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

On the contrary

Not long after Dad died, I dreamt about him tackling a deluge that came through the house into the garden

I dream a lot, but am one of those people who, almost as soon as I wake, will have forgotten it by the time I get downstairs. If I do remember anything, it will be a vague recollection without very much detail.

It’s such a shame, because they often seem so vivid and very entertaining, and yet come dawn, I can barely remember a thing. I do, however, recall the odd one from over the years that for whatever reason has stuck in my mind.

The randomness of my dreams baffles me, because often I cannot fathom why I have dreamt about a certain thing. About ten years ago, I dreamt about a classmate, Julie, who I’d not seen or heard of for at least 25 years. She wasn’t a close friend of mine, nor had we ever had any kind of memorable interaction in school. She had not been on my radar at all since we left and I had never had any reason to think about her. And yet, here she was appearing in my dream. I can’t remember any thing specific about what happened except that the dream was not related to my school days. So why was Julie there?

It is very tempting to look for meaning in those instances, and for the following week I was on the alert for anything in the news or in every day life that might be connected to Julie. Nothing occurred and as the weeks went on, thoughts of Julie retreated once more, and there they stayed, right up until I began to write this column. It is still a mystery as to why Julie popped up, and one I am never likely to be able to answer because, I suspect, there is no answer.

There are occasions, though, when we know exactly why we dream about something. Not long after my dad died, I dreamt that a huge torrent of water cascaded down the hill opposite my parents’ house, went straight through Dad’s study, through the kitchen and out the other side of the house into the garden. It was all hands on deck to try and save our belongings, and there, right in the middle of it all directing proceedings was my dad. He looked so vibrant and healthy, like he was before he became ill. He was delighted to see me, and we had good old chat, his voice very clear and distinctively his (I don’t recall what we said). When I woke up, of course I felt his loss acutely, and yet at the same time also felt a deep sense of comfort that I was able to have one last conversation with him, even if it was only in my imagination.

Dad mentioned dreams in his column from 5th December 1981 after a reader had contacted him to ask if he knew how to interpret them. He declared no expertise on the topic, but did discuss the popularity of ‘dream books’ in the days when much significance was attached to what our mind’s eye saw during sleeping hours.

At one time, it was believed that dreams held the power to predict the future, and so there was a yearning to be able to understand what they meant. Thus a market in ‘dream books’ evolved, where explanations were given for a whole plethora of subjects. They were aimed at the masses, and many were not genuine interpretations but instead were filled with flaky nonsense and published simply to make money from a popular trend.

Suggesting that a dream may mean something prophetic was, of course, subject to the possibility of being wrong. So the way the interpreters got round that was to introduce ‘contraries’. If, for example, you dreamt of a wedding, then that could also mean a death, or if you dreamt of pots of money, that could mean you would go into debt.

In 1800, Christian writer Hannah More published a cautionary tale about the devious activities of unscrupulous dream interpreters called ‘The History of Tawny Rachel’ in which she declared: “When (Rachel) explained a dream according to the natural appearance of things and it did not come to pass, then she would get out of that scrape by saying that this sort of dream went by contraries.”

Well you know what? I would never dream of of doing such a thing.

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

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

Weight to go!

I used to swim almost every day as a child which bleached my hair from silky dark brown to blonde straw

I may have mentioned before that I am a keen tennis fan and play at a couple of clubs. Unfortunately I injured myself in May and have not been able to get back on court for a long time.

As it was my main form of exercise, I did pile on the pounds somewhat, and I resorted to wearing looser and looser clothes in a vain attempt to disguise it. By September, I felt far too big and with no sign that I’d be back on court any time soon, I decided that it was time to do something about it.

When I was in primary school, I absolutely loved swimming and was pretty good at it too. We were fortunate that in 1975, the nearby private school installed a brand new indoor pool which, for a small fee, the locals were able to use.

I was a proper water baby, and in the summer holidays would go swimming nearly every day and, thanks to the amount of time it spent submerged in chlorinated water, my straight, shiny dark brown hair transformed into a blonde nest of dry straw.

As I grew older, I began to realise that larking about in the swimming pool was deeply uncool, and by the age of 15 I discovered there were far more interesting things to do with my spare time, such as lounge about looking trendy in stripey leg warmers and pastel mohair jumpers while listening to Duran Duran.

