Flower of the gods

The field of poppies I drive past
A poppy in a field next to a cereal crop

There is a field I drive past which at the moment is as pretty as a Monet painting as it is full of red poppies. There is something decidedly uplifting about seeing such a view, even though poppies might not always be welcomed by farmers trying to grow a cereal crop.

According to my dad’s column from 14th July 1979, poppy seeds can lie dormant for some time, only to sprout into life once the ground is disturbed. Indeed, he recounts meeting a farmer leaning on a fence while gazing at a corn field that was bright red with poppies.

“Yon seeds lie doon there for hundreds o’ years, and when you disturb ‘em, you git acres o’ poppies and precious little corn,” said the farmer. He explained that it used to be a hay field, and that he had had no problem with poppies then. It was only after he’d ploughed it up and replanted it with corn that the flowers appeared.

My dad asked him how he’d get rid of them, as they were well interspersed with the crop. Would the harvest be ruined?

“Noo, Ah can’t get rid on ‘em, leastways Ah mebbe could by howin’ ‘em all oot, but there’s nut time for that these days. Besides, me combine fettles ‘em.”

The resilience of this little flower was demonstrated during World War I when Western Europe was decimated by bombardments and few plants were able to thrive. One notable exception was the red poppy and it inspired Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae to write his now famous and moving poem, In Flanders Fields, in 1915. The colonel had witnessed many deaths, and had just lost a close friend, when he was struck by the symbolism of the blood-red blooms rising from the ground where his comrades had fallen. His words are so poignant:

In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

Poppies can thrive where others fail because the slow-growing flowers can withstand the cold of winter and have a clever method of germinating. The seed pod sits atop a long swaying stem, and when the seeds are ripe, they are cast from their pod by the wind to be scattered far and wide. They can then lie on the ground for months until a helpful plough or combine harvester comes along and jolts them into life.

When agriculture was a mostly manual occupation, farm workers would remove poppy plants through patient hoeing. But today machinery does the job, although if the seeds do end up back in the earth, they will germinate in ever-increasing numbers.

The connection between poppies and corn fields dates back to at least Greek times, and in Roman mythology Somnus, the god of sleep, used the flower to make Ceres, the corn goddess, fall asleep. Demeter is her Greek equivalent and Ceres and Demeter are often depicted wearing garlands of poppies and corn intertwined.

In Ancient Greek myth, Hades, King of the Underworld, kidnapped Demeter’s beautiful daughter Persephone. Demeter was distraught and scoured the earth looking for her, neglecting her duties protecting the crops. Zeus, King of all the Gods, knew he had to do something as the crops began to wither, but he didn’t want to risk the wrath of his tempestuous brother Hades. He therefore came up with the plan that Persephone would spend six months of the year with her mother on earth, and six months with Hades in the underworld. Demeter was so sad each year when Persephone was away that all the plants died back until she came back home again. And so this is how the ancient Greeks came to explain the cycle of the seasons.

Of course the common poppy, which is also known as the corn poppy, the corn rose, the field poppy and the Flanders poppy, has a rather infamous cousin in the opium poppy. It is the most widely cultivated of the species and is a source of natural opiates which are used both in the drugs trade, and in medicine. The addictive and strong painkiller morphine derives from it, and once again we can thank the ancient Greeks for its name, coming as it does from Morpheus, god of dreams.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 12th July and the Gazette & Herald on 10th July 2019

Bridges take their toll

Aldwark Toll Bridge (Picture: Maljoe)
The Humber Toll Bridge was still being built when Dad wrote his column in 1979 (Picture: Frank Dwyer)

I cut my writing teeth in the late 1980s and early 1990s on what was then the Yorkshire Evening Press and as part of my training was posted to Selby. If you have ever experienced travelling through Selby in pre-bypass and pre-toll-free days, then you will understand what kind of hell it was to get in and out of town.

At peak times, traffic would queue for miles along the A19 and it could take up to an hour just to get from one side to the other. The main cause of the holdup was the manual toll bridge in the middle of the town, when actual real people took your 7p to allow you to cross the River Ouse. It was the only crossing for miles, so unless you were prepared to take a lengthy detour, there was no alternative link between East and West Yorkshire for people living in that neck of the woods. So you just had to sit in the queue and wait your turn.

