How Dad landed a Major undertaking

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Dad’s predecessor, Major Jack Fairfax-Blakeborough
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Dad’s first ever Countryman’s Diary column, with letters to and from the editor

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(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 25th August 2017, & the Malton Gazette & Herald on 23rd August 2017)

I’ve reached a kind of milestone in writing these columns – this is the 10th that was published in the Malton Gazette and Herald and the Darlington and Stockton Times. It’s amazing to think how quickly they add up, and looking at my dad’s vast collection of folders, it’s staggering to see the volume of paper generated by these columns alone, never mind those surrounding his books. He kept file upon file of paperwork linked to his writing, in fact I would go as far as to say he was a bit of a hoarder in that respect, which I think drove Mum slightly crazy at times. And now the question is what to do with it all? At least I feel I am making use of a small fraction of it within these columns, and they really are a treasure trove of precious, forgotten material.

I have just come across the folder containing Dad’s very first Countryman’s Diary in the Darlington and Stockton Times, which was published on 10th January 1976. In it, he pays tribute to his late predecessor, Major Jack Fairfax-Blakeborough, who’d written the column for an incredible 54 years and who’d recently died at the ripe old age of 93. He was locally very well known and respected for his knowledge of all things country, with a specialist knowledge of Yorkshire and horse racing. Dad, like myself, felt he had some big shoes to fill.

In that first column, he wrote: “I have known the ‘Grand Old Man’ as he was affectionately known since I was a very small boy. It was through him that I developed my love of Yorkshire and life among the moors and dales…Through his encouragement, I began my modest attempts at writing and I know he would be pleased to know that my 27th book was recently published.”

Clearly, this man was one of my dad’s earliest inspirations, and what I found particularly interesting was that Dad had always dreamt of taking over Countryman’s Diary. As the Major continued to write into his 90s, Dad would have recognised that there would need to be a successor. In fact he had written a hopeful letter to the editor of the day, a Mr Ernest Pannell, a full three years earlier in 1973 in which he stated his long-held ambition and offered his services for when the inevitable time came.

The editor’s reply, must have been a joy to receive. “Dear Mr Walker,” wrote Mr Pannell, “One of the most constant problems I have had in my 12 years as Editor has been that of finding someone to follow J.F.B. – your letter brings a prospect of relief!”

It is quite remarkable that both Dad and the Major continued to write their columns until almost their very last moments. Fairfax-Blakeborough died on January 1st 1976, and my dad’s first Countryman’s Diary didn’t appear until the week after his death. One would assume therefore that the Major had kept going until very near the end. Dad’s last column appeared just a week before he died. That’s the thing about natural-born writers, they never retire because they can’t resist the urge to keep going, and do so until their body or mind simply won’t allow them to do it anymore.

I’m not sure that will apply to me, we shall have to wait and see, but trawling back through these archives is bringing so much pleasure, alongside frequent waves of grief, reawakening long-forgotten memories from the past, memories that are even more special now that Dad’s not here to share them. But at the same time, I feel extraordinarily lucky because through his passing I have stumbled upon a way of getting to know him better than I ever thought possible.

Motivation and superstition

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My late father, Heartbeat author Peter Walker (aka Nicholas Rhea) in his study. He used to paste rejection letters to his walls to spur him on
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My Dad’s study feels very empty without him in it

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 18th August 2017, & the Malton Gazette & Herald on 16th August 2017)

In the cottage where I grew up, Dad had a little study where he would do all his writing. I didn’t understand why he’d pasted hundreds of letters to the walls, which turned out to be rejection letters from publishers. Instead of being discouraged every time he received one, he stuck it to the wall and used it to motivate himself on to better things. That’s why he persisted after having 13 separate novels rejected by countless publishers before his first one eventually made it to print. I’m so impressed by people who possess this unshaken self-belief in the face of countless disappointments, where others would simply give up and walk away.

I recently watched a TV programme about sprinter Usain Bolt, and what surprised me most was that he claimed to lack motivation to train, especially, after he’d won his first Olympic gold medal. Once he’d become the best in the world, where else could he go? The trigger that shook him out of his apathy was when he discovered that people thought he was not the best anymore, and that his nearest rival declared he would beat Usain at the following Olympics. As soon as he heard that, he was back training harder than ever, and as he retired after the World Championships in London in July, he remained champion in the Olympic 100m, 200m and 100m relay. Like my Dad, people telling him he couldn’t achieve something just spurred him on, and that takes a particular kind of mental strength that many of us simply don’t possess.

In his column from 13th August 1977, Dad talks about cleaning his study and having to remove pictures from the walls, which prompted him to think about the superstitions associated with them.

Apparently, if a picture falls from a wall, it foretells the death of one of the inhabitants of the house. The belief varied from place to place, with some saying it was only valid if the glass broke, whereas for others, just the picture falling was enough to prophesy a loved one’s demise. There are other variations too, such as if the picture is a portrait, then that person will die, with others saying it doesn’t matter what is in the picture for it to spell doom. A similar bad omen is associated with mirrors – if one falls unexpectedly from the wall, then a death is imminent.

This made me wonder what other signs we should be mindful of if we are to avoid an untimely death.

