A ring around the heart

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I wonder if the plain gold band wedding ring will ever be back in fashion?

Following on from my discussion last week about wedding anniversaries, in my dad’s next column, which was 20th January 1979, he mentions a letter he received from a reader in Ripon who asked why we wear rings as a sign of marriage.

According to Dad, it’s a tradition going back to the ancient Egyptians, and the 2nd century Greek historian, Appian of Alexandria, is supposed to have described a vein that ran down the finger directly to the heart called the ‘vena amoris’ or ‘vein of love’. Wearing a ring on that finger meant that a couple’s romantic feelings for each other were bound by the never-ending circle of the ring and therefore could not escape through the end of the finger.

Having done some research myself, I’m unsure whether Appian actually did write about that vein, or just the practice of wearing rings, but there is no doubt that Henry Swinburne, a 17th century York-born ecclesiastical lawyer, did.

In his work ‘A Treatise of Spousals, or Matrimonial Contracts’, published in 1686 (after his death), he wrote: “The finger on which the wedding ring is to be worn is the fourth finger of the left hand, next unto the little finger, because by the received opinion of the learned in ripping up and anatomising men’s bodies, there is a vein of blood, called vena amoris, which passeth from that finger to the heart.”

Unfortunately, despite how romantic and fitting it all sounds (apart from the ‘ripping’ and ‘anatomising’ bits), Swinburne and his learned colleagues were talking utter claptrap. There is no such vein, and all the veins in our hands are pretty much the same, with no unique heart-bound one.

What is interesting though, is that he says the ring should be worn on the left hand. Swinburne was a staunch Anglican, and in 1593 began to work for the Dean of York Minster. This was a mere 50 years or so after the Reformation where Anglicism became the state religion and Catholics were ruthlessly persecuted.

The Church of England established its ‘Book of Common Prayer’ in which it stated that a wedding ring had to be worn on the left hand. They wanted to obliterate anything associated with Catholics and up until then, in most other religions throughout Europe including Catholicism, wedding bands had been worn on the right hand.

So if you were caught with your ring on the wrong finger in England, you would be identified as a Catholic, accused of treason and possibly executed.

That bit was of particular interest to me because I was married to a Dutchman for almost 20 years and had always wondered why in the Netherlands they wore wedding rings on the right hand. So now I know!

Possibly the most common precious metal associated with rings would be gold, although it is less popular these days. In ancient times, wedding rings could be made of string, leather or even bone. Metal grew in popularity in Roman times, with iron being the most usual, while gold and silver were reserved only for the very rich.

In the Middle Ages, those who couldn’t afford a ring could hire one from the local priest, or slightly wealthier families would have a ‘family’ ring that was brought out just for the marriage ceremony. Sometimes the local community would rally round to find a ring to be used for the service, or the couple would wear rings made from dried grass or other common materials until they had saved up enough to buy a real one, which could be a long time after the actual wedding.

There were a number of superstitions associated with a wedding ring, such as its loss or removal was either bad luck, or a portent for a marriage break-up (which wasn’t very helpful if you had to borrow a ring for your nuptials). And did you know that a gold wedding ring taken from a dead woman’s body had the power to cure a stye in one’s eye, if rubbed upon the injury? (Just to clarify, I’m not advocating pinching rings from corpses to treat eye infections, so please don’t try it.)

Today it seems the glitzier and more expensive a ring, the better, with a proliferation of diamonds, coloured jewels and any number of precious metals, all fashioned into a dizzying array of intricate shapes.

I wonder if the plain gold band will ever become fashionable again?

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

A diamond is forever

In my dad’s column from 13th January 1979, he mentions that it was his and my mum’s 20th wedding anniversary a few days before. He recalls the big day itself, 10th January 1959, at St Hedda’s Church in Egton Bridge on the North York Moors, and it had been snowing a blizzard the night before. Half of the guests couldn’t make it through, and those that did came by train, tractor or on foot. The registrar had to be dug out of a snowdrift, and the bride walked to the church in her fur boots. In the photographs of the time you can almost feel the bridesmaids shivering in their short-sleeved gowns.

