Carry a marrow to school? Must be nuts!

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Me in my Brownie uniform and my sister Tricia in her Girl Guide uniform in our back garden in 1975
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Our cottage from the back garden in the 1970s

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 27th October 2017, & the Gazette & Herald on 25th October 2017)

 

It’s a shameful admission, but I didn’t read my dad’s columns growing up. I was only a child when Dad took over Countryman’s Diary and I was far more interested in playing with my friends than the ‘boring’ stuff he was up to. Presenter Aasmah Mir pulled me up about it when I was on BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Live show on September 2nd. “Hang on a minute, you weren’t always nine!” she admonished me. The only explanation I have is that I never got into the habit of reading his columns, and it never occurred to me to do so once I was an adult (I did read some of his books though, just not all 130!).

In a way, I’m glad I didn’t, because I’m reading them now with completely fresh eyes, finding out things I never knew, learning about the countryside, folklore and traditions alongside discovering memories about our family life that I’d long since forgotten. It’s such a brilliant way of keeping a connection with Dad now he’s no longer here, as if he’s passing his knowledge on to me from beyond the grave.

When I read his column from October 23rd 1976, I discovered that he’d included a story that related directly to me, and one which I cannot remember at all (I never had any idea that I’d made it into the paper, which is probably a good job, or the fame might have gone to my head!).

He explains: “Our youngest daughter, aged nine, announced that she had to take to school some fruits of the hedgerow … and accordingly she disappeared up our garden the other morning and returned with elderberries, wind-blown apples, rose hips, haws, Damson plums, beech mast, an acorn, ivy and holly berries, and assorted weed seeds.” (Beech mast? I had to look that up and found that it refers to the fruit of a beech tree. The word ‘mast’ means a bumper harvest of fruit and nuts).

You have to admire my enthusiasm in collecting such an eclectic array of ‘fruits of the hedgerow’. But I didn’t stop there, having spotted a giant marrow that someone had given Dad. I told him that I thought it qualified as ‘fruit’ for my collection and he said I could take it to school if I could get it there. “It’s not an easy matter for a nine-year-old girl to transport a two and a half stone, 2ft 6in marrow to school…but she solved it by using the garden wheelbarrow and enlisting the services of a little girl next door. Together they trundled their fruit collection through the village street, panting and heaving, and holding the marrow in position, for it reached over the sides of the barrow.”

I can’t remember this incident, nor can I remember my head teacher’s reaction on my arrival, but according to Dad, he painted two eyes on it and left it staring at us all day long.

I managed to achieve a small victory during my forage in the garden by finding a green fruit, about the size of a plum, that initially flummoxed my dad. This was a rare achievement, as he was so knowledgeable about most things country. On closer inspection, he deduced it was an almond, the outer inedible flesh, known as the drupe, hiding the recognisable nut within.

Although more commonly associated with the USA, Spain and the Middle East, almond trees do grow in the UK, and need a warm sunny spot. The reason Dad didn’t recognise the fruit was no doubt because our tree rarely produced any. But thanks to the long, hot 1976 summer, ‘it brought forth a couple of almonds’. He meant that literally. There were two on the whole tree.

Almonds are part of the prunus, or peach, family that includes other stoned fruit such as cherries and plums. Raw and dry-roasted almonds are one of the healthiest snack you can eat, with an ounce (28g) containing more calcium than any other nut, plus 9g of monounsaturated fat (the healthy fat) and 3.5g of fibre. They can also be used to make an alternative to cows milk, or turned into almond butter. The species from our garden, known as the Jordan Almond, was supposed to be ideal for making potions to cleanse or exfoliate the skin, and its oil was very good for massaging aching limbs.

Sadly, we didn’t have enough to even think about creating any of these wonderful products. One little almond went to school, and the other stayed at home.

 

Cracking the code for our posties

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Dad with his magnificent 1970s moustache
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Coram Cottage where we lived in 1976
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The name plaque which Dad lovingly repainted most years

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 20th October 2017, & the Gazette & Herald on 18th October 2017)

Where would we be without postcodes today? It’s impossible to fill out an online form without one, your home insurance cost depends on it, and all you need is a postcode and a house number for a delivery to find its way to the right spot. And as long as we have the postcode we are (almost!) sure to get to the right place thanks to Google Maps and the like.

