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

Nutty about this little bird

Nuthatches have the unique ability to walk down as well as up tree trunks (photo by Birdspot.co.uk)

One of the benefits of using my Dad’s archive to research my columns is the incredible way in which it is expanding my rural knowledge. In particular, I am discovering more about our native bird life. Both my parents were, and my mum still is, keen bird watchers, and several feeders and nesting boxes are dotted about Mum’s garden, while binoculars are left by the window to observe the fascinating activities of these feathered friends.

By 1978, when Dad was 42, he was already well known as a rural expert and his Countryman’s Diary had been running for two years in the Darlington and Stockton Times. He was still a policeman, though, by then Press Officer for the North Riding Constabulary with the rank of inspector. He was often consulted by his colleagues at the Newby Wiske headquarters on country matters, and one day someone asked him to help identify a bird that had been spotted in the grounds.

The colourful little creature resembled a mini woodpecker and had been seen making its way down a tree trunk. It was about the size of a finch, with a long black beak, slate-grey feathers, peach-tinged breast, and it appeared to be wearing what looked like the mask of Zorro – a black stripe running from its beak, past its eyes to the back of its head.

Dad immediately identified one of his favourite species, the nuthatch, and went on to recount why he was so fond of that particular bird.

He had grown up in the village of Glaisdale on the North York Moors and spent much of his youth exploring nearby Arncliffe Wood. One day he found a nest in a hole ten feet up a beech tree, and was intrigued by the fact that the entrance had been reduced in size by layers of mud applied around the edges.

In fact this is the nuthatch’s ingenious security measure, designed to prevent larger interlopers from gatecrashing its home. The nest inside is lined with wafer-thin pieces of bark stripped from trees like the pine, sometimes supplemented with dry leaves.

Dad was thrilled with his find, as in his youth nuthatches were not common in the north of England. But by the 1970s they had started to become more populous in Yorkshire and today are seen as far north as Scotland, with numbers in our region healthily robust.

They are the only native bird that is known to walk both up and down tree trunks, which enables them to pick up insects when they are travelling back down the tree that they may have missed on the way up. They also have the ability to hang upside down from branches. Nuthatches are highly intelligent, and in the warmer months when food is plentiful, they store nuts and seeds within the nooks and crevices of the bark of their home tree trunk, a habit known as ‘seed caching’. They then cover these stashes of food with bark or lichen so that they won’t be stolen by competitors. When the colder weather sets in, they can then retrieve their supplies to ensure they survive the winter.

These fascinating little birds can be found in mature woods and parkland, but they avoid trees that are exposed to industrial pollution. As well as insects, it feeds on hazelnuts, beech mast and acorns, as its name suggests, using its powerful beak to peck at the outer shells until these tough delicacies break open. Their strong beaks also serve another purpose, in that they use them to create their nesting site. If they fail to find a suitable hole, such as an abandoned woodpecker nest, they create their own from scratch, choosing a spot high up in a trunk, and using their beaks to dig out the bark until the cavity is big enough to house a growing family. They are monogamous, and stay with their mate over several breeding seasons. Although the typical lifespan of a nuthatch is not much more than two years, one has been recorded in the UK to have reached almost 13 years of age.

They don’t wander far from the woods where they were born and, as they are native to this country, they can be seen all year round. So next time you’re having a woodland wander, keep looking up to see if you can spot a nuthatch nest.

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

This’d column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 18th and the Gazette & Herald on 16th June 2021

Keep it in the family

Diane Lund’s ancestors, who died before they were christened, lie in unmarked graves in Crayke churchyard

Diane Lund’s ancestors lie somewhere in the graveyard but she doesn’t know where

Following my column about Crayke village a few weeks back, I had an email from a reader concerning the the graveyard there.

Diane Lund, from Lealholm, wrote, “My grandparents were married in Crayke Church in 1923. I have a copy of the newspaper report of their ‘pretty wedding’. They went to live in Grandpa’s home village of Huttons Ambo. Less than a year later, on a day they returned to Crayke to visit Grandma’s parents, my grandmother went into labour and gave birth to triplets. John lived for four days, Geoffrey lived for two days and Ronald died after one day. Such a tragedy; no scans, no incubators. The triplets were buried in Crayke churchyard but as they hadn’t been christened, their grave was unmarked.”

