A great murmur in the sky

Up to 250,000 starlings gathered at Ripon City Wetlands Nature Reserve
Towards the end, they grouped so close together they looked like a giant slithering anaconda

I was fortunate recently to go and watch the incredible starling murmuration that has been happening most days over the past few months at the Ripon City Wetlands, a nature reserve managed by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust.

Because this one was causing quite the stir, I decided it was worth the effort of travelling the hour or so to see it. There’s no guarantee that our feathered friends will put on a performance, and the weather can be a factor (rain puts them off), but I was very lucky to witness an incredible spectacle, the like of which I have never experienced before. It was proper bucket list stuff.

The show started just after 5pm with a warm up of just a few posses of birds flying and swooping around the lakes and trees. Gradually, these groups grew larger as they merged together, and more groups flew in, until the sky was filled with a colossal mass of around a quarter of a million starlings. From a distance it looked like the biggest swarm of bees you’ll ever see, the whole lot at times seeming to move as one, swirling and swooping in unison as if performing some highly choreographed dance where every participant knew their role and their moves. Every now and then a few would break away to create huge floating, liquid shapes in the sky.

What surprised me was the relative quiet. Starlings are known for their animated chatter, but during the murmuration they were completely mute, and as the grey cloud of birds drew closer to where I was standing, all I could hear was a constant whooshing sound generated by thousands and thousands of fluttering wings. As the massive flock flew directly over my head, it felt like an enormous ceiling in fan whirring above me.

As the sun started to set and the sky grew darker, the flock grew denser, the birds grouping closer and closer together, so that they resembled a brooding storm cloud, churning above the earth. The spectacle was building to a crescendo and the cloud of birds appeared to morph into a huge black anaconda, slithering at speed much closer to the water and reed beds of the wetlands. If you’ve ever watched a Harry Potter film and seen the flying dementors, you have some idea of what it looked like. It was simply mesmerising. Then all of a sudden, this great big snake swooped up and slithered round until, suddenly, it merged into the vegetation and was gone. The whole display lasted a good forty minutes, and was possibly one of the best natural shows I have ever had the privilege to see.

Only once they had roosted did the starlings begin to chatter, and with so many in such close quarters, it was quite the racket! But why do starlings murmurate? And why so many in one place? A gathering of 100,000 starlings is considered a large murmuration, but at Ripon the estimates range from 150,000 to 250,000 birds.

It is thought that the reason they flock together like this is because there is more safety in numbers. If you are flying in a large group, then it is much more difficult for a predator, like the peregrine falcon, to single you out. And once you roost, huddling together in large groups is a very effective way of keeping warm. Being very social creatures, starlings take the opportunity share information about the best places to source food too.

One of the reasons that so many have gathered in Ripon is that over the past few years the City Wetlands have worked hard to improve the quality of their lakes and reed beds, making them a very attractive habitat. News among the starling community has obviously spread, and now smaller murmurations that would occur at neighbouring sites, such as Staveley and Nosterfield nature reserves, have moved over to Ripon.

One thing that occurred to me while I looked to the heavens as the thousands of birds flew over was that those of us on the ground were sitting targets for their – how shall I put it – mucky missiles! No sooner had that thought crossed my mind that I looked down to the phone in my hand and a slimy deposit landed slap bang in the middle of the screen.

Does that make me lucky or unlucky I wonder?

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 March 2023

Another quest I wonder?

The sampler made by Mary ‘Polly’ Atkinson, my mum’s mum’s mother.
Polly and her daughter Mary, my mum’s mum. It was a great source of sorrow that Polly was buried without a headstone to mark her resting place.

I’ve been bowled over by the way my recent columns about the search for descendants of Hannah Raw have resulted in a mini-band of internet sleuths forming to help me in my quest. All I had at the beginning was a sampler on a wall with her name, age (nine) and the date she made it (1835).