But what I was surprised to learn from my dad’s October 16th 1976 column is that postcodes only achieved nationwide coverage relatively recently. He talks of direction signs near Milton Keynes, a ‘new town in the south of England’, that included the postcodes of that area. He goes on, ‘It is like saying I live in YO6 4DX instead of Ampleforth, for I understand the post office can identify a precise building by the new postal code system.’

Dad was irritated that the local council was considering assigning numbers to all the houses in the area to make life easier for the postal and emergency services. He loved having a house with a name rather than a number, a privilege that many people living in rural communities enjoyed, and our home had a beautiful plaque on its façade proudly declaring ‘Coram Cottage’ which dad lovingly repainted most years. ‘I wonder if these changes were a deliberate ploy by this Government to reduce our individually styled rural havens into featureless piles of equally-shaped bricks?’ he grumbled.

He needn’t have worried as our cottage, and many other houses in the village, never received a number, and when in the early 1980s we moved to a newly-built house in the same village, it too had a name rather than a number (to this day, delivery drivers have trouble finding it, although locals will point them in the right direction).

London was the first place to trial postcodes in 1857 when the city was divided into 10 postal districts, many of which still stand today. However a couple were later allocated to other districts (NE to Newcastle and S to Sheffield). Once it was deemed a success, the system spread further afield, with Liverpool being the first to follow suit in 1864, and Manchester close behind.

It wasn’t until 1959 that the modern system began to be used, with the introduction of sorting machines. Norwich was selected to try it out, with 150,000 addresses assigned postcodes that began with the letters ‘NOR’, followed by two digits and another letter, although it was later changed to ‘NR’. Then in 1965, when Tony Benn was Postmaster General, he extended the system to the whole of the UK in an eight-year programme, starting in urban areas then fanning out to the more rural parts of the country. This explains why Dad was still referring to it as the ‘new postal code system’ in 1976. Over time the term ‘postal code’ was shortened and by 1984, as my Concise Oxford English Dictionary of that date tells me, it was hyphenated to ‘post-code’. In the current OED it’s one word, ‘postcode’.

In today’s postcodes, the first two letters indicate the nearest large town or city, of which there are 124 in Britain. The number which follows represents a postal district in that area and this first half of the code is known as the ‘outward’ code, indicting which sorting office the item of mail needs to be sent to. The second half of the code is called the ‘inward’ code, and the first number shows which ‘sector’ the letter should go to (there about 9,500 sectors in the country). The final two digits refer to a specific street or area, accounting for roughly 17 homes. Obviously these numbers change regularly as the population increases and fresh postcodes are assigned to new buildings.

Royal Mail has a useful webpage explaining how to correctly address an envelope whether writing it by hand, or printing an address label. It doesn’t overtly state that there has to be a space between the two halves of the postcode, and these days many online forms omit it, but in the Royal Mail illustration, there is a clear gap. Other tips include to preferably use black ink, write neatly in the centre of the envelope but with all text aligned from the left. And (this one I didn’t know for sure) no commas at the end of each line of the address.

Hob, Hob, Hooray!

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Dobby, the Harry Potter house elf
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Glaisdale Moor and Dale

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 13th October 2017, & the Malton Gazette & Herald on 11th October 2017)

When we were at home caring for my dad in the last days of his life, us children would help my mum with the household chores so that she was able to concentrate on spending as much time with Dad as possible while she still could.

Often I would pop upstairs to my mum’s room and make her bed without her knowing, ensuring the sheets were smooth and straight, and the cover neatly arranged with its matching cushions on top, just how she liked it. It was only a very small thing, but I knew my mum appreciated it.

Upon discovering this little surprise, she’d say: “He’s been again.”

“Who?” I asked the first time she said it.