Of course most of us know, and still mark, the big occasions of 30 (pearl), 40 (ruby), 50 (gold) and 60 (diamond) although what I didn’t know was that a diamond wedding anniversary used to be at 75 years rather than 60, but it changed around the time of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee which honoured her 60 years on the throne.

It strikes me though, that in the 1800s and earlier, there cannot have been many marriages of 75 years duration. The couple must have wed very young and both lived into their 90s, a considerable feat in an age where life expectancy was somewhat shorter, so that might be another reason why the milestone was moved 15 years closer.

As dad explains, 20 years was a ‘china’ wedding anniversary, and my parents bought a piece of porcelain to mark it. I don’t remember much of a celebration around that time, but I do remember mum and dad honouring their silver wedding anniversary five years later with a holiday to the island of Madeira. It was a big event for us as it took a lot of persuading to make Dad leave these shores for any length of time.

I was a bit confused by a list of traditional gifts that Dad included for each wedding anniversary because I thought that the first was ‘paper’. However Dad had ‘cotton’ at number one, and ‘paper’ at number two, and I thought he’d made a mistake. I looked at a number of UK wedding gift websites and they all put ‘paper’ for the first year. But when I dug a little deeper, I discovered that actually my dad hadn’t got it wrong after all. Having ‘paper’ first was a convention that, as often happens, came to us from America and has overtaken our original tradition.

During my digging, I also found a new modern list of gifts which someone saw fit to put together, which might have more to do with a more materialistic society than any meaningful symbolism. For example, to mark your fourth wedding anniversary, apparently it is now appropriate to offer ‘appliances’ as a gift.

I’m not sure if the man is expected to give his wife an appliance after four years, or whether it should be a purchase made together but, for the record, if any man thinks it is a good idea to buy me a washing machine to mark a romantic anniversary, then perhaps I could offer him a frontal lobotomy in return.

The modern list also suggests ‘diamond jewellery’ for 10 years, which to me seems to undermine the achievement of a 60-year marriage, another ‘diamond’ occasion. But then it might be a reflection of today’s world where more than 40% of marriages end in divorce, and around half of those are before 10 years. So in that case, maybe achieving a decade is worthy of diamonds.

I almost made it to 20 before mine unexpectedly hit the buffers, but in the traditional list, 19 doesn’t even get a mention. According to the modern list, however, we should have marked 19 years with something bronze. A sculpture perhaps? Looking back, I can think of several ways I may have put a bronze statue to good use when coming to terms with my failed marriage, so maybe it’s fortunate I didn’t get one.

Had Dad still been here, my parents would have been celebrating their 60th anniversary this week, and it’s possible that Mum would have received something with a diamond or two in it from him. Sadly, I can’t offer that on his behalf but I hope she won’t mind because, like most people’s mums, she is worth far more to me than all the diamonds in the world.

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

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

New Year and a load of old baubles

 

 

 

So here we are into another new year and memories of the Christmas festivities are still hanging in the air.

I have a friend who, come the day after Boxing Day, takes down all her decorations as she can’t bear all the glittery clutter and the ever-dropping needles from her supposedly non-drop tree. I, on the other hand, hang on to it all until the bitter end, which many believe to be the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th.

So my tree is still up, and although it’s looking sad and droopy now, I dread the sight of the empty space once it is gone. When all the lights and decorations are no longer there, the house seems so bare and I feel a tinge of sadness at the thought of packing them away.

To counteract this, I will leave one set of lights up, and they suddenly become ‘fairy’ lights as opposed to ‘Christmas’ lights, which makes it perfectly legitimate (and saves the hassle of putting them up again next year). I also try to make sure I have something in the diary to look forward to, like a weekend away with friends, or a good night out, to make me feel slightly less deflated.

