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

Keeping Robin at Bay

A traditional image of Robin Hood
Robin Hood’s Bay, whose narrow, cobbled streets were a haven for smugglers of old

One of the prettiest of our North Yorkshire coastal villages has to be Robin Hood’s Bay, with its jumble of houses perched right on the sea cliffs. From above, the higgledy-piggledy collection of red rooves offers a clue to the hidden maze of narrow cobbled streets which were a haven for smugglers of days gone by.

According to legend, pirates could shift huge quantities of goods from their boats up to the top of the cliffs without anyone seeing them at all, thanks to the labyrinth of alleyways and snickets that only those familiar with the area could navigate.

As my dad says in his column from 13th October 1979, there is debate as to whether Robin Hood even existed, never mind whether he actually visited the coastal village that bears his name. But according to local stories, it was one of his favourite hiding places.

Access from land is still pretty difficult, so you can imagine the struggle they had in the 13th century when Robin was said to be active. And of course, there was only sea on the other side, another substantial obstacle for any land-based pursuers!

Robin is said to have kept a boat always at the ready in the bay, should he have to depart in a hurry to find another hiding spot, possibly in one of the many coves dotting the coastline.

Robin Hood is also linked to Whitby Abbey, just five miles up the coast. Apparently, he was travelling with Little John and called upon the abbot for food and lodgings. They were very warmly welcomed and entertained the monks with tales of their exploits. The monks asked for a demonstration of their legendary archery skills, whereupon the two men were led to a high tower in the abbey which faced down the coast towards an area known as Whitby Laithes.

The men shot an arrow each, and the monks were astounded that they flew nearly one and a half miles through the air. The spots where each arrow hit the ground were marked with special stones, and the fields acquired the names ‘Robin Hood’s Field’, and ‘Little John’s Field’, which still exist today. The stones were first recorded in 1540, but had disappeared by 1881. Having said that, two modern replacements were erected, so the myth will continue to be told for many years to come.

One theory is that the character of Robin Hood was never a real person, but derived from another mythical personality, that of the forest imp, Robin Goodfellow, made famous to many generations of English Literature students as ‘Puck’ in Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.

Robin Hood, they believe, is a corruption of the words ‘Robin of the Wood’, or of ‘Robin Hob’ (‘Hob’ being short for ‘hobgoblin’). And if you’ve ever heard someone recount a funny story, or recap something that you both witnessed, then you’ll know how easy it is for details to change the more times the story is repeated, or become increasingly embellished with every retelling.

So it’s easy to imagine that in the days where entertainment involved sitting around a fire and swapping stories, that tales of the exploits of a character called Robin who lived in the woods could have ended up in the myth of Robin Hood.

But there are a number of real people who are contenders for the role, with records going back to the 12th century of men of that name or similar. For example, a 1226 court register from Yorkshire describes Robin Hood as a fugitive, and in 1354, there is a record of another Robin Hood awaiting trial in Northamptonshire. There are many other recorded references, and clearly they cannot all be the same person. In fact old English words like ‘Robehod’ and ‘Robunhod’ were tags commonly attached to criminals.

Having said that, the first of many literary mentions of the character occurs in a 14th century ballad, which talks about a violent leader of men who lived with his bandits in Sherwood Forest and regularly clashed with the Sheriff of Nottingham. These early literary references all assume that the original character was a real person.

What we do know is that Robin Hood originally had a reputation as a villain, but over time, and many, many retellings of his story, he became a hero fighting injustice and oppression.

Real or not, I know which version of Robin Hood I prefer.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 11th October and the Gazette & Herald on 9th October 2019

I’m so over the moon

Ripe crops in the fields near my home in August before they were gathered in
The same fields after the crops were harvested in late September

On my dog walks, I’ve noticed just how busy our farming friends have been recently, gathering in the crops, baling up the straw, spreading the muck and ploughing the fields ready for the next cycle of planting. For the most part, the weather has been kind, allowing the crops to be gathered in the daytime without too much interference from rain. On occasional evenings though, I have seen vehicle lights glowing in the fields as they worked on well into the night.

The sophistication of agricultural machinery would be beyond all recognition to our forefathers, who would have had to rely on the light of the moon to illuminate the land as the nights drew in and daylight hours decreased.