“The hob, he’s been and made my bed.” I said I had no idea who The Hob was, which apparently is quite shameful for a Yorkshire lass born and bred! She had to explain that hobs were little people who would sneak into your house unseen and help with various jobs, and it must have been our household hob who kept making her bed. When I went to stay with Mum this weekend, she remarked on Sunday that even though the hob had not been visiting over the past few weeks, he’d suddenly been in that morning and made her bed again!

I love the coincidences that keep cropping up when I write these columns and sure enough, in his column from October 9th 1976, which is the nearest to this very week 41 years ago, Dad writes all about a Yorkshire hob who used to reside at Hart Hall Farm in the village of Glaisdale where he grew up. He repeated the tale in one of his columns from 2015, but I hope readers will indulge me by allowing me to recount the story here for those who may not have heard the tale already.

Hart Hall is a remote, solid farm house up on the North York Moors, and I believe is still a working dairy farm as well as a popular B&B on the Coast to Coast walking route. Dad’s childhood friend used to live there and he recalled the fabulous suppers he would eat in the welcoming farm kitchen with its stone-flagged floor and flickering fire in the black-leaded grate.

The Hart Hall hob achieved fame, so the story goes, when a haycart full of the day’s harvest became fast by its wheel between some stones in the farmyard. As the night was drawing in, and they couldn’t free the wheel, the farmer decided to leave it until morning. And that was when the hob sprang into action. Despite their diminutive size, these little men were terribly strong, and by the morning he had freed the cart, unloaded the hay, stacked it neatly and left the cart ready to go again. This was just one of the many good deeds the hob was reported to have done, which included cleaning, threshing, digging, ploughing, sowing and harrowing. He was only ever spotted once, secretly spied at work through a crack in the barn door, and was described as a tiny brown man covered with hair, naked apart from a ragged old sark (a rough working shirt). The grateful residents wanted to thank the hob, and left him a new shirt, but he turned it down saying:

“Gin hob mun hae nowght but a hardin hamp,
He’ll cum nae mair, nowther to berry nor stamp.”

Hardin was a type of hessian cloth, while a hamp was a rough working shirt. Berry meant ‘to thresh’, and stamp was to knock off the beards of barley before threshing it. So the hob was not allowed to accept gifts for his work, and some tales surrounding hobs suggest that they flee if presented with such gifts. The description of the hob reminds me of Dobby, the house-elf who appears in the Harry Potter stories, and you have to wonder if JK Rowling got her inspiration from our very own North York Moors hob, although I do understand that several parts of the country have their own versions.

In my column from three weeks ago, I wondered if harvest suppers were still being held. A reader informed me that the North Yorkshire village of Coxwold serves a lunch in the village hall after the harvest festival service in the local St Michael’s church. The food is cooked by the ladies of the village, although I don’t know if they, like the ones mentioned in my dad’s 1976 Countryman’s Diary, had any differences that needed setting aside!

 

Taking stock of misdemeanours

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Being sponged in a pillory
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St Michael the Archangel

 

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 6th October 2017, & the Malton Gazette & Herald on 4th October 2017)

When I was at school at the Bar Convent in York, one of the best days of the year was when we celebrated the Feast of St Michael (Michelmas) on 29th September. St Michael was particularly special to us as legend had it that in 1696, during the era of Catholic persecution, an angry mob descended on the convent. But the nuns were saved when a furious St Michael appeared above the building upon a white steed and frightened the attackers away.

To mark the occasion, lessons were suspended and instead, a fete with various charity fund-raising stalls and activities was held in the school grounds. Teachers stopped being teachers for the day, and surprised us all by behaving like normal human beings. One of the most popular activities, and one which only the bravest of souls would submit to, was ‘Sponge the Teacher’. It was thrilling to be able to hurl a wet sponge into the faces of those who normally exerted their control over us, but of course, it was only the fun teachers who took part. The ones we really wanted revenge upon sadly steered well clear.

This activity was a parody of a very real punishment that was used as far back as the 14th century, that of being committed to the stocks for public humiliation. In his column from October 2nd 1976, Dad talks of seeing a set of stocks while passing through a Wensleydale village, and says: “This ancient form of punishment is never out of the news because modern reformers constantly seek their restoration for vandals and those who commit minor nuisances.” It stunned me to learn that as recently as 40 years ago, our politicians were seriously debating bringing stocks back into use!

