On the March for a myth

Me & Dad on the Greek island of Mykonos, which is in the Cyclades, in 1986

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 2nd March 2018, & the Gazette & Herald on 28th February 2018.

In my dad’s column from 4th March 1978 he mentions an old Greek myth relating to ‘angry’ March, so described because of the wind which tends to blow in from all directions throughout the month.

The myth stated that March was angry because an old woman from the island of Kythnos mistook him for a summer month, so he borrowed a day from his brother, February, and froze the old woman to death, along with her flock of sheep. It seems a rather extreme punishment for such a crime (I hope March isn’t reading this or he might come for me!).

My university degree covered the myths of Ancient Greece, and I spent a year in the country after leaving school at 18, and Mum & Dad came to visit me while I was out there. But I had never come across this tale and so set about researching it on the Internet. For ages I could find absolutely nothing and went through countless variations of search terms relating to the myth until I finally came across a brief reference on a site called The Internet Archive (archive.org). This amazing resource is a bit like an international version of the National Archives. Started in 1996, just as the Internet was beginning to take off, its grand mission is to provide ‘Universal Access to All Knowledge’ and now claims to have an almost unbelievable 279 billion web pages, 11 million books and texts, four million audio recordings and three million videos in its archive, all of which is free to access.

I found the bit I wanted in a substantial 19th century volume called ‘Weather Lore; A Collection of Proverbs, Sayings and Rules Concerning the Weather’ by a man called Richard Inwards. There were a couple of lines about the myth, which he attributed to a ‘T.Bent’. Nothing else.

In past columns, I’ve talked about my habit of wandering off topic so, of course, once again I set off meandering through the Internet to discover who this mystery ‘T.Bent’ was. I felt like a detective tying to get to the bottom of a rather obscure clue, having to think laterally and persist in search after search. I even went as far as page three on one set of Google results. I know, hard core.

But I’m glad I did, as it turns out ‘T.Bent’ had a very interesting story, and better than that, he was a Yorkshireman! Mr James Theodore Bent was brought up in the West Riding village of Baildon, and came from a well-to-do family. He developed a keen interest in history and grew up to become a distinguished archaeologist and adventurer. What is wonderful about this story, especially in a year when we are marking the achievements of the suffragette movement, is that his wife Mabel was as well known and as adventurous as he was. Together they toured the world to discover everything they could about foreign cultures and civilisations, and their findings contributed greatly to society’s knowledge about those unfamiliar worlds. Their resulting books were very popular and well-respected, presumably because, being fearless and intrepid explorers who often put themselves in considerable danger, their work must have been incredibly exciting to their less adventurous readers back home.

One of Theodore’s most well-known works was ‘The Cyclades, or Life Among The Insular Greeks’, published in 1885, which recounts his and Mabel’s adventures living among the rural inhabitants of these remote islands, and this is where he mentions the myth about March (and it is literally, just a mention, so I have no more to report on that!). He is not very complimentary about the island of Kythnos, declaring, ‘We thought we had never visited a more dreary, inhospitable shore.’

Sadly, it was on one of their adventures that Theodore contracted malaria and died prematurely at the age of 45 in 1897. Mabel was distraught, but found the strength to finish the book about ‘Southern Arabia’ that her husband had been writing at the time. But her deep grief was reflected in her words: “It has been very sad to me, but I have been helped by knowing that, however imperfect this book may be, what is written here will surely be a help to those who, by following in our footsteps, will be able to get beyond them.”

Mabel never remarried and died at the age of 83 in 1929. She was buried, as she requested, with her husband at her ancestral home in Essex. (Source: tambent.com)



Killing for your supper

Run rabbit run – or you might end up part of a roadkill recipe

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 23rd February 2018, & the Gazette & Herald on 21st February 2018.

One of the less attractive aspects of living in the countryside is the amount of roadkill we see on our byways and highways. I presume that there are more animals killed by vehicles today than when Dad was writing his column 40 years ago, purely because there are now more cars on the road.

Dad remarked in his column of 25th February 1978 that most of the unfortunate victims seemed to be rabbits. Today, I see mainly pheasants and other critters of the feathered variety falling prey to our motors. I don’t know if there are fewer rabbits around, or if there are more game birds roaming our fields and verges, or whether it just happens to be a characteristic of the routes I take. But I will never get used to the sight of a squashed animal in the road, and it turns my stomach every time I pass one.

