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

Caught in a trap

The Venus Flytrap plant bought by my son
An unlucky victim!

In 1981, when Dad was writing his column for the corresponding week to this one, there was rather a fuss being made in the news about the height that some local foxgloves were achieving. The average height of a foxglove is between four and six feet, but there were reports of one in York reaching seven foot, and another eight foot six inches.

This ignited my dad’s competitive spirit and he eagerly headed into the garden, armed with a tape measure to find out how our clumps of foxgloves fared against their lanky rivals. Indeed, he found the leader of this unruly bunch, which had colonised a corner near our garden shed, to be at least eight foot tall, and the rest were over six foot. The foxgloves had done unusually well, he believed, because there had been plenty of days of rain that summer, followed by long spells of warmth and sunshine, a bit like this year.

It makes me wonder if any readers have come across any giant foxgloves in 2021? The bumper year four decades ago also prompted Dad to ask: “I wonder if there is such a thing as a world record for the tallest foxglove?”

Of course, had he been asking the question now rather than in 1981, he would have quickly found the answer thanks to the internet. I can reveal that the Guinness World Record has been held since 1997 by Lydia Foy, from County Kildare in Ireland, whose specimen was measured at 10 feet 10 inches.

It might surprise Dad to learn, though, that even that one was beaten by the tallest foxglove yet to be recorded. That honour went to a couple who live Victoria, Canada, who last year measured a still growing flower at more than 11 feet. It prompted Ken Marr, the botany curator of the Royal British Columbia Museum, to declare it was ‘a flower on steroids’. Despite the accolade, the owners were not tempted to apply for inclusion in the Guinness Book of World Records.

The foxglove is excellent at seeding itself, and as such is considered a pest by some. It starts blooming in May or June, the individual bell-shaped flowers adorning its stem, and as it shoots up, the flowers appear higher up, and the lower ones mature into little capsules full of seeds. It is a most useful plant, its dried leaves being the source of the drug Digitalis, which is still used today to treat heart problems. It strengthens the contractions of that vital organ, thus helping a diseased or weakened heart to cope with the demands of the human body. English physician and botanist William Withering (1741 – 1799) was the first to use it in this way. 

Digitalis can also be poisonous, though. Occasionally, toxicity can build up inside the body leading to loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhoea or blurred vision. It can also cause the heart to beat faster or slower than normal, or to become erratic, and in extreme cases, can even lead to heart failure. As a result, the drug must only be taken under close supervision.

Talking of plants, one of nature’s most curious creations currently sits on my kitchen window sill. It is the fascinating, yet undeniably gruesome, Venus Flytrap. My son decided he wanted to buy one because he was captivated by the thought that a plant could be carnivorous. I didn’t object because, thanks to the warm weather, we had hoardes of flies buzzing about the house.

My son takes great pleasure in picking up dead flies and depositing them into the waiting jaws of the trap (he does that because he doesn’t have the patience to wait for a live fly to land upon it). Touching the hairs lining the trap triggers an electric charge which causes the jaws to shut, the interlocking teeth preventing escape. A live insect will continue to struggle, and that prompts the trap to completely seal before secreting digestive juices which dissolve the soft tissue, turning it into a nutritious liquid that is then absorbed by the plant. Once it is completely dissolved, usually about a week later, the trap reopens ready to welcome its next meal. 

I’m not going to lie, it is quite macabre to watch, and yet so interesting, and each time I see it happen, I have to marvel at the wonder of nature. 

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 3rd and the Gazette & Herald on 1st September 2021

No place like home

My boys were distraught when we announced we would be moving house
I wasn’t attached to our old house, but I underestimated how attached my children were to it

In my dad’s column from 22nd August 1981, he mentions the fact that we would soon be moving house. After 14 years, we were decamping from our small 19th century cottage to a larger, brand new house further up the village.

I remember feeling terribly excited, the 14 year old me not appreciating ye olde worlde charm of our little dwelling. The wooden beams, cast iron fireplaces and fantastic garden couldn’t compete with two bathrooms and a downstairs loo (and anyone who has performed the toilet dance while waiting for the one and only WC to become free will understand that).

