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

The power of a mighty pen

The young Charles Dickens found inspiration for his novel Nicholas Nickleby in North Yorkshire (Photo:  Philip Mould & Co.)

Dickens stayed at Greta Bridge  (Photo from thisisdurham.com)

In his column from 16th January 1981, my dad talks about the links that Charles Dickens had with North Yorkshire, and how much he enjoyed travelling in this region to find inspiration for his famous stories.

Dad was a fan, and at home we still have his full collection of Dickens’ works. He talks about the writer arriving in the North Riding on 31st January 1838 during a particularly harsh winter when he was only 26. Although he was still in the early stages of his writing career, he was already famous after The Pickwick Papers had become a publishing sensation. Dickens popularised the idea of serialising stories in monthly periodicals, and devised the technique of cliffhanger endings to keep his readers keen. The first few instalments were not popular, and it wasn’t until the introduction of the streetwise Cockney shoeshiner Sam Weller that sales took off, leaping from 1,000 a month to 40,000.

By January 1838, Dickens was already publishing instalments of Oliver Twist, which was issued monthly between February 1837 until April 1839. He would often write chapters of his stories on his travels, sometimes changing plots on the hoof in response to the reactions of his readers to previously published instalments.

By the time he landed in North Yorkshire on that January night, he had travelled 255 miles by stagecoach in terrible weather, and described his arrival in a letter to his wife Catherine: “There was no vestige of a track. The mail kept on well, however, and at eleven we reached a bare place with a house standing alone in the midst of a dreary moor, which the guard informed us was Greta Bridge. It was fearfully cold and there were no outward signs of anyone being up in the house.”

This inauspicious start was soon overtaken by the warm welcome indoors. “To our great joy we discovered a comfortable room with drawn curtains and a blazing fire. In half an hour, they gave us a smoking supper and a bottle of mulled port, and then we retired to a couple of capital bedrooms, in each of which there was a rousing fire half way up the chimney.

“We have had for breakfast, toast, cakes, a Yorkshire pie, a piece of beef about the size and much the shape of my portmanteau, tea, coffee, ham and eggs.”

From Greta Bridge, Dickens went to explore nearby Barnard Castle before moving on to the village of Bowes (at the time these places were still within North Yorkshire, although now fall inside the County Durham boundary). The area around Bowes was known for Yorkshire Schools, austere boarding institutions where boys were sent for a cut-price education. They had a brutal reputation and, pretending that he was looking on behalf of a boy whose father had died, Dickens persuaded a friend to write a letter of introduction to William Shaw, who had run Bowes Hall for 20 years. This school was to become the main inspiration for the infamous Dotheboys Hall which lay at the heart of his latest novel, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.

Dickens had seen an advert for Bowes Hall in The Times newspaper, and was aware that Mr Shaw had already faced two civil actions in 1823 brought by the parents of children who had suffered sight impairment while at the school. They testified to sharing one single bed per five children, sharing two towels between more than 250 pupils after bathing, and to sharing overflowing and stinking waste troughs in the middle of the dormitories. The maggot-ridden food rations were pitiful, and they were ordered to fill quills with fleas from their bed mattresses. The boys’ evidence was shocking, and it is likely that Dickens used their accounts, rather than what he saw on his own visit, to flesh out his portrayal of the institution.

Despite being convicted of gross negligence and fined a whopping £600, Shaw went back to running his profitable school exactly as before. Dickens’ depiction of Dotheboys Hall came 15 years later, and it was a barely disguised satire of Bowes Hall and William Shaw (the odious schoolmaster Wackford Squeers has the same initials). It was only once the book was published that the idea of reform finally began to be taken seriously and business for the schools dried up. Bowes Hall finally shut its doors to pupils in 1840.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 14th and the Gazette & Herald on 12th  January 2022

Laughing into 2022

It’s my first column of the new year and I hope you were able to enjoy the festive season despite the constant threat of new restrictions being imposed. I must admit, I always enter into a bit of a funk in January once the celebrations are over and this year it is hard not to feel a bit despondent, especially when the uncertainty unleashed by the coronavirus pandemic almost two years ago is still very much with us.

