The Lion and the Lamb


March ‘came in like a lion’ causing flooding throughout much of Yorkshire
Flooding affected many routes in North Yorkshire in early March
March going out ‘like a lamb’ – from the isolated safety of my bedroom window

As many of you know, I produce this column a couple of weeks in advance, and I’m writing this one the day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s televised address to the nation. He announced an almost total lockdown across the country to halt the spread of Covid-19 in a bid to ease the anticipated strain on our health service.

I hope that two weeks on, you are adjusting to this unprecedented situation, and that this column gives at least a little bit of relief from it. Do contact me, either via this paper or through my contact page at, to let me know how you are coping with this imposed isolation.

I am very fortunate in that the pandemic hasn’t affected my writing life, as it is one of those few activities that still remains possible, and I’m sure there will be a surge in written material being produced by and for the isolated and the bored.

As I’m writing this in the last week of March, it brings to mind the saying ‘March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb’, which refers to the fact that at the start of March we often experience the harsh tale-end of winter, yet by the end, the signs of spring are well-established.

However, in my dad’s column from 12th April 1980, he says this: ‘I must comment of the age-old saying about March coming in like a lamb and going out like a lion. Nothing could provide better proof of the accuracy of that statement than the past month of March.’

I had to look at it twice, to make sure I’d read it right, as it seemed my dad had got the phrase the wrong way round. But that surprised me, as he was pretty accurate when it came to sayings in folklore. So it set me off on yet another detective-like meander on the Internet and into Dad’s countless reference books that I’ve turned to since taking on these columns. I also had to enlist the services of my brother, who is currently staying with my mum and, unlike me at the moment, has access to Dad’s study and even more reference books.

It was he that helped me solve this particular mystery and, of course, Dad hadn’t got it wrong after all. It turns out that the version I was alluding to had changed over time, and was missing an original, crucial word, which is ‘If’. The saying was used in folklore as a prediction of the weather to come. Therefore, it actually should be read like this, “If March comes in like a lion, it goes out like a lamb.”

And my brother also found reference to the exact opposite phrase, ‘If March comes in like a lamb, it goes out like a lion’. He deduced that the second saying was meant to be paired with the first, so that in the days before weather forecasting, our forefathers had a rough guide as to what the month might have in store.

So what my dad says makes complete sense when it came to describing the weather he had experienced during the March of 1980, whereas for us, March 2020 has been the opposite, with dreadful storms and floods causing havoc in the Dales and many other parts of Yorkshire at the beginning of the month, while at the end, we had more settled dry and sunny weather to see us out.

I’d like to thank Chris Hogg who got in touch after reading my column about the 1929 bus crash on Blue Bank in Sleights. He said: ‘Around the same time there was another fatal motor accident on the bank which was probably more shocking to the local population. Leonard, the son of local shipping magnate William Headlam of Raithwaite Hall, was killed driving his Alfa Romeo on his way to take part in a race at Brooklands. Both Leonard and his brother Billy were motor racing enthusiasts, Billy owning an Aston Martin. I have no other details of the accident only what my late mother told me.’

So of course, that is going to set me off on another exciting trip through the newspaper archives, and no doubt more details of this story will appear in an upcoming column. But if you can furnish me with any more information about it, do get in touch!

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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 10th and the Gazette & Herald on 8th April 2020

Village bowled me over


My son Joey stands beneath the oak tree atop the Felixkirk bowl barrow
A last family group selfie taken the day before the country went into lockdown

If you have been fortunate enough to be able to get outside recently, you may have noticed the increase in bird activity, as many of our overseas visitors return to our shores and fill the air with their song. Those returning include the redstart, the swallow, the sandpiper, the house martin, the cuckoo, and the nightingale. My dad mentions them in his column from 5th April 1980, summing it up beautifully: “Their arrival will be marked by song, and our resident birds will be in full voice too, and it is this music of the countryside that makes us realise that winter is truly behind us.”

