Crossing the Bridge

I often cross Naburn Swing Bridge on my dog walks along the old York-Selby railway line
Naburn Swing Bridge looking north towards York
The swing bridge showing the control cabin on top and engine room underneath. This part of the bridge would open to allow boats through
A train crossing Naburn Swing Bridge
The rusty gear mechanism covered in ivy that we spotted by the path
The roller frame still in place in the former engine room below the bridge that would rotate to open it


There is a dog walking route that I do regularly. It follows the former York-Selby railway line and crosses the River Ouse via (what we call) The Iron Bridge, although its official name is Naburn Swing Bridge. Others refer to it as The Fisherman’s Bridge because a huge sculpture of a man with a rod and line sits on top of it. The four metre-high sculpture, which is entitled The Fisher of Dreams, is constructed from galvanised steel rods and was put in place in 2001.

We had chosen an alternative route that takes you below that bridge and had just passed underneath when my son pointed out a big iron gear mechanism camouflaged by ivy near the path. Only then were we reminded (despite the official name telling us this!) that at one time, the bridge would have swung open to allow large river vessels to pass through. The rusty old gear was a relic from that time.

It prompted me to look into the bridge’s past when I arrived back home, and I discovered that it was designed by the chief engineer of North Eastern Railways (NER), Thomas Elliot, in 1870. He was already a well-established engineer, and a contemporary of George and Robert Stephenson. One of his most famous achievements was the huge Skelton Viaduct that crosses the Ouse near Goole in the East Riding.

NER were looking to build a faster link between London and York, and they were proposing a new main line via Selby that would shave 10.5 miles (and around eleven minutes) off the existing route that went through Knottingley, near Leeds, but it would mean having to cross the Ouse. Their main rival, the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, objected, fearing they would lose substantial numbers of passengers using the existing line.

However, the plans were given the go-ahead, with the undertaking that the new bridge at Naburn would not impede the commercial water-based trade between Hull and York. Therefore Elliot was tasked with designing a crossing that could be opened to allow large boats through. Although the bridge was completed late, the route finally welcomed its first trains in January 1871.

Elliot had created a bridge with two wrought-iron bowstring spans, one 108 feet long and the other 180, with a supporting pillar placed where the two spans met. Only the longer portion of the bridge moved, and it was kept for the most part in an open position so river traffic could sail along freely. But when a train was approaching, the signalman, who surveyed the railway from a control cabin built on top of the bridge, would set the big crank shaft in motion. Powered by an hydraulic engine in a room below the bridge, the span would slowly begin to swing open.

Being a railway worker wasn’t without risk. On 8th September 1896, the mangled body of the Naburn signalman was found on the tracks. An inquiry concluded that he was walking to work along the railway, then stepped on to the other track when he saw a train coming, failing to realise that there was another one speeding the opposite way too. And during the National Rail Strike of 1911, the Naburn Bridge cabin was occupied by an angry mob who brought the East Coast Main Line to a standstill by refusing to close the bridge. The military were sent in to take back control.

As time went on, the amount of commercial river traffic decreased along with the size of craft using it, and so it was no longer necessary to leave the bridge open.

It might surprise you to learn that this track, unlike many others, was not condemned by Dr Beeching during his sweeping changes in the 1960s, but remained part of the busy East Coast Main Line right up until 1983. It was closed because Wistow Mine, part of the vast Selby Coalfield, opened that year, and the railway line ran right over the top of it. There were fears that activity beneath the ground would lead to subsidence and so the railway line was shifted west, and the part between York and Selby closed down.

The cycling charity Sustrans acquired the redundant trackbed in 1987 and turned it into one of their first ever motor-vehicle-free cycleways, forming part of Route 65 on the National Cycle Network.

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This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 15th April and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 13th April 2022.

Dare you grasp the nettle?

Nettles can be dangerous to dogs, but don’t sting when they are very young

We are now firmly en route to summer, and one of the more annoying aspects of the increase in plant growth is that stinging nettles are starting to shoot up and, as I am often walking dogs on countryside paths, they can be a bit of a nuisance.

