Battle of the sextons

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


When I was very young, and when the weather permitted, I spent most of my time outside playing with friends, or entertaining myself in the garden by digging in the mud to discover what little creatures I could find. I was a proper scruffy little tomboy and a family tale goes that I even quite enjoyed the taste of mud (I don’t myself remember eating it, but am assured by the rest of the family that I did!). I think it must account for my rather robust state of health over the years, as I am seldom ill, although I suppose I should add a disclaimer for today’s youngsters: Do not eat soil. It is a cat’s toilet.

In his column from 9th September 1978, Dad mentions finding an upturned margarine tub on the front doorstep and when he lifted it up, he found a large beetle beneath it. He had no idea who had left it there, although I think I am probably the most likely culprit as I would have still been just 11 years old, and my siblings were all teenagers who by then entertained themselves in far more sophisticated ways than me. I’d probably found it in the garden during one of my forages, left it on the doorstep, then no doubt got distracted by something else and forgot all about it.

The beetle was about 3cm long, flatish, mostly black with two thick bright orange wavy bars across its wing cases. Dad identified it quickly as the nicrophorous vespilliodes, or common sexton beetle.

He goes on to explain its rather gruesome, but highly effective, method of survival and reproduction, which is worth repeating here, as A. it is fascinating and B. it makes this beetle the ultimate ambassador for eco living! (But if you are of a delicate disposition, you might want to look away now….).

Traditionally, a sexton (of the human variety) was responsible for digging graves and this is where the beetle gets its name, for it is a pretty effective gravedigger itself (although today the role of the human sexton has evolved into that of maintenance of the church building and its surroundings, as well as the graveyard).

Like a pair of nocturnal scavengers, male and female sexton beetles work together to seek out dead or decaying small animals, attracted by the smell of rotting flesh. Their antennae are equipped with super-sensitive receptors that can detect the stench of death from metres or even kilometres away. Once they find a body, they might have to fight off their competitors and, as is only fair, the boys fight the boys, and the girls fight the girls. The most dominant pair wins the spoils.

To avoid the threat of any determined rivals coming back to steal their prize, the winners set about burying the corpse by burrowing underneath it, until the whole lot sinks and is ultimately consumed by the earth. Animal cadavers can be buried up to eight inches deep, and the industrious couple complete the process quickly and efficiently – a rat that has died in the evening would be entombed by morning.

To celebrate their successful endeavours, the couple then mate (well who wouldn’t?) and the female lays her eggs beneath the corpse, with her and her partner feeding on it to keep their strength up for parenting. Sexton beetles are unusual in the insect world in that both the male and female take part in raising the babies. Once the eggs turn into larvae, they also feed on the deceased creature, and the little family live together in their cadaverous eco-home (known as a ‘crypt’) until the youngsters are strong enough to fend for themselves. Only then, satisfied with a job well done, will Mum and Dad fly off to corpses new to start the process again.

It’s no wonder then, with such a system of beetle-style holistic living, that the sexton fares so well. They are plentiful, and look set to remain unthreatened by the advances of modern life. Hopefully, in forty years time, my successor will not be writing otherwise!

Having said that, despite some rain recently, the ground is still extremely hard underfoot. It makes me wonder if that has affected the ability of the beetle to burrow and bury? Perhaps someone with the right knowledge will kindly contact me and let me know (Sources:,

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A rather egg-straordinary society!

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 31st August, & the Gazette & Herald on 29th August 2018

While researching this week’s piece using Dad’s column from 1st September 1978, I came across his very first mention of the Ryedale Hen Watching Society. I wonder how many of you have heard of it, or indeed if any of you ever considered joining it?

Until I read that I had no idea how long it had been going, but had been aware of it growing up as Dad used to mention it occasionally, and always with a chuckle. The ‘society’ came about, so my dad’s article reveals, thanks to a conundrum that had arisen in the valley where we lived.

