All in a game

We played lots of playground games when I was at primary school in Ampleforth in the 1970s (I’m sitting in the middle of the front row in a fetching waistcoat)

I live not far from a school and I can hear the happy sounds of the children in the playground enjoying the respite from lessons. I often wonder what kinds of games they play, and whether they still enjoy those that my generation did as youngsters. 

There was a whole host of them, the rules not written down, but we all knew what to do, such as Wallflower, Leapfrog, Kiss Catch, Cat’s Cradle, Marbles, Conkers, Hopskotch, British Bulldogs, and Stuck in the Mud. In his column from 21st February 1981, my dad describes games from his own youth, and one that he calls ‘Sheep and Wolf’ sounds very similar to what I would call ‘What Time is it Mr Wolf?’

In Sheep and Wolf, one person would be a shepherd and another the wolf, while everyone else was a sheep. The sheep and shepherd would stand facing each other at either end of the playground while the wolf would loiter at the side. The shepherd would shout ‘Sheep, sheep, come home’ while the sheep replied, ‘No, no, we can’t, there’s a wolf.’ After this has been repeated a few times, the shepherd then says, ‘The wolf has gone home’ and the sheep then have to race across to the shepherd without getting caught by the wolf. Whoever got caught would become the next wolf. 

‘What Time is it Mr Wolf?’ was similar although there was no shepherd. One person was the wolf at one end of the playground facing away from the sheep at the other. The sheep would ask ‘What time is it Mr Wolf?’ and the wolf would say a time, and the sheep would creep forward. This would carry on a few times, with the sheep getting closer and closer, until Mr Wolf would suddenly reply ‘It’s dinner time!’, and turn around to chase the sheep.

Some of these games meant that you could target a boy or girl that you liked, and I remember not trying too hard to run away if the wolf was a boy I had taken a shine to.

When we were very young it was ‘The Farmer’s in his Den’. You all stood in a ring holding hands with everyone else singing the well-known song. The farmer, who was in the centre, chose a ‘wife’, usually a girl he liked, then the ‘wife’ chose a ‘child’, the ‘child’ chose a ‘nurse’, the ‘nurse’ a ‘dog’ and the ‘dog’ a ‘bone’, and at the end, for some reason I have yet to fathom, everyone patted the ‘bone’. Some of us were rather over-enthusiastic with the bone-patting and teachers occasionally had to intervene!

A game from Dad’s childhood was called the ‘Sally Waters Kissing Game’ (Others have it as ‘Sally Walker’, but who was this mysterious lass, I wonder?). The girls danced around a circle of boys, and one boy had to choose a girl and the rest would form a ring around the pair and everyone sang:

‘Why don’t you marry the girl you love?

Why don’t you marry the girl?

You’ve got the ring, and that’s everything,

Why don’t you marry the girl?’

There was a similar game known as Mana, Mana, Minetail, or Kissing in the Ring. Everyone stood in a circle, and each boy in turn had to call the name of a girl, saying ‘Mana, Mana, Minetail.’ The girl would shout ‘For what?’ and the boy would reply ‘Drink a glass of thinetail,’ to which the girl would reply, ‘Thank you for that, but catch me first.’ Obviously it was a way that a boy could let a girl know he had his eye on her, and no doubt if the feelings were mutual, the girl would not try too hard to get away.

Some of my favourites were hide and seek games, and one that I loved was ‘Block 123’ , where someone was ‘It’ and the rest of you had to run and hide. There was a place that was the ‘block’ and when someone was found they became imprisoned on the ‘block’. Those still hidden had to try and rescue the prisoner by getting to the ‘block’ without  getting ‘tigged’. 

Incidentally, in my corner of North Yorkshire, we called the famous chasing game ‘tig’, although I do know many who called it ‘tag’. What did you call it, and what playground games do you remember?

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


This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 26th February and the Gazette & Herald on 24th February 2021

The justice of Felons


In my dad’s column from 14th February 1981, he mentions some interesting ‘crime prevention’ initiatives that local populations established in the early 19th century to protect themselves and their property from the attentions of any ne’er-do-wells.

Before a national police force was created, many communities across the country came together to form groups with the aim of crime prevention and for the apprehension and punishment of outlaws. They were a bit like today’s neighbourhood watch schemes and the names of all these bodies were very similar, such as the ‘Glaisdale and Lealholm Society for the Prevention and Prosecution of Felons’, or the ‘Weardale Park and Forest Association for the Prosecution of Felons’.