And that is the reason that the big, bright moon we have at this time of year is nicknamed the ‘Harvest Moon’, as my dad explains in his column from 6th October 1979. In the days before accurate weather forecasting, if the crops were ripe at the same time as a spell of good weather, farmers would pull out all the stops to get them in before the weather broke, working well into the nights, and relying on the light of Harvest Moon.

But the official name for the October full moon is the ‘Hunter’s Moon’, so called because it was the best month to hunt for game animals fattened after a bountiful summer. They would be easier to spot once the fields were stripped of their crops, and hunters benefitted from the brighter-than-normal moonlight when tracking their prey.

At the start of the moon’s 29.5-day monthly journey around our planet, it sits directly between the earth and the sun. We can’t see this ‘new’ moon because the side facing us is in complete darkness. If you were standing on the far side of the moon, though, you would be bathed in sunlight.

As this cosmic sphere moves anti-clockwise around the earth, we get to see more of it as the sun’s rays fall upon its surface. So you’ll see a ‘crescent’ moon, then a ‘half’, then ‘three-quarters’ and so on, until half way through its journey, we reach a ‘full’ moon.

But these laymen’s terms do not reflect what is actually happening. A ‘full’ moon is really only half illuminated, as the side facing away from the sun stays in complete darkness. This might seem obvious, but I don’t think I’ve ever really sat down and thought about the mechanics of the moon’s phases, and its position in relation to the sun. And I can tell you, it has made my brain hurt trying to explain it in writing!

The moon’s exposure to the sun increases every day until it reaches its journey’s half way point, and this is known as the ‘waxing’ period, after which it enters the ‘waning’ period. Then, with every day that passes, less of the surface facing us is exposed to the sun, and at the end of the lunar month, it arrives back where it started, at its darkest point, to begin the journey all over again.

The Native Americans relied on the moon to keep time, and it is from them that we have the rather lovely names for each month’s full moon. January’s is called the ‘Wolf Moon’ after the howling of hungry wolves, whose food is sparse during the winter. February is ‘Snow Moon’ reflecting the wintriest of months. March is named after the worm, as spotting these creatures means the ground is thawing and spring is coming. April is known as ‘Pink’ thanks to a species of early blooming wildflower, and May is ‘Flower’, when the tree blossoms are at their most magnificent. June is ‘Strawberry’ after the ripening fruit, and July is ‘Buck’, as the male deer’s antlers have regrown after shedding. August is the ‘Sturgeon Moon’, so named thanks to the abundance of the fish, and September’s is the ‘Full Corn Moon’ reflecting the ripening harvest. This one and, as mentioned, October’s ‘Hunter’s Moon’, can both be called the ‘Harvest Moon’, depending on which of them falls the closest to the autumn equinox, which this year fell on 23rd September.

November is the ‘Beaver Moon’ after the increase in activity of the dam-building creature, and December is simply the ‘Cold Moon’, for obvious reasons.

After all that, I think I’ll head off for a Harvest Moon (that’s an apple and cinnamon cocktail, if you’re wondering!).

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 4th October and the Gazette & Herald on 2nd October 2019

A monster of a minster

The magnificent York Minster
Slightly smaller Stonegrave Minster

On 29 September 1979, my dad mentions a letter from a reader asking him to explain the difference between a minster and a cathedral.

It struck me that 40 years ago when the question was posed, the writer would have had to sit down to write the letter, then take it to the nearest post box, after which at least a week would pass before it landed on my dad’s desk (having likely been first sent to the newspaper, and then forwarded on to our home address). And then it was probably another two weeks or so before the answer appeared in his column. So let’s say, around three weeks from start to finish.

It took me 15 seconds to find the answer, which is nearly two million seconds fewer than in 1979, despite the fact that I accidentally Googled ‘difference between a monster and a cathedral’. Cleverly (or perhaps sinisterly, depending on your outlook), Google automatically assumed I meant ‘minster’. It is astonishing how much the world of information and research has advanced since 1979, and a gazillion queries can now be answered within seconds.

But we don’t get as much of a thrill from it as I imagine that reader did when they saw their question in print and a column resulting from it. And although the internet is very convenient for us writers, I do still love delving into my dad’s library of books and his huge collection of cuttings to discover facts that you simply cannot find elsewhere.