“In this quiet valley there rages a controversy of tremendous proportions. In the pubs and clubs, homes and tents, people are arguing and discussing a point upon which there seems to be no known answer,” he says.

And the point in question? At the exact moment that a hen lays its egg, is the shell hard or soft? This mystery troubled many a scientific brain over the centuries. Apparently, someone in the village had spent hours watching her hens to ascertain the truth, but to no avail, for whenever she found a suitable observing position, the hen would turn round just at the precious moment, obscuring the view.

I remembered seeing a folder in my dad’s archives entitled ‘Ryedale Hen Watching Society’ and so dug it out. Inside was a large collection of newspaper cuttings and letters, all connected to poultry, starting from the late 1970s, and the latest from 2006. As usual when I start digging around my dad’s stuff, I got sidetracked by all the clippings and articles. Topics included giant prehistoric eggs, a bantam adopting motherless puppies, chicken overtaking beef as the nation’s favourite dish, and even the case of Esmeralda the hen, who survived incarceration in a deep freeze for two whole weeks after having been tossed in there in a sackful of unplucked dead birds. Poor Esmeralda!

One of the most curious cases concerned the community of Anfield, near Liverpool, which was rocked by the discovery of a foetus in a back alley. Police cordoned off the area, and the rumour that a dead baby had been found spread like wildfire. Emotional residents started leaving cards, flowers and teddy bears at the scene. Several days later, they found out they had in fact been mourning a dead baby chicken.

But by far the most numerous cuttings were dated between 1981 and 1983. They concerned the debate over battery hens and protests against this method of farming were at their height. Arguments continued for many years, well into the naughties, with the practice of battery farming continuing in the UK until it was finally banned in 2012 (though not in Europe). Large-scale chicken farms could no longer use the tiny cages of the past, which were around the size of an A4 sheet of paper. Instead they introduced ‘enriched cages’ which could house up to 90 birds with the freedom to move around. They also had to provide perches, a darkened ‘laying’ area and litter on the ground which enabled the birds to enjoy their natural behaviours such as flapping their wings, scratching, stretching and foraging. Although they weren’t perfect, they were a significant improvement.

As for the question about when the egg hardens, after some exhaustive research (a couple of minutes on the internet) I discovered that the hard outer shell of a hen’s egg takes about 20 hours to form, and occurs before it is laid. If only that poor woman had access to the internet in 1978!

If this column has sparked in you an interest in joining the Ryedale Hen Watching Society, I’m afraid I have some bad news. The society was in fact a fabrication of my dad’s creative mind, the like of which can be found in his Constable novels. Well, he always loved to play a good yolk! (Source: British Hen Welfare Trust,

A quick thank you to Mrs Marie Marsh who, following my piece about Mastiles Lane (Making a Wrong Turner, 1st August) wrote to tell me of many a trip up that very lane, the first time in 1956 in a Standard Vanguard car, and other trips with her family on motorbikes. Her last sentence is a delight: ‘Nowadays we are armchair travellers living on memories.’ Keep on travelling, Marie!

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A sad tale of death in the Lakes

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 22nd August, & the Gazette & Herald on 20th August 2018)

I’ve said before how my dad preferred to spend our family holidays in the UK, and reading his column from this week in 1978, he is talking about our annual week’s break in the Lake District. It means that already a full year has passed since I last wrote about our trips to the Lake District in this column. How time flies!

In sharp contrast to 2018, August 1978 it seems was not very dry at all, as Dad describes when mentioning a trip to Borrowdale, which he tells us was once said to be the wettest place in England. “It was to that district, however, that we journeyed on holiday during what must have been one of the wettest and most miserable Augusts in years.” Oh dear!

A quick search reveals that indeed, Borrowdale’s village of Seathwaite holds that distinctly soggy crown still, with the last annual rainfall having been recorded as 3552mm (the national average for 2017 was a mere 1372mm).

