One of the most satisfying things about writing these columns, apart from the obvious joy of reading my dad’s words from long ago, is that every week I learn something new, be it about the countryside, North Yorkshire, customs, folklore, history, or special days in the calendar to name a few of the topics he covered. It is expanding my knowledge in a way that never would have happened under different circumstances. All those months ago, when we were facing the most awful of times, I never imagined I would be where I am now.
I had absolutely no thoughts about taking on Dad’s columns. But I very clearly remember the moment when it struck me how sad it would be that something he had loyally written for so many years would come to an end. It came when I was staying with my mum, and along with my siblings we were sharing Dad’s care. He’d moved into a room downstairs with a surgical bed and all the paraphernalia that was needed to look after him. By now, his health was deteriorating rapidly, and we knew the inevitable was a matter of days away.
I’d gone into my dad’s study for something and there lying across his now silent computer keyboard was his latest column, which my mum had cut from the newspaper to keep. I was taken aback, as his happy, healthy smiling face beamed out at me from the paper, while in reality, he lay gravely ill at the other end of the corridor. The contrast was stark, and hit me like a blow to the stomach. When you’re in the midst of caring for someone, you’re so busy, and so taken up with the practicalities of the care, that you can easily block out, perhaps intentionally, what is actually happening to them. Seeing him in that picture, reading his words, written as if there was nothing at all wrong, made it abundantly clear to me that his readers would have no idea what was about to happen.
And so I determined that I needed to do something to ensure the columns would not be forgotten. I knew Dad had written them for many years, but at the time, was unaware of the story behind him taking them on from Major Jack-Fairfax Blakeborough. It was only later, with help from my family, that I found out that the Major had written the column for 54 years before his death on January 1st 1976, and that he had been a significant influence on my dad becoming a writer and countryside expert.
This weekend, my brother revealed that he’d found a book given by the Major to my dad when he was aged just 10. The book was called ‘Lizzie Leckonby’ and was a collection of stories from the Whitby Gazette about the exploits of moorswoman Lizzie and her wayward contemporaries. It seems this little book was a source of huge inspiration to Dad, and the seeds that were to become his Constable series (which inspired the ITV drama Heartbeat) must have been sown through reading that book.
This morning, when I sat down to read his column from November 20th 1976, I could picture my dad gazing towards the garden as I read his words about an old Yorkshire saying that suggested a bad winter was due when flowers bloom in late autumn: “As I look from my study window,” he says, “I wonder how much truth there is in this ancient piece of weather lore. Nasturtiums are in full colour, and smaller flowers adorn the rockeries and borders of our cottage garden. I’ve a primrose in bloom, the hydrangea is glowing pink, roses are out and one rose-bud is about to burst into colour. If this argument holds good, it seems we are in for a rough time.”
He wasn’t to know then, but the old Yorkshire folklore was spot on, as I discovered when I looked it up. The website netweather.tv has a history of British winters, stretching right back to the 17th century. It says that heavy snow fell in early December 1976, and then in January 1977 there were drifts of up to six feet! It continued to be heavy, particularly in the north-east, into February too.
So take a look out of the windows into your garden at your flowering plants. Are we in for a cruel winter?