The tale of the famous Durham Ox

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celebrating my Mum's 80th at the same pub in March this year, just a few weeks before Dad died (he's wearing Mum's 'Happy Birthday' specs!).
Celebrating my Mum’s 80th at the Durham Ox pub, Crayke, in March 2017, just a few weeks before Dad died (he’s wearing Mum’s ‘Happy Birthday’ specs!).

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 19th July 2017, & the Malton Gazette & Herald on 17th July 2017)

When deciding what to write in my columns, I do have the feeling that Dad is guiding me, and when I delve into his archives from exactly 40 years ago, I always find topics that directly relate to my life now, which makes writing them such a pleasure.

After I’d finished last week’s piece featuring swans, I saw something that I’d never seen before, which was a lone swan flying high across the A1 as I headed north towards Darlington. I pointed it out to my son who was with me, just to be sure my eyes weren’t deceiving me, and yes, its long outstretched white neck was unmistakable. I don’t know if this is a rare sight, but I have certainly never seen a swan flying at such a height before, and so decided it was perhaps a sign of Dad’s approval of what I’ve written so far!

One of my favourite recent memories involving my dad was when we celebrated his 80th birthday at the Durham Ox pub in Crayke last year, and then when we went again with my mum to celebrate her 80th in March this year. It was just five weeks before Dad died but, thankfully, we were blissfully unaware that it would be the last family celebration with him, as apart from backache and a poor appetite, there were few other signs of how ill he actually was.

Back in 1977, Dad’s July 19th column explained where the name ‘Durham Ox’ came from. It is not an uncommon name for a pub in the north, with establishments in Northallerton, Bishop Auckland, and Beverley, as well as further afield. As Dad explained, the Durham Ox was a famous castrated bull bred in 1796 by Darlington shorthorn pioneer Charles Colling. It was originally called the Ketton Ox, as Mr Colling lived at Ketton Hall near Brafferton, but it was changed by subsequent owner Mr John Day (although I can’t find references as to why, as he was from Lincoln). By its fifth birthday, the impressive size of the bull was generating such interest that he was bought for exhibiting by a Mr Bulmer of Bedale, then quickly sold on to Mr Day for the then enormous sum of £240 (more than £14,000 in today’s money).

Mr Day recognised the bull’s fascination value, and embarked on a six-year tour, travelling all over the country with him on a specially-built cart. By 1801, the Durham Ox reportedly weighed 216 stones, but he wasn’t just admired for his size. He was also a particularly fine specimen, with a long straight back, desirable markings and a small pretty head. His temperament was also that of a domestic pet, rather than a wild bull, and he drew large crowds of curious spectators, all willing to pay a price to see this marvellous beast. He was on show for a year in London where he was making up to £97 a day in ticket sales (more than £4000 in today’s money). The animal inspired national headlines and the potters of Staffordshire were so enthused that they created a set of blue and white china featuring the bull which proved very popular. Not surprising, then, that the enterprising Mr Day turned down offers of up to £2,000 to sell him.

Unfortunately, the lovely ox met a sad end in February 1807 when he slipped descending from the cart and injured his hip. He didn’t recover, and had to be destroyed.

Incidentally, in 2016, the five most popular pub names were listed as The Red Lion, The Crown, The Royal Oak, The White Hart and The Plough.

Swanning about by the river

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(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 14th July 2017, & the Malton Gazette & Herald on 12th July 2017)

Last weekend, I was pottering alongside the river with the pooches when I came upon a woman holding a very large mute swan wrapped in a sleeping bag. It was a peculiar scene, and as I drew closer, I could see that she was struggling not only with the swan, but also with a phone balanced precariously between her shoulder and her ear.

“I’m trying to call the RSPCA,” she said breathlessly, “But I can’t press the buttons!”

I offered to take the phone and make the call, all the time keeping a keen eye on the swan as I knew they could be quite vicious if under threat. But this one only hissed his displeasure when the inquisitive dogs came too close.

Apparently the swan had hurt his leg, so this lady had caught it before it hurt itself further. He was calm because his wings were folded in the sleeping bag, and he could still see his mate and brood of cygnets just a few metres away. By the time I’d made the call, the poor woman was beginning to buckle under its considerable weight and I guided her to a nearby seat. She managed to sit down and still hold on to this extremely handsome bird. Her family were not far away, so I alerted them, and then carried on with my walk, comforted that the RSPCA was on the way, and her family were on hand (Having checked the RSPCA website, it suggests not to pick up injured wildlife unless safe to do so).