I was out with a little Shorkie (a Yorkshire terrier crossed with a shitszu), and she kept stopping to lick her paw. So I picked her up to see what was wrong, and couldn’t find anything. No nails were split, and there were no thorns embedded in the pad. However, I did notice that there were some nettles just beginning to peep through the undergrowth and came to the conclusion that they must be the culprits.

I have since found out that indeed, over-exposure to stinging nettles can have very serious consequences for dogs. If they run back and forth through a patch, not only can they get stung, but they can also ingest poisonous chemicals thrown into the air by the disturbance.

Dogs with thick skins, lots of hair and tough paw pads and noses are unlikely to suffer much, but thinner-haired and thinner-skinned breeds can be prone to nettle poisonings, so it pays to be aware of the symptoms. These include furious licking of the affected area, and high agitation after just emerging from the nettle patch. There can also be swelling and redness around the stings, shaking, drooling, vomiting, diarrhoea and even breathing problems.

If your dog displays any of these symptoms, take them to the vet immediately. Deaths from nettle poisonings are very rare, but the vet will advise you on how to make your pet more comfortable until the irritation subsides. There are lots of suggestions for at-home remedies online, but I’m not in a position to know how well they work, if they work at all.

Although nasty little blighters, nettles are very clever pieces of engineering by Mother Nature. Their leaves and stems are covered in tiny hollow hairs called trichomes which contain poisonous chemicals in their very brittle tips. The slightest touch causes the tips to break off, and they act like medical syringes, attaching themselves to the invaders and injecting toxins into the skin. We all know how that feels, that the pain intensifies in the first moments after the incident, and can be felt for many hours afterwards.

Usually, where you find nettles, you also find dock leaves, and growing up, I was told that if you get stung by a nettle, rub the area with a dock leave and spittle. I do believe it works, in that it offers some relief, although I can’t say if it would work on a dog and would only try it on milder incidents of stinging. In the old days, you were supposed to recite a charm as you rubbed the affected area to guarantee that it worked:

‘Nettle in, dock out. Dock in, nettle out.
Nettle in, dock out. Dock rub nettle out.’

Some believed that if you placed a some nettles under a sick person’s pillow, that would predict if that person would live or die. Stay green, and the patient would recover. Go brown, and the Grim Reaper was waiting in the wings. Others believed it was bad luck to speak aloud of the medicinal qualities of nettles. To ensure their healing powers would work, they had to venture out to gather them only at midnight.

In my dad’s archive, I found a piece where he tells us that some people believed it was the Romans who introduced nettles into this country, although that is not actually true. What is true is that they brought plants with them on invasions as it was very useful and easy to grow. It was woven into clothing and a highly nutritious source of food, packed with vitamins and minerals, that could be quickly cooked in a similar way to spinach.

So it has been with us for many, many centuries, and judging by how many I see on my walks, I don’t think it is yet under any environmental threat.

In my dad’s article, he quotes this poem about nettles:
‘Tender-handed stroke the nettle, and it stings you for your pains.
Grasp it like a man of mettle, and it soft as silk remains.’

So who among you will dare to grasp the nettle?

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This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 8th April and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 6th April 2022.

Don’t fret, canny lad

A sea fret is known as a ‘roke’ in Yorkshire dialect. Pictures by Alastair Smith


I was having a chat with a lady from Lockton near Pickering who is a regular reader of my columns and she asked me if I had ever come across the dialect word ‘roke’. She’d heard it some years ago when a local man used it and she had to ask what it meant.

He told her that it referred to the mist that rolls in from the sea, otherwise called a sea fret or sea fog. A fret feels and looks different to your average fog, and can stubbornly hug the coastline, leaving it dark and damp, while the rest of us are basking in blazing sunshine. It occurs when warm air drifts over a cold sea, and it thus cools down and condenses, creating the fog. If it is a calm day, the fret will likely remain hanging over the water, but if the right breeze is blowing, it will be pushed onshore, and sometimes even further inland. Frets can last for a few hours, or a few days, depending on the ground temperature, the strength of the wind, and the heat of the sun.

