Who was the Countryman?


The Countryman was my dad, Peter N Walker (aka Nicholas Rhea), who died on 21st April 2017 from prostate cancer.

He was a full-time writer for more than 35 years, and before that, wrote in his spare time from his job as a policeman. He wrote stories based on his experiences and they were turned into the hugely successful TV series Heartbeat. But he also wrote much more, including crime novels, detective novels, short stories, local history books, collections of folk stories and tales, and also columns for local papers.

When he was younger, he used to read the Countryman’s Diary in the Darlington and Stockton Times by a well-known writer and local history expert, Major John Fairfax-Blakeborough. The Major had always been an inspiration and source of encouragement to my dad, who dreamed of taking over his column, so when he passed away, Dad was thrilled to be invited to take over. He continued that column for 41 years, and another (Rural View) for around 30 years in the Malton Gazette and Herald. Despite his success, he had a huge sense of loyalty and would not give up the weekly columns, continuing right up until a couple of weeks before his death, although towards the end, they were a struggle for him.

After his death, I began to wonder what would happen to his columns, and felt it would be a shame for them to simply disappear after so many years. With support from my family, I called the editors of the papers who readily agreed to my taking them over, even though I don’t have Dad’s writing pedigree, nor his extensive knowledge of all things country and Yorkshire. But, as my brother pointed out, I do have access to my dad’s archive, 40-plus years’ worth of columns to draw upon.

So I decided to take each column from the same week 40 years ago and see what I could use to inspire my column for today. What I have found is not only a wealth of material, but that it is bringing back some memories that were long-since forgotten, memories of my dad, and of our family, of which he was so proud. And it feels like I am getting to know my dad in a way I never expected nor thought possible. It’s an honour to be able to do it and, step by step, week by week, it is helping me make my way along the long road of grief that his passing has left behind.

Sarah xxx

A witchy coincidence

The photo taken by my dad in 2008 of the witch post found in the house belonging to my friend Stephen Peill’s parents. Until now, neither of us knew our parents had ever met. 

Following my piece about witch posts I had some interesting responses. If you remember, these carved posts are usually found near fireplaces in very old houses and originally it was thought that the carvings, often featuring crosses, were intended to ward off evil spirits and witches, hence the name. But over the years, Dad came to believe they were in fact associated with the legendary Martyr of the North York Moors, Father Nicholas Postgate.

A friend of mine, Stephen Peill, got in touch to say that there had been one at his father’s house when they lived in Newton-on-Rawcliffe, near Pickering. I’m so grateful to people who get in touch like this because, firstly, it means they are  reading my column, and secondly it means I can go all detective and have a good rummage in my dad’s study, one of my favourite pastimes.

I found a couple of ring-bound folders labelled ‘witch posts’ and listed at the front were all the examples that, through exhaustive research and letter-writing, dad had managed to track down. And sure enough, there, at number 29 on the list, was an entry called ‘Old Pond House, Newton-on-Rawcliffe’.

I pulled out the relevant documents, which included information about the post itself, and also correspondence between my dad and the home-owners, who at the time were Stephen’s dad Doug and stepmum Sue.

Dad had written them an approach letter in January 2008, addressing it ‘Dear Witch Post owner’, so it is clear that he did not know them. He explains his purpose for contacting them, that he was conducting research for a book about witch posts, and included a questionnaire to fill in. Dad explains: “My research to date has led me to believe that these so-called witch posts are a valuable and largely neglected part of our northern history.”

Thankfully, Stephen’s parents were very happy to help, and a series of letters were exchanged, resulting in my mum and dad visiting the house in August 2008.

At the time, he wrote: “The cross post formed part of the inglenook hearth, but alterations have marooned it near the centre of the present dining room where it supports a massive beam, and indeed the ceiling.”

Afterwards, Dad sent them a thank you letter, and what I find especially interesting is the way he describes how he had tracked that particular post down: “Sue, you asked how I knew you had a post…I found a newspaper cutting dated 4th October 1984. It is from the Malton Gazette and Herald and it features the sale of your house. It says it contains a ‘witches post’. I am enclosing a copy for you to keep – and you’ll see the asking price of the house was £33,000. Quite a bargain!”

Stephen and I have known each since the mid-1980s when he used to frequent the local pub in which I worked. Despite that being almost 40 years ago, our little band of pub goers still meets regularly at parties and various social occasions. The remarkable thing is, until Stephen mentioned the witch post in the house at Newton-on-Rawcliffe, neither of us had had any idea that our parents had ever met!