In days gone by, it is possible that rural folk were more pragmatic about such things, seeing it as just another way of controlling the population of wild creatures. A friend’s dad had no qualms about picking up fresh roadkill which would end up in the stewing pot. I also I remember staying with my French pen pal, and we were in the car when we heard the sickening thud of a poor hare losing the battle with our bumper. Her dad stopped the car, gathered it up, and sure enough, we had it for dinner. To them, it was a sensible and practical way to dispose of the animal, although my sentimental teenage heart ached for the poor thing that was now on my plate. I don’t think I ate very much that night.

But there are serious advocates of the practice of eating fresh roadkill around today, and as long as the animal was not deliberately killed, it is perfectly legal to take it away. Miranda Krestovnikoff, wildlife presenter and president of the RSPB, is well known for feeding roadside kills to her family, and amateur taxidermist and wildlife conservationist John McGowan has lived on a diet of roadkill for more than 30 years, as has Arthur Boyt from Cornwall, who got into trouble for cooking a washed-up dead dolphin (dolphins belong to the Crown). There are resources online which tell you how to butcher your furry finds, but I would imagine you’d need a cast iron stomach and considerable skills if it was to become a regular part of your routine. Mr McGowan recommends heading out just after rush hour for the best, freshest pickings. On the other hand, the Food Standards Agency warns against it, saying that you cannot know how healthy an animal was before it died, and you cannot be entirely certain it does not harbour harmful bacteria such as salmonella, E-coli and clostridium. It seems to me that you have to be sure of your knowledge before venturing out on a roadkill recce.

The Government collects data on animals killed on our roads, and it surprised me to learn that the most commonly reported are deer, with badgers and foxes not too far behind, and then cats and dogs, followed by a whole wildlife menagerie of creatures killed in smaller numbers. There were no rabbits on the list, which covered April – December 2017, but I am presuming this was because they were not reported, as birds were very low in number too, and I’ve definitely seen a lot of them!

I suppose we can take comfort in that, whichever animal comes to that sticky end, in most cases they will not have suffered and will have died mercifully quickly.
A friend suggested that it would be useful to write a book to help you identify roadkill by the characteristics of whatever is left behind, so you know whether that one feather sticking up out of the sorry mess was a pheasant or grouse, or that the furry ear belonged to a hare or rabbit. She decided it should include instructions on how to skin, pluck and prepare the animals, alongside recipes and tips on how to asses whether it was fit for human consumption. My first response was, “Why would anyone want to identify roadkill?” But having researched this piece, I now know there are a fair few people who would genuinely be interested!

Her idea has yet to come to fruition, and I’m still not sure about the wisdom of stopping in our roads to gather up dead creatures, as we could end up being roadkill ourselves!

Never too old – A fond farewell to Hannah

Hannah Hauxwell, who has died aged 91
Yorkshireman Henry Jenkins is said to have lived until he was 169 years old
Henry Jenkins’ grave stone at St Mary’s Church, Bolton-on-Swale

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 16th February 2018, & the Gazette & Herald on 14th February 2018.

I was saddened to hear that Daleswoman Hannah Hauxwell passed away on January 31st. Hannah rose to fame in the 1970s following the Yorkshire Television documentary ‘Too Long A Winter’ which filmed her arduous existence on her remote farm in Baldersdale. Her everyday struggles against the elements with no running water or electricity touched the nation, and her lovely, engaging personality led to several books and further TV appearances.

She left the farm and moved to a nearby cottage in the late 1980s, but, because the land surrounding it had been cultivated using traditional methods for so long, it was taken over by the Durham Wildlife Trust and is now a nature reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest, known as Hannah’s Meadow.

Hannah’s hardy lifestyle may have contributed to her living to the ripe old age of 91, but, as my dad reveals in his column of 16th February 1978, there is a legend of a Yorkshireman who outlived her by an incredible 78 years! Henry Jenkins is said to have been born in Ellerton-on-Swale in 1501, and the Bolton parish records show he died on December 9th 1670. Unfortunately, births did not have to be registered until 1538, so the claim cannot be verified, but there are several reasons why they are believed, and why Jenkins deserves his memorial at St Mary’s Church in Bolton-on-Swale.

We know most of his young life was spent in agriculture, and as an adult he earned a living as a thatcher and fisherman, although was always a poor man. The most reliable account comes from Anne Saville, who was visiting her sister, Elizabeth Wastell, at Bolton Old Hall. She was intrigued by the elderly gentlemen who wandered into the kitchen asking for alms. Anne, who was well educated, wrote a letter to Dr Tancred Robinson, fellow of the Royal Society, explaining what she had heard from the old man. He authenticated her account and published it in the Society’s Philosophical Transactions, suggesting further investigation into how Jenkins had lived so long.