There is some debate as to whether the decorations should be removed before the end of January 6th, or by midnight on January 5th. There are also differences of opinion as to whether Twelfth Night falls on January 5th or 6th. If you count Christmas Day as day one, then Twelfth Night is the 5th. But in some traditions, they start counting from Boxing Day which means the 12th day of Christmas falls on 6th January.

Having read my dad’s column from 6th January 1979, and then backed it up with my own research, I have found a mind-boggling array of opinions, depending on whether you are Roman Catholic, Anglican, pagan, Dutch, Greek, Roman, Russian, or none of the above, and I can’t come up with a definitive answer.

So I suggest you just do as you wish. After all, the Queen has no time for such nonsense, and apparently keeps her tree up at the Sandringham estate until 6th February. She takes it down to mark the anniversary of the death of her father, King George VI, who passed away in Sandringham on the same date in 1952.

She obviously also pays no attention to one ancient belief that stated it was unlucky to keep any festive greenery in the home after 6th January, although setting fire to your holly and ivy in the garden could bring bad luck. I hope the same doesn’t apply to the tree, because chez Walker, it has become a bit of family tradition to burn ours. It goes up extremely quickly and makes a very impressive, short but intense, bonfire and every time we do it, I wonder how many house fires are caused by tinder-dry trees at this time of year. We do everything we are told, such as buying one treated with flame retardant spray, and we keep it in water throughout the festive season in a bid to preserve its moisture. But by January 6th, it is always absolutely bone dry.

A much more sensible way to dispose of your real tree is to do what North Yorkshire County Council recommends, which is to take it to your local household waste centre where it will be shredded and recycled into compost. It is also possible to recycle artificial trees, although you do have to know what material it is made from, so perhaps ask those working there to advise you.

On the theme of recycling, every year I pack away my festive baubles alongside loads of unused ones that have fallen out of favour. I went through a ‘blue’ phase back in the 1990s when it was the fashion to have just one colour on your tree. I haven’t used them for years, and yet something inside stops me from disposing of them or giving them to charity. This year, though, I’ve seen that the once tacky multicoloured gloriousness of the 1970s has returned to many a tree. So can anyone at the cutting edge of fashion tell me how long I will have to wait before I can get my blue baubles out again?

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

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

Making merry at New Year

Rather startlingly (to me at least), this is my 80th column and the last for 2018. This time 40 years ago, on 30th December 1978, my dad was reflecting on his time writing Countryman’s Diary since succeeding the ‘Grand Old Man’, Major Jack Fairfax-Blakeborough. He echoes my thoughts precisely when he writes, “It seems barely possible that so many months have been left behind since I took over.”

He goes on to talk about the relationship between himself and his readers, many of whom would send him letters and furnish him with extra facts, questions and interesting details to enhance his ever-growing collection of files. He was delighted when people contacted him, and I too am thrilled to get letters and feedback from readers, although it has to be said that fewer and fewer people actually sit flown to hand-write and post a letter these days. Although I do get some letters, I also receive emails and contact through my blog and social media channels, which I absolutely treasure, even when it is to point out a mistake. It is such a thrill, as it shows me that people are actually reading what I am writing.

And today, with such tough times for local and regional newspapers, we need to encourage even more interaction with our readers. I agree with what Dad was saying back in 1978 and believe it is even more true today: “It is the readers who keep the column alive.”

It’s a sad fact that the future of local newspapers is under threat, and if they go, then columns like this would disappear. With Countryman’s Diary (now Daughter) having lasted almost 100 years, that would be sad day indeed. Looking back over this year’s topics, I wonder where else you’d get discussions over such diverse subjects as goats, mulberries, leeches, roadkill, James Cook, sheriffs, the dawn chorus, rats, horse chestnuts, Mastiles Lane, fox poo, fly tipping and Mischief Night to name just a few. It’s not exactly groundbreaking reading, but I hope it is at least an entertaining break from the more serious stuff (You might have noticed that I didn’t mention Brexit once over the past 12 months!).