It was my mum’s birthday a couple of weeks ago and we all went out for a lovely family meal at The Carpenter’s Arms at Felixkirk. I’m so glad we took the opportunity to get together as the following day was when Boris Johnson announced that we all had to avoid large gatherings and places such as pubs, restaurants, clubs and theatres. So it was the last chance for us to meet up as a family in a social situation. I’m so glad we took it!

Felixkirk is a lovely village lying north east of Thirsk, just below the Hambleton Hills. It’s what visitors might call a typical English village, with gorgeous cottages clustered around the church of St Felix and the pub, which at the back has stunning views out over the vale of Mowbray and the Yorkshire Dales beyond.

Unusually, at the heart of the village stands a statuesque oak tree atop a large grassy mound. As we sat in the pub looking out, we discussed what it might be and why it was there, and so I determined to find out.

In fact, the man-made mound is known as a bowl barrow, and is a very ancient burial site dating to between 2400 – 1500BC. It is so-called because its shape resembles an upturned bowl and there are believed to be more than 10,000 such sites in the country, many of which, like this one, are designated ancient monuments of national importance.

Some sites have been excavated for their archaeological interest, but this one hasn’t, and remains pretty much unchanged since it was first constructed, save for the addition of the oak tree. It is assumed, therefore, that the remains of the deceased within it are undisturbed, apart perhaps from being moved by tree roots.

Because it has never been dug up, we have no way of knowing how many bodies lie within, be it just the single person or multiple people. It is known locally as Howe Hill, with ‘howe’ being another word commonly associated with burial sites.

One of the most well-known collections of barrows is the Devil’s Humps at Stoughton on the South Downs. At its centre are four well-preserved barrows, including two bell-shaped barrows and two bowl barrows. There are also two pond barrows nearby, which got their name due to the fact they dip in the middle.

One of the bowl barrows was opened up in 1853, and they found it had already been disturbed and robbed of artefacts although they did find some burnt bones, a whetstone, a horse tooth and some Iron Age pottery fragments which are now in the British Museum. One of the bell barrows was also excavated in 1933, and a number of Iron Age and Bronze Age pottery fragments were unearthed.

These barrows are found all over the country, often in remote rural areas, and the scale of them can be seen particularly well from the air. In fact if you search for ‘burial mounds from the air’ on the Internet, it brings up lots of images, and reveals very clearly how our ancient forefathers dealt with their dead.

Before I finish, I just want to say that that my thoughts are with everyone affected by this awful Covid-19 pandemic, not only those directly touched by the illness, but also people whose businesses and livelihoods will be suffering. I fervently hope the Government’s actions will be enough to see us through this trying time.

As a last note, if you are stuck inside and looking for something to entertain yourself, then you could do worse than re-read my Dad’s Constable series of books, which have recently been re-released by an exciting new publisher. Just follow this link:

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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 3rd and the Gazette & Herald on 1st April 2020

Hare-brained tales of witches

Hares are said to be ‘mad’ at this time of year as they exhibit some rather bizarre and excitable behaviour

On one of my dog walks (before the country went into lockdown), myself and my posse of pooches were startled when a huge hare sprang out of the long grass in front of us and bounded off across the field at a rate of knots. I’m always impressed by the size and speed of a hare, and this one was about as big as a border terrier.

The hare is said to be ‘mad’ at this time of year, as it exhibits some rather bizarre behaviour, such as ‘boxing’ enemies, leaping vertically into the air, and generally behaving rather excitedly. March is its breeding season, and the experts say that is the reason for the strange antics. The ‘boxing’ is actually a female warding off unwanted attention from amorous males.

There are plenty of folk tales featuring hares and, according to my dad’s column from 29th March 1980, the North York Moors are particularly renowned for ‘sightings’ of what is known as the ‘witch-hare’. Stories about the witch-hare are born out of the ancient belief that witches could turn themselves into various animals at will, such as frogs, cats, wolves and lizards, although the hare is possibly the most common.

We are not sure where the belief originated, but an account dating from 1187 by Gerald of Wales says that: ‘It has also been a frequent complaint from old times as well as in the present, that certain hags in Wales, as well as Ireland and Scotland, changed themselves into the shape of hares, that sucking teats under this counterfeit form, they might stealthily rob other people’s milk.’