What a sad and tragic story, and as I mentioned in that column, people were often buried with no grave markers either because they could not afford a headstone or, as Diane says, because they were not christened. I find it quite sad that their ancestors living today can’t go and pay their respects because they do not know where their relatives’ remains lie.

On a slightly separate but related note, I was doing some research for another project recently that talked about the effect on people whose loved ones have, for example, gone missing, or are lost at sea. According to Professor Pauline Boss, a pioneer into the study of stress on families, if we do not have physical proof that our loved one has died, then our human brain can’t let go. It’s known as ‘ambiguous loss’ and is one of the worst things anyone has to experience. To achieve some kind of closure, we need to see for ourselves evidence of their transformation from life to death.

Churches and graveyards have long been rich sources of information for anyone doing research into their forbears. Graves with inscriptions usually give dates of birth and death, and sometimes they give occupations and details of other family members too. Church of England churches also used to be tasked with holding the parish registers of baptisms, deaths and marriages in what was known as the parish chest.

Parish registers were formally adopted in 1538 when Thomas Cromwell ordered that records of all christenings, weddings and burials had to be kept and stored in a secure chest in the local church. At first, they were written on loose leaves of paper, but it wasn’t very efficient as they could get mixed up, pages could get lost, and the paper could easily disintegrate. In 1598, Elizabeth I decreed that these records be copied on to more robust parchment and transcribed into proper books, starting from the beginning of her reign in 1558. That’s why many parishes today have registers dating back to then, but not before, as the nearly all the loose leaf versions have perished.

I was doing some research into these chests and discovered that at St Mary’s Church, Kilburn, they still have the original wooden chest in which these records were kept. However, the fragile documents have been moved to a more suitable place for preservation within North Yorkshire County Council’s Record Office.

Researching family history used be far more difficult than it is now, as today you can subscribe to websites that offer a huge amount of information and advice on how to do it and where to go. In my dad’s column from 6th June 1981, he says, “People doing research into their family history have to be prepared for long hours of painstaking work in libraries, churches, museums and various other record offices, and on many occasions, their efforts meet little success.” I can imagine that the physical effort may be less these days, but I’m sure, as there is so much more stuff so readily available, that you could quite easily disappear down an information rabbit hole and never come out again.

But it is very satisfying when you do find a nugget of useful material. My dad also mentions in his column that a reader from Buckinghamshire had contacted him asking if he could help them trace some family members who lived and worked in Wensleydale 200 years earlier.

My dad was able to assist because, unbeknownst to the reader, a descendant of theirs lived just a hundred yards away from our house!

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 11th and the Gazette & Herald on 9th June 2021

No horsing around

It used to be believed that someone who had a gift with horses possessed what was known as the ‘Horseman’s Word’. Picture by Alastair Smith

The badly-spelled letter I wrote to my parents when I was eight asking to buy me a black stallion

Me, aged about 11, kitted out in my riding gear

As a little girl, I was mad about horses and when I was eight, I wrote a letter to my parents begging them to get me what I considered the perfect mount for a small child, a black stallion.

I also entered the annual ‘Win A Pony’ competition run by WH Smith in the hope that I’d beat the gazillion other children with the same dream, not stopping to consider whether my parents could afford to look after one, nor with any notion of where we’d put it. When I started to write this, I assumed that such competitions would be prohibited now, but it appears not. Nowadays, those offering winners a real pony have a duty to carry out ‘due diligence’ on entrants, which just wasn’t considered back in the 1970s. Thankfully, competition hopefuls now have to have parental consent and must prove they have the skills, finances and knowledge to take on the substantial commitment of owning a pony.

To my parents’ eternal gratitude, I never won the competition, but the disappointment was softened when they instead agreed to pay for me to have weekly riding lessons at a local stables. That kept me happy until about the age of 15 when, after a particularly miserable wet and cold day in the saddle, I’d had enough and gave up.