I do remember some very wet days, but also plenty of lovely dry ones too. On warmer days, we treated the shores of Lake Ullswater as you would a Mediterranean beach, but although us children loved it, that was one of the more popular places to go and so on fine days could be rather busy.

Dad hated busy places, and took the time to discover the quieter lakes that were less populous. A firm favourite was Brothers Water, which was a mere puddle compared to the likes of Ullswater and Lake Windermere, and as such significantly quieter. But we loved it there, and even on dodgy weather days could spend hours exploring its waters and shores. One year, we borrowed a little dinghy from a friend to take out. I wasn’t allowed to use it by myself to go very far, but my 16-year-old brother was considered mature enough to row us both across the lake all the way to the other side.

There is something dark and mysterious about the very centre of a deep lake. As we floated across, the water below us got blacker as it got deeper and my young self feared it might hide some mysterious relative of the Loch Ness Monster. I imagined it ominously observing our passage from the safety of the murky depths.

Thankfully, we made it there and back without becoming a lake-living leviathan’s lunch, but I’m glad that as a child I did not know the story of how Brothers Water got its name.

The lake was originally called Broad Water, but was changed to Brothers Water following an apparent tragedy in which two brothers are said to have drowned. There has been some debate as to whether this accident even occurred, but having delved deeper into the tale, it seems it does bear truth.

Many tellings and retellings of the story over the years have muddled timescales, facts and the names of the unfortunate victims, and for some time I was still none the wiser as to a definitive account.

However, I fortunately came across the blog of a chap called Raymond Greenhow who did a lot of research on this topic and, based on the evidence he found in archive newspapers and parish records, I think he has come up with the most likely and truest account. So I’ll summarise briefly what he believes happened.

A newspaper article dated 25th January 1786 stated that two brothers aged 16 and 19 had set out across the frozen lake one winter’s morning to visit a friend on the other side. Their father was working in nearby fields, and at the end of the day saw his sons start to make their way home. The father knew the ice had thawed somewhat during the day, and desperately tried to warn them. But sadly, they didn’t hear him, or misunderstood his signals and he was too far away to prevent them walking towards the centre of the lake. Under their weight, the ice fractured, and their father watched helplessly as his two sons fell through to their deaths.

Other sources suggest a separate earlier incident also involving two brothers, but it is less certain as to whether it happened or not. Nevertheless, the name was changed from Broad Water to Brothers Water as an everlasting memorial to those poor lost souls (Source:

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More than just cake and a cuppa

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 17th August, & the Gazette & Herald on 15th August 2018)


In his column from 19th August 1978, my dad talks about a letter he deceived from a reader who hailed from Devon. She’d recently visited North Yorkshire and was impressed by our quiet roads, spectacular countryside and pretty towns and villages. But what stood out more for her was the kind nature of its residents. “She writes that the people of the region are most friendly and helpful. She found helpfulness wherever she went, particularly in the shops and cafes,” he tells us.

As I write, I’m listening to BBC Radio York’s Yorkshire Day coverage (you might recall I write these columns about two weeks in advance) and that spirit that Dad talks about is more than evident. I’m filled with a real sense of pride listening to people from all over North Yorkshire who have come together to celebrate the day in the station’s ‘Cake and a Cuppa’ drive.

The initiative has the aim to not only bring people together, but also to help tackle the isolation and loneliness felt by some in our area. Initially, events were held once a month in various locations around the county and they would broadcast for the day from wherever it was.

But the idea gathered momentum, with some villages and community groups deciding to set up their own and hold them regularly. It led to the idea of a massive Cake and a Cuppa event specifically for Yorkshire Day and more than 50 communities all over the county (and even one in India!) took part.

The value of such gatherings cannot be underestimated. In my home village, we have a mini version every week after the morning service in the Catholic church hall. Volunteers bake cakes and serve tea and coffee and it is open to absolutely everyone, not just those who have attended mass.