But the abundance of facilities wasn’t the only attraction. After having shared a bedroom all my life, I was finally going to get one all to myself. Granted, it was only a box room, but I couldn’t wait to have a space to call my own. In fact, according to the original floorplan, my bedroom didn’t exist, but Dad persuaded the builder to shave a bit off some of the other bedrooms and squeeze in a fifth, for which I (and no doubt my sister who otherwise would have had to share with me) was eternally grateful.

I have very fond memories of both of those houses and still refer to the village as ‘home’, even though I have been away from it for longer than I lived in it. I still feel a strong bond which I simply will never have with the place in which I live now.

It wasn’t evident on the surface that my own children had such a bond with the house we lived in when they were small, but it was memorably demonstrated to us when we decided to move in the early 2000s. My husband was Dutch, and after having lived in the UK for many years, he had the prospect of a better job in The Netherlands. How nice, we thought, for our children to get to know their Dutch family better and to experience life in a different culture.

We knew our three boys, then aged between 10 and 15, might be reluctant at first, so decided that when we told them, we would sweeten the blow with a promise of a meal at their favourite pizza place (others might call it an attempt at bribery, but I can’t possibly comment). About an hour before we were due at the restaurant, we sat the boys down and broke the news, ready for any questions they might have, expecting some protestations, but confident that the lure of pizza would win them over.

Oh boy, how we underestimated the impact of our revelation! What next ensued was the kind of drama you only see in the Queen Vic when the Sharon Watts is having a barney with Phil Mitchell. The middle one threw himself on the floor screaming, the eldest ran up to his room screaming, while the youngest stayed on the sofa, screaming. After half an hour of extremely loud and bitter screaming, we had to admit that our strategy had completely backfired. I had to phone the restaurant to cancel the table, then spent the rest of the evening trying to console three bitterly upset, bewildered and still screaming children.

My husband and I didn’t feel particularly attached to the house we lived in at the time. It was a nice house in a good location that suited our circumstances, but it wasn’t anything special, at least, that’s what we thought. What we had completely failed to appreciate was that our children felt completely differently. It was the only home they had ever known, and so of course to them, it was special. All their friends lived around there, they all went to school together and they each had their own bedroom, a space they treasured. They felt about that house just as strongly as I did about my childhood homes, but until that moment, that thought had never occurred to me. No amount of pizza could make up for uprooting them from where they felt they belonged and making them start again in a completely new country. 

Of course, if we had moved, I’m sure they would have eventually settled in to their new surroundings, but, for a number of reasons, we ended up staying where we were anyway.

Never again, though, did I underestimate the value of ‘home’, wherever in the world that happened to be.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 27th and the Gazette & Herald on  25th August 2021

A sad tale of doggedness

A steam train pulling into Garsdale Station on the Settle-Carlisle railway line. Picture by Karen Bergdahl. 

Graham Nuttall’s faithful companion Ruswarp, who would not leave his master’s side, even after he died. Picture by Karen Bergdahl.

Like my dad before me, I am an animal lover, and one of the things I enjoy is looking after dogs when their owners are working or away on holiday. Many breeds have crossed my threshold, and it’s no surprise that the one I find most intelligent and loyal is the good old Border Collie, a dog that for obvious reasons is favoured by people working in rural parts of North Yorkshire.

This week, a tale about such a hound was brought to my attention, and it moved me to tears. It’s one I’d not come across, although I have no doubt that some readers will be familiar with it if they have ever travelled along the Settle to Carlisle railway line. A friend alerted me to it, having discovered it while on a break in the Yorkshire Dales.

The story starts with a chap called Graham Nuttall, a rail enthusiast who often used smaller cross-country routes to travel and to go walking with his trusty companion, a Border Collie named Ruswarp (as an aside, in all the articles I’ve found during my research for this column, the dog’s name is always followed by the instruction ‘pronounced ‘Russup’’. It never occurred to me to pronounce it any other way, descending as I do from a line of moorland folk who are all very familiar with the village near Whitby with same name and same pronunciation! Does anyone out there pronounce the ‘W’?).

