Featured

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

Featured

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

Game for anything

012B8EEA-F07C-43B0-A3EA-2CB949DD3A7E
Trivial Pursuit is one of my favourite board games

 

DA94FECF-E381-4B11-927F-5A3EC101518E
Some of the board games I’ve enjoyed over the years

Something that saddens me is the decline in traditional games played as a family. Growing up I was a big fan of board games like Frustration, Buckaroo, Draughts, Cluedo, and Backgammon.

My love of games continued into adulthood, and then on into parenthood, and when my children were very little, we played a number of board games alongside Hide and Seek, Blind Man’s Buff and treasure hunts. But as they grew older, the lure of technology beckoned and the old games were played less and less, eventually becoming solely a Christmas activity forced upon them by a mother desperate to cling on to the past. I would subject the family to rounds of Pictionary, or Trivial Pursuit, or to ‘parlour’ games like charades, or ‘The Name Game’ (where you all write down 20 names of famous people on pieces of paper that are folded and thrown into a bowl. Then, playing in teams, you get 30 seconds to describe as many as you can while your team guesses). It’s one of those games that the whole family, from youngsters to grandparents, are supposed to enjoy, although it baffled me that not everyone was as enthusiastic about it as me. 

This sentiment is echoed by my dad in his column from 29th November 1980 when the fear of advancing technology was already taking hold. A friend had asked him if he knew of any suitable games for children to play indoors. He wrote: ‘In a modern society, this is not easy because there are so many intriguing games which can be bought and which today operate with the help of miniature computers and electronic gadgetry.’

He was referring to things like ‘Pong’, a 1970s electronic game that mimicked table tennis with two people ‘batting’ a ‘ball’ backwards and forwards across a screen. It was one of the first consoles that you could plug into the TV to play. My best friend had one and I coveted it, begging to have a go whenever I visited her. By 1980, more sophisticated video games had begun to appear, the most famous being Pac-Man, where the object was to eat as many dots in a maze as you could without crashing into the coloured ghosts along the route. It started out as something you could only play when visiting a town centre arcade, but soon, home-based consoles were developed and were instantly popular. Other electronic games soon followed, such as Donkey Kong and Space Invaders, which although extremely simple by today’s standards, were nevertheless incredibly popular with a young generation ready to embrace the age of the computer.

‘Playing games’ evolved into ‘gaming’, and a whole new era of internet-based entertainment for the youth dawned. I wonder what our forebears would make of the idea of young people sitting alone in their bedrooms playing games with their peers miles away, often living on different continents and in different time zones. It would have blown their minds! The sad thing is that these are not games that many play together as a family. 

Continue reading “Game for anything”

A sweet odyssey

After I left school at 18, I embarked on the exciting adventure of a gap year abroad, spending mine with a family in the city of Athens, Greece. I was going to study Greek and Roman culture at university, and was keen to visit the ancient land I’d heard and read so much about. Although hard in the beginning, being as it was a massive culture shock for this closeted Yorkshire lass, I ended up loving my time there and became very fond of the family who hosted me.

A345567E-359B-440D-B4F8-7D14748DB9AC
Dad and I on the island of Mykonos in 1986 when my parents had come out to visit me during my gap year in Greece.

One of the things that surprised me was how much I enjoyed Greek cuisine. Until that age, I was very unadventurous when it came to food, and was happy to stay in my ‘meat and two veg’ comfort zone until, that is, I was faced with no alternative but to eat Greek food.

I discovered the delights of local delicacies such dolmades (rice wrapped in vine leaves), souvlaki (small kebabs with mint dressing), spanakopita (cheese and spinach pie), kleftedes (meat balls), moussaka (aubergine bake), kolokythakia (fried courgette), and baklava (filo pastry with honey and crushed nuts) to name just a few. Despite the abundance of rich food, one of my favourites was the simple Greek salad made with tomatoes, feta cheese, onions and olives. It would be liberally doused with oil made from olives grown by the family themselves and stored in enormous urns in the cellar. I had never had anything as exotic as olive oil before, and despite not being particularly fond of olives, the oil was another matter entirely. I grew to love it, and most foods were either cooked in it, or sprinkled with it. It might explain why I came back from Greece rather larger than when I went!