I was also contacted by writer Terry Ashby who says: “I recall in the mid-1980s there was an historic cottage for sale in Beck Hole. It’s many years since I was in Beck Hole and I can’t remember the name of the property but it is at the far end of the green on the left side coming from the Birch Hall Inn. I’m sure there is a witch post near the open range.”

I think Terry is right, because in the same file is an entry about ‘Murk Side, Beck Hole’, an old thatched cottage which is mentioned in the Civil Recusant Returns for Egton from 1604-1778. So clearly this house was associated with Catholic resistance during the time of persecution, which backs up my dad’s theory that the ‘witch posts’ were somehow connected. The extremely sad thing is that Murk Side was pulled down in the early 20th century, but the post was moved into another house nearby, where I believe it still stands. There is too much information on this particular post to go into here, it could fill a whole other column.

And that then begs the question, should I finish the book that my dad started?

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

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 27th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 25th January 2023

Hannah’s story goes on

Hannah Raw’s sampler that hangs on my mum’s wall

The letters MR and ER on the bottom right are her parent’s initials. The letters ‘ER’ are in dark thread showing that her mother, Ellis, was dead before Hannah made this sampler.

Following my pieces about North York Moors orphan Hannah Raw, I have been contacted by Gillian Hunt from Newcastle, who loves to study samplers and also enjoys tracing family histories. Great news for me, and for any of you who are also intrigued by this expanding tale.

If you recall, nine-year-old Hannah’s 19th century sampler is on the wall of my mum’s kitchen alongside two done by my ancestors Mary Atkinson and Jane Lacy. We didn’t know anything about Hannah or how we came to have her sampler, but for many years it was kept rolled up with Jane Lacy’s at my Nana’s home. We had some clues (featured in my last piece) from my distant relative Marion Atkinson, who believed that Hannah’s parents died when she was quite young. 

Gillian suggests that there may be a Scottish influence in the sampler design because the peacock with the fanned tail at the lower left corner and the band of capital letters across the top are very characteristic of that region. Scottish samplers also contain a lot of red and green threads, which Hannah used, although it may be that these were all she had available. She adds that Scottish samplers often featured the initials of other family members which, if sewn in black or dark thread, meant they pre-deceased the sampler’s creator. Hannah’s sampler has two sets of initials after the date; MR, which is in pale blue, and ER, which is in dark grey. 

Gillan says: “I picked up Hannah on the 1841 census, but it is of limited use to genealogists as it does not give places of birth, relationships between the members of a household, and the ages may be slightly inaccurate. On the Library edition of Ancestry.com, often more information is pulled through at the right hand side of the page if you click their name on the census list. For Hannah, it pulled up only a record of baptism: ‘Hannah Roe, baptised 23 September 1825 at Glaisdale, daughter of Matthew Roe, a labourer, and his wife, Ellis of Hartoff (Hartoft)’.”

Gillian goes on: “Hannah’s parents’ names fit the initials MR and ER on the sampler. If Hannah worked the sampler early in 1835, she would still be nine years old at the time. The fact that the name has been recorded as Roe rather than Raw is not particularly concerning – names were often misheard and misspelled, even by curates. Ellis as a female name is very unusual. It is common for a mother’s maiden name to be given to a son as a first name but I have never come across it as a daughter’s name. Is it a corruption of Alice or Elise/Elisa?”

Gillian discovered that there was a marriage recorded at Danby on 29 August 1820 of Matthew Raw to Ellis Winspear, which must be Hannah’s parents due to the unusual name of the bride. Both signed the register with their mark, which meant they could not write. She also found a record of Ellis Raw being buried at Danby on 15 February 1835. There will not be a death certificate for her as civil registration did not begin until 1837 and given that her children were born at approximately two-yearly intervals, Gillian thinks it is possible that Ellis died as a result of pregnancy or child birth. As the initials ER are in dark thread, it means Hannah completed the sampler after her mother died and sometime before 23 September 1835, as she would have turned 10 years old by that date.

“There is a burial for Matthew Raw in the Pickering registration district (which covered Hartoft) registered between April and June 1838. This fits with your information that Hannah’s parents died when she was young. I can’t find any other information about him, except for the baptisms of his children,” says Gillian.

In conclusion, Gillian writes: “Hannah was born in 1825, the third of seven children of Matthew, a farmer, and Ellis Raw of Hartoft. Her sampler was completed in 1835, prior to 23 September 1835. Both parents had died by the time Hannah was 13. This probably meant that Hannah had little choice but to go into service, living with the Adamson family in 1841. There is no trace of Hannah after 1841 although it is possible she died unmarried in the Whitby registration district between April and June 1891 aged 76.”