Anne had asked Jenkins how old he was, and he’d replied that he was around 162 or 163. She writes: “I asked him what kings he remembered. He said Henry VIII. I asked him what public thing he could longest remember. He said Flodden Field. I asked him which king was there. He said , None, he was in France, and the Earl of Surrey was general.”

He went on to tell Anne how at the age of 10 or 12, he was sent to Northallerton with a cart full of arrows which was then given to a bigger boy to take to the army. Anne checked her history books and learned that the battle of Flodden Field had been fought 152 years earlier and that if he had been 10 or 12 then it really did make him around 163 years old when she spoke to him. She discovered that indeed, bows and arrows were used at Flodden Field, and that Jenkins was right about the Earl of Surrey, and that Henry VIII was indeed at Tournay in France. For an uneducated man who could neither read nor write, and one who had been questioned on the spur of the moment, his historical recollections were flawless. Anne went on to question other aged village residents, who said that since their own childhoods, Henry Jenkins had always been elderly.

Because of his age, he was often called upon to settle disputes over rights of way, and he was called to testify in such a case at York Assizes in 1620. He swore on oath to having 120 years of memory, meaning he was alive when the original dispute arose around 100 years earlier. The judge did not believe him, but after Jenkins said he was employed as a butler by Lord Conyers of Hornby Hall at the time, when they checked the records, sure enough his name was listed.

There is no way of knowing for sure how old Henry Jenkins was, but there are claims of a Bolivian living to 123 years old, an Indonesian to 145, an Ethiopian to 160, and an Azerbaijani to 168. But it is French woman Jeanne Louise Calment who holds the place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest person to have been proven to have lived for 122 years and 164 days before she died in 1997.


Don’t bleat about the bush

The Sycamore Gap tree in Northumberland

The famous Sycamore Gap tree
The mulberry tree at Wakefield prison (copyright Yorkshire Post).
The Mulberry logo

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 9th February 2018, & the Gazette & Herald on 7th February 2018.

One of the things I battle with when researching these columns is my habit of going slightly ‘off-piste’ when looking for interesting topics to talk about. I get easily distracted by something that I am unlikely to use, but is nevertheless less quite fascinating. In fact, when I was looking for a new notepad, I found one that boldly declared on the front ‘I am 100% NOT procrastinating…HONEST!’. I had to buy it.

This week, having read my dad’s column from 11th February 1978, I was on the hunt for interesting facts about mulberries, as he talked about the origins of the words to the famous nursery song ‘Here we go round the mulberry bush’.

Of course, when I googled it, one of the first things that came up was a link to the website of the famous leather goods brand. Over the past few years, a Mulberry bag has become one of the most sought-after accessories for women of a certain age, so of course, I got distracted by all the images of gorgeous bags, purses and shoes. What also caught my eye (apart from the eye-watering prices) was the ‘Our Story’ tab.

I discovered that Mulberry was founded in 1971 by Roger Saul who set up the business from his kitchen with a £500 loan from his mum. He called his new brand Mulberry after some trees he passed on his way to school, and his sister designed the now famous Mulberry tree logo.

What was odd though, was that apart from a brief mention at the beginning, Mr Saul did not feature further on the ‘Our Story’ tab. After a bit more research, I found a twisted plot so dastardly that it outdid the Machiavellian exploits of the Ewings in the 1980s TV hit ‘Dallas’. And now I’ve said that, you’ll want to know what happened, won’t you? So you see how easy it is to get distracted? I promise to come back to the mulberry bush…

In the early 2000s, Mulberry needed an injection of cash which came from a Singaporean billionaire called Christina Ong, who bought 41.5p.c. of the company’s shares. Mrs Ong, who had huge ambitions for the business, then engineered a boardroom coup to oust its founder and chairman. To remain at the helm, Saul, who owned just 38p.c. of the shares, needed the support of his long-term friend and deputy chairman Godfrey Davis. Davis controlled 4.5p.c of the shares, which would have given Saul the majority he needed. But to Saul’s horror, Davis sided with Ong, and his fate was sealed. He was left to watch from the sidelines as his former friend replaced him as chairman, and the business he founded in his kitchen went on to become a global fashion powerhouse.