It was found rolled up with another sampler belonging to my great great aunt on my mother’s side, Jane Lacy, who was aged 10 at the time she created her sampler in 1837. It now hangs on our kitchen wall alongside Jane’s and another by my mum’s grandmother, Mary ‘Polly’ Lacy (nee Atkinson). As far as we know, we are not related to the Raw family, so I wondered how it came to be in our possession.

As those of you who follow this column know, since then we have managed to flesh out much of Hannah’s story, thanks to you lovely lot getting in touch. We know that she married, had two daughters, and went on to become a grandmother to eight children. She died in 1880 at the age of 64, and is buried in Glaisdale with her husband John Hall, who died 23 years later aged 87.

Well, dear readers, the story doesn’t end there. Carol McLee has been in touch, and she is the Chairman of the Cleveland, North Yorkshire and South Durham Family History Society. She revealed that her team have transcribed the headstones of hundreds of graves, including those at the Church of St Thomas in Glaisdale where Hannah is buried. All these, along with historical parish records of births, deaths and marriages are available from the society’s website.

Carol added another layer to Hannah’s ever-expanding story. Hannah’s daughter Ellis, if you recall, married a joiner named William Hodgson in 1878. The couple’s first child was a daughter, named Hannah Margaret (after ‘our’ Hannah) but, as was not unusual at the time, she only lived a very short life, dying at the age of six in February 1885. As we know, though, the couple went on to have seven more children, and I am hopeful as a result, there are living descendants out there.

We also know that ‘our’ Hannah’s other daughter, Sarah Hall, never married, but lived with her parents in a three-bedroomed house at Lealholm Bridge. She was a dressmaker and took care of her father John until his death in 1903. Thanks to Carol, we now know that Sarah died in October 1926 at the age of 77. Unfortunately, Carol was unable to find a record for the burial of Hannah’s other daughter Ellis Hodgson (occasionally spelled Ellice). Did they move away I wonder?

She did, however, reveal that Hannah’s parents-in-law were Matthew and Sarah Hall, and that Matthew owned a joinery business that was passed on to Hannah’s husband John and his younger brother Thomas Hall after Matthew’s death in 1851. My cousin, who lives in Egton, knows a few Raw’s and Hall’s, so is going to have a chat with them to see if he can dig up anything of use. I feel it in my bones that we are not far away from tracking down the elusive living descendants of Hannah Raw!

I was discussing all this with my mum, and she revealed that her maternal grandparents are buried in separate plots in the graveyard of St James’ Church, Lealholm, but at the time of their deaths, the family did not have enough money to buy headstones. It was a source of great sorrow to my nana that her parents’ graves were unmarked, and my mum does not know where in the graveyard they are. Unfortunately, her two elder brothers may have known, but they are no longer with us and without a headstone, they may be difficult to pinpoint. As you may have already worked out, one of these is the grave of the above-mentioned Mary ‘Polly’ Atkinson, who embroidered one of the three samplers on our kitchen wall, next to Hannah Raw’s.

I wonder if you are thinking what I am thinking – that this might be start of another quest? I am going to find out where the resting places of my great grandparents are, and I will go lay some flowers there on behalf of my nana and my mum. And one day, perhaps, we can give them the headstones that they deserve.

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 March 2023

Photographic memories

At the end of our skirmish across the North York Moors, we were blessed with the most stunning sunset, seen here from Wheeldale Gill. It was the perfect end to a perfect day.


The Esk Valley News Quarterly, and in the background on my iPad, the article about my dad which included the picture of my parents’ wedding that I had been searching for all day long.


On one of my recent skirmishes across the North York Moors, I particularly wanted to visit St Hedda’s Church in Egton Bridge because, as well as being a beautiful building, it is where my parents were married.

I wanted to show it to my companion because, although it doesn’t look that special on the outside, inside it is an absolutely stunning church. Designed in 1867 by notable architect Matthew Ellison Hadfield (who was also responsible for the Catholic cathedrals in Salford and Sheffield) when you open the doors you are greeted by a vision of colour and splendour, dominated by a spectacular curved sky blue ceiling decorated with gold stars. The altar is surrounded on all sides by brightly coloured paintings and panels depicting saints and scenes from the life of Jesus Christ. It is reminiscent of the ornate church interiors you see in places like Italy and Spain rather than in a remote corner of the North York Moors.