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

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 20th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 18th January 2023

How do you take it?

Which is the ‘right’ colour of tea?

My recent column about tea bags resulted in some spirited feedback. If you recall, I wrote that I make time each day to switch off and enjoy a pot of proper tea made with good quality leaves. It is an essential part of my routine, and for me, is like therapy, having seen me through many a stressful time in my life. When teabags were first invented, though, they were viewed as rather posh, but over the years they became more popular than leaves, and thus the roles have reversed, with leaf tea now being seen as a bit more upmarket.

Reader Sarah Mason says that her family have always preferred tea leaves over bags. She writes: “Sacrilege in my house to use tea bags…Way back when, Mum and Dad didn’t even use a tea strainer. So it was dangerous to empty your cup completely. Good for reading your future though, apparently!”

I don’t use a strainer either, and have a habit of always leaving a bit of tea in the bottom of my cup, even when it has been made with bags and so is complete unnecessary. I’ve never tried to read my dregs though, and the art of doing so is known a Tassography (yes, it is a bona fide ‘ography’). The Chinese, for whom tea drinking has been a highly significant ritual for centuries, are thought to be the first to have ‘read’ the leaves, but it became popular in Europe among soothsayers and fortune-tellers during the superstitious 17th century once tea-drinking had become commonplace.

Clare Proctor, who could claim to be an expert on the brew due to the fact she owns a rather nice tea shop on the Shambles in York, says: “I was brought up with the idea that proper tea was made with loose leaf tea in a pot and it was terribly vulgar to use bags…By the way, you could start another debate – which goes in the cup first – milk or tea?”

She has a point. I asked Clare what she did, and she replied that she fills her cup half way, then adds milk until it is the right colour. But what is the ‘right’ colour? For me it would be a deep brown, akin to what those of us of a certain age might know as ‘American Tan’ (for the youngsters, that is a fetching colour of women’s tights from the 1970s). For many others, the right colour is more like off white, due to the fact they seem to put more milk than tea in their cups in a concoction that barely deserves to be called tea. Another reader, Gareth Child, believes putting milk in at all is totally unacceptable!

There is also the question of the water/leaf ratio. Because I like my tea fairly dark, people assume I want a really strong brew. They proffer something akin to tar thinking that’s what I like, and throw in far too much milk. I try to explain that I like an average-strength tea, but with only a small amount of milk. I’m not fussy really. Well, I am, a bit. Or maybe a lot. But when it comes to tea, it matters.

So back to the question of milk first/tea first. What do you do? Are you in the Proctor camp, with milk after, or like me, milk first? Believe it or not the answer is a reflection of your ancestral status in society.

When we first began importing black tea from India in the eighteenth century, only the rich could afford to buy it. They’d sip this precious elixir from fine bone china cups, taking the edge off the bitter taste with a drop of the finest milk poured into the top. As the product became more popular, and thus more affordable, the hoi poloi began to indulge, but when they poured the hot infusion into their rough terracotta mugs, the boiling water cracked the clay causing it to leak. They soon realised that if they put the milk in first, it would cool it down and thus solve the problem. Of course, bone china is incredibly strong and easily tolerated the hot liquid.

So you can deduce a person’s breeding by the way they drink their cuppa. Milk last means you are from fine stock. Milk first and you’re common as muck.

Just like me.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 13th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 11th January 2023

Is the truth in the post?

Dad continued to research witch posts and their connection to the martyr Father Nicholas Postgate right up until his death in 2017.

Happy New Year and welcome to 2023! I do hope you’ve had a wonderful time over the holiday season. For us, the festive period is always a time of joy alongside reflection, when we think of our lost loved ones who are not here to share it with us, and about other people who suffer loss and illness around this time of year.

If you’ve read any of my dad Peter Walker’s writing, either through his books or columns, you’ll know how proud he was of his home county and he would agree with a commentator I heard saying: “Of all the regions of our great country, Yorkshire seems to pride itself on taking most pride in itself.”

Dad grew up in Glaisdale, a small village in the heart of the North York Moors, and in a 1979 article I found in his study at my mum’s house, he tells us how lucky he was to have a childhood which allowed him to freely roam the rural landscape. He writes: “Remote and beautiful, it boasts several isolated farmsteads and I used to visit friends there, living in solitary splendour and away from the bustle of life in the towns.”

These ancient farmhouses were very sturdily built and Dad found their interiors fascinating, particularly the huge inglenook fireplaces. At least two that he visited had carvings on the wooden posts supporting the smoke hoods of these fires. The posts were known as ‘witch posts’ and they sparked in Dad an interest that lasted right up until his death in 2017. In his later years, it became a real quest to find out more about the stories behind them. What he discovered went against many long-held beliefs but Dad was convinced his research proved him right.