Going back to minsters, York is home to the most famous building in the county, and so you might imagine all minsters to be large, imposing places of worship. But close to where I grew up is the tiny village of Stonegrave which has its very own minster, the whole of which would probably fit inside York Minster’s North Transept. Not too far away is Kirkdale Minster, again another small, ancient building, well worth a visit as it dates from around A.D.1060 and features an old, rare sundial above its door.

A minster is a church that was established during the Anglo-Saxon period after Pope Gregory (A.D.590-604) sent out missionaries to convert the heathens in England. It was mainly a teaching establishment, or one attached to a monastery, and as such was known as a monasterium, which entered the Saxon language as ‘mynster’ and is where the modern word comes from.

A cathedral, on the other hand, is the most important church within a diocese, so called as it houses the ‘cathedra’, or the throne that only the bishop is entitled to sit upon. Originally bishops dressed the same way as ordinary priests, and so to distinguish them, they were given a dedicated chair within the church that only they could occupy. So York Minster is a cathedral, and in 1836, the diocese of Ripon was established, and thus Ripon Minster became its cathedral.

The Church of Holy Trinity at Stonegrave was first mentioned as a religious establishment in a letter dated A.D.757 sent by Pope Paul I to Eadbert, King of Northumbria, in which he asked for the monasteries of Stonegrave, Coxwold and Jarrow to be restored to their rightful owners, and to the service of God.

Very little of that early Saxon church remains although, according to my dad’s archives, a relic can be seen immediately inside the south door. This is an ancient stone cross which is believed to be one of the finest examples of a Saxon wheel-headed stone known as a Celtic cross. It dates to around the 10th century and is unusual because of the carvings upon it. One panel shows the Ascension into Heaven, while another depicts an evangelist holding on to a book.

Dad also wrote about Stonegrave Minster in 1978, saying: ‘No minster has been constructed since the Reformation, and it seems this can no longer happen.’ And that was the case until the Church of England designated additional minsters by bestowing an honorific title on certain parish churches of regional significance in recognition of their importance to their communities. In our region, that includes Dewsbury (1994), Rotherham (2004), Doncaster (2004), Halifax (2009), Leeds (2012) and most recently Holy Trinity, Hull, which was made a minster by Archbishop John Sentamu on May 13th 2017.

Incidentally, Google still can’t tell me the difference between a monster and a cathedral.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 27th September and the Gazette & Herald on 25th September 2019

Tramping all over the internet

Tramp marks that were used to indicate whether a house was worth visiting or not
Warchalking was used in the 1990s to indicate where you could access free wireless broadband

As my dad explains in his 22nd September 1979 column, it was only around thirty years earlier that vagrants were still a regular feature of the countryside. A likely explanation is that many of these ‘gentlemen of the road’ were soldiers discharged after the war, but with no job or income to fall back upon.

Although they were often solitary characters, they were nevertheless part of a community that from the 17th century onwards developed a special ‘language’ as a way of letting each other know which houses were worth approaching and which were best avoided.

They did this through a series of symbols scratched or drawn on nearby gateposts or walls, easily missed by those not specifically looking for them.

There were two categories of mark, soft and hard. Soft marks indicated a household that looked kindly on vagrants, and there were five principal symbols. A circle around a cross revealed a charitable, possibly Christian, household; a simple tick indicated it was OK to approach; a row of three or four small circles meant money might be handed out; a horizontal line with two vertical lines coming down suggested they might be offered a meal at the table; an oval with three short lines inside symbolised a loaf of bread, meaning food might be handed out.

Hard marks were warnings. A series of crossed lines, like the bars of a prison cell, suggested that the police might be alerted, as did a small circle with a dot in the middle; a square with a dot meant that the occupants were likely to get violent if confronted by a beggar; a capital ‘T’ on its side signified ‘Nothing doing here’; a horizontal zig-zag line, like a sharp set of teeth, indicated a fierce dog on the premises.

Other marks, like a sickle shape, showed that work might be available, and a triangle told potential callers that too many tramps had already been before and now the inhabitants were fed up! A shape like half a square box suggested that those within might be persuaded to respond if they were told a heart-wrenching tale, while two interlocking boxes meant that using threats of violence towards residents usually reaped rewards!

