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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

A message for lowlifes and cowards

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The moment the thieves were caught was captured on CCTV (picture used by kind permission of Rob Fawcett)

North Yorkshire and some its most well-known hotspots often appear in surveys of top places to live in the UK. Those of us who reside here know why, and love our county above all others, appreciating its beautiful scenery, quaint villages and friendly neighbourhoods.

My dad was so proud of it that he used it as the setting for nearly every book he wrote, showcasing the landscape and celebrating the characters that made up such strong local communities. In many places, we still hold on to the values that we grew up with, assuming it is safe to leave money outside for the window cleaner, or a bag on the door knob for the veg man to fill knowing it won’t get stolen. This climate of trust has evolved over generations, and our elderly loved ones leave their doors unlocked so neighbours can pop in and check all is well. If one of our community is in need, then the village leaps in to help, offering lifts to the doctor, popping into town for shopping, making a meal or simply coming round for a chat. It’s the kind of idyllic life that you see on the TV in shows like Heartbeat, All Creatures Great and Small and Last of the Summer Wine.

So you can imagine how heartbroken I was to learn that some absolute lowlifes have destroyed the feeling of trust and safety in my home village. There has been a spate of burglaries by some toe-rags who think that preying on the elderly is an acceptable way to make a living. These smartly-dressed and well-spoken young people were pretending to be selling items, then blagged their way into the homes of residents and pilfered whatever they could quickly lay their hands on. On another recent occasion (whether it was the same lot I don’t know), they broke into bungalows to steal money and jewellery from vulnerable people in their eighties and nineties.

I understand why people with financial or mental health problems can lose all sense of perspective and there are many heartbreaking reasons as to why they feel the need turn to crime to escape their reality. But what I don’t understand is why they have no care for the long term impact on their vulnerable victims. I’ve seen documentaries about this sort of thing, where thieves attempt to justify their actions by declaring ‘the insurance will pay them back’. But it’s not about the material stuff is it? It’s about causing untold and lasting mental trauma on a person who should feel safe in their own home, who should be able to live out their final years in peace and security.

Why don’t they stop for one moment to think how they would feel if their granny or grandad was too afraid to stay alone in their house because some moron broke in and robbed them of their tranquil life?

The good news is that in the latest incident the swindlers were caught the same day thanks to the very strength of that community bond that I mentioned earlier. Please note those of you who might be tempted to try this kind of distraction burglary in a North Yorkshire village again: We know each other well, we know what’s going on because we look out for one another and are familiar with the routines of our residents. We easily spot when something is amiss and will be straight on to our friends, neighbours and the police. And with the benefit of social media, if you’re up to no good, that news will be spread at breakneck speed.

In this latest case, the community became like a team of detectives. One post on Facebook was all that was needed, with people from every part of the village watching out and reporting what they had seen and when. By the end of the day, the three ratbags had been caught and were in the hands of the police, and hopefully, those that lost possessions had them returned to them.

I suppose one good thing about this is that now we know how they work, we know their modus operandi (M.O.) and so will be on guard for it in the future. But even so, the repercussions will last for a long time and people like my mum will no longer feel safe leaving their doors unlocked.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 16th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 14th September 2022

Two bees or not two bees?

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The monochrome ashy mining bee is a solitary bee that lives in underground burrows in coastal and moorland areas

You might remember that I recently wrote about some curious pea-sized holes that had appeared on one of my walking routes. It was the day after Warmageddon, the hottest day of the year, and I wondered whether it could be subterranean worms coming to the surface in a bid to escape the scorched earth surrounding them.

I was contacted by John Randles of Westerdale who thought they might have been made by a type of bee known locally as sand bees. A bank behind his house was littered with little holes and his friend said they were made by this bee. John also told me that sand bees will only emerge if the weather is just right. Too hot or too cold, it will keep to its burrow.