As we came out of the church, I was keen to show my friend a favourite picture of Mum and Dad leaving the church just after their wedding. They married on 10th January 1959 after a nasty snow storm, and it is a gorgeously atmospheric image taken by Whitby photographer John Tindale.

I scrolled through the photos on my phone, but could I find the picture in question? I could not. It may have had something to do with the fact there are, ridiculously, 30,000+ stored on there. I spent much of the rest of the day trying to locate it in between our various pit stops. I finally gave up and concentrated on the task in hand, which was looking for Hannah Raw’s grave (as featured last week) and visiting the Witching Post pub in Egton, which is has a witch post in the ceiling as you walk into the bar.

Once at the pub, we got chatting to the charming staff, explaining what we were doing. They suggested that I needed to get my hands on a copy of the local magazine, Esk Valley News, the latest edition of which had just come out. It had a piece on witch posts and they informed us that we could get hold of it at the Co-op in Grosmont, so that was our next destination. 

I must confess that I imagined this magazine would be some amateurish free pamphlet put together with the main aim of advertising local trades and suppliers. How wrong was I! I was presented with a very professionally-produced journal stretching to a whopping 165 pages. It is a quarterly publication, and this edition was a ‘folklore, witchcraft and tradition’ special, absolutely jam-packed with contributions from local writers and experts. Having a quick flick through I put it in my bag, planning to read it properly when I got home (Incidentally, if you are ever in Grosmont, then I recommend you visit this little Co-op because not only is it a very useful shop and post office, it also stocks delicious home-made pies, pastries and cakes, and we couldn’t resist indulging!).

It was a very successful trip, and provided me (as you may have noticed over recent weeks) with plenty of fodder for future columns. We ended the day with a walk along Wheeldale Gill, and on the way back were blessed with one the most glorious sunsets I have seen. It was the perfect end to a perfect day.

Once home, I handed my copy of Esk Valley News to my mum, who was born and bred there, and therefore was very interested to see it. In the meantime, I sat down to mull over the day’s events and examine the dozens of pictures I’d taken on the trip, deciding which ones would the best to accompany future columns (which explains why I have 30,000+ on my phone!). 

Mum’s voice interrupted me: “Did you buy this because your dad is in it?”

“What?” I took back the magazine, and sure enough, there was a two-page feature on my dad written by a childhood friend. I had no idea and had failed to spot it when I’d flicked through earlier.

And right there with the article was a picture of my parents at their wedding. Yes, the very same one I’d been looking for all day long. I think that is what one might call a rather serendipitous purchase.

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 March 2023

Wheeling back time

Wheeldale Road on the North York Moors is often called the ‘Roman Road’, but is it actually Roman in origin?

On a recent outing across the North York Moors, my companion and I opted for a quiet back road from Pickering, up through Newton-on-Rawcliffe towards Stape and beyond, which ultimately ends up in the village where my parents were married, Egton Bridge.

It is a road that is not for the faint-hearted because more or less all the way it is barely wider than a single track, so you have to be constantly on your guard for traffic coming in the other direction. There is an unwritten code among moorland drivers that, when faced with an oncoming vehicle, both of you slow down, and the one nearest to a suitable place to pull in does so to allow the other to pass. A flash of the headlights or a raised hand is always in order to thank the person who gave way, and they usually respond with friendly wave. Patience is the virtue of the North York Moors driver.

There are, of course, those that ignore that code, those who feel that they own the roads and everyone else should get out of their way. They simply refuse to pull in and head towards you with a stubborn pig-headedness that is selfish and irritating. We have a name for these kinds of drivers that I won’t repeat here!

The occasional bad driver did not detract from this gorgeous route though, which took us past the old Wheeldale Road, also known as Wade’s Causeway after the legend where the giant Wade builds a way for his wife Bel to more easily drive her flock of  sheep across the inhospitable landscape. It’s an ancient route that many refer to as the Roman Road, thanks to it appearing on a 1720 map, and in historical texts, with that name.