Mute swans are the largest and most common species in the UK, recognised by their long S-shaped neck and orange bill. We are home to just two other species, Bewick’s, the smallest, with a black and yellow bill, and the larger whooper which is similar, although its bill has a larger proportion of yellow on it.

There is something about swans that makes me feel a sense of privilege whenever I see them. They seem almost regal and some people are under the misapprehension that all swans belong to the Crown, although it isn’t true. Historically, though, the Monarch is entitled to claim or transfer ownership of any unmarked mute swans living in open water, and this right is recorded as far back as 1186. Young birds were highly prized as a source of meat for feasts and banquets, but as domestic poultry became more easily available, the ownership of swans diminished in importance.

My dad, Peter Walker, wrote about their royal heritage in his column from 9th July 1977. He explained that the third week in July was the time of the ‘swan-upping’ ceremonies, which is the annual census of mute swans on the River Thames. It is quite the visual spectacle, involving six wooden skiffs manned by uniformed ‘swan-uppers’. The skiffs bear the flags of Her Majesty the Queen, and also those of the only two other bodies who can now claim ownership of swans on the Thames, those of the Dyers’ and Vintners livery companies, who both received their rights to own swans in the late fifteenth century.

Today, the ceremonies are about swan conservation and education, with local school children invited to witness the work of the swan-uppers. The adult birds and cygnets are counted, and checked for injuries, the most common being caused by fishing tackle. In 1985, the census counted only seven breeding pairs on the Thames between London and Henley, their population having been decimated by poisoning caused by lead in fishing weights. Thankfully, the lead was banned, and the figures have recovered, although they are still significantly less than before the Second World War, with hazards like overhead wires, oil pollution, vandalism and dog attacks cited as just some of the reasons why (according the the website, royalswan.co.uk).

Thankfully, here in the north-east we can still see healthy numbers of breeding swan pairs in our lakes and along our riverbanks. Let’s hope the generations to come will continue to enjoy this privilege.

Peregrines still under threat

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Peregrine falcon. Taken at Yorkshire Lavender, Terrington. Regards Graham Piercy of Malton
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The Countess of Wessex meets Rufus the Harris Hawk at Wimbledon

 

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on July 7th 2017, & the Malton Gazette & Herald on July 5th 2017)

As I mentioned last time, for these columns, I’m looking back into my dad Peter Walker’s archives from the early days of his writings in the Malton Gazette and Herald and its sister paper, the Darlington and Stockton Times. On 2nd July 1977, Dad recalled how he and his childhood friends use to go ‘nesting’ where they would search out birds’ nests with eggs in them, then pinch one to take home. Of course, now, we would never encourage our children to do such a thing, but then it was considered acceptable as long as you only took one egg and left the rest and the nest undamaged (not sure sure how Mr & Mrs Blackbird felt about that!). I do remember, as a child, the thrill of coming across a nest with eggs in it, but by then, it was drilled into us that we should never touch them or stay there for long for fear of scaring Mummy and Daddy Bird into abandoning their chicks-to-be.

Dad explained that the trade in rare eggs was big business, with people going to extraordinary lengths and putting themselves in some danger to steal them from hard-to reach nests so they could them sell them for huge sums to eager buyers. Unfortunately, that trade still goes on, despite the RSPB putting measures in place to protect eggs in particular demand. One of the most notorious cases is of serial international egg thief Jeffrey Lendrum, who went on the run in South America in January 2017 after being convicted of smuggling extremely rare albino peregrine falcon eggs from Chile to export to the United Arab Emirates. Once hatched, the chicks from these eggs would have fetched around 80,000 US dollars.

Falcon racing in the Middle East has a history stretching back many centuries, and is a sport patronised by royalty and those with substantial riches who are prepared to pay huge sums of money for the best birds hatched from the most sought-after eggs. Due to its large size and its reputation for speed, the British peregrine falcon is one of those most in demand. In 2010, Lendrum, who has spent a lifetime scaling cliffs, mountain tops and was even filmed dangling from a helicopter in pursuit of eggs, was convicted of trying to smuggle 14 peregrine eggs through Birmingham airport strapped to his body in thick socks to keep them incubated. In that case, thankfully, 11 of the seized eggs were successfully hatched and released back into the wild.