Black cats have long been associated with both good and bad luck, and if you hear one meowing at midnight, it means a death is coming (although at midnight, it might be hard to see what colour the cat is!). Be afraid if a black cat sits on a sick person’s bed, and if one crosses the path of a funeral procession, as that foretells another death is not far away. A similar fear is held about white rabbits crossing your path.

Birds of varying kinds are portents of doom. Seeing a single crow or magpie is bad luck, although seeing two is good. Seeing six, though, spells death. If you open your door to a magpie staring at you, then go increase your life insurance policy at once, and if a bird flies into your house, cancel any plans you’ve made for the future. I could go on, but I fear you might never again open your front door if I do!

We moved from that cottage to a new house in 1981. We brought our pet cat, Marmalade, with us and at first she hated it! She fearfully slithered between rooms on her belly until finally she settled under the desk in Dad’s new study. The reason? She’d found the only piece of carpet that had come from the old house.

(Credit: superstitiondictionary.com)

If you can’t stand the heat…don’t worry this August!

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(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 11th August 2017, & the Malton Gazette & Herald on 9th August 2017)

Am I wrong, or has it been that for the past few years, decent summer weather has been limited to a few days of warm weather in May and June, but come the moment when the children break up for their holidays in July, summer vanishes? As I write this, the forecast for the rest of August 2017 isn’t great, and I am pinning my hopes on the perennially-forecasted ‘Indian Summer’. When I’ve been on holiday for a couple of weeks to hot places, the thought of living somewhere where sun is guaranteed has crossed my mind, but then, after two weeks, I am yearning to be back in the lush countryside of my home, come rain or shine.

In my dad’s column from 6th August 1977, he laments yet another disappointing summer, although he was thankful it was no repeat of the incredible and long-lasting heatwave of the year before. The droughts, sunstroke, hosepipe bans, aphid and ladybird infestations were unlikely to be repeated in 1977, and now, 40 years later, unless something miraculous happens, once again the excitably optimistic headlines which appeared in June predicting a bumper hot summer will be proved wrong.

Despite this month looking distinctly unremarkable weatherise, August still holds the record for the highest temperature in the U.K. In 1977, Dad mentioned that a record from August 9th 1911 still remained, when the thermometers in Greenwich broke 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.7 Celsius) for the first time since official measurements began. Since he wrote that, that record has been broken at least twice, with the latest set on August 10th 2003 at Brogdale, near Faversham in Kent. On that date, the mercury reached a scorching 101 degrees Fahrenheit (38.5 degrees Celsius) which makes me sweat just thinking about it!

As I was researching this, I came across the phrase ‘since records began’ many times, which made me wonder, when did records begin? With the a little help from an archived BBC article, and the Met Office website, I discovered that the oldest ongoing instrumental record of temperature in the world is the Central England Temperature Record, which began in 1659. However, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that records began to be taken globally, and after the founding of the Met Office in 1854 and then the International Meteorological Organisation in 1873, measurements of temperature began to be taken in a standardised way. Until 1st January 1961, most countries used the Fahrenheit scale, but then the Met Office began to measure in degrees Celsius, and most countries do the same these days (although Fahrenheit is still commonly used in a few other countries, including the USA). In case you don’t know, water boiling point is, of course, 100 degrees Celsius, which is 212 degrees Fahrenheit, and freezing point is of course 0 degrees Celsius, which equates to 32 degrees Fahrenheit. The Celsius scale was also called the centigrade scale, but that term is not commonly used anymore (Fahrenheit and Celsius were the surnames of the scientists who invented the scales).

I did come across some other interesting facts relating to temperature while researching this column. The World Meteorological Office’s definition of a heatwave is when the temperature is 5C above average for five days in a row, and the term ‘heatwave’ was first used in New York in 1892. Also, you might not be surprised to learn that the warmest places in the U.K. are Jersey, Guernsey and the Isles of Scilly, while the highest average monthly temperature for August was 24.3C in 1995, and the lowest was a distinctly chilly 8.9C in 1912 (just one year after the then record-breaking heatwave!).

And for those of you looking for an excuse to take it easy at work this month, according to NASA, when the temperature reaches 35 degrees Celsius (95F), our work output reduces by 45%. So sadly, we will have no excuse to slack off this month then!

Show some respect for your elders

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(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 4th August 2017, & the Malton Gazette & Herald on 2nd August 2017)

I’m no horticultural expert, but judging by the bumper crop of elderflowers that has recently come to an end, we are going to be in for a bumper crop of elderberries. I see many elders on my dog-walking routes, and they always conjure up memories from childhood. Growing up we lived in a cottage which had a long narrow garden full of fruit trees and bushes.

In one part of the garden was a cluster of elder trees that backed on to a crumbling outbuilding belonging to the neighbour. They were simply the best climbing trees any child could wish for, and if you were nimble enough, you could scramble all the way up and on to the roof of this outbuilding. Obviously, we were not allowed to do this, and were regularly warned of the possibility of branches breaking, or of roof tiles and walls failing under our weight which would lead to immediate death. Of course, that’s what made it so exciting, and the trick was to make sure you didn’t get caught.