When Graham got wind that one of the most beautiful train routes in Britain was threatened with closure, he decided to do something about it and helped found the Friends of the Settle-Carlisle Line, a group that was dedicated to campaigning against the closure. They spent many years fighting and proving that the line was worth saving and raised a petition, collecting signatures from more than 32,000 people – and one dog. Ruswarp, being a fee-paying passenger, was allowed to add his paw print to the petition. On 11th April 1989, they got the news they’d been hoping for, with the announcement that the treasured route had been reprieved.

Sadly, Graham, aged 41, did not live long enough to continue enjoying the train journey he’d battled so hard to save. Just nine months later, on 20th January 1990, he and Ruswarp left their home in Burnley, Lancashire, and purchased a day-return rail ticket to Llandrindod to go walking in the Welsh mountains. But they did not return. An extensive search and rescue effort failed to find them and it wasn’t until three months later, on 7th April, that another walker found Graham lying dead by a mountain stream.

Remarkably, however, Ruswarp was still alive, although obviously exhausted and emaciated. For 11 long, cold and wintry weeks, the faithful dog had not left his master’s side. He was too weak to walk and had to be carried down the mountain. A local vet nursed him back to health, and he was well enough to attend his master’s funeral. According to an eye witness, he sat quietly at the front, until Graham’s coffin began to move behind the crematorium curtains, and only then did Ruswarp let out a low, mournful howl.

Ruswarp was awarded the RSPCA’s Medallion and Collar for Vigilance and Animal Plaque for Intelligence and Courage. Sadly though, those traumatic months had taken their toll on the poor dog, who was already 14 years old, and he died not long after.

The story does not end there, though, and in 2009 on the 20th anniversary of the reprieve, a bronze statue of Ruswarp was unveiled at Garsdale Station, which lies on the line a few miles east of Sedburgh. It was Graham’s favourite stop along the route, and it’s easy to see why, as it commands beautiful views across to the west Pennines. The statue of Ruswarp is on the southbound platform, and he gazes across to the opposite platform towards a bench dedicated to his master.

The success of the 72-mile route today is a real credit to Graham and his colleagues who fought tooth and nail to preserve this heritage line. It has 14 tunnels and over 20 viaducts, and Ribblehead Station, once neglected and derelict, is now an award-winning visitor centre. What a wonderful lasting legacy, thanks to the man and his faithful dog who helped to make it happen.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 20th and the Gazette & Herald on  18th August 2021

A wasted move


Work takes me to some lovely places, including the North York Moors

My dad’s column from 8th August 1981 starts with a rant on one of his favourite topics, that of inconsiderate drivers clogging up our country roads. Although he was a patient man, Dad couldn’t abide what he called ‘Sunday drivers’ (His rant sparked one of my own, which you can read further down!).

I giggled as I read, hearing his voice in my head as I had heard it for real on many occasions: “I saw one at the head of a procession this week, trundling merrily along with a fuming queue behind. In the queue was a caravan, a lorry and a bus, and our hero’s selfish behaviour meant the caravan driver couldn’t overtake, and his slow speed was such that the caravan could not climb a steep hill. Our little man sailed over the summit leaving behind a queue of very angry motorists all stuck behind a caravan on a steep hill. I’ve no doubt, though, that he would congratulate himself on his skills.”

I am often in my car for work and enjoy it when the journeys take me to lovely locations around North Yorkshire. I’ve been despatched a number of times recently to Goathland, now a tourist honeypot since playing Aidensfield in the TV series Heartbeat, which was based on my dad’s Constable series of books.

I was due to meet a couple interested in buying a house on the North York Moors. I’m not one to often get cross, but this particular day was a very busy one, and a round trip to Goathland was more than two hours in the car on a baking hot day. I’m more than happy to make the journey for those with a genuine interest in seeing the house with a view to possibly buying it. However, this particular couple spent 10 minutes looking around, most of the time pointing out the faults of this pretty little moorland cottage, before the wife said, “I’m sorry you’ve had a wasted trip all the way from York, but we knew we didn’t’t want it before we came.”