So it is likely the belief had been around since at least the first century A.D. and possibly earlier than that. Amazingly, ‘sightings’ persisted right up until just before the Second World War, with stories being passed down by word of mouth, their details changed and embellished with every retelling. Eventually, someone would write it down, and that would become the definitive version.

The stories were usually very similar, whereby a hare would be caught in the act of some misdemeanour, such as eating carrot tops, and would flee, chased down by a farmer and his dogs. It would head towards the home of a well known local ‘witch’ where it would disappear through a hole, but not before being wounded by a shot or the bite of a dog at the last minute.

The pursuers would then enter the building to find that the hare had vanished, but the old female resident would be lying down, exhausted and panting, with an injury to her body corresponding to the wound inflicted on the fleeing hare.

Dad’s Countryman’s Diary predecessor, Major Jack Fairfax-Blakeborough, was told a story involving a gentleman called Bobby Dowson, a well-known member of the Bilsdale Hunt who died in 1902 at the age of 86. He recounted the following to the Major, who then passed it on to my dad in a letter.

In 1860, when Bobby was 44, he and some friends were hunting hares when one bolted towards the home of old Peg Humphrey who lived near Helmsley. The hare disappeared through a hole in her barn door, but when they opened it, they found Peg lying on the straw breathing heavily. She told them she’d been feeding the cattle when the door blew shut, locking her in.

Bobby claimed to have chased another hare towards Peg’s home, and this time his hounds managed to nip some flesh from its leg before it disappeared into the house. The hare vanished, but they found Peg lying on her bed, exhausted, with an injury to the same leg as the hare.

There are numerous such accounts from the moors, including one from Dad’s home village of Glaisdale where a hare had been biting the tops off new saplings. According to the legend, witch-hares could only be killed using silver bullets, so the angry farmer took the buttons off his coat and fashioned them into shot. He lay in wait, and managed to hit the hare, but it still escaped, running towards ‘Aud Maggie’s house’. The hare was never found but the next day, Aud Maggie was found in bed with severe injuries, claiming to have fallen on broken glass.

These are just a very few of the many, many ‘first-hand’ accounts of witch-hare sightings. With so many eye-witness tales, is it possible some could even be true?

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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 27th and the Gazette & Herald on 25th March 2020

The tragedy of Blue Bank

The view towards Whitby from the top of Blue Bank
Blue Bank in Sleights is one of the steepest hills on the north York Moors
An escape lane has been installed for vehicles that lose control descending the steep Blue Bank in Sleights

I’ve been a bit of a detective this week, and I hope my policeman dad would be proud of my sleuthing activities, for which I have reader Clive Button to thank. I thought you might be interested in what I’ve discovered, so my dad’s 1980 column is taking a back seat this week.

Mr Button contacted me after reading my column a couple of weeks ago in which I mentioned the letter Thirsk weatherman Bill Foggitt had written to my dad telling the story of a phantom bus that haunted Blue Bank in Sleights. According to Mr Foggitt, the original bus had overturned ‘with tragic loss of life in 1930’.

But that was all the information that Bill had given and I was struggling to find out any more. But then Mr Button contacted me with this rather intriguing account: ‘My father, born 1919…who had relatives at Sleights, told me about this, though he was uncertain of the year in which it happened. He believed a bus ascending the hill missed a gear change and ran backwards down the hill, crashing into the farm at the bottom. The bus demolished several bee hives and some passengers were stung to death.’

Could bees really be responsible for some of the deaths associated with the crash? Clive suggested the local papers might hold the answer. And then I stumbled across the British Newspaper Archive, which is in the process of digitising the nation’s papers, dating right back to the 1700s. To be able to browse online, I had to sign up to a subscription service, but I felt it was well worth it as it would be likely I would use it over and again.

It still wasn’t straightforward to find what I was looking for, but after a while I came across an article from the Yorkshire Post from 1930 in which it mentioned the accident and a golden nugget of information – that it had occurred on 21st July 1929.