The thing is, it might not be Roman at all, as its constriction differs from other roads that are confirmed to be Roman in origin. Archaeologists debate to this day about who built it and when. There are characteristics which point away from the Italian invaders, such as the fact that its upper surface is made up of large stone slabs, whereas Roman roads were covered in gravel. Roman roads are also renowned for being dead straight, whereas the Wheeldale Road has a number of curves.

Although only a short section is visible today, some believe it linked Whitby with a Roman settlement at Amotherby near Malton, passing through the camp at Cawthorn near Pickering. Traces of an ancient road have been found in that direction, which adds weight to the theory. However, other archaeologists suggest it is much later and of mediaeval construction, while others think it dates from even earlier than the Romans, and attribute it to the Neolithic or Bronze ages.

Is it possible that it is a mish-mash of all those ideas? Perhaps ancient man forged what they thought was the easiest route across the landscape, and then the Romans came along and rather than go to the trouble of digging out a whole new road, used what was already there to create a more formal and recognisable road. Then in the mediaeval period, moor dwellers patched it up a bit, and added their own features, and as such, sparked a debate which has divided historians ever since. Of course, I know absolutely nothing about it really, so am hopeful that some expert reading this will put me straight.

On the subject of ancient highways, I am fascinated by stories of the old drove roads that criss-cross North Yorkshire, particularly with the idea that men would move great herds of livestock all the way from Scotland to London to sell at the markets there. Drovers were renowned for being extremely hardy, and I found a cutting from 1985 in my Dad’s files about a Yorkshire Dalesman named Jammy O’Sarah’s who drove a flock of sheep up hill and down dale through days of freezing blizzards to get to their new owner in Skirethorns.

When he finally emerged at his destination, the sheep’s fleeces ‘were so burdened by rain, sleet and snow and frozen by the wind that they could scarcely trudge through the gathering drifts.’ And all Jammy said was: “It’s been what you might call a comfortless journey,” before collapsing where he stood with cold and exhaustion.

Thankfully, he was saved from death after being fed with ‘enough rum to kill a weaker man’.

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 March 2023

Flowers for Hannah

I had a quiet moment of reflection after placing my tulips on Hannah’s grave in Glaisdale.
The inscription on Hannah Raw/Hall’s grave, where she is buried. She died in 1890 at the age of 64. Readers’ detective work helped me track the grave down.


The quest to find out more about Hannah Raw has produced some excellent information, thanks in a large part to reader Marion Atkinson’s endeavours. Best of all, Marion told me where she was buried.

If you remember, nine-year-old Hannah’s 19th century sampler is on my mum’s kitchen wall alongside two by my ancestors Mary Atkinson and Jane Lacy. We didn’t know anything about Hannah or how we came to have her sampler, but for many years it was kept rolled up with Jane Lacy’s at my Nana’s home. I wanted to find out who Hannah was, and why we had possession of her pretty piece of sewing. Thanks to Marion, and to sampler and family history enthusiast Gillian Hunt, we had started to build a picture of Hannah’s life (we also discovered that, remarkably, Marion and I are distant relatives!).

We found out that sadly Hannah’s parents had died when she was young, her mum Ellis in the same year that Hannah created her sampler (1835) and her father Matthew when she was just 13. By the time of the 1841 census, 15-year-old orphan Hannah was in service living with the Adamson family. Initially we thought that there was no trace of her after the 1841 census. But we were wrong!

Thanks to Marion’s detective work, we can now flesh out much of the rest of Hannah’s story.

On 23rd December 1850 when she was 24, Hannah married John Hall, 34, a grocer and draper born in Castleton and they set up home in Lealholm. By the time of the next census ten years later, the couple had had two children, Sarah, aged nine, and six-year-old Ellis, named after Hannah’s late mother. Husband John was now listed as a joiner and wheelwright. Not much of note changed for the next ten years, but by the 1881 census, when Hannah was 55 and John 65, 26-year-old Ellis had left home, while 29-year-old Sarah, listed as a dressmaker, was still living with her parents.