These cumbersome names were shortened to ‘The Felons’ and, according to Dad, some of them were still going strong in 1981, though by then their main point of business seemed to be the arranging of an annual dinner, rather than maintaining local law and order. 

But what I found fascinating was the record of the original duties of the societies as it demonstrates what was important to rural residents in the 19th century. It gives us a snapshot of their lives back then, what it was that they valued and what was likely to be targeted by the criminals. They were also tasked with ensuring the streets were kept free of bothersome youths who would gather en masse in certain places to seek the kind of entertainment that would irritate the older members of the community.

The following is an account of the principles of the Weardale Felons. What follows is possibly one of the longest sentences known to man (whoever wrote it was not acquainted with the full stop), but I hope you will find it as entertaining as I did. 

The association existed ‘for the apprehending and bringing to conviction any person or persons committing murder, robberies, felonies or petty theft, notorious crimes or misdemeanours, in any of our dwelling houses or against any of our persons or by stealing any of our property from any outhouses, field or premises, or off or from the commons appurtenant or appendant to the said Parish of Stanhope, or any horses, mares, geldings, cows, calves, sheep, swine and poultry, and other goods and chattels of any description, hay, corn, turnips, potatoes, gates, flood-gates, rails, or by cutting or destroying any young trees or plants or breaking gardens or by taking away or destroying or burning any of our hedges or quicksets within said Parish of Stanhope, and also for the due punishing of any person or persons that may hereafter be found trespassing by going out of the roads, fighting, sliding upon the snow or ice, or playing at football or other unlawful games, in any of our fields and premises or otherwise, and for other purposes on the bond of association contained.’ Phew!

It’s funny to us now that football might be considered an ‘outlawed’ game, but it could be an extremely violent und unruly pastime, rather than the ‘beautiful game’ we see today. The rules of football were not officially set down until the 1850s, but most local clubs continued with their own version of ‘mob’ football which often resulted in some nasty injuries.

What I found most troubling though was a subsequent (and mercifully much shorter) paragraph about the punishment of felons: ‘We are determined that no means shall be neglected for apprehending and bringing such offenders to condign punishment.’ This suggests to me that they are giving themselves leave to dispense whatever form of vigilante justice they deem fit, which in itself is just a different kind of lawlessness. 

There were two words I had to look up in these society rules, and I hope I’m not the only one. I didn’t know that a ‘quickset’ was actually a type of hedge and not something offered by the hairdresser. And ‘condign’ in this context means a punishment that befits the crime, such as having your hand chopped off if you are caught stealing (although that is more a mediaeval punishment than from the 19th century). 

Although they seem to have granted members limitless powers, I’m not sure how effective these societies actually were. They gradually fizzled out with the advent of a national police force, with only a few, as I mentioned, enduring into modern times.

I wonder if any are still going to this day?

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 19th February and the Gazette & Herald on 17th February 2021

Ship of Fools?

The Bonhomme Richard was sunk in the Battle of Flamborough Head in 1779 during the American War of Independence 


As I have mentioned previously, I have been enjoying rewatching the 2015 TV series Poldark during this latest lockdown. It is set in Cornwall and the coast and sea are featured as much as the main protagonists.

Back in the late 18th century when the stories are set, when a ship got into trouble in sight of the coast, there would be great excitement on land because any spoils that floated ashore would then become the property of whoever it was who owned the ground upon which it arrived. It did lead to some disputes, especially with the original owners of any salvaged cargo, which could be very valuable.

There are many wrecks that lie at on the ocean floor around our coastline, many of which are casualties of World War II. But we also have our fair share of 18th century timber ships too, and one of the most famous in Yorkshire is the U.S. warship Bonhomme Richard. According to my dad’s column from 7th February 1981, the 42-gun ship sank off Flamborough Head after a three and a half hour battle with the British Serapis on September 25th 1779 during the American War of Independence. It was captained by the infamous John Paul Jones, described by some as more of a pirate than a noble seaman, and the fact that this ship was in action at the very dawn of the U.S Navy is why it is of such importance to American historians.

When Dad wrote that column, no wreckage of the ship had ever been discovered, but since then there have been claims by two separate parties who have valid reasons for declaring they have found the remains of the Bonhomme Richard.

