Is that a snake in the grass?

Adders are the UK’s only venomous snake, but are very timid. Picture: Stephen Barlow

It’s easy to forget that we live in a country that boasts several species of snake as we rarely have the pleasure (or displeasure?) of coming across them. I have seen a native snake in the wild twice, and then only for a very brief moment each time. I assumed they were both grass snakes, but they didn’t hang around long enough for me to be able to identify them.

Snakes start emerging from hibernation in March, so spring is the best time to spot them, as they may still be a bit groggy from their long sleep and like to bask in early morning sunshine to warm themselves up.

We have three species of snake native to the UK, the adder, the grass snake and the smooth snake. The first two can be seen all over England and Wales, and the adder in some parts of Scotland, although the smooth snake is far rarer and is found only in Dorset, Hampshire and Surrey. All of our snakes are protected by law, so it is illegal to injure, kill or trade them.

As my dad says in his column from 31st May 1980, locally, the adder is sometimes called the hagworm, but it is also more widely known as the European viper, a name which to my mind sounds far more threatening, and in some ways is deservedly so, as it is the only one of the three that is venomous.

However, humans are very rarely bitten, as adders are extremely timid, and they are sensitive to the vibrations of our footsteps on the ground which warn them of our approach. We are only likely to be bitten if we accidentally stand on one, or if it feels threatened. Even then, the bite is rarely dangerous, causing no more than temporary pain and possibly nausea and dizziness. The venom is strong enough to stun prey, like small mammals, birds and reptiles, that it eats whole, but it is very unlikely to be harmful to a human. That’s not to say there have been no recorded fatalities here, but the last one was back in 1975 when a five-year-old boy sadly died after being bitten on the ankle while on a day out in The Trossachs in Scotland.

The adult adder can grow to almost a metre long, and the brownish female is larger than the more silvery-coloured male, although they both have a distinctive black zig-zag pattern down the spine with either a V or X-shaped marking on the head. They reproduce in late summer, giving birth to up to 20 exact mini-replicas of themselves, each about 17cm long.

The most common snake in the UK is the grass snake, which can grow up to 1.3 metres in length. It is completely harmless, so there is no need to be afraid if you come across one hiding in your compost bin. It is different to the adder in that it is grey-green in colour, with black bars down its sides and a black and yellowy collar at its neck. They also have round pupils in their eyes, while adders have narrow elongated pupils. They are excellent swimmers and often live close to water so they can feed on the resident amphibians and reptiles. It uses stealth to surprise its prey, before squeezing them to death and eating them whole. If it comes under threat from a predator, it will sometimes play dead and emit a foul-smelling odour from its anal glands. It is the only native snake that lays eggs, which take about ten weeks to hatch, usually in July.

There is another reptile that is sometimes confused for a snake, and that is the slow worm. About 40-50cm in length, the slow worm is in fact a legless lizard, with a smooth, glossy grey-brown body. If it blinks at you, then you know you’re looking at a slow worm because, unlike lizards, snakes do not have eyelids. It also has a clever trick when under attack, which is to shed its own tail, which then keeps moving for a while to distract the predator enabling the slow worm to escape.

Over the past weeks, many of us have taken advantage of the extra spare time by walking in the wonderful countryside near our own homes. Has anyone spotted any of these fascinating creatures while out and about?

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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 29th May and the Gazette & Herald on 27th May 2020

Scotched by the Scots

Byland Abbey, where Edward II may have taken shelter during the Battle of Byland in 1322.
John Bunting’s Chapel near Sutton Bank
The view from John Bunting’s Chapel towards the village of Kilburn and Vale of York beyond.

When I was little we used to go on holiday for a week every year to the Lake District, and an en route landmark was Scotch Corner, the point at which the A66 from Penrith joins the A1. We were always excited to reach it as it felt like a good chunk of the boring car journey was already behind us.

It was only when reading my dad’s column from 24th May 1980 that I was reminded that there was a second Scotch Corner much closer to my home village of Ampleforth. This Scotch Corner, sometimes called Scot’s Corner, lies between Oldstead (now famous for Tommy Banks’ Michelin-starred Black Swan restaurant) and the White Horse above Kilburn.

