Feeling rather waspish

This wood wasp in the entrance to a bird box gives you an idea of how big they are

Wood wasps had made their nest in a bird box attached to the house

I was at a lovely country cottage that’s for sale in Ryedale recently, just doing some final checks before the potential buyers arrived, when I heard what sounded like the low hum of a Lancaster bomber.

I glanced towards the closed patio doors from where it was coming and, to my horror, saw that a giant wasp had found its way inside. The huge creature, which I concluded had escaped from Jurassic Park, was hovering and swooping ominously about.

Its considerable size convinced me it was a hornet, for what other buzzing yellow and black thing was that big? I knew hornets were not common up north, but couldn’t fathom what else it might be. I bravely managed to dodge past it to open the patio doors and, much to my relief, it lumbered out into the open air just as the viewers arrived.

I’ve always been afraid of wasps, and have had an even greater fear of hornets since I went to France as a teenager. The farmhouse I stayed in was plagued with terrifying striped buzzing beasts, which dwarfed anything I had ever seen back home in England. I was never stung by one, but the way the family insisted on the windows being shut before it got dark and the way they left a big bright light on outside the barn to divert them away from the house, made me think there must have been some reason to fear them. I assumed they must be hornets, and determined to stay as far away from them as humanly possible.

As I showed the couple around the cottage, I extolled the charms of the spacious kitchen and delightful sitting room, and then suggested we go and see the first floor. As we climbed the stairs, I froze. There, gliding round the landing light like a flock of hungry pterodactyls, were three or four more of the dreaded things.

Like the consummate professional that I am, I yelped, “Argghh!” before scuttling on up the rest of the steps, sashaying around them at the top, then hurrying into the nearest bedroom. The viewers, bizarrely, paid little attention to them (although I may have seen them raise an eyebrow or two towards me).

After the viewing, the owner of the house, a self-confessed nature lover, came back and when I suggested that she might need to get pest control in, she laughed. She explained that they were not hornets at all, but wood wasps and they were absolutely harmless. She led me to the side of the house to a set of bird boxes on the wall. The wasps had made a nest inside one of them and were peacefully coming and going, minding their own business. It is likely that the viewers, who were used to living in the countryside, knew exactly what they were. 

How did I not know about the wood wasp before? I grew up in the country too, but don’t recall coming across it. I’m sure if I had, my dad would have explained what it was. I have a feeling that those I saw in France were probably wood wasps too.

The wood wasp, also known as the giant horntail, does look terrifying, but its merely its armour against predators. It has a similar black and yellow striped body to the common wasp, but is more than double the size. Its spiked tail can be mistaken for a stinger, and the female has an extra long black spike at the end of her body, which looks lethal, but is in fact an ovipositor, a tube that enables her to penetrate wood and lay her eggs inside. These wasps are very docile, do not sting and, unlike their carnivorous doppelgängers, don’t eat other insects, preferring to dine on wood, especially pine.

Hornets are still rarely seen here in the north, and are distinguishable from the common wasp by their large size and chunkier body which, unlike wasps, is not pinched at the waist. While wasps generally have a black head, upper body and yellow legs, a hornet has lighter copper brown head, upper body and legs. Another little-known fact is that they are not likely to be aggressive unless their nest is being threatened.

So now, if ever I do come across one, I’ll just calmly walk on by. Or maybe I’ll run.

Yes, I’ll definitely still run.

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

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

If it rains, it pours

A rain shower clearly visible on the moors above Helmsley. If it rains on 15th July, St Swithin’s Day, it is said to rain for 40 days and 40 nights.

As you know I write these columns a couple of weeks in advance, and the past few days have been particularly wet, with thunder storms and torrential rain sweeping the country.

Although I’m not a massive fan of a rainy day, I do love to watch a good storm and downpour from the comfort and safety of my own window. On 15th July it was St Swithin’s Day (sometimes spelled ‘Swithun’) and there is a famous old rhyme that enlightens us on what’s in store weatherwise for the coming weeks.

St Swithin’s Day, if thou be fair,

For 40 days, ‘twill rain near mair;

St Swithin’s Day, if thou bring rain,

For 40 days it will remain.

The reason for the rhyme lies in the tale of the death of this notable saint. St Swithin was a highly respected man of intelligence and piety, and is recorded as being an advisor to the ninth century kings Egbert and Ethelwulf at a time when Wessex was one of the most powerful kingdoms in Anglo-Saxon Britain. He was renowned for his goodness, and his drive to restore old churches and build new ones, as well as his devotion to the needy. In AD852 he was made Bishop of Winchester, a post he held until his death in AD863.