The best part of having a Greek salad came at the end. Bits of cheese would crumble off while you were eating, and finish up at the bottom of the bowl along with the oil and tomato juice. It was perfectly acceptable, in fact almost obligatory, to break off some bread and mop up all the delicious remains of the salad. The Greeks even had a name for the practice – ‘papara’. 

The family with whom I stayed were not shy about how fantastic they thought their food was compared to ours. They described English cuisine as stodgy, bland and overcooked, which in the 1980s was probably an accurate description. I’m glad to say that these days, our country’s reputation has dramatically improved, and we have some of the best chefs cooking exquisite menus in some of the finest restaurants in the world. 

One of the traditions that the Greeks just couldn’t get their heads around was why we often served savoury foods with sweet accompaniments. I can still remember the grimace on my host Laura’s face when she talked about us serving pork with apple, or duck with orange, or turkey with cranberry sauce. In her mind sweet and savoury never belonged on the same plate.

She recoiled in horror at the mention of gammon with pineapple, and pineapple on pizzas too, or dates with bacon and pear with Stilton. She would definitely not have approved of our tradition of serving cheese with grapes either, never mind a custom that my dad describes in his column from 22nd November 1980. He says: ‘In Yorkshire, we like to eat our cheese with apple pie, for it is said that apple pie without a cheese is like a kiss without a squeeze.’ And here’s me thinking us Yorkshire folk preferred our apple pie with custard! (I would be delighted to hear if any of you still do it, or whether you eat any other unusual sweet/savoury combinations).

Another tradition of which my Greek host would disapprove is that of serving Wensleydale cheese with Christmas cake. I mean, it has to be one of the best combinations, but I’m not sure she would have ever been persuaded to try it, nor to try it with gingerbread, another Christmas treat that my dad mentions. However, this was the 1980s, so perhaps the Greek palate  would be more open to it today. 

Having said that, though, I have a feeling that Laura would express her opinion in no uncertain terms when she learned that this year, one of my favourite salads has been salty Greek feta with sweet pomegranate seeds. 

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 20th Nov and the Gazette & Herald on 18th Nov 2020

Salt in the wound

978B8025-C9D4-4CEB-9F5F-77FAB2E60EB4
Is salt really as bad for you as they say?


When it comes to enjoying food, in my opinion, there are two opposing camps. Those who like sweet things and those who prefer savoury. I’m definitely in the latter camp, and will forgo a pudding in favour of a starter, or if I am going for the full three courses, then will likely choose a cheese plate to follow my mains. 

I think this is because I love the taste of salt far more than I should. This flavour-enhancing mineral has had a bad reputation over the years, and in the 1990s when my children were little, it was considered almost irresponsible to add it to any food I cooked for them. I remember confessing to my GP that I thought I ate too much of it, but that I couldn’t really give it up. She asked me how much exercise I did, and when I explained that I played squash and tennis several times a week, she told me to stop worrying as I’d be losing a lot of salt through perspiration. The burden of salt-guilt was suddenly lifted, which I’m not sure was an entirely good thing as I’m now maybe too liberal with the seasoning!

It’s true that too much salt is bad for you, and can contribute to the development of cardio-vascular diseases, and the producers of fast food and ready-made meals have certainly been guilty of over-loading their products with the stuff over the years. But the thinking these days is that moderation is the key, and as long as you limit how much of it you consume, you can enjoy it on your food and in your cooking. It is recommended that you eat no more than 5g a day.

It is still the case that if I spill any, I will throw it over my left shoulder, much to my kids’ amusement as when I do it, they think I’m suffering from some kind of momentary arm spasm. And when I explain that it’s to ward off any bad luck caused by the spilling of the salt, they then google the phone number of the nearest therapist.

But the association of luck and salt goes back many centuries, although I wasn’t sure how far until I read my dad’s column from 15th November 1980. He said that the old superstition may even date back to the Romans. Apparently, when the Romans sacrificed animals to the gods, salt was placed on the unfortunate’s head, and if any were spilled, it was a portent of doom. To avoid this, the livestock would be given fodder beforehand which was adulterated with a drug to keep them docile. 