I’m ashamed to say that I never took the trouble to find out anything more about it, nor troubled myself to work out exactly where it was. In fact I have lost count of the amount of times I have climbed the steps up to the White Horse without ever realising this Scotch Corner was just a stone’s throw away.

I checked on an Ordnance Survey map, and sure enough, the less famous Scotch Corner is marked upon it. It lies in the woods, high above Oldstead, and you will find it if you go down a track known as Hambleton Road that leads east off the narrow tarmac lane running past the Yorkshire Gliding Club. The track isn’t shown on less detailed maps, although it is, I believe, a public right of way.

The area around Sutton Bank and the White Horse was the scene of intense fighting in the 14th century, and thanks to reading Dad’s column and conducting my own research, I feel far better educated today than yesterday on the moment in mediaeval history that became known as the Battle of Byland.

This spot, hidden among the Hambleton trees, is said to be where King Edward II’s army was defeated by the Scots during the Scottish Wars of Independence. Since his victory over Edward at Bannockburn in 1314, Robert The Bruce had wanted to be recognised as the King of Scotland and he made his way south with his armies in pursuit of the defeated king.

On 14th October 1322, Edward is believed to have been taking rest in one of the abbeys at either Byland or Rievaulx, despite knowing that the Scots were ransacking nearby Thirsk. He thought they were safe from attack, his armies having taken up a defensive position atop Roulston Scar, the plateau now occupied by the gliding club. The vantage point offered unrestricted views of approaching enemies, with the seemingly impenetrable sheer cliffs giving them the confidence to think they would be able to ward off any approaches.

Unfortunately, while the English forces were distracted by a Scottish attack from below, a unseen breakaway band launched a surprise offensive from behind and Edward’s men fell into panic and disarray.

On hearing that his army was being routed, Edward fled the abbey, abandoning not only the Crown Jewels and the Great Seal Of England, but also, according to some accounts, his wife, Queen Isabella. He ultimately found his way to York, and the reputation of the fortified city meant the Scots did not attack it, and Edward was never captured.

Interestingly, on a detailed map you might see the letters ‘PW’ near Scotch Corner. PW means ‘Place of Worship’, and is where renowned Ampleforth artist and sculptor John Bunting converted derelict farm buildings into a memorial chapel. Bunting was educated at Ampleforth College, and later returned to teach there, while continuing to work on his sculptures. He dedicated his chapel to three former pupils, Hugh Dormer, Michael Allmand and Michael Fenwick, who all died as young soldiers in World War II. A fourth name was added when former pupil Robert Nairac was killed while serving in Armagh in 1977.

Although the chapel is kept locked, you can visit the site and see some of John’s remarkable work, which was influenced by his strong Catholic faith, and by mentors such as Robert ‘Mousey’ Thompson and Henry Moore. Bunting spent time working with Thompson in his Kilburn workshop and was encouraged by Moore to go to art school after visiting him in his studio.

There are still some people who think the Battle of Byland was fought in a different spot, further north, nearer Old Byland. What do you think?

Read more at Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 22nd May and the Gazette & Herald on 20th May 2020

A moment to say thank you

Me at my temporary ‘lockdown’ desk with some of my dad’s books that have just been republished 

A couple of weeks ago, I sent out a plea to you to keep buying your treasured local papers to support the editors who are working so hard to keep them going through this crisis, and I also asked you to get in touch to let me know what you think of this column.

Thank you to all of you have contacted me, either the through the paper or through my contact page at Without exception, I have received warm words of encouragement which have lifted my spirits no end. I’m featuring a few here, not only to pander to the narcissist within me, but also as a way of saying thank you to all of you who are reading this. Unfortunately I don’t have room for them all, but if I haven’t included you, please rest assured that I read every single one and treasure them all.

Clare Proctor wrote: ‘I love reading your column so please don’t stop. I like the randomness of the subjects and I learn new things, or it reminds me of old things! I hope you do carry on, and one day they may pay you again!’