One claim was made by Harrogate-based company Merlin Burrows (MB), who specialise in using satellite imagery to locate lost archaeological treasures. In 2017, they said they had X-ray imaging showing what looked like a ship’s bell and a figurehead in the same place that the 1779 battle had taken place, and in 2019, they displayed some burnt timbers that they had retrieved from the waters below.

However, the claim is disputed by American experts who used eye-witness accounts and ship’s logs (also available to MB), alongside their own knowledge of how wreckage might drift underwater. They suggested that the location pinpointed by Merlin Burrows was not accurate. The discovery of the timbers place MB’s findings in the right timeframe, but there is little else revealed so far to suggest it is that particular ship.

Melissa Ryan, an ocean exploration expert, has worked with U.S., British and French navy officials since 2006 searching for wooden wrecks, including the Bonhomme Richard, and she says there are up to 1,500 boating carcasses littering the ocean floor around our coast, some, she says, dating back as far as Viking times. She believes the Bonhomme Richard lies further out to sea as an eye witness described the fatally damaged vessel ‘disappearing over the horizon’ before it sank.

A few miles out from the Yorkshire coast is what is known as ‘Torpedo Alley’, thanks to the abundance of shipping sunk by German submarines during both world wars. Most of these wreckages are made of metal, but, according to Ryan, in 2012 they found a wooden carcass among it all. They also found an anchor and rigging material that suggests it is of the same era as the Bonhomme Richard.

When Captain Jones acquired the merchant ship Duc de Duras in 1779, he adapted it so that it was ‘war ready’, added cannons and ‘iron knees’ to brace the ship, then changed its name to the Bonhomme Richard. Finding any of these items would strengthen the case of either claimant. The ‘Holy Grail’, though, would be to locate the ship’s bell which would bear the original name Duc de Duras and prove once and for all who is right. 

Looking for ships at the bottom oceans is a very expensive business, and I believe lack of finance is hampering further explorations, so it looks like we may not get an answer to the conundrum for some time to come. But if either party is ever proved right, I do hope that one day we will all get to discover more about at the ancient ship that fought its last battle just off the coast of our great county.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 12th February and the Gazette & Herald on 10th February 2021

Our daily bread

I can’t resist a crusty white loaf

The enthusiasm for home baking has shot up during the lockdowns, and one of the most popular things to make at home is the humble loaf of bread. I’ve not had a go myself as it seems to be quite labour intensive unless you have a bread-making machine. 

I try not to eat too much bread as it doesn’t agree with me, but unfortunately I absolutely love it, especially a freshly-baked carb-loaded crusty white loaf. One of my favourite ways to relax is with a French baguette with lashings of butter alongside a glass of chilled of dry white wine. A very simple yet undeniably satisfying pleasure.

Bread is one of the earliest known forms of ‘cooking’ and there is archaeological evidence suggesting that some form of bread was created at least 30,000 years ago. Prehistoric man was known to eat a kind of gruel made from water and grains, and it is this food that would be spread on to hot stones near the fire to cook into a solid form. 

I wonder, because our best discoveries often come about as a result of happy accidents, whether someone spilled their gruel on to a rock near the fire, and noticed it starting to bake into something interesting? And hey presto, bread was born!

All the early forms of bread were flat, and whichever grains grew in your continent’s climate determined the kind of bread you made. In the Middle East you’d have pitta and bazlama, in India there were chapati, naan and paratha, shaobing in China and tortilla in Central America. 

The discovery that you could make bread rise was also likely a happy accident. From around 8,000BC, the ancient Egyptians were adept at brewing beer and it is possible that some of the yeast they used in the process found its way into a waiting flatbread mixture. Another theory is that there were some latent yeast spores in a flour mixture that was left too long in the heat. However it came about, it was around then that the process known as ‘proving’ was discovered.

Originally, grains would be crushed by hand, but again it was the Egyptians who invented a ‘machine’ to do the job. The grains were placed between two circular stones that were then rotated to crush them. This method was ultimately surpassed by the water mill that was invented by the Romans in around 450BC, and with each technological advance, the making of bread became more skilled and more artistic. As time went on, the finer the flour and the whiter loaf the better, as the kind of bread you ate was a reflection of your status. Dense brown loaves with coarse grains were left for the poor.

The bread making process was completely revolutionised by the the steam roller mill that was first seen in Switzerland in 1834. It rolled the grain to split it, rather than crush it, and this made the process of separating the endosperm, the germ and the bran, much easier, thus refining the flour even further. Another revolution occurred with Otto Frederick Rohwedder’s invention of the slice and wrap machine in 1928, which he used for the loaves he sold from his own bakery in Michigan. By 1933, 80% of all bread sold in the U.S. was sliced and wrapped, and the saying ‘the best thing since sliced bread’ began to be uttered.

