Beneath God’s green earth

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The Woolpit village sign depicts a church in the centre with a wolf on one side and the green children on the other

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William of Newburgh Priory wrote about the legend of the green children of St Mary’s of the Wolf Pits  in the 12th century

 

My dad was a fan of folklore, mysteries and tales passed down through the centuries, which often originated as word-of-mouth stories. By including them in his books and columns, he felt he was doing his bit to preserve them for generations to come.

In his column from 17th July 1982, he features one story that he feared might disappear for good if it wasn’t retold. The story had been the subject of debate for many hundreds of years as to whether it was true, rather than mere legend. There were a few written references to it, the earliest being from William of Newburgh, a scholar and historian born in Bridlington in 1136. As an adult, he joined the priory at Newburgh, near Coxwold, where he lived until his death in about 1198. It was there that he composed his most famous and most valuable work, ‘Historia Rerum Anglicarum’ or ‘History of English Affairs’. It is considered one of the most important works on 11th and 12th century England, and covers the period from 1066 through to 1198. William relies a lot on oral tradition and legend, and so much of what he writes cannot be relied upon as a true account. However, he also records recent historical and contemporary topical events, which is why his writings are so highly valued. He includes the story of the Green Children, and tells it as though it actually happened, calling it ‘a strange and prodigious event’.

The curious tale occurs during the reign of King Stephen, who ruled from 1135 until 1154, and centres around the Suffolk village of St Mary’s of the Wolf Pits (now known as Woolpit), a few miles from Bury-St-Edmunds.

During this time, it was common to build hidden trenches to capture wolves, and it was at the entrance to one of these that two disheveled young children were found, scared, lost and hungry. They spoke an unusual language that no-one could comprehend, but that wasn’t the strangest thing. Although in many ways they looked like any other child of the time, their skin was tinged with green.

As there was no sign of an adult with them, they were taken to the local Lord of the Manor, Richard de Caine (sometimes spelled ‘Calne’) and offered food. Although they were clearly starving, they refused it, until someone entered the kitchen with some green beans. The children became excited, and once the pods were opened, eagerly devoured the beans inside.

Unfortunately, the boy later became ill and passed away, but his sister thrived. Gradually, as she adapted to a new diet, her skin returned to a normal colour and she learned how to speak English. She told her rescuers that she came from a country known as St Martin’s Land, and that the saint was worshipped in the churches there. But the country existed in a perpetual twilight, the sun always lying very low in the sky.

Sir Richard employed the girl as a servant, and she later married a local man, living contentedly for many years. She never wavered from her story, explaining that she and her brother were tending to their flocks of sheep in St Martin’s Land, when they came across a deep cavern. Upon entering, they were drawn deeper by the sound of bells, and kept walking until they came to an opening. Venturing out, they were dazzled by the brightness of the daylight, and the air felt so different. They wandered a little further until they were startled by the sound of approaching voices. Terrified, they tried to find the entrance again, but could not, and that is when they were found by the party of people and rescued.

Some later scholars suggested that the children could be orphans of Flemish settlers, and the strange skin colour was down to malnourishment causing a type of anaemia linked to lack of protein and iron. Others suggest it is, like many legends, an allegory, for life overcoming death, or a victory for Christianity over paganism. Other suggestions from the past include that they fell from the sky, that they came from a mysterious fairy land, or that they found a secret tunnel to get to us from across the sea.

If you ever have occasion to visit Woolpit, then look out for the village sign. You’ll seen the silhouette of a wolf next and a couple of little green children.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 15th July and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 13th July 2022

Casting around for a solution

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I had to wear a plaster cast for a few days when I snapped my achilles’ tendon in 2014 after which it was replaced by a surgical boot.
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The common herb Comfrey used to be used to make an early form of plaster cast

I’m lucky to have never had to wear a plaster cast for any length of time. The nearest I came to it was when I had a temporary one put on my lower leg in 2014 after having snapped my achilles’ tendon playing squash.

It was only in place for a couple of days until I had an operation to repair the tendon, after which I had to wear a surgical boot for several months. The advantage of a boot rather than a cast is that you can remove it when you need to bathe, or when you go to bed. I remember the cast being quite heavy, and the recurring frustration of itches deep down inside which you could only reach using a knitting needle (Disclaimer: don’t do that. You might hurt yourself). So anyone who has to wear a cast for a long time has my sympathy.