And Jerry Swift sent this very moving message: ‘Yours is always a column I take the trouble to read…I lost my wife of 34 years to leukaemia in November last year. Your column was always one we both enjoyed and reading it now brings back memories of the things we enjoyed together…so on a purely selfish note, please carry on.’

And David Payne said: ‘I always find your weekly column of great interest, especially when you mention local events that were once headline news in the past.’

Catherine Wilson wrote: ‘I enjoyed the column when it was your dad’s and still enjoy it. Please keep on as you are, I do enjoy the historic and nature and wildlife themes. But basically anything you fancy writing about.’

Rosemary Scott emailed with the following: ‘I’m writing to tell you how very much I enjoy your column and how I look forward to seeing it every week…I enjoy your natural way of expressing yourself and sharing information with your readers. Mind you, I appreciate that it probably takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears to sound that natural.’

You know what, Rosemary, sometimes it does, but also some columns just seem to write themselves. And this week, thanks to all of you, very little blood, sweat and tears were spilt in the production of this piece!

Sue Barton grew up with the paper, and upon moving to Scotland after marrying, her mother posted it to her. She says: ‘I really enjoy reading about occurrences that have almost silently slipped into the past. The two accidents at Blue Bank were tragic but sadly almost forgotten. The ghosts of Sutton Bank, whether we believe them or not, should be treasured as part of our folklore…They may not be of national importance but they are important to our local area and history and should be kept alive.’

And Patricia Crack said: ‘My ‘must-read’ is your article…I love the variety of subjects covered and often wonder what I would write about…This local paper keeps me in touch with Darlington/North Yorkshire/Dales news and events. Long may it reign!’

Mike Morrissey reveals that he and his wife argue about whether, with my dad’s reputation with more than 100 books and various columns to his name, it is wise that I mention him so often. Perhaps it isn’t, as they are very hefty shoes to fill, but then, I do like to let people know what he was writing about all those years ago. I also love to read them, as it takes me back to when I was a child, and when he was younger than I am now. So mentioning his old column has become a bit of a ‘thing’. I wonder if people would miss it if I stopped mentioning his columns altogether?

On that note, Andy Brown said: ‘I think it is great that you are keeping his legacy alive for a new generation, and I also like that you give it your own personal perspective.’

Perhaps my favourite comment, though, is this very succinct contribution from Kevin Hunter: ‘Keep writing for paper lass if ya can, and thank editor for keeping paper goin’.

I think, for this week, that is the perfect ending.

Read more at Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 15th May and the Gazette & Herald on 13th May 2020

Spotting a lady in the garden

The UK has 46 species of ladybird, the most common being red with seven black spots, which is the one that had colonised our garden. Picture: Carolyn Givenchy Large

There was a very warm reaction to my column of three weeks ago in which I talked about the bumble bee that landed next to me in the garden when I was little, and how my dad explained that there was no need to be afraid of it. It’s funny isn’t it, how such small and seemingly insignificant moments become the memories we most treasure.

Whenever I write a column, I post about it on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter and the responses to that piece have been particularly heartwarming to read. Today, I’m writing this on the third anniversary of Dad’s death (April 21st), and as anyone who has lost a loved one knows, even though we think of them every single day, it’s on the anniversaries that their loss is even more acute.

So I was delighted this afternoon when I read my dad’s column from 8th May 1976 to find that he mentions his family: ‘My recent exertions in the garden, aided by my wife and four children, revealed more than the usual number of ladybirds. They seemed to be everywhere and became a source of great delight, even to those who would normally be very wary of beetles!’

He went on: ‘I made sure the children appreciated their value to the garden, explaining their insatiable appetite for small insect pests like greenflies and mealy bugs.’

I do recall that day in the garden, and the wonder that my nine-year-old self felt at finding so many of those pretty little red and black creatures, their bright spotty wing cases distancing them from their scarier beetle relatives. There is an old belief that large quantities of ladybirds indicate an event of great importance in the forthcoming year. Well, they weren’t wrong, were they, for 1976 became known as ‘The Year of the Drought’.

Although there were many ladybirds around in May, it wasn’t until later in the year that the real ‘plagues’ arrived. The period from May 1975 until August 1976 was the driest since 1717 when records began, and that had followed a five-year spell of the driest weather since the 1850s. By the end of the 1975-76 winter, most reservoirs in England and Wales were barely half full.