Frets can appear very suddenly, and reduce visibility substantially, which is why sailors have to be well prepared to ensure they don’t get disorientated when it descends.

According to my dad’s Yorkshire dialect dictionary, it can also be spelled ‘rawk’, and a second meaning is a line or scratch, such as you might find on a piece of furniture. ‘Rawky’ means cold, damp and misty, while ‘muck-rawk’ refers to a dirty line or tide mark, the like of which you might see on someone’s neck showing the limit of where they have washed.

I have visited the Netherlands many times and know that the Dutch word for smoke is ‘rook’ (pronounced like roke) and its origins likely lie in the Old Norse term ‘roka’ meaning fine spray or whirlwind. Indeed, the word ‘reek’, meaning ‘stink’, is a relative, as is the first syllable of the Icelandic capital ‘Reykjavik’, which means ‘Bay of Smoke’.

There are a number of words and names used along the East Coast of England that are very similar to modern Dutch. It is little surprise, bearing in mind the country’s history as a seafaring nation, and us being the first land they would come to if they set sail in a westerly direction. In our seaside towns you often see the word ‘strand’ used in various ways. In Dutch, the ‘strand’ is the beach. My sister used to live in Bournemouth, and she would frequent a restaurant with stunning ocean views housed in a building called ‘The Overstrand’, the translation from the Dutch being ‘on the beach’.

In many of our communities you will also find an ‘Outgang Road’ or ‘Outgang Lane’. In Dutch ‘outgang’ (uitgang) means ‘exit’ and invariably, if you follow these streets, they will lead you away from town.

In my dad’s column from 3rd April 1982, he talks about another dialect word, ‘canny’, and its various uses. It is commonly associated with Tyneside rather than North Yorkshire, but it was (and still is) spoken here. It is uttered in many contexts and your meaning is conveyed by your tone of voice and facial expression, and depending on that it can mean nice, kind, clever, funny, careful, cunning, or even deceitful.

Calling someone a “canny lad” with a warm smile on your face is a compliment. But exclaiming “Why you canny little tyke!” with a frown is rather less so. It could also be used to rate a piece of work: “Thoo’s made a canny job ‘o that!”, or to warn someone to be careful if it is a tricky task: “Tak care to be a bit canny wi’ that.”

It can also be used to to signify your approval when a choice is involved. For example: “Aye, that’s a canny spot for a picnic.” Or to signify you’ve enjoyed something: “Eee, that were a canny pint ‘o beer.”

Even though we think of it as a dialect word, it does have an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary where it is defined firstly as ‘Shrewd, especially in financial or business matters’, then secondly as ‘pleasant, nice’. It suggests it originated in 16th century Scotland, derived from the word ‘can’, now more commonly spelled ‘ken’, which means ‘know’.

I must say, I’ve had a canny time writing this piece!

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This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 1st April and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 30th March 2022.

To market to market

Easingwold Market was bustling with locals

The stalls at Easingwold Market sold high quality products

I bought some fresh eggs from this couple, who also made chutneys and pickles from their own produce

This week, I was passing through the town of Easingwold on market day and as I had a bit of time to kill, I decided to stop and wander around the stalls.

An array of local producers were offering freshly baked breads, cakes, cheeses, free-range eggs, home-made relishes, fruit, veg, fish, olives, exotic delicacies, clothing and eco-friendly products. It all looked to be of excellent quality.

I got chatting to the couple on the stall selling eggs, and asked about the range of pickles and chutneys also on offer. I learned that the gentlemen grew the vegetables himself, and his wife pickled them and put them into jars to sell.

In this age of convenience, with supermarkets stocking just about everything you need, it was encouraging to see the market busy, the local population supporting these small independent businesses. I bought a dozen free-range eggs, and then moved towards the eco-friendly stall.

