gravity and the weight of the stones themselves holding it all in place. They become a rich habitat for a whole host of flora and fauna, with creatures like field mice, shrews, hedgehogs and insects using them for shelter, while birds will nest in them, and hunters will perch atop to spy for prey.

They also support various species of moss, lichen and wildflower, each one flourishing in its own mini ecosystem that evolves on the part of the wall that suits them. Some will be found on the cooler, windy, wet, north face of a wall, while others will enjoy a warmer, drier, south facing side.

In North Yorkshire we have 13,000 miles of dry stone wall, while nationally there are almost 120,000 miles. Unfortunately, only a relatively low percentage, 13%, are in good condition, with 17% in a state of advance decay. A whopping 70% are considered derelict.

Thankfully, there are still skilled craftsmen out there continuing to pass on their art, teaching others how to build with courses, video tutorials, and workshops, helping to preserve and maintain this wonderful feature of our historical landscape.

Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 5th and the Gazette & Herald on 3rd March 2021

All in a game

We played lots of playground games when I was at primary school in Ampleforth in the 1970s (I’m sitting in the middle of the front row in a fetching waistcoat)

I live not far from a school and I can hear the happy sounds of the children in the playground enjoying the respite from lessons. I often wonder what kinds of games they play, and whether they still enjoy those that my generation did as youngsters. 

There was a whole host of them, the rules not written down, but we all knew what to do, such as Wallflower, Leapfrog, Kiss Catch, Cat’s Cradle, Marbles, Conkers, Hopskotch, British Bulldogs, and Stuck in the Mud. In his column from 21st February 1981, my dad describes games from his own youth, and one that he calls ‘Sheep and Wolf’ sounds very similar to what I would call ‘What Time is it Mr Wolf?’

In Sheep and Wolf, one person would be a shepherd and another the wolf, while everyone else was a sheep. The sheep and shepherd would stand facing each other at either end of the playground while the wolf would loiter at the side. The shepherd would shout ‘Sheep, sheep, come home’ while the sheep replied, ‘No, no, we can’t, there’s a wolf.’ After this has been repeated a few times, the shepherd then says, ‘The wolf has gone home’ and the sheep then have to race across to the shepherd without getting caught by the wolf. Whoever got caught would become the next wolf. 

‘What Time is it Mr Wolf?’ was similar although there was no shepherd. One person was the wolf at one end of the playground facing away from the sheep at the other. The sheep would ask ‘What time is it Mr Wolf?’ and the wolf would say a time, and the sheep would creep forward. This would carry on a few times, with the sheep getting closer and closer, until Mr Wolf would suddenly reply ‘It’s dinner time!’, and turn around to chase the sheep.

Some of these games meant that you could target a boy or girl that you liked, and I remember not trying too hard to run away if the wolf was a boy I had taken a shine to.

When we were very young it was ‘The Farmer’s in his Den’. You all stood in a ring holding hands with everyone else singing the well-known song. The farmer, who was in the centre, chose a ‘wife’, usually a girl he liked, then the ‘wife’ chose a ‘child’, the ‘child’ chose a ‘nurse’, the ‘nurse’ a ‘dog’ and the ‘dog’ a ‘bone’, and at the end, for some reason I have yet to fathom, everyone patted the ‘bone’. Some of us were rather over-enthusiastic with the bone-patting and teachers occasionally had to intervene!

A game from Dad’s childhood was called the ‘Sally Waters Kissing Game’ (Others have it as ‘Sally Walker’, but who was this mysterious lass, I wonder?). The girls danced around a circle of boys, and one boy had to choose a girl and the rest would form a ring around the pair and everyone sang:

‘Why don’t you marry the girl you love?

Why don’t you marry the girl?

You’ve got the ring, and that’s everything,

Why don’t you marry the girl?’