There was very little rainfall in the first months of 1976, and the whole of Western Europe experienced five months of severe drought from May onwards. In June, temperatures soared, and by July, the UK had to introduce hosepipe bans, with the slogan ‘Save water, bath with a friend’ becoming popular. We were encouraged to reuse our bath water for drenching our parched gardens or washing our dust-covered cars. In south-east Wales, the situation was so bad that the mains supply was turned off for up to 17 hours a day, and people had to carry water in buckets from standpipes in the street. By late August, Leeds was down to a mere 80 days’ supply.

It was this prolonged dry spell that led to an infestation of aphids, mostly greenfly, causing one observer to liken it to a curtain of green wafting down the street. The aphid invasion peaked in August, and was closely followed by a plague of ladybirds. Pictures of ladybird-covered cars, phone boxes and buildings filled our newspapers and the pavement crunched under our feet as we walked. The drought eventually ended in September when the weather returned more or less to normal.

We have 46 species of ladybird in the UK, the most common being red with seven black spots, which is the one that had colonised our garden. But there are also those with red spots on black, black spots on yellow, yellow spots on black and white spots on orange. As well as seven spots, there are some with two, some with 14 or even some with 22!

However, in 2004, the most invasive ladybird in the world landed on our shores. The harlequin is native to Asia, but has become firmly established and is being blamed for a decline in our own species due to its reputation for devouring them. It is quite difficult to tell between the two species, but the main difference is that the harlequin has orangey legs, as opposed our own lady’s black ones.

So why not head into your garden to see if you can spot a lady or a harlequin.

Read more at Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 8th May and the Gazette & Herald on 6th May 2020

M’aider on Mayday?

Maypole dancing has been a long-held tradition in parts of North Yorkshire.                 Picture: Frank Dwyer

So another month has passed and we are coming to my favourite time of the year, springtime in May. When the sun comes out in May, it is so uplifting, with trees in blossom, flowers in bloom and insects and birds busy and active all around.

Although warmth and sunshine are not guaranteed, it is nevertheless a time when we start to put our winter woollies, hats and scarves away and venture outside without having to don our big coats.

This year we were due to move the early bank holiday to Friday 8th May to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe, when the fighting in World War II came to an end. The bank holiday has only been moved once before, in 1995, from Monday 1st May to Monday 8th May to mark the 50th anniversary. The planned street parties and group celebrations cannot go ahead for obvious reasons, so instead, the weekend of 15th and 16th August is being earmarked for postponed celebrations, to coincide with Victory in Japan Day. Now, on 8th May, lone bugle players and town criers are expected to highlight the occasion from safe locations around the country. This year, it will be particularly poignant as we think of those on the front line fighting a different kind of war.

I didn’t really appreciate quite what a recent addition the early May bank holiday was to our calendar, and it was only reading my dad’s column from 29th April 1976 that I was reminded that it hadn’t been introduced by then (there was no Darlington and Stockton Times produced between 19th April and 17th May 1980. So I decided to go right back to the first year Dad took over the Countryman’s Diary, which was 1976).

In that column, Dad writes, ‘Today is May Day. The present government has announced that it will soon be an official bank holiday.’ And by ‘soon’, he meant 1978.

May 1st has been a significant pagan festival for many centuries, and one belief was that if a lady bathed her face in the first dew collected on May Day, it would bestow on her an ever-youthful complexion. It was a belief that persisted across the class divide and in 1515, the Queen herself, Henry VIII’s first wife Catherine of Aragon, is reported to have gone out with 25 of her ladies in waiting to gather the May Day morning dew. Droplets were collected on silver spoons and kept in tiny glass phials. But the benefits only lasted for a year, and so the ritual had to be performed annually. Samuel Pepys reported in 1667 that his wife ‘has gone away with Jane and W.Hewer to Woolwich to lye there tomorrow and so gather May dew tomorrow morning.’