I want to find a kinder, yet effective, alternative to some of the products I regularly use and this stall had huge containers full of liquids, and you bring along a reusable container that they fill for you (they do have spares if you turn up empty-handed). I bought a large bottle of laundry detergent, and a pack of dishwasher tablets.

I am a little sceptical as to whether they will be as effective at cleaning as my usual earth-damaging, skin-irritating versions. I did try quite a famous eco brand when my kids were younger, but it wasn’t very good at removing stains. The chap on the stall assured me that things have improved since then, and that I should have a far better experience today. I will let you know how I get on!

When you visit a small town or village market, you do get a real sense of community. If you stand and watch for a bit, you’ll see people stopping and asking after one-another’s welfare, others sending a cheery greeting as they pass. You don’t get much of that in your local Tesco. I felt that same sense of community yesterday when I attended a funeral in my home village. The lady who had died was a family friend who was very well loved, as demonstrated by the amount of people who attended.

I still call it my ‘home’ village, even though I haven’t lived there for more than 30 years, and it’s at occasions such as this that you see people you haven’t seen for an age, and yet you instantly know them. Having grown up in the same place, you have a common bond that eternally connects you. There was a man who was a regular at a local pub where I was a barmaid when I was 20-odd, and whom I haven’t seen since (By ‘eck , we could tell each other a few tales about the things that went on in that place, but what went on in the pub, stayed in the pub!).

Then there was the mum of a primary school friend of mine, who was there with her other daughter, again neither of whom I had seen for decades. And there was the lad with whom I used to be best friends when I was about five. Back then we boldly told our parents that we would be getting married when we grew up. But as we went through school, it became clear that it wasn’t done to have playmates of the opposite sex. The other kids would tease that we were ‘boyfriend and girlfriend’ and the eight-year-old us found that just too crushingly embarrassing.

By the time my primary school years were drawing to a close, I was glad to be going to the same all-girl convent school as my sisters. That was until my parents informed me that my year would be the first that they would accept boys. I cried. I was even more upset when I found out that of the three classes in my year there would be one all-female class, and I wasn’t in it.

Fast-forward a few more years, my attitude to boys turned full circle again, and our class had earned the reputation for being one of the coolest. Our badge of honour was that we were the first in the school’s 400-year history to get a whole class detention. Well done boys and girls!

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This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 25th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 23rd March 2022.

Calling all you Queans!

What would you call this? A snicket, snickleway, alley, back, or twitten? Or do you have another word?

I wonder if you are one of the millions of people who has become hooked on the game called ‘Wordle’? This is a daily online puzzle where you have six chances to guess a mystery five-letter word. There is a new challenge every day, and it has become extraordinarily successful since it was launched in October last year by programmer Josh Wardle. It became so popular that it was bought by the New York Times in January for an undisclosed sum.

The beauty of the game lies in its simplicity, and it is enjoyed across the generations. I play along with my children, my colleagues and my mum, and we all compare how well we do each day. It has spawned a plethora of copycats, including Globle (where you guess a new country each day), Quordle (where you guess four words simultaneously), Sweardle and Lewdle (I’ll leave you to work out what they are!).

Being a wordsmith by trade, I love the fact that by taking part, our youngsters are using and expanding their vocabulary each day, and also that we are all enjoying a common pastime, something that is fairly rare nowadays. Sometimes, it’s the simple things that are the most successful. It will be interesting to see if it is just a passing phase, or whether Wordle has the staying power of the giants of the wording world like Scrabble and Articulate.

On the subject of words, I was at a friend’s house for dinner and the nine us (from different parts of the UK and beyond) got to talking about dialects, and we had the usual discussion over the variety words for an alley, such as ginnel, gennel, gunnel, backs, twitten, snicket and snickelway, to name just a few. The word ‘brossen’ also cropped up, which I’d not come across, and is a West Yorkshire term for feeling full after eating. Backy is also used to refer to a lift on the back of a pushbike, although I would always say ‘croggy’.  One of my friends moved to Yorkshire from Wales when she was a teenager, and found that when she used words that were common back in Wales, the Yorkshire folk just didn’t understand them.