Tolls were finally lifted in 1991 after a buyout funded by Selby District Council, North Yorkshire County Council and some local businesses, and congestion was further eased with the opening of the Selby bypass in 2004.

The concept of paying tolls to cross privately-owned bridges dates back to mediaeval times. Parishes were supposed to maintain their own highways, which in those days were little more than muddy tracks, and until the mid-sixteenth century they were quite adequate.

But as the volume of wheeled transport increased, so did the damage to road surfaces, and deep and dangerous ruts formed, making some popular routes quite treacherous. There was no system for repairing them, and no doubt they caused many coaching accidents.

To encourage locals to repair the roads, the idea of turnpikes was introduced, whereby travellers had to pay to use certain sections, and the money would go to the upkeep of the highway. These turnpikes occurred every 20 or 30 miles, but many were soon highjacked by unscrupulous businessmen who only operated them to make money for themselves.

Road traffic continued to increase rapidly, and long queues would build up at the toll-gates, as would irritation and anger, which frequently boiled over among the frustrated road users. Mail coaches were the source of much resentment as they were exempt from the fees and would jump the queues. Their drivers had to be tough as nails to stand up to the constant verbal and physical abuse.

This simmering tension finally boiled over into full-on rebellion in 1735 when a group of locals in Hereford raided and destroyed a local turnpike. Others followed suit and soon every turnpike in the country was at risk.

Although some measures were taken to try and make the system fairer, it never really worked, and in 1839, a posse of farmers, disguised as women, demolished four gates on what is now the A40. They were never punished, nor the gates replaced, for fear of violent reprisals. This led to a group being formed, with members calling themselves ‘Rebecca’, which began systematically dismantling turnpike after turnpike until finally, in 1895, the system was abolished.

However, as we know, this was far from the end of tolls on our road network, and as my dad says in his column from 7th July 1979, there was talk of introducing them on our busiest motorways as far back as 1966. This approach does seem to work very well in France, which has a reputation for excellently-maintained motorways.

There are some tolls that I am very happy to pay, such as the one at the delightfully quaint Aldwark Bridge across the River Ure. It is one of the few privately-owned toll bridges left in the country, and is in a particularly lovely country location. You feel like you’re taking a step back in time as you hand your 40p to the bridge keeper and feel your wheels rumble over the wooden deck beneath. You wonder if this ancient crossing is capable of taking the weight, but I am told it can comfortably cater for vehicles up to 7.5 tonnes.

And I agree with the conclusion my dad came to in 1979 when he said, ‘Even the new Humber Bridge will have a toll system, so it looks as though toll bridges and toll roads will continue for some years to come.’

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 5th July and the Gazette & Herald on 3rd July 2019

Litter crisis goes nuclear

The 1981 Government leaflet telling us how to protect ourselves from nuclear attack
Protect and Survive
Some helpful tips on how to survive a nuclear attack
The book my dad signed for reader Edith Bennison

I had a lovely letter recently from reader Edith Bennison who has been a long-term follower of my dad’s Countryman’s Diary, and now my own column.

Following my recent piece about litter, Edith recalls the days when most villages still had their own street sweepers, and we had one in the village where I grew up. You’d see him, with his orange high-vis vest, flat cap and cart, out in all weathers keeping the pavements, verges and roads clean. I’m guessing the tale Edith tells must have occurred during the late 1970s or early 1980s when concern about the nuclear threat to the West from Russia was at its height.

The threat was taken extremely seriously, and Margaret Thatcher’s government implemented a public information strategy known as ‘Protect and Survive’, a series of leaflets and TV and radio broadcasts informing us of what to do in case of an attack.

This included creating a ‘fall-out’ room within your home to protect yourself from radioactive dust. You were told to seal all windows and doors and block them up with thick materials, like bricks, books, or furniture filled with clothes. You were also told to create an ‘inner refuge’ within that room where you would be expected to shelter for at least the first 48 hours after an attack. This would be made out of something like a dining table, which again would be surrounded on all sides, including the top, by heavy items, such as sandbags, mattresses or earth-filled chests of drawers.