With so many media outlets competing over the same news, it is the unique extras like the various columns, the letters pages, the local history features and the farming pages that make our regional papers so special.

I don’t know what the solution is, but we definitely need to find ways to attract and sustain a younger audience and encourage them to spend a little over £1 a week to buy a paper. It is much less than the cost of a takeaway coffee or a fizzy drink, and I wonder what we can do to draw them in. If you have any suggestions, I’d be delighted to hear them!

As 2018 draws to a close, it is normal to have high hopes for the coming year. In days gone by, there were a number of superstitions surrounding that time of the year, one of which was to enter the new year with merriment and high spirits because the traditional belief was that whatever was happening at the very moment the new year began, that would prevail throughout the next 12 months.

So if you were making merry, then you were certain to have a happy year to come. If, however, you found yourself with no money in your pocket, then you would spend the year feeling the pinch. This belief was so strong for some people that they would borrow money, just to make sure they had cash in their pocket at the stroke of midnight.

There was a similar belief around the larder, so there would be much baking leading up to 31st December to ensure it was well stocked as the clock struck 12.

And according to this ancient poem, whatever was happening with the weather as the new year dawned was an indicator of what was to come:

If New Year’s Eve wind blows south,
It betokeneth warmth and growth;
If west, much milk and fish in the sea;
If north, much cold and storms there’ll be;
If east, the trees will bear much fruit;
If north-east, flee it, man and brute.

So I shall keep a keen eye on the wind direction as I merrily welcome the new year in with my friends. May I wish you all very happy, healthy and wealthy 2019.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 28th December & the Gazette & Herald on 30th December 2018

 

 

Remembering loved ones at Christmas

 

This is my last column before Christmas and so I want to say thank you to those for whom it is just another working day, and to think about people who have lost loved ones or who are experiencing Christmas with someone who is sick. As my dad writes in his column from 23rd December 1978, we all owe a debt of gratitude to those who work in the emergency services, in the caring and medical professions, in transport, to our farmers, vets, milkmen and those who work in TV, radio and written media, and countless others I’ve not mentioned.

As many of you know, we had particular reason to be grateful to them last Christmas and during this festive season, I find it impossible to not think about what was happening 12 months ago. So I’m going to describe what it was like in the hope that those of you who are able to share it with your loved ones will spare a thought for what others might be going through.

One of the things I dreaded was the present shopping because there was so much of it to do, never mind all the wrapping. But with almost daily trips to St James’s Hospital in Leeds and no idea how long my sister Tricia had left, the thought of having to complete that mammoth task was almost overwhelming.

Of course, kind people said, “Don’t bother buying me a present this year…” I don’t know if it’s something innately British, but I just couldn’t bring myself not to.

Instead, I pinched an idea from my eldest sister Janet, and adopted a family ‘Secret Santa’ approach with my boys. We set a budget of £100 each, and put everyone’s name into a hat. We then each drew one person out, who was the only one we’d to have to buy for. It made it a whole lot less stressful, and cheaper, for me (This year, I’ve discovered online ‘Secret Santa’ sites, which make it even easier, especially when you don’t all live in the same house!).

I still had the problem of everyone else, but thankfully God invented online shopping. I dedicated one evening (and several glasses of wine) to it, spending hours ensuring I ticked off every name. I was so relieved at getting it done, one more chore knocked off the seemingly endless list.

Christmas Day itself was rather odd, with a stark juxtaposition between morning and afternoon. A few of us went to see Tricia in the morning, and in hospital it was business as usual, apart from a few members of staff wearing festive hats. Tricia was increasingly ill, but remained characteristically upbeat while opening the presents we’d brought. It is a bizarre thing to experience, smiling and celebrating while battening down your true feelings at knowing it is the last Christmas you’ll share with someone.

I don’t know if Tricia felt the same, but I never once heard her acknowledge that she was dying. She remained determinedly positive, and I’m yet to fathom whether this was because she wanted to protect us from the reality, or whether she was protecting herself. Perhaps it was a bit of both.