I was a distinctly average rider, and can’t say I had any special connection with any of the horses I ever rode. But there are those who have what you might call a ‘gift’ when it comes to communicating with these very intelligent and noble creatures. As my dad mentions in his column from 30th May 1981, people like this were believed to possess a charm known as the ‘Horseman’s Word’.

Those living and working in the equine field used to put great faith in this secret ‘word’, and believed that there were only a select few who knew what it was. When it was whispered into a horse’s ear, it had the effect of instantly calming even the most flighty of steeds.

In 1858, American horse trainer John Rarey brought a new style of training over to England. Rarey had a reputation for being able to rehabilitate vicious or abused horses, and perpetuated the idea of ‘natural horsemanship’ which went against the traditional approach of ‘if the stick doesn’t work, get a bigger stick’. Instead of trying to control a horse through fear, Rarey addressed things from the point of view of the horse, saying that if it kicked, bit or bucked you off, it would be because you had done something wrong, not the horse.

It was a revolutionary concept inspired by Spanish settlers known as the Vaquero who landed in America in the 16th century and brought with them a technique whereby riders worked with the horse’s nature, gaining its trust so that it felt safe and secure around humans. They understood that if you did that, then you were far more likely to get the horse to behave in the way you wanted it to without the need for physical intimidation.

The English assumed that Rarey had the gift of the ‘Horseman’s Word’, although it was never a term he used himself. He was summoned by Queen Victoria to visit a supposedly untameable mare. The queen watched in awe as Rarey placed his hands on the wild beast, which then placidly lay down, and Rarey lay next to it, resting his head on its hooves.

Today we would call someone like him a ‘horse whisperer’, thanks to the term being popularised by Nicholas Evans’ best-selling book of that name which was made into a successful film in 1998 starring Robert Redford. Although the main character is fictional, he is based upon an amalgamation of several people who were famous for training horses in this way, brothers Tom and Bill Dorrance, Ray Hunt and Buck Brannaman, the latter being the lead equine consultant on the film and a stunt double for Redford.

Brannaman took the approach one step further than his predecessors. He grew up being emotionally and physically abused by his father, and recognised that mistreated horses behave in similar ways to abused children. “They trust no-one and expect the worst. But patience, leadership, compassion and firmness can help them overcome their pasts,” he said.

Surely, right there is a lesson for us all.

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


This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 4th and the Gazette & Herald on 2nd June 2021

Shoe the bad luck away

A lucky horseshoe outside a building in Bournemouth. Picture by Mick Gisbourne

A horseshoe above a garage in Staithes, North Yorkshire. Picture by Alastair Smith

It’s funny how, despite all the advances in science and technology, some of us still hang on to old superstitions that common sense tells us cannot make any difference to our everyday lives.

We insist on saluting magpies, throwing salt over our shoulders and blessing people when they sneeze. One of the oldest and most persistent of superstitions surrounds the horseshoe, an item of equine foot protection that dates back to at least 400BC. The need to preserve the hooves of these hard-working animals was recognised almost as soon as horses were domesticated, and early versions, known to the Romans as ‘hipposandals’, were fashioned out of materials such as woven plants, leather and rawhide.

It wasn’t until around the sixth and seventh centuries AD that metal horseshoes began to be used in the colder Northern European climates to help steeds get a better grip on frozen terrain. They also shielded hooves that were easily damaged by hard daily toil over rough ground. It became apparent that if the hoof was covered, it enabled a horse to move faster, and therefore became an important tool not only in everyday life, but also in the sport of horse racing.

The first metal horseshoes were fashioned out of cast bronze, with iron following in the fourteenth century, the preferred material until relatively recently. Today though, you get horseshoes made of steel, aluminium, composite plastic and even rubber, the substance dependant upon what kind of activity the hooves will be subjected to. For example, steel is used for heavy horses and heavy work, whereas aluminium is appropriate for lighter duties and needs to be replaced more often. Composite and rubber shoes help to cushion the hoof and are useful on softer surfaces, or if the horse has an injury.