What I hadn’t asked myself, until I read Dad’s column from July 10th 1982, was how they used to repair broken bones before the invention of plaster casts. Did they even do it at all? Anyone who has broken something knows just how painful it is, and so the thought of no cast and no pain relief made me wince just a little.

Dad writes that the common herb comfrey was used to treat broken bones: ‘The root was dug up and grated into a kind of mash. Eventually, the mixture would set and was used in the same way that we use plaster today on broken bones. It would set literally as hard as wood.’ You still can buy a mixture known as ‘comfrey cast’, although if you do break a bone, then I suggest the best port of call in the first instance is A&E.

The herb’s reputation for healing is demonstrated in its traditional name, knit-bone, and if it is applied topically, it is good for healing aches, sprains and cuts, and for reducing inflammation in the affected area. However, it does contain a toxic chemical which can be absorbed through the skin, so you do have to take care when using it. It’s probably best to seek expert advice if you are interested in trying out this natural form of healing.

The art of setting injured limbs dates back as far as 2500BC, and a couple of wooden splints were found in Egyptian tombs from about that time. In the fourth century BC, Greek physician Hippocrates describes wrapping a broken limb using layers of bandages soaked in wax and resin.

Over the centuries, other materials were employed to make rigid casts, such as flour, egg white, vinegar, clay and gum. Starch-based casts eventually became the standard, and it stayed that way until the beginning of the 19th century when some bright spark decided to try using Plaster of Paris.

Plaster had been around for donkeys years, with the usual clever suspects, the Egyptians and Romans, using it to coat walls and sculpt statues. According to legend, King Henry III was so impressed with the smooth white walls that he saw in Paris when he visited in 1254, that he introduced the technique in England, and from then on it was called Plaster of Paris.

From the early 1800s, plaster would be poured around limbs encased by a wooden container, then left to set. Once it had, it was often so heavy that the unfortunate patient would be confined to bed until the bone was healed. By 1839, a much more manageable technique had been developed, where fresh warm starch would be mixed with plaster powder and applied to layers of linen strips which were wrapped around the limb in question. As well as being easier to manage, it dried much quicker, and no doubt was a lot lighter and more comfortable for the patient.

Although plaster is still used today, it is mainly reserved for situations where the bone is out of position, and the cast can be easily moulded around it. The downside is that it is still fairly heavy, and you can’t get it wet. If the broken bone is not too out of position, then you are more likely to be given a cast made out of fibreglass. Not only is it light, but it can be kept on in the shower.

Well, I’ll raise a glass to that!

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

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 8th July and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 6th July 2022

Don’t say boo to the goose

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If I see geese when I’m out and about I give them a wide berth thanks to scary encounters as a child.

In my dad’s column from 3rd July 1982, he writes that a reader has asked if he knew of any animal one could own that would help keep the grass short without damaging other plants and trees.

Sheep have a reputation for being excellent lawn mowers, although they also have a tendency to mow their way through other plants too, so not a good idea if you cherish your cultivated borders. Goats have a similar reputation, but it is not really deserved, as I learned on a recent visit to a smallholding. The owner kept a couple of pygmy goats, and I commented that I could do with their help in keeping my rampant grass at bay (You might recall that after building work wrecked the lawn, my landlord planted some seed that he had been offered for free. Turned out it was a species of grass used by livestock farmers for their herds rather than one suitable for domestic gardens. It grows like the clappers). Anyway, I learned that goats only eat grass as a last resort, and much prefer more interesting foodstuffs, such as hay, fruit and vegetable scraps, or grains and seeds. They are what is known as ‘browsers’ rather than ‘grazers’ which means they will look for the tastiest thing they can find before resorting to boring old grass.

According to Dad, one of the best animals for keeping grass at bay without damaging other plants is the goose, which likes nothing more than to graze on the stuff. He also mentions that they make excellent security guards due to their territorial nature, excellent eyesight and very good hearing. Their foghorn-worthy calls alert their owners to anyone approaching the property, whatever the time of day. I know this only too well from being a regular visitor to my godmother who kept several geese in her back garden. They scared the living daylights out of me every time I went to visit.