Never has the word ‘sorry’ meant less. She can’t have been sorry about wasting my time, otherwise she would have let me know she didn’t want it before I drove all the way out there, wouldn’t she? Did it ever cross her mind that my hard-working boss would have to pay me for my time and my petrol just so she could spend 10 minutes poking around a house she had no intention of ever buying? Does she think we do this because we love nothing more than to meet selfish and thoughtless time wasters like her? Small businesses like ours are grateful to have survived the pandemic, but if everyone behaved like that, we would have no business at all.

The reason she didn’t want it, she explained, was because she knew there was a holiday home on neighbouring land. She said that they loved the moors and wanted to find a home but without visitors staying nearby.

So, if you want that quiet idyllic country lifestyle, but without the visitors, then perhaps it’s not the best idea to go looking in areas that are tourist hotspots, don’t you think? I do wonder sometimes if people forget that those who live and work in rural areas have to create ways to earn their living, and it’s no secret that places like the Dales and the Moors struggle to keep their young folk because there are simply not enough career opportunities to keep them there.

There are pros and cons of becoming a popular destination. The cons are obvious, but I would argue that the pros outnumber them. It would be interesting to find out from the North York Moors National Park Authority how much income is generated by visitors, income that helps maintain and look after our wonderful county and its beauty spots. And it would also be interesting to know just how many jobs have been created as a direct result of the success of Heartbeat, All Creatures Great and Small, Harry Potter and the like. Think of all the business that must generated for the hotels, guest houses, holiday cottages, restaurants, cafes, museums and other attractions, many of which are small independent organisations.

If I come across that couple again, I might suggest they move to the moon.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 13th and the Gazette & Herald on  11th August 2021

Deceivers spell it out

The graveyard of St Cuthbert’s Church, Crayke, where many of the Severs’ family ancestors lie

My columns about the graves at St Cuthbert’s Church in Crayke continue to bear fruit. If you remember, John Severs from Middlesborough solved the mystery of a set of initials on one of the headstones I mentioned. This week I was contacted by David Severs from Northallerton, who shares a common ancestry with John through the shoemaking Severs and Sivers of Crayke. John’s ancestors moved to Teesside while David’s settled in and around Settrington, near Malton.

David wrote: “John told you about the earliest record of his Severs ancestors at Crayke, the marriage of Richard Siver [sic] to Ann Dunning in 1771. The first Severs entry in the registers is actually even earlier: ‘Thomas, a Bastard-child of Jane Leckonby (charg’d by her on Thomas Siver) was Baptised on ye 28th day of January 1700’. The very next entry reads ‘Thomas Siver & Jane Leckonby were Marryed on ye 10th day of February 1700’. It seems Thomas waited to see if the child survived before he was prepared to marry Jane. Despite this inauspicious start, the couple’s marriage seems to have thrived for they had four more children.” Although this is yet another variation on the spelling of ‘Severs’ (others were Siver, Seaver and Seiver, with and without an ‘s’ at the end), David believes that Thomas Siver must also be an ancestor.

He explains how names came to be spelled differently. “All the Crayke entries from 1700 to 1734 are Siver. After the burial of the vicar in 1735, all the entries but two were Seiver, so the change of vicar brought about the change in spelling. From 1767 to 1784 it was always Siver and then became Seiver again. The first ‘s’ on the end is to be found in 1789. Only two Severs appear in the registers and they include the signature of a witness at a wedding in 1808.”

He adds: “William and Mary Severs of Settrington had a daughter in 1803, but they were recorded as Siver when a son was born in 1805, Sivers when a daughter was born in 1807, Siver again when children were born in 1809 and 1810 and Sivers again when four children were born between 1813 and 1818. The spelling depended on who made the entries. This is confirmed by the censuses: in the 1841 census the brothers Joseph and Benjamin  were recorded as Sivers, in 1851 Joseph was Sivers and Benjamin was Severs – different villages and different enumerators – and in 1861 both men were Severs.” So it looks like whoever was writing the name down decided how it should be spelled, rather than families themselves.