There was a similar game known as Mana, Mana, Minetail, or Kissing in the Ring. Everyone stood in a circle, and each boy in turn had to call the name of a girl, saying ‘Mana, Mana, Minetail.’ The girl would shout ‘For what?’ and the boy would reply ‘Drink a glass of thinetail,’ to which the girl would reply, ‘Thank you for that, but catch me first.’ Obviously it was a way that a boy could let a girl know he had his eye on her, and no doubt if the feelings were mutual, the girl would not try too hard to get away.

Some of my favourites were hide and seek games, and one that I loved was ‘Block 123’ , where someone was ‘It’ and the rest of you had to run and hide. There was a place that was the ‘block’ and when someone was found they became imprisoned on the ‘block’. Those still hidden had to try and rescue the prisoner by getting to the ‘block’ without  getting ‘tigged’. 

Incidentally, in my corner of North Yorkshire, we called the famous chasing game ‘tig’, although I do know many who called it ‘tag’. What did you call it, and what playground games do you remember?

Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug


This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 26th February and the Gazette & Herald on 24th February 2021

The justice of Felons


In my dad’s column from 14th February 1981, he mentions some interesting ‘crime prevention’ initiatives that local populations established in the early 19th century to protect themselves and their property from the attentions of any ne’er-do-wells.

Before a national police force was created, many communities across the country came together to form groups with the aim of crime prevention and for the apprehension and punishment of outlaws. They were a bit like today’s neighbourhood watch schemes and the names of all these bodies were very similar, such as the ‘Glaisdale and Lealholm Society for the Prevention and Prosecution of Felons’, or the ‘Weardale Park and Forest Association for the Prosecution of Felons’.

These cumbersome names were shortened to ‘The Felons’ and, according to Dad, some of them were still going strong in 1981, though by then their main point of business seemed to be the arranging of an annual dinner, rather than maintaining local law and order. 

But what I found fascinating was the record of the original duties of the societies as it demonstrates what was important to rural residents in the 19th century. It gives us a snapshot of their lives back then, what it was that they valued and what was likely to be targeted by the criminals. They were also tasked with ensuring the streets were kept free of bothersome youths who would gather en masse in certain places to seek the kind of entertainment that would irritate the older members of the community.

The following is an account of the principles of the Weardale Felons. What follows is possibly one of the longest sentences known to man (whoever wrote it was not acquainted with the full stop), but I hope you will find it as entertaining as I did. 

The association existed ‘for the apprehending and bringing to conviction any person or persons committing murder, robberies, felonies or petty theft, notorious crimes or misdemeanours, in any of our dwelling houses or against any of our persons or by stealing any of our property from any outhouses, field or premises, or off or from the commons appurtenant or appendant to the said Parish of Stanhope, or any horses, mares, geldings, cows, calves, sheep, swine and poultry, and other goods and chattels of any description, hay, corn, turnips, potatoes, gates, flood-gates, rails, or by cutting or destroying any young trees or plants or breaking gardens or by taking away or destroying or burning any of our hedges or quicksets within said Parish of Stanhope, and also for the due punishing of any person or persons that may hereafter be found trespassing by going out of the roads, fighting, sliding upon the snow or ice, or playing at football or other unlawful games, in any of our fields and premises or otherwise, and for other purposes on the bond of association contained.’ Phew!

It’s funny to us now that football might be considered an ‘outlawed’ game, but it could be an extremely violent und unruly pastime, rather than the ‘beautiful game’ we see today. The rules of football were not officially set down until the 1850s, but most local clubs continued with their own version of ‘mob’ football which often resulted in some nasty injuries.

What I found most troubling though was a subsequent (and mercifully much shorter) paragraph about the punishment of felons: ‘We are determined that no means shall be neglected for apprehending and bringing such offenders to condign punishment.’ This suggests to me that they are giving themselves leave to dispense whatever form of vigilante justice they deem fit, which in itself is just a different kind of lawlessness. 

There were two words I had to look up in these society rules, and I hope I’m not the only one. I didn’t know that a ‘quickset’ was actually a type of hedge and not something offered by the hairdresser. And ‘condign’ in this context means a punishment that befits the crime, such as having your hand chopped off if you are caught stealing (although that is more a mediaeval punishment than from the 19th century). 