Thanks to the magic of the Internet, I was able to take a look at a ‘Protect and Survive’ leaflet myself. It does make pretty alarming reading, so it’s no wonder we were all a bit on edge about it. I remember my school educating us about the possibility of nuclear war, and I also remember writing an essay about the pros and cons of nuclear power, which of course is a separate issue. But I ended my essay with a paragraph explaining that there was nothing to worry about with nuclear power, but then I stopped mid-sentence and my pen left an illegible scribbled trail across the page which ended in a little drawing of a mushroom cloud.

Needless to say my teacher was not very impressed, and I was chastised for associating nuclear power with nuclear war, and for concluding my essay in such a silly way.

But my little drawing did reflect the worries that were in many minds at the time, and the news outlets were full of the negotiations between Reagan, Thatcher and Brezhnev. The culture of the day also reflected the mood of the nation. Pop group Frankie Goes to Hollywood used the sinister voiceover and warning siren from the government Protect and Survive public information film on their single ‘Two Tribes’. And graphic author Raymond Briggs, famous for writing ‘The Snowman’, published ‘When the Wind Blows’ in 1982, which describes the impact of a nuclear war on an ordinary couple.

In dark times, we Yorkshire folk are known for our typical ‘keep calm and carry on’ attitude and our down to earth sense of humour. I have a feeling that Edith’s sweeper was rather fed up, not only with endless depressing news bulletins about the nuclear threat, but also with thoughtless people closer to home who persistently dropped litter. She tells me in her letter that he had written a message on his cart which made me giggle: ‘If there is a nuclear attack, hide in a bin, because nothing ever hits it.’

She also recalled meeting my dad at a book signing in Dressers of Northallerton, which sadly is no longer there. Although Edith couldn’t remember the year, the book was Constable by the Stream, published in 1991. Dad was always thrilled when fans turned up to his signings, and also when people wrote to him in response to his column, as he describes on 30th June 1979, where an earlier column about bees had attracted discussion. Someone had responded that ‘telling the bees’ was important because it was believed the bees were once the souls of the recently departed.

I’m delighted to hear, as would he, that Edith still has quite a collection of his books, and receiving letters and messages like this shows that he touched many peoples’ lives. It fills me pride knowing that his legacy is set to go on for many years to come.

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


This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 28th June and the Gazette & Herald on 26th June 2019

Better tell the bees

The buzzy mass of bees I spotted in a dog walk
The victorious male mates with the queen

I was walking the dog this morning when a big, black, buzzy, mass of something fell from the air and plopped to the ground.

As I got closer, I realised it was a cluster of bumblebees all behaving rather aggressively towards another, larger, insect that was, at first, difficult to identify through the throng of yellow and black furry bodies. Several bees seemed to be attacking this creature, but because of the way they were all clinging on, I couldn’t really tell what was happening.

So I stood and watched a while, and soon, some of the bees flew off, leaving just one, and the creature beneath became visible. Only then did I realise it was in fact a rather large queen bumblebee, and the one remaining bee was not actually attacking her, but mating with her. That cheered me somewhat, as you can’t fail to be aware of the decline in our insect population. Bees are incredibly important for pollination, the very key to human survival, so I was delighted to see healthy bees doing just what they should in my little corner of North Yorkshire.

As soon as I got home, I looked up the mating habits of bumblebees so that I could understand what the ‘cluster’ behaviour was all about. Had all the bees mated with her?

A queen bee comes out of hibernation as the spring temperatures rise, having lived underground in the soil all winter. She will have survived on stores of body fat created by consuming large quantities of pollen and nectar during autumn. When she comes out, she looks for a suitable nesting site, which could be a hole in the ground, a bird box, under a garage, in a compost heap, or in any other dark cavity.