I tried to find out a bit more about sand bees, but could not find an insect of that name, neither in my dad’s books, nor on the internet. However, I did come across references to mining bees and so I am assuming that this is the species of bee in question. Reader Graeme Cunningham also suggested this after having some in his garden which lived in similar-sized holes.

Mining bees are solitary creatures, living alone in burrows beneath the ground, rather than in communal nests like their surface-dwelling relatives. You will spot if one has been active in your lawn if you see a small hole surrounded by a tiny volcano of earth. They are part of the Andrenidae subset of the bee family, of which there are 67 species in the UK.

The two most common are the tawny mining bee and the ashy mining bee, both of which are about the size of a honey bee, and not dissimilar in look and shape to a bumble bee. The female tawny bee is a beautiful wee thing, with black head and legs contrasting sharply against a sunset orange tail and thorax (the bit between the head and tail). Its male counterpart is smaller, and brownish in colour. The female will build her nest where grass is cut short, or in areas of bare soil. They fly between March and June and their favourite flowers include buttercups, dandelions and fruit tree blossom.

The ashy mining bee is distinctive by its monochrome colouring. It is mostly black, but with two grey stripes on its back. It adapts well to different habitats, and as it can be found in moorland and coastal areas, I wonder if this is what John Randles’ friend calls the ‘sand bee’?

It is a bit cleverer than its orange cousin though, in that it uses the excavated earth from building its nest to cover up the hole again, protecting it from rain and from deadly enemies. It can be seen flying from April to August, and you are most likely to spot them on willow, blackthorn, gorse, buttercups and fruit tree flowers.

Mining bees have a dastardly predator in the greater bee-fly. As the name suggests, it resembles a fluffy orangey-brown bee and its innocuous appearance means its prey mistake it for a benevolent relative. It is noticeable in the garden because it can be seen hovering in the same place for an unusually long time. That is because it will have spotted the entrance to a mining bee nest and is waiting for it to leave. Once the coast is clear, the devilish bee-fly will swoop in to deposit its eggs in the nest which, when hatched, will eat whatever is immediately available, such as the resident’s hard-earned pollen and its poor wee tawny bee babies.

It is also possible that the ‘sand bee’ is a type of wasp. Known as the ‘digger wasp’, their behaviour and nesting habits are very similar to the mining bee. The main difference, apart from the waspy appearance, is the fact that they are carnivores. They catch their prey by stinging them, which immobilises them, and then carry them home to devour. It’s not uncommon to see a digger wasp dragging a paralysed caterpillar twice its size.

The two main species in the UK are the field digger wasp and the sand digger wasp, and I think you can work out why they are so-named. This wasp particularly likes building its nest in steep, barren, banks, so is John Randles’ sand bee not a bee at all, but a wasp?

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

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 9th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 7th September 2022

Fantastic Mr Fox?

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Foxes are generally not aggressive unless they are protecting their young. Picture by Mick Gisbourne
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More and more foxes are being seen in urban gardens and seem unafraid of humans. Picture by Mick Gisbourne

Since the 1930s, foxes have been finding their way into our villages and towns where they make their dens and live happily amongst us, the main reason being that food is so easy to to come by. A fox is an opportunist hunter, and therefore if dinner is readily available in our bins, our gardens or just thoughtlessly dropped on the ground, then he’ll choose that option rather than than go to the effort of having to chase it down himself. Numbers in rural areas are decreasing, while they are steadily rising in built-up areas.

The urbanised fox often shows little fear of humans, and in some cases, demonstrates what can seem like downright defiance. My sister lives in a city suburb and has been having trouble with a family of foxes for some time. They play in her garden and show absolutely no concern about being out in the open during daylight hours.

One day, she heard an almighty commotion at the back of the house, and witnessed her terrified pet cat come hurtling though the hallway to disappear up the stairs. When my sister went to investigate, she found a fox sitting on her sofa in the conservatory! She chased it away, but the brazen fox is still intent on chasing the cat, and so now she dare not leave the patio door open if no-one is in the room, and is on constant fox-watch whenever the cat dares to go out.