David goes on: “Even within families, spelling varied and I found a flagrant example of this at an Aysgarth wedding in 1779 when the vicar wrote Spensley, the groom signed Spenceley and the witnesses signed Spencely, Spensly and Spencley respectively!”

David then recalls a tale of teasing his son. Upon discovering that his ancestors’ name was recorded as ‘Seiver’, David announced he was going to change his name back to that of his forbears. His 10-year-old son protested that he should not do it when his employers, their schools and the government all knew them as Severs.

“Continuing to pull his leg,” says David, “I said he knew how important family history was to me and it could be done. It clearly bothered him, for at breakfast the next morning he told me he had been thinking about it and it would be most unwise because changing my name to Seiver would make me ‘deceiver’ (D.Seiver)! I purported to change my mind about my intentions immediately.”

David finishes his letter with two other fascinating stories to one day follow up. “One of the Crayke Severs collected the tolls on the Helmsley to York road and went to the debtors prison in York after he failed to pay the sum he had agreed to pay for the right to collect them. More recently a distant Severs relation murdered his parents.” That relative is a man called Roger Severs, from Leicestershire, who was jailed for life in 1993 for murdering his father Derek and mother Eileen after they refused to support him financially.

Many thanks to David for all of this fascinating stuff. I wonder if you have found any shady characters lurking in your own ancestors’ past?

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


This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 6th and the Gazette & Herald on 4th August 2021

Wading through folklore

The Hole of Horcum, which legend says was created by the giant Wade who scooped out a handful of earth

My column about the Giant of Sessay a couple of weeks ago led to an interesting response from reader Janet Ratcliffe, who recognised the photograph accompanying the article.

She contacted me via my Countryman’s Daughter webpage (countrymansdaughter.com) and wrote that the picture ‘appeared to be taken from our garden across the medieval rigg and furrow, with sheep peacefully grazing and a typical moody sky.’

Janet explained that she has lived in Sessay for 21 years and for the past 15 has been researching various aspects of the village’s history. She has encountered several tales about the Sessay giant and believes the one I told was first written down in Vallis Eboracensis, a comprehensive history of the villages surrounding Easingwold, published by Thomas Gill in 1852. According to Gill, as was common in many rural areas, the legend had been passed down verbally through the generations.

Gill’s version connects the Dawnays of Cowick and the Darrells of Sessay, having Sir Guy Dawnay slaying the giant. However he does not mention Guy’s desire to marry Joan Darrell, as suggested in my version. Janet encountered more accounts which have the giant grinding up children’s bones to make his bread, capturing farm stock and eating young maidens. In one, Guy uses his cunning to lure the giant towards the mill so that the turning sails knock him dead, rather than the hero running him through with his sword

Gill’s story is later repeated by prolific walker and writer Edmund Bogg in his 1909 ‘Vale of Mowbray’ contribution to the Victoria County History, a national project started in 1899 to record the history of every county in England. It was named after Queen Victoria who was on the throne at the time of its inception and it is ongoing to this day.

Bogg claims to have spoken to an eyewitness who knew the whereabouts of the grave of the Sessay giant. He described it as being it shaped like a long mound in front of the miller’s house in neighbouring Dalton ‘which from time out of memory had borne the name of the Giant’s Grave. Some forty years ago the mound was opened, and my informant, (then a boy)…said the skeleton…was of abnormal size…and a weapon somewhat like the blade of a scythe.’

Janet told me that Bogg goes on to describe another variation where the giant captured a young lad named Jack in nearby Pilmoor Woods and forced him to do menial work at the mill. But Jack managed to escape and slay the beast, a story reminiscent of the Jack and the Beanstalk tale.