So, distraction over, it’s back to the mulberry bush song. According to a book published in 1994 by former Wakefield Prison governor Robert Stephen Duncan, female inmates came up with the song to keep their children entertained as they walked around a mulberry tree in the exercise yard. Some killjoys cast doubt that it is its true origin, but why let the facts get in the way of a lovely story? As far as I am aware, the mulberry tree still stands, and in 2016 was nominated for the tree equivalent of the Oscars, the Woodland Trust’s ‘Tree of the Year’ awards. Sadly, it didn’t win and was beaten by that woody upstart, the Sycamore Gap Tree in Northumberland. To be fair, that is a spectacular tree, far more pleasing to the eye than Wakefield’s wizened mulberry. It nestles in a dramatic dip, with Hadrian’s Wall rising either side, and is said to be one of the most photographed spots within the Northumbrian National Park. It gained its own piece of Hollywood fame when it was featured in the 1991 Kevin Costner film, ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’, and so is also known as ‘The Robin Hood Tree’ (but I bet there isn’t a song about it!).

I would like to express my thanks to the many people who have sent their condolences, prayers and good wishes following the death of my sister, Tricia Walker, on 8th January. The past few months have been a very difficult time for our family, as Tricia’s cancer progressed so quickly and came so soon after Dad passed away. Your good wishes are helping to keep us strong. Thank you.

Out on a limb for leeches

Dad loved his garden pond. Here he is feeding the fish a couple of years ago.

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 2nd February 2018, & the Gazette & Herald on 31st January 2018.

I went through the ‘frogs and snails and puppy dogs tales’ phase with each one of my three boys when they were at primary school. They were fascinated by ‘minibeasts’, which was a new word to me, but referred to what we would have called creepy crawlies. They had no squeamishness about picking up spiders, worms, slugs, snails and wood lice and presenting them to me with great glee.

Even more excitement was to be had whenever we came across a pond, as there were more fascinating minibeasts to found in and around it. When my oldest was a toddler, we lived in house with a pond in the garden and I can’t forget the noise the frogs used to make, and the undulating surface of the water, during mating season. The females are attracted to the males with the loudest croak, hence the cacophony! They also lay up to 2000 eggs, so soon our pond would be teeming with tadpoles, although not all would make it to adulthood, and those that did risked a messy confrontation with the lawnmower if they ventured far from the water.

My brother was also fascinated with such creatures in his youth, and in his February 4th 1978 column, Dad recalls the occasion when he built his own pond. Finding that a hole in the ground lined with polythene was no good, my brother resorted to using an old, Belfast sink, sunk into the rockery outside Dad’s study window. He filled it with with plants and pond life gathered from a local disused swimming pool and nearby lakes. He was very proud that soon his family of great crested newts had started breeding. He wouldn’t have known that 40 years later, if he disturbed the habitat of a great crested newt, he’d face up to six months in prison and an unlimited fine!

Alongside newts, frogs, sticklebacks and minnows, he also unwittingly rehomed a number of freshwater leeches, thankfully a small variety which were harmless to humans.

In medieval times, doctors were called ‘leeches’ due to their custom of treating all manner of ailment by bleeding their patients with the sluglike bloodsuckers. For many centuries, it has been one of the most effective treatments for a number of reasons, and this medical practice continues to this day. There is a farm in Wales which breeds medicinal leeches for this purpose, which is known as hirudotherapy (from the Latin name for these leeches, hirudo medicinalis). As well as supplying the NHS, the company sends them all over the world for use in surgery. The leech, which is about three and half inches long, is particularly effective in treating areas of poor circulation, especially in parts of the body with delicate soft tissue, for example when surgeons are trying to repair or reattach a severely injured limb. They clean up the wound by removing the clotted blood that is inhibiting blood flow, and then encourage circulation to restart.

It is the mechanics of mouth of the leech, a curious biological triumph, which makes it so effective for medical treatment. It has a circular, overlapping lip, and then three jaws, shaped a bit like the Mercedes-Benz logo, each with a row of 100 tiny teeth, perfect for making clean incisions into the skin at exactly the right depth. As they bite, they secrete a local anaesthetic, making the bite painless, alongside another substance, known as a vasodilator, which stimulates blood flow. Once the leech has filled its boots with blood, it then simply drops off to digest it. However, it leaves behind two important chemicals called hirudin and calin, which prevent further clotting and continue to stimulate blood flow for up to 48 hours after the leech has dropped off, which is so important when when it comes to success in treating these kinds of injuries. Although it all sounds a bit gruesome, it is one of nature’s amazing accomplishments, far more effective than many other medicinal treatments, and in fact the leeches only consume a relatively small amount of blood before they become full, around 15ml.

Incidentally, trials have shown that the anti-inflammatory and anaesthetic properties of leech saliva have been shown to be effective in treating pain and tenderness in the joints of people suffering conditions such as osteoarthritis. Vets are also finding them useful during surgical procedures on animals.