For the next four decades I avoided swimming as a form of exercise due to the fact that the thought of ploughing up and down the pool over and over again, grinding out monotonous length after length, just didn’t appeal. At heart, I still wanted to be running round the edge and dive bombing my mates but apparently it wasn’t seemly for middle-aged women to be doing that.

What drew me back to it was noticing how my body protests for days after doing other forms of vigorous exercise. I figured that the non-impact swimming might be a good idea after all, despite the anticipated tedium of doing it.

Well, let me tell you, ladies and gentlemen, heading back to the pool has been a revelation. I swim up and down for about an hour at a time, and early in the morning so that it doesn’t impact on the rest of my working day. And guess what? I absolutely love it! I come out of the water feeling completely refreshed and ready to face the day ahead. Instead of finding it boring, it’s like a form of meditation, where I switch off from the noisy thoughts cluttering my mind and focus on the sound of the bubbles around my ears and the sensation of the water enveloping me.

Another bonus is that my body is changing shape. I have had to tighten my belt from the first notch to the last, and clothes that were clinging and tight now hang fairly loose. Yet I have not changed my diet in any way. I can’t tell you how liberating it is to be able to to look at my wardrobe and not feel depressed. To find a form of exercise that I enjoy and that sheds the weight without making sacrifices in the kitchen is a dream come true! I can pull clothes out of the wardrobe and know they are going to look OK. It is quite literally life-changing.

On the subject of clothing, in his column from 28th November 1981, Dad mentions some customs that used to be associated with what we wear. If you were putting on a new garment for the first time, you were meant to make a wish as you did so, and if it had a pocket then it was common to place a coin inside for good fortune.

When children had new clothes, their friends would give them a pinch on the arm and chant, “Nip for new, nip for new.” They might also sing “Health to wear it, strength to tear it, and money to buy another.”

If my weight loss continues, then I shall have to make a fair few wishes as I restock my wardrobe with new clothes. But every wish will be the same – that I don’t go and put it all back on again!

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

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

Name them in three

As so many people had the same name, it was common in Swaledale to call people by three first names to identify who was who (Picture courtesy of Yorkshire Dales National park)

It has long been a custom in North Yorkshire to call people by either their first name only, or by a certain nickname. For example, in the village in which I grew up lived two well-known and well-loved local characters, sisters Minnie and Fanny. It never occurred to me that they had a surname, nor did they need one because everyone knew who they were. It was only as an adult that I discovered they had a last name, which was Benson.

In his column from 21st November 1981, Dad talks about the curious custom in the Yorkshire Dales of using three first names to refer to an individual. It was particularly prevalent in Swaledale, and a reader had sent my dad examples such as Peter Tom Willie, Mark Jamie Jess and Dicky Tom Johnny. In these cases, the first name was the individual’s Christian name, the second was his father’s name, and the third his grandfather’s. So Peter was the son of Tom and grandson of Willie and even though the second two names would not be listed on his birth certificate, the locals would call him Peter Tom Willie.

There is an apparently true story of about a Swaledale man who lived near Gunnerside who was handed a letter by the postman addressed to a Mr Calvert. Looking at the envelope, the man said to the postman: “Nay, there’s neea sike feller lives ‘ere.”

The postman insisted that he had the right address, and finally the man remembered that his own last name was Calvert. He been known for so long as simply Assy Will Kit that he had completely lost track of what he was actually called.

In days of yore, communities were self-sufficient and had little need to travel far, so you would find many people with the same name marrying and having children, making it quite confusing to know who was who. Therefore a technique arose for distinguishing  between people and families and this was to adopt their profession after their name. In Swaledale, Alderson was a common surname, as was the first name Thomas, and this particular name is mentioned in a local folk song called The Loyal Dales Volunteers. The song is based on the roll call of a troop of men from Swaledale and Arkengarthdale who in 1804 volunteered in response to the threat of invasion by Napoleon.

What makes the roll call so unique is that because there were so many men with the same names, none are called by their surname, but all by their Dales nicknames. So to work out which Thomas Alderson was which, we find Grain Tom, Glowremour Tom, Screamer Tom, Pod-dish Tom, Tarry Tom, Tish Tom, Tripy Tom and Trooper Tom. Also on the roll were five John Hurds who were known as Awd Jack, Young Jack, Jane Jack, Mary Jack and King Jack, all of whom are listed in the song, along with many others. What interests me is the use of the female names, presumably a reference to their mothers. I wonder if that was because the father’s name was already attributed to a sibling? I’d love to hear from you if you have any such stories about common family names and nicknames you remember being used.

