A grand old village

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The beautiful village of Crayke is steeped in history
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One of the gravestones in St Cuthbert’s Churchyard, Crayke, with just initials identifying the lost loved ones
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Another headstone in Crayke church yard with initials only. Why is this?

The end of April saw a spell of dry, sunny weather, and I made the most of it by playing lots of tennis and going out for plenty of walks. One of my routes takes me through the gorgeous village of Crayke, which lies on a hill almost 20 miles north of York.

The main thoroughfare is Church Hill, so-called because St Cuthbert’s Church sits at the top. The hill was covered in late-blooming daffodils and looked absolutely beautiful, so I decided on the spur of the moment to stop and have a wander around.

It is a place steeped in history, and someone once told me that the hill was the one that the Grand Old Duke of York marched his 10,000 men up and down, although a brief search on the internet doesn’t suggest there is a connection with the famous rhyme. Nevertheless, strategically it is the perfect place to spot enemies coming from any direction as the summit of the hill commands spectacular views all around. Some say that there was a Roman watchtower on the hill, but it has never been proven, although Roman roads did pass close by and Roman artefacts have been found in the village.

According to my dad in one of his books (Folk Tales from the North York Moors), there was a timber castle in Saxon times, and this was replaced by a Norman motte-and-bailey castle in the 12th century, some of which still exists as part of the current Crayke Castle building, located at the highest point in the village. However, we know it was almost totally rebuilt and extended in the 15th century, thanks to accounts from 1441 which list the changes made. In the 17th century it was repaired and restored again, and this is more or less what stands to this day.

I took a walk around the beautiful church yard, and you can really get a feel for the age and history associated with that place. The original church was founded by St Cuthbert, who lived from around AD634 until 20th March AD687. He spent much of his time in the ancient kingdom of Northumbria, particularly at the monastery in Lindisfarne, and he was so admired for his spiritual devotion that King Ecgfrith gifted him the village of Crayke (then known as Crec) and lands for three miles around so that he had his own place to rest on his regular journeys between Lindisfarne and York. After Cuthbert died, he was initially interred at Lindisfarne, but there were fears that his grave might be destroyed by invading Vikings, and so his body was moved. It was carried to a number of different places over the centuries due to continuing unrest, one of which is believed to be Crayke, although his final shrine is in Durham Cathedral. Because of its connections to Cuthbert, Crayke was officially considered part of Durham right up to 1844 when it was returned to Yorkshire. The local pub is called The Durham Ox.

As I was walking around the graveyard, I noticed that a few of the headstones were inscribed with only initials, rather than the full name of the deceased, and very few further details, not even the date they died. I wondered why, as I have not come across this before. I asked my mum and brother if they had any any idea, and they didn’t. One theory we had was that they came from families that couldn’t afford a full inscription (if the stonemason charged by the letter). Another was that they were possibly criminals, or died in some kind of shame, and another suggestion was that they were in fact footstones, but I did not see a corresponding headstone at the other end of the graves.

No-one I spoke to had come across them before, but it was quite common in days gone by for people who could not afford a headstone to be buried with no marker at all. I wonder whether the stonemason used by the folk of Crayke was a kindly soul who offered to place markers on the graves of his fellow villagers who could not afford to pay him?

I’d be very interested to get to the bottom of this little mystery, so do get in touch either through this paper or via my webpage below if you know the answer.

Contact me, and 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 May 2021

No need to be blue

I had a rather eventful day last week. I work occasionally for an estate agent and was showing some people around a house they were interested in buying. I usually arrive early so that I can do things like switch on lights and make sure that there is nothing amiss before the viewers arrive. On this particular day, though, they were early and so I had not had time to go in and check it out.

I unlocked the front door and led them into the kitchen, only to be confronted with a huge hole in the ceiling, plaster all over the floor and water pouring in! Needless to say, they didn’t buy the house, although they were very gracious about the whole thing. One of their party then recounted a story of when she was also an estate agent and arrived to a house full of birds that had come in through an open window and couldn’t find their way out again. As a result every floor, surface and piece of furniture was covered in bird you-know-what.

According to my dad in his column from 25th April 1981, if blue tits get trapped in a building, they will start to tear paper into strips, either from the walls or from any source they can find. It’s not certain why they do this, but one theory is that they are trying to find food, and mimicking they way they rip away tree bark to find insects and grubs.