According to the legend, on his death bed, he begged to be buried outdoors in a simple grave in the shadow of Winchester Cathedral where the rain would be allowed to fall upon him and ordinary folk could visit his final resting place.

His wish was granted, and yet, in later years, subsequent bishops felt this was not an appropriate burial place for such a revered man. On July 15th AD872, work began on digging up his coffin so that it could be placed in what they considered a far more appropriate setting within the hallowed walls of the cathedral.

However, a huge and unrelenting downpour hampered efforts, and the rain continued for 40 days and 40 nights until the project was abandoned altogether. And so his grave remained where it was for another hundred years. But then, a second attempt was made to move it in AD971 after he had been made patron saint of Winchester Cathedral. Just like before, a torrential downpour began, lasting for another 40 days and nights. But they did finally manage to complete the task and St Swithin’s remains were interred within the sacred walls of the great church.

As was common in that time, the body parts of saints were considered to possess miraculous properties, and were often removed and distributed to religious centres across the country in the belief that these qualities would be bestowed upon the communities within which they were held. St Swithin’s head was apparently sent to Canterbury Cathedral, while an arm ended up in Peterborough. Unfortunately I can’t tell you what happened to the rest of his limbs, nor whether they yet remain in Winchester (but someone reading this might be able to enlighten us!).

Although this story dates back over a thousand years, the first written accounts didn’t appear until much later, including one in the famous ‘Poor Robin’s Almanac’, a collection of satirical writings by various authors dating from the 17th century. Therefore, as with all such things, no-one can be certain of the truth of the tale. It is interesting to note that similar stories of wet and dry spells occur throughout northern Europe, including an almost identical one from France connected to St Medard, whose feast day is celebrated on 8th June, and another to the Flemish saint Godelieve, whose feast day is 6th July. Saints who influence the forecast are known as the ‘weather saints’ and, not surprisingly, there are a fair few of them. No doubt a quick search on the Internet will throw up a saint responsible for almost any weather event you can think of.

There is another element to the connection of St Swithin with rain. Apple-growers used to believe that if rain fell on the fruit on the saint’s feast day of 15th July, then the crop wold be a good one. 

So if you have an apple tree and it rained upon it on 15th July, do let me know how your crop performs for the rest of the season!

Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaughter

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 23rd  July and the Gazette & Herald on 21st July 2021

It’s a ducking crime

The other day, my brother asked: ‘Did you know that duck ponds are not called duck ponds because of the ducks that live there?’

I was quite taken aback, as I really didn’t know that! He went on to explain that small ponds were not only a source of water for village residents of yore, but they were also places of punishment for those found guilty of misdemeanours.

I’ve not been able to verify his claim (although I’m hoping some clever person reading this might know for sure), and yet punishment by ducking was very common in the Middle Ages. The ducking stool evolved from the ‘cucking stool’ which was a kind of chair or commode to which the offender was secured and then paraded through town as a form of public humiliation, similar to stocks and pillories that I’ve written about before. The idea was to invoke repentance from the subject. The word comes from the old verb ‘cukken’, which is derived from the Greek ‘kakos’ and the Latin ‘cacare’, which means ‘bad’ or ‘evil’, and the word ‘cack’ has been used for many centuries in association with defecation. The first recorded use of the cucking stool appears in the twelfth century. 

Later, the apparatus was adapted with the chair being attached to a pivoted frame a bit like a see-saw. The chair at one end could be lowered into water by those operating it from the other end, and thus the ‘cucking stool’ became a ‘ducking stool’. This was a much more severe form of punishment, and in many cases ended up with the accused being drowned after being submerged over and over again.

I have found references to it in newspaper archives from the 18th century, and it was used for misdemeanours such as pickpocketing and obnoxious behaviour. The Ipswich Journal from 14th May 1743 declares: ‘On Thursday the 5thInstant in the Afternoon a Fellow well dress’d was seized in May Fair for picking a Gentleman’s Pocket, and was immediately carried to the Ducking-Pond near that Place, in order to receive the usual Discipline of the Mob; but so great a Number of People pressing against the Rails, they suddenly broke down, by which Means he made his Escape; for near thirty of them look’d as much like Pickpockets as he did.’

This device was also known as the ‘scold’s chair’, with the word ‘scold’ referring to a woman who was noisy, disruptive and argumentative. Men who were noisy, disruptive and argumentative (and I know plenty) never ended up in the ‘scold’s chair’, yet if they committed wrongdoings, they could end up in the ‘ducking stool’. 