When she finds her home, she collects pollen to bring back to the nest and builds a kind of ‘pot’ from waxy bodily secretions into which she lays her eggs. She will incubate them for about two weeks by sitting on the pot and shuddering to keep them warm. They then hatch into larvae, and she continues to feed them with pollen. After another two weeks, the larvae spin cocoons around themselves as they develop into adult bees. This first batch of new bees are all female, and will either be worker or future queens.

The queen can then sit back and relax while her workers fuss around her, guarding and cleaning the nest and gathering pollen. She will produce more eggs that will become male bees, whose job, it seems, is merely to eat and reproduce. The male bees leave the nest, never to return, and live independently outside.

When bees mate, the males vie for the queen’s attention, and this is what I was witnessing on my walk. They cling on to her in the hope they will be the chosen one, until she decides which she will mate with.

Once a queen has founded her colony and reproduced then her work is done, and she will die, along with most of her colony. It is only the new, future queens who hibernate to emerge the following spring to start a new colony.

In his column from 23rd June 1979, Dad talks about some ancient superstitions associated with bees, particularly the custom of ‘talking’ to them. Apparently, if you had bee hives, you were duty-bound to inform them of any important family news, such as births, deaths and marriages. The bees were very important to the household in providing a ready supply of honey, which in those days was a precious and essential resource. If you didn’t keep your bees happy, they might desert the hives.

The bee keeper took the role very seriously, and could often be seen standing among the hives, solemnly informing the buzzing audience of the latest news, and this was called ‘telling the bees.’

This tradition forms the centre of a charming novel by successful York author Fiona Shaw called ‘Tell it to the Bees’, where a young boy shares his family secrets to the bees in his garden. The story has been turned into a feature film which had its worldwide premier in Toronto last year and, happily, is due to be released in the UK from July 19th.

So I think I might just be the first in the queue for tickets.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 21st June and the Gazette & Herald on 19th June 2019

Sweet sweet memories

Traditional 1970s sweets
Stamps commemorating 150 years of professional police officers issued in 1979

Forty years ago this week, my dad was marking the 150th anniversary of this country’s professional police force in his column of 16th June 1979. Over the months following the article, a number of events were planned nationally to mark the occasion, including concerts, parades, services and shows.

Another memento was the publication of some commemorative stamps, and what fascinated me were the prices. At that time, a first class stamp was just 10p, and the new 10p stamp featured a bobby on the beat, while the 13p was a female police officer on horseback, and the 15p was the image of a police patrol boat on duty. But the one that made me take most notice featured an officer directing traffic. That one would set you back 11½p.

I’d almost forgotten we used to have half pences until I read Dad’s column. Although they weren’t in existence for that long, they were around for most of my childhood, having been introduced in February 1971 as part of decimalisation. It was worth about the same as 1.2 pence in old money so that it would make the re-pricing of lower-value items more accurate. It bit the dust in December 1984 when it was was no longer considered a useful member of our coinage family.

I’d also forgotten that back then, it was possible to buy a single halfpenny stamp, and although it has never officially been withdrawn, it stopped being sold from 21st June 1985. Ha’penny stamps were only ever issued in turquoise, although there were many versions over the years, and some are quite prized by collectors. An original from the 1970s could today set you back anything from 15p to £25, and if you have any lurking in your drawers, you could legally still use them, although obviously you’d have to use two on your envelope to make it up to a round penny.

The half pence came in handy on pocket money days when I tried to eke out my 10p allowance while scrutinising the array of sweets on the penny tray. You had to ask the man behind the counter at the post office to bring it out, which only added to the excitement and expectation. He would then wait patiently while I dithered about what to pick. Should I be canny and go all halfpenny fruit salad chews, meaning I’d get twice as many sweets for my 10p? But then wouldn’t it be a bit boring having all the same thing when there were so many other tempting delights on offer? What about the one penny foam bananas and the shrimps? Or the flying saucers, which were like holy communion wafers but with fizzy sherbet in the middle? Or the shocking pink Bubbly bubble gum? I don’t think I was ever tempted by that aniseedy reprobate, the black jack. But then, who was?