Peregrines faced near extinction in the 1950s, but thanks to the work done by bodies such as the RSPB, they are back up to ‘green’ status, with around 1400 breeding pairs in the UK at the moment. Despite this, because of their desirability and the practice of stealing eggs to order, they have the highest level of legal protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Because they don’t migrate, have only have a very short breeding cycle of one month in April or May, and because they usually only stay within 60 miles of their birthplace, they are still vulnerable to decline if their eggs are not able to hatch, and now that Lendrum (at the time of writing) is back on the loose, the RSPB consider him a significant threat to the peregrine population.

Our precious birds of prey are renowned not only for their speed, but also for their hunting prowess. Possibly one of the most famous is Rufus the Harris Hawk, who is very busy during two weeks in July as he patrols the 42-acre grounds of the Wimbledon Championships. Rufus has been employed for his pigeon-clearing skills by the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club for the past 15 years. Apparently, he has his own Wimbledon employee photo pass, which states his job as ‘Bird Scarer’.

Coot a coincidence!

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CASTLE: Northern Echo Camera Club member Michael Atkinson took this great shot of a coot and chick. If you would like to see your work in print join our club today. Picture: Darren Owen NE Camera Club

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 30th June 2017, & the Malton Gazette & Herald on 28th June 2017)

For these columns, I’m looking back into my dad Peter Walker’s archives from the early days of his writings in the Malton Gazette and Herald and its sister paper, the Darlington and Stockton Times. The first one I read was from 18th June 1977 when I was all of 10 years old. It appeared the week after the country had been celebrating the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, and I remember being so excited about the village street party and especially the celebratory five-mile race. At 10, you have no concept of pacing yourself, so I set off as fast as my skinny little legs could carry me, and was shattered by the end of the first mile. I somehow made it around the full course, half running, half walking, and think I was the third girl to finish the children’s race. That probably sounds better than it was – I don’t think many girls entered!

When I first had the idea of taking over Dad’s column, I wasn’t sure I was up to the challenge. Dad had done it for so many years and had a wealth of knowledge of all things rural to tap into. Although I was born and brought up in the country, I have lived in various villages, towns and cities, and was not as immersed in the countryside as my dad. Could I really hope to step into his shoes? It was my brother who persuaded me to bite the bullet. We were on a walk in the coniferous woods above my home village not long after Dad died, and these woods surround three beautiful and peaceful lakes. Although I don’t go there very often these days, it’s still one of my favourite places to walk with the dogs (I don’t own dogs, but I do look after other people’s – it’s a bit like having grandchildren I think. You get all the pleasure, then hand them back!).

To counter my fears, my brother reminded me that I had access to my dad’s archive and that by making use of it, it would be as if Dad was holding my hand and helping me find the facts I need to compose the column. And lo & behold, in that first 1977 column that I read, I found that he was describing walking around those very same lakes. Out of more than 2000 articles he wrote over 40-odd years, I pick that one! It must be a sign.

We were very lucky growing up to have access to such a fabulous place to play. While others battled and queued along the A64 or A171 on hot summer days to get to the coast where the children could paddle and cool down, we drove just a short distance along a quiet back road to ‘our’ lakes and spent all day swimming and picnicking while Mum could enjoy the rarity of us children not fighting, and Dad would observe the surroundings and dream up ideas for his columns and stories.

Back on that day in 1977, his eye was caught by a pair of coots and their offspring that were playing among the reeds near the lake’s shoreline, seemingly untroubled by us children splashing around nearby. He observed that coots are often mistaken for waterhens, due to the similarity of their basic black and white colouring, but the coot is distinguished by a pure white teardrop-shaped patch which stretches up from its white beak to its forehead. The waterhen, on the other hand, is white all the way from its face down to its breast.

So now I know the difference between a coot and a waterhen. I’m getting there. Thanks Dad.

 

Farewell to the Countryman

Peter Walker with his daughter Sarah

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 23rd June 2017, & the Malton Gazette & Herald on 21st June 2017)

I never imagined I’d be sitting here, in my dad Peter Walker’s chair, writing this column, the column that I grew up with week in week out for years. You don’t like to think about losing a parent, do you?