As is often the case in Yorkshire households, we used the back door whenever we paid her a call (the front door was unused and pristine, reserved only for very special guests, such as the Queen). Once we got to the back gate, we would peer over to see where the geese were, and if they were far enough away, we’d run the gauntlet to the back door in the hope that the belligerent hissing fowl would not catch us. If we arrived to find them between the gate and the back door, then we’d have to wait for my godmother to come out and shoo them away. They were far too vicious to risk venturing in by ourselves.

This fearsome reputation goes back as far as 390BC, when the Gauls launched a vicious assault on the Capitoline Hill in Rome. The attacking force had managed to get past the sleeping soldiers and guard dogs. It was only the feathery commotion and loud honking of the geese living on the hill that roused the Romans, enabling them to defend themselves and save the city from the invaders. From then on, the goose was considered a sacred animal throughout Italy.

This reputation continues today, and I have found out that apparently, thanks to their ability to make a lot of noise, 500 geese were deployed alongside human guards, dogs and drones to patrol the border between Vietnam and the Chinese province of Chongzuo during the Covid-19 pandemic. There have also been a number of substantial insurance payouts awarded to unfortunate delivery personnel who have been injured by geese while attempting to do their job.

Geese are very loyal and sociable creatures, and usually get on well with other animals with which they are housed. They are also very good at protecting their peers from attacks from predators such as foxes, cats and birds of prey. They mate for life, and will keep a watchful eye over any of their posse that is sickly. At birth, goslings will attach themselves to the first large moving thing they encounter, be it their actual parent, another animal, a human, or even an object. Known as ‘imprinting’, they remain dedicated to it for the rest of their lives.

According to some, the intimidating reputation of the goose is not deserved, but if I spot any while out and about, I still give them a very wide berth.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 1st July and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 29th June 2022

A bright pop of colour

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The ancient greeks thought that poppies growing next to their crops meant that the harvest had been blessed by the goddess Demeter

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It’s that time of year when we see the countryside dotted with splashes of bright red thanks to the abundance of that most emotive of flowers, the poppy.

I haven’t yet come across someone who doesn’t like the flower, except perhaps cereal farmers who have to deal with it when it contaminates their crops. It can become a veritable nuisance, thanks to its ability to easily propagate itself, and the fact that seeds can lie dormant below ground for up to 100 years. There may be no visible sign of the cheerful weed, but once the ground is disturbed, for example through cultivation, the liberated pods celebrate by springing gleefully back to life, bursting into bloom, all the while generously throwing even more seeds across the soil to the consternation of the frustrated farmer.

The rest of us, though, like many an impressionist artist before us, prefer to ignore this irritating characteristic of what is undoubtedly a most beautiful flower. As my dad says in his column from 26th June 1982, for the ancient Greeks and Romans, the presence of poppies in a corn field was a good sign, a sign that the goddess of the harvest had blessed the crop. Demeter was the Greek version of this goddess, and Ceres the Roman name. Hypnos, god of sleep, was known as Somnus by the Romans. The ancient myth was that Hypnos was very worried that Demeter was exhausting herself by working so hard during harvesting season. She wasn’t getting any sleep, and was so tired that her health, and thus the health of the harvest, had begun to suffer.

Hypnos decided that the only way to save the crops was to get Demeter to rest, and so he fed her the sap of the poppy which induced a powerful and deep sleep. Once she was fully rested, Demeter awoke full of vigour and vitality, and set to work again, and so the harvest was saved. It is because of this story that depictions of Demeter often show her with a garland of poppies around her neck or on her head.

The connection to wartime remembrance is thanks mainly to the 1915 poem In Flanders Fields written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae who, during World War I, had witnessed the deaths of many of his friends. He was struck by the symbolism of the blood-red blooms rising from the ground where his comrades had fallen. Ever since, the sight of a poppy brings to mind those who gave their lives on the front line.

It is likely that the association with sleep and drowsiness is in no small part thanks to the fact that certain species of poppy are known to possess narcotic qualities, and if you slice a pod, a white liquid oozes out, then solidifies once it makes contact with the air. This is natural latex, but not to be confused with latex rubber which is used for things like gloves and condoms. The Romans were known to give this juice to their infants to encourage them to sleep and called it Papaver, from which the modern word poppy derives.