I must confess that until I started to research this column, what I thought were stocks were actually pillories. Stocks were a method of securing just the ankles, so the prisoner had to sit down, whereas pillories were where the miscreant was secured by the wrists and head and was usually standing upright. Following a law passed in 1405 to combat increasing lawlessness, villages up and down the land were required to install a set of stocks to punish those convicted of minor misdemeanours such as drunkenness and brawling. Passers-by were entitled to subject the offender to whatever punishment they saw fit, be it simply words of abuse and spitting, or more physical admonishments in the form of missiles of rotten food, toilet waste or stones.

It seems no-one was exempt from this punishment. In 1500, while rector at Limington, Somerset, the future Cardinal Wolsey is reported to have been placed in the stocks by local sheriff Sir Amyas Paulet after a drunken row, and by 1606, drunkenness carried a fine of five shillings or six hours in the stocks.

It is not clear exactly when stocks and pillories fell out of use, but Dad believed the practice was on the wane by 1850. According to him, in that year, Stokesley stocks had been specially repaired by the parish constables in preparation for reuse. Their actions caused outrage and led to unrest and disorder in the town, and so the idea was abandoned. The town of Skipton reported their use in 1776, and in Beverley as late as 1853. In this instance, a local character called Jim Brigham was taken into custody and sentenced to two hours in the stocks for tippling on a Sunday. But instead of being ridiculed, his fellow townspeople pitied him and even filled his tobacco pipe to smoke while he was stuck there. His was the last recorded use of the Beverly stocks.

I’m not sure how I’d feel if I came across someone imprisoned by stocks, and I suppose it would depend on who they were and what they were supposed to have done, although there are definitely one or two public figures whom I’d like to see at the mercy of a wet sponge. But imagine if public drunkenness were still punishable in such a way? Having experienced York on a Saturday night, we’d have to have stocks from here to Magaluf to cope with the demand.

Snow mist and a little Foggitt

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Bill Foggitt in a photos hoot for the D&S Times
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Bill Foggitt’s thermometer, pine cone and seaweed
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Bill in his study
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Bill in his younger days

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 29th September 2017, & the Malton Gazette & Herald on 27th September 2017)

If you read my column in August about temperature, you might remember that I talked about the excitable tabloid headlines in June predicting a long heatwave for the summer (if only…). Some of those headlines also predicted an extreme winter, like this subtle and understated one from the Daily Star Online from 3rd June: ‘UK faces 3-MONTH heatwave before SNOWIEST winter in years.’

Reading that might have had you shivering with dread, but in my experience, these scaremongering declarations rarely turn out to be accurate, and are based on flimsy science that has been skewed to fit an attention-grabbing headline.

My dad, as he explains in his column from September 25th 1976, had come across a far more accurate and reliable source of advice about the coming weather. It was an old bloke he’d bumped into while walking in the lovely village of Rievaulx near Helmsley one September a few years earlier.

“There’s gahin to be a snow shower or two in December, and t’frost’ll come on t’third, I reckon. Thoo’ll see,” said the old fellow, and he advised my dad to take note to see if he was right.

It turned out he was deadly accurate, and intrigued by this, Dad sought him out again to ask how he calculated his predictions. Although reluctant to share his method, he eventually revealed that it was based on the appearance of what he called ‘snow mist’. He tried to describe what exactly that was, but his lengthy dialect explanation just bamboozled Dad, although he did deduce that whenever this mysterious mist appeared, the old man used mathematical calculations based on whether the moon was on the wane or not, and whether it was new or full.

Dad never did find out what the snow mist was, and guessed it was either a circular-shaped mist seen among the trees or valleys, or perhaps a misty circle around the moon, but he couldn’t be sure, and sadly the old man died without my dad ever getting to the bottom of it.