Now my question is, how would you feel with a leech let loose on your injured limb?
(Sources: biopharm-leeches.com, guysandstthomas.nhs.uk).

Know Your Onions


This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 26th January 2018, & the Gazette & Herald on 24th January 2018.

There is something about slow-cooking onions that is always mouth-wateringly tempting. Whatever dish they ultimately end up in, a pan of chopped onions gently sweating in butter just smells so divine.

As well as possessing substantial nutritional value, onions are reputed to possess remarkable healing qualities, some of which have been backed up by proper science.

In my dad’s column from January 28th 1978, he recounts the story of a friend who had visited the doctor with heart problems, and the doctor recommended that he eat lots of onions served any which way, be they boiled, raw or pickled (perhaps they didn’t ‘sweat’ onions in the 1970s!). It seemed to Dad that what many people saw as an ancient Old Wives’ Tale was being proved to be true through modern science.

Onions, which like leeks and garlic are members of the allium family, have been renowned for their health-giving properties for centuries. In 1653, the notable English herbalist and physician Nicholas Culpeper wrote in his book, The Complete Herbal (1653), that although onions increase flatulence, they also eased the bowel, increased sperm, helped soothe bites from dogs and venomous creatures, and killed worms in children. Inhaling the scent would also help clear a fuzzy, cold-ridden head. He added: ‘The juice of onions is good for either scalding or burning by fire, water, or gunpowder, and used with vinegar, takes away all blemishes, spots and marks on the skin: and dropped in the ears, eases the pain and noises of them.’

The ancient Egyptians raised the status of the humble onion to that of a god because if it’s health-giving benefits. Onions feature in paintings on the walls of the pyramids, and symbolised eternal life due to their circle-within-a-circle structure. Mummies have been found with onions hidden within their pelvic regions, suggesting they were associated with fertility, and King Ramses IV, who died in 1160BC, was entombed with onions in his eye sockets.

That onions help you live a long life is a common belief in folklore, as is the theory that it promotes hair growth. It is also supposed to be an excellent slimming aid, as this quote (unsourced) that my dad mentions: ‘You who are fat and lymphatic, eat raw onion; it was for you that God made it.’ (I am hot-footing it down to the grocer’s to buy a kilo right away!).

Last year, in a Canadian study quoted in the journal ‘Food Research International’, extracts from a certain type of red onion were shown to be able kill bowel cancer cells by producing an environment in which they self-destructed. But according to Dr Justine Alford, Cancer Research UK’s senior science information officer, results in a lab setting do not always make it into an effective treatment.

“If scientists can tease out which molecules in onions have these apparently beneficial effects, then perhaps they can be investigated as a potential drug in the future,” she said. (Source: prima.co.uk)

With all these reported health benefits, it is no surprise that Dad’s archives contain many ancient recipes, including white onion soup, brown onion soup, French onion soup, pickled onions, onions for keeping, roasted onions, stewed onions and even onion wine. They can also be used to clean leather, brasses, windows and knife blades.

The raw version is meant to be the most beneficial, but if you can’t tolerate it, then it is suggested that you roast it whole, within the skin like a baked potato, to keep the goodness in. Of course, the problem with eating too many raw onions, apart from the inevitable indigestion, is the anti-social smell they leave on your breath and hands. It is well-known that chewing fresh parsley is meant to lessen stinky breath, but you can also try chewing mint leaves or drinking warm water with lemon or diluted apple cider vinegar. To remove the smell from your hands, rub your skin all over and under the nails with either lemon juice or vinegar. Let it dry, then rinse off with clean water.

If you find that any of these methods works, I’d be delighted to know! And if anyone has ever made or tasted onion wine, please tell me if my current taste for prosecco is under any threat of being usurped?

The Mystery of the Disappearing Chestnuts

Marmalade the cat


Sweet chestnuts

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 19th January 2018, & the Gazette & Herald on 17th January 2018. 

You may remember that in my column from the Gazette & Herald on 6th September 2017 (‘Dad’s swift actions stop a catastrophe’) and the D&S Times from 8th September 2017 (‘Saved from catastrophe by Dad’s swift action’) that I talked about the various family cats, both tame and feral, that lived in and around my childhood home.

Dad recounts a lovely story about our longest-surviving cat, Marmalade, in his January 21st 1978 column. She had wandered into our garden as a very young stray and never left, becoming a much-loved part of the family. She had come from a nearby farm, but the farmer had no interest in the cats that frequented his hay barn and was more than happy when they took up residence elsewhere.

Mum and Dad had been stumped by the mystery of the disappearing chestnuts from the windowsill. What was a full bowl a few days earlier, was now no more than half full, and no-one confessed to having eaten any.