It doesn’t help that work tails off significantly in the run up to Christmas and into January, so I don’t have as many distractions to keep me entertained. That has been compounded by a lengthy spell of really boring, uninspiring weather – not too cold, but not especially mild either, complemented by a persistent drizzle descending from an unbroken grey blanket above my head. Not the sort of weather to cheer you up or entice you outside when you look out of the window.

I agree with American author John Kieran who said, “Bad weather always looks worse though a window.” This is a quote that came from a book that I’ve had for years but not really read properly called ‘The Funniest Thing You Never Said’, a collection of humorous quotations, collated by Rosemarie Jarski and published in 2004. I picked up this book on a dull day when I was in a particular grump and looking for something to cheer me up.

Having flicked through a few pages, I came to the conclusion that it should be available on prescription for people afflicted by the January blues. It had me laughing almost immediately, and it struck me that with things as they are, readers of this column might need a bit of a New Year pick-me-up too. So, with thanks to Ms Jarski, I’m going to share some of the funniest quotes I have found so far in the hope that it helps bring a smile to your face, January blues or not.

On the subject of the British weather, it was Lord Byron who wrote: “The English winter – ending in July, to recommence in August.” And this from comedy legend Bob Hope: “It was so cold I saw a politician with his hands in his own pockets.”

I may have mentioned before that I am not a fan of ironing, so I completely relate to this one by U.S. humorist Erma Bombeck: “My second favourite household chore is ironing, my first being hitting my head on the top bunk bed until I faint.”

Many of us will have gathered with family and loved ones over Christmas, so I think the next few might resonate.

“Christmas begins about December 1st with an office party and ends when you finally realise what you spent, around April 15th of the next year.” P.J. O’Rourke.

“Kids will eat anything – snot, scabs, soil, earwax, toenail clippings. But not sprouts.” Tony Burgess.

Zsa Zsa Gabor: “I believe in large families. Everyone should have at least three husbands.”

“Most children at times threaten to run away from home. This is the only thing that keeps many parents going.” Phyllis Diller.

“Fortunately, my parents were intelligent, enlightened people who accepted me for what I was – a punishment from God.” David Steinberg.

“There are few things more satisfying than seeing your children have teenagers of their own.” Doug Larson.

“A friend of mine bought a castle in Scotland. When his daughter had a birthday party, he hired a bouncy council estate.” Harry Hill.

“There are two things we can all live without – haemorrhoids and neighbours.” Spike Milligan.

“The Bible tells us to love our neighbours, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people.” G.K. Chesterton.

“Experts have spent years developing weapons which can destroy people’s lives but leave buildings in tact. They’re called mortgages.” Jeremy Hardy.

“I was on the subway sitting on a newspaper, and a guy comes up and says, ‘Are you reading that?’ I didn’t know what to say, so I just said, ‘Yes,’ stood up, turned the page and sat down again.” David Brenner.

“I daren’t take a holiday. If I stop writing my column for a month it might affect the circulation of the newspaper – or it might not.” Arthur Brisbane.

And on that note, I’d like to wish you all a very Happy New year!

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 7th and the Gazette & Herald on 5th  January 2022.

What’s in a name?

I often get asked how my dad came up with his pen name Nicholas Rhea

A question I am often asked is how my father came up with the pen name Nicholas Rhea. I respond that Nicholas is after the Martyr of the Moors, Father Nicholas Postgate, and Rhea was his mother’s family name. I’m so used to it that I tend to forget that he was writing for many years under alternative pseudonyms before he began to use Nicholas Rhea.

I’m sure Dad was asked the same question frequently, as demonstrated by a reader letter that I found in a folder in which Dad kept all his columns and reader correspondence from 1981. For the first time, I read Dad’s own words in the copy of his reply which confirmed the back story of his most famous pseudonym. He provides a little more history too, which I’d like to share here.

My dad writes: “I use the name Rhea because it is my maternal grandfather’s surname. Nicholas is taken from the martyr, Nicholas Postgate, who worked in the Egton Bridge/Glaisdale areas of Eskdale where I was born. I have been trying to trace the origin of the Rhea family, and it possibly comes from a cousin of the Duke of Argyll’s who fled from Scotland to Ireland in the fifteenth century in disgrace, and adopted the surname Rhea before marrying in Derry Cathedral. There is a Kyle Rhea on the West Coast of Scotland but I cannot find any trace in Scotland today – maybe the Campbells/Argylls do not wish their past to be known?”