We arrived home about 3pm, which is when our ‘normal’ Christmas Day began. The turkey was in the Aga, and Mum and I had prepared all the vegetables and trimmings the previous day, so they just needed finishing off.

There was a slight hiccup with the turkey (and by that I mean, near disaster) meaning it wasn’t ready until an hour after expected, but we finally sat down to eat at around 5pm. The rest of the food was a bit overcooked but we didn’t care, because we knew there were more important things to worry about that year.

A few Christmasses ago, Tricia gave everyone in the family a heart-shaped tree decoration, so we have put it on top of the tree, and will remember her every time we look at it. Dad also has his own special ‘star’ decoration which sits not far away.

I’m hoping for a less eventful festive season this year and despite there being two empty chairs at the table, we will thoroughly enjoy the company of the loved ones still here and raise a glass to those we have lost.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 21st December & the Gazette & Herald on 19th December 2018

A storyteller to the end

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Dad was a great storyteller right to the end

Us Yorkshire folk have a reputation for being quite straightforward and even blunt on occasion, and many of us have an uncanny knack of describing things in a direct yet humorous way.

In his column from 16th December 1978, my dad highlights this reputed characteristic, declaring that the Yorkshireman or woman does not always see the humour in his or her words that others do, as to them it is just a logical reply or comment.

He recounts the tale of a local reporter interviewing a Dalesman in his cottage. The reporter asked: “Have you lived here all your life?” to which the man replied, “Not yet.”

He also included another tale which had me giggling, and I hope you don’t mind me including it here.

A couple of Yorkshire locals were discussing birth and death in the pub. “Was thoo born ‘ere?” asked one.

“Nay, I was born ower ‘t’ill in Rossdall. Mind I’ve lived in these parts for maist o’ me life.”

“Thoo’ll likely die here, then?” suggested his friend.

“Now I can’t be sure o’ that. If I knew where I was gahin ti die, I’d keep well clear o’ t’spot!”

My dad was a brilliant storyteller, not just in print, but in conversation too and possessed a seemingly endless mental library of good Yorkshire tales to share. He was one of those people that, should a new visitor come to the house, he would soon put them at ease with his chatter and anecdotes.

I’ve mentioned before how he continued to write until he was too sick to use a keyboard or pick up a pen. But even then he continued his storytelling to anyone with the time to listen.

When it was obvious the inevitable was not far away, one of the worst things for me was knowing that I would never again be able to listen to him telling his stories. I’d heard many of them a thousand times before, and yet would have given anything to hear them a thousand times again.

I very strongly wanted to preserve the sound of his voice and because I sat with him for long periods towards the end, I started to record what he was saying on my iPad. It gave me great comfort at a time of utmost difficulty knowing that I would have something to hold onto when he was no longer here.

Having said that, I am yet to pluck up the courage to listen back to those recordings as even though he’s been gone for 20 months, it still feels too soon and too raw. But at least I know they are there, and when I’m ready, I’ll play them back.

Not long before he died, Dad and I were working on a book together, rather ironically, all about death and he recalled some of the cases he’d come across while he was a bobby. It was a very ‘Heartbeat-esque’ collection, some funny, some mysterious, some moving and others just downright bizarre.

But one of my favourites was an oft-told local tale which we were going to include in the introduction, and it made me howl with laughter. It is so typical of my dad, and so I think it is right to share it with you:

When a Yorkshireman’s God-fearing wife died, he asked the undertaker for a special line on her gravestone. It was “God, she was thine.” Eventually the stone was installed upon her grave. But there was a mistake. The sentence read, “God, she was thin.”

The husband rang the undertaker to complain, saying, “You’ve missed off the ‘e’.”
The undertaker apologised and said his stonemason would correct the error immediately. A few days later, the husband went to inspect the new lettering. Now it read, “Ee, God, she was thin.”