Then one day, Dad saw the cat jump on to the ledge and scoop out a chestnut with her paw, which then fell to the ground. She leapt after it in an uncharacteristically energetic way, and chased it across the floor, flicking it up into the air and batting it from paw to paw, as she would had she caught a mouse. Once the chestnut had disappeared under the furniture, she went back again for another one. What was it about the chestnut that ignited this new obsession? Dad had no idea, and my own searches have shed no light on it.

It brings to mind the effect of catnip, often used to scent pet toys. Catnip is a plant from the nepeta, or catmint, genus in the Lamiaceae family, and there are many varieties. In an article by the appropriately-named Kat Arney on the Royal Society of Chemistry website (www.chemistryworld.com), she explains that catnip contains a chemical called nepetalactone, which in cats induces behaviour similar to a person having taken drugs. They act with languid abandon, brushing their bodies against the leaves or rolling around among the stems. If they chew or eat it, they soon become what one might call ‘out of it’. For us humans, the plant can be infused to make herbal tea, and in times gone by small doses were used as a mild sedative. It is not recommended to be taken in large quantities, even though hopeful hippies gave it a go in search of a cheap high. All they ended up with was a painful headache and an upset stomach.

Catmint is a lovely garden plant, but to avoid delirious kitties flattening your borders, it is recommended that you place a small crop of nepeta cataria, the most potent catnip, in a place where you don’t mind them being mauled by frolicking felines, and then they will ignore the other milder varieties you have planted in pride of place. I have no idea if this distraction tactic works, and would be delighted if any readers can tell me!

After Marmalade arrived, she was soon followed by her sister Eric (my brother chose this name. He was outnumbered by females of both the human and feline variety, which might explain why!).

Eric remained feral, and we could never get close enough to tame her. After she had been with us for about a year, she produced a litter of kittens. We’d known she was pregnant and, due to her sudden change in appearance, that she had given birth, but we couldn’t find her litter anywhere. Then, on Christmas Eve 1977, she produced her own feline nativity scene in a very prominent position near our back door. Of course when we found the kittens, we instantly fell in love, and they were named (again courtesy of my brother) Alfred, Rodney (both girls) and Jackson (a boy).

But Eric would never be able to live indoors, and so Dad found the little family a cosy place in our disused henhouse, ensuring they had plenty of straw to keep them warm. We carried the kittens up to the henhouse ourselves, and lured Eric with some cat food on a spoon. She stayed there for about a week, before bringing her kittens back down to the back door on New Year’s Eve. So we repeated the process again, and this time she stayed. The young kittens thrived, and although they never became household pets, they became very much a part of our family history.

Get them to the church

Mum and Dad were married at St Hedda’s Church, Egton Bridge, on 10th January 1959


This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 12th January 2018, & the Gazette & Herald on 10th January 2018. It was written before my sister’s death on Monday 8th January 2018.

Wednesday 10th January would have been Mum and Dad’s wedding anniversary, not an easy day for my mum, nor for the rest of the family, as we are still getting through our year of ‘firsts’ since Dad died last April.

They married at St Hedda’s Roman Catholic Church in Egton Bridge in 1959, and there had been heavy snowfall the night before. Many guests were unable to get through, although thankfully the Middlesbrough train was still running and stopped at several villages in the Esk Valley, including Dad’s home village of Glaisdale. The prize for most effort went to my intrepid Aunty Muriel who walked for four hours through the snow to make it, while Mum, in fur-lined boots, plodded with her bridesmaids from their home to the church up the road. The ushers set to shovelling snow from around the church, while the registrar was rescued from a drift en route by the photographer.

My dad used to recount a funny story about this registrar, and I hope you’ll indulge me as I retell it here.

Dad joined the North Riding Constabulary as a cadet based at Whitby Police Station at the age of 16. His inspector was a terrifying character who lived in a house next door. After an overnight snowstorm the police yard and paths were covered and he ordered Dad to clear it. When he had nearly finished, the inspector turned up and gave him a ferocious dressing down for not also clearing the paths to his private house. And so my weary young Dad went and did that too.

Seven years later, it was 10th January 1959. When the registrar arrived courtesy of the photographer, Dad noticed that he wore a distinctly miserable expression. He also recognised that distinctly miserable expression. Yes, it was was the same inspector, retired from the police but now a registrar, who had bellowed at him for not clearing snow to his own house. So when an usher gave the man a shovel and said, “Can you give us a hand?” Dad felt more than a little satisfaction. Although he would never confirm or deny it, I do believe that grumpy inspector was the inspiration for the character of Sergeant Oscar Blaketon from Dad’s Constable books (and TV’s Heartbeat). What goes around, comes around, I say!