Dad was 80, and continued to write until a few weeks before he died. Even when he was no longer able to put finger to keyboard, he was writing tales in his head which he would share with those of us who were caring for him during his last days.

To Dad, writing was akin to breathing, he simply could not exist without it. He was also very determined, which was demonstrated early on. How many other budding writers would prevail after having 13 separate books rejected by publishers? But Dad did, and his first novel, Carnaby and the Hijackers, was finally published in 1967 (a very fortuitous year for him, as I was born that year too!).

Growing up, I just thought of it as his second job after a day’s work as a policeman. He’d come home, have his tea, then disappear into his study for two hours. He did this religiously, every night. I must mention my mum here, because she gave my dad the time to write by looking after us four children single-handedly for much of the time, which importantly meant he could earn extra money. Dad’s Catholic faith was very important to him, and he wanted to send his children to the top Catholic schools in the area, but a policeman’s salary would not support that, so he sought out opportunities to earn money from writing, and wrote and wrote and wrote, and ultimately achieved his goal.

I’m sure many of you know about his big break, which was having his Constable series of books picked up by Yorkshire TV to become Heartbeat, one of the most successful TV drama series ever screened. Dad was enormously proud, and its popularity was astonishing to him. I remember driving through Goathland (where the programme was filmed) and my jaw dropped on seeing the swarms of people walking around. Literally busloads of fans had descended on this once sleepy village. For some of the locals, it was an unwelcome intrusion, but for many more the TV series brought much-needed income and jobs to the area and it pinned the North York Moors to the tourist map. Since Dad’s death, we’ve received countless expressions of gratitude from people who own moor-based businesses saying they benefitted directly from Dad’s achievement.

And on that note, I’d like to say an enormous thank you for all the warm comments and tributes that we received since Dad died on 21st April. They really did help us get us through those very difficult first days and will continue to help us through more difficult days yet to come. What struck me most was how many people mentioned his humility and his kindness, and that was my dad through and through. He liked to make people happy.

So I am taking on his column, and what a daunting prospect that is, for they are very big shoes to fill. I appeal in advance for your understanding and forgiveness – I’m not my dad, and do not possess his encyclopedic knowledge of all things country, nor his expert Yorkshire knowledge, but I do have access to his huge archive, of which I intend to make very good use. And if I can in some way fill just the big toe of one of his considerable shoes, then I will be content.

Farewell Dad, I hope I make you as proud of me as I was of you.

Who was the Countryman?

 

The Countryman was my dad, Peter N Walker (aka Nicholas Rhea), who died on 21st April 2017 from prostate cancer.

He was a full-time writer for more than 35 years, and before that, wrote in his spare time from his job as a policeman. He wrote stories based on his experiences and they were turned into the hugely successful TV series Heartbeat. But he also wrote much more, including crime novels, detective novels, short stories, local history books, collections of folk stories and tales, and also columns for local papers.

When he was younger, he used to read the Countryman’s Diary in the Darlington and Stockton Times by a well-known writer and local history expert, Major John Fairfax-Blakeborough. The Major had always been an inspiration and source of encouragement to my dad, who dreamed of taking over his column, so when he passed away, Dad was thrilled to be invited to take over. He continued that column for 41 years, and another (Rural View) for around 30 years in the Malton Gazette and Herald. Despite his success, he had a huge sense of loyalty and would not give up the weekly columns, continuing right up until a couple of weeks before his death, although towards the end, they were a struggle for him.

After his death, I began to wonder what would happen to his columns, and felt it would be a shame for them to simply disappear after so many years. With support from my family, I called the editors of the papers who readily agreed to my taking them over, even though I don’t have Dad’s writing pedigree, nor his extensive knowledge of all things country and Yorkshire. But, as my brother pointed out, I do have access to my dad’s archive, 40-plus years’ worth of columns to draw upon.

So I decided to take each column from the same week 40 years ago and see what I could use to inspire my column for today. What I have found is not only a wealth of material, but that it is bringing back some memories that were long-since forgotten, memories of my dad, and of our family, of which he was so proud. And it feels like I am getting to know my dad in a way I never expected nor thought possible. It’s an honour to be able to do it and, step by step, week by week, it is helping me make my way along the long road of grief that his passing has left behind.

Sarah xxx