I would usually select a combination of halfpenny and penny sweets so that I would feel that I’d got my money’s worth and then make my hoard last as long as possible. But every so often, I’d throw caution to the wind and buy the extravagantly-priced Refresher chew, a big hunk of a sweet that could put your jaw out, but it was worth it when you got to the sherbet in the middle. At 2p a pop though, it took a significant bite out of my 10p budget. I had the same dilemma over the Swizzle double lolly, a slightly fizzy, slightly powdery yet hard ball of deliciousness that, if you were savvy with your sucking, could last most of the afternoon.

If I was really lucky, I had extra money from a birthday or Christmas, and then I would go all out and buy a double lolly, maybe even two, or a sticky Drumstick lolly, and possibly a few candy cigarettes, and most excitingly, a quarter of rainbow crystals. This was basically just a bag of coloured fizzy sugar which I’d then spend all day dipping my lollies into. It may have been terrible for my teeth, but boy, did it taste good.

You can still buy many of the sweets that we used to love, and there are plenty of websites selling these glucose-laden blasts from the past. I’m tempted to go and order my favourites, although I’m not sure I’ll have any luck finding halfpenny chews these days.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 14th June and the Gazette & Herald on 12th June 2019

Feeling ticked off

The view from the top of Whitbarrow in the Lake District
A full tick that fell off Roly
Roly with a tick just visible below his eye

I’ve just come back from a lovely break in Cumbria, staying not far from Grange-Over-Sands, near Whitbarrow National Nature Reserve. It’s an area of special scientific interest due its exceptional limestone habitats created as a result of the last ice age. As the ice retreated, it exposed the limestone to the elements and over time, an uncommon collection of boulders, crevices and escarpments was formed around the imposing rock face of Whitebarrow Scar, which can be seen from miles around.

There were some lovely walks, including one to the summit of Whitbarrow, which I, my friends and our canine companion Roly, completed. Although the climb was hard, it was worth it for the spectacular 360-degree views from the top. We could see Morcambe Bay to the south, the fells of the Lake District to the north, Ingleborough in the Dales to the east, and Furness peninsula to the west.

Much of Whitbarrow is covered in trees, and the descent took us through some lush green woodland. At this time of year, not only does the area attract human visitors, it also seems to be the prime leisure resort for hungry ticks.

Even though I look after dogs, I don’t often come across ticks, probably because most of my guests are protected against them by various methods such as special collars, pills or potions. Also, where I live is not a particularly popular tick hideout. Cumbria, though, with its abundance of lakes, woodlands, sheep and deer, is a tick’s idea of Nirvana.

Unfortunately, Roly was unwell recently, and during treatment had his tick collar removed, which meant that he was temporarily unprotected from these greedy little blood suckers.

The squeamish among you might want to stop reading now, because the day after the walk, we spotted one of the blighters near Roly’s eye. This was not the last, and over the following days, more kept appearing, either on Roly’s body, or crawling across the floor. Yes, it was gross (and if, like me, you’ve ever accidentally stood on a replete, post-gorging tick, you’ll know exactly how gross).

This led me to do some in-depth research on these horrible yet strangely fascinating creepy crawlies. The reason they are so difficult to spot initially is because they are quite tiny, but then their bodies swell up to many times their original size while they feed on the blood of their living host. If you haven’t already removed them, once they have had their fill, which can be up to seven days later, they drop off to go and find a suitable place to lay eggs.

Although thinking about what ticks do makes me shudder, most of the time, they are pretty harmless. However, there is a small risk of contracting the serious illness, Lyme disease, which is carried by those that have previously fed on infected animals.

Therefore, if you have been bitten by a tick, it’s important to remove it as quickly as possible, ensuring you do not squeeze the body or leave any of the mouth parts behind in the skin for fear of infection. You can get special tools to do this, or use a pair of tweezers, but do look up how to do it properly, as you could cause problems by getting it wrong.

You also need to keep an eye on the area for several weeks afterwards, and if you notice a slow-developing circular rash, or start to feel unwell with flu-like symptoms, then do go and see your doctor as soon as possible.