Having done some research, I’m relieved to discover that foxes are not generally considered a threat to cats, and tend to avoid any conflict with them, knowing they are likely to come of worse in a confrontation. But if they have had cubs, then they will see off anything that they consider a danger to the offspring. My sister said there were cubs around, so it is likely it was mum or dad fox defending the babes from her curious cat.

In my dad’s column from 28th August 1982, he suggests that the fox’s reputation for being cunning is not really deserved. He repeats a couple of fox-related myths which he thinks are just old wives tales.

The first one is that the fox catches prey by making them dizzy. The story goes that if a fox spots a group of rabbits nibbling the grass, he will creep stealthily ever-closer, and then start performing strange antics to catch their attention. Once the rabbits see him, he then starts chasing his tail, spinning in mesmerising circles, edging ever closer to the captivated bunnies. The watching rabbits get so dizzy that they are simply unable to run away, and the fox’s trick has earned him his dinner.

The second tale involves the way a fox deals with an infestation of fleas. To rid himself of the itchy pests, a fox will take a clump of moss (or other greenery) in his mouth, then wade out into a nearby river or pond. He will keep going until he is out of his depth. Then, he will gradually let his body sink, tail first, and as he does so, the fleas creep up his body to avoid the water. He keeps slowly sinking until only his muzzle with the moss is showing. To avoid drowning, the beleaguered fleas leap onto the moss, at which point, the fox lets go, and the moss with its nippy passengers on board, sails off with the current.

Other versions have the fox creeping from the shore tail first into the water. Again, I can only find the same or similar stories repeated, rather than any source suggesting this is actual fox behaviour. The story apparently goes right back to ancient Greece, which is impressive nevertheless. I’ve tried to find credible references to both of these behaviours and have come up empty handed. So my very non-scientific conclusion is that they are just myths. But as the stories are well-known and generations old, it could go some way to explaining how the fox’s reputation for cunning persists.

What I have found out though, is that generally, foxes are not confrontational, nor aggressive, unless threatened or protecting young. My sister’s fox has been known to sit in her garden and stare at her house, which she says she finds quite unnerving.

Let’s hope it is simply admiring the view.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 2nd September  and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 31st August 2022

Feeling rather waspish

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This wood wasp in the entrance to a bird box gives you an idea of how big they are

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Wood wasps had made their nest in a bird box attached to the house

I was at a lovely country cottage that’s for sale in Ryedale recently, just doing some final checks before the potential buyers arrived, when I heard what sounded like the low hum of a Lancaster bomber.

I glanced towards the closed patio doors from where it was coming and, to my horror, saw that a giant wasp had found its way inside. The huge creature, which I concluded had escaped from Jurassic Park, was hovering and swooping ominously about.

Its considerable size convinced me it was a hornet, for what other buzzing yellow and black thing was that big? I knew hornets were not common up north, but couldn’t fathom what else it might be. I bravely managed to dodge past it to open the patio doors and, much to my relief, it lumbered out into the open air just as the viewers arrived.

I’ve always been afraid of wasps, and have had an even greater fear of hornets since I went to France as a teenager. The farmhouse I stayed in was plagued with terrifying striped buzzing beasts, which dwarfed anything I had ever seen back home in England. I was never stung by one, but the way the family insisted on the windows being shut before it got dark and the way they left a big bright light on outside the barn to divert them away from the house, made me think there must have been some reason to fear them. I assumed they must be hornets, and determined to stay as far away from them as humanly possible.

As I showed the couple around the cottage, I extolled the charms of the spacious kitchen and delightful sitting room, and then suggested we go and see the first floor. As we climbed the stairs, I froze. There, gliding round the landing light like a flock of hungry pterodactyls, were three or four more of the dreaded things.