In fact Sarah never married, and lived with Hannah and John all their lives. Sadly, Hannah died in 1890 at Lealholm aged 64 (and not in the Whitby district a year later, as we had wondered in my last piece about her). Marion also told me that John died in 1903 at Lealholm when he was aged 87 and that both were buried in the graveyard of the Church of St Thomas, Glaisdale.

Now I don’t need much of an excuse to go for a spin across the North York Moors, especially to the village where my dad was born, so last Sunday, a friend and I jumped in the car and set off on the hunt for Hannah’s grave. I was determined to lay some flowers and pay my respects to this child/woman whose nearly 200-year-old piece of embroidery on our kitchen wall sparked such curiosity, and whose start in life had been so difficult.

The grave wasn’t hard to find, as I was armed with a picture of it that was already available online. Finally I was as close as I was ever going to get to meeting Hannah Raw. I lay down my tulips, and read the inscription:



I spent a quiet moment thinking of Hannah, of how difficult her childhood must have been and hoping that, against the odds, she had found some happiness in life.

And it seems she did. Her youngest daughter Ellis married Glaisdale joiner William Hodgson in 1878, and thanks to them, Hannah became a grandmother to eight children, four boys and four girls.

Therefore, we can conclude that there must be some living descendants of Hannah Hall (nee Raw), and wouldn’t it be wonderful if one of them is reading this piece? If you think that is you, then please get in touch by either contacting this paper, or through my contact page at countrymansdaughter.com.

One of my goals was to find a picture of Hannah, but as photography was in still its infancy when she was alive, it’s unlikely one exists. There is a tiny glimmer of hope though. Famous Moors photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe (1853-1941) was active during Hannah’s lifetime, so who knows? Maybe he snapped our long lost lady!

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 February 2023

City rocks the boat

The view of Tower Bridge at night from our houseboat on the River Thames

Houseboats became popular thanks to the Henley Royal Regatta

I was very fortunate recently to be invited to a friend’s 40th birthday celebration which involved staying on a houseboat on the River Thames just a few hundred metres east of Tower Bridge.

The boat, which was constructed in 1904, is permanently moored and commands spectacular views of the famous bridge and central London. We were blessed with glorious weather which enhanced the amazing modern architecture of iconic glass buildings such as the Shard, the Walkie-Talkie Building and the Gherkin (I know some of these structures have proper names, but as I don’t have a clue what they are, nicknames it is!).

Because it was a midweek in January, and despite being in the heart of the London tourist trail, where we were was relatively quiet which made it a pleasure to walk along the river, through the famous Borough Market and past the Tower of London without having to fight our way through hoards of people. I even got a seat on the tube whenever I needed one.

Staying on the boat was a wonderful experience. As the sun went down, the pink-gold light reflected upon the multitude of glass windows in the City, and as the sky gradually darkened, lights began to come on along the streets and in the buildings, including on Tower bridge itself, until the whole lot was illuminated like the set of a Christmas film. It was a privilege to be able to sit on the upper deck in the dark and just marvel at the uninterrupted and very special view in front of us. Because we were on a boat, despite being so close to the City, it was very quiet, apart from the sound of lapping water and boats passing by.

For some reason, because we knew it was permanently moored, it took us by surprise to find that the houseboat would rock on the water, especially when other vessels passed by. Lying in bed, it felt like it had set off, even though we went nowhere. It was quite a strange sensation. We soon learned that the Thames has two rush hours, just like the roads. The first one is between 6am and 9am, and the second, between 4pm and 7pm, and that’s when our boat was at its rockiest. For one of our guests, it was all a bit much, and she became genuinely seasick. She was quite relieved that she could only stay one night!

Thankfully, I didn’t suffer in that way, and found the gentle undulating motion quite relaxing. The boat was very smart, with oak flooring over its two storeys, expensive furniture, four double bedrooms, two bathrooms, and all the other mod-cons you’d expect in an upmarket holiday let.