According to my dad’s column from 31st January 1981, there were 18 million loaves sold in the UK every day 40 years ago, 75% of which were white. More recent figures suggest it is around 12 million, which is quite a drop considering that the population has increased by more than 11 million since 1981. However, it is no doubt down to the fact that there are so many food alternatives to bread available in our shops these days, alongside many of us choosing to lead a low-carbohydrate or gluten-free lifestyle. 

However, 99% of households do still buy bread, and despite the number and variety of exotic doughy creations using a whole plethora of different grains, white bread still accounts for 75% of our purchases. 

As I come to the end of this piece, I still haven’t had my breakfast, and sat there on the side is an untouched, white crusty bloomer.

Hang the low carb diet! Pass me the butter.

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

Don’t lose your head

Aidan Turner as Captain Ross Poldark in the 2015 TV series
The Halifax Gibbet


The latest lockdown has allowed me to rediscover films and TV programmes that I enjoyed in the past and my current favourite is the 2015 adaptation of Winston Graham’s Poldark novels. What strikes me about Captain Poldark is that despite being a nobleman, unlike his wealthy contemporaries, he champions the poor and the deprived, and recognises that poverty and starvation are often the true drivers behind criminal behaviour. 

One such storyline involved a young husband who had to support his wife, child and mother, but had no income due to fact that the local mine had closed. He resorted to risking his life by taking game from the local aristocrat’s land to feed his family. In the late 1700s, when the story is set, landowners had to the right to demand capital punishment for anyone caught poaching on their property. The young man paid a very high price for feeding his family. 

This severest of punishment is a topic discussed in my dad’s column from 24th January 1981 when he talks about the Halifax Gibbet. This fearsome contraption was a precursor to the favourite of the French Revolution, the guillotine. The Halifax Gibbet consisted of two tall wooden struts with one wooden block on the ground which would support a criminal’s head, and another bigger block with an axe head embedded in it held aloft by ropes secured by a wooden peg. When the peg was removed, the block plummeted downwards.

The origins of the Halifax Gibbet are lost, so we are not sure when it was first constructed, although there is a written record of something very similar from an account in the ‘High History of the Holy Grail’, a complex tale from the early 13th century that charts the progress of various knights of the Round Table. Although it is fictional, it is believed the description was taken from real life.

The first recorded beheading in Halifax took place in 1280, but it is not known whether that was by sword, axe or gibbet, but by the 16th century, beheadings by the gibbet were common. The first person to be recorded as being subjected to it was a Richard Bentley, from Sowerby, who was executed on 20th March 1541, although the contraption was believed to have been used for many, many years before records began. 

According to an ancient custom in Halifax, the Lord of the Manor had the right to decapitate anyone who was caught, or who confessed to, stealing goods on his land over the value of 13 and half pence.

If the felon was able to escape over the boundary, he couldn’t be pursued. However, if they ever returned, then they would be still subject to the punishment. In fact a man called John Lacey achieved such a feat in 1617 and remained at liberty for seven years until he thought he’d be able to come home safely. Unfortunately for him, the punishment was not forgotten and was ultimately carried out. The Running Man pub, still found in Pellon Lane, Halifax, pays tribute to his escapade. 

By 1650, public opinion had turned against such drastic punishment for petty theft and Oliver Cromwell prohibited it. The last to suffer the blade of the Halifax Gibbet were John Wilkinson and Anthony Mitchel who died on April 30th1650.

The gibbet was dismantled and the site neglected over following couple of centuries, until it was dug up again in 1839. The original stone base was discovered, as was the deathly axe blade which was rescued and can now be seen in nearby Bankfield Museum. A replica has been erected on the original plinth, and still stands at the end of Gibbet Street in the town. A nearby plaque lists the names of all those known to have met their end at that spot.

The Halifax Gibbet was one of the most feared instruments of execution in the country, as were the gibbets of Hull that resided by the river’s edge. Felons would be strapped to them and drowned as the tidal waters of the Humber advanced. Thus sprang up the following saying: “From Hell, Hull and Halifax, may the Good Lord deliver us.”

Unfortunately, unless we live nearby, we can’t visit these two notable Yorkshire towns at the moment, but at least when it is possible again, we will no longer have to fear being strapped to a gibbet! 