In 1981, we still had milk delivered to our doorstep in glass bottles which were sealed with foil tops, and somehow, blue tits knew that they contained something tasty. If you didn’t remember to leave out a pot or something else for the milkman to cover them, you would often wake up to find that the pesky wee birds had pecked through the foil to help themselves to the lovely cream, which we called ‘top of the milk’. In our house, it was a race to see who could get the ‘top of the milk’ to pour onto their cornflakes in the morning. As Dad was often the first up, he usually won.

Blue tits start looking for suitable nesting spots from February, and often return to the same places each spring, the adults living for an average of three years. They love a crack in a tree, a small hole in a wall, or a suitably-placed nesting box. When I was last at my mum’s we spotted them checking out the nesting box on our garage wall, and it always gives us a thrill to know they have moved in for another year. They’ve also been known to nest in rather unusual places, such as letter boxes, cigarette butt bins and hollow street lamps.

There is a tale told that in 1779 some blue tits decided to build a nest in a large stone bottle that was left to drain on a plum tree in an orchard belonging to Oxbridge Farm in Stockton-on-Tees. For the following 76 years, with the exception of 1851, the same bottle was occupied by successive generations of blue tits. This little bird produces one of the largest clutches among its avian peers, with the female laying between eight and 12 eggs, often more, and it was estimated that the bottle saw around 1000 chicks fledge from that spot.

The original plum tree was removed in 1820, and the bottle was moved to another tree, yet the birds still found it. In 1851, though, the blue tits found that the entrance to their favourite spot was blocked by an old nest as the farmer had forgotten to remove it, so they decamped elsewhere, only to return the following year once the problem had been rectified.

This tale was written down in an old book called ‘Whellan’s Durham County Directory for 1856’, and there are no further records of how long the bottle remained in situ, nor how long it was used as a nesting site for blue tits. A reader had written to Dad saying that he remembered the farmer telling him about the bottle in the 1920s, but unfortunately, Oxbridge Farm was eventually demolished.

If you have any stories about curious places that blue tits have been found nesting, do get in touch either via this paper, or via my web page (see below).

Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

ENDS

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 30th April and the Gazette & Herald on 28th April 2021

Go with the flow

The slow-flowing River Ouse

A couple of weeks ago I talked about the Vikings changing the name of York from the Anglo-Saxon Eoforwic to Jorvik, supposedly because it was easier for the invaders to pronounce.

I was contacted by the Reverend Canon Bill Ankers who recounted a discussion he’d had with his friend, Lord Nicholas Cunliffe-Lister, 3rd Earl of Swinton, who very sadly passed away last month.

Lord Swinton had an alternative theory about the name ‘Jorvik’. The Swinton estate has fishing rights for a large stretch of the River Ure around Masham and further upstream. In Wensleydale it used to be called the Yore and in fact, Wensleydale was once known as Yoredale, a name still seen in the area. Lord Swinton wondered if at one time, the river was called the ‘Yore’ all the way down to York, and thus gave the city its name.

It is a plausible theory because an unusual feature of the Ure is that after it passes a place called Cuddy Reach just west of the village of Linton-on-Ouse, it is thenceforth known as the River Ouse. Usually, when one river flows into another, it takes on the name of the main waterway. So when the rivers Swale and Nidd enter the Ure, that is where they end, and the water continues its south-eastern voyage under the name ‘Ure’. 

However, when the water reaches Cuddy Reach, a seemingly insignificant stream called Ouse Gill Beck enters the Ure and in an audacious takeover, snatches the grander river’s name and from then on the waterway is known as the Ouse all the way down to the Humber.

So why the name change?

This set my brother and I on a quest to work it out, delving in to our dad’s study stuffed full of files and reference books in an attempt to work out why the Ouse takes over the Ure. And we have come up with a theory.

Many of our ancient waterways have names that derive from the old Britonnic language spoken during the Iron and Roman ages. Names were influenced by a river’s characteristics and how the locals would refer to it. It is why we often get repetitions, such as five River Avons, four River Derwents, and five Ouses, all over the country.

The names ‘Yore’ and ‘Ure’ are likely to have derived from the Britonnic name ‘Isura’, with the Indo-European root ‘IS-‘ meaning ‘strong’ or ‘swift-flowing’. The influential Roman settlement Isurium was built in the first century A.D. just west of the Isura on the current site of the village of Aldborough near Boroughbridge. As the ancient language evolved, the intervocalic letter ‘s’ (i.e. a consonant that occurs between vowels) disappeared and hence we ultimately end up with ‘Yore’/‘Ure’ (in those days likely to have been pronounced ‘Yora’).