In his column from 25th July 1981, Dad mentions his favourite giant, Wade, one that is perhaps better known across North Yorkshire. Also known as Duke Wada, it is possible that the figure who inspired the legends was a real man. John Leland, the 16th century antiquarian known as ‘the father of history’, wrote about ‘Mongrave Castle’ (a nearby predecessor of Mulgrave Castle) and said: ‘The northe hille on the topp of it hath certain stones, commonly called Wadda’s Grave, whom the people there say to have been a giant and owner of Mongrave.’

There is some evidence that Wade was either a Saxon or Anglian nobleman of considerable stature living in late eighth and early ninth centuries. He is said to have helped plot the murder of the brutal King Ethelred of Northumbria in AD796. He became a folk hero, a powerful yet kind leader who enjoyed the respect of those who followed him.

It is not surprising then that the great man’s reputation was reflected in tales of his imposing physicality. Over time, Wade evolved into a giant who lived with his wife Bell at Mulgrave. Bell kept a cow over the other side of the moors, and to ease her passage across the difficult terrain, her husband built a road which became known as ‘Wade’s Causeway’, which still exists along the route of the Roman road near Goathland, and it is open to the public.

The other popular story is that during a domestic row, Wade scooped up a handful of earth and threw it at his wife. It left a huge gouge in the landscape, which we now call the Hole Of Horcum. The pile of muck missed Bell, instead landing at – and thus creating – nearby Blakey Topping.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 30th July and the Gazette & Herald on 28th July 2021

If it rains, it pours

A rain shower clearly visible on the moors above Helmsley. If it rains on 15th July, St Swithin’s Day, it is said to rain for 40 days and 40 nights.

As you know I write these columns a couple of weeks in advance, and the past few days have been particularly wet, with thunder storms and torrential rain sweeping the country.

Although I’m not a massive fan of a rainy day, I do love to watch a good storm and downpour from the comfort and safety of my own window. On 15th July it was St Swithin’s Day (sometimes spelled ‘Swithun’) and there is a famous old rhyme that enlightens us on what’s in store weatherwise for the coming weeks.

St Swithin’s Day, if thou be fair,

For 40 days, ‘twill rain near mair;

St Swithin’s Day, if thou bring rain,

For 40 days it will remain.

The reason for the rhyme lies in the tale of the death of this notable saint. St Swithin was a highly respected man of intelligence and piety, and is recorded as being an advisor to the ninth century kings Egbert and Ethelwulf at a time when Wessex was one of the most powerful kingdoms in Anglo-Saxon Britain. He was renowned for his goodness, and his drive to restore old churches and build new ones, as well as his devotion to the needy. In AD852 he was made Bishop of Winchester, a post he held until his death in AD863.

According to the legend, on his death bed, he begged to be buried outdoors in a simple grave in the shadow of Winchester Cathedral where the rain would be allowed to fall upon him and ordinary folk could visit his final resting place.

His wish was granted, and yet, in later years, subsequent bishops felt this was not an appropriate burial place for such a revered man. On July 15th AD872, work began on digging up his coffin so that it could be placed in what they considered a far more appropriate setting within the hallowed walls of the cathedral.

However, a huge and unrelenting downpour hampered efforts, and the rain continued for 40 days and 40 nights until the project was abandoned altogether. And so his grave remained where it was for another hundred years. But then, a second attempt was made to move it in AD971 after he had been made patron saint of Winchester Cathedral. Just like before, a torrential downpour began, lasting for another 40 days and nights. But they did finally manage to complete the task and St Swithin’s remains were interred within the sacred walls of the great church.

As was common in that time, the body parts of saints were considered to possess miraculous properties, and were often removed and distributed to religious centres across the country in the belief that these qualities would be bestowed upon the communities within which they were held. St Swithin’s head was apparently sent to Canterbury Cathedral, while an arm ended up in Peterborough. Unfortunately I can’t tell you what happened to the rest of his limbs, nor whether they yet remain in Winchester (but someone reading this might be able to enlighten us!).