Another custom was popular among the young women of the parish who wanted to know to whom they were destined to be married. To find out, they had to find a snail in the first light of May Day morning, then place it in the cold ashes of the fireplace. They then had to wait until the snail’s trail spelled out the initials, or even the name, of their true love.

Pagan celebrations of May Day were banned in 1644 by the ‘Long Parliament’ of 1640-1660, and the maypole was cited as ‘a heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstition and wickedness.’ Parish constables and churchwardens were tasked with pulling them down, and any that failed in their duty would be fined five shillings for each week the offending pole remained in place. The prohibition meant that the maypole became a symbol of defiance, and with the dissolution of Parliament and the dawn of the Reformation in 1660, they reappeared in abundance.

In 1889, the Paris International Workers’ Congress demanded limits to working hours, and improvements to conditions for women and children. They called for an international demonstration on May 1st 1890 to show support for an eight-hour working day, and it became known as ‘International Workers’ Day’. Over the years, the day became strongly associated with workers’ rights and has seen many protests, marches and riots in the pursuit of improved conditions for the employed.

And if anyone is wondering, the international maritime and air distress call, ‘Mayday’ has nothing to do with the day at all. In fact, it is taken from the English pronunciation of the French ‘M’aider’ which means ‘Help me’.

Read more at Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 1st May and the Gazette & Herald on 29th April 2020

Another tragedy on Blue Bank


Bus crash.
This photo is of the original Blue Bank bus crash and was taken by Pickering photographer Sydney Smith. It was sent to me by Gordon Clitheroe and is from the Beck Isle Museum collection.
The view to Whitby from the summit of Blue Bank, Sleights, which was the scene of another horrific accident which led to the death of  25-year-old  Leonard Headlam. The Headlam family were prominent in Whitby society

You might recall me talking a few weeks ago about the bus crash at Blue Bank, Sleights, and as a result I was contacted by reader Chris Hogg who wrote: ‘Around the same time there was another fatal motor accident on the bank which was probably more shocking to the local population. Leonard, the son of local shipping magnate William Headlam of Raithwaite Hall, was killed driving his Alfa Romeo on his way to take part in a race at Brooklands…I have no other details of the accident only what my late mother told me.’

My research led me down several routes where I discovered more about this incident and the prominent family involved. Snow covered the roads on 18th March 1930 when Leonard, aged 25, set out in his Alfa Romeo racing car towards Brooklands motor circuit in Surrey with his mechanic, Robert Wheatley. Although he was going no more than 40 miles an hour, just after the top of Blue Bank, he oversteered while adjusting his coat, clipped a pile of rocks, and the car flipped over. Mr Wheatley crawled free, but sadly, Mr Headlam died at the scene.

It was a second tragedy for the family as Leonard’s oldest brother, John, had been killed in 1918 during Word War I, aged just 19. Their father, William Aaron Headlam, owned a successful shipping company and he and his wife Agnes were distinguished Whitby figures. William is said to have never recovered from the loss of his sons and died, aged 60, just a few months after Leonard.

The youngest son, also called William but known as Billy, took over his father’s shipping business and ran it successfully for many years and it was he, rather than his father, who bought Raithwaite Hall in 1939. He died, aged 81, in 1990, leaving most of his £7m fortune to his live-in nurse.

The story of the Headlams reminds me that there are those among us who are still facing everyday struggles on top of the extra sickness, stress and anxiety inflicted by the dreaded Covid-19 virus. We mustn’t forget or neglect those people.

Like many other industries, newspapers have been hit very hard and editors are trying their best to get them out to you, despite revenues falling dramatically through loss of advertising, and newsrooms being reduced to skeleton operations. Many journalists have been furloughed to cut costs in an attempt to keep these vital sources of local information going.

I was notified last week that this paper would, during the crisis, no longer be able to pay me for my modest contribution. It was an extremely sad but understandable situation, and we were faced with the prospect that after almost 100 years of life, the Countryman’s Diary / Countryman’s Daughter column could potentially vanish.

But, of course, I wasn’t about to let that happen, and as long as people want to read it, and as long as there is a paper to put it in, I will continue to write it. It is my very, very small contribution towards the battle the editor is fighting to keep the paper going through this crisis.