But why the association with luck? According to my dad in his column from 23rd May 1981, the origins of the connection are hard to pin down, but there are a number of theories. One is its shape; a horseshoe resembles a crescent moon, a motif that has so many links to historical symbolisms that it is impossible to explore them fully here. Another thread of discussion stems from the fact that ancient man would have found it hard to understand how a metal object could be nailed to a foot without causing any pain or spilling any blood. Also, when knocked against a stone, the shoe produces sparks, so it’s not hard to understand how a primitive mind might have associated this object with magical powers.

But which way up is the correct way to hang a lucky horseshoe? This again is a topic for debate. What is not disputed is that it needs to be hung either above the entrance to a building, or on an outside wall.

If you hang it like the letter ‘U’, then the idea is that it will ‘collect’ luck, like a bucket collects water. However, if you hang it the other way up, then it pours the luck over anyone who crosses the threshold. If there were seven holes in the shoe, it was important that you hung it using nails in all of them, as that was a lucky number. Some people would hang them sideways like the letter ‘C’, and this is supposed to symbolise Christ.

The amalgamation of paganism and Christianity clearly comes to the fore when it comes this practice. The horseshoe’s association with luck predates Christianity, and yet, as I referred to in the opening paragraph, people have always found it difficult to let go of long-held superstitions that haven been passed down from one generation to another. I wonder if some early Christians with pagan forefathers may already have had a horseshoe above their door and simply decided to turn it on its side to reflect the new religion? Nailing it in place also had the obvious connection with nailing Christ to the cross.

To this day, the horseshoe symbolises luck, and a quick scan of any card shop shelf will reveal a healthy crop of examples of the image. But I wonder how many readers still have horseshoes nailed above their doorways? And which way up is most commonly seen where you live? And has anyone spotted one that is turned on its side like the letter ‘C’?

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 28th and the Gazette & Herald on 26th May 2021

A tasty kind of dandy

Dandelions are so much more than just a pesky weed

The dandelion possesses one of the most effective ways of spreading seeds thanks to its trademark clock

I am to gardening what Freddy Kruger is to precision surgery. In my hands, the blade of a trowel and prongs of a fork are lethal to any living thing. Where some people have beautifully manicured lush green lawns, mine is a scraggy, patchy, overgrown mess. Moss, daisies and dandelions are perfectly at home among the scruffy tufts of various grass species that inhabit the patch of land surrounding my home.

I don’t despair though, because I see it as part of my job to encourage wild flowers (otherwise known as weeds) as they are so important to help our vital pollinating insects to thrive. In the past, the dandelion was one of the most accursed of visitors, its strong roots growing so deep into the ground that you had to possess almost superhuman strength to pull it up. And even when you did, often the roots would snap, leaving the ends deep in the soil, ensuring it would soon re-emerge.

But the reputation of dandelions has transformed over the years, and they are now recognised as very useful plants indeed. Those who still regard them as unwelcome invaders of their herbaceous borders might not be pleased to know that a quick look on the internet will throw up lots of advice on how to propagate and grow them successfully. As every frustrated and exhausted gardener knows, the distinctive dandelion clock is one off the most efficient ways of spreading seeds and is one of the reasons they are so hard to eliminate entirely.

I think my dad was ahead of the curve 40 years ago when he suggested that we should consider growing it as a crop in his column from 16th May 1981. “Why do we insist that the dandelion is a weed? It has wonderful properties and could be a most useful asset to the human race,” he writes.

It is well known that the leaves can be eaten in a salad or, as my dad suggests, wilted it in a pan with butter as you would spinach. As my lawn is home to what one might term a ‘healthy crop’, I decided to test out these suggestions. After throughly washing a few leaves, I took a bite out of one while I tried to wilt more with butter.

First of all, the leaves didn’t wilt like spinach, but just kind of shrivelled up, and secondly, they were about as tasty as the brown stuff my mum used to paint on my nails to stop me biting them. I’ve still got the bitter aftertaste in my mouth as I write, so I’m not sure I will ever be tempted to add them to a salad. However, there are lots of recipes online, and if anyone has one that will prove me wrong, please feel free to send it my way.