Owning houseboats became popular in London in the wake of the Henley Royal Regatta, the first of which was held in 1839. The mayor of Henley-on-Thames, which lies around 40 miles west of London, decided that his town needed a public attraction, and it was originally set up as an annual fair with amusements, stalls and boat races.

The races were extremely popular with attendees, and so the emphasis of the event focussed on rowing contests for amateur oarsmen across two days of competition (which has stretched to five today). In 1851, HRH Prince Albert consented to be the regatta’s patron and since his death in 1861, the reigning monarch has always agreed to be patron, allowing the event to add ‘Royal’ to its title.

The regatta became the must-see occasion for anyone who was anyone in Victorian times, and the fashionable elite who could afford it started to buy fancy houseboats so that they could watch the races from an unparalleled position on the river itself. Soon, the water was bustling with houseboats, so much so that other rich spectators started to show a preference towards more permanent holiday homes along the riverside. And as such, the popularity of houseboats waned and by the dawn of the 20th century, they had became a less common sight upon the River Thames.

There are thousands of people who live on houseboats today, and it is considered a more eco-friendly and sustainable way of life. How would you feel about living on the water?

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 February 2023

Tea with a presidential touch

Why do some people people pour their tea into a saucer before drinking it?

Following my columns about tea, I have discovered that we not only have our quirks about the way we make tea, how we add milk, and what shade of brown we like, but there also those who have their own ways of physically drinking it.

I have a specific mug that is my favourite, and if that is in the wash, I have the second best and so on. I like drinking out of a cup and saucer when I’m out at a nice tea shop, because it makes it feel rather special, but I choose not to at home as a cup simply doesn’t contain enough tea for the amount I consume in one sitting. I down three mugs in rapid succession in the morning, so if I was restricted to dainty little cups, I’d be constantly having to fill them up.

But there are some people who don’t drink from either a mug or a cup. I was contacted by Phil Collier from Farndale who told me: “It brought to mind my grandfather, Jack Wardell, who farmed at North Farm, Fadmoor. Grandfather’s tea was always milk first and tea leaves, not bags. He always took his tea in a big cup and saucer. Said tea was then poured into the saucer and drunk from it. Quite a delicate touch for someone with agricultural hands. He drank his tea this way until his death. Thank you for the articles, always something to remind us of the old times.”

I asked Phil if he thought pouring tea from a cup into a saucer was just a quirk of his grandfather, or whether it was a peculiarly North Yorkshire way of supping the brew. He didn’t know, and so both of us asked our mothers if they knew of anyone who drank tea in this rather unusual way, and neither of them did.

After discussing it with his wife Shirley Ann, Phil discovered that her father had also drunk his tea that way. “He was a fruit grower in Norfolk and she thinks it was to cool it so he could get back onto the land. It sounds quite plausible,” he says. So I wondered then if it could it be a quirk of farmers rather than simply a North Yorkshire thing?

Having done a bit more research on this, I can confirm that Shirley Ann is absolutely right. Tea used to be drunk to quench thirst far more than plain water, and usually labourers would only get short breaks. So to be able to drink the steaming hot brew comfortably but within the limited time window, the workers would pour a little bit into their saucers to cool it quickly and allow them to satisfy their thirst.

When tea first started to be drunk many centuries ago in China, it was out of small bowls, which didn’t have handles like today’s teacups. If you’ve been to a Chinese restaurant recently and ordered tea, you will likely still have been served it in little cups without handles. But the green tea popular in China is meant to be drunk warm, rather than hot, and so holding the cup in your bare hands is not an issue.

Back in 18th century Europe, the popularity of Chinese green tea waned to be taken over by Indian black tea, which was drunk at a much higher temperature. It was difficult to hold the cup with bare hands, and that’s when we begin to see cups being made with handles on them, the first purportedly appearing in 1707 Germany thanks to a porcelain inventor named Johann Friedrich Bottge.