The Yorkshire dialect word ‘bramah’ cropped up again in a message from reader Ian Atkinson who served an apprenticeship at a garage in Osmotherley. When a particularly fine car came into the shop, the mechanics would say it was ‘bramah’. Ian adds: “My dad was a keen fisherman and he would often use the term when he was showing me his latest shopping ‘fix’ – a carbon fibre rod or a fancy reel that he had brought home – then made me promise not to tell mother!”

Ian also reveals another dialect word that is new to me, that of ‘ghiablek’ or ‘gearbelt’ which was used by farmers in Bilsdale and referred to a metal pole with a pointed end that was used to drive holes in the ground in which to place fence posts. Ian regrets that the Bilsdale farmer accent, which is still used by his father-in-law, is dying out, but adds: “It’s now up to us to keep those memories and experiences alive as best we can.”

And through this column, and through you lovely people getting in touch to share your memories and stories, we are doing just that. Thank you all!

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

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

‘owse tha’ doin’?

Those who live on the North York Moors have their own dialect words such as ‘swang’ which means ‘boggy ground’, and ‘rigwelted’, which is a sheep that is on its back and can’t get up again.


In his column from 14th November 1981, my dad mentions a letter he received from a reader who had come across several farms with the word ‘swang’ in their name and wondered what it meant.

The word crops up all over North Yorkshire and as well as Swang Farm, I have found Swang Head, Swang Plantation and Swang Road. I believe it has Scandinavian origins and means a wet, marshy tract of low-lying land. The name came to be used across the moors, even referring to high-lying fields that were prone to being waterlogged. Although many areas were drained in later years, the term ‘swang’ stuck. It is a word that is new to me, but I wonder if any of you still use it, or know any places that feature it? Incidentally, during my research I came across a Swing Swang Lane in Basingstoke, Hampshire. Is it just me, or does that sound like the description of a rather jaunty way to walk? Next time I go for a potter, I’m going to inject a hint of swing swang into my stride.

In the same vein, another unusual dialect word used in connection with farms is ‘owse’, which is pronounced like ‘grouse’. Another reader had written to my dad because she wanted to know why a nearby outbuilding was known as the ‘owse house’ (and locally would have been pronounced owse ‘ouse, dropping the ‘h’). She wondered if at one time this outbuilding would have been connected to the original property and as such the name simply meant ‘house house’.

In fact, the word ‘owse’ was once very common and used across the North York Moors to refer to oxen, with an ‘owse house’ being where they were kept. It is sometimes spelled ‘ouce’, and the plural is ‘owcen’. Does anyone out there still use an ‘owse ‘ouse’ I wonder?

The word theme continues to prompt people to get in touch, and following my column a few weeks about Yorkshire slang words like ‘tyke’ and ‘bramah’, reader Clare Proctor wrote that she had not heard of those two, but “…when I first moved to Rosedale, two farmers could have a whole conversation and the only word I would understand was the occasional expletive! I once told someone I had seen a dead sheep on the moors with its legs in the air and was told ‘it were rigwelted’.”

This excellent-sounding term has its roots in Old Norse, with ‘rygg’ meaning ‘back’ and ‘velte’ meaning ‘overturn’. A sheep is said to be ‘rigged’, ‘rigwelted’, or ‘riggweltered’ when it has rolled on to its back and cannot right itself, which is more likely to occur when it is pregnant. It can also be used to describe someone who is confined to bed for a long period as a result of illness or fatigue. There is an ale brewed by a well-known Yorkshire firm that is named after this phenomenon, and with an alcohol content of 5.4%, then have too much and you are very likely to end up rigwelted too.

One of the stereotypes of us Yorkshire folk is that we are tight with our money, as borne out by the well-known saying sent to me by reader Lynn Catena:

‘Ear all, see all an say nowt. Eat all, sup all an pay nowt.

An, if iver tha duz owt for nowt, do it fur thissen.’

Some say that a Yorkshireman is like a Scotsman, but with all the generosity squeezed out. Of course there are those who are, let’s say, ‘careful’ with their money, but then aren’t there people like that everywhere? Most Yorkshire folk I encounter are warm and generous to a fault, but if you know otherwise, then do send me your tales of tight Tykes.

We Yorkshire folk also have a reputation for being stubborn. I’d like to point out that if myself, my dad, my sister, my brother, my aunt, my uncle, my nana and many, many members of my extended family are anything to go by, then that is only true because we are always right, as everyone should know. 