He then goes on to explain why he uses pseudonyms: “I use the name because I have lots of other books published either as Peter N. Walker, or as Christopher Coram, and wanted a different name for a different sort of book (he was talking about his Constable series)…I also write a regular column as Nicholas Rhea in the Police Review, so the name is getting known!”

He couldn’t have realised back then that Nicholas Rhea would become the most well-known name he adopted, thanks to the success of his Constable books and subsequently of course, Heartbeat. In fact in one of his replies composed later in the year (September 1981) he writes: “Thank you for your interest in my Constable books…You might be interested to know that Yorkshire Television is to make a 13-part series based on those books. It might be two years or so before it gets onto the screen, but I understand it will be a sort of James Herriot of the police force, set in the North York Moors area.”

Little did Dad know, but it would be a full 11 years before the first episode of Heartbeat would make it to the TV screen. Further into the 1980s, Dad would drop all of his other pen names (which also included Andrew Arncliffe, Tom Ferris and James Ferguson) and for the rest of his writing life, would stick to Nicholas Rhea and Peter Walker.

I did notice that although most of the correspondence in the file came from the north east, he did get some letters from other parts of the country, including Nottinghamshire, Buckinghamshire and Surrey. I too get correspondence from various parts of the country, and thanks to having an online presence (www.countrymansdaughter.com) I am able to receive messages from just about anywhere in the world. Only this week I had a note from Gerry Jonsson in Canada who asked if Dad knew Alf White, who of course wrote under the very famous pseudonym of James Herriot.

I replied that they did know each other and Herriot’s success likely inspired my dad to keep trying to get his Constable books published. He first had the idea for a humorous book based on the life of a rural bobby back in 1969 but his agent turned it down saying there was no call for Yorkshire humour. When Alf White told him about an idea he had for a humorous book based the life of a rural vet, Dad passed on this sage piece of wisdom about Yorkshire humour. Obviously, Alf ignored it and went on to achieve huge success. It was another 10 years before Dad’s first Constable book was finally published and Heartbeat landed on TV in 1992.

So it proves that if you truly believe in something, you should never give up! I wish you all a very happy New Year.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 31st and the Gazette & Herald on 29th December 2021

A Wandering we go

Lucien Smith with his mother Margaret in the quirky-named village of Muggleswick

I had some interesting responses to my column talking about dreams a couple of weeks ago. It seems I am not the only one who has dreamt of a loved one after they have passed away.

Simon Barrass, who originates from Middlesbrough but now lives in Florida, said: “This was a very lovely article Sarah. I have many, many dreams with my dad since he passed. One of late was where I was walking through the town centre which was pretty packed with people, and then I saw my dad walking towards me as clear as day! I said: “I thought you were dead, Dad.” And he said to me: “No, I’m still here and just wandering about.” I find them comforting – I have lots of them with my mam in too!”

Lucien Smith from London also got in touch to say: “What a fascinating topic! I remember 20 percent of my dreams and sometimes the themes are easily explained. Other times less so. I’ve only dreamt of my father a couple of times in the 17 years since he died, but both were really sweet, comforting dreams.”

It’s nice to hear that others find these occurrences soothing rather than disturbing, but it’s not always the case. Another friend (who asked to remain anonymous) got in touch after reading my piece to tell me that she and her husband dreamt on the same night that her father-in-law’s house had been renovated upstairs but not downstairs. She said: “It freaked us out as we hadn’t even been discussing the family and his dad is dead!” I have to wonder how that is even possible?

Simon’s use of the word ‘wandering’ reminded me of a Facebook conversation that was sparked by a photograph that Lucien had posted showing himself and his mother near his home village of Muggleswick in County Durham. I am probably not the first to wonder if it was the inspiration behind the term ‘muggles’ that JK Rowling uses in her Harry Potter books to refer to people who do not have magic powers, but apparently not (she said it came from the word ‘mug’). However the Muggleswick postcode was used for the first day cover when Royal Mail issued a set of Harry Potter stamps in 2018.

Lucien was asking if anyone else had any strange place names to bring up, and the responses he got had me giggling as I read them. So, in the spirit of Christmas silliness (and with Lucien’s permission) I’d like to share them with you now. Be warned, some of these names might make you blush!