Originally it was thought that these carvings were intended to ward off evil spirits and witches, hence the name. They were usually crosses, some simple, while others were more complicated, with the cross forming the centre and elaborate carvings surrounding it. But over the years, Dad came to believe they were in fact associated with the legendary Martyr of the Moors, Father Nicholas Postgate.

Postgate carried out his ministry in the 1600s at a time when Catholics were being persecuted by the state, and to be caught practicing mass was considered a treasonable offence. Therefore many Catholic priests went underground, and, like Postgate himself, often hid in open sight by being ‘employed’ by wealthy landowners as servants and gardeners. Although these landowners outwardly appeared to support the Church of England, in fact they still secretly practised Catholicism thanks to brave priests like Fr Postgate.

Moorland locals devised cunning ways of letting fellow Catholics know where mass was being celebrated, such as hanging out a certain number of items on a washing line near the home in question. Unfortunately, Postgate was eventually caught baptising a child and was executed in York in 1679. In 1987, his sacrifice was recognised by Pope John Paul II, who beatified him alongside 84 other Catholic martyrs from England and Wales.

During his quest to find out more about Postgate, Dad discovered that witch posts bearing these cross symbols only proliferated during the time of the martyr, and only in areas where he is thought to have visited, which is the main reason why he believed they were connected to Postgate. Their purpose, he suggested, was to secretly indicate to fellow Catholics that they were in a safe house. It is possible that the association with evil spirits and witches was a deliberate ploy by Catholics to spread misinformation so that the true meaning behind the symbols would not be discovered. One of these posts can be seen in the Ryedale Folk Museum in Hutton-le-Hole today.

Dad was finally able to publish his theories in his book ‘Blessed Nicholas Postgate, Martyr of the Moors’, a comprehensive biography of the holy man. As I was researching this piece, I came across a Yorkshire Post interview he did in 2012 and what I didn’t know was that his diagnosis of prostate cancer in 2007 was what inspired him to finally write the book.

“It’s a story I feel very strongly about and thought I should get on with the book before I died,” he said.

I wonder if anyone reading this knows where any more witch posts can be found?

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

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 6th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 4th January 2023

Still hunting for Hannah

Mary Atkinson, left, my mum’s grandmother, standing outside her home in Lealholm on the North York Moors with my mum’s mum, also called Mary.

Mary Atkinson, my mum’s grandmother, whose sampler we have on our kitchen wall, made when she was 12.

My recent quest to find out more about a little 19th century girl from the North York Moors called Hannah Raw has borne fruit.

If you recall I wrote about some 19th century samplers on the wall of my mum’s kitchen. Two were done by ancestors, one called Mary Atkinson, who was 12 when she created hers in 1876 and was my mum’s maternal grandmother, and Jane Lacy, who was 10 in 1837 when she created her sampler, and was Mum’s great great aunt on her mother’s side. The third sampler was by Hannah Raw, who was nine in 1835, but about whom I knew nothing. We don’t know how we came to have her sampler, but for many years it was kept rolled up with Jane Lacy’s at my Nana’s home.

One reader contacted me to say his neighbour had the surname Raw and hailed from the Glaisdale/Lealholm area. I’m trying to get in touch with him to see if he can help. I was also contacted by Marion Atkinson who originates from Lealholm and she believed we were distant relatives on my mother’s side. She wrote: “My father was Dick Atkinson of Lealholm, and I knew your dad and your gran. My 4x great grandfather was John Raw of Fryup.”

She added: “Mary (Polly) Atkinson, b.1864, married Jack Lacy, a blacksmith at Lealholm. She was sister to my great grandfather, Thomas William Atkinson, b.1871.”

This Mary Atkinson that Marion mentioned is the same one whose sampler adorns our wall, and is indeed my mum’s maternal grandmother. So Marion is related (albeit at a distance) to my mum’s side of the family. But could she also be a distant relative of Hannah, via her 4x great grandfather?

She tried to find out a bit more about Hannah, and believes that her parents died when she was still young. If that is the case, in the days when social care did not exist, it is possible, that she was taken in by other nearby families to be looked after, and maybe by the Lacy family, which could explain why we have the sampler she made when she was just nine years old. By the time she was 15, according to the 1841 National Census (which anyone can view online), a Hannah Raw was living in the Whitby area in the household of James and Catharine Adamson, a couple in their 40s, alongside Ann Backer and Sarah Backer, who were 25 and 20 respectively, as well as a boy called Isaac Cacomb, aged 15. We think it is the right Hannah, but what was she doing there?