Egton Bridge stands on the River Esk, which flows from its source high on the North York Moors for about 28 miles until it enters the North Sea at Whitby. In his column from 14th January 1978, Dad talks of another river, the Greta, which flows through Teesdale and into the Tees before it reaches the North Sea.

He says many of our northern rivers, like the Greta, owe their names to the Norsemen of old, for whom the letter ‘a’ meant ‘river’. In Old English, the ending ‘ea’ also meant ‘river’, and over the years, it has evolved into a number of endings, including ‘ey’, ‘ay’ or simply ‘y’, and in turn, these have evolved according to local dialect and pronunciations. For example, the Yeo in Devon and the Eye in Leicestershire would likely have the same roots in their names.

The River Greta means ‘river of stones’, and Yorkshire has a number of rivers with this name flowing through its limestone countryside. The word ‘Esk’ comes from the Celtic ‘isca’ which means ‘water’, and the word ‘whiskey’ has the same root too (I wonder how many people wished our rivers flowed with whiskey rather than water?). Interestingly, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word ‘esker’ means a long winding ridge of gravel and other sediment deposited by melting water from a retreating glacier, and one of the villages the Esk flows through is Glaisdale, whose name comes from the word ‘glacier’. There are several other River Esks, including one in the Lake District, and a few in Scotland.

The reason Mum and Dad had chosen such an odd time of year to get married was because Dad had heard there were some smart new police houses being built near Whitby. If he and my mum were married, they might be in with a chance of securing one. Sadly, it didn’t quite work out like that, and they instead ended up in a poky little flat – but only for a few months until a house became available. Although the reason for the timing of their wedding was more pragmatic than romantic, Mum and Dad remained happily and devotedly married for more than 58 years.

You Goat a Friend

Foinavon and jockey John Buckingham after winning the Grand National in 1967
Regimental Goat Mascot Shenkin III with the 3rd Batallion of the Royal Welsh

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 5th January 2018, & the Gazette & Herald on 3rd January 2018.

So the new year has begun (Happy 2018!) and I have put away the last column from Dad’s 1976 archive, his first year of writing Countryman’s Diary. I’ve now moved on to 1978, exactly 40 years ago, which is how I had originally started last June, i.e. using a column from the corresponding week in 1977. But I had to change tack when I discovered that a strike at the Darlington and Stockton Times meant that Dad hadn’t contributed any columns for the latter part of 1977. So I moved back 12 months to his very first year, which seemed the most appropriate choice as it was my first year in the job too.

So now we move forward to 1978, and in his first column of the year, dated 7th January 1978, Dad talks about having to pull over to the side of the road to make way for some cows that were returning to their field after being milked. He was curious that they were accompanied by a little donkey, who seemed to behave as if she was a cow herself, and so he presumed she must have been raised with the herd.

This strange companionship brought to mind the story of 1967 Grand National winner Foinavon who had his own unusual special friend. Through good luck at the expense of others’ misfortune, Foinavon won the race despite being a 100-1 outsider. There was an almighty pile-up at fence 23 after a horse refused it and unseated its own jockey. Other horses followed suit, crashing into the fence and throwing off their riders, or turning tail and running back the wrong way. It was a complete catastrophe and affected every horse, apart from the fortunate Foinavon, who was so far off the pace that he managed to avoid the melee, jump clear and into an unassailable lead from the few who managed to remount and carry on.

He became instantly famous, and so too did his odd little chum, a nanny goat called Susie. Susie travelled everywhere with Foinavon, and they were practically inseparable. She was brought along because she had such a calming influence on the highly-strung thoroughbred. She even walked alongside him in a parade before Buckingham Palace to ensure he behaved himself in front of the Queen.

As I discovered, goats are pretty well known for their calming influence on skittish racehorses, and to this day can often be seen wandering around yards and sharing stables with their equine buddies.

According to some sources, it is where the phrase ‘get my goat’ comes from, which means to irritate or annoy someone. Apparently, unscrupulous rivals would steal the goats the night before an important race to unsettle the horse in the hope it would perform badly the next day. However this might not be true, as there seems to be no firm evidence to support it, and according to historical English linguistics expert Professor Tim William Machan in a 2015 Huffington Post article, there is no etymological evidence to support the theory.

I began to wonder if the reason why goats were chosen as military mascots was because they were believed to have the same calming influence on soldiers going into battle. But it seems not. Apparently, most regiments and battalions have their own mascots and traditions, and animals chosen include not only goats, but rams, ponies, dogs, and even antelopes and ferrets.