It is commonly believed the Sumerians, the earliest known civilisation in Mesopotamia (now part of modern-day Iraq), were the first to cultivate opium poppies in around 3,000BC, but there is some evidence that a very early version of the plant was farmed by Neolithic man in Europe several thousand years earlier. In fact, a poppy seed was found embedded in the skull of an elderly Neolithic man from a burial site near Barcelona.

However, it was the Greek Minoans that are first known to have traded in poppy seeds in around 1,400 BC, and the prized pod can be seen depicted in sculpture, paintings and pottery. The versatile seeds were a valuable currency, used for many things such as food, pain relief, antiseptic, coughs, diarrhoea and, not surprisingly, as a cure for insomnia.

The opium poppy is still a vital ingredient in modern medicine today, although only a few countries are licensed to grow it, with Tasmania providing half of the world’s supply. Morphine and codeine are derived from the milky latex extracted from the unripe seed pods while the illegal drug heroin is also a derivative. Being four to eight times more potent than morphine it is, of course, highly addictive.

Thankfully, my only addiction to poppies involves staring wistfully at them on my country walks.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 24th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 22nd June 2022

A long old road

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There is a popular myth surrounding Stott Hall Farm which lies in the middle of the M62 motorway
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We travelled along the M62 to Manchester to see the band Queen in concert

This past week I’ve had the unbridled pleasure of travelling along that most inspiring of highways, the M62. It is a motorway beyond compare, with its exciting and unpredictable crosswinds keeping you constantly on your toes, its relentless rain and spray making the road in front of you seem almost invisible and, best of all, its generous supply of opportunities to pause and admire the Pennine scenery thanks to a recurring snake of red brake lights that has a habit of appearing out of nowhere.

My youngest son and I were heading to Manchester to see the rock band Queen in concert. We were supposed to go two years ago for his 18th birthday, but the Covid pandemic put paid to that. It was rescheduled three times, but this time the show went ahead (suffice to say, it was fantastic and worth waiting for!).

Possibly the most famous part of the M62 is when you reach Stott Hall Farm, otherwise known as ‘The Farm Between the Lanes’, which lies just south of Ripponden, West Yorkshire. The east and westbound carriageways divide to go around the farm, which lies in the middle like a 15-acre grassy island.

I recounted to my son the well-known story of how, when the motorway was proposed in the 1960s, the sheep farmer who lived there, despite hefty financial inducements, refused point blank to sell. The powers that be had no choice but to build the road around him. My son was very impressed with this story of plucky Yorkshire grit, of a man prepared to sacrifice financial security to preserve his land and the way of life that he’d inherited from his forbears. What a rousing David and Goliath tale!

But, dear reader, it is absolute and utter hogwash. OK, so part of me was already wondering if it was an urban myth when I decided to look into it further, but I did think there might be at the very least a grain of truth in it. But no, it is a country mile away from the real story.

I know this because I came across a 1983 Yorkshire Television documentary in which said farmer, Ken Wild, and his wife Beth, were interviewed. They explained that they didn’t need to move because the farm lies on a geological fault, which means that the land dips significantly. To correct this and create four lanes of level motorway would have been extremely complex and prohibitively expensive and so the decision was taken to re-route the M62 around the farm, rather than to forge right through it.

Two underpasses were built to the north and south so that the family could get off their ‘island’, and could also drive their flock of sheep to the moorland either side of the motorway.

You might think that having the constant thunder of traffic passing so close would mean a peaceful life was hard to come by, but not according to Mr & Mrs Wild, who claimed that once inside the house, they barely heard it, thanks to triple glazed windows. They also debunked the oft-repeated tale that it was them who blasted loud pop music from their rooftop at the contractors as they built around them. Apparently that was another farmer on a different part of the route.

Although Ken Wild was glad not to have had to sell up, he did say there were some drawbacks, such as neighbours never popping in for a quick cuppa, or the windows always needing cleaning – they got overly dusty on dry days, and covered in spray on wet ones. They’d also experienced their fair share of casualties, such as a lorry that came careering through a wall into the farmyard, landing upside down. Thankfully, the driver escaped unharmed. One year, they had three crashes in one week!

Back in the 1980s, they also regularly had stranded motorists calling on them at all times of day and night asking to use the phone because they’d broken down (apparently they would take their life in their hands by dashing across the lanes to leap over the wall to get to the farm house).