The fascinating thing about the census is that it lists the occupations alongside the names. James Adamson was a farmer and, as there is nothing listed against Catharine’s name, I am assuming she is his wife (rather than than a brother or sister). Next to the two Backer women is listed ‘Ind’, which I have discovered is the abbreviation for ‘independent’, in other words, living by their own means. This meant they did not have a profession and was applied to men, single women and widows. Young Isaac was listed as a farm labourer, presumably employed by Mr Adamson, and our Hannah had ‘F.S.’ written beside her name, which means ‘Female Servant’, and so it appears that she was employed by the Adamsons as a live-in servant.

Marion has kindly offended to try to find out more, but if you do know anything more about Hannah, please get in touch with me via this paper or on my contact page at www.countrymansdaughter.com.

I mentioned our connection to Marion to my mum, who remembered a little about Mary Atkinson, particularly the fact that people called her Polly. She didn’t get to meet her, though, as Mary died on 21st August, 1935, almost two years before my mum was born. Mum said she recalled seeing a picture of Mary, but wasn’t sure where it was. Of course, that set me off digging into the family archives, pulling out all the old photo albums hidden in various cupboards upstairs. After a good old rummage, I found said picture, and it gave me such a thrill to be able to put a face to the 200-year-old name that has hung on our wall for so many years.

I wonder if the day will come when I can do the same for Hannah?

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

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 30th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 28th December 2022

Sweet excitement of Advent

So the big day is just around the corner and there are not many doors left to open on our Advent calendars. This year might be the first since I had children that I didn’t buy each of them one. Time seemed to run away with me, and before I knew it, we were well into December and so there didn’t seem to be much point. The fact that my children are aged 26, 24 and 20 may also have been a factor!

I was discussing Advent calendars with my mum and when she was a child, they didn’t seem to exist on the North York Moors, or if they did, she certainly never had one. She also didn’t think she gave them to us children after she had become a mum herself. However, I do remember them being around occasionally, and the excitement of opening up the door each day to see what Christmassy picture would be revealed, the anticipation heightening as the closed doors grew fewer and fewer. We didn’t need such luxuries as chocolate because the thrill of revealing the picture was enough.

I’m not sure when calendars containing sweets started to appear, although some of our posher friends did have those big cloth ones that you would hang on a wall with a sweet or a small gift in each of the 24 pockets. But it seemed that by the time my children were of school age, calendars containing chocolate were very much the norm. In fact it was really difficult to find any without them, yet I was determined that my children would experience the same excitement I had but without the need for a sweet treat. I tried it, but the disappointment on the little faces that there was no chocolate hidden behind the door was too much for any mother to bear, and by the following year I had caved in again. I compromised though, and managed most years to find one without sweets, and so for a time, my kids were lucky enough to get both.

The first printed Advent calendars appeared Germany in the early 1900s, although before that the countdown to Christmas Day had been marked by, for example, chalk marks on walls. We are not certain who invented the idea of a calendar with doors, but the most often repeated tale involves a German boy called Gerhard Lang. Gerhard’s mother would attach 24 sweets or biscuits to a large piece of card, and he was allowed to eat one every day until Christmas.

As an adult, Lang recalled the sense of excitement that he felt at being able to eat his treat, and how that increased as he counted down the days to 25th December. He hit on the idea of creating a printed calendar where a different festive picture would be hidden behind 24 doors. He began mass producing these with his business partner until the 1930s when they went bust. By then, though, his idea had caught on, and calendars were being produced and bought all over the Western world. Here in the UK, it was during the 1950s that they really took off and became one of our annual Christmas traditions.

The popularity of chocolate calendars is surprisingly recent though. There were attempts in the 1960s to introduce them, and Cadbury produced its first one in 1971. I was quite pleased to learn that us Brits resisted them for a long time, concerned that Christmas was becoming too focussed on the gifts rather than than the spiritual aspect but, as we might come to expect, commercialisation won out, and Cadbury’ chocolate Advent calendars finally went into continuous production in 1993. They have never looked back.

Today you can get practically anything in an Advent calendar, such as perfume, toiletries and even toys. However I was very happy to come across a traditional pretty cardboard calendar in a shop in my local market town. As she’d never had one in her childhood days, I decided it was time that my mum had the chance to enjoy her very first one.

I don’t know about you though, but every time she opens up one of those doors, the excitement has been replaced by dread that I have so little time left and so much to do!