Like the consummate professional that I am, I yelped, “Argghh!” before scuttling on up the rest of the steps, sashaying around them at the top, then hurrying into the nearest bedroom. The viewers, bizarrely, paid little attention to them (although I may have seen them raise an eyebrow or two towards me).

After the viewing, the owner of the house, a self-confessed nature lover, came back and when I suggested that she might need to get pest control in, she laughed. She explained that they were not hornets at all, but wood wasps and they were absolutely harmless. She led me to the side of the house to a set of bird boxes on the wall. The wasps had made a nest inside one of them and were peacefully coming and going, minding their own business. It is likely that the viewers, who were used to living in the countryside, knew exactly what they were. 

How did I not know about the wood wasp before? I grew up in the country too, but don’t recall coming across it. I’m sure if I had, my dad would have explained what it was. I have a feeling that those I saw in France were probably wood wasps too.

The wood wasp, also known as the giant horntail, does look terrifying, but its merely its armour against predators. It has a similar black and yellow striped body to the common wasp, but is more than double the size. Its spiked tail can be mistaken for a stinger, and the female has an extra long black spike at the end of her body, which looks lethal, but is in fact an ovipositor, a tube that enables her to penetrate wood and lay her eggs inside. These wasps are very docile, do not sting and, unlike their carnivorous doppelgängers, don’t eat other insects, preferring to dine on wood, especially pine.

Hornets are still rarely seen here in the north, and are distinguishable from the common wasp by their large size and chunkier body which, unlike wasps, is not pinched at the waist. While wasps generally have a black head, upper body and yellow legs, a hornet has lighter copper brown head, upper body and legs. Another little-known fact is that they are not likely to be aggressive unless their nest is being threatened.

So now, if ever I do come across one, I’ll just calmly walk on by. Or maybe I’ll run.

Yes, I’ll definitely still run.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 24th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 22nd August 2022

Flushed with good ideas

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Rosemary and lavender are just two of the plants that have thrived during the prolonged dry spell

As I write, the dry weather continues and very little rain is forecast for the coming weeks. It must be causing havoc for our farmers and other businesses that rely on natural rainfall to thrive. Water companies are imposing hosepipe bans, and our reservoirs remain worryingly low.

I was listening to local radio this morning, and they were talking to experts about the impact of the dry spell, and sharing ways in which we as individuals could help. I found some of the information useful and informative, so thought I would pass it on.

Having said that, I’m not sure I can bring myself to follow the tip about only flushing the loo once a day. That’s a sacrifice too far for me. I might instead order a free ‘Flushsaver’ offered by Yorkshire Water which is a kind of bag that when placed in your cistern, allows you to save between one and two litres per flush (but they are only suitable for single-flush toilets rather the increasingly common dual-flush systems that enable you to choose a short or a long flush depending on your…er…deposit).

One of the things they were discussing was the garden-proud Englishman’s seemingly unshakable need to water his lawn, no matter how diminished our domestic water supply is. Who cares if our reservoirs are so depleted that the villages that were deluged to create them are beginning to reappear? Does it really matter that our country is on the brink of a national emergency? Keeping our lawns looking pretty is far more important, surely?

That kind of attitude is quite staggering when you know that watering your lawn is completely unnecessary. Established grass is quite resilient, as its roots are deep enough to cope with dry spells. Yes, it will go brown and crispy for a bit, but that is a small price to pay if the alternative is a nationwide crisis. Come the next downpour, your lawn will bounce back to its verdant self. If we overwater our gardens, the plants’ roots remain close to the surface where they are vulnerable, rather than reach deeper where the soil is more moist and the roots are protected. A bit of tough love will teach them to become more resistant to extreme weather.

The expert on the radio was quite scathing about people who selfishly keep dousing their gardens. We take this essential resource for granted because we normally experience so much rain. But we cannot afford to do that any longer. She also explained that keeping the grass bowling-green short is not good for it either, and suggested allowing it to grow to a longer length as it will encourage the roots to grow deeper and therefore the lawn will become more able to cope in drier weather.