Thanks to the advent of mobile phones, the current tenant should sleep peacefully knowing he won’t have to answer his door to stricken drivers any more. As for cars crashing into his yard, unfortunately no-one can say when that will come to an end.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 17th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 15th June 2022

Never one to bale out

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I spent a lot of time on a dairy farm when I was yoing and had a favourite Friesian cow named Rocky.

June 11th is St Barnabus’ Day, and as my dad writes in his column from 12th June 1982, he is the patron saint of various things including Cyprus, hailstorms, peacemaking and hay gathering. Years ago, country folk would celebrate Barnaby Fairs, which in some places were traditional horse fairs, while in others they were more like village fêtes, with sideshows, stalls, music and dancing.

Dad recalls seeing horses pull trailers piled high with the crop, and having picnics in the fields as the whole community rallied round to help gather it in. The carnival atmosphere of these fairs was lost once mechanisation became the norm, and farmers began to use tractors, trailers, binders and bailers, no longer needing the help of their fellow villagers.

The gathering in of the hay was one of my favourite times of the year when I was a child. I’ve mentioned in columns past that my best friend and I spent many hours on a local farm, becoming very fond of a particular cow that we named Rocky. I would get up really early in the morning and head up to the farm to help with milking, feeding livestock and the mucking out of the barns and stalls. I say help. I’m not sure how much help I actually was, but the farmer and his son were very tolerant of me loitering about. He had a herd of Friesian dairy cows which had to be fed and milked twice a day, and a number of pigs that also needed looking after.

It was such a thrill when a sow gave birth to piglets, and I’d watch in fascination as mother and squirming brood basked beneath the heat of bright orange lamps. I don’t know whether it is the stark contrast in size of mum to baby, or whether it is the cute porky faces, the tiny trotters, or the curly wee tails that melt my heart, but there is something so unavoidably cute about a baby pig.

The farmer grew hay in fields that lay at the top of the hillside, and used a machine to make rectangular bales out of the cut hay. The bales would be stacked up, and then a grabber attached to the back of a tractor was used to transport the stack back down to the hay barn in the farmyard. One of the best things about being on a farm in the 1970s was the freedom to do whatever we wanted without anyone worrying about boring things like health and safety. Riding up the rutted farm track to the top field while clinging on to the swaying bale grabber with our bare hands was such scary fun, especially with the ever-present fear of falling off at any moment.

Once the stack of bales was picked up, we’d clamber up to the top and cling on like limpets for the perilous journey back down to the yard, at no point considering that we could be thrown off. We were immortal, so the prospect of death or serious injury just didn’t enter our heads.

There was one occasion, though, that we did almost come a cropper. We loved to play among the bales once they had been stacked into the barn, and would clamber up as high as we could go. We’d occasionally shift them around to build dens, and could spend hours up there absorbed in our make-believe world. We were very high up, close to the roof of the building. But one day, we must have misjudged the where we were standing, and the whole lot, with us among it, came crashing down. We were very lucky that there was a big pile of loose straw below, and we landed in it, while the bales all fell on top of us. Although we were shocked, and relieved that were not dead, our main fear was that the farmer would find us and give us a well-deserved rollicking. So we did the decent thing, and scarpered in the hope he didn’t realise that it was us who had destroyed his carefully constructed tower of bales.

I never did find out whether he knew that we had caused this mishap because he never mentioned it. He sadly passed away some years ago, but his son still leaves there. So if he is reading this, I’d like to finally come clean and apologise!

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

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 10th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 8th June 2022

Dad’s mystery lady

 

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Extensive searches were carried out after the body was found in 1981

 

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A wax reconstruction was made to show what the mystery lady may have looked like

 

My attention has been caught this week by a mystery that has haunted our neck of the woods for the past 41 years, and one in which my dad was actively involved. It is the case that some call ‘The Nude in the Nettles’, but that my dad referred to as ‘the Unknown Lady of Sutton Bank’.

On 29th August 1981 a man phoned Ripon Police Station to say that there was a body by the road towards Scawton and Rievaulx, not far from its junction with the A170 Thirsk to Scarborough route. When the officer on duty asked for the gentleman’s name, he gave the strange reply, “I can’t identify myself for reasons of national security.”

At first they thought it might be a crank call, but the local bobby was still despatched to investigate. Sure enough, he did find badly decomposed remains, including a skull and a few bones darkened with age. A wall of dense rosebay willow herbs, which in August grow up to six feet tall, meant the remains were invisible to passers-by and so the conclusion was that the caller would only have known about the body if he had some connection to it being placed there. To this day, that man has never been traced.