But I’d like to end with a comment I have mentioned before, one I heard made by a TV commentator some years ago: “Of all the regions of our great country, Yorkshire seems to pride itself on taking most pride in itself.” Yes sir, we certainly do.

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

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

Recipe for laughter

In my column a couple of weeks ago I talked about the term ‘bramah’ which was used to describe something that is either unusual or of excellent quality. For example you might stay, “Eee, it’s a proper bramah that one.” I wrote that an exceptional 18th century South Yorkshire engineer called Joseph Bramah, most famous for inventing high quality locks, was likely to have influenced its use.

I was contacted by reader John Rodmell who put forward an alternative explanation for the origin of the term. He wrote: “I’ve always understood the word to mean ‘stunning example’ and have been led to believe it originates from the name of a particularly large chicken.”

The breed in question is called the ‘Brahma’ and is thought to have been developed in the United States from birds imported from Shanghai in China. Because of its considerable size, it was the principal meat breed in the US from the 1850s until about 1930. It came into the UK in December 1852 when some were gifted to Queen Victoria.

Although this could be true, I’m not sure it is as convincing as the Joseph Bramah explanation. I have found a variety of spellings and as well as bramah and brahma, we have brammer, brama and brammah, all meaning an outstanding person or thing. It has also been suggested that rather than originating in South Yorkshire, it is West Yorkshire folk who should take the credit. But then again, there are others who say it is of Scottish origin. Incidentally ‘bramah’ follows ‘brain fart’ in the slang dictionary I was using. This is an inability to think clearly or a moment of forgetfulness. As a result, I have diagnosed myself as a sufferer of chronic brain fartism.

I’ve also been contacted about mondegreens, a term that came into common use thanks to writer Sylvia Wright who as a child had confused the words to the 17th century ballad ‘The Bonnie Earl o’Moray’. For the line that went ‘And layd him on the green’, Wright heard ‘Lady Mondegreen’, and thus the term began to be used to refer to misheard song lyrics.

I received a very kind message from Caroline Hodgson who said: “Thank you very much for your lovely column each week…There is always something which I learn from it!” Caroline particularly enjoyed the ‘mondegreen’ article and sent in a few corkers used by her own family. We have ‘I believe in Milko’ (‘I believe in Miracles’, Hot Chocolate), ‘Checky tea towel’ (‘Chiquitita’ by Abba) and my personal favourite, ‘Bald-headed woman, more than a woman than me’, (‘More Than a Woman’, The Bee Gees).

And Graeme Cunningham wrote: “Due to a duff sound system in my local cinema where I saw ‘The King and I’, I heard Deborah Kerr sing: ‘I know how it feels to have wings on your heels, and to fly down a street in a tram.’ ” The correct version has a wistful Deborah flying down the street in a ‘trance’.

These recollections had me laughing out loud, so do keep them coming (either contact this paper, or get in touch through the contact page at countrymansdaughter.com).

You may remember that last week I talked about witch bottles, everyday containers intended to ward off evil sorceresses that were filled with small objects such as fingernails, hair, pins and urine. The bottles were hidden by fireplaces, thresholds, graveyards and river banks to try to keep witches at bay.

By the time he had written his column the following week in 1981 (7th November), Dad had found some instructions which may still come in very useful if you are troubled by these dastardly old hags.

He informs us: ‘To destroy the power of a witch, take three small-necked stone jars. Place in each the liver of a frog stuck full of new pins and the heart of a toad stuck full of thorns from the holy thorn bush. Cork and seal each jar.

‘Bury in three different churchyard paths seven inches from the surface and seven inches from the porch. While in the act of burying each, repeat the Lord’s Prayer backwards. As the hearts and livers decay, so will the witch’s power vanish.’

So now, if you’re ever troubled by witches, you’ll know just what to do (keep this column handy though, just in case you’re struck by a brain fart).

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

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

Got a lot of bottle

The torpedo-shaped witch bottle on the left, found in a former pub in Watford in 2019 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Witch_Bottles_Curse_Protection.jpg)

Myself and my son Joey dressed up for a Halloween party a few years ago

T’is the season of witches, monsters, ghosts and pumpkins and I did enjoy the years when myself and my children put significant effort into getting dressed up for Halloween. I used to look forward to donning my witch’s outfit and scaring the youngsters when they knocked on our door in the hope of a handful of treats.