As for ‘Ouse’, the name derives from the ancient word ‘Udsos’ which is believed to mean simply ‘water’ or ‘slow-flowing’.

If you are familiar with the Ure, then you’ll know that as it tumbles through the hilly dales, it is indeed strong and swift-flowing. You may also be familiar with the River Ouse which, because it winds its way through mainly flat land, is a different kettle of river altogether, and therefore its ancient ‘slow-flowing’ name is far more appropriate.

In the first millennium A.D., traders would have used the river as one of their main forms of transport, sailing up and down between the main settlements. Those coming up river from the south would have referred to it as the Udsos/Ouse (slow-flowing), and those coming from the north would have called it the Yore/Ure (swift-flowing). So it is possible that the names would have overlapped at the stretch of river between York and Isurium where the land begins to flatten out and the river settles down. It is only in later centuries when we started to write things down and draw maps that we also began to hate such ambiguities as a river with two names. And so a definitive point was identified where the river switched names from Ure to Ouse.  

The Vikings were enthusiastic traders and it is entirely plausible that they would have followed what they called the Jore/Yore all the way to the southern capital of the ancient Kingdom of Northumbria, which they renamed ‘settlement (vik) on the Jore’ or ‘Jorvik’. 

So, could the late Lord Swinton be right?

Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 23rd April and the Gazette & Herald on 21st April 2021

New kit on the block

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Marmalade took a while to settle into our new home, but butter on her paws helped

Following last week’s feline theme, in his column from 11th April 1981, my dad mentions that a reader had sent him a letter asking if putting butter on a cat’s paws to make it stay in a new home worked.

Later that year we tried it for ourselves when we moved house. We didn’t go far, just to the other end of the village, but our cat, Marmalade, was most definitely not amused.

We relocated from an old cottage into a newly-built house, and all the carpets were brand-spanking, apart from a fetching brown, green and yellow swirly-patterned one that we rescued from our old front room and placed on the floor of my dad’s new study.

When we finally introduced Marmalade to the house, she crept slowly around the rooms commando-style, keeping as low to the ground as possible, her tummy almost touching the floor as she moved. She was quite bewildered, bless her, and found her way into my dad’s study and refused to come out for a quite some time. Obviously, it was because in there was the old carpet with its familiar scents which made her feel less disorientated.

She did eventually start to venture out of that room, but was still quite anxious, and so we resorted to the old butter on her paws trick. I think the idea is that they love butter, and by the time they have finished licking it off, they have grown so used to their new environment that they won’t try to run away.

Today, there is a lot more information available on the internet about how to settle your pet when you move house and, strangely, none seem to mention putting butter on paws!

To reduce the animal’s stress, what you should do is dedicate a whole room to it once you have moved, so that they do not feel overwhelmed by the size of the new home. Leave a litter tray, food and water in there with the door open so that it can venture out if it wants to. Make sure it has its own bed and perhaps a few items of your clothing so it has familiar scents around it.

One of the ways cats mark their territory is by rubbing themselves on walls, doors and furniture so that their scent is transferred, making them feel secure. Once they start doing this in your new home, that means they are beginning to feel more confident about where they are. If they are taking time to settle, you could try gently rubbing a soft cloth around their face and ears, then dabbing it around walls and furniture at cat height so that they are surrounded with a familiar smell .

Opinions vary as to how long you should keep a cat inside before daring to let it go outside. Some felines are quite content to stay indoors, while others resort to hovering by the door in the hope to make a dash for it when someone opens it.

We did keep Marmalade indoors for some time, although she soon began to want to go outside. I don’t think it was longer than a week before we let her out though, and it was a huge relief when she willingly returned. We had feared that she might try to find her way back to our old house, but I don’t think she ever did, and it wasn’t long before she began to feel at home in the new surroundings. She lived a long and happy life, and finally died at the ripe old of 18 in the late 1980s.

Advice for keeping them indoors ranges from a fortnight to four weeks, but I don’t know many adult cats that would be happy stuck inside for a month. One suggestion when it comes to letting them out for the first time is to sprinkle their used cat litter around the garden so that when they do go out, they know that it is their territory. It also acts as a signal to other cats in the area that there is a new kit in town.