I was so excited as it meant I could immediately go to the papers around that date to learn what had actually happened from a contemporary account. I spent the next few hours totally absorbed by all the newspaper articles I found, from the very first one published the day after the accident, to subsequent days and months, until they petered out the following year. So here is what really happened on that fateful day in July 1929.

Three buses owned by the East Riding Motor Company were travelling in convoy along the A169 towards Whitby, each carrying 36 passengers, on a trip organised by the Hull British Legion. As they started to descend Blue Bank, the driver of the first bus was alarmed when in his wing mirror he could see the bus behind him coming towards him far faster than expected. The driver of the second bus, realising his brakes had failed, pulled into the opposite lane to avoid crashing into the first bus. He careered past the first bus plus another a car, only to see more cars coming up the hill directly in his path. Desperately clinging on to his steering wheel, he swerved again to avoid them, the bus all the time gaining speed, before it crashed into a wall and rolled over twice, tearing off its roof. It came to rest just yards from a cottage where a family were eating their lunch.

The bus had hit a number of bee hives, and swarms of angry bees hampered rescue efforts by stinging the locals who had rushed to assist, as well as the injured victims. However, no-one was killed by the bees.

Sadly, though, three people died at the scene, and three more died in from their injuries in the months afterwards. The driver spent weeks in hospital, and an inquest was only held once he was fit enough to attend. It found that he was not to blame, and his heroic actions in avoiding the other vehicles prevented further deaths and carnage.

So that is one half of the mystery solved. But what of the sightings of the phantom bus told by Bill Foggitt? I searched the archives for any mention of ghostly apparitions after the crash, but again have come up empty handed. So if you know of any account of the phantom bus, do get in touch by contacting me via this paper, or through my blog page,

Read more at Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 20th and the Gazette & Herald on 18th March 2020

Go to work on an egg

My egg cracked despite sticking to Mrs Beeton’s instructions
Delia has her own instructions on how to boil the perfect egg

My favourite breakfast item has to be the good old egg. I have eggs in one form or another most days of the week, usually scrambled or boiled, but my favourite ‘treat’ breakfast is poached eggs with avocado on toast. Because I eat so many, I buy the best quality I can, free-range and from Yorkshire producers. We are very lucky in our part of North Yorkshire to have very good village shops that stock excellent local produce, and if I’m passing one I like to stock up on good quality eggs.

You can always tell you’ve got a good egg, because the yolk will be a rich yellow-gold and, when cracked open, the white doesn’t run away, but holds its own on the plate like a ‘not quite set’ jelly. If you like to poach eggs, then the fresher the better, as they hold together when gently dropped into a swirling rolling boil (a splash of vinegar in the water also helps them keep their shape).

Having three grown-up children, I am at the point where they are beginning to fly the nest, with one son already living independently in Leeds, and another preparing to head off to university in September (if you’re wondering about the third, he’s doing an apprenticeship which pays him peanuts so it’s unlikely he’ll be able to afford to leave home for some time!). So they are beginning to learn how to fend for themselves in the real world. But I am very confident when I say that I don’t think a single one of them knows how to boil an egg.

I can almost hear the gasps of horror among you all reading this, and yes, I take full responsibility for it as I have neglected their education when it comes to being able to cook. I’ve been too ready to make their food for them, and when it comes to feeding themselves when I’m not around, they generally don’t eat, or buy fast food. As much as I protest, they are adults and as such, are old enough to make their own bad decisions.

They have been known to do simple things, like beans or scrambled eggs, but I have never known them to boil an egg. It is meant to be the simplest of cooking tasks, and yet there is so much more to it than just placing an egg in water and cooking it. There are so many variables to consider, such as how big the eggs is, how fresh it is, whether you want soft, medium or hard boiled, how hot to have the water, how long to leave it in the water, and the most difficult problem, how to stop the egg shell cracking?

Experienced egg-boilers know that placing an egg in hot water straight from the fridge will make it crack. It is far safer to start with cold water, and gently bring it to the boil.