The thought of witches these days does not scare many people, but in times gone by, they were much feared and the belief in their magical powers to conjure up spells to do someone ill was very real indeed.

In his column from 24th October 1981, Dad talks about one particular and intriguing act of witchcraft that occasionally resurfaces today, usually when builders are carrying out renovations on old houses. If they have occasion to dig up an ancient threshold, or remove bricks or masonry surrounding an old fireplace, then they might just uncover a witch bottle.

Witch bottles would have been hidden by 17th century homeowners to protect the household from the nefarious activities of any passing sorceress. The bottles themselves were not particularly special, being ordinary everyday vessels, but they filled them with items that they believed would do harm to any witch who dared to come close.

Contents varied, but they could include metal pins, thorns, nail clippings, hair, urine, torn fabric and occasionally blood. Each item had its own special property. The pins would be made of iron, which was supposed be able to ward off evil, and the nail clippings and hair represented the most enduring parts of the human body which the witch would have difficulty in destroying. The intended effect of the urine was to afflict the wrongdoer with a condition which would prevent her from being able to pass water, and thus would ultimately bring about her death.

In 2019, an example of such a talisman was discovered in a former pub in Watford near London. The old Star and Garter Inn was being converted into residential flats when they came across the bottle hidden in a chimney stack. People used to believe that witches would try to enter houses in unexpected ways, such as by coming down the chimney, and so bottles would be hidden near the fireplace.

This bottle contained fish hooks, human teeth and shards of glass in a mysterious liquid, possibly urine. The place where it was found is intriguing as it is well known as the birthplace of Angeline Tubbs, nicknamed the Witch of Saratoga. She was born in 1761, but moved the the US in her teens and earned a living telling fortunes in and around Saratoga Springs, New York.

The torpedo-shaped bottled found in her former home, however, dates from about 1830, which is after Angeline had emigrated, so it had nothing to do with her. However it does prove that superstitions involving witches persisted until long after they peaked in the 17th century.

In 1983, during excavations at the site of the Judge’s Lodging building on Lendal in York (on ground which was the disused graveyard of St Wilfrid’s Church) York Archaeological Trust discovered a 16th century stoneware bottle with its cork still in place. It was a rare find, not only because it was barely damaged, but also because the stopper meant its contents were still there too. The bottle had a long neck and a bell-shaped base and was found to contain copper alloy pins along with a piece of textile, while further examination revealed traces of urine. Witch bottles were placed in graveyards because it was believed that concealing a bottle on hallowed ground would break a curse that had been placed upon you.

More than 200 bottles have been found across the UK, and as well as graveyards, and at entry and exit points of dwellings, they have also been found in river beds and banks, as it was believed that witches could not cross water. There are likely to be many more hidden up and down the country that will never ever see the light of day.

I hope you are doing something suitable spooky this Halloween. It’s going to be a first for me as I am attending the Yorktoberfest beer festival. I might not be dressed like a witch this year, but I will certainly come across a bottle or two!

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 29th and the Gazette & Herald on 27th October 2021

A load of old Crapper

Dad was an expert on many things, including Yorkshire dialect

My dad was an expert in various things, including Yorkshire dialect, and dialect words often crop up in his past columns that I look upon for inspiration.

In his column from 17th October 1981, he talks about the word ‘tyke’ being associated with people from Yorkshire. I would not take offence if someone called me a tyke, but rather I’d see it as a term of endearment. Having said that, its origins are not so friendly. It is thought that it comes from the Old Norse word ‘tik’ which meant a female dog although was later used across the country to refer to a rough ill-mannered lout. I’m not sure when it began to change from being an insult into a more affectionate term but, according to Dad, it is only after the 18th century that we find references where it was reserved solely for people from Yorkshire.

In another column from November 1978 Dad talks about the curious Yorkshire saying that describes something as a ‘bramah’. It is one of those words that I haven’t come across, and so I take great joy in the process of discovering what it’s all about.

The word was used to describe something that is of excellent quality, or rather unusual. For example, you might stay, “Eee, it’s a right bramah that one.” I can’t say that I have heard the phrase used, and wonder if it is still said? Perhaps someone reading this can enlighten me. 

The origin of the word is likely to have come from a South Yorkshire man by the name of Joseph Bramah who was born a farmer’s lad near Barnsley in 1748. He grew up to be an exceptional inventor and engineer, most famous for his locks, the first one of which was patented in 1784. 