On the subject of gravestones, we have discovered that deciding what to put on a loved one’s permanent memorial is no easy task. It’s only a few words, but when you know that it is going to be there forever, you really do have to think carefully about what you’re going to write. We decided to go with very simple wording to remember both Dad and my sister. Dad might be a bit disappointed that we couldn’t fit a typically humorous Yorkshire line on his gravestone, but I hope he’s happy with what we chose in the end.

Visit my blog at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug.

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 7th December & the Gazette & Herald on 5th December 2018

In gods we trust

In the village where I grew up, St Hilda is a prominent presence. We have a church, a village hall, a school and a street all named after her. She was reputed to have been an extremely kind and devout woman who devoted her life to teaching and the inclusivity of ‘ordinary folk’. She became the founding abbess of a monastery on the cliff top at Whitby in 657AD and its reputation as a centre for education spread internationally.

Most of what we know about her comes from the the Venerable Bede (672-735AD) who wrote: “All who knew her called her ‘mother’ because of her outstanding devotion and grace.” In fact her reputation was such, that myths and legends grew about the divine powers she possessed.

In my dad’s column from 9th December 1978, he talks about her connection to ‘adder stones’ that can still be found if you look hard enough along Whitby’s beaches. They’re called adder stones because of the pattern of a snake imprinted upon the surface.

The legend went that the town was plagued with poisonous snakes and St Hilda prayed for them to be thrown into the sea. The deadly serpents all gathered on the cliff top by the monastery and Hilda lashed them with her whip, severing their heads, before driving them over the edge with her wooden staff. The snakes coiled themselves up as they fell and, upon landing, were turned into stones.

In the pagan tradition, they use the term ‘adder stones’ for any which have a naturally-formed hole in them, and they are associated with witchcraft. They are also known as hag-stones, witch-stones, holey stones or mare-stones, and people used to hang them around their homes to ward off evil spells.

Of course, thanks to the advances in science, we now know that Whitby’s adder stones are actually ammonites, fossilised remains of long-dead sea creatures. It fascinates me how, in times gone by, we humans created our own explanations for the inexplicable. It was a way of easing our worries against things that we did not have the power or knowledge to yet understand.

As a former student of Ancient History and the Rise of Christianity, I was fascinated how the ancient tales surrounding the Greek and Roman gods came about. Can you imagine what it must have been like to experience an earthquake when you had no understanding of the nature of tectonic plates? Or the eruption of a volcano a couple of thousand years before vulcanology became a thing? Or how do you explain where a terrible hurricane comes from when you don’t even know there’s such a thing as weather?

Well, if you were a Greek living in about 500BC you’d know that if the earth was shaking beneath your feet, then Poseidon, god of the sea, was having an almighty spat with his arch enemy Athena. You’d also know that the volcanic eruption was merely god of the underworld, Hephaestus, forging new weapons for his king Zeus. And Poseidon was at it again when a hurricane came around, as he was also responsible for the wind and in fact most weather-related phenomena.

All the gods and goddesses of the ancient world had associations which allowed people to explain to themselves why mystifying life events occurred, to make sense out of times of confusion.

These ancients beliefs which passed from the Greeks to the Romans actually formed the basis of much of the founding beliefs of Christianity, and you might be surprised at how many of today’s Christian tales and practices actually their have roots in the myths and legends of Ancient Greece. For example, the story of Pandora opening the forbidden box to allow evil to spread into the world is similar to the tale of Eve biting the forbidden fruit, which is the biblical tale of original sin.

Greeks put a lot of time and effort into appeasing their gods, and being brought up Catholic, I knew how important it was to keep our God happy. I went to Mass on a Sunday and I lost count of how many times I had to apologise for fighting with my sisters or not keeping my bedroom tidy at weekly confession.

There may or may not have been worse things I had to confess to, but I think I’ll keep you guessing as to what they were.

Visit my blog at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug.

ENDS

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 7th December & the Gazette & Herald on 5th December 2018