She advised a more selective approach to watering rather than to just let rip with a hosepipe like a killer on a shooting spree. Selectively target where you put the water, and prioritise the things that actually need it to survive, such as salad and vegetables, or things that have been recently planted. Those that are already established will bounce back when the rain returns, which it inevitably will. And on the subject of our unpredictable, see-saw of a climate, if you want a garden that looks colourful whatever the weather, choose differing floral species that thrive in a variety of conditions, whether it is sunny and warm, or wet and cold. Then whatever weather prevails will determine which flower grabs the limelight, and you will be blessed with colour all the time. At the moment, begonias, geraniums, lavender and rosemary are relishing the long dry sunny days.

Common sense should tell you to water in the evening too, as the plants will benefit from it all night long, rather than it evaporating in the heat of the sun. Laying down mulch will also keep valuable moisture in the ground. It of course makes sense to make the most of the rain when it does come, so have plenty of vessels in your garden to collect it, such as water butts, buckets and troughs.

During my research, I discovered an article featuring an expert from the Royal Horticultural Society who offered tips about how to use water wisely during a drought.

His name was Mr Gush.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 19th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 17th August 2022

Did you survive Warmageddon?

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On Warmageddon Day, my car recorded a temperature of a whopping 41°C

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Tuesday 19th July was so hot the tarmac under the road surface began to melt and bubble up

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One positive is that the heat has slowed down my super-fast-growing grass, turning it into parched straw

I am typing this column the day after Tuesday 19th July, which I have nicknamed ‘Warmageddon’. The country went into meltdown in more ways than one when temperatures across the UK hit unprecedented heights. They peaked at over 40°C for the first time since records began, with Coningsby in Lincolnshire recording the official top temperature of 40.3°C, almost 2°C higher than the previous record of 38.7 which was achieved in Cambridgeshire in July 2019.

Some schools and workplaces decided to close rather than force people to struggle in to sit in baking hot classes and offices, while many sports fixtures were postponed or cancelled. Even Aysgarth Falls on the River Ure decided to take a break from the heat, the normal torrent being reduced to a tiny trickle. We are assured though, that after a good downpour, the river and falls will quickly return to normal.

I walked the short distance from my mum’s house to the local shop, and by the time I got back, the soles of my flips flops were beginning to melt. It was no doubt due to the scorching pavement and I had to then spend several minutes plucking out stones that had become embedded in the softening rubber (Dog owners take note – imagine what happens to paw pads). I’d noticed the bitumen on the road had begun to melt too, the glistening black syrup seeping up through the gravelled surface.

I spent much of the day in the car and watched my dashboard with ever increasing astonishment as the reading crept higher and higher until it crested at a whopping 41°C. Never have I been so grateful to have a decent air-con system. As I drove, I listened to local radio, and the news was full of stories of how Warmageddon was bringing the country to its knees. Trains between York and London were halted for a number of heat-related reasons, including a fire at a crossing at Sandy in Bedfordshire.

The London Fire Brigade declared a major incident after blazes broke out in several parts of the city, and later described it as their busiest day since World War II. The threat of fire in North Yorkshire was categorised as ‘high to very high’, while some southern counties were classified as ‘extreme to very extreme’. Fire continues to be a very real threat to the tinder dry vegetation that is dying before our eyes. My lawn, if you can call it that anymore, is almost completely brown and feels like brittle straw beneath my feet (I will take a small positive from the situation though; the dry and the heat has knocked my bionic super-speedy growing grass for six so I might get away with not mowing it for another week. Every cloud…).

Those of us of a certain age cannot help but be reminded of the infamous Summer of ’76. That heatwave was positively arctic compared to this year, with temperatures peaking at a measly 35.9°C. What set it apart though, was the duration. A drought had already been declared from the previous September and we had had precious little rainfall by the time the warm weather arrived in May.