Bramah was noted for his close attention to detail, and understood how important precision was in engineering. His locks earned a reputation for being extremely secure and high quality, and people with property and valuables worth protecting found themselves worrying less if they were secured by a Bramah lock. They crop up in works by Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw and Frederick Forsyth and according to Peter Wright, who wrote the controversial book ‘Spycatcher’, Bramah locks were used for diamond safes and were by far the most difficult to break and practically impossible to pick.

The company that Joseph Bramah founded in London in 1784 still exists, and has expanded further into the security field by producing alarm systems. 

Perhaps Bramah’s most important invention was the hydraulic press which enabled the force of a few pounds on a lever to be converted into hundreds of pounds of pressure, and Bramah’s perfection of this method using a small pump plunger found various uses in industry, including book binding, paper production, printing, leather work, engineering and the electrical trades.

Bramah became a leading inventor of the industrial revolution and other ideas he patented included a fountain pen, a fire engine and a valve for a flushing toilet that meant it didn’t freeze up in the winter. Many of his inventions can be seen at the Science Museum in London and one of his toilets still works at Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s residence on the Isle of Wight.

It seems that lots of people have been involved in improving the original flushing toilet. The aptly named Thomas Crapper is thought by many to have invented it, but this is not actually true, although he did help to increase its popularity. Apparently it was Sir John Harrington, the godson of Queen Elizabeth 1 who, in his work Metamorphosis of Ajax, first described a toilet with a raised cistern connected to the basin by a small pipe which released water when a valve was opened. The Queen had one installed in her palace in Richmond, yet it was a further 200 years before Alexander Cummings invented the ‘S’ pipe underneath to prevent foul odours from escaping. It wasn’t until the end of the 18th century that flushing toilets became the norm.

Incidentally, the word ‘crap’ was used for some years before Thomas Crapper happened upon the toiletting scene so, surprisingly, is not in fact related to his name. It is first recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1846, 15 years before Mr Crapper launched his bathroom-related business. 

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 22nd October and the Gazette & Herald on 20th October 2021

Have you the clue to Banniscue?


Did Spandau Ballet really write a song that included the lyrics ‘The sound of muscles’?


The theme of misunderstood words and lyrics continues to bear fruit and I have a few more to pass on. 

Clare Proctor remembered that back in the sweatband clad 1980s, there seemed to be a few pop songs in the charts where references to the male physique were prominent either in the lyrics or in the accompanying dry-ice-laden videos. Olivia Newton-John’s rather saucy example, ‘Physical’, features an abundance of toned Adonises working out, while Diana Ross’ video for her song, ‘Muscles’ was filmed in a similar vein.

It was against this backdrop that Clare writes: “A new Spandau Ballet song came on the radio, and in front of all my staff I groaned, ‘Not another song about muscles!’ …The song? ‘True’. The line? I heard ‘This is the sound of muscles.’ Tony Hadley was actually singing: ‘This is the sound of my soul’!”

Roger Barlow wrote to me saying: “I had a good laugh at ‘Peter God’. It reminded me of my childhood when I asked my mum why her bag was called a ‘ham bag’. ‘Did you used to put ham in it?’ I enquired.”

It seems these instances of misheard phrases have their own particular name. Peter Sotheran wrote: “They are called ‘Mondegreens’ from a common mishearing of a line from the 17th century ballad ‘The Bonnie Earl o’Moray’.”

As Peter explains, the words are often sung like so:

‘Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands, Oh, where hae ye been?

They hae slain the Earl O’Moray, And Lady Mondegreen.’

In fact, the term ‘mondegreen’ came about thanks to American writer Sylvia Wright who had an essay published in Harper’s Magazine in 1954 entitled ‘The Death of Lady Mondegreen’. It was as a child that when singing the ballad, she envisioned the earl dying tragically next to his true love, Lady Mondegreen. In fact, the proper lyric is ‘And layd him on the green’. But Wright preferred her own much more romantic version and, following the publication of her essay, the term began to be used for misheard song lyrics that change the intended meaning of the original.

Peter also mentions another fairly well-known mondegreen, that of ‘Gladly, the cross-eyed bear.’ Many a child would believe the pious bear featured in the hymn ‘Keep Thou My Way’, whereas the actual line is ‘Gladly the cross I’ll bear’.