I’d like to wish you all a very Happy Christmas!

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

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 23rd and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 21st December 2022

Bagged myself a cuppa

My local cafe serves a lovely cup of tea made in a pot with leaves


There is a lovely tea shop in my home village and my mum and I recently stopped there for a cuppa. The tea tasted really good, which isn’t always the case when you don’t make it yourself. Tea-making is quite an art, and not many people get it right.

Thankfully, our local café does a fine job, not least because they use loose leaves in a pot which gives the tea a depth of flavour that is hard to achieve when using bags alone.

Using leaves is viewed as a bit posh these days, but it wasn’t the case when bags first appeared. My mum recalled a funny story from her younger days when her own mother was visited by an unexpected guest and was quite apologetic when she could only offer tea made with leaves. Tea bags had only landed on British shores a few years earlier in around 1939, and no doubt it became the done thing to demonstrate you were part of the fashionable elite by having them in your home. They left no irritating rogue leaves floating about, didn’t leave sludge at the bottom of the cup, and didn’t make a mess when you emptied the pot down the sink. The refined bag took care of all that nonsense. No wonder my Nana felt bad about offering her guest common or garden leaf tea! 

The majority of Brits were late adopters of the sachet of dreams. Loose tea had arrived on our shores in the 17th century from China, with the earliest being a type of green tea that was drunk without milk. By the following century, stronger black teas became popular, and that’s when we began to add milk to make it more palatable. By the 19th century we were sourcing much of our tea from new markets in India, which soon overtook China as our main supplier. 

Entrepreneurial minds were always looking for solutions to the perennial problem of messy leaves, and so inventors created little metal infusers known as ‘tea eggs’ or ‘tea balls’ that were suspended either into a pot or a cup on a metal chain. 

An American chap called Thomas Sullivan is often credited with inventing the tea bag in 1908, but in fact it was two women, Roberta Lawson and Mary McLaren from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that patented a design in 1901 where leaves were placed in individual loose-weave cotton pockets designed for one cup.

Sullivan, who was a tea and coffee merchant, used to send clients samples of his wares inside little drawstrung silk pouches. But those who received them, having seen the Lawson/McLaren invention, mistakenly used the string to hold on to the pouch while lowering it into their cups, rather than opening up the pouch and pouring out the contents as Sullivan had intended.

The little pouches became incredibly popular, and Sullivan spotted an opportunity, realising the silk weave was too fine to allow the tea to brew properly. He set about inventing something similar, but better, and landed on the idea of using a type of gauze rather than silk which would allow the full flavour of the leaves to come through. By the 1930s, the gauze had been replaced by a kind of filter paper, and loose leaf tea began to disappear from US shop shelves. 

The well-known tea suppliers Tetley were the first to bring them over from America in 1939 but we, as we Brits tend to be, were a bit wary of this strange new concept, and it wasn’t until 1952 that rivals Lipton sparked a leap in popularity when they patented their ‘Flo-Thru’ tea bag. Having said that, by the end of the 1960s, only three per cent of the population were regularly using tea bags. By the year 2000, though, that figure had surged to 95%.

For me, a good cup of tea is like therapy, and has seen me through many stressful events. I make time every day to switch off from whatever I’m doing and enjoy a pot of proper tea made with good quality leaves.

If you must use bag in a cup, though, please take this tip from an expert. Never, but NEVER, squeeze a tea bag. Instead, just pop it into your cup of just-boiled water and leave it to seep (or steep or mash or brew) until it is just the right colour.

Now there’s a topic for another day!

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

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

Like a virgin


The Early Virgin’s Bower clematis that is currently blooming in my garden


On a grotty, damp morning recently I was visiting a house for work and was taken into the back yard to look around. Creeping along the retaining wall was very pretty plant heavy with blooms and I remarked that it was uplifting to see it on such a miserable day. It had small dark green leaves and an abundance of delicate creamy white bell-shaped flowers and the owner said was a species of clematis. She explained that it would continue showing right through the winter, but didn’t know the full name of it.

When I returned home, I mentioned it to my mum, who is an experienced gardener, but my woeful description didn’t help her identify it. Not long after that, we took a trip to a local garden centre and toured in hope around all the clematis species on view, but couldn’t find the one I had seen. We gave up trying, and promptly forgot all about it. 

It was only today, back in my new house that, when I let the dogs out, I saw right there in the middle of the garden, a wooden arbour festooned with the very same plant. How I’d not noticed it sooner, goodness only knows, but harnessing the magical power of the plant-identifying app on my phone, I knew I would soon discover its name.