Incidentally, that old carpet is still in my dad’s study, and I always think of dear old Marmalade when I look at it. It’s a bit tatty and worn now, but I’m not sure we will ever replace it.

Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 16th April and the Gazette & Herald on 14th April 2021

Hogging Time

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A hogback carving at Durham Cathedral. Picture by Chris Booth

As I’ve mentioned before, to kill time during the most recent lockdown I’ve been watching some dramas based on historical novels such as Poldark which is set in 18th century Cornwall, and another called Outlander, which is set in 18th century Scotland. Poldark has taught me about coastal living in a tin and copper mining area, and Outlander about the Jacobite rising and the Battle of Culloden. I’ve recently stepped back another thousand years and am now slightly obsessed with the series ‘Vikings’ and ‘The Last Kingdom’, the latter based on Bernard Cornwell’s ‘The Saxon Stories’ novels. 

Artistic licence has been used extensively in these fictional adaptations. For example, my children and I laughed when we saw on screen a distant ‘view’ of Eoforwic, which is the Anglo-Saxon word for York. The 10th century city was nestling among rolling green hills. Those who live on York’s glacial plain know that the nearest significant hill to the city is about 15 miles away! The Vikings had trouble pronouncing Eoforwic, which is believed to mean ‘wild boar settlement’, so they changed it to the much easier-to-pronounce Jorvik, meaning ‘wild boar creek.’

Apart from some welcome escapism, the benefit of watching these shows is that it inspires me to read up on the real history behind them. I now know far more about the historical context that led up to the Battle of Culloden in 1746, and more about how the country of my birth was divided when the Vikings landed on our shores. 

This week, when I looked in the folder that contains my dad’s columns from 1981, I came across a clipping from the Letters Page from 28th March. A couple of readers had responded to a column he had written the week earlier in which he mentioned Viking ‘hogback coffins’ found at St Thomas’ Church, Brompton, near Northallerton. Similar examples had also been found in other places, such as Sockburn and Osmotherley, both not far from Brompton, while most of the rest were found elsewhere in the North and Scotland.

They were writing to tell him more about these fascinating things, but also to correct him. These stones, they said, were not coffins, but likely to have been grave markers. Ten of them were discovered at Brompton in 1867-8 when the church was being restored and are incredibly well preserved. Five remain there, but the rest have been moved to Durham Cathedral.

These sandstone blocks are around two feet high and three and a half feet long, have a curved top, and bow out slightly to the sides. They are carved with very distinctive patterns often seen in pagan art and were probably placed along the top of the grave. Many of these hogback stones have a lattice-type decoration running along the sides, believed to represent the tiles on the roof of a longhouse, a hall which lay at the centre of every Viking community and was home to the most important resident, the Earl.

Some theories suggest that the ‘hogback’ name derived from the carved pigs’ heads that often sit at either end of the stones. However, I’m not convinced, as those at Brompton are definitely not hogs, but muzzled bears complete with claws and fur.

One of the readers who contacted the paper said that the first ones to be discovered were found in the Lake District in the 1830s, and were so weathered that they thought the whole design was meant to represent a hog, which is how they got their name. However, if you stand back and look at the stones, their shape is very reminiscent of a curvature of the spine and the rounded belly of a pig or its wild cousin, the boar. So that’s my theory on the origin of the name, and I’m sticking to it.

The second reader mentions excavations at Coppergate in York where plans for Viking houses had been uncovered, showing the same overlapping roof tile design that was carved on the stones, confirming that they represented ‘houses of the dead’. Vikings believed that if you died a noble death, you would be rewarded with a glorious afterlife in the great hall of the gods, Valhalla.

If you want to see what they look like, then when you can, do visit the Jorvik Viking Centre which has stood on the exact spot of that discovery since 1984. 

Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 2nd April and the Gazette & Herald on 31st March 2021

From vermin to ermine

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A stoat in its winter white coat. Picture by Liz Hornby

I’m getting quite excited as it is approaching 29th March, the date when I will be able to pick up my tennis racquet again and play outdoors. Apart from not being able to see my mum, playing tennis has been one of the things I have missed most during the latest lockdown. I play in the village of Coxwold, which is not far from the ruins of Byland Abbey.

The road between Coxwold and Byland was mentioned by my dad in his column from 21st March 1981 when a reader contacted him suggesting they’d seen a stoat that Dad had talked about a few weeks earlier. The one Dad had seen had been totally white, with just the tip of its tail black.