The problem of drips and spillages meant that soon after that saucers began to be made upon which you could set these daintily-handled little cups, saving scorched hands as well as protecting tables and fine cloths from stains due to spilt tea.

In the 18th century, pouring your tea into your saucer wasn’t just the preserve of lowly labourers, but was a fashionable thing to do among the well-to-do. There is a story that when Thomas Jefferson was questioning why the USA needed a Senate, George Washington explained that the Senate’s job was to ‘cool’ the heat of suggested legislation in the same way that Jefferson poured tea into his saucer to cool it down.

So it seems Phil Collier’s grandfather’s method of drinking tea was actually inspired by presidents.

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 February 2023

A witchy coincidence

The photo taken by my dad in 2008 of the witch post found in the house belonging to my friend Stephen Peill’s parents. Until now, neither of us knew our parents had ever met. 

Following my piece about witch posts I had some interesting responses. If you remember, these carved posts are usually found near fireplaces in very old houses and originally it was thought that the carvings, often featuring crosses, were intended to ward off evil spirits and witches, hence the name. But over the years, Dad came to believe they were in fact associated with the legendary Martyr of the North York Moors, Father Nicholas Postgate.

A friend of mine, Stephen Peill, got in touch to say that there had been one at his father’s house when they lived in Newton-on-Rawcliffe, near Pickering. I’m so grateful to people who get in touch like this because, firstly, it means they are  reading my column, and secondly it means I can go all detective and have a good rummage in my dad’s study, one of my favourite pastimes.

I found a couple of ring-bound folders labelled ‘witch posts’ and listed at the front were all the examples that, through exhaustive research and letter-writing, dad had managed to track down. And sure enough, there, at number 29 on the list, was an entry called ‘Old Pond House, Newton-on-Rawcliffe’.

I pulled out the relevant documents, which included information about the post itself, and also correspondence between my dad and the home-owners, who at the time were Stephen’s dad Doug and stepmum Sue.

Dad had written them an approach letter in January 2008, addressing it ‘Dear Witch Post owner’, so it is clear that he did not know them. He explains his purpose for contacting them, that he was conducting research for a book about witch posts, and included a questionnaire to fill in. Dad explains: “My research to date has led me to believe that these so-called witch posts are a valuable and largely neglected part of our northern history.”

Thankfully, Stephen’s parents were very happy to help, and a series of letters were exchanged, resulting in my mum and dad visiting the house in August 2008.

At the time, he wrote: “The cross post formed part of the inglenook hearth, but alterations have marooned it near the centre of the present dining room where it supports a massive beam, and indeed the ceiling.”

Afterwards, Dad sent them a thank you letter, and what I find especially interesting is the way he describes how he had tracked that particular post down: “Sue, you asked how I knew you had a post…I found a newspaper cutting dated 4th October 1984. It is from the Malton Gazette and Herald and it features the sale of your house. It says it contains a ‘witches post’. I am enclosing a copy for you to keep – and you’ll see the asking price of the house was £33,000. Quite a bargain!”

Stephen and I have known each since the mid-1980s when he used to frequent the local pub in which I worked. Despite that being almost 40 years ago, our little band of pub goers still meets regularly at parties and various social occasions. The remarkable thing is, until Stephen mentioned the witch post in the house at Newton-on-Rawcliffe, neither of us had had any idea that our parents had ever met!

I was also contacted by writer Terry Ashby who says: “I recall in the mid-1980s there was an historic cottage for sale in Beck Hole. It’s many years since I was in Beck Hole and I can’t remember the name of the property but it is at the far end of the green on the left side coming from the Birch Hall Inn. I’m sure there is a witch post near the open range.”

I think Terry is right, because in the same file is an entry about ‘Murk Side, Beck Hole’, an old thatched cottage which is mentioned in the Civil Recusant Returns for Egton from 1604-1778. So clearly this house was associated with Catholic resistance during the time of persecution, which backs up my dad’s theory that the ‘witch posts’ were somehow connected. The extremely sad thing is that Murk Side was pulled down in the early 20th century, but the post was moved into another house nearby, where I believe it still stands. There is too much information on this particular post to go into here, it could fill a whole other column.