If you enjoyed my dad’s columns, and now my own, can I ask you to do two things? Firstly, keep buying this paper every week, and if you can’t get out, ask your local newsagent to deliver it to you or subscribe online. Believe me, your £1.25 a week DOES make a difference.

Secondly, do get in touch with me either via this paper (email or send a letter to the Editor, Darlington and Stockton Times, Priestgate, Darlington DL1 1NF) or through my contact page at and tell me what you think of the column, what you like, what you dislike, what you’d like me to talk about, what you’d like me to stop talking about – anything! Because if you don’t tell me what you think, I have no idea if you’d like me to stay. And in times like these, it would be so lovely to know you are there (plus you might have the glory of your name appearing in a future column!).

You may have noticed that I haven’t referred to my dad’s 1980 column this week. That’s because the D&S Times was not printed between 19th April and 17th May 1980. Anyone know why?

Sending love, thanks and best wishes to you all.

Read more at Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 24th and the Gazette & Herald on 22nd April 2020

Creating a buzz

The bumble bee that turned up at my bedroom window recently

One of the things I have embraced in this period of national lockdown is that, for those of us who are not key workers or health workers, we have no need to set our alarms in the morning. We can wake up naturally, when our bodies tell us to (if you are able to sleep of course!). I hope that you feel able to enjoy the enforced rest, which perhaps will have some benefit at this otherwise crazy time.

Over the past week it has been beautifully sunny and mild, and on several mornings, I have been visited at my bedroom window by a large bumble bee, who seemed to want to come in. My curtains were shut, but I could see his formidable silhouette through them has he buzzed and hovered around. He finally settled on the open window frame, and when I drew back my curtains, I could see just how big he was as he basked in the warmth of the sun.

It was my dad who taught me not to be afraid of bumble bees, after I had been frightened by one landing on the garden bench next to me. Back then, aged about five, I was terrified of anything that buzzed.

As I fled to the other side of the garden, I was startled to see my dad sit down next to the bee, and put his hand down on the bench next to it. He then gently nudged the bee into movement and, to my horror, it crawled on to his finger.

He beckoned me over to have a look, assuring me it was perfectly safe. I tentatively approached as Dad proceeded to stroke the furry back of the bee with his little finger, as if it was a tiny cat. He explained that it would only sting if it felt threatened, because to do so would mean its certain death.

The bee didn’t flinch while dad explained why they and other flying insects were so important to our lives, and then, after a minute or two, the bee decided it was time to go and headed off on its perpetual search for pollen.

There are many sayings that surround bees, and one that rings very true is, ‘The bee helps the garden, the garden helps the bee and man reaps the harvest of both’.

To our ancestors, bees were extremely valuable not only for the production of honey, but also as a pollinator for essential home-grown crops. They were referred to as ‘little servants of god’, and thus it was considered wrong, and even sacrilegious, to harm or kill one.

They were treated with great respect, and many country folk refused to swear or lose their temper in the company of a bee. They were also considered wise, and the superstitious believed they could foretell the future, which is why an old custom was for a newly-married bride to place a piece of wedding cake near a hive in the hope of bringing prosperity and fertility into her new home.

If a swarm landed on a nearby dead tree, or came into your house, then that was an omen of a death to come. However, a lone bee in the home brought good luck, and if one landed on your hand, it meant money was coming your way. If, however, one landed on your head and stayed there a while, then greatness was awaiting you.

You may remember that last year I wrote about the custom of ‘telling the bees’ where householders would inform their hives of important upcoming events or divulge with them their worries and anxieties. Imagine if we still did that now? There would be endless queues like those I’ve seen outside supermarkets over the past couple of weeks.

I’ve never forgotten that moment in the garden with my dad, and it is one of my most treasured memories of him. This morning I mentioned my visiting bee to my son Jasper, remarking that it hadn’t been to my window for the past couple of days, only for Jasper to reply that a bee had been coming to his window in exactly the same way as mine for the past two mornings. You hear people saying that they think their late loved ones send them butterflies and feathers from heaven. I wonder if Dad is sending us our wee bumble bee?

Read more at Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 17th and the Gazette & Herald on 15th April 2020