Coot a coincidence!

CASTLE: Northern Echo Camera Club member Michael Atkinson took this great shot of a coot and chick. If you would like to see your work in print join our club today. Picture: Darren Owen NE Camera Club

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 30th June 2017, & the Malton Gazette & Herald on 28th June 2017)

For these columns, I’m looking back into my dad Peter Walker’s archives from the early days of his writings in the Malton Gazette and Herald and its sister paper, the Darlington and Stockton Times. The first one I read was from 18th June 1977 when I was all of 10 years old. It appeared the week after the country had been celebrating the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, and I remember being so excited about the village street party and especially the celebratory five-mile race. At 10, you have no concept of pacing yourself, so I set off as fast as my skinny little legs could carry me, and was shattered by the end of the first mile. I somehow made it around the full course, half running, half walking, and think I was the third girl to finish the children’s race. That probably sounds better than it was – I don’t think many girls entered!

When I first had the idea of taking over Dad’s column, I wasn’t sure I was up to the challenge. Dad had done it for so many years and had a wealth of knowledge of all things rural to tap into. Although I was born and brought up in the country, I have lived in various villages, towns and cities, and was not as immersed in the countryside as my dad. Could I really hope to step into his shoes? It was my brother who persuaded me to bite the bullet. We were on a walk in the coniferous woods above my home village not long after Dad died, and these woods surround three beautiful and peaceful lakes. Although I don’t go there very often these days, it’s still one of my favourite places to walk with the dogs (I don’t own dogs, but I do look after other people’s – it’s a bit like having grandchildren I think. You get all the pleasure, then hand them back!).

To counter my fears, my brother reminded me that I had access to my dad’s archive and that by making use of it, it would be as if Dad was holding my hand and helping me find the facts I need to compose the column. And lo & behold, in that first 1977 column that I read, I found that he was describing walking around those very same lakes. Out of more than 2000 articles he wrote over 40-odd years, I pick that one! It must be a sign.

We were very lucky growing up to have access to such a fabulous place to play. While others battled and queued along the A64 or A171 on hot summer days to get to the coast where the children could paddle and cool down, we drove just a short distance along a quiet back road to ‘our’ lakes and spent all day swimming and picnicking while Mum could enjoy the rarity of us children not fighting, and Dad would observe the surroundings and dream up ideas for his columns and stories.

Back on that day in 1977, his eye was caught by a pair of coots and their offspring that were playing among the reeds near the lake’s shoreline, seemingly untroubled by us children splashing around nearby. He observed that coots are often mistaken for waterhens, due to the similarity of their basic black and white colouring, but the coot is distinguished by a pure white teardrop-shaped patch which stretches up from its white beak to its forehead. The waterhen, on the other hand, is white all the way from its face down to its breast.

So now I know the difference between a coot and a waterhen. I’m getting there. Thanks Dad.


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