Although they seem to have granted members limitless powers, I’m not sure how effective these societies actually were. They gradually fizzled out with the advent of a national police force, with only a few, as I mentioned, enduring into modern times.

I wonder if any are still going to this day?

Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 19th February and the Gazette & Herald on 17th February 2021

Ship of Fools?

The Bonhomme Richard was sunk in the Battle of Flamborough Head in 1779 during the American War of Independence 


As I have mentioned previously, I have been enjoying rewatching the 2015 TV series Poldark during this latest lockdown. It is set in Cornwall and the coast and sea are featured as much as the main protagonists.

Back in the late 18th century when the stories are set, when a ship got into trouble in sight of the coast, there would be great excitement on land because any spoils that floated ashore would then become the property of whoever it was who owned the ground upon which it arrived. It did lead to some disputes, especially with the original owners of any salvaged cargo, which could be very valuable.

There are many wrecks that lie at on the ocean floor around our coastline, many of which are casualties of World War II. But we also have our fair share of 18th century timber ships too, and one of the most famous in Yorkshire is the U.S. warship Bonhomme Richard. According to my dad’s column from 7th February 1981, the 42-gun ship sank off Flamborough Head after a three and a half hour battle with the British Serapis on September 25th 1779 during the American War of Independence. It was captained by the infamous John Paul Jones, described by some as more of a pirate than a noble seaman, and the fact that this ship was in action at the very dawn of the U.S Navy is why it is of such importance to American historians.

When Dad wrote that column, no wreckage of the ship had ever been discovered, but since then there have been claims by two separate parties who have valid reasons for declaring they have found the remains of the Bonhomme Richard.

One claim was made by Harrogate-based company Merlin Burrows (MB), who specialise in using satellite imagery to locate lost archaeological treasures. In 2017, they said they had X-ray imaging showing what looked like a ship’s bell and a figurehead in the same place that the 1779 battle had taken place, and in 2019, they displayed some burnt timbers that they had retrieved from the waters below.

However, the claim is disputed by American experts who used eye-witness accounts and ship’s logs (also available to MB), alongside their own knowledge of how wreckage might drift underwater. They suggested that the location pinpointed by Merlin Burrows was not accurate. The discovery of the timbers place MB’s findings in the right timeframe, but there is little else revealed so far to suggest it is that particular ship.

Melissa Ryan, an ocean exploration expert, has worked with U.S., British and French navy officials since 2006 searching for wooden wrecks, including the Bonhomme Richard, and she says there are up to 1,500 boating carcasses littering the ocean floor around our coast, some, she says, dating back as far as Viking times. She believes the Bonhomme Richard lies further out to sea as an eye witness described the fatally damaged vessel ‘disappearing over the horizon’ before it sank.

A few miles out from the Yorkshire coast is what is known as ‘Torpedo Alley’, thanks to the abundance of shipping sunk by German submarines during both world wars. Most of these wreckages are made of metal, but, according to Ryan, in 2012 they found a wooden carcass among it all. They also found an anchor and rigging material that suggests it is of the same era as the Bonhomme Richard.

When Captain Jones acquired the merchant ship Duc de Duras in 1779, he adapted it so that it was ‘war ready’, added cannons and ‘iron knees’ to brace the ship, then changed its name to the Bonhomme Richard. Finding any of these items would strengthen the case of either claimant. The ‘Holy Grail’, though, would be to locate the ship’s bell which would bear the original name Duc de Duras and prove once and for all who is right. 

Looking for ships at the bottom oceans is a very expensive business, and I believe lack of finance is hampering further explorations, so it looks like we may not get an answer to the conundrum for some time to come. But if either party is ever proved right, I do hope that one day we will all get to discover more about at the ancient ship that fought its last battle just off the coast of our great county.

Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 12th February and the Gazette & Herald on 10th February 2021