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 29th January and the Gazette & Herald on 27th January 2021

Walking is rather Moorish

Some people confuse the North York Moors with the Yorkshire Dales
I had to correct Rev Richard Coles when he suggested my roots lay in the Dales

In his column from 17th January 1981, my dad discusses the fact that we often have to explain to those not familiar with Yorkshire that we are blessed with two separate national parks in our great county, and that the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors are not one and the same. I came across this confusion myself when I was invited to speak about taking over my dad’s columns on BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Live programme in 2017.

In the minutes just before going on air, the host, the Reverend Richard Coles, was clarifying his introduction. He had written a sentence about how I was a descendent of the Dales. I had to politely explain that my roots were in fact in the Moors and that the Dales lay west of the A1 motorway adjoining the Lake District, while the Moors lay east of the A1 adjoining the coast.

“Descended from distinguished Moor persons, Sarah Walker discusses her Yorkshire heritage,” was how I was finally introduced, my correction no doubt spoiling the alliterative flow of his original version.

The North York Moors National Park was established in 1952 with Yorkshire  Dales following in 1964. The aim was to protect and celebrate the landscape, wildlife and cultural and industrial heritage. Visitors would be encouraged, bringing with them much-needed income to fund the important work of the authorities. 

In 1981 when Dad was writing his column, the North York Moors National Park Committee was looking at ways to increase its revenue to support its upkeep, and he says: ‘Whether a professional marketing approach could ‘sell’ the National Park is a matter for long discussion.’

Little did he know then that 11 years later, his own literary endeavours would result in a marketing triumph for his beloved Moors when Heartbeat became an instant TV hit. 

In 2009 the Yorkshire Tourist Board was rebranded as ‘Welcome to Yorkshire’ and a far more commercial approach towards promoting tourism was adopted. It has recently launched its new initiative, ‘Welcome to Walkshire’, to encourage people to make the most of the hundreds of public footpaths in our fabulous county. Obviously, during lockdown, we do have to stay very close to our own homes, but once it is over, no doubt we will be keen to explore further afield. 

If we are out and about though, we do have to share our footways responsibly and considerately, which sadly does not always happen. Following my column a couple of weeks ago where I talked about my small side business of dog care, I was contacted by a reader who expressed disappointment at the behaviour of some dog owners who had allowed their pet to run towards him and nearly trip him over, then expressed astonishment at him for his lack of delight at this unwanted greeting.

I have encountered this kind of behaviour myself in dog owners who think that anyone who does not willingly submit to the wayward behaviour of their canine companions must be a some kind of cold-blooded animal hater. But people should not have to tolerate being accosted by a smelly, slobbering hound if they don’t want to. My own policy is that if I spot someone coming towards me without a dog, and I know my dog will want to greet them, I will place it back on the lead until I have ascertained whether the stranger will welcome the uninvited displays of canine affection. 

One of my regular routes is an old railway line that is shared by pedestrians, dogs and bikes. And the key word here is ‘shared’. There are plenty of people, in each category, who seem to think they have a god-given right to conduct themselves however they wish, and that the rest of us have to adapt to them. I’ve lost count of the amount of times bike, pedestrian and dog have nearly come a cropper because of the stubborn refusal to share the route sensibly.

Cyclists, if you are approaching people with dogs, please slow down and sound your bell. Dog walkers, please stand aside and make sure you have control of your dog while the cyclists go past.

And lastly if, like me, you love walking dogs, and even if they are the sweetest dogs on earth, please make sure they are not also the sources of pain in other people’s necks.

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 22nd January and the Gazette & Herald on 20th January 2021

EE’s daft as a brush

Former vice president Dan Quayle famously couldn’t spell the word ‘potato’. Picture: Pixabay

I compose these columns a couple of weeks in advance, so as I write this I am still surrounded by the trappings of Christmas and the festive cheer has yet to wear off. Because of that, and because we’ve had such a difficult 2020, I feel I am justified in extending the seasonal silliness just a little bit longer in the hope that it might bring a smile to your face and a giggle to your soul.

Firstly though, you might remember a couple of weeks back I discussed tautological words and phrases (that say the same thing twice using different words) and the unnecessary ‘extra’ words we sometimes include in sentences. I was looking through my dad’s paperwork relating to his January 1981 columns when I came across a letter from a reader on this topic.