Dad was immediately involved in the investigation in his role as North Yorkshire Police press officer. He was to co-ordinate the force’s public response, give media updates, and issue appeals to help identify the dead woman and find her killer, if indeed she had been murdered (and although foul play is suspected, this has still not been conclusively proven).

Dad advised his superiors that it would be prudent not to announce the discovery publicly until after that evening’s TV news bulletins. He reasoned that whoever made the call would be watching, and when nothing was broadcast, it might prompt him to either contact them again, or even revisit the scene. Officers were posted to keep a watch on the dump site, but the man never made contact again.

Forensic examinations revealed that the body had lain there for about two years, and established that she could not have been put there before 6th October 1979 thanks to the date on the lid of a jar of meat paste lying beneath the remains. A jockey also came forward, as he exercised horses daily past that location, and he reported that in the October of 1979, there had been a horrid smell lasting for days which he put down to the rotting carcass of a badger or fox. He was planning on investigating further, but then broke his leg, and by the time he was back in the saddle, the smell had gone so he forgot all about it.

There is lots more to tell about this story, and if you want to know more, Dad goes into far more detail in his book, Murders and Mysteries from the North York Moors. He retired from the police the following year, 1982, but always followed developments with a keen interest, saddened every time they led to another dead end.

The reason the story has made the news now is because North Yorkshire’s Cold Case Review Team issued a new appeal in March which has resulted in 28 fresh names being put forward. The police will rule out those they can, and then, as there is DNA on file, they will be able to test any family members of the remaining names and possibly establish if anyone on that list is our unknown lady.

To remind you, the woman was dark-haired, around 5’4” tall, had size four feet, and a malformation in the upper spine, which means she may have held her head at an unusual angle. She was also a mother who had given birth at least two, possibly three, times. Her children would be middle-aged or even older now. Does anyone reading this know someone whose mum disappeared suddenly in the late 1970s? Perhaps they were told she had gone of her own accord? If you’d rather not go to the police, get in touch with me via my contact page at countrymansdaughter.com.

Even the tiniest scrap of information can lead to a breakthrough, so wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could finally give our Lady of Sutton Bank a name?

And I know that that would make Dad very happy too.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 3rd and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 1st June 2022.

Boobs, bottoms and buns

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When I was at school, I could eat whatever I liked without putting on a pound

This week should be a good one for me, as it is my birthday. I am now at that age (actually, I’ve been at ‘that’ age for longer than I care to remember) where celebrating another passing year is a mixed blessing.

On the one hand, it is a good excuse to make my boys do as many chores as possible on the day itself while I sit back, relax, and indulge in various unhealthy treats that I usually deny myself.

But there’s no getting away from the fact that I am another year older, another year stiffer and another year wrinklier. I do try to keep myself fit, and to eat fairly healthily, but there are those days when I just cannot be bothered with all of that, and accept that with those extra few chips on my plate will come an extra few inches on the hips. I’m not sure when I went from being able to eat whatever I liked without adding a pound, to simply sniffing a piece of cake and putting on half a stone.

The thing is, as long as I work hard in the swimming pool I can keep it off. I treat my time in the pool like others treat a gym workout, and swim non-stop at a fast pace for between 45 minutes and an hour. It’s hard work, and I imagine those around me watch in awe as I glide elegantly up and down. I’m sure they don’t really see a slightly dumpy and knackered middle-aged woman struggling through the lengths. Despite the effort, I do feel fantastic afterwards, and strut out of the leisure centre feeling like an Olympic athlete.

What disappoints me though, is that all that work doesn’t use up as many calories as you might think. An hour of front crawl uses up far fewer calories than a Big Mac meal or a 200g bar of milk chocolate, both of which are over 1000 calories a pop. If I want to continue to enjoy the nice treats in life into old age, then it seems I will need to be swimming a marathon every week.

It never used to be like that. In my school days, I could consume crisps, sweets and chips to my heart’s content. I went to a weekly boarding school, and we would have tea at 4pm which was usually cakes of some kind. My favourite was the iced sticky finger bun, and sometimes there were a few left over. On those days, I would always go in for seconds, or thirds, and I remember one day I even had fourths! And yet, I never put on any weight.