We northern folk do love a weather prediction based on superstition, folklore and certain behaviours of plants and animals. One of our most famous amateur forecasters was good old Bill Foggitt of Thirsk, who was somewhat of a mythical meteorological hero during my childhood, and was famous for using things like snails, pine cones and seaweed to come up with his projections. Bill came from a family steeped in traditional methods of predicting the weather, their interest having been sparked in 1771 by a flash flood that swept away the nearby town of Yarm. Bill’s great-great-great-grandfather wanted to understand why it had happened so they could foresee and prevent similar tragedies in the future. Bill became the ‘go-to’ man for natural weather forecasts in 1985 following his public contradiction of the Met Office who had prophesied an Arctic Winter. Bill, who by now had his regular ‘Foggitt’s Forecast’ spot on Yorkshire TV, declared they were wrong as he he’d seen a mole pop up through the snowy surface, indicating a thaw was on its way. Foggitt was right, and his reputation was sealed. He died in September 2004 aged 91.

I’d like to say thank you those readers who have written in welcoming me to my new role. Your good wishes have been so reassuring and I know my dad also appreciated all the letters he received while writing this column. He replied to as many as he could, and I will do the same. I have already responded to letters which the paper has passed on to me, using email where an email address was in included, so I hope they have been received by the senders. As well as nicely stroking one’s ego, the letters often suggest answers to mysteries posed in these columns, so I wonder if anyone does know what the strange September ‘Snow Mist’ is, and where it might be seen? My own research leaves me none the wiser, and obviously Dad never got to the bottom of it. Let’s hope the mystery of the mist might be solved one day soon!

Harvesting the good will of the village

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(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 22nd September 2017, & the Malton Gazette & Herald on 20th September 2017)

T’is the season of the harvest festival where churches up and down the land welcome donations from their generous congregations to help people suffering hardship. I remember as a child the altar and window ledges of our local church being laden with fresh produce of the season, including carrots, potatoes, marrows, apples, pears and tomatoes. I also remember oranges, but obviously these exotic interlopers must have been flown in especially for the occasion to provide an extra splash of colourful glamour to the muted hues of our home-grown exhibits.

In his column from 18th September 1976, Dad describes how churchgoers only brought their finest examples which were spruced up and polished to perfection: ‘Somehow the fruit on display looks more tempting that it did at home…It seems the people bring forth their best for this service,’ he says. There’s no doubt that a whiff of rivalry hovered over parishioners who determined whether competing donations were up to standard. Woe betide anyone seen to be bringing in some unfortunate malformed marrow or a misproportioned potato.

I felt similar pressures when my children were at primary school. By then, harvest festival had become more about helping those less fortunate than yourself than about celebrating the bounty of the harvest. I’ve been trying to find out why, and some sources suggest it is because these days, our locally-grown produce ripens much earlier than mid-September. Certainly, the apples in my garden are about done and the blackberries, elderberries and sloes on my dog-walking routes are more or less over. Others suggest it’s because we have lost seasonality in our produce, with growers being able to ripen fruit and veg all year-round with the help of artificial sources of heat and light.

The truth probably lies somewhere between but I’m sure I wasn’t alone in being one of those mothers who could be found digging around in the kitchen cupboard late of an evening after one of the children had told me that they needed a donation for the school harvest service the following morning. We had to provide non-perishable food or toiletries which would be given to the homeless and people living in poverty. These were the days before late-night-opening shops were within easy distance (today’s parents of young children have no idea of the difficulties we suffered!). So it was usually a toss-up between baked beans, tomato soup, or an out-of-date tin of plum tomatoes (bought by mistake instead of chopped tomatoes and left to languish. Who has the time to chop plum tomatoes?). And obviously, brands were always donated before own brand for fear of being thought a cheapskate. I do wonder how many tins of beans, soup and tomatoes ended up on the church altar, and now feel a pang of guilt for inflicting this uninspiring collection of tomato-based foodstuffs on people who couldn’t choose what they were given.

The word harvest comes from the old English word ‘haerfest’ which referred to the period between August and November, now called Autumn. A Rev. Robert Hawker from Cornwall reportedly started the Christian tradition in 1843 by offering communion bread made from the first corn of the harvest, although the festival itself began life as a pagan celebration many centuries earlier.