Stoats can shed their fur, but normally only change colour if the conditions warrant it. So in colder climates where there is a lot of snow such as in North East Scotland, a stoat will shed its summer coat of chestnut brown, turning white to blend into its frosty surroundings. Further south, where winters are milder and there is little snow, they keep their brown coats so that again, they are more easily camouflaged within the landscape. It was unusual to see a pure white stoat as far south as North Yorkshire especially, as Dad says, the winter of 1980-81 was not particularly cold.

By the time the reader had spotted the stoat that he believed was the same one as seen by my dad, its summer coat had started to show through the white, and this patchy appearance is known as ‘piebald’. Some stoats keep their piebald coats throughout the year.

The white pelt of a stoat is known as ‘ermine’ and down the centuries it was a highly prized piece of fur, not just because it was soft and thick, but also because it was so hard to get hold of. Apparently, for the coronation of King George VI in 1937, 50,000 ermine pelts were imported from Canada just for the occasion.

I always get excited when I see a stoat dart across the road in front of me, as it doesn’t happen very often. But I’m usually confused as to whether it is a stoat, or its relative, the weasel. I wasn’t very sure of the difference but, as is often the case, my research for this column has served to educate me.

The stoat and the weasel both belong to the ‘mustelid’ family of mammals, which refers to those that have long bodies and short legs, and otters and mink are also mustelids. Although their colourings are similar, the stoat is larger than the weasel, at between 24-32cm in length, with a tail ranging from 9-14cm. The weasel, on the other hand, is the UK’s smallest carnivore, at just 17-22cm long, with a shorter tail of just 3-5cm.

Often, we just get a quick flash of them when we spot them in the countryside, so what you need to look out for is the way they run. Stoats have a bounding gait, arching their backs as they go. Weasels, on the other hand, simply run, keeping their bodies flat and close to the ground. Also, if it has a black tip at the end of its tail, then it is definitely a stoat.

Both species are common throughout the UK, and can been seen all year round. They are fearsome hunters, and can kill animals much larger than themselves. Despite its diminutive size, a stoat will kill a rabbit with a single bite to the base of its skull. Weasels, because they are so small, raid the tiny burrows of small rodents, like mice, to catch their prey. Both can be seen hunting day and night.

Another fact I discovered while researching this column is that mink are not native to this country, but were imported from America and bred in fur farms, from which they escaped in the 1950s and 60s. As they were such excellent hunters and breeders, with a long lifespan of up to 12 years, they soon established themselves and are now quite prolific. They are a threat to our native water vole, the females being small enough to raid the burrows of these little rodents. Wildlife conservation organisations are on the case though, so hopefully our watery native might once again bounce back.

Contact me, and 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  March 2021

Fishing for words

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St Mary’s Church, Whitby, with the ruins of Whitby Abbey behind it. Picture by Martin Oates 

In my dad’s column from 14th March 1981, he talks about a poem written by a woman called Susan K Phillips who was born near Boroughbridge in 1831 and who often spent the summer months in Whitby. He was talking about her work ‘The Whitby Bells’ and discussing whether the title referred to the bells of St Mary’s Church, which sits atop East Cliff.

He came to the conclusion that they were the bells mentioned in the poem:

‘The Whitby bells, so full and free,

They ring across the sunny sea,

That the great ocean god, who dwells

‘Mid coral groves and silvery shells,

Wakes to the summons joyously.’

Mrs Phillips had several collections of poetry published in the mid-1800s and became known as the ‘poet of the fisher-folk’ because many of her works celebrated the lives of the men and their families who were such an important part of coastal life.

I didn’t find a great deal of information about her online, but I did come across an obituary written not long after her death at the age of 66 on 25th May 1897, in which the writer said: “She was a frequent visitor to Whitby and was beloved by the rough, but kind-hearted, fishermen. She was a true friend to them in their time of sorrow, and in the hard lot of those who are engaged on the perilous waters of the North Sea.”

Mrs Phillips became a widow herself just twelve years into her marriage to the portrait artist Henry Wyndham Phillips and was no doubt greatly empathetic to the plight of the wives of fishermen who were drowned at sea. One of her most moving poems is called ‘Lost With All Hands’ and when you read it, you can’t help but imagine that she must have witnessed the devastation of families whose loved ones did not return. The poem tells of a wife preparing her small home for Christmas, with the Yule candle waiting to be lit by the husband who never comes back.