Can you remember the days when the only way to access the internet was to have a cable plugged into a bulky computer? Today, most of us have wireless internet (Wi-Fi) in our homes, which we protect from outsiders by a network password. Well, back in 2002, Wi-Fi was still in its infancy, and businesses were just beginning to install wireless computer networks.

It was at this time that London web designer Matt Jones claimed that the old ‘tramp marks’ that I’ve described inspired him to come up with the idea of ‘warchalking’, a set of symbols which could be chalked outside establishments with wireless internet connection so that anyone with a laptop could gain (normally costly) free internet access from that spot. Although the idea became somewhat of a media sensation, it was short-lived as the corporates began to protect their Wi-Fi networks with passwords. Obviously now, practically everywhere has free Wi-Fi access.

I did do some in-depth research into whether ‘warchalking’ still existed anywhere, and that was by going upstairs and asking my very tech-savvy 23-year-old son Oliver. He had never heard of it.

When we first installed a wireless internet network in our home, I was fearful of people outside being able to hack into it. Now, most of us have Smart phones, so the internet is available almost anywhere, and the desire to hack a network just to ‘Surf the Net’ has vanished. People hack networks for much more sinister reasons these days.

According to Oliver, who works for a cyber security firm, the biggest threat to our internet personal security is people of my generation and older still using weak passwords for online accounts where important confidential information, such as addresses and payments details, is stored. In his words, “Any password that is just letters with no numbers or symbols can be hacked in seconds.”

He recommends using a ‘password manager’, a system that can generate and remember highly sophisticated passwords so that you don’t have to.

If that sounds too complicated, then I suggest you either get the most tech-savvy person you know to help you, or move to a desert island.

You have been warned!

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 20th September and the Gazette & Herald on 18th September 2019

Hovering over the Somme

It was about this time 40 years ago that we had not long returned from our very first family holiday abroad, which was a week in France, as my dad recalls in his column from 15th September 1979. We had driven down to Dover in our trusty custard-yellow Ford Cortina estate to take the hovercraft across the Channel.

Dad was one of those writers who simply could not switch off, and so every trip was potential column or book material. He also knew that if he could show that he’d used the trip as research for future writing, then he could legitimately offset a good chunk of the expense against his tax bill. He wasn’t daft!

Consequently, it meant that myself, aged 12, and my teenaged elder siblings, were dragged – sorry, I mean ‘taken’ to various churches, cathedrals, cemeteries and museums.

I could not fathom why anyone would want to spend time on their holiday looking at row after row of identical graves in a military cemetery. And what was so special about that great big monument on a hill in the middle of the French nowhere? I wanted themes parks, beaches and ice creams!

What my 12-year-old self failed to appreciate was that I was standing on ground that was the scene of the most famous and bloodiest battle of the Great War, that of the River Somme.

The big monument, which consisted of two ‘wings’ either side of a central tower with spectacular views over the French countryside, was actually the Australian National Memorial which lies 15 miles east of the northern city of Amiens, next to the Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery. The monument and cemetery commemorate thousands of Commonwealth servicemen who lost their lives on or near the ground upon which they stand.

When they launched their Somme offensive on July 1st 1916, the British expected little German resistance after a sustained artillery bombardment the week before. They couldn’t have been more wrong, and within the first hour, almost 20,000 of the 120,000 allied troops lay dead, while 37,000 were wounded. The Battle of the Somme lasted 141 days and resulted in around 1.5 million casualties on both sides, yet enabled our troops to advance a mere six miles.

The awful death toll led to the military abandoning their recruitment strategy known as the ‘pals’ battalions. To encourage men to join up, army staff would canvass potential soldiers in groups, promising them that they could serve alongside their friends, neighbours and work colleagues (in other words, their ‘pals’), rather than the usual method of being assigned randomly to regiments. The drive was highly successful, with ‘pals’ battalions being established all over the country, from workplaces, towns, villages, sports clubs and practically any community with a common interest.

Sadly, as men from the same places served side by side, so it meant they were killed side by side, leaving great holes in the community to which they once belonged. Certain areas suffered far higher losses than they otherwise would have done, and one of the worst affected was the East Lancashire Regiment, better known as the Accrington Pals. Of the 700 members who all came from in and around that Lancashire town, 235 were killed and 350 were wounded in the space of 20 minutes on the first day of battle. Following the carnage at the Somme, the army reverted to more traditional methods of recruitment.