Murray Lang from Australia posted picture of the town sign of ‘Wandering’, and also said that ‘Bothering’ appeared on an old West Australian road map of his father’s. He adds: “No sign of it now (Not Bothering?).” Susie Dymoke from Arizona explained that she lives on Serene Street in the town of Carefree, and other street names include Ho Hum Drive, Rocking Chair Road, Breathless Drive and Slumber Street. It sounds like a very relaxing place to be, as does Rest and be Thankful, in Scotland, suggested by Lorraine Riggs (who also tells us she was married in Brig o’Turk).

Rector Angela Berners-Wilson added: “My parishes rejoice in the following names: Bicknoller, Crowcombe, Monksilver, Nettlecombe, Sampford Brett and Stogumber.” And Neil McBride offered Cridling Stubbs near Leeds. They all sound like they are straight out of a Roald Dahl story, don’t they? Angela also says there is a Lower Piddle near Worcester, while Ian Harrison mentioned the River Piddle in Dorset.

Things began to get a little cheeky after that, and Gareth Child offered Nether Hornpot Lane in York along with Scratchy Bottom near Durdle Door in Dorset. Jacqui Flynn revealed: “During our daily walks in lockdown, we discovered Erection Cottage on Dick Lane.” And Paul Martin added: “We live in Sexhow, which I always think should have a question mark.” He added that he lives near Thornton le Beans, which is apparently where author Bill Bryson wants to be buried.

Deborah Binns Bailey from South Yorkshire had me laughing out loud when she said: “We have Penistone near us. Lovely little village. Used to be a problem if you tried to Google it with parental controls on.”

I hope these funny names spark some interesting conversations around the festive dinner table, and the meantime, have yourselves a wonderful Christmastime!

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 24th and the Gazette & Herald on 22nd December 2021

Little bird in the red

The robin redbreast is a common feature on Christmas cards

One of the things I do around this time of year is dig out cards that were sent to me last Christmas and cut them up into labels for this year’s presents. So many cards are too beautiful to simply chuck into the recycling box, so I recycle them in my own way, and they look lovely adorning a gift with a bit of pretty ribbon.

What I noticed this time when I took the cards out is how many times a robin redbreast is a featured, whether it be front and centre or sitting discreetly in the background. The robin appeared on at least a third of the cards, so I began to wonder why and when this little bird became associated with Christmas.

One suggestion is that in Victorian Britain, postmen would wear red uniforms and were nicknamed ‘robins’ so the appearance of the bird was to represent these hard working individuals.

However, there is evidence to suggest the association with Christ goes back further than that. There is an ancient tale that has a robin approaching Jesus on the cross to pull a thorn from the crown to ease his pain and as it did so, a drop of blood fell on to his chest, turning it red. Another tale has baby Jesus lying in the manger while Mary is distracted chatting to the inn-keeper’s wife. Mary didn’t notice that the fire keeping her baby warm had begun to burn out of control, and so the robin bravely put himself between the manger and the flames, fluffing out his feathers to protect the child. In doing so, his breast was burned, turning it red for ever more.

In his column from 19th December 1981, Dad mentions that he found it odd that this bird became to be associated with Christmas when for centuries its appearance was believed to foretell a death. If a bird was spotted tapping at a window, it suggested that someone inside was going to die. If that bird was a robin, then the potency of the portent was even stronger. Similar beliefs had it that if one flew inside a church, it heralded the demise of one of the parishioners, or if a robin flew in to your house, then bad stuff was bound to happen. If it happened more than once, then the Grim Reaper was destined to pay a visit.

In fact, superstitions like these persisted well into the 20th century. Some people refused to buy Christmas cards with the bird on them and if they were in receipt of one from a well meaning friend, it would cause genuine consternation. Hull writer Alec Gill reported as late as 1993 that a woman he knew, when buying a box of assorted Christmas cards, would throw all those featuring robins into the bin. Does anyone today have that kind of fear?

At one time, it was thought that the robin was all brown (possibly being confused with a wren), and so tales like the ones I mentioned earlier developed to explain how the red breast was created. Another tells of it being scorched while trying to protect a wren from the wrath of the gods, and yet another that it was scorched while trying to extinguish the fires of hell by carrying drops of water in its beak.

From these beliefs grew the superstition that it was very unlucky to kill a robin, and if you deliberately caused one to die then you would be beset with very bad luck for the rest of your days.