Salt was also associated with friendship as it was an incorruptible mineral, and therefore if it was spilled between friends, it meant that the relationship was under threat. To counteract this, the spilt salt had to be thrown over the left shoulder. Similarly, if salt was spilled between two people at dinner, then that was a portent of a future argument.

It always had to be the left shoulder for the tossing of the salt as this was the side upon which evil lurked. The salt would land in the face of the malevolent spirit who would then be blinded and prevented from carrying out their nefarious plans.

Another superstition was to carry a pinch of salt around in your pocket. It purportedly helped businessmen negotiate successful deals, and at night time, protected the carrier from potential misfortunes concealed within the darkness. It was also used to guard children from the malicious attentions of any passing witches. It was well known that sorceresses had to count every grain of salt in the vicinity before they were permitted to cast any spells, so by having it nearby, the child could be spirited away while she embarked on the laborious task. 

The symbolism of spilled salt is possibly most famously depicted in Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper. The mural was created between 1495 and 1498 and rests eight feet up from the ground in the refectory of the Dominican convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy. It depicts the moment when Christ announces that one of the 13 apostles at the table would betray him.

It is easy to identify Judas sitting a little to the right of Jesus, thanks to the upturned salt cellar just by his arm. 

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 13th October and the Gazette & Herald on 11th October 2020

Believe it or knot

D4CD3D22-2D70-49A9-8B2F-A033E651263C
King Canute showing his sycophantic followers that even a great king is not so powerful that he can stop the tide from coming in.

I came across an article the other day about a record level of knot landing on the Norfolk coast at the RSPB reserve at Snettisham. Around 140,000 of them have been seen, compared to the previous record set there in the winter of 1990-91 where 120,000 were spotted. The numbers caused quite a stir within the bird-watching community, and films of their sweeping murmurations are well worth a watch online.

The reason the story caught my eye was because I had just been researching my column by reading my dad’s Countryman’s Diary from this week in 1980 where he talks about the knot. The coincidence struck me because, being only familiar with more recognisable members of our avian population, I had no idea there was even a bird called a knot. And suddenly, here were two articles about it, written 40 years apart, and which I picked up on the same day. I think that is what we might call serendipity.

For those of you who don’t know, a knot is a chubby, short-legged wading bird about 25cm in length from the sandpiper family. A curious feature is that its plumage changes colour according to the season and at this time of year, it has grey upper plumage, and a white lower body, whereas in summer it has a more browny upper body, with a brick red chest. It undertakes one of the longest migrations of any animal, starting from its Arctic breeding grounds and heading south to the coasts of Europe, Africa and Australia, stopping to grace us with its presence en route. 

As my dad mentions in his 8th November 1980 column, there are two theories as to how it got its peculiar name, one of which is that it comes from its hoarse cry of ‘knut knut’. I’ve had a listen online and I’m not sure that’s how I’d describe it, though. The other suggestion is that this bird, in Latin known as calidris canutus, is named after the famous King Canute because it is always found at the very edge of the sea, just like in the story of the king and the tide. 

King Canute (or Cnut) was a famous Viking warrior and ruled in England from AD1016 to AD1035. According to Henry of Huntingdon, who wrote ‘Historia Anglorum’, a 12th century account of England from its beginnings until 1154, King Canute wanted to demonstrate the danger of vanity to his sycophantic courtiers. So he set his throne by the sea and declared that he was going to order the tide to stay out so as not to get his robes and feet wet. 

Obviously, the tide continued to come in, so the king leapt up and declared: “Let all the world know that the power of kings is empty and worthless and there is no king worthy of the name, save Him by whose will heaven and earth and sea obey eternal laws.” He then hung his crown on a crucifix, never to wear it again. The message was that there was no one more powerful than god, not even a king.

Henry of Huntington’s account, the first version of which was written less than 100 years after Canute’s death, was intended to demonstrate that as well as being a great warrior, the king was also intelligent and humble. He won the affection of his English subjects, and had a reputation for reconciling the warring English and Danes.

Today, however, when someone is described as behaving like King Canute, it is an insult. The insinuation is that they are behaving arrogantly in trying to stop something happening that is inevitable. The fact that Canute was supposedly doing the exact opposite has been lost in the mists of time. 