But, according my dad’s column from 15th March 1980, Victorian domestic goddess, Mrs Beeton, has the definitive method of boiling an egg. In her 1861 ‘Book of Household Management’, she declares, ‘When fresh eggs are placed into a vessel full of boiling water, they crack because the eggs, being well filled, the shells give way to the efforts of the interior fluids, dilated by heat. If the volume of the hot water be small, the shells do not crack because the temperature is reduced by the eggs before the interior dilation can take place.” In other words, don’t put your eggs in a deep pan of water, but keep it shallow. But I tried this method, and found the shell cracked anyway!

She adds that eggs can never be ‘too fresh’ when using them for boiling, although if they have just been laid, they need to be cooked for slightly longer than those that are three to four days old.

Incidentally, today’s Queen of the Kitchen, Delia Smith, says that for the perfect soft-boiled egg, place them into gently simmering water for exactly one minute, and then remove from the heat, cover, and leave for a further five minutes for average-sized eggs, and six minutes for larger eggs. Add or subtract 30 seconds depending on the size of the egg.

What I’d like to know is, what is your failsafe method of boiling your eggs?

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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 13th and the Gazette & Herald on 11th March 2020

Wading through a murky past

Anthony Gray at Sutton Bank, pointing to Lake Gormire

My discussions over recent weeks about myths and ghost stories connected with our part of the world have prompted a number of people to come forward with really interesting recollections. Spooky stories and mysteries certainly get the imagination going, don’t they!

I was contacted by Anthony Gray from London. He is the son of our childhood family doctor, and often visits his home county, buying the local paper when he’s here. It gave me a lovely confidence boost when he said that the columns were a ‘highlight’ for him! Thank you Anthony!

He remarked on a number of the topics covered in the columns, but in particular was tickled by my use of the word ‘bottomless’ to describe Lake Gormire near Sutton Bank. According to my dad, this tarn-like body of water is remarkable because it has no rivers or streams running in or out of it. It is a natural lake, rich in wildlife, and is thought to have been formed in glacial times. However, the mystery of its origins has given rise to some interesting tales, including one that says it conceals a whole village complete with church spire. Another, as I mentioned, declares it is bottomless.

Well, if you enjoy legends and want to preserve the eerie reputation that shrouds the lake, then you’d better stop reading here. However, if you want to find out if either of these stories bear any truth, then read on, because Anthony Gray knows the answer, and he has shared it with me.

Anthony was educated at Ampleforth College, and joined the school’s Sub Aqua Club, learning the skills to pass his British Sub Aqua Club (BSAC) qualification. Most of their training was in an indoor pool, but to get the full qualification, they had to undertake several open water dives in freshwater lakes or in the sea.

Their tutor organised their first open water dive in Lake Gormire on a rather shivery February day in 1972 mainly, according to Anthony, ‘to see if the wetsuits worked’, but also to see if Gormire is indeed bottomless.

The tutor drove them up a farm track to get as close to the lake as possible, and they then had to change into their wetsuits in the freezing cold, don tanks, fins, gloves and masks, and then waddle over to the water’s edge. It was so cold that they had to break the ice before wading in (my teeth are chattering at the thought!).

According to Anthony, “The bottom was very, very muddy and soft, so we walked about 15 yards out but were still only waist deep!” Eventually the tutor gave the signal to dive down, which Anthony did. He goes on, “But the visibility was appalling because we had stirred it up walking out and the water was shallow. I don’t think we got more than ten feet down before sinking into the ‘organic matter’ not far below the surface!

“So I can state that Lake Gormire is not bottomless! Cold in February, but not bottomless! There may be a clue in part of the name being ‘mire’ –  it certainly smelt as though it was full of ‘mire’ because our wetsuits took a lot of cleaning to get rid of the smell!”

So this tale disproves that the lake is bottomless, and proves that there is no hidden village or church spire, and as such, dispels some of Gormire’s trademark mystery. But despite that, our region is still rich in folklore and myths, many of which originate from centuries ago, and yet persist to the present day. My dad gives one reason as to why ghostly tales came about in his column from 8th March 1980.

‘At night, in a dark, lonely house, all manner of unexplained sounds and movements could be interpreted into something fearful and horrible. There is little wonder youngsters grew up terrified of unknown creatures.’