Colonel NM Dillon from Shincliffe, County Durham, had written in with a few of his own observations, which I’d like to share with you as they are quite interesting. 

Apparently, in the Durham area, butter is referred to as ‘best butter’, and Col Dillon asks, “Why the ‘best’?” Another peculiarity of the area, he says, is that diabetes is referred to as ‘sugar diabetes’ or simply ‘The Sugar’. He also expresses the opinion that real ‘staircases’ rarely exist any more because the ‘case’ part of the word harks back to a time when household stairs were often located outside of the building and so cases were built around them to protect them from the elements. Therefore, internal sets of steps without cases should just be called ‘stairs’. I wonder if any readers today still use these phrases or have any of their own observations to share (my contact details are at the bottom of this article)?

While researching my column last time about the spoken gaffes of George Bush Senior and George Bush Junior, a person I came across who was even more famous for speaking gobbledegook was George Bush Senior’s presidential campaign running mate, Dan Quayle. His website address is still ‘’, which tells you something about him, bearing in mind he’s not been the vice president for the past 27 years. His online entry in Wikipedia even has its own section dedicated to his public gaffes. I didn’t have enough room to include them last time, so rather than deprive you of such entertainment, I’ve included a few below which I hope will bring you those those giggles I promised at the start of this article: 

“I believe we are on an irreversible trend toward more freedom and democracy – but that could change.” 

–        Really? Are you sure about that?

“I have made good judgements in the past. I have made good judgements in the future.”

–        I also drive a red DeLorean.

“Republicans understand the importance of bondage between a mother and child.”

–        None of my children are ever going anywhere near a Republican.

“We are ready for any unforeseen event that may or may not occur.”

–        That’s so reassuring

“One word sums up probably the responsibility of any vice president, and that one word is ‘To be prepared’.”

–         Calculator anyone?

“What a waste it is to lose one’s mind. Or not to have a mind is being very wasteful. How true that is.”

–        I’m certainly in danger of losing mine

“The Holocaust was an obscene period in our nation’s history….I mean in this century’s history. But we all lived in this century. I didn’t live in this century.” 

–        I’m so confused. 

One of Quayle’s most famous blunders of all occurred in June 1992 when he was vice president. He was hosting a school spelling bee in front of a room full of kids, teachers and the world’s media. A 12-year-old boy was asked to write the word ‘potato’ on the board in front of Mr Quayle. He did exactly that, correctly, and was about to leave when the vice president stopped him and said: “Spell it again. Add one little thing on the end…Think of ‘potato’, how is it spelled?” The puzzled child hesitated, then added a letter ‘e’ at the end of the word. “There ya go!” beamed a triumphant Mr Quayle.

And the excruciating moment, captured on film, has never been forgotten. 

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 15th January and the Gazette & Herald on 13th January 2021

A Rosey year ahead?

A rosemary bush

Sprigs of rosemary ready to use in cooking

As Twelfth Night dawned this week, I’m sure most of you will have taken down your tree and packed away your decorations for another year. It has been a festive season like no other, but I hope you managed to enjoy whatever you decided to do and however you decided to mark the start of 2021.

If you are someone who enjoys using natural greenery to create your decorations, then you will no doubt be familiar with holly, ivy and mistletoe, but once upon a time it was the herb rosemary that was at the top of the tree in terms of festive décor.

It was believed to possess many qualities, some mythical, and others more practical. In medieval times, it was spread across the floor over a base of rushes that absorbed the muck and smells brought in on the feet of the great unwashed. As they trod on the rosemary, it would release a pleasant scent that would disguise the other less welcome odours rising from below.

As a forerunner to toothpaste, the woody parts of the shrub would be burnt and ground into a powder and used to cleans one’s teeth. It was also used as a cure for baldness, to ease digestive complaints and of course in cooking as a flavouring.

In terms of its mythical qualities, if you slept with it under your pillow, that would mean your slumber would not be disturbed by nightmares, and a shrub planted outside your home would protect you from unwanted intruders. In Ancient Greece, it was associated with memory and brain power, so hopeful students would wear wreaths of rosemary on their heads during examinations. The Romans would plant it outside tombs in the belief that it would preserve the bodies of their dearly departed.