The legend has cropped up in a few high profile news stories in recent years, possibly the most famous occurring in 2011 when footballer Ryan Giggs was seeking injunctions against newspapers wanting to print details of an extra-marital affair. Media lawyer Mark Stephens declared he was ‘trying to stop the unstoppable tide of information as it flows through the internet. He has become the King Canute of football.’

It’s a shame the original message contained in the tale, true or otherwise, has been lost, as it is the version of the story that I for one much prefer. 

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 6th October and the Gazette & Herald on 4th October 2020

Tiers for Halloween

0E1481E5-EDA5-4672-B223-7F9FE252D047
Me, second from left, in my friend’s garage that would be transformed into a witches’ grotto for Halloween
EAB31F24-10D0-401E-A5C5-8F9203C9D65D
My boys ready for Halloween In 2005.


It’s Halloween week, and celebrations are going to have to be rather different than normal with the government’s new ‘three-tier’ alert system in place to slow down the second wave of coronavirus infections. There will be no children going from door to door in their ghoulish fancy dress asking for treats, nor hoards of young adults in monstrous make-up crowding into the pubs and clubs for a night of partying, which has been customary in recent years.

There are various names for Halloween, such as Hallowe’en, All Hallows’ Eve, Hallows’ Evening, Allhalloween and All Saints’ Eve and, as my dad mentions in his column from 1st November 1980, it is a Western Christian tradition that marks the night before ‘Hallowmas’ or All Saints’ Day. Following All Saints’ Day comes All Souls’ Day on 2ndNovember, and the three days together were known as Allhallowtide. This was a time for honouring saints and martyrs and also for praying for those who’d recently died whose souls had not yet reached heaven. Relatives of the dead would don masks to disguise themselves from any lost souls en route to the above, for if they saw their loved ones, they might not want to leave. 

My own children could barely contain their excitement as Halloween approached, spending days planning what they would wear, and weighing up how big a receptacle was needed to carry the booty. It’s such a shame that children this year will lose out on the tradition of trick or treating, which for mine was one of the most thrilling of annual celebrations. Having said that, there are plenty of places online offering alternatives for making the weekend special, if somewhat different, for the young ones. 

With three boys, I spent many years treading the trick or treat path around my neighbourhood, and from the time that I began to take my oldest out (2000), until the last year my youngest went out (2014) I noticed how 31st October grew bigger and more extravagant with each passing year. When I first started, my front porch was one of the most highly decorated on my estate, adorned as it was with white sheets, black plastic creepy crawlies and fake spider web. I also replaced the porch light with a red bulb to enhance the creepy atmosphere, and a CD played spooky music in the background. No expense or effort was spared there!

But as the years went on, my small porch was soon overshadowed by far more elaborate and sophisticated creations. It would take me a couple of hours to drag my stuff out of the attic and assemble it. But it became obvious that some neighbours spent days or even weeks preparing full-on Halloween showcases. In fact, my estate became quite well known locally for the amount of effort that went into it, and was the ‘go-to’ destination for many from beyond our immediate surroundings. 

I knew we had hit the trick-or-treat ‘big time’ when, one year, we ran out of sweets half way through the night. I had bought the amount that had been sufficient in previous years, but I wasn’t prepared for the surge in popularity and so raced around the house scouring cupboards and drawers for any long-ignored confectionery lying about (such as unwanted strawberry and coconut chocolates left at the bottoms of sweet tins). 

When this feeble emergency supply was also exhausted, then it was a race to blow out the pumpkin candle, turn all the lights off and shut the curtains to make it look like we were not in before the next trick or treater turned up. There’s nothing worse than having to look into the face of an expectant child on Halloween and have to tell them you’ve run out of sweets. 

Some of my neighbours really went to town, including a close friend who, after a few hard years of treading the Halloween beat with her four youngsters, decided instead to transform her garage into a full-blown witches’ grotto. She’d have tricks and scares a plenty hidden on the drive and among the decorations, and she awarded herself virtual points for the loudest screams she could elicit from the nervous youngsters who dared approach.

Thankfully, she also had some mulled wine on the go for the adults, so usually, while the kids gorged themselves on confectionary, we’d end up in her garage to enjoy a very happy Halloween. 