From then onwards, it was day after day of hot dry weather, and between 23rd June and 7th July the temperature surpassed 32°C for 15 straight days. The situation was so severe that in August the Government introduced the Drought Act, giving it the powers to ration water.

We will never forget the insect invasions either. I remember green clouds of aphids drifting through our village, followed a couple of days later by swarms of ladybirds which, unusually, bit you when they landed on you. I have learned that they did so simply as a way to try and survive, attempting to get any sustenance from whatever source was available.

The dry and heat persisted right through until September, when thunderstorms and rain finally brought the drought to an end .

So what would you rather have? Four months of hot, dry weather, not dissimilar to the kind of summer experienced by our Mediterranean friends? Or would you prefer the recent short, sharp burst of searing heat of the kind you might experience in the Tropics? And are either preferable to the rubbish rainy summers we are more used to?

I’m yet to make my mind up on that one.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 5th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 3rd August 2022

Worth a shot

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Although nervous at first, I really enjoyed my first experience of clay pigeon shooting

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Our young clay pigeon shooting instructor was very relaxed and patient with us beginners

The thought of having to intentionally kill something turns my stomach which is why I’ve never been tempted to try any form of game shooting. However I’ve always fancied having a go at shooting something inanimate, so when I spotted that clay pigeon shooting was available near our cottage on our recent holiday in the Lake District, I jumped at the chance.

I booked a beginners’ session as none of us had ever held a real gun before, let alone handled one loaded with live ammunition. I’m sure many of you country ladies and gents who have been shooting for years are perfectly comfortable around this sort of thing, but I was quaking in my boots, being in the presence of such lethal equipment for the first time.

I needn’t have worried. Our young instructor put us at our ease and explained all the safety aspects clearly, telling us how to handle the guns, how to stand, how to aim and all that sort of thing. He was very patient with us, but especially with me, the nervous ageing matriarch of the posse.

He explained how you should hold the butt of the gun firmly into the shoulder to minimise bruising caused by the kickback of the firing gun. I’ve never felt such trepidation as when I finally put my finger on the trigger and shouted ‘Pull!’. That first shot was quite an experience. The force of the bullet leaving the chamber threw me bodily backwards and an involuntary expletive escaped my lips. Needless to say, I missed that first clay, but quickly learned that you have to really get your stance right, weight forward on your front leg, feet firmly planted on the ground, cheek resting solidly on the stock (or comb as it is also known, which is the main ‘handle’ bit before the butt).

I soon got the hang of it and the more relaxed I became, the easier I found it. I say ‘easier’. I don’t mean I suddenly became a crack shot, rather I didn’t feel like I was going to fall over every time I fired. One of the things that takes a bit of getting used to is the noise. We had to wear ear defenders, but occasionally I forgot to put them them on, and when you are that close to a gun going off, it is almost deafening.

I did wonder why you have to shout ‘Pull’, but our tutor didn’t know, and thus the seed of a column was planted.

Back in the day, before clays were invented, there used to be pigeon shooting competitions where birds would be held on the ground in specially dug holes and kept in place by top hats. A piece of string was attached to the hat, held at other end by someone standing at a safe distance. The competitor would shout ‘Pull’ and the man with the string, known as the ‘trapper’, would give it a good yank, toppling the hat and releasing the bird. The first pigeon shooting club, called ‘The Old Hats’, was founded in North London in the 1800s.

By 1793, wooden traps were invented that were boxes with a sliding lids which were opened when the string was pulled, thus releasing the bird. By 1921, it was recognised that this was a cruel form of competition, and it was banned in England, although it is still an active sport in many other countries.