Another curious revelation my dad makes is that the roots can be roasted to make a healthy and caffeine-free alternative to coffee. He claims that it is ‘barely distinguishable’ from real coffee, which I found hard to believe until I did a bit more research. Sure enough, most reviews I found said that it was possibly the closest alternative to real coffee, but tasted less acidic and slightly sweeter. You can try digging up and roasting your own roots, although it does seem like a bit of a palaver, so if you fancy giving it a whirl, it might be easier to try one of the suppliers online who sell it relatively cheaply.

People have also been known to make dandelion beer and wine, although one friend reported that when she tried it, the resulting brew ‘smelled like the bottom of a beck’. So I won’t be tempted to give it a go.

The English name for this versatile flower is a corruption of the French ‘dent de lion’, which means ‘lion’s tooth’, a reflection of the spiky shape of its leaves. I also wonder whether the bright yellow ‘mane-like’ flower has something to do with it. It is known colloquially by many other names such as blowball, cankerwort, milk witch and monk’s head to name but a few.

Another well-known alternative name refers to the fact that it has an undesirable side-effect if you consume too much of it. This side effect is revealed in the name itself: ‘wet-a-bed’!

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 21st and the Gazette & Herald on 19th May 2021

The flat and curlies

Parsley is a herb associated with many superstitions 

When I was younger, we believed that if we had garlicky breath, the best way to get rid of it was to chew fresh parsley. As I was a big fan of garlic bread and a big hater of halitosis, I could regularly be found with a mouthful of this curly-leaved green herb. Eating it raw like this wasn’t very pleasant as it tasted not much better than the sawdust at the bottom of a bird cage, but I was prepared to martyr myself in the pursuit of non-stinky-post-garlic-bread breath.
Continue reading “The flat and curlies”

A grand old village

The beautiful village of Crayke is steeped in history

One of the gravestones in St Cuthbert’s Churchyard, Crayke, with just initials identifying the lost loved ones

Another headstone in Crayke church yard with initials only. Why is this?

The end of April saw a spell of dry, sunny weather, and I made the most of it by playing lots of tennis and going out for plenty of walks. One of my routes takes me through the gorgeous village of Crayke, which lies on a hill almost 20 miles north of York.

The main thoroughfare is Church Hill, so-called because St Cuthbert’s Church sits at the top. The hill was covered in late-blooming daffodils and looked absolutely beautiful, so I decided on the spur of the moment to stop and have a wander around.

It is a place steeped in history, and someone once told me that the hill was the one that the Grand Old Duke of York marched his 10,000 men up and down, although a brief search on the internet doesn’t suggest there is a connection with the famous rhyme. Nevertheless, strategically it is the perfect place to spot enemies coming from any direction as the summit of the hill commands spectacular views all around. Some say that there was a Roman watchtower on the hill, but it has never been proven, although Roman roads did pass close by and Roman artefacts have been found in the village.

According to my dad in one of his books (Folk Tales from the North York Moors), there was a timber castle in Saxon times, and this was replaced by a Norman motte-and-bailey castle in the 12th century, some of which still exists as part of the current Crayke Castle building, located at the highest point in the village. However, we know it was almost totally rebuilt and extended in the 15th century, thanks to accounts from 1441 which list the changes made. In the 17th century it was repaired and restored again, and this is more or less what stands to this day.

I took a walk around the beautiful church yard, and you can really get a feel for the age and history associated with that place. The original church was founded by St Cuthbert, who lived from around AD634 until 20th March AD687. He spent much of his time in the ancient kingdom of Northumbria, particularly at the monastery in Lindisfarne, and he was so admired for his spiritual devotion that King Ecgfrith gifted him the village of Crayke (then known as Crec) and lands for three miles around so that he had his own place to rest on his regular journeys between Lindisfarne and York. After Cuthbert died, he was initially interred at Lindisfarne, but there were fears that his grave might be destroyed by invading Vikings, and so his body was moved. It was carried to a number of different places over the centuries due to continuing unrest, one of which is believed to be Crayke, although his final shrine is in Durham Cathedral. Because of its connections to Cuthbert, Crayke was officially considered part of Durham right up to 1844 when it was returned to Yorkshire. The local pub is called The Durham Ox.