I know my mum won’t mind me saying how beneficial she has found it since the deaths of my dad and sister. We other children visit as often as we can, but we live some distance away so of course my mum has to face many days alone. This is a place to go where people know her, know her situation and where she is always welcome. It’s one of many small things that enable her to get through each week.

Mum made a valid point to me yesterday about rural life in that you can live in a place for many years, and if it wasn’t for gatherings such as this, you might never know who lives on the other side of the village. Our local shop is at the centre, and the main street is more or less one long straight mile. So you walk to the shop, buy what you need, then go back the same way without venturing into the other half of the village. And no doubt people living in the other direction do the same, and so they don’t get a chance to get to know one another. It was at a recent communal picnic that my mum met a lady who had lived on the other side of the village for a number of years, and yet they hadn’t met until that day. So we need to encourage things like Cake and a Cuppa, as they really do help tackle the problem of loneliness and isolation.

One of the things that struck me as I listened today was the comment made by one young man, who said something along the lines of: “You don’t need to be old to feel lonely,” which I thought was a valid point to make. Indeed, when I went along to my village coffee morning, although most were elderly, there was also a young family with two very small children enjoying the chats and the cake.

What I also noticed was the amount of energy the youngsters injected into the room. They naturally lifted everyone’s spirits in a way that children can effortlessly do (admittedly, they can have the opposite effect on some people, but not on this occasion!).

It’s nothing that we don’t already know, of course, and events like Cake and A Cuppa prove it all the more. So let’s build on what’s been started and bring more people together over a cup of tea and a slice of cake.

Listen to my 9th August interview on the BBC Radio York Adam Tomlinson and Anna Wallace show:

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Off to School in a Heartbeat

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 10th August, & the Gazette & Herald on 8th August 2018)

My dad failed his English so joined the police as a 16-year-old cadet

I was thrilled to learn that Heartbeat has been voted the greatest Yorkshire Television programme of all time by readers of The Dalesman magazine, which is fitting in the year that marks 50 years since YTV was born (It came third in the overall poll behind two wonderful rivals, Last of the Summer Wine (2nd) and All Creatures Great and Small (1st), both made by the BBC).

More than 3,000 people voted and, were he here, my dad would be amazed to know that the programme is still held in such high esteem more than 26 years after the first episode aired. Fans continue to visit Goathland, where the series was set, to rekindle their nostalgic memories about the lovable characters and beautiful locations featured in the show.

Heartbeat was based upon my dad’s Constable series of books in which he drew upon his 30 years’ experience as a rural policeman. He was born to write, and persisted despite a number of setbacks in the beginning. He didn’t do well in English at school and his teacher was less than encouraging about his writing abilities. But Dad possessed what you need if you are going to make it in the creative industries – a bucketload of self-belief. This took him far, including beyond his first 13 novel rejections. His inspiration was Major Jack Fairfax-Blakeborough, the highly successful author and Countryman’s Diary columnist who hailed from Westerdale on the North York Moors. In 1947, when Dad was just 10, the Major had presented him with one of his books, and I believe that was a turning point in Dad’s life as it made him realise that you could, in fact, earn a living through writing stories.

Dad used to say to me that if you were a male and came from the moors, you usually went in one of two directions, either into farming, or into the uniformed services. At first, Dad did try to buck the trend by asking for a job at the local paper, the Whitby Gazette, when he left school at 16. But they turned him down, and so, not knowing what else to do, he joined the police.

I think leaving school with few qualifications left a very deep impression on him as, after being rejected by the Gazette, and at first unable to immediately fulfil his ambition to write, he didn’t have many qualifications to fall back upon so had to do something ‘conventional’ to earn a living.

So I think it was that which made him believe that getting an education was highly important, and I now understand why he worked so hard to make sure we children went to good schools. In his column from 8th August 1978, he talks about the difficulty of motivating children from rural backgrounds to go to school before it was compulsory in the 19th century: “It must have been very difficult to encourage parents to send their youngsters to school when those same youngsters could be better employed in the house or fields working productively alongside their parents.”