I can’t find any record of traditional beliefs relating to tick bites, but there are when it comes to other members of our insect population, particularly bees, as my dad mentions in his column from 9th June 1979. It was a long-held belief that bee stings could cure arthritis and other painful joint conditions. Indeed, someone my dad knew, who had a persistently painful thumb, reported that he had been stung after putting on a gardening glove with a bee hiding in it. From that day, his thumb was never sore again.

This is not just the stuff of old wives’ tales. Today, research is ongoing into the curative benefits of bee venom, although some trial patients have reported that the pain of the venom injections is worse than the condition itself.

I wonder if any arthritic readers have ever tried bee-sting therapy?

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 7th June and the Gazette & Herald on 5th June 2019

Between a frog and a hard place

A toad that took refuge in my parents’ greenhouse
Dad holds up the toad. His golden eyes show that he’s not a frog

The first house I owned had a lovely back garden with a pond. We had planned to fill in the pond as with a young toddler, it was a bit of a hazard.

But once we’d lived in the house a while, we realised that the pond was absolutely teeming with life, and if you sat a while and observed, you would witness non-stop activity among the water, insect and bird population. I soon began to realise that if we filled it in, all these amazing creatures would lose their natural habitat.

So we kept it, and fitted a grille across the top to prevent our wobbly toddler from toppling in. It was around March or April time that the pond was at its noisiest, with a rather amorous community of frogs making their presence known, and the fruit of their activities would soon become visible in the form of masses of frogspawn lying across the surface.

Sometimes there would be so much of it, we’d wonder if our small pond could sustain the new generation but, it seems, there can never be too much frogspawn. This is because only about one out of every 50 eggs laid will ever make it to adulthood, thanks to them being hunted by a variety of predators at every stage of their lives. Not sure lawnmowers count as predators but ours certainly claimed its fair share of victims hiding in the long grass.

In my dad’s column from 2nd June 1979, he talks about superstitions around toads, and it made me wonder if you, dear reader, would know the difference between a frog and a toad. For the record, frogs have smoother skin and longer back legs which means they can hop quite a distance, especially when startled from a hiding place (sadly not always in time to beat the blades of the mower!).

Toads on the other hand have warty skin, golden eyes and crawl rather than hop. Frogs breathe through their skin, and need to stay near shallow water, whereas a toad’s skin is more waterproof, so they can survive long periods away from water. Toads also tend to stay still if they are startled.

I had believed that toads were bigger too, but in fact, there is not that much difference in length, with male frogs reaching up to 8cm, while male toads can be up to 9cm. Females of both species are larger and grow to around 13cm. The main difference is their shape. While frogs are slim and athletic-looking, toads are like their couch-potato siblings, with dumpier, more rounded forms.

There are just two species of frog and two species of toads in the UK, although you are most likely to only see the common varieties as the others are rare and found in very few areas (the pool frog and the natterjack toad). Common frogs tend to be green or brown, but can be many shades, from cream and red to orange or black, while common toads are mainly various shades of greeny-brown.

In my dad’s column, he talks about an old belief that toads were able to live for centuries without food or moisture at the centre of a large rock or boulder. The belief followed reports of quarrymen breaking open rocks to find what they thought were mummified toads, only for the creatures to suddenly start moving.

This belief persisted until well into the nineteenth century, and my dad quotes the Rev George Young, writing in his 1828 ‘Geological Survey of the Yorkshire Coast’, who was talking about incidents of finding toads within rocks. “We are the more particular in recording these facts because some modern philosophers have attempted to explode such accounts as wholly fabulous,” writes the esteemed reverend.

Various attempts were made to scientifically prove and disprove the belief. One nineteenth-century scientist recreated the conditions by placing toads in hollowed-out rocks which he then re-sealed and buried in his garden for a year. When he dug them up again, most were dead. Amazingly, one or two were still alive, although only just. So he buried the poor things again for another year and, unsurprisingly, none survived the second trip. Poor toads! Thankfully, such cruel experiments are not acceptable these days.

I’ve heard it said that you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your Prince Charming. Well, I’d better pucker up then.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 31st May and the Gazette & Herald on 29th May 2019