It’s hard to reconcile these bleak superstitions with the cute little bird we see hopping about the garden all year round. They can be very tame, and Dad wrote about how one seemed to be following him as he cleared out a garden shed. They can be quite fearless and have a reputation for being fiercely territorial, actively challenging any rivals that dare to come near.

Interestingly, the robin’s breast is actually orange in colour, rather than red, but there was no word for ‘orange’ before the 16th century. Although the colour orange had existed since the 13th century, it was simply called ‘yellow-red’. It was only after the Portuguese brought the fruit into Britain in the late 15th century that the word ‘orange’ became to be associated with the colour.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 17th and the Gazette & Herald on 15th December 2021

Tree-mendous Christmas tradition

A Christmas family photo taken in 1982 with a Norway Spruce tree in the background.(Back, L-R: My brother Andrew, Dad, my aunty Margaret. Front, L-R: Mum and my sister Tricia)

As we are well into December now, I wonder if you have put your tree up yet? And do you prefer a real one or an artificial one? You can get some very fancy (and expensive!) fake trees, and yet I’ve never been tempted to ditch the real version.

We usually go out in the second weekend of December to buy ours and I make a bit of an event of it. I embargo Christmas music in the house until we get the tree, then the boys help me lug the decorations from the attic, I crack open a bottle of sherry (the only time of year I drink it), then start adorning the tree with baubles to the sound of the cheesy tunes. It has become my little festive tradition, and I’m sure you have your own (whether that is something like mine, or burying your head under a cushion and pretending it’s not happening, which I fully appreciate).

I did know that the impressive tree that appears annually in Trafalgar Square was a originally a gift from Norway, but wasn’t sure if that still happened. Thanks to reading my dad’s column from 12th December 1981, I was prompted to look into it further, and yes Norway does still send a tree as a thank you for our support of the country during World War II. They were one of our closest allies.

The story behind it goes like this. In the 1940s, a chap called Per Prag was the manager of the London branch of the Norwegian National Tourist Office. One year he was on a trip back to his homeland when he became marooned on a mountain pass by a snow storm. While he was stuck there, he could do little but admire the wonderful sight of a swathe of Norway Spruce trees, all laden with thick white snow, cascading down the mountainside.

He recalled that during the Second World War, despite German U-boats patrolling the North Sea, at Christmas time a spruce was smuggled from his country into England for King Haakon, who was exiled there. The Germans had invaded Norway on 9th April 1940, intending to capture the king and the government. They all managed to escape and for a time the king stayed in the village of Nybersund before escaping to England with the help of the British. He regularly broadcast to the people of Norway from exile and became a symbol of resistance against the Nazis. He returned home after the war and remained a much-loved monarch until his death in September 1957.

Per Prag thought that gifting a tree to the Brits would be a fitting way to express Norway’s gratitude for the wartime support. He managed to gain the necessary approvals, including finding a way round UK import restrictions which would normally have prevented the tree being allowed in. As it was classed as a ‘charitable gift’ rather than a normal import, it was permissible, with the undertaking that it would be destroyed immediately after Christmas.

The first tree was selected from the Maridalen Valley, just north of Oslo, where particularly fine specimens grew, and it was carried to the docks in Oslo by horse-sleigh. It was around 50 feet tall and transported to England, arriving in London on 18th December 1947. It was formally handed over on 22nd December in a ceremony in Trafalgar Square witnessed by thousands of citizens who let out a collective gasp as the electric light bulbs were switched on. The tree was also adorned with 300 candles, silver streamers and topped with a silver star.

Today, Norway still sends us one of its best spruce tress in time for Christmas. Known locally as the ‘queen of the forest’, Trafalgar Square-worthy specimens are identified and nurtured years in advance. The lucky 2021 winner was carefully chosen several months before it was felled at a special ceremony in November attended by the Lord Mayor of Westminster, the British Ambassador to Norway and the Mayor of Oslo. This year’s tree is over 78 feet tall and is thought to be around 80 years old. It was unveiled in a special ceremony on 2nd December and as is usual, it is decorated in the traditional Norwegian fashion, with white string lights hung vertically from the top.

Do you have a special Christmas tree tradition I wonder?

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 10th and the Gazette & Herald on 8th December 2021

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