It was only after the Agricultural Children’s Act of 1873 that things began to change, as it forbade children under the age of eight to work on a farm unless it was their own, which meant that children whose parents didn’t own a farm were free to attend school. Three years later, the law was changed again making it compulsory for children under 12 to attend school, with the exception of the six weeks during which the hay and corn needed to be gathered in, which is how the long summer school holidays covering July and August came about.

All working parents today will understand the mixed blessings of a long summer holiday. This year, for the first time in 18 years (thanks to my youngest finishing his GCSEs) I was able to plan and take a two-week holiday when most children were still at school. So by the last week of June, we were all free and hotfooted it to France while the going was so good.

While in France, like most of us Brits do, I worked very hard on my tan, only to come home and find I had no boasting rights to speak of as, thanks to this amazing spell of hot weather, everyone else was the same colour as me! Life just isn’t fair sometimes.

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We’ve taken a wrong Turner

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 27th July, & the Gazette & Herald on 25th July 2018)

As I have remarked a number of times before, one of the loveliest things about using my dad’s archived columns from 40 years ago is when I come across a story that he relates about our family life back then. It stirs up and refreshes long-forgotten memories, or enlightens me about events that I have no memory of whatsoever.

It’s particularly thrilling when I can link what my dad is talking about to photographs I have seen in our family archives, and when they are pieced together, it adds a whole new layer of detail to an otherwise patchy recollection.

And so it has happened again this week when I read about a rather curious and adventurous family day out. Dad had decided to keep us entertained by using an old map for a trip up into the Dales, with our intended destination being Malham. All went well until we arrived in Kilnsey, famous for its annual show and impressive crag.

According to Dad’s old map there was a road that directly linked Kilnsey with Malham, but when we turned up the road, we found it was clearly rarely used. After a while, the road turned into cobbles, and as we passed the ‘Unsuitable for Motors’ sign, you’d have thought that perhaps we would have stopped and turned round.

But not my dad. For when he set his mind to something, he could be very determined indeed! What is even more astonishing about this unconventional detour is the fact that we were not driving any old car, but my dad’s pride and joy, his beautiful, sky blue classic 1968 Mark II Jaguar. And if you know anything about these cars, you will appreciate that they are very low slung, and so we bumped, scraped and jolted our way on up, high into the hills along what was no more than a rocky track.

It was only when the track actually disappeared into grass and mud that Dad did finally admit defeat and drew to a halt. But by then, we were so high up that the views were incredible, which of course made it entirely worth it, as Dad explains: “We concluded our journey in a field of cows high on the hills above Wharfedale with stirring views below and the Pennines all around.”

I do have vague memories now of that day, but because I was just 11 years old, I had no idea, and took no notice, of where we had ended up. But reading that column today, I discovered that it was in fact Mastiles Lane, an old drovers’ road that would have been been a busy thoroughfare in times gone by between Malham and Kilnsey.

When I read that, a little light went off in my head, as I knew I’d heard the name before. It turns out that I had recently walked that very same route without realising that I’d already been there, albeit in a Jaguar 40 years earlier!

My friends and I regularly walk near Kilnsey, and it’s a beautiful area to visit. So beautiful, in fact, that artist JMW Turner himself made sketches and drawings in and around the village during his 1816 tour of Yorkshire. His watercolour study ‘Kilnsey Crag and Conistone, Upper Wharfedale’ is now housed in Tate London, alongside books containing other sketches of the area, although sadly a full painting has never been discovered, so it’s unclear whether he did in fact complete one.

Unfortunately for Turner though, he didn’t enjoy the kind of dry, sunny weather that we have been experiencing. For him, it was unrelenting rain as a result of climatic disturbance caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora in the Philippines, which led to 1816 being dubbed ‘the year without summer’.