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 30th October and the Gazette & Herald on 28th October 2020

Let’s hear it for the bird

532D2455-1A85-424F-ADD0-10071AF23892
A pair of ospreys caused a hullabaloo when they were spotted hunting in the local ponds in Ampleforth. Picture Steve France

There is something mesmerising about a large bird of prey in flight. It’s not uncommon to see once-endangered red kites soaring on the thermals as we go about our daily business, and yet, if I see them while driving from A to B, I can’t help but keep glancing up in awe at their grace and power. It’s almost as if they are visiting from some distant exotic land and don’t really belong here.

I have the same reaction when I come across buzzards and even owls – they halt me in my tracks. So I can just imagine the hullabaloo resonating around my home village of Ampleforth when a pair of ospreys were spotted hunting in the local ponds, as my dad describes in his column from 25th October 1980: ‘The most exciting event in Ryedale’s natural history calendar must surely have been the recent visit of a pair of ospreys.’

They had been seen fishing in the lakes near Ampleforth, while in Coxwold an angry mob of rooks had harassed a visiting osprey that they saw as a threat. Dad himself spotted one above Byland Abbey, and my brother reported seeing a pair half way between Ampleforth lakes and Coxwold.

Ospreys are big birds, about half a metre long, with a wingspan of up to 1.5 metres. They have a dark brown upper body and white underside, with the larger female sometimes dappled with brown speckles. They have a hooked black beak and a white head with a brown ‘Zorro’ slash across the eyes.

The local sighting was such a newsworthy event because the once common osprey had been driven to the brink of extinction in the Victorian era by over-zealous collectors of eggs and bird skins. In fact, they were completely extinct in England by 1840, and in Scotland by 1916.

After 40 years, a breeding pair was spotted making a nest near Loch Garten in the Cairngorms in 1956, and following that, breeding pairs have been spotted there every year since 1959. Numbers slowly began to rebuild, and by 1976 there were 14 known pairs and this had increased to 71 by 1991 and to 158 by 2001. Although they were reintroduced to England in 1996, it wasn’t until 2001 that the first successful breeding pair was reported here. Now, there are believed to be around 300 pairs across the UK, although they are still a protected species.

The migratory birds are resident in the UK between March and October before heading south to West Africa for the winter. They can fly up to 430km in one day, stopping near large bodies of water en route to rest and refuel. And that is why they were spotted in and around Ampleforth in 1980, as they were taking a wee break before continuing on their journey to warmer climes. But how special that must have been to see them, knowing that they were so rare, likely coming from the very few that had so recently re-established themselves in Scotland.

Ospreys are one of the few birds that only eat one type of food – fish – which is why they make their homes next to bodies of water. They are very impressive when hunting, and can soar up to 70 metres high while hunting, their laser-accurate eyesight enabling them to spot their prey so far below. They then dive vertically at incredible speeds until pulling up at the last second to extend their talons ready to grasp the unsuspecting fish swimming just below the surface. They plunge up to metre into the water to grab the fish which is then whisked away to the nest or a nearby tree to be eaten.

Ospreys are monogamous, and return to the same nesting site year after year. New nests are often built in the very tops of trees, and are up to 150cm wide and 60cm deep. Each year they return, the birds give their home a bit of a refurb, adding more branches, leaves and moss, so that the nests can extend up to two metres in width.

I don’t know if there any nesting ospreys in North Yorkshire today, but if you visit the RSPB website, it gives a comprehensive list of nature reserves and bird sanctuaries where you can see them. Obviously now might be a bit late in the year, but perhaps put it on your to-do list for 2021.

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

ENDS

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 23rd October and the Gazette & Herald on 21st October 2020

It’s a ducking crime

The other day, my brother asked: ‘Did you know that duck ponds are not called duck ponds because of the ducks that live there?’

I was quite taken aback, as I really didn’t know that! He went on to explain that small ponds were not only a source of water for village residents of yore, but they were also places of punishment for those found guilty of misdemeanours.

I’ve not been able to verify his claim (although I’m hoping some clever person reading this might know for sure), and yet punishment by ducking was very common in the Middle Ages. The ducking stool evolved from the ‘cucking stool’ which was a kind of chair or commode to which the offender was secured and then paraded through town as a form of public humiliation, similar to stocks and pillories that I’ve written about before. The idea was to invoke repentance from the subject. The word comes from the old verb ‘cukken’, which is derived from the Greek ‘kakos’ and the Latin ‘cacare’, which means ‘bad’ or ‘evil’, and the word ‘cack’ has been used for many centuries in association with defecation. The first recorded use of the cucking stool appears in the twelfth century. 