In his message to me, Anthony Gray also asked about the spot known as Tom Smith’s Cross. Those familiar with the A170 between Helmsley and Sutton Bank probably know that at the turning for Wass and Ampleforth, it is called Tom Smith’s Cross. According to Dad, Tom Smith was a highwayman who was ‘gibbeted’ at that location. But who was Tom Smith? And why was he so renowned as to have a junction named after him?

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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 6th and the Gazette & Herald on 4th March 2020

A phantom menace?


The 1980 letter from amateur weatherman Bill Foggitt sharing the story of the Sutton Bank ghost with the spelling of Craister rather than Glaister


My column from three weeks ago about ghostly goings on at Sutton Bank resulted in some interesting feedback, with people coming forward with their own tales of spooky sightings.

Billy Goode, who lives not far from Sutton Bank, said that a family of five he knows, which included a doctor and a vet (in his words ‘really smart people’) were driving along the A170 when they passed a young woman in period dress near a bonfire. They turned to one another saying ‘Did you see that?’, but when they turned back to look, the girl and the fire had disappeared.

Another friend of mine (who I can report is also highly intelligent and of sound mind!) got in touch after reading the column saying: ‘A year or so back I saw a lady walking on the road near me dressed in black period costume. It was dark and my headlights showed her walking with her head down, in a black cloak and long black skirt and bonnet/hood. Very odd. I didn’t dare stop or look back! I have the shivers thinking about it now!’

So even if you’re a non-believer in ghosts, it’s hard to explain these strange sightings described by otherwise rational people, sometimes with several seeing the ‘ghost’ at the same time.

It seems Dad sparked a similar reaction from readers, as he tells us in his column of 1st March 1980. When he first wrote about a female ghost haunting the top of Sutton Bank a few weeks earlier, he didn’t mention the unfortunate ‘witch’, Abigail Glaister. I had discovered that fact as it was mentioned in his book, ‘Murders and Mysteries from the North York Moors’, which was published eight years later.

However, now that I’ve read his column from this week in 1980 (three weeks after he first mentioned the ghost), it transpires that it was a rather well known local character who suggested that it might be the spirit of the local witch. The letter came from Thirsk legend and amateur weather guru, Bill Foggitt, who said he believed the woman was the unfortunate Abigail.

After he had read Dad’s column of 9th February, Bill had written in, saying that he was very familiar with the rumours of a ghost at the famous beauty spot, and believed it to be a witch from nearby Kilburn who was hunted by hounds on the Hambleton moors in the 1600s. In order to escape them, she had leapt to her death from Whitestone Cliff and shortly afterwards, the first sighting of her ghost on the Thirsk-Helmsley road was reported. Regular of visions Abigail’s ghost continued down the years, and it seems persist even now.

The odd thing is, in this column from 1st March 1980, Dad names the woman as Abigail Craister, and yet in his book, she is named Abigail Glaister. Thanks to Dad’s habit of not throwing anything away, I found Bill’s original letter to check the spelling, and he definitely calls her ‘Craister’ (incidentally, the letter is sent on a scrap of paper that looks like it has been cut by hand from a used piece of foolscap, and every inch is taken up. Bill was clearly a very frugal Yorkshireman!).

I have found a few references elsewhere to both names, so I wonder if anyone knows which is correct, and where I might find other references to Abigail to find out a bit more about her?

Interestingly, Bill goes on to tell of another eerie story after he’d read Dad’s account of the ghostly No.7 bus said to haunt Ladbroke Road in London. Bill recalled a horrific bus crash in 1930 on Blue Bank in Sleights, near Whitby, which resulted in a terrible loss of life. Following that crash on what is now the A169, he claims the shadowy apparition of a bus began haunting the dangerously steep hill.

I’ve done a number of internet searches tying to find references to the crash, and to the phantom bus mentioned by Bill, but have come up empty handed. Next time I visit my mum, though, I’ll go and see if I can find any reference to the tale among the books in Dad’s library.

In the meantime, do any of you know about that crash, or can enlighten me about the tale of the bus that haunts Blue Bank?

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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 28th Feb and the Gazette & Herald on 26th Feb 2020