Rosemary has strong connections with the Christian faith, with some stories claiming that its name came from the Blessed Virgin herself, and that Bethlehem was the first place the herb was ever cultivated. According to the tales, the infant Jesus’ newly washed baby garments were spread out across a rosemary bush to dry. Soon after his birth, the holy family had to flee to Egypt to escape the wrath of King Herod, who was searching for this imposter ‘king’ to slaughter. As Mary’s blue cloak brushed past shrubs of rosemary, their white flowers transformed into a beautiful bluey-grey. The family also wore sprigs of the the herb on their clothing as they fled in the belief that it would protect them from harm. These associations led to the plant being known as the Rose of Mary, and hence its current name. It is also believed to live for no more than 33 years, the lifespan of Jesus, and to not grow taller than his height while he walked upon the earth.

But there are other beliefs about rosemary that have nothing to do with Christianity at all. Other sources say the name is derived from the Latin ‘ros’ meaning ‘dew’ and ‘marinus’ meaning ‘sea’. It was native to the lands surrounding the Mediterranean, needing very little water to survive, and could exist on merely the ‘dew of the sea’, that is, the moisture carried on the breezes that wafted in off the water. It is often associated with love, possibly because the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, was said to have risen from the waves draped in garlands of the herb. Hopeful beaus would give sprigs of it to their hearts’ desires, and brides would wear rosemary coronets on their wedding day. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Act 4, Scene 5), Ophelia says: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.” With its associations with love and death, it may be a reference to her forthcoming demise.

Rosemary as a girl’s name became popular in the late 19th century to correspond with the advent of the Art Nouveau movement. Inspired by the colours, shapes and forms found in the natural world, names such as Rose, Lily, Olive, Myrtle, Ivy and Flora suddenly filled local birth registers.

Some of those names, such as Rose, Lily and Flora, have remained pretty common, although I don’t know any girls born in recent times with the name Olive, Myrtle, Ivy or even Rosemary. Come to think of it I can’t say I know many youngsters these days with the name Sarah either.

I suddenly feel rather old.

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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 8th January and the Gazette & Herald on 6th January 2021

A case of dogged repetition

Minty, left, and Vega, two Labradors that I have looked after
Two of my doggy guests, Jess, a Golden Retriever, and Oreo. A Black Labrador


We have come to end of the year, and what a year it has been! I’m sure that most of us are not sad to see the back of 2020 and are hopeful that the coming 12 months are better for us all.

Something that was severely impacted during the past year was my small side business of looking after other people’s dogs. My boys and I love dogs, but I am not keen to take on the commitment of owning one. Looking after other people’s seemed like a good compromise and until the pandemic hit, I was pretty busy. But because few people are going on holiday now, and more people are working from home, the demand for this kind of service has reduced significantly, although thankfully not entirely.

I have welcomed many breeds through my doors and one thing that used to puzzle me is why some people call a certain dog a ‘Labrador’ and others call it a ‘Labrador Retriever’. That question cropped up in my dad’s column from 29th December 1980 and he thought that the Labrador was one breed, and the Retriever another. In fact, although the Labrador is a Kennel Club-recognised breed in its own right, it does come under the banner of ‘Retriever’ alongside the Golden, the Flat Coated, the Chesapeake Bay and the fantastically-named Nova Scotia Duck Tolling.

As the name suggests, the dog’s hazy origins lie in Canada, and it is believed that English settlers arrived in Newfoundland as far back as the 1500s and would use native dogs to help them fish the waters. These dogs, that were smaller than today’s Labradors, were known as St John’s water dog or the lesser Newfoundland, and would retrieve nets, lost lines, dropped fish and pull carts loaded with the catch.

English traders took them back across the North Atlantic Ocean and interbred them with their own hunting dogs to create a new breed altogether that was not only an excellent working dog, but also blessed with a friendly temperament that was eager to please. They became an instant hit with the sporting aristocracy, especially the Earls of Malmesbury.

The third Earl of Malmesbury is credited with naming the breed in 1887 in a letter in which he referred to his ‘Labrador dogs’, presumably because they came from the region known as Labrador and Newfoundland. He established his own breeding programme and the Labrador Retriever was officially recognised by the UK Kennel Club in 1903, with the first official breed club set up in 1916. Today, the Labrador is the most popular of all pedigree breeds thanks to its versatility as a family pet, a service dog, a guide dog and a working dog.

The reason Dad mentioned the Labrador Retriever in the first place was because he was discussing our usage of certain words that are unnecessary, and was citing ‘Retriever’ after ‘Labrador’ as one such example. Another was ‘salt cellar’, because the word ‘cellar’ actually means ‘salt’ so we are in effect saying ‘salt salt’. 