Here, the competition was able to continue with live pigeons being replaced by round clays, and special traps were designed to launch them into the air. Originally, they were very simple, casting the clay aloft by a spring mechanism activated manually. Over time, traps became ever more sophisticated and today they can discharge clays at different speeds, in different directions and heights and with different flight patterns designed to replicate the varied behaviours of diverse species of game, all activated by remote control from a safe distance. We tried one that was placed in a nearby oak to mimic the movement of a squirrel emerging from the base of a tree trunk and running across the ground.

For that one we got to try a pump action shotgun, which I found strangely exhilarating. Thankfully, for the safety of the nation, it is likely the last time I will ever handle one.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 29th July and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 27th July 2022

What comes to pass

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My son taking a picture looking down Kirkstone Pass towards Brotherswater
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The route up to Kirkstone Pass from Ambleside is known as The Struggle due to the steep gradients

 

I took a week off work recently and spent some precious time with my boys in the Lake District. It was one of my dad’s favourite parts of the world and I have many fond memories of holidays there as child, so was keen to share it with my own children.

It is impossible, in a single column, to cover all the wonderful sights we saw, so I am going to focus on one must-see – Kirkstone Pass.

I can’t remember the last time I went, but I reckon it was more than 20 years ago, so I’d forgotten just what an amazing route it is. Rising almost 1500 feet above sea level, the A592 road links Windermere and Ullswater. It used to be a drovers’ road busy with farmers driving their livestock southwards and it made me shudder to think how hard it must have been having to climb what is in parts a 1 in 4 gradient in all weathers without the aid of motorised transport. There is another route from Ambleside up to the top that is known locally as ‘The Struggle’ due to its punishing gradients.

I was accompanied by my 23-year-old son who isn’t the most outwardly expressive of souls, but I knew he was impressed, because whenever we stopped he took out his fancy DLSR camera and spent several minutes taking shots of the spectacular views.

The pass is named Kirkstone thanks to a huge boulder near the peak whose silhouette resembles a church (‘kirk’ is the Scottish and old English word for church). At the peak, there is an old inn which purportedly dates from around 1496, and is considered one of the most haunted in England. That claim intrigued me, as I love an old ghost story (I wonder where I inherited that from?).

We stopped at a car park nearby, and as I looked down the snakelike route towards Brotherswater, watching the steady stream of vehicles making their timid ascent, I did wonder about days gone by, when travellers had to rely on real horsepower to get around, and when cars were not as sophisticated and powerful as they are now. How did they cope with such a long and hazardous climb and descent?

Back home I delved into the online British Newspaper Archives, looking for the earliest stories I could find about Kirkstone Pass. Sure enough, there was tale after tale from decades past of mishaps, blunders and accidents involving coaches and horses, bicycles, motor cars and wagons, a good number of which resulted in fatalities (is that why the inn is so crowded with ghosts?).

I was captivated by the oldest which dated from the late 19th century, and what struck me were the overtly salacious headlines. There were no photographs to grab the attention back then, just swathes of grey type swimming before the eyes. So editors relied on man’s insatiable desire for tragedy and bloodshed to draw readers in (things haven’t changed there, then, have they!).

From the Penrith observer in 1890, we have ‘Shocking Coaching Disaster – Two Lives Lost’, and in 1893, the Maryport Advertiser declares ‘Alarming Carriage Accident – A Lady’s Leg Broken’, while in 1912, the Lakes Herald declares ‘Terrible Motor Smash on Kirkstone Pass – 1 Killed, 4 Injured. Car Turned Bodily Over’. In terms of horse-drawn carriages, it seems a common cause of accidents was either a wheel coming off, or part of the mechanism failing as the carriages tried to navigate the steep descent. For motor vehicles, it was generally the brakes that were unable to tolerate the momentum of vehicles gathering speed as they hit the steepest points.