Later, the apparatus was adapted with the chair being attached to a pivoted frame a bit like a see-saw. The chair at one end could be lowered into water by those operating it from the other end, and thus the ‘cucking stool’ became a ‘ducking stool’. This was a much more severe form of punishment, and in many cases ended up with the accused being drowned after being submerged over and over again.

I have found references to it in newspaper archives from the 18th century, and it was used for misdemeanours such as pickpocketing and obnoxious behaviour. The Ipswich Journal from 14th May 1743 declares: ‘On Thursday the 5thInstant in the Afternoon a Fellow well dress’d was seized in May Fair for picking a Gentleman’s Pocket, and was immediately carried to the Ducking-Pond near that Place, in order to receive the usual Discipline of the Mob; but so great a Number of People pressing against the Rails, they suddenly broke down, by which Means he made his Escape; for near thirty of them look’d as much like Pickpockets as he did.’

This device was also known as the ‘scold’s chair’, with the word ‘scold’ referring to a woman who was noisy, disruptive and argumentative. Men who were noisy, disruptive and argumentative (and I know plenty) never ended up in the ‘scold’s chair’, yet if they committed wrongdoings, they could end up in the ‘ducking stool’. 

I’m sure you are also familiar with the ducking stool being used in the Middle Ages for women who were accused of being witches. But when they realised that being tied to a chair and ducked proved nothing, instead, they tethered the poor woman’s hands to her feet and threw her into the pond. If she floated it meant she was a witch, and therefore was doomed to die. If she sank, then of course she was innocent, but by the time they hauled her out she was usually already dead. 

The chair would also be used for women who had been found guilty of selling sex, or of having an illegitimate child. The men who availed themselves of the sexual services, or who impregnated a woman, were never held to account, and that attitude was one that prevailed until very recently. But most of us now appreciate that it was usually desperation and hunger that drove women to sell their bodies, and unmarried women were often raped by their powerful employers which resulted in pregnancy.

In my dad’s column from 18th October 1980, he illustrates how badly society treated women when he discusses the origins of the term ‘outlaw’. Someone who had committed a crime was judged to be outside of the law and devoid of any human rights at all. If he died, his children would not have any claim to his estate as he officially didn’t exist. However, as my dad explains, women would never be considered outlaws ‘for the simple reason that the law considered a woman too insignificant to worry about.’ 

Thankfully, my dad was more enlightened than many of his own generation, so much so that he cooked for the family once a week and always did the washing up. 

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 16th October and the Gazette & Herald on 14th October 2020

Fly away from here

I had the utmost displeasure the other day of walking into an empty house that, unbeknownst to me, had an infestation of flies. Every window was covered in those trying to find escape, and every windowsill was littered with their companions’ corpses. I was there to show some people round who were interested in buying the house and they were due at any moment.

I raced around opening windows and patio doors, but each time would disturb the Roman blinds that decorated them, and out would swarm yet more clouds of black flies. As well as nesting in the blinds, they also seemed to be coming out of the window frames too. It was like something out of a Hitchcock horror movie, and I still shudder at the memory.

I’m not sure why it had happened, as it wasn’t the first time I’d been to this house, and nothing like it had occurred before, but I wonder if it was something to do with the see-sawing temperatures of recent weeks? Thankfully the viewers were late, and by the time they arrived most of the flies had dispersed and, as it was a hot sunny day, I did not have to explain why all the doors and windows were wide open.

They decided the house wasn’t for them after all, and I informed the owner of the fly problem so, hopefully, I won’t have to face the grim swarm again. 

As the weather cools down, there will be fewer flies about to bother us and despite most people’s aversion to them, they are meant to bring good fortune in certain situations. They are also the subject of a number of sayings, as my dad mentions in his column from 11th October 1980.

I’m sure you are familiar with wanting to be a ‘fly on the wall’, meaning that you’d enjoy being privy to someone’s private discussions, or you may have occasionally said something would be a ‘fly in the ointment’ meaning something small was bound to spoil plans already made. We also say someone has ‘no flies on them’ meaning they are quick-witted and won’t be caught out.