As I was walking around the graveyard, I noticed that a few of the headstones were inscribed with only initials, rather than the full name of the deceased, and very few further details, not even the date they died. I wondered why, as I have not come across this before. I asked my mum and brother if they had any any idea, and they didn’t. One theory we had was that they came from families that couldn’t afford a full inscription (if the stonemason charged by the letter). Another was that they were possibly criminals, or died in some kind of shame, and another suggestion was that they were in fact footstones, but I did not see a corresponding headstone at the other end of the graves.

No-one I spoke to had come across them before, but it was quite common in days gone by for people who could not afford a headstone to be buried with no marker at all. I wonder whether the stonemason used by the folk of Crayke was a kindly soul who offered to place markers on the graves of his fellow villagers who could not afford to pay him?

I’d be very interested to get to the bottom of this little mystery, so do get in touch either through this paper or via my webpage below if you know the answer.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 7th and the Gazette & Herald on 5th May 2021

No need to be blue

I had a rather eventful day last week. I work occasionally for an estate agent and was showing some people around a house they were interested in buying. I usually arrive early so that I can do things like switch on lights and make sure that there is nothing amiss before the viewers arrive. On this particular day, though, they were early and so I had not had time to go in and check it out.

I unlocked the front door and led them into the kitchen, only to be confronted with a huge hole in the ceiling, plaster all over the floor and water pouring in! Needless to say, they didn’t buy the house, although they were very gracious about the whole thing. One of their party then recounted a story of when she was also an estate agent and arrived to a house full of birds that had come in through an open window and couldn’t find their way out again. As a result every floor, surface and piece of furniture was covered in bird you-know-what.

According to my dad in his column from 25th April 1981, if blue tits get trapped in a building, they will start to tear paper into strips, either from the walls or from any source they can find. It’s not certain why they do this, but one theory is that they are trying to find food, and mimicking they way they rip away tree bark to find insects and grubs.

In 1981, we still had milk delivered to our doorstep in glass bottles which were sealed with foil tops, and somehow, blue tits knew that they contained something tasty. If you didn’t remember to leave out a pot or something else for the milkman to cover them, you would often wake up to find that the pesky wee birds had pecked through the foil to help themselves to the lovely cream, which we called ‘top of the milk’. In our house, it was a race to see who could get the ‘top of the milk’ to pour onto their cornflakes in the morning. As Dad was often the first up, he usually won.

Blue tits start looking for suitable nesting spots from February, and often return to the same places each spring, the adults living for an average of three years. They love a crack in a tree, a small hole in a wall, or a suitably-placed nesting box. When I was last at my mum’s we spotted them checking out the nesting box on our garage wall, and it always gives us a thrill to know they have moved in for another year. They’ve also been known to nest in rather unusual places, such as letter boxes, cigarette butt bins and hollow street lamps.

There is a tale told that in 1779 some blue tits decided to build a nest in a large stone bottle that was left to drain on a plum tree in an orchard belonging to Oxbridge Farm in Stockton-on-Tees. For the following 76 years, with the exception of 1851, the same bottle was occupied by successive generations of blue tits. This little bird produces one of the largest clutches among its avian peers, with the female laying between eight and 12 eggs, often more, and it was estimated that the bottle saw around 1000 chicks fledge from that spot.

The original plum tree was removed in 1820, and the bottle was moved to another tree, yet the birds still found it. In 1851, though, the blue tits found that the entrance to their favourite spot was blocked by an old nest as the farmer had forgotten to remove it, so they decamped elsewhere, only to return the following year once the problem had been rectified.