Unfortunately, as a 12-year-old visiting these battlefields, the significance of the ground beneath my feet did not sink in, and for me, the most enthralling part of the whole holiday was the journey over there on the hovercraft.

The experience of first seeing that magnificent otherworldly machine gliding onto the beach, of the immense noise of the engines as it started up then set off, and then of the incessant bouncing as we hovered all the way the France, was just thrilling.

Sadly, it is no longer possible to hover to France. Competition from ferries that could transport much greater numbers of people and vehicles, and from the Channel Tunnel, meant that it just couldn’t keep up and the service shut down in 2000.

However, if you still want to experience hover travel, then nip down to Southsea in Hampshire, where you can still take the hovercraft across to the Isle of Wight. The 12-year-old within me might just persuade me to make that trip.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 13th September and the Gazette & Herald on 11th September 2019

A body of evidence

Oliver Cromwell, whose headless remains are said to rest at Newburgh Priory, near Coxwold

In my dad’s column from 8th September 1979 he talks about the remains of Oliver Cromwell supposedly resting at Newburgh Priory, near Coxwold.

Although now a stately home, it is called ‘Priory’ because it stands on the site of an Augustinian settlement founded in 1145 by Robert de Mowbray, who was gifted the land by William The Conqueror. Not much is known about the priory apart from the fact that it fell victim to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1538, passed into private hands, and has remained in the same family ever since. It was owned first by Henry VIII’s chaplain, Anthony Bellasis who, along with his brother Robert, was responsible for the dissolution of eight northern monasteries besides the priory. The property was then inherited by his nephew Sir William, who converted it into a private residence. William’s grandson, Thomas, took the title of ‘Baron of Fauconberg’ in 1625 and then ‘1st Viscount’ in 1643. His grandson, also Thomas, was appointed ‘Earl of Fauconberg’ and it was he who married Oliver Cromwell’s daughter, Mary, in 1657.

But the story of how Cromwell’s remains came to be there are the subject of much debate, for if we believe all the tales about his final resting place, then the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth must have had several heads and torsos. There are various claimed locations including London, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire as well as Yorkshire.

What is not in dispute is that he died aged 59 on 3rd September 1658 of complications of malaria and kidney problems. He was quickly buried at Westminster Abbey and succeeded by his son, Richard, who was no match as a leader, so by 1660 the monarchy was restored and Charles II took the throne.

On 30th January 1661, the 12th anniversary of Charles I’s execution, Cromwell’s body was exhumed, along with several of his republican contemporaries, and removed to Tyburn where he was posthumously hanged and beheaded. The heads were placed on spikes and the bodies supposedly buried beneath the gibbet.

However, rumours quickly spread that the body, which was heavily swaddled, was not actually Cromwell’s. There were whispers that it had been switched and the genuine remains whisked away. A theory went that it had been reburied several times in different places after his death to protect it from vengeful royalists.

It is not beyond the realms of possibility that it ended up in Coxwold (minus the head, which itself had an eventful 300-year journey to its final 1960 resting place at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge). The Earl of Fauconberg was politically very astute, and had cultivated a huge network of influential friends. Once Cromwell had died he set about gaining allies among the royalists, and it was during this period that he learned about what was in store for his father-in-law’s corpse. Fauconberg’s influence, so the story goes, enabled his wife Mary to secretly travel to London with trusted escorts to collect her father’s body and bring it back to Yorkshire, while a different body was buried beneath the gibbet.

The corpse was placed in a specially-constructed tomb at Newburgh, hidden in the roof gables. It was only later, when the roof was raised, that the tomb became exposed. However, the family have resisted pressure over the years to open it. My dad tells the tale of a visit by Queen Victoria’s eldest son, Edward VII, who was desperate to open the tomb, but the family would not relent. So the story, and the contents of the tomb, have never been, nor are ever likely to be, verified.

Two thank you’s this week to relatives of twin sisters Minnie and Fanny Benson, who featured in my column in July. Their niece Ann Mansfield (nee Rowntree) wrote in with some reminiscences including a favourite phrase that Fanny used when the phone rang: “You answer it sister, in case I’m not in.”