This could be said to be an example of tautology, the practice of saying the same thing twice, but using different words and I’m sure many of us do it regularly without even noticing. But what really irritates me is when people in positions of power do it to try to fool us into thinking they are more intelligent than they are, as if we won’t be able to tell when they are spouting meaningless waffle.

An expert in the art of meaningless waffle is former U.S. president George W Bush, who had a reputation for making tautological gaffes. His intelligence (or lack of it) was the subject of much comedic scrutiny.

“Our nation must come together to unite!” he declared, and “By making the right choices, we can make the right choice for our future.” 

What about this insightful observation? “Over the long term, the most effective way to conserve energy is by using energy more efficiently.”

It seems to run in the family too. His father, George Bush senior, is reported to have said: “It’s no exaggeration to say that the undecideds could go one way or the other.”

And wisely, on that wisest piece of wise wisdom, I’d like to wish you all a very Happy, Jolly, and Content New Year! 

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times and the Gazette & Herald on 30th Dec 2020

A lasting tribute

My dad wrote a moving tribute to his own dad Norman, pictured here in the 1930s. Grandad died unexpectedly just before Christmas 1980.

As loyal readers of this column know, Christmas for my family is a celebration that, although joyful, is also tinged with sadness. During our first Christmas without Dad in 2017, we didn’t have time to dwell on his loss as my sister was gravely ill, and died at the beginning of January 2018. And so the second Christmas without Dad was our first that the loss of them both was really felt around the festive dinner table. I’m sure there are many of you reading this who can relate to that. We do still thoroughly enjoy it, but our absent loved ones are very much present in our thoughts at such times.

When I took over this column, my first piece appeared not very long after Dad had died, and it was a tribute to him. The grief was still raw, and I’m sure those feelings came out in the way I wrote it. This week, when I took out my dad’s column from 20th December 1980, I wasn’t expecting to read what I did. It is a very moving tribute he wrote to his own father who had just passed away.

I was 13 when my grandad died so did not truly appreciate the impact it would have had on my dad. But reading his tribute now, it is a rare occasion when his emotions are clearly close to the surface. Having experienced the same loss myself, the words that Dad wrote back then have moved me to tears because they are words that I could so easily have written about him. His deep love for his father shines through.

I hope you will indulge me a bit this week, as I’d like to share his words with you now, and although they are written about my grandad, I’d like them to be a tribute to all our lost loved ones whose absence we feel so keenly at this time of year.

So, over to you, Dad:

‘We are facing this Christmas without my father. He died shortly before I settled down to compile this weekly article, a comparatively young man at the age of 64. He passed his final hours in hospital, attended by a devoted hospital staff whose actions helped to cushion the inevitable sorrow.

‘I am sure we are not alone in our sorrow this Christmas. Many other families and individuals will have to cope with similar losses and tragedies, and their personal fortitude will carry them through the dark period ahead.

‘But my own father would never wish us to be sorrowful on his behalf. He was a realist, a gentle person with a delightful sense of humour whose outlook on life was based entirely upon honesty and service to his fellows. He would never wittingly do anyone a bad turn and was always willing to help and assist, yet at the same time never wishing to intrude. He allowed his children to live their own lives, always with a guiding hand but never with compulsion, while his personal views upon politics and religion remained entirely his own.

‘He was a man of remarkable talent, a fascinating combination of arts and mechanical skills with hands that could produce music from almost every instrument and also cope with the task of repairing any mechanical object from an electric iron to a motor cycle or motor car. He firmly believed in doing everything himself – repairs to the house, decorations, plumbing, roofing, gardening, and everything else. That talent has rubbed off on his family and I am thankful for his leadership in that respect. As we say in Yorkshire, “he could turn his hand to owt”.

‘Clearly he will be missed and it is difficult to sum up his qualities in a short phrase, but perhaps the following lines from Edmund Spenser (1552-1599) are suitable:

‘The gentle mind by gentle deeds is known.

For a man by nothing is so well bewray’d

As by his manners.

‘But Christmas is not a time for sorrowing. It is a time of renewal, reminding us of new beginnings and it is a time for celebration and happiness…it is the one universal celebration which is founded upon trust and happiness and it has the ability to cross international boundaries, political arenas and religious differences.”

I send you all my best wishes for the festive season and for a very Happy New Year.

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


This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times and the Gazette & Herald on 23rd Dec 2020