Although this story dates back over a thousand years, the first written accounts didn’t appear until much later, including one in the famous ‘Poor Robin’s Almanac’, a collection of satirical writings by various authors dating from the 17th century. Therefore, as with all such things, no-one can be certain of the truth of the tale. It is interesting to note that similar stories of wet and dry spells occur throughout northern Europe, including an almost identical one from France connected to St Medard, whose feast day is celebrated on 8th June, and another to the Flemish saint Godelieve, whose feast day is 6th July. Saints who influence the forecast are known as the ‘weather saints’ and, not surprisingly, there are a fair few of them. No doubt a quick search on the Internet will throw up a saint responsible for almost any weather event you can think of.

There is another element to the connection of St Swithin with rain. Apple-growers used to believe that if rain fell on the fruit on the saint’s feast day of 15th July, then the crop wold be a good one. 

So if you have an apple tree and it rained upon it on 15th July, do let me know how your crop performs for the rest of the season!

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 23rd  July and the Gazette & Herald on 21st July 2021

A relatively grave situation

When I took this picture, I didn’t realise this was the back of the grave, because the others I saw in the same graveyard had nothing but initials on them.

The mystery of the anonymous initials in Crayke church yard is revealed, thanks to reader John Severs revealing that it is the grave belonging to his great-great-great grandfather Henry Sivers and his family.

Reader John Severs’ great grandfather Henry Severs, who was descended from a Henry Sivers, whose grave is in Crayke church yard.

This week another reader has been in touch regarding the gravestones in Crayke church yard. If you recall, there are a number of headstones that are adorned with simple initials and nothing else that gives any information about the individuals buried beneath them, and I wondered why that may be. As yet, I have not had a definitive answer to that particular question.

However, we do have the answer to one mystery thanks to John Severs from Middlesborough. He got in touch via my web page to say that he recognised one of the gravestones in the pictures and is in fact a descendant of those it commemorates.

The headstone in question was a more elaborate one than the others and had the initials ‘H.S.’, ‘F.S.’, ‘A.S.’ and ‘A.S.’ carved onto it below the following inscription: ‘The redeemed of the Lord shall return.’

I noticed it from the footpath on the way out of the church yard and took a picture. John recognised it as the grave of his great-great-great grandfather Henry Sivers, his wife Francesca, and their daughters Ann and Arabella. Because they were on the same headstone, I did fear that they may all have perished at the same time, perhaps in a tragic accident.

John helpfully sent me a picture which, to my surprise, showed that there was in fact a full inscription on the other side of the gravestone which revealed that there was no particular tragedy but that they had all died at different times. When I had taken my picture, it hadn’t occurred to me that there may be more information hidden from my view because I thought I was looking at the front of the headstone, and all the others I had seen that day had been blank apart from the initials.

The first to perish was mother, Francesca Sivers, who died in 1845, aged 67, followed by daughter Arabella, who died in 1862, aged 50. Henry passed away in 1866 at the age of 87, while Ann died in 1892, aged 73. It appears that the two daughters had not married and although John has been doing some research into his family’s history, as yet he has not found any more information about Ann and Arabella.

John is connected to Crayke through the Severs side of the family from the 18th and 19th centuries. He enlightened me with a few of his discoveries which I found interesting. First of all the family name was spelled several different ways, including Sivers, Seavers, Seiver and Scivers. The earliest record of his family in Crayke was a marriage in 1771 between Richard Sivers, a yeoman, and Ann Dunning, which was recorded in the local church registers.

It was Richard’s son, Henry, who lay in the churchyard with his wife and two daughters. Henry was born in 1779 and became a cordwainer, another word for a shoemaker. He had a son, Richard, in 1809, who also became a cordwainer and, later in life, the village postmaster. Richard had seven children, two of whom became joiners and builders, and one of whom was John’s great grandfather, another Henry, born in 1841.

At some point this Henry moved up to Teeside, as records show some of his children being born there. He bought plots of land across Middlesbrough and made money by building houses on them. There was even a Severs Street attributed to him, but John tells me that it disappeared in the 1980s. Henry died in 1931, aged 90, and was buried in Linthorpe Cemetery in Middlesborough. According to John, there is another Sivers’ grave at Crayke, that of a Richard, so he plans to go and check it out to work out if that is another relative.