Mervyn Thompson, who grew up in Ampleforth, also got in touch. His father Les was the twins’ cousin, and he remembers spending time up at the garage when it was owned by their father, his Uncle ‘Tal’.

He says: “Aged about four I had a camp fire. Unfortunately it was upwind of Tal’s barn on a windy day. Bad plan!”

Thankfully, the tin-roofed barn survived but, alas, the hay was not so lucky!

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


This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 6th September and the Gazette & Herald on 4th September 2019

Lead me to church

This church sports the Smartwater security logo. To protect it from lead theft. Photo Trevor Porter
Coxwold Village Hall was packed for BBC Radio York’s Cake and a Cuppa celebration for Yorkshire Day
BBC Radio York’s Georgey Spanswick (standing) chats to people enjoying their Cake and a Cuppa on Yorkshire Day

In my dad’s column from 1st September 1979, he talks about the sadness he felt at churches being targeted by thieves. Traditionally these holy places were left open all hours for the population to observe some peaceful reflection whenever they felt the need.

In 2017, a Home Office review revealed that theft from churches had significantly deceased since 2013 following the introduction of tighter controls that deterred petty thieves and opportunists. However, since then the price of metals, particularly lead, has gone up, so theft from churches has begun to rise again. But now, rather than petty thieves, it is larger and better-organised criminal gangs getting involved. Last October, the entire roof of All Saint’s Church in Houghton Conquest, Bedfordshire, was taken. With 20 tonnes of lead to dispose of, it would have taken a very sophisticated operation to do it.

The thieves would have achieved around £25,000 for the sale of the lead, while the cost of the repairs to the church is nearer £400,000, but of course, they do not give a monkey’s about that.

Obviously there are things churches can do to protect themselves, such as installing CCTV cameras and a good alarm system that covers the roof as well as the inside of the church, but experienced and determined thieves will know how to get around anything but the most robust security.

Possibly the most effective tool is a forensic marking system, which is an invisible traceable liquid that is painted onto items, such as roof lead, furniture, or silverware. The most well known is SmartWater, and each bottle has a unique forensic code that can be traced back to the original owner. The liquid, which only shows up under UV light, can also be channelled through a sprinkler system, so intruders that trigger the alarm will be doused from above in a permanently-marking shower. It cannot be removed from clothing and takes months of washing to come off the skin, so any suspects that are caught are easily linked to the crime scene. Protected buildings display prominent signage which in itself is a powerful deterrent, and 90% of premises displaying it have reported no further problems with intruders.

I need to hold my hands up here and confess to a dark, seedy past involving theft from a church. When I was 10, myself and our neighbour’s son hatched a plan to steal from a collection box in our local church (I’ll call him Billy to preserve his anonymity). We snook in when we knew the church was empty and both took 10p each out of the unlocked collection box, which we then immediately spent on sweets. As we only got pocket money once a week, we knew our mums would wonder where we got the sweets from, so we made a pact that I would say Billy’s mum had given them to us, and he would say that my mum had done it.

We were very confident that our cunning plan would work. However, like most children, we underestimated the almost mythical ability that all mothers possess of detecting when their children are lying.

As expected, when I walked through the door happily chewing on my ill-gotten gains, the first question my mum asked was where I’d got the sweets. She gave me ‘that look’ when I replied that it was from Billy’s mum.

Within seconds of me saying that, there was a loud banging on the door. Billy’s furious mum was on the doorstep holding him by the scruff of the neck and, to my horror, she began to tell my mum exactly what we’d done. Billy had obviously cracked under the pressure of her questioning, and my penny chew suddenly felt like a rock in my mouth.

We were made to pay dearly for our crime. We were marched up to the church house to see the priest, forced to confess to him face to face, and then had to hand several weeks’ worth of pocket money over to him. We were deservedly and humiliatingly named and shamed, and the lesson was well and truly learned.

Just a quick thank you to everyone who came along to the BBC Radio York Cake and a Cuppa event held on Yorkshire Day in Coxwold Village Hall. It was a huge success with lots of visitors from villages all around. I hope you all enjoyed it and thank you for coming!

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 30th  August and the Gazette & Herald on 28th August 2019