Possibly the most well known would be the goat mascots of 1st Battalion of the The Royal Welsh regiment. The tradition dates back to 1775 when a goat ran on to the battlefield during the American War of Independence. He was adopted by the soldiers and led the regimental colours off the field after the Battle of Bunker Hill. Since then, a goat has always served with the regiment and in 1884, Queen Victoria presented the Royal Welch Fusiliers (as they were then called) with a Kashmir goat from her own herd. It is a royal custom that continues to this day.

Military mascots are considered serving soldiers and given a ranking and a title. Lance Corporal William ‘Billy’ Windsor became quite famous, but not for the right reasons – he was demoted in 2006 after he disgraced himself during the Queen’s birthday parade by breaking rank and trying to head-butt the drummers. Thankfully, according to the National Army Museum website, after a period of good behaviour, Billy was restored to his original rank and retired with full honours to Whipsnade Zoo in 2009.

A mass farewell to 2017

Dad’s column from this week in 1976 was dated Christmas Day itself


My Dad pulling a cracker with his grandson Joseph in 2006


This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 29th December 2017, & the Gazette & Herald on 27th December 2017.

I can’t quite believe that here we are already at my last column of 2017. Writing it every week has been an absolute pleasure, giving me an excuse to spend some time alone with my thoughts, and some time alone with my Dad’s thoughts from long ago.

I was surprised to find that the column I planned to work from this week is actually dated Christmas Day itself, and as that day was a Saturday in 1976, I wondered when the day of issue for the Darlington and Stockton Times changed to a Friday. I’m sure someone somewhere knows and will tell me! In it, Dad talks about our family tradition of attending Midnight Mass at the local catholic church. At first, I was too little to go, and would get frustrated at being the only child left behind in bed while my three siblings would totter off with my dad at the excitingly late hour of 11.30. There is an oft-repeated family story that one year, one of us fell asleep on the kitchen table while waiting to go, but to this day we debate which one of us it was. My mum says it was me!

Eventually, I was old enough for my parents to have confidence that I wouldn’t nod off half way through, or fidget and whine noisily. Poor misguided fools! I lost count of the amount of times I was ‘shushed’ due to my habit of sighing very loudly. And as long as I maintained contact between bottom and pew, then I classed that as sitting still. Arm folding and unfolding, feet tapping and swinging, or bum shuffling and shifting were all perfectly acceptable to me. Otherwise, how does a five-year-old get through an hour-long Catholic mass led by an elderly priest? It’s a lifetime, especially when all you really care about is the moment when you emerge excitedly from church, knowing it is finally officially Christmas Day, look up into the night sky and try and spot Santa on the way to your house with all the presents. You also hoped that by some miracle, while you were in there, the snow fairy would have paid a visit and sprinkled a little bit of her Christmas magic around for your walk home (sometimes she even did!).

Our family tradition continued for many years, and there were countless moments of light relief, including the time when our friend’s little boy, dressed as a shepherd near the altar, proudly held up his hand and shouted, “My tooth’s come out!” And another time, when a little boy was sitting next to his friend and both of them had taken their hands out of their jumper sleeves. One bumped the other and they both toppled over like weebles (they wobbled and they did fall down).

When we were young adults, Midnight Mass was where we ended up after the evening in the pub. Some of us were guilty of being slightly north of sober, which we thought we hid very well, until one of us (not me) became very unwell in a pew. It must have been so annoying for everyone else (sorry!) and drunkenness was cited as one of the reasons why the service ended up being moved to 8.30pm in recent years (which must have come as a relief for many parents of young children!).

But enough of Christmas, that’s all over – it is nearly the New Year now! Dad’s last column of 1976 was published on New Year’s Eve, and in it he pays tribute to his predecessor, Major Jack Fairfax-Blakeborough, who died almost exactly one year before. As those who’ve been reading my columns since I began in June will know, Major JFB wrote the Countryman’s Diary for 54 years, and my dad took it over in 1976 until his own death in April this year.

JFB was a very special influence in Dad’s life, and I hope that it would fill him with pride to know that 41 years later, the words of his tribute to the Major could very easily be applied to him.

‘His individual contribution to the understanding of country life and lore will never be forgotten. He was a man of immense knowledge, industry and faith.

‘The Grand Old Man now lies buried at Lealholm but his work will live on forever in the libraries of the world.’

I want to thank you all for being so understanding and supportive in reading my columns thus far, for all the wonderful letters and feedback, and for putting me right when I go wrong!

I wish you all the very best for 2018.