Other phrases include ‘dropping like flies’, used when people fall ill or die in large numbers, ‘breeding like flies’ (self-explanatory!) and if someone makes a very hasty exit, we might suggest they fled ‘like a blue-a***d fly’!

I hadn’t heard of ‘fly on the coach wheel’ that my dad mentions. This is very old saying which refers to those people who inflate their importance, when in fact they are quite insignificant. It comes from an ancient fable, some suggest from Aesop, where a fly sitting on a chariot wheel during a race looks back and says ‘Goodness, look at the dust I’m making!’

This troublesome insect also features in a number of superstitions, but some are quite contradictory. For example, in the north of England, if you encounter a fly buzzing around your home out of season, or on special occasions such as Christmas or New Year, then you just leave it alone and good luck will follow. However, further south, the same thing portends a death, and bluebottles were known as ‘fever flies’ or ‘deaths flies’. Anyone they landed on was going to catch a fever and die. 

Next time a fly falls into your drink or soup, don’t be upset, because that is a sign that riches are heading your way. What we don’t know, however, is whether you should continue drinking with the fly in situ, or whether you are permitted to dispose of the contaminated liquid without destroying your good fortune. I’m assuming that those who believed in this superstition were quite glad of flies in their ointment!

Upon coming to the last paragraph of my dad’s column this week, I was filled with a rather warm glow as I read what he’d written:

‘Regular readers might be interested to learn that my paperback book ‘Constable on the Hill’ is due for publication this month by New English Library (price £1).’

I’m sure, when writing that paragraph forty years ago, Dad had no notion of what his first Constable book would lead to – 37 books in that series, almost 130 books in total, a hugely successful TV series (Heartbeat) and a significant boost to the local tourist economy.

When it came to writing, there were certainly no flies on my dad. 

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 9th October and the Gazette & Herald on 7th October 2020

Wart a way to go

One of the most embarrassing things to have to wear in childhood was the ‘sock of shame’, the white stretch covering on one foot which informed the swimming fraternity that you had verrucas. Wearing that sock made you feel like some kind of leper, and you prayed that you wouldn’t have to suffer this public humiliation for too long. 

Warts and verrucas usually go away on their own, although it can take months or even years. Although they are harmless, they can be itchy or painful, but mostly are just plain embarrassing. They are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV), and spread to others via contaminated surfaces or close skin contact. They are more easily spread if the skin is damaged or wet, hence the need for those eye-catching socks.

Most of us will have suffered from them at some point, and the embarrassment associated with them stretches back through many centuries. Due to poor hygiene and overcrowded living conditions, our medieval forebears suffered far more with them and a whole plethora of purported cures sprang up, as my dad mentions in his column from 4th October 1980. 

‘There is an old belief in this village that dandelion milk will cure warts,’ he says, and adds, ‘One equally curious cure practised in the Helmsley district was to dip the affected hands into the trough of water used by a blacksmith to cool horseshoes.’

I resorted to my trusty friend (inherited from Dad), the ‘Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland’ and was amazed to find it devoted no less than 12 pages to the subject of warts! The large number of traditional cures is due to the fact that in the old days, people’s hands and feet were literally covered in them, and so people would be desperate to get rid of them. Today, it is more common to see just one or two. 

Plant-based cures were very common, and although the recommended plant might differ from area to area, the method of application was very similar. Top of the list were broad and runner beans. You would split the bean pod in half, then rub the sticky sap on to the affected area. Some also believed that after doing this, you had to press the pod back together, then bury it, and as the pod decayed in the earth, so your warts would disappear. Dandelion milk was the next most common application, followed by celandine, apples and potatoes.

In some areas it was believed that applying raw meat to warts would cure them, and although it didn’t seem to matter which meat was used, what was essential was that the meat had to be stolen. Similar to the plant-based cures, after application, the meat had to be buried, and as it rotted away, so the warts would vanish. Another essential element of this method, and one that occurs in a number of beliefs, is that the burial must take place in absolute secret. It is mentioned as far back as 1579 in ‘A Thousand Notable Things of Sundry Sorts’ written by Thomas Lupton, and persisted well into the 19th century. 