And that then begs the question, should I finish the book that my dad started?

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 January 2023

Hannah’s story goes on

Hannah Raw’s sampler that hangs on my mum’s wall

The letters MR and ER on the bottom right are her parent’s initials. The letters ‘ER’ are in dark thread showing that her mother, Ellis, was dead before Hannah made this sampler.

Following my pieces about North York Moors orphan Hannah Raw, I have been contacted by Gillian Hunt from Newcastle, who loves to study samplers and also enjoys tracing family histories. Great news for me, and for any of you who are also intrigued by this expanding tale.

If you recall, nine-year-old Hannah’s 19th century sampler is on the wall of my mum’s kitchen alongside two done by my ancestors Mary Atkinson and Jane Lacy. We didn’t know anything about Hannah or how we came to have her sampler, but for many years it was kept rolled up with Jane Lacy’s at my Nana’s home. We had some clues (featured in my last piece) from my distant relative Marion Atkinson, who believed that Hannah’s parents died when she was quite young. 

Gillian suggests that there may be a Scottish influence in the sampler design because the peacock with the fanned tail at the lower left corner and the band of capital letters across the top are very characteristic of that region. Scottish samplers also contain a lot of red and green threads, which Hannah used, although it may be that these were all she had available. She adds that Scottish samplers often featured the initials of other family members which, if sewn in black or dark thread, meant they pre-deceased the sampler’s creator. Hannah’s sampler has two sets of initials after the date; MR, which is in pale blue, and ER, which is in dark grey. 

Gillan says: “I picked up Hannah on the 1841 census, but it is of limited use to genealogists as it does not give places of birth, relationships between the members of a household, and the ages may be slightly inaccurate. On the Library edition of Ancestry.com, often more information is pulled through at the right hand side of the page if you click their name on the census list. For Hannah, it pulled up only a record of baptism: ‘Hannah Roe, baptised 23 September 1825 at Glaisdale, daughter of Matthew Roe, a labourer, and his wife, Ellis of Hartoff (Hartoft)’.”

Gillian goes on: “Hannah’s parents’ names fit the initials MR and ER on the sampler. If Hannah worked the sampler early in 1835, she would still be nine years old at the time. The fact that the name has been recorded as Roe rather than Raw is not particularly concerning – names were often misheard and misspelled, even by curates. Ellis as a female name is very unusual. It is common for a mother’s maiden name to be given to a son as a first name but I have never come across it as a daughter’s name. Is it a corruption of Alice or Elise/Elisa?”

Gillian discovered that there was a marriage recorded at Danby on 29 August 1820 of Matthew Raw to Ellis Winspear, which must be Hannah’s parents due to the unusual name of the bride. Both signed the register with their mark, which meant they could not write. She also found a record of Ellis Raw being buried at Danby on 15 February 1835. There will not be a death certificate for her as civil registration did not begin until 1837 and given that her children were born at approximately two-yearly intervals, Gillian thinks it is possible that Ellis died as a result of pregnancy or child birth. As the initials ER are in dark thread, it means Hannah completed the sampler after her mother died and sometime before 23 September 1835, as she would have turned 10 years old by that date.

“There is a burial for Matthew Raw in the Pickering registration district (which covered Hartoft) registered between April and June 1838. This fits with your information that Hannah’s parents died when she was young. I can’t find any other information about him, except for the baptisms of his children,” says Gillian.

In conclusion, Gillian writes: “Hannah was born in 1825, the third of seven children of Matthew, a farmer, and Ellis Raw of Hartoft. Her sampler was completed in 1835, prior to 23 September 1835. Both parents had died by the time Hannah was 13. This probably meant that Hannah had little choice but to go into service, living with the Adamson family in 1841. There is no trace of Hannah after 1841 although it is possible she died unmarried in the Whitby registration district between April and June 1891 aged 76.”

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 January 2023