What I would like to know is when was the spelling of the name changed from Sivers to Severs? And why? By the time we get to John’s great grandfather (the Henry who moved to Middlesbrough), he is a Severs, despite the family name still being Sivers only a few generations earlier.

I’d be grateful if anyone can shed light on why someone might change their surname, albeit only slightly. I can understand how that happened in days before anyone really wrote much down, but this change seems comparatively recent.

And has anyone else reading this got an interesting story they have discovered about their own ancestors? I’d love to hear it!

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


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

Things we do for love

The quiet road to Sessay, a village said to have been beset by a giant in the 15th century

It has struck me, having read over 200 of my dad’s archived columns, that there are numerous tales in folklore that follow a similar theme. Villages across the land claim stories of dashing local heroes overcoming giants and monsters, and this week, in his column from 4th July 1981, Dad recounts one I had not read before called The Giant of Sessay.

Sessay lies about four miles south of Thirsk in the district of Hambleton, and in the 15th century, when this story was set, the manor of Sessay was owned by the rich and powerful Darrell family. The substantial manor had ended up in the hands of Lady Joan Darrell after the rest of her family had passed away.

Joan, a determined and practical woman, took on the huge task of managing the estate, its land, its houses, crops and livestock, which left her little time to look for love.

Unfortunately, Joan’s considerable burden increased when the village was beset by a great giant that was more animal than human, with elephant-like legs and arms. It had a huge mouth with razor-sharp fangs and one big eye in the centre of its forehead. The monster had ripped up a tree by its roots which it used a club and, due to its insatiable appetite, was permanently angry, its roars and growls heard for many miles around.

It would prowl the village farms and cottages in its never-ending quest for food, stealing the fattest cows, bullocks and swine which it would take back to its lair in the nearby woods. It raided the local mills, stealing sacks of flour by stretching its arm through the windows and pulling them out. If it couldn’t find enough fresh livestock to eat, it had no hesitation in stealing children from their beds or babies from their cribs.

Of course, the villagers were terrified, and Joan soon found herself struggling to run her estate, the workers being too afraid to leave their homes while the monster was on the loose.

She had all but given up hope when a brave knight arrived on her doorstep. Guy D’Aunay (also known as Dawnay) was the son of Sir John D’Aunay of Cowick Castle in South Yorkshire, who was a friend of Joan’s late father. As their families were acquainted, Sir Guy decided to call in on his way home.

When he arrived, and seeing Joan struggle, he offered his help with the estate, and the pair soon fell in love. But when Sir Guy asked Joan to marry him, she agreed only on one condition; that he kill the giant. Guy was prepared to die for Joan, and so agreed. The pair celebrated their engagement with a delicious meal, but half way through came an awful sound from outside. The giant had arrived in the village .

When Guy saw the monster for the first time, he was terrified. He only had a small, ordinary sword and if he tried to stab the monster, it would be like piercing a tree with a pin. If the monster caught him, it would crush him like an insect.

Nevertheless, Guy bravely followed in the beast’s wake, until it stopped at a windmill, intending to steal some sacks of flour. It bent down and reached its hand inside. Just as it did so, a gust of wind blew up, and the mill’s sails began to turn. They caught the giant unawares, knocking it heavily on the head, and it fell onto its back, the ground shaking as it landed.

Without hesitation, Sir Guy leapt onto the chest of the stricken giant, clambered up its huge chin then plunged his sword into the hideous single eye, piercing right through to the brain. The giant was dead.

The people of Sessay erupted in celebration, and Sir Guy was free to marry Lady Joan.

Such stories are fairly common around the world and, as in this case, often feature real people, symbolising an underdog overcoming a powerful enemy. Invasions by the Vikings between the eighth and 11th centuries, and by the Scots during the wars of independence in the 13th and 14th centuries, would still have been quite fresh in the minds of northerners. In some tales, the knight vanquishing the giant was to symbolise Christianity overcoming Paganism.

I wonder if anyone knows the events that spawned this particular legend?

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 9th July and the Gazette & Herald on 7th July 2021