In 2015, the Independent newspaper asked for people to send in their favourite mondegreens, and they included ‘The ants are my friends, they’re blowin’ in the wind’ (The answer my friend, is blowin’ in the wind’, Bob Dylan), ‘All the whiskey in the sea’ (‘All that’s missing is the sea’, Club Tropicana, by Wham) and the obvious ‘I don’t know why we had a divorce; we’d roll and fall in brie’ (‘Out on the wiley, windy moors, we’d roll and fall in green’, Wuthering Heights, by Kate bush). 

I’m sure you have your own, and please do keep em’ coming. They don’t half make me chuckle! Some of you might also be able to help with a query from another reader. Ian Atkinson contacted me after having read my column about the quirky farm names near Husthwaite. Ian’s wife Linda was brought up on a farm with the name ‘Banniscue’. Ian says: “Nobody has ever been able to shed any light on its origins, so I wonder if your readers might.”

I did a bit of research myself, and found that Banniscue is the area in Ryedale between Hawnby Hill and Easterside Hill, near Rievaulx. There used to be three farms, High Banniscue, Low Banniscue and Little Banniscue, all situated around Banniscue Wood, but only High Banniscue exists now. I couldn’t find any clues as to how it got its name, and wondered if there was any influence from the Viking language. I found a few Old Norse words that may or may not be connected. ‘Banna’ means ‘to forbid’, while ‘bana’ means ‘to kill’, and ‘bani’ means ‘a cause of death’, or ‘slayer’. It could also be influenced by Old Brittonic, where ‘benn’ means peak and ‘isca’ means ‘water’, so perhaps the word refers to its location overlooking a nearby beck?

I’d be intrigued to know where this farm name comes from and whether anyone can shed light on its origins. Contact this paper by letter or email, or use the contact page at www.countrymansdaughter.com

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 15th October and the Gazette & Herald on 13th October 2021

Snow way to say ‘I do’

My mum in St Hedda’s Church, Egton Bridge, where she and Dad were married on 10th January 1959.

Mum and Dad on their snowy wedding day in 1959, taken by Whitby photographer John Tindale from the top of his Land Rover


A few years ago I wrote a column about my parents’ wedding day. They were married on 10th January 1959 at St Hedda’s Church in Egton Bridge, and the night before there was a great blizzard.

I recalled that the registrar happened to be a retired sergeant whom Dad remembered having a fiery temper and had once forced him, when he was a young cadet, to clear snow from the path to his private house. It had given Dad great pleasure to hand the man a spade to help clear the snow from outside the church.

On his way to the ceremony, this registrar had ended up stuck in a snowdrift, but he was rescued by the wedding photographer who happened upon him en route. Using his Land Rover, a vehicle suited to winters in the country, he helped tow the stranded car out before giving the registrar a lift the rest of the way. What I did not mention first time round was that this photographer was well-known Whitby figure, John Tindale.

I was very fortunate recently to be invited to the launch of an exhibition at Whitby Museum featuring John’s work and celebrating his life. John was an excellent photographer, and his passion was to document the lives of the ordinary people who lived and worked in the town. Most families earned their livings either from the sea or from moorland agriculture, and John’s work, which spanned the years between the 1950s and the 1990s, celebrated the everyday, yet remarkable, stories of these people.

Although it was this kind of photography that John most enjoyed, his main income came from working as a news photographer for the Whitby Gazette, and also as a wedding photographer, sometimes attending up the three ceremonies in one day. He could often be seen standing atop his trusty Land Rover to get a better position from which to take a shot. In fact, one of my favourite photos of my parents’ wedding was taken by John looking down from the top of his car as they left the church.

At the centre of the exhibition, which can be seen until the end of May next year, is a film called ‘A Vision of Whitby’, created by film maker Anne Dodsworth. She invited my mum to participate to talk about her memories of the wedding day, and the part John played in it. I must admit, seeing Mum describing the occasion on screen for the first time was very moving, especially as Dad was not there to share in the moment.

There is a companion exhibition in the museum’s Costume Gallery which showcases the changing fashions in wedding dresses spanning the years that John operated as a bridal photographer. My mum’s simple cotton broderie anglaise dress is one of those featured, as is a stunning and far more elaborate gown belonging to the Marchioness of Normanby.

Alongside my mum’s dress is a plaque showing an article that appeared in the Whitby Gazette at the time. I loved reading the contemporary account, which describes how Tindale helped the registrar get to the church, only to arrive and find that the bride herself had not turned up.

The article goes on to say: ‘Inquiry showed that the taxi she had ordered to convey her from her home to the church was held up. Mr Tindale tried to help but ran into a drift and after half an hour’s delay, the bride had to take off her wedding shoes, don a pair of boots, and walk to the church, using the schoolroom to change her footwear before the wedding ceremony.