This tale was written down in an old book called ‘Whellan’s Durham County Directory for 1856’, and there are no further records of how long the bottle remained in situ, nor how long it was used as a nesting site for blue tits. A reader had written to Dad saying that he remembered the farmer telling him about the bottle in the 1920s, but unfortunately, Oxbridge Farm was eventually demolished.

If you have any stories about curious places that blue tits have been found nesting, do get in touch either via this paper, or via my web page (see below).

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


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

Go with the flow

The slow-flowing River Ouse

A couple of weeks ago I talked about the Vikings changing the name of York from the Anglo-Saxon Eoforwic to Jorvik, supposedly because it was easier for the invaders to pronounce.

I was contacted by the Reverend Canon Bill Ankers who recounted a discussion he’d had with his friend, Lord Nicholas Cunliffe-Lister, 3rd Earl of Swinton, who very sadly passed away last month.

Lord Swinton had an alternative theory about the name ‘Jorvik’. The Swinton estate has fishing rights for a large stretch of the River Ure around Masham and further upstream. In Wensleydale it used to be called the Yore and in fact, Wensleydale was once known as Yoredale, a name still seen in the area. Lord Swinton wondered if at one time, the river was called the ‘Yore’ all the way down to York, and thus gave the city its name.

It is a plausible theory because an unusual feature of the Ure is that after it passes a place called Cuddy Reach just west of the village of Linton-on-Ouse, it is thenceforth known as the River Ouse. Usually, when one river flows into another, it takes on the name of the main waterway. So when the rivers Swale and Nidd enter the Ure, that is where they end, and the water continues its south-eastern voyage under the name ‘Ure’. 

However, when the water reaches Cuddy Reach, a seemingly insignificant stream called Ouse Gill Beck enters the Ure and in an audacious takeover, snatches the grander river’s name and from then on the waterway is known as the Ouse all the way down to the Humber.

So why the name change?

This set my brother and I on a quest to work it out, delving in to our dad’s study stuffed full of files and reference books in an attempt to work out why the Ouse takes over the Ure. And we have come up with a theory.

Many of our ancient waterways have names that derive from the old Britonnic language spoken during the Iron and Roman ages. Names were influenced by a river’s characteristics and how the locals would refer to it. It is why we often get repetitions, such as five River Avons, four River Derwents, and five Ouses, all over the country.

The names ‘Yore’ and ‘Ure’ are likely to have derived from the Britonnic name ‘Isura’, with the Indo-European root ‘IS-‘ meaning ‘strong’ or ‘swift-flowing’. The influential Roman settlement Isurium was built in the first century A.D. just west of the Isura on the current site of the village of Aldborough near Boroughbridge. As the ancient language evolved, the intervocalic letter ‘s’ (i.e. a consonant that occurs between vowels) disappeared and hence we ultimately end up with ‘Yore’/‘Ure’ (in those days likely to have been pronounced ‘Yora’).

As for ‘Ouse’, the name derives from the ancient word ‘Udsos’ which is believed to mean simply ‘water’ or ‘slow-flowing’.

If you are familiar with the Ure, then you’ll know that as it tumbles through the hilly dales, it is indeed strong and swift-flowing. You may also be familiar with the River Ouse which, because it winds its way through mainly flat land, is a different kettle of river altogether, and therefore its ancient ‘slow-flowing’ name is far more appropriate.

In the first millennium A.D., traders would have used the river as one of their main forms of transport, sailing up and down between the main settlements. Those coming up river from the south would have referred to it as the Udsos/Ouse (slow-flowing), and those coming from the north would have called it the Yore/Ure (swift-flowing). So it is possible that the names would have overlapped at the stretch of river between York and Isurium where the land begins to flatten out and the river settles down. It is only in later centuries when we started to write things down and draw maps that we also began to hate such ambiguities as a river with two names. And so a definitive point was identified where the river switched names from Ure to Ouse.  

The Vikings were enthusiastic traders and it is entirely plausible that they would have followed what they called the Jore/Yore all the way to the southern capital of the ancient Kingdom of Northumbria, which they renamed ‘settlement (vik) on the Jore’ or ‘Jorvik’. 

So, could the late Lord Swinton be right?

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

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

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