One of the most ancient of cures involves eels, and features in a 13th century manuscript from the ‘Physicians of Myddfai’, a succession of famous and revered doctors who lived in Carmarthenshire, Wales. It goes: ‘Take an eel and cut its head off, anoint the parts, where the warts are situated, with the blood, and bury the head deep in the earth; as the head rottens, so will the warts disappear.’

There were also wart ‘charmers’, who specialised in magical cures. Some would touch the warts with special herbs while reciting a charm, while others would count each wart while touching them with the herbs. These two methods would only work if carried out by one who possessed the ‘gift’ for curing warts.

Possibly the cruellest cure involves the humble snail. You rub the snail on your warts then, with a pin, you prick the snail as many times as the number of warts you have, then stick the snail on a blackthorn hedge, and as the snail withers and dies, so will your warts.

I’m not sure I could ever do that to a poor snail, but I might give the runner beans a go if ever the needs arises. 

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 2nd October and the Gazette & Herald on 30th September 2020

A matter of fat


When I was a youngster, my friends and I used to frighten the living daylights out of one another by sharing scary stories passed down from our elders. There’s nothing more certain to keep a child awake at night than the thought of an axe-wielding bogeyman lurking under the bed.

There was a particular favourite my elder siblings would relish telling me as we drove home across the darkening North York Moors after a visit to our grandparents. Did I know that a young couple’s car had broken down on these very moors? While the man went for help, his girlfriend heard on the car radio that a madman had escaped from a local asylum. Soon after, there was a loud banging on the roof of the car. When she got out to investigate, the reason for the banging became clear – the madman was sitting on the roof with her boyfriend’s head in his hands.

It was only as I got older that I learned that this was not a true story at all, but one of countless gruesome urban myths, many of which were versions of the same tale, but localised to terrorise children like me. A variation of this one has a hook-handed serial killer escaping from jail, a car breaking down on a remote moor and two occupants meeting a very sticky end. 

In his column from 27th September 1980, Dad recounts another story, but leaves us to decide whether it is true or not. It is set in Farndale in the middle of the 18th century, and features a brave woman who uses her cunning to protect herself. 

One autumn evening, the woman was sitting by her fire making scrappings from the day’s pig-killing when there was a knock at the door. Upon opening it, she found an old lady asking for shelter who said she was heading to Eskdale but was afraid to cross the moors in the dark. She explained that she would be quite happy to sleep on the ‘squab’ in the kitchen, a wooden bench with a thin mattress on top, a bit like an old-fashioned sofa-bed.

Feeling sorry for the old lady, and quite happy to have company, she agreed, and the two sat by the fireside chatting into the evening. The woman continued with her task of dealing with the pig, and boiled down the fat in the cauldron over the fire. Finally, her tired guest lay down on the squab and fell asleep.

But then, our heroine noticed something strange. Protruding from beneath the old lady’s garments was a pair of very manly boots. Suddenly she began to panic, as she recalled local gossip about a devilish tactic currently being used by gangs of thieves. A gang member would gain entry to your house by disguising himself as an old lady. He would pretend to fall asleep, and wait until you fell asleep too. He would then signal to the rest of the gang who would be waiting in the darkness outside. The thieves would storm the house, stealing anything of value, and injuring or even killing the occupants if they tried to stop them.

The woman knew she had to act fast if she was going to save herself, and her eyes fell upon the cauldron of fat. The ‘sleeping’ man was pretending to snore, his mouth wide open, and by now she was certain he was a robber. She scooped up a ladle of boiling fat and tipped it down his gaping gullet instantly incapacitating him. As he screamed and writhed in agony, she dragged him out of the house and deposited him on the dung heap.

Returning inside, she bolted the doors, locked all the windows and lay in wait for his accomplices. Sure enough, at around midnight she heard a low whistle from outside, which was intended to be a signal for the criminal who now lay lifeless outside. She answered the whistle by declaring that they might like to look for their expired companion on the dung heap, and if they dared to cross her threshold, she would gleefully greet them with the same fate.

The men scarpered in terror, was she never troubled by thieves again.

I don’t keep a cauldron of boiling fat, but in its place is my alarm system which hopefully deters any would-be intruders from troubling me. 

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 25th September and the Gazette & Herald on 23rd September 2020