‘The bridegroom had not risked road conditions, and had travelled to Egton Bridge by rail.’

I took my mum for a trip back over the moors a couple of months ago, somewhere she hadn’t been for a long time. We visited Lealholm, driving past the house where she was born, and also through Glaisdale where Dad was born, then went to lay some flowers where her late parents and sister lie in Sleights Church yard.

A highlight of the trip was visiting St Hedda’s Church, which is absolutely beautiful inside, and well worth a visit. More than 62 years after she said ‘I do’, Mum lit a candle for Dad, and remembered that very special snowy day back in 1959.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 8th October and the Gazette & Herald on 6th October 2021

Oh man, the tales we tell!

York Minster, which an American visitor described as ‘That wee little church’


The theme of word confusion has prompted a few readers to get in touch with their own funny stories and I thought that sharing a few might brighten your day.

A rich source of mirth are the things that children say, be they malapropisms, mispronunciations or valiant attempts at the right word. Alastair Smith said his daughter would call her brother ‘Ditchead’ instead of ‘Richard’ and swans were ‘Fonz’. When Lynn Catena’s son was little, she wasn’t sure what he meant when he asked her if he could listen to the ‘old fashioned CDs’. It took her a moment to work out that he was referring to her vinyl LPs. And Teresa Watkin’s son invented his very own word whenever his parents would try to tickle him. “Legoffme!” he would shout, instead of ‘Let go of me’ (I think that word deserves its own entry in the English dictionary). One of Lynnette Brammah’s funniest came courtesy of a friend’s daughter, whose favourite film was the one with Dorothy and the ruby slippers. She referred to it as ‘The Buzzard of Was’.

Lynnette also provides us with an excellent example of when our friends from overseas unwittingly entertain us with their attempts at our very complicated language. She was asked by an American if she knew the way to ‘Can-arse-bow-roo’. Any ideas where that is? I couldn’t work it out! Turns out it’s that pretty town that lies on the River Nidd, otherwise known as Knaresborough. And Lynn Catena was asked by a French visitor if she knew where he could buy ‘shoe’ cream for his wife. He rubbed his face to help Lynn decipher what he meant. “I figured it out,” she says. “He wanted Boots the Chemist. He was close…it was footwear!”

I don’t know about you, but it seems that everything in the USA is bigger than here. Their food portions, for example, are huge, and if you ask for a large carton of cockporn – I mean popcorn – at the cinema, you get enough to feed a small country. The same goes for the width of the roads, the size of the cars, and even the buildings. Dad once told me a story about some visiting Americans who were very proud of their country’s reputation for all things jumbo. He was driving them around York, pointing out the significant sights and landmarks, and they passed a particular one for a second time, at which point one of the guests exclaimed: “Oh gee, look! There’s that wee little church again!” The wee little church? Only York Minster!

And I was walking with a German friend in the Dales a couple of years back, and as we passed by a farm he declared, “Look at all those midgets!”. I looked towards the farm buildings, but not one midget could I see. When he began to flap his arms about his head, I realised he actually meant ‘midges’.  

But it’s not just those from abroad that sometimes get it wrong. It seems our southern neighbours have trouble with understanding the way us northerners might say things. Lucien Smith says: “I had a great Northumberland place name that was Southernised recently. Slayley Hall, pronounced Slay-ley, was poshified to ‘Slarley’. It took me a moment to know where she meant!”

And that brought to mind another memory of mine which always makes me giggle. In the 1990s I used to work in East Grinstead, West Sussex, and as I was handing some paperwork over to a colleague, she said, “It’s Maggie outside.”

“Pardon?” I replied.

“Maggie, outside.”

“Oh, is she? Who’s Maggie?”

“No!’ she laughed, “I mean the weather! It’s warm and maggy!” The penny finally dropped. What she was trying to tell me was that it was a muggy day outside.

On the subject of getting words wrong in church, a reader revealed: “One of my brothers, when he was a kid, used to start the Lord’s Prayer like this: ‘Our father who art in heaven, Alan be thy name…” And one of my friends reported that her daughter used to think that everyone was saying ‘Oh man!’ rather than ‘Amen’. So it turns out that Peter God whom, as I mentioned last time, some of us would thank every week during Mass, now has a mysterious colleague called Alan.

Oh man!

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 1st October and the Gazette & Herald on 29th September 2021