She said: “People used to look at us funny when we first moved to Yorkshire and used our Welsh words. ‘Cwtch’ means to give a cuddle and ‘chopsy’ means to be a bit mouthy! My dad used to say it to me all the time!” She adds: “Nobbling means you’re freezing. And when I moved to Yorkshire I was baffled when I overheard a conversation saying, “She’s flitting because she’s courting.”

In my dad’s column from 13th March 1982, he refers to some dialect words that were brought to his attention. A reader from Kilburn had asked if he had heard of the term ‘femmer’ meaning ‘weak’. He hadn’t (and neither have I) but having consulted his Yorkshire dialect glossaries, he found it, and it was defined as meaning weak, effeminate and delicate as a result of sickness. It can also mean something or someone that is very slender, and person can be ‘as femmer as a cobweb’.

I wonder, like my dad did back in 1982, whether there is a connection to the word ‘feminine’? Perhaps the etymologists among you will enlighten me. Another dialect word is ‘weeanish’ which comes from ‘weean’, an ancient word meaning ‘woman’. Saying a man had ‘weeanish ways’ was a derogatory term describing him as effeminate. It can also mean childish, and over the years, the term ‘wean’ has come to be associated with adults feeding their young.

There used to be a word bandied about in North Yorkshire which was a derogatory way of referring to women, and that was ‘quean’. In his ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’, Shakespeare uses the line ‘a witch, a quean, and old cozening quean’, to refer to one of the female characters. ‘Cozening’ is another ancient word which means to deceive or win someone over through trickery. ‘Quean’ may come from the Danish word ‘quind’ which was an abusive term applied to women. Obviously, ‘weean’ and ‘quean’ sound very similar, so it is possible they were, at one point, one and the same word.

As I’m due to go out tonight with a few hard-drinking friends, I have a feeling I will wake up in the morning with a touch of the ‘femmers’!

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 11th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 9th March 2022.

From a coffin to a squint

The parish coffin at St. John the Baptist and All Saints’ Church, Easingwold, which could be more than 400 years old

St. John the Baptist and All Saints’ Church, Easingwold, which still holds a parish coffin

One of the fun parts of being a writer is having the opportunity to visit some very interesting places, which I was able to do when researching this week’s piece.

In my dad’s column from 6th March 1982, he mentioned that Easingwold Church still had a parish coffin. A parish coffin was used to convey a deceased person to their grave when they couldn’t afford to buy their own. The corpse would be buried, often in a communal plot, wrapped in a shroud (or winding sheet, as I mentioned in a few weeks ago). Dad suggested that the Easingwold coffin would likely be hundreds of years old, dating possibly from the 13th century.

He wrote this 40 years ago, so I wasn’t sure if the coffin was still there. By a happy coincidence I was due to be passing through the town, so I called the church and asked if they still had it, and whether it was possible to go and see it.

The very helpful chap on the other end of the phone readily agreed and we arranged to meet at Easingwold’s St John the Baptist and All Saints’ Church. We found the coffin hidden at the back among stacked chairs, noticeboards, tables and the like, and if you didn’t know of its existence, you probably wouldn’t even realise it was there.

We moved all the bits of furniture and heaved it out into the open. It was very plain, made of thin planks of dark oak with heavy iron ringed handles around the side. It was much longer than I expected, well over six feet, but surprisingly narrow. I didn’t think I would be able to comfortably lie in it, even though I’m of fairly average size (needless to say, I wasn’t tempted to try it out!). Of course, in previous centuries, if you were a pauper who could not afford a coffin, then you probably couldn’t afford much food either and therefore would not be in any danger of becoming too fat to fit in such a thing.

According to Dad’s piece, although many of these parish coffins had disappeared, there were a few churches in the North East that still had them, including one in Stockton-on-Tees, another in Howden, East Yorkshire, and also at St Oswald’s Church in Durham. Some parish coffins had hinged bottoms, and when they were placed over the grave, the base would open up and unceremoniously dump the unfortunate body into the waiting pit.