The title of another, ‘The Fisherman’s Funeral’ is self-explanatory, and describes how he is laid to rest up on the cliff top, presumably in St Mary’s graveyard:

‘And the widow’s sob, and the orphan’s wail, jarred through the joyous air;

How could the light wind o’er the sea blow on so fresh and fair?

How could the gay waves laugh and leap, o’er sand and stone,

While he, who knew and loved them all, lay lapped in clay alone?’

While researching this, I also came across a picture of the stone memorial cross that stands at the top of the 199 steps up to the church. Erected just one year after Susan Phillips’ death, it is dedicated to Caedmon, who is credited with composing the first Old English poem ever to be written down.

Caedmon, a reportedly tuneless, uneducated and illiterate man, lived with St Hilda’s monastic community in the 7thcentury at Streoneshalh, which was the predecessor of today’s Whitby Abbey. He was a herdsman and tended to the animals, sleeping with them in their sheds. One night he had a dream in which he was visited by an angel who told him to compose a hymn about ‘The Creation’. He rushed to tell Hilda, and despite the fact he was not known to be able to sing, immediately sang the hymn in a ‘heavenly voice’. Hilda urged him to write down the words which, miraculously, he could also suddenly do.

Encouraged by the abbess, Caedmon became a monk and began to write many works, hymns and poems about Christian life. His story was told by the Venerable Bede in his 8th century ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’. Bede included a Latin translation of the words of Caedmon’s original hymn which became known as ‘God the Creator’. It was subsequently translated back into Old English, so it not possible to know how true it is to the actual words penned by Caedmon. No version of the original is still in existence. Caedmon is said to have died in the monastery hospice in AD 680. As he had a premonition of his own death, he was able to gather his friends and loved ones around him as he took his last breath.

Despite Bede’s account describing Caedmon as a prolific writer, ‘God the Creator’ is the only example of his work that still exists.

Contact me, and 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  March 2021

Let’s March into Spring

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Daffodils are an uplifting emblem of Spring

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The wonderful Spring weather during the first lockdown last year allowed me to get out & enjoy the countryside on my bike

Isn’t it lovely to finally have the feeling that we have seen the back of winter (although I am touching wood as I write this because it is not unusual for winter to still have the last laugh and send one final ferocious slap in March). For a number of reasons, one being the current lockdown, this one has seemed particularly drawn out and so the longer days, the lighter nights, the buds on the trees, and the emergence of long dormant plants offer us a sense of hope that better, warmer weather is not far away.

I was reading a column my dad wrote from March 1978 where he explained how difficult he found it to adequately describe these fascinating weeks when the countryside starts to wake up and come back to life, and the feelings that it generated within him. He instead resorted to the writings of others whom he thought did a better job, such as these words from Alexander Pope:

‘In that soft season, when descending showers

Call forth the greens and wake the rising flowers;

When opening buds salute the welcome day

And Earth relenting feels the genial ray.’

And these from H.G.Adams:

‘A bursting into greenness,

A waking as from sleep,

A twitter and a warble,

That make the pulses leap;

A watching, as in childhood,

For the flowers that, one by one,

Open their golden petals,

To woo the fitful sun,

A gust, a flash, a gurgle,

A wish to shout and sing,

As, filled with hope and gladness,

We hail the vernal Spring.’

Just reading those short verses brings a smile to my face and a sense of hope that my favourite season of the year is just around the corner.

It is well documented that the arrival of Spring brightens our moods, and Seasonal Affected Disorder (SAD) has been a recognised condition since the 1990s. This is where it is believed that a reduction in exposure to sunlight, longer nights, colder days and extended periods of bad weather can cause some people to suffer melancholy, lethargy and even severe depression. It has its own entry on the NHS website, with treatments ranging from increasing outdoor activity, lightbox therapy, counselling and antidepressants.

But a large-scale US study published in the journal ‘Clinical Psychological Science’ in 2016 casts doubt on whether it is a bona fide condition. The study showed that levels of depression in adults were consistent across different latitudes, seasons and levels of exposure to sunlight, and that they didn’t increase in winter.

Of course, that may be true, and I do wonder if there are people who get depressed particularly during hot sunny weather? Not everyone likes the heat. The thing is, there are people I know who are definitely less happy in winter, and if sitting in front of a lightbox helps, then why not?