It must have made working rather difficult for him. Indeed some of his sketches and watercolours from that trip are visibly water-stained, and he wrote from Richmond on 31 July 1816 to his friend James Holworthy: “Weather miserably wet; I shall be web-footed like a drake.”

And then in a later letter, he recounts a dreadful journey: “…the passage out of Teesdale leaves everything far behind for difficulty – bogged most completely Horse and its Rider, and nine hours making eleven miles.”

Thankfully our own passage back out of the Dales in our Jag, although rather bumpy, was significantly quicker! (Source:

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Raising a toast to Dad

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 27th July, & the Gazette & Herald on 25th July 2018).

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Next week marks the most important day of the year which, as all who read this newspaper know, is August 1st, or Yorkshire Day.

According to my Dad’s column from 29 July 1978, the day was established to mark the demise in 1974 of the three Yorkshire Ridings when county boundaries were rearranged and Cleveland and Humberside were established. It was originally more commonly known as Minden Day, a commemoration of the 1759 Battle of Minden in which the soldiers were said to have plucked roses from the hedgerows on their way into battle. So on Minden Day, soldiers place red roses in their ceremonial headwear as a tribute to their predecessors and Yorkshire soldiers use white roses instead to represent their county.

My dad loved his food and one of the things he most looked forward to on Yorkshire Day was the traditional meal with Yorkshire puddings eaten in the classic way, as a starter with gravy, followed by roast beef and vegetables. He would particularly enjoy it if it was accompanied by a glass of good red wine. On our recent holiday to France, we stayed near Bordeaux, and as I drove past field upon field of vines, I couldn’t help but think of my dad, and recall a special family holiday we had to the same area eleven years ago in 2007.

We’d gone to celebrate my parents’ 70th birthdays, but also because we’d had a difficult year. Dad had been diagnosed with prostate cancer a few months earlier and his diagnosis had been very serious. But thankfully he responded remarkably well to the treatment and was in relatively good health, even through we still had no idea what the future might hold. So my mum decided that a special family holiday was in order and found a splendid manor house between Bordeaux and Perigueux in south-west France that could accommodate all 16 of us.

It was a truly memorable holiday, and Dad was in his element, enjoying the local food and wine to the full. He found himself a special little corner in the garden where he could write up column notes while enjoying a glass of something lovely.

As we were so close to some famous wine-producing domaines, he and my mum spent one day visiting a chateau near St Emilion. Although one might imagine chateaus being ancient castles with turrets and towers (of which France has many), the word also refers simply to an estate upon which wine is produced and sold.

I managed to find the column he wrote in 2007 following that holiday, and it’s interesting to read back on it now, especially following last week’s column in which I wrote about how much better the French road network is compared to ours. Dad apparently felt the same way. “I must say that the French roads, whether urban, rural or motorways, are splendid,” he wrote.

During my holiday this year, I was also determined to visit a chateau and sample a local vintage so the boys and I set out one day along a long straight local road which was lined with vineyards.

We pulled into Chateau Haute-Goujon, a smart, modern-looking place, and were very fortunate to be shown around by the owner himself, Monsieur Vincent Garde, whose family have produced red wine there since the early 20th century. In excellent English, he explained the process, taking us through the vinification room, with huge stainless steel vats where the grape juice is fermented and turned into wine, then to a room full of hand-made oak barrels, where the wine is aged, to a vast cellar-like room full of resting bottles, and then finally to the labelling facility. The labels are only put on last minute to deter thieves. If the wine is unmarked, they will have no idea what they are stealing, explained Mr Garde.

Of course, I had to buy some and was pleasantly surprised to find the choices weren’t as expensive as I’d imagined, with prices starting at £10 and the most expensive being around £50. I bought some at the average price, and then a couple of a more expensive one. It’s just a shame Dad isn’t here to enjoy it with me, but I will raise a toast to him when I open it.

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