Being buried as a pauper was the ultimate humiliation, so many people would try to avoid it. As such, funeral guilds developed, where members would pay a small amount each week into a communal pot, and when the time came, the pot would fund the burial. These clubs died out towards the end of the 19th century as life insurance became more common, and yet a few lingered on into more modern times, including one at Egton Bridge in Eskdale, my parents’ home territory. In fact my Dad’s mum, Nana Walker, was a member of the Egton Bridge guild until her death in 2004. Our family didn’t need to call upon it for support as her late husband, my grandad, was fortuitously an agent of the Prudential Life Assurance Company Ltd. Her funeral expenses were therefore covered.

Today if someone dies in destitution or without any family to arrange a funeral, the local authority has a statutory duty to provide a coffin and engage a funeral director to transport them with dignity to either a crematorium or cemetery. Known as ‘public health funerals’, a simple service is held before the person is laid to rest.

On a slight tangent, I wonder if you have ever visited an ancient Catholic church, and found a strange oblique viewing hole in the outside wall that, if you look through it, gives a perfect view of the altar? This is known as a ‘squint’, or more formally, as a hagioscope, and was designed to allow severely diseased people, or those considered outcasts, to witness Holy Communion. It meant they were still able to take part in the mass without affecting the rest of the congregation.

You can still see these squints in some churches, including the Church of St Andrew in Grinton, near Reeth, St Oswald’s Church in Sowerby near Thirsk, Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate, York, and St Mary’s Church. Whitby.

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 4th and the Gazette & Herald on 2nd  March 2022

A rather grave error

We have a simple epitaph on the my dad and sister’s grave

When I read through my dad’s old columns, I often come across references to our family, and what we were doing at the time, events that I may have forgotten or that have been lost in the mists of time.

In his column from 27th February 1982, he writes about the impressive sighting of a great spotted woodpecker trying to eat from a bird feeder in our garden: ‘As this was hanging just outside our kitchen window, we were afforded a first class view of this beautiful bird; a double enjoyment was that we were celebrating my daughter’s 18th birthday and the house was full of teenagers who’d never seen such a colourful bird in the wild.’

Reading this brought a slight lump to my throat as that sentence referred to my late sister, Tricia, who would have turned 18 on 8th February 1982. The words conjured up an image of a gaggle of excitable girls enjoying the festivities, with not a care in the world about what the future held.

Dad wrote his columns two weeks in advance, which is why he was referring to the celebrations some time after they had taken place. I follow his lead on that score, and so am writing this the day after what would have been Tricia’s 58thbirthday (she died of cancer in 2018). If you have lost a loved one, then you’ll know birthdays and anniversaries are always occasions of mixed emotions. The first few are pretty difficult, but as time goes on they become a blend of both sadness at the loss alongside happy recollections from when they were alive. To mark the day, we attended a mass being held in her memory, and then went to spend some quiet time by the grave she shares with my dad, placing some flowers on the headstone.

Dad could not have known it when he wrote the column back in 1982 that the second topic that he writes about is rather appropriate when I read it today, as it concerns epitaphs. The one we chose for my dad and sister’s headstone is very simple, just expressing our family’s sadness at their passing along with the significant dates.

However, some people choose words that reflect more about how that person lived. A reader had contacted Dad saying that the saddest epitaph he had ever seen was on a gravestone at St Mary Magdalene’s Church at Lillington, near Leamington Spa. It was for a William Treen who died in February 1810 and read:

‘I poorly liv’d and poorly dy’d, poorly buried, and no one cry’d.’

Known as Billy Treen, his final resting place is called ‘The Miser’s Grave’ because he had such a reputation for frugal living. According to a local history website, Billy, a labourer and road scraper, would beg his neighbours for discarded potato peelings and vegetable waste.

However on Saturday 18th February 1922, the local paper ran story about a tenant who was now residing in Billy Treen’s former cottage. He had found a purse containing ten silver coins hidden in the rafters dating from 1660 and 1690. Had these belonged to Billy Treen? Perhaps he wasn’t so poor after all!