I recently heard that the light emitted from the screen of a tablet or mobile phone has the same effect as daylight, so if you are struggling to get to sleep at night, then you need to stop looking at your screens at least an hour and half before you go to bed. I’m not very good at that, and often find myself tuning in to something on my tablet late at night, and even occasionally fall asleep while watching. I also know my boys definitely do not switch off their screens until just before they go to sleep. But we still seem to manage to nod off fairly easily, thankfully.

I can imagine that some may have found this latest lockdown more difficult thanks to the wintry weather and those of us forced to stay at home have spent far more time inside staring at screens than we would otherwise do. First time round, which unbelievably is almost a year ago now, we were blessed with a lot of fine, dry days, so it was easy to get out on walks and bike rides, which hasn’t been the case this time around.

Thankfully, as I write this, the signs are that the restrictions will soon be easing and, fingers crossed, we might be able to return to some kind of normality, just as the warmer, brighter days of Spring are upon us.

Now wouldn’t that be welcome!

Contact me, and 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 March 2021

Just a Stone’s Throw

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The Yorkshire Dales are criss-crossed with hundreds of dry stone walls, some possibly dating from the 15th century and earlier

One of the most identifiable features of the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors is the dry stone wall that is as synonymous with the landscape as the sheep it is built to contain.

It’s amazing to think that some of these walls have been around for hundreds of years, built so sturdily that they still do the job as well they did when they were first constructed, despite the fact they have nothing but gravity, friction and the skill of the builder to hold them up. Part of their longevity is down to the fact that they move and give when battered by the elements, with rain, wind and snow able to pass through as well as around them.

There is evidence to suggest that Britons were building dry stone walls since before Roman times, often as a way of keeping predators away from settlements. Some early examples in the Yorkshire Dales have distinct overhanging top stones which it is believed were designed to stop wolves leaping over them because the design died out at the same time as wolves became extinct at the end of the 15th century.

It was during the medieval period, as people moved to live on higher ground, that they became very popular. The higher you lived, the fewer the trees that grew there, and therefore less wood was available to build a structure to contain your livestock. But stones were plentiful, even though it was a laborious and backbreaking process, digging the rock out of the ground then transporting it by cart or sledge to wherever it was needed.

Medieval monks also favoured the technique during the construction of their churches and abbeys, and fine examples can be seen at Fountains Abbey near Ripon.

As the feudal system in England died out, common land was divided up during the period of ‘enclosure’ in the 18th and 19th centuries and private owners became responsible for their own parcel of land, which in upland areas was marked out by dry stone walls.

As my dad mentions in his column from 28th February 1981, the strength of the wall depends on it having good foundations and correctly-placed ‘through’ stones. A through stone is a larger piece that spans the full width of the wall and is paced at regular intervals along and up and down the wall. It keeps smaller stones below it place, and increases the stability above it.

The shape of the wall is like the letter A, wider at the bottom then gradually narrowing towards the top. Stones are sorted into sizes, with those that will make suitable through stones set aside. A channel, slightly wider than the wall, is first dug out of the ground, up to a foot deep, and the largest stones are placed in it for foundations, with small stones filing the gaps. A skilled craftsman will know which shaped stones should go where, where to put those with curved edges, and where to put those with more angular shapes. Once it is built, it is often finished with a tightly packed row of stones placed vertically with curved edges pointing up.

The whole lot will then stand for many, many years, without any need for cement or mortar, with simply gravity and the weight of the stones themselves holding it all in place. They become a rich habitat for a whole host of flora and fauna, with creatures like field mice, shrews, hedgehogs and insects using them for shelter, while birds will nest in them, and hunters will perch atop to spy for prey.

They also support various species of moss, lichen and wildflower, each one flourishing in its own mini ecosystem that evolves on the part of the wall that suits them. Some will be found on the cooler, windy, wet, north face of a wall, while others will enjoy a warmer, drier, south facing side.

In North Yorkshire we have 13,000 miles of dry stone wall, while nationally there are almost 120,000 miles. Unfortunately, only a relatively low percentage, 13%, are in good condition, with 17% in a state of advance decay. A whopping 70% are considered derelict.

Thankfully, there are still skilled craftsmen out there continuing to pass on their art, teaching others how to build with courses, video tutorials, and workshops, helping to preserve and maintain this wonderful feature of our historical landscape.

Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 5th and the Gazette & Herald on 3rd March 2021