I’m sure you are also familiar with the ducking stool being used in the Middle Ages for women who were accused of being witches. But when they realised that being tied to a chair and ducked proved nothing, instead, they tethered the poor woman’s hands to her feet and threw her into the pond. If she floated it meant she was a witch, and therefore was doomed to die. If she sank, then of course she was innocent, but by the time they hauled her out she was usually already dead. 

The chair would also be used for women who had been found guilty of selling sex, or of having an illegitimate child. The men who availed themselves of the sexual services, or who impregnated a woman, were never held to account, and that attitude was one that prevailed until very recently. But most of us now appreciate that it was usually desperation and hunger that drove women to sell their bodies, and unmarried women were often raped by their powerful employers which resulted in pregnancy.

In my dad’s column from 18th October 1980, he illustrates how badly society treated women when he discusses the origins of the term ‘outlaw’. Someone who had committed a crime was judged to be outside of the law and devoid of any human rights at all. If he died, his children would not have any claim to his estate as he officially didn’t exist. However, as my dad explains, women would never be considered outlaws ‘for the simple reason that the law considered a woman too insignificant to worry about.’ 

Thankfully, my dad was more enlightened than many of his own generation, so much so that he cooked for the family once a week and always did the washing up. 

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 16th October and the Gazette & Herald on 14th October 2020

Fly away from here

I had the utmost displeasure the other day of walking into an empty house that, unbeknownst to me, had an infestation of flies. Every window was covered in those trying to find escape, and every windowsill was littered with their companions’ corpses. I was there to show some people round who were interested in buying the house and they were due at any moment.

I raced around opening windows and patio doors, but each time would disturb the Roman blinds that decorated them, and out would swarm yet more clouds of black flies. As well as nesting in the blinds, they also seemed to be coming out of the window frames too. It was like something out of a Hitchcock horror movie, and I still shudder at the memory.

I’m not sure why it had happened, as it wasn’t the first time I’d been to this house, and nothing like it had occurred before, but I wonder if it was something to do with the see-sawing temperatures of recent weeks? Thankfully the viewers were late, and by the time they arrived most of the flies had dispersed and, as it was a hot sunny day, I did not have to explain why all the doors and windows were wide open.

They decided the house wasn’t for them after all, and I informed the owner of the fly problem so, hopefully, I won’t have to face the grim swarm again. 

As the weather cools down, there will be fewer flies about to bother us and despite most people’s aversion to them, they are meant to bring good fortune in certain situations. They are also the subject of a number of sayings, as my dad mentions in his column from 11th October 1980.

I’m sure you are familiar with wanting to be a ‘fly on the wall’, meaning that you’d enjoy being privy to someone’s private discussions, or you may have occasionally said something would be a ‘fly in the ointment’ meaning something small was bound to spoil plans already made. We also say someone has ‘no flies on them’ meaning they are quick-witted and won’t be caught out.

Other phrases include ‘dropping like flies’, used when people fall ill or die in large numbers, ‘breeding like flies’ (self-explanatory!) and if someone makes a very hasty exit, we might suggest they fled ‘like a blue-a***d fly’!

I hadn’t heard of ‘fly on the coach wheel’ that my dad mentions. This is very old saying which refers to those people who inflate their importance, when in fact they are quite insignificant. It comes from an ancient fable, some suggest from Aesop, where a fly sitting on a chariot wheel during a race looks back and says ‘Goodness, look at the dust I’m making!’

This troublesome insect also features in a number of superstitions, but some are quite contradictory. For example, in the north of England, if you encounter a fly buzzing around your home out of season, or on special occasions such as Christmas or New Year, then you just leave it alone and good luck will follow. However, further south, the same thing portends a death, and bluebottles were known as ‘fever flies’ or ‘deaths flies’. Anyone they landed on was going to catch a fever and die. 

Next time a fly falls into your drink or soup, don’t be upset, because that is a sign that riches are heading your way. What we don’t know, however, is whether you should continue drinking with the fly in situ, or whether you are permitted to dispose of the contaminated liquid without destroying your good fortune. I’m assuming that those who believed in this superstition were quite glad of flies in their ointment!

Upon coming to the last paragraph of my dad’s column this week, I was filled with a rather warm glow as I read what he’d written:

‘Regular readers might be interested to learn that my paperback book ‘Constable on the Hill’ is due for publication this month by New English Library (price £1).’

I’m sure, when writing that paragraph forty years ago, Dad had no notion of what his first Constable book would lead to – 37 books in that series, almost 130 books in total, a hugely successful TV series (Heartbeat) and a significant boost to the local tourist economy.

When it came to writing, there were certainly no flies on my dad. 

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 9th October and the Gazette & Herald on 7th October 2020