Dad goes on to mention a few more. One is purportedly from a grave in Selby and reads:

‘Here lies my wife, a sad slattern and shrew.

If I said I regretted her, I should lie too.’

A rather cautionary sentiment is expressed on the grave of 10-year-old John Rose (or it could be John Dose) who died on January 27th 1810:

‘Dear friends and companions all, pray warning take by me.

Don’t venture on the ice too far, as t’was the death of me.’

There is another tale that Dad often told me to make me giggle. It goes like this: When a Yorkshireman’s God-fearing wife died, he asked the undertaker for a special line on her gravestone. It was ‘God, she was thine.’ The undertaker promised his stonemason would include the words and eventually the stone was installed upon her grave. But there was a mistake. The sentence read, ‘God, she was thin.’

The husband rang the undertaker to complain, saying, “You’ve missed off the ‘E’!” The undertaker apologised and said his stonemason would correct the error immediately. A few days later, the husband went to inspect the new lettering.

Now it read, ‘Ee, God, she was thin.’

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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 25th and the Gazette & Herald on 23rd  February 2022

A Tale to Make You Quake

Crush your eggshells before throwing them away to stop witches using them as boats

Following the column I wrote a couple of weeks ago about superstitions held by seafaring folk, reader Lynn Catena got in touch to say: “I remember reading somewhere that people would crush their eggshells before throwing them out so that witches couldn’t sail out to sea and sink the fishing boats.”

She also sent me a copy of a poem featured in a blog by writer and folklore historian Willow Winsham. The poem was written by Elizabeth Fleming in 1934 and the first verse goes like this:

‘Oh, never leave your egg-shells unbroken in the cup;

Think of us poor sailor-men and always smash them up,

For witches come and find them and sail away to sea,

And make a lot of misery for mariners like me.’

She also cites a much earlier reference in Reginald Scott’s Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584): ‘They can go in and out of anger holes and sail in an egg shell, a cockle or mussel shell, through and under tempestuous seas.’

But the earliest reference to the smashing of eggshells comes from Pliny the Elder, writing in his most famous work, Natural History, in about AD77. Comprising 37 books, it is one of the largest surviving works from the Roman Empire, and is considered by many to be the first ever encyclopaedia. It covers a variety of subjects, such as botany, zoology, astronomy and mineralogy, as well as contemporary traditions and beliefs. It is one of the reasons we know that Romans invented water mills for refining grain, and developed the technique of ‘hushing’ (also known as ‘booming’), a mining term where torrents of water are forced through soil to expose mineral veins, a method still used now, nearly 2,000 years later.

In Book 28, he discusses spells and charms: ‘There is indeed no-body who does not fear to be spell-bound by imprecations. A similar feeling makes everybody break the shells of eggs or snails immediately after eating them, or else pierce them with the spoon that they have used.’ He doesn’t explain why people break the shells, but with the ocean as the main form of transport during the expansion of the Roman Empire, one might assume that they held similar beliefs about mischievous gods and goddesses.

Pliny the Elder died two days after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius which occurred on August 24th AD79. His nephew, Pliny the Younger, who was 18 at the time, described what happened in a letter to the historian Tacitus. Writing around 27 years later, he explained that they had witnessed the eruption from across the bay, watching in horror as a huge mushroom plume of smoke burst into the sky. His uncle set out with a rescue party from his home town of Misenum on the northernmost coast of the Bay of Naples, heading by boat towards his friend’s home on the opposite shore just south of Pompeii. Hampered by thick fumes and constant showers of pumice rocks, they made it across the water, but by the time they arrived, it was deemed too dangerous to set off back. They stayed in the home of the friends they’d come to rescue, and in the morning, with the air thick with dust and noxious fumes, and aftershocks suggesting further eruptions, they went back down to the shore to see if it was safe to set sail. But by now the wind had turned, so again they could not leave. Pliny, who was overweight and already suffered from respiratory complaints, was starting to struggle for breath and had to be supported back to the house by two slaves. He passed away the next day.