Ladies and gentlemen (drum roll please) the mystery plant is the grandly-named ‘Early Virgin’s Bower’. It is the prettiest of winter flowers and the little white bells are a welcome sight amongst the evergreen shrubs and leafless trees. I discovered that it is a Mediterranean creeping variety that needs to be supported by a trellis or other structure. It’s important to know that most (possibly all) species of clematis are poisonous, and that toxins are contained in every part of the plant. However, it is only really a problem if ingested, causing blistering in the mouth and stomach upset. Extensive handling can result in painful skin rashes, so it’s best to wear gloves when dealing with it.

It can also be a danger to animals if they eat it, which some over-curious pets might just do. However, it is extremely bitter in taste and therefore those tempted to try it will likely spit it out. It is not considered life-threatening to animals, but if they start displaying symptoms such as excessive drooling, vomiting and diarrhoea then the advice is to get them to a vet ASAP.

I tried to find out more about this quirkily-named creeper, thinking there may be folklore related to it, but when I checked in my reference books and online, I couldn’t find any mention of it. Instead, my search led me unexpectedly to Virgin Mary’s Nuts (if you have just experienced an inappropriate snigger, then you are as childish as me!). Virgin Mary’s Nuts are also called Sea Beans, Molucca Beans or simply Lucky Beans. 

These beans originate from countries in the Caribbean and South America and tend to wash up on the western shores of the UK, having hitched a ride on the Gulf Stream. They’ve been found since at least the 17th century, and the larger ones are meant to bring good fortune. In Richard Carew’s 1602 book ‘Survey of Cornwall’ he describes these ‘nuts’ being found on beaches alongside colourful sea shells and says they resemble a sheep’s kidney ‘save that they are flatter; the outside consisteth of a hard dark-coloured rind, the inner part a kernel devoid of any taste, but not so of virtue, especially for women travailing in childbirth, if at least old wives’ tales may deserve any credit.’

That last sentence could explain why they were given the name ‘Virgin Mary’s Nuts’, but they do sound an awful lot like kidney beans, which are thought to have originated in Peru. However, a single raw kidney bean can cause severe sickness, diarrhoea and stomach pains, so back then would they have known that unless they were boiled for at least 10 minutes they would be toxic? Or that if they were cooked at too low a temperature, the toxicity would increase? It must have been quite a risky business trying out new and exotic foodstuffs 400 years ago!

Thankfully, we don’t have to resort to beach-combing to source the key ingredients for our chillis, and also have the luxury of knowing that we can eat them straight from the can. 

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

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

Unpacking past memories

Stacks of boxes languishing in my garage thanks to ‘unpacking fatigue’


You may have noticed that recently I’ve not referenced my dad’s columns so much. I am finding that I am able to compose my columns without his help, unlike the early days, when I would read the columns he had written forty years ago and use them to inspire mine. It was a lovely way of keeping a connection with my dad, and I felt like he was holding my hand as I found my feet in the first few years of writing the Countryman’s Daughter column.

This week, however, when I came to sit down, I didn’t have any clue about what I was going to write, and decided that I would go back to my previous habit of reading Dad’s piece from the corresponding week in 1982 and see if something in it would inspired me.

So all I needed was to dig out the column. And that’s where I encountered a problem. Where was the column? It was then that I remembered it was among a big pile of unpacked boxes that are still sitting in the garage waiting for attention after my recent house move. And I have no idea which box it is in. 

I went into the garage to see if any of the labelling on the boxes would give me a clue. But they didn’t, and they were piled up in such a way that it was impossible to see what was written on the lower boxes.

Why do we collect so much stuff that when it comes to moving house we always get a number of boxes that remain unpacked? Their contents are not deemed sufficiently useful to warrant priority treatment, so there they sit for months, or even years, until we forget they exist at all. While preparing to move this time I found several unpacked boxes languishing in the shed from the last time I moved nine years ago. You’d be forgiven for thinking that after nine years I’d realise that it was time to do the sensible thing and get rid of them. But no. I brought them with me to this house, no doubt to stay unpacked until my next move.

I am naturally a bit of a hoarder and hang on to things that have sentimental value, even if they never see the light of day. What will ultimately happen to them, who knows, but I work on the theory that when I’m dead, it will no longer be my problem, it will be my children’s (thankfully they don’t read my column).

The reason we leave boxes unpacked is a result of ‘unpacking fatigue’, brought about by weeks of packing and unpacking. We just cannot face yet another box. Over the process of the move, we have to make endless decisions about what to keep, what to ditch and what to donate to charity at both the packing and unpacking stages that we just can’t face having to keep on making those decisions. So we leave a few boxes for another day. And that day never comes.