The news stories back then were written in a much more flowery way that would likely be ridiculed today. As a preamble to the point of the story – the accident – we learn all about the victims’ holidays, how they had spent the previous days, what hotels they’d stayed in, how jolly they were when they set out that day, and how captivated they were by the fabulous scenery as they traveled towards their doom. It is a bit like an episode of Casualty. When we see a character having too good a time, we know that a disaster awaits them just around the corner.

Thankfully, despite the fact we had a good time, my son and I made it to the bottom all in one piece.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 22nd July and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 20th July 2022

Beneath God’s green earth

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The Woolpit village sign depicts a church in the centre with a wolf on one side and the green children on the other

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William of Newburgh Priory wrote about the legend of the green children of St Mary’s of the Wolf Pits  in the 12th century

 

My dad was a fan of folklore, mysteries and tales passed down through the centuries, which often originated as word-of-mouth stories. By including them in his books and columns, he felt he was doing his bit to preserve them for generations to come.

In his column from 17th July 1982, he features one story that he feared might disappear for good if it wasn’t retold. The story had been the subject of debate for many hundreds of years as to whether it was true, rather than mere legend. There were a few written references to it, the earliest being from William of Newburgh, a scholar and historian born in Bridlington in 1136. As an adult, he joined the priory at Newburgh, near Coxwold, where he lived until his death in about 1198. It was there that he composed his most famous and most valuable work, ‘Historia Rerum Anglicarum’ or ‘History of English Affairs’. It is considered one of the most important works on 11th and 12th century England, and covers the period from 1066 through to 1198. William relies a lot on oral tradition and legend, and so much of what he writes cannot be relied upon as a true account. However, he also records recent historical and contemporary topical events, which is why his writings are so highly valued. He includes the story of the Green Children, and tells it as though it actually happened, calling it ‘a strange and prodigious event’.

The curious tale occurs during the reign of King Stephen, who ruled from 1135 until 1154, and centres around the Suffolk village of St Mary’s of the Wolf Pits (now known as Woolpit), a few miles from Bury-St-Edmunds.

During this time, it was common to build hidden trenches to capture wolves, and it was at the entrance to one of these that two disheveled young children were found, scared, lost and hungry. They spoke an unusual language that no-one could comprehend, but that wasn’t the strangest thing. Although in many ways they looked like any other child of the time, their skin was tinged with green.

As there was no sign of an adult with them, they were taken to the local Lord of the Manor, Richard de Caine (sometimes spelled ‘Calne’) and offered food. Although they were clearly starving, they refused it, until someone entered the kitchen with some green beans. The children became excited, and once the pods were opened, eagerly devoured the beans inside.

Unfortunately, the boy later became ill and passed away, but his sister thrived. Gradually, as she adapted to a new diet, her skin returned to a normal colour and she learned how to speak English. She told her rescuers that she came from a country known as St Martin’s Land, and that the saint was worshipped in the churches there. But the country existed in a perpetual twilight, the sun always lying very low in the sky.

Sir Richard employed the girl as a servant, and she later married a local man, living contentedly for many years. She never wavered from her story, explaining that she and her brother were tending to their flocks of sheep in St Martin’s Land, when they came across a deep cavern. Upon entering, they were drawn deeper by the sound of bells, and kept walking until they came to an opening. Venturing out, they were dazzled by the brightness of the daylight, and the air felt so different. They wandered a little further until they were startled by the sound of approaching voices. Terrified, they tried to find the entrance again, but could not, and that is when they were found by the party of people and rescued.

Some later scholars suggested that the children could be orphans of Flemish settlers, and the strange skin colour was down to malnourishment causing a type of anaemia linked to lack of protein and iron. Others suggest it is, like many legends, an allegory, for life overcoming death, or a victory for Christianity over paganism. Other suggestions from the past include that they fell from the sky, that they came from a mysterious fairy land, or that they found a secret tunnel to get to us from across the sea.

If you ever have occasion to visit Woolpit, then look out for the village sign. You’ll seen the silhouette of a wolf next and a couple of little green children.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 15th July and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 13th July 2022