I can’t imagine how frightening it must have been to have been there, with no comprehension of how or why it was happening. We get some idea of the terror of thinking the world was coming to an end from Pliny the Younger’s eyewitness account: ‘A dense black cloud was coming up behind us, spreading over the earth like a flood…we had scarcely sat down to rest when darkness fell, not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a closed room.’

He goes on: ‘I derived some poor consolation in my mortal lot from the belief that the whole world was dying with me, and I with it.’

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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 18th and the Gazette & Herald on 16th  February 2022

The miracle of love

At one time, apples and oranges used to be given as Valentine’s Day gifts

We are still not certain why the saint day of the priest Valentine became associated with love (Picture from

Valentine’s Day is just around the corner and I’m sure there will be many of you who will mark it in some way by perhaps giving your other half a card or a gift, or by celebrating with a romantic meal.

It’s not certain when the Christian Feast of St Valentine became associated with love, and there is some confusion about the identity of the saint who gives his name to this special day. In fact a number of saints called Valentine exist, and up to three can lay claim to the day itself. Generally, a day named after a saint marks the date they passed away.

There is an interesting story that explains the link between the saint and love. Claudius II was a ferocious leader determined to expand the Roman Empire when he became Caesar in AD268. He led ambitious military campaigns, and needed a plentiful supply of soldiers to execute his plans. However, he was struggling to get men to volunteer. Rather than blame their reluctance on the fear of being hacked to death, Claudius claimed the cause was the attachment the men felt towards their wives and families at home. His solution was to ban all weddings and engagements in Rome.

The priest Valentine objected to this and continued to perform marriages in secret. When Claudius found out, Valentine was thrown into prison and condemned to death. While incarcerated, he befriended the jailer’s daughter and left her a farewell message which he signed, “From your Valentine.” He was beaten and beheaded on February 14th in about AD269.

Another version of the tale has the girl being blind, and Valentine miraculously cures her just so that she can read the note (incidentally, you can only become a saint if you have performed miracles during your lifetime). Although it is an entertaining story, and nicely connects the saint with love and romance, it is more than likely to be complete hogwash.

There are ancient accounts which suggest there were two, or even three, saints with this name who were martyred in Rome on 14th February, but it is also possible that they were one and the same man. What we do know is that at least one person with this name was killed on that date and his remains lie on the Via Flaminia in Rome.

As my dad mentions in his column from 13th February 1982, rural folklore states that February 14th is when birds begin to look for their mates. A Valentine was also the name given to a physical gift, as well as to the person giving it.

At one time, apples or oranges would be presented on Valentine’s Day, and later it was more likely to be cakes and buns. Children would go from door to door, a bit like they do for Halloween these days, and when the door was opened, they’d recite a rhyme a bit like this:

‘Good morning Valentine, curl your locks as I do mine,

Two before and three behind, good morning Valentine.’

During the Middle Ages, the custom developed of sending a message or poem to your loved one. The earliest known written Valentine’s message is a 1477 letter by Margery Brews to a John Paston whom she describes as her ‘ryght welebeloued Voluntyne (right well-beloved Valentine)’. In it, she promises to be a good wife, and begs him not to give her up following her parents’ refusal to increase her dowry.

‘Myne herte me bydds ever more to love yowe truly (my heart me bids ever more to love you truly),’ she writes. Margery did get her way, and the pair wed and had a son, William, in 1479.

I’m not sure how many people still exchange Valentine’s cards, but it is certainly not a tradition embraced by my children and their peers. My eldest son is now 25 and when prompted said he might get his girlfriend a card, but will definitely mark it with a gift and a meal out. The other two (aged 23 and 19) said there was no chance they’d ever buy a card as it’s only what old people like me do.

I suppose they have a point, and on February 14th I’m going to wait and see if a telltale red envelope pops through the letterbox. And if it does, then I will definitely start believing in miracles.

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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 11th and the Gazette & Herald on 9th  February 2022