The contents of those boxes are often items of sentimental value, which we find the most difficult to throw away. In my case, it is things like my dad’s folders containing his columns, or whole bundles of letters that I have kept from my parents, siblings and best friend from when I was on a gap year at age 18. I can’t bear to throw them away, even though I know they are not being kept in the best conditions to look after them. Boxes are designed to protect items in transit, rather than to preserve them, and so it is not the best idea to leave precious stuff locked in cardboard for the long term as it will be susceptible to damage from damp, bugs or rodents.

To make a move less overwhelming, experts suggest using a priority labelling system, so as well as writing what is in the box, where it came from and where it is to go in the new house, you label it with a letter. ‘A’ would stand for ‘unpack first’, B for ‘unpack second’ and ‘C’ for ‘unpack last’. It means you can stage the process so that it feels easier to manage.

I’m hoping it will be a long time before I have to put it to the test. 

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

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 2nd December and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 30th  November 2022

A matter of leaf and death

Different pigments contained in leaves are responsible for the autumn colours. Picture by Victoria Manley

Autumn colours on the Woodcock Way circular walk in Dalby Forest. Picture by Janet Sanderson

This week I have been captivated by a photograph taken by a member of my Facebook group (Picture That Walk). It shows a handful of fallen leaves, and the array of colours is simply incredible. Another photograph also caught my eye, taken on the Woodcock Way circular walk in Dalby Forest, and again, the autumn colours are just spectacular.

Now the clocks have gone back we feel like we are firmly heading towards winter, which this year officially starts on 21st December and ends 20th March 2023. That period is known as the Astronomical Winter, although the Meteorological Winter starts on 1st December and ends 28th February. The leaves have almost all fallen now, and this year autumn has once again came up trumps, with some fantastic displays that had me marvelling at Mother Nature’s accomplishment. For me, seeing the landscape transform in such a way somewhat softens the blow of summer coming to an end. Although the trees are what we call ‘dying off’, they are not so much dying as ‘going to sleep’, recharging their batteries so that they can burst forth with new life in the spring.

The intensity of the colour and the duration of the display is largely dependent on the behaviour of the weather, with reduced daylight hours and cooler nights triggering the start of the change telling us that autumn is arriving. An ‘indian summer’ with warm, dry days and colder nights usually leads to a long-lasting and more varied and intense colour display, while a drizzly, dank, mild September and October will mean a short-lived burst of colour, before leaves turn brown and fall off the trees.

The colour change is all down to the behaviour of the chemical chlorophyll, which is responsible for the green hues. Chlorophyll is the most dominant pigment and is active in spring and summer, using the sun to transform carbon dioxide and water into nutrient-rich starches and sugars in a process called photosynthesis. Chlorophyll constantly breaks down and replenishes, thanks to the large flat surface of a tree’s leaves which allow them to absorb as much sun as possible.

As we approach autumn, this process slows down, and chlorophyll becomes less dominant, allowing other pigments contained in the leaves to become more visible. There are three categories of chemical, each responsible for certain colours. Flavonoids are yellows, carotenoids are oranges, and anthocyanins are reds and purples and the proportion of these pigments varies from tree to tree, which explains why they differ in colour and shade.

Trees are really very clever, and recognise that they need to shed their leaves to preserve their meagre water and nutrient resources to ensure they can survive the winter. To do this, they grow a layer of cells between the branch and the stem of the leaf which severs the connection between them, causing the leaf to fall off.

That’s not the end of the story though. The leaves that fall surround the base of the tree, trapping in moisture and heat, and they gradually break down, becoming like a compost which in turn is absorbed into the ground, again delivering much needed sustenance into the soil.

We may hate having to rake up fallen leaves, but it isn’t always necessary. If they have fallen onto a flower border, then you may as well leave well alone, as they will act like a warm weed-deterring blanket against the frost, and will also deliver goodness back into the earth as they break down. The same applies if they land on your lawn, just as long as there is not too thick or heavy a covering of them, which can damage the grass.

Having said that, when they collect on pavements and drives leaves are a darn nuisance! No sooner have you swept them up, then the wind comes and scatters them all over again. Opposite my mum’s house there are four sycamore trees that have the really annoying habit of shedding their leaves one after another then sending them straight across the road into my mum’s drive and up to her front door. Why they can’t just all drop their leaves at the same time is a mystery, but probably has something to do with how much exposure the each individual tree has to the elements.

It’s a constant battle between man and leaf. And the leaf usually wins.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 18th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 16th  November 2022