As with many things, that began to change with age, yet the bad eating habits of my youth did not, and so the pounds gradually crept on. Once I was a couple of stone heavier, I began to realise that I had to eat less and exercise more if I wanted to retain my shape, and that has been my battle ever since. I could blame my three pregnancies, but looking around, there are plenty of slender woman who have three or more children, so it’s not really a valid argument.

Part of me likes to blame my gap year for the start of the rot. I went to live in Greece, having been inspired by my older sister Tricia. When she was 18, she had gone to live in Italy, and one of the things I noticed when she came back was that, having left a skinny girl, she came back with the body of a woman. By that, I mean, she had developed a pair of proper boobs. She put it down to the fact that Italians used lots of olive oil in their cooking.

I wasn’t very blessed in that department, and over the years had been teased by boys for being flat chested. So when it was my turn to go abroad to Greece, I remembered what Tricia had said, and was delighted to discover that the Greeks used copious amounts of olive oil in their cooking too. So, with the goal of growing my boobs, I indulged very enthusiastically in whatever food was put in front of me.

Needless to say, at the end of the year, rather than gain an ample bosom, all I’d gained was an ample bottom.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 27th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 25th May 2022.

Do you know your rights?

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The rather wordy Harland family plaque in All Hallows Church, Sutton-on-the- Forest

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All Hallows Church, Sutton-on-the-Forest  has a number of impressive  plaques droning the walls. 

The other day I had cause to visit All Hallows Church in the pretty village of Sutton-on-the-Forest near York and my attention was caught by a rather imposing and elaborate plaque on the wall next to me.

It was a memorial to a couple who had passed away and, apart from instantly knowing that it must be dedicated to a very important local family, the wording of the inscription caught my eye. It went like this:

‘Near this Place Are deposited the Remains of PHILIP HARLAND Esq. and ELIZABETH his Wife; Eminent Examples Of Conjugal and Parental Affection.
To perpetuate their own Gratitude And to do Justice to such Respectable Characters, Their two surviving Daughters ELIZABETH and ANNE Have erected this Monument.’ Then followed their parents’ ages (59 and 52) and dates of death (1766 and 1763).

Good grief, I thought, this couple obviously set the bar for marital perfection at quite a height! How can the rest of us ordinary folk possibly live up to that? Childishly, it also made me silently snigger, because for me, the word ‘conjugal’ instantly evoked images of sexually frustrated prisoners being allowed a brief rendezvous with their partner after months of enforced abstinence.

It is only in recent times that the word ‘conjugal’ inspires silly people like me to think primarily of the sexual relationship between two people, rather than the relationship between them as a whole. The word comes from the Latin ‘con’ meaning ‘together’ and ‘iugum’ meaning ‘yoke’, suggesting a couple who are formally joined together (‘Conjux’ means ‘spouse’). Today, as well as the term ‘conjugal visit’, we also refer to ‘conjugal bliss’, inspiring images of two people living together, to the exclusion of all others, in a state of perpetual contentment.

Of course, it is far from the truth, but when people pass away, we do have a tendency to gloss over the bad bits. Yes, there are many marriages that are successful, happy and long-lasting, but to suggest that they are in a permanent, unshakable state of utter bliss is, quite frankly, poppycock.

Every marriage has its ups and downs, its highs and lows. Maintaining a long-term relationship with the same person for years on end while life lobs its regular curveballs at you can be far from blissful, no matter how much you love each other. Maybe the best description for a partnership that stays the distance is ‘conjugal stamina’ rather than bliss.

There used to be such a thing as ‘conjugal rights’, where a husband could insist on sexual relations with his wife whether she wanted them or not. It stemmed from the days when women were considered the property of their husband the minute they tied the knot and ‘conjugal rights’ were part of that marriage contract. It astonished me to learn that as recently as 1991 it was not considered rape if a man forced himself upon his wife against her will. In a landmark case, a man had been convicted of raping his wife the previous year, but he appealed against the decision, citing that his conjugal rights as a husband meant he could have sex with her  even if she did not consent.