So when my dad Peter Walker talks about having to cut back these troublesome trees in his column of July 30th 1977, I remember the feeling of disappointment that our natural climbing frame was being significantly reduced in size. Dad is dreading the forthcoming difficult task, as he knows they will just grow again. He also laments the fact that elder wood is very slow to burn, and it would take days on a smouldering bonfire for it to be reduced to ashes.

My disappointment caused by the trimming of our trees was compensated by these long-lasting fires. As a child, I think I was a borderline pyromaniac as I could spend hours messing about with the bonfire, poking dry twigs into the embers and blowing on them to see if they’d catch light. Of course, this was another forbidden activity, and I’d always deny that I’d been playing with the fire whenever challenged. I used to think my mum was some kind of super sleuth, as she always knew when I’d been doing something I shouldn’t, even if she hadn’t seen me do it. It didn’t occur to me that the stink of smoke on my clothes and in my hair, and my ash-blackened hands, were dead giveaways of my wrongdoing.

Elder wood was one of the most robust and versatile materials in days of yore. Its rough outer layer is very strong, while its inner core is soft and easy to hollow out. So in ancient times, elder was used to create pipes for things like drainage, domestic utensils, butchers’ skewers, cogs in mill machinery and also musical whistles. It is thought the name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘aeld’, which means ‘fire’, as the hollow stems were used as bellows to blow into the centre of a fire (according to http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk).

As my dad explained, despite its many uses, there were also plenty of superstitions associated with elder wood. One was that you must never fashion a baby’s cradle from it as that would place the infant into the hands of witches (Maybe that was where Sleeping Beauty’s mother went wrong, and caused the wicked witch to cast her sleeping spell during Beauty’s christening!). Dad explains that evil associations with the wood grew from the legend that Christ was crucified on a cross made from elder.

In that same article, Dad includes a recipe for elderflower ‘champagne’, which my brother used to make, and which I absolutely loved! He advises: “It should be corked well, for it is very fizzy.” Well, this is a bit of an understatement, for what Dad fails to mention is that in our house, the cork exploded from the bottle and blew a hole right through the kitchen ceiling!

 

Our mobile army is a rural lifeline

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The original photo of Stokesley Market that accompanied my dad’s Countryman’s Diary column in August 1977, with just one solitary man in the picture
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Helmsley market place in the 1950s

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 26th July 2017, & the Malton Gazette & Herald on 24th July 2017)

In my Dad’s column from 23rd July 1977 is a picture of a busy market and the caption aptly reflects the era in which it was taken. It reads: ‘Summer scene in scores of country market towns up and down the country – here it is the housewives of Stokesley who are shopping at the market stalls.’

In the picture are dozens of women in flowery frocks with 1970s curled helmet hair doing their weekly shop. There is just one solitary man in the image serving on a stall. How times have changed! My parents visited Helmsley market nearly every Friday for as long as I can remember, buying locally grown and freshly produced goods. When we were very small in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and before she got a job in later life, my mum was one of those flowery-frock-clad housewives. Dad would have been working then, but once he left the police force and became a full-time writer, he would take time off on a Friday morning to go and help Mum with the shopping. I have been to the market many times over the years, and I can say with some certainty that today, the market is filled with men and women from all walks of life, many of whom own small businesses or are self-employed and for them, our rural markets are a vital source of essential fresh local produce and saves them from the burden of having to travel miles to the nearest supermarket.

Dad was a fiercely loyal supporter of the local economy, insisting on using nearby small businesses, even if it proved more expensive than going to large chains further afield. It’s only as I grew up that I really ‘got’ it, and admired him for tolerating over the years my habit of berating him for paying several pence more per gallon of petrol at the local garage than he would have paid had he bought it from Tesco, a 25-minute drive away.

A couple of local services that were lifesavers during Dad’s illness and in the days following his death were the fruit and veg man and the butcher van. In his final weeks, Dad needed round-the-clock care, which we provided for him alongside visiting carers (the Ryedale Community Response Team, who were amazing!). Until I did it myself, I didn’t appreciate how intense and exhausting caring was. We grabbed food and sleep whenever possible, and during the short windows of time off during our family ‘shift’ changes, we stocked up on ready-meals which we could prepare in minutes. Thankfully, the fruit and veg man and the butcher called on set days, selling fresh produce from their vans. We’d leave a bag on the front door handle with money and a note of what we wanted, and during the morning the bag would miraculously fill up with either meat or fruit and veg and the correct change would be left in the bottom. It was a simple, personal, and indispensable service for a family in crisis, which was so appreciated by us. It meant we could still make food from scratch when we had a moment, or grab an apple or a pear to at least eat something nutritious.

The trusty vans driving round villages selling produce seem a bit quaint to us folk who don’t live in the remotest parts of the country, but that experience really brought home to me what a vital service they provide for rural residents. Out of necessity, they will charge a bit more for their wares, but they are lifelines, especially to those who are elderly, ill or disabled and simply cannot get out, or perhaps are not comfortable using an online grocery service. They deserve our patronage and support.

So thank you to all you mobile shops serving our countryside communities, you’re doing a grand job!

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.