Dad loved his food, especially a good old Yorkshire curd tart, and so it’s no surprise that for him, the highlight of the festival was the harvest supper. As he explains: ‘The ladies of the village forget their differences and bake mountains of fresh bread, cakes, pies and buns, and these are laid out beautifully on white clothed tables in the village hall.’ According to my mum, after the supper all the produce that had been brought to church would be sold off to raise much-needed funds. Where I live, the annual harvest supper no longer takes place, but I’d be interested to find out if this tradition still persists elsewhere.

I’d be even more interested to know what differences the ladies of my village had to put aside to work together for the harvest supper? Suggestions on a postcard please…

 

Them convulsions are such a bind!

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Convolvulus (bindweed) creeping up a hawthorn tree
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The bindweed’s beautiful flower belies its deadly intent

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 15th September 2017, & the Malton Gazette & Herald on 13th September 2017)

It is so often the way that things we loved as children, our parents didn’t so much, such as the litters of kittens in our garden shed and the battles with grounded swifts that I mentioned last week. And in Dad’s column of 11th September 1976, he talks of another battle with a persistent garden invader.

He’d been in the pub talking to ‘Auld George’, a local village character: “If there’s owt that niggles me it’s them convulsions,” said Auld George, “I can’t shift ‘em…they grow and git tangled up with ivverything. They’ve gitten amang t’currant bushes, shinned up t’walls and spouting, and managed ti git fastened ti ivvery thing that’s still growing. And ti cap it all, they allus comes ageean when ivverything else has bin howed oot.”

For those in need of translation, he was talking about the bane of many a gardener’s life, the notorious convolvulus, or bindweed. There are many different species and at this time of year, it is possibly one of the prettiest flowers that can be spotted in the countryside among the hedgerows, with its white or pink trumpet-shaped flowers, and yet it is one of the most deadly to other, weaker plants. If left unchecked, it can completely submerge whatever it attaches itself to.

That said, it was such a good plant to play with as a child. We used to see who could unwind the longest unbroken piece, which if you were really careful, could stretch to a few metres. It was also perfect for making crowns for any regal or fairy ‘Let’s Pretend’ games. But despite the pleasure that we gained from it, it was actually the wicked stepmother of plants. For homeowners who took the time, dedication and care to create beautiful garden displays, the benignly pretty exterior of the bindweed hid a ruthless, murderous character.

I think I’m safe in claiming that many a swearword has been uttered in the pursuit of a bindweed-free garden. It is one of the most difficult weeds to get rid of as its roots can stretch many feet down into the earth and yet when you try to pull them up, they easily break, and the remaining roots continue on their relentless journey. Not only that, but the plant produces adventitious roots which stretch horizontally underground to emerge far away from its parent, stealthily creeping up a poor unsuspecting rose bush, apple tree or even an innocent gazebo. It has no shame or sympathy and will simply overwhelm whatever lies in its track unless brought under control.

Obviously tackling such a horticultural pest requires expert horticultural knowledge, so on your behalf, I consulted the Royal Horticultural Society (well, their website anyway!) and they say this pesky plant is very difficult to eradicate without resorting to chemicals – unless you manage to dig your whole garden clear of all roots, and then make sure you have deep solid barriers going into the ground along all your boundary fences to stop them infiltrating from your traitorous bindweed-friendly neighbours. Easy peasy then! Seriously though, if you are struggling with this leafy leviathan, then do go to the RHS website (rhs.org.uk) as it has a comprehensive list of both chemical and non-chemical ways to tackle the problem (you might need to hit the gym before you tackle the non-chemical method though!).

By the way, did you notice the new word I used? Did you know what ‘adventitious’ meant? I didn’t when I read it in Dad’s original column and, having looked it up, I found out that in botanical terms, it means a root appearing in an unexpected or unusual place (a bit like middle-aged hair growth then). Non-botanically it has a similar meaning to extrinsic, that is being associated with something by chance rather than as an integral part.

So there. And after almost 30 years as a writer myself, I’m still learning from my dad.