The ruling ultimately went to the House of Lords, and members rejected the husband’s appeal unanimously, stating: ‘Nowadays, it cannot seriously be maintained that by marriage a wife submits herself irrevocably to sexual intercourse in all circumstances.’ In the Sexual Offences Act 2003, the illegality of rape within marriage was explicitly laid out so that there could be no such debates in the future. Now, sex without consent is rape, whatever or wherever the situation. If convicted, you can be sentenced for between four and 14 years, depending on the circumstances. In certain situations, a life sentence can even be given.

Going back to the plaque that inspired me to write this, I had a wander around the church and there were several more, all featuring equally loquacious epitaphs extolling the endless qualities of the deceased.

It made me wonder whether, when my time draws near, that I should make it known that I will expect my sons to erect a similarly fancy plaque near my resting place that lists all my earthly virtues. I can imagine their responses, but as this is a respectable publication, it might not be the right place to reveal them.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 20th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 18th May 2022.

Reasons to be careful

This week sees the 13th of the month fall on a Friday. I’m not particularly superstitious, and yet I do experience mild hesitation when thinking about plans that involve that date. I would probably avoid arranging to travel or do anything else significant unless I absolutely have to. Just in case.

It surprised me to learn that this superstition is relatively modern, and there are no written references to it before the nineteenth century. One early suggestion comes in a biography of Italian composer Gioachino Rossini written in 1869 by Henry Sutherland Edwards who says that ‘If it be true that, like so many Italians, he regarded Fridays as an unlucky day and thirteen as an unlucky number, it is remarkable that on Friday 13th of November, he passed away.’

And then in 1907, American millionaire stockbroker Thomas W Lawson, who had a reputation for being superstitious, wrote the novel ‘Friday the Thirteenth’ in which the protagonist chooses that day to take revenge upon Wall Street. Lawson’s misgivings about the date were compounded when a boat bearing his name sank off the Isles of Scilly at around 1.15am UK time on 14th December 1907. With the time difference, in Boston where Lawson was living, it would have still been Friday the 13th for him. Some believe that it was Lawson’s book that triggered the fear associated with the 13th day of the month landing on a Friday.

But if this was the case, then you would have expected a mention in a 1910 book by T. Sharper Knowlson called ‘Origins of Popular Superstitions and Customs’, but there is nothing about it. Connecting bad luck with the number 13 does go back further, as do references to Friday being the unluckiest day of the week, but the two are rarely joined together before the early part of the 20th century.

Some would argue that it does go back much further, attributing it to the Christian belief that there were thirteen people at Jesus Christ’s last supper on Maundy Thursday. Judas is considered to be the unlucky 13th guest who betrayed Jesus to the authorities, sealing his fate to be crucified the next day, a Friday.

And yet, there are no early written references to Friday the 13th specifically being an inauspicious date. Just because we can’t find anything written down does not mean that it didn’t exist though – it could have just been a ‘word-of-mouth’ kind of fear. But conflicting with this is the fact that in the 17th century, the publication of almanacs became very popular. These were books containing information, folklore and superstitions relevant to every date in the year, and no mention of the unlucky Friday the 13th has ever been discovered. Before almanacs, scholarly types would keep diaries detailing their everyday lives and thoughts (Samuel Pepys being the most famous) and yet again, no reference to this unlucky date has ever been found.

So with all that in mind, I can’t be certain when or where this most famous of superstitions originated. And is it actually any more unlucky than any other date in the year? It could be said that it is rather unlucky for the economy as it has been proven that people travel less, spend less and party less on that particular date.

If the month starts on a Sunday, then the 13th will be a Friday and it can happen up to three times in one year. In 2022 there is only one, while in 2023 there will be two (January and October). The next time that three occur in the same year will be 2026. There are four notable unfortunate events that did occur on the date. On Friday 13th, 1307, King Philip IV of France ordered the mass arrest (and later, execution) of hundreds of members of the religious and military order, the Knights Templar, successfully disrupting their power and influence. On Friday 13th September 1940, the Germans bombed Buckingham Palace during World War II, and in November 1970, a cyclone killed 300,000 people in Bangladesh on that date. Then, in 1996, rapper Tupac Shakur was shot dead on Friday 13th September. But that is not a lot of significant events over so many hundreds of years, is it?

Do you think it is worth make any changes to your regular routine to minimise the risk of a calamity befalling you?

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

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 13th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 11th May 2022.

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Buckingham Palace was bombed during the Second World War on Friday 13th 1941.
Picture by Lucien Smith