Recipe for laughter

In my column a couple of weeks ago I talked about the term ‘bramah’ which was used to describe something that is either unusual or of excellent quality. For example you might stay, “Eee, it’s a proper bramah that one.” I wrote that an exceptional 18th century South Yorkshire engineer called Joseph Bramah, most famous for inventing high quality locks, was likely to have influenced its use.

I was contacted by reader John Rodmell who put forward an alternative explanation for the origin of the term. He wrote: “I’ve always understood the word to mean ‘stunning example’ and have been led to believe it originates from the name of a particularly large chicken.”

The breed in question is called the ‘Brahma’ and is thought to have been developed in the United States from birds imported from Shanghai in China. Because of its considerable size, it was the principal meat breed in the US from the 1850s until about 1930. It came into the UK in December 1852 when some were gifted to Queen Victoria.

Although this could be true, I’m not sure it is as convincing as the Joseph Bramah explanation. I have found a variety of spellings and as well as bramah and brahma, we have brammer, brama and brammah, all meaning an outstanding person or thing. It has also been suggested that rather than originating in South Yorkshire, it is West Yorkshire folk who should take the credit. But then again, there are others who say it is of Scottish origin. Incidentally ‘bramah’ follows ‘brain fart’ in the slang dictionary I was using. This is an inability to think clearly or a moment of forgetfulness. As a result, I have diagnosed myself as a sufferer of chronic brain fartism.

I’ve also been contacted about mondegreens, a term that came into common use thanks to writer Sylvia Wright who as a child had confused the words to the 17th century ballad ‘The Bonnie Earl o’Moray’. For the line that went ‘And layd him on the green’, Wright heard ‘Lady Mondegreen’, and thus the term began to be used to refer to misheard song lyrics.

I received a very kind message from Caroline Hodgson who said: “Thank you very much for your lovely column each week…There is always something which I learn from it!” Caroline particularly enjoyed the ‘mondegreen’ article and sent in a few corkers used by her own family. We have ‘I believe in Milko’ (‘I believe in Miracles’, Hot Chocolate), ‘Checky tea towel’ (‘Chiquitita’ by Abba) and my personal favourite, ‘Bald-headed woman, more than a woman than me’, (‘More Than a Woman’, The Bee Gees).

And Graeme Cunningham wrote: “Due to a duff sound system in my local cinema where I saw ‘The King and I’, I heard Deborah Kerr sing: ‘I know how it feels to have wings on your heels, and to fly down a street in a tram.’ ” The correct version has a wistful Deborah flying down the street in a ‘trance’.

These recollections had me laughing out loud, so do keep them coming (either contact this paper, or get in touch through the contact page at

You may remember that last week I talked about witch bottles, everyday containers intended to ward off evil sorceresses that were filled with small objects such as fingernails, hair, pins and urine. The bottles were hidden by fireplaces, thresholds, graveyards and river banks to try to keep witches at bay.

By the time he had written his column the following week in 1981 (7th November), Dad had found some instructions which may still come in very useful if you are troubled by these dastardly old hags.

He informs us: ‘To destroy the power of a witch, take three small-necked stone jars. Place in each the liver of a frog stuck full of new pins and the heart of a toad stuck full of thorns from the holy thorn bush. Cork and seal each jar.

‘Bury in three different churchyard paths seven inches from the surface and seven inches from the porch. While in the act of burying each, repeat the Lord’s Prayer backwards. As the hearts and livers decay, so will the witch’s power vanish.’

So now, if you’re ever troubled by witches, you’ll know just what to do (keep this column handy though, just in case you’re struck by a brain fart).

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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 5th and the Gazette & Herald on 3rd November 2021

Got a lot of bottle

The torpedo-shaped witch bottle on the left, found in a former pub in Watford in 2019 (
Myself and my son Joey dressed up for a Halloween party a few years ago

T’is the season of witches, monsters, ghosts and pumpkins and I did enjoy the years when myself and my children put significant effort into getting dressed up for Halloween. I used to look forward to donning my witch’s outfit and scaring the youngsters when they knocked on our door in the hope of a handful of treats.

The thought of witches these days does not scare many people, but in times gone by, they were much feared and the belief in their magical powers to conjure up spells to do someone ill was very real indeed.

In his column from 24th October 1981, Dad talks about one particular and intriguing act of witchcraft that occasionally resurfaces today, usually when builders are carrying out renovations on old houses. If they have occasion to dig up an ancient threshold, or remove bricks or masonry surrounding an old fireplace, then they might just uncover a witch bottle.

Witch bottles would have been hidden by 17th century homeowners to protect the household from the nefarious activities of any passing sorceress. The bottles themselves were not particularly special, being ordinary everyday vessels, but they filled them with items that they believed would do harm to any witch who dared to come close.

Contents varied, but they could include metal pins, thorns, nail clippings, hair, urine, torn fabric and occasionally blood. Each item had its own special property. The pins would be made of iron, which was supposed be able to ward off evil, and the nail clippings and hair represented the most enduring parts of the human body which the witch would have difficulty in destroying. The intended effect of the urine was to afflict the wrongdoer with a condition which would prevent her from being able to pass water, and thus would ultimately bring about her death.

In 2019, an example of such a talisman was discovered in a former pub in Watford near London. The old Star and Garter Inn was being converted into residential flats when they came across the bottle hidden in a chimney stack. People used to believe that witches would try to enter houses in unexpected ways, such as by coming down the chimney, and so bottles would be hidden near the fireplace.

This bottle contained fish hooks, human teeth and shards of glass in a mysterious liquid, possibly urine. The place where it was found is intriguing as it is well known as the birthplace of Angeline Tubbs, nicknamed the Witch of Saratoga. She was born in 1761, but moved the the US in her teens and earned a living telling fortunes in and around Saratoga Springs, New York.

The torpedo-shaped bottled found in her former home, however, dates from about 1830, which is after Angeline had emigrated, so it had nothing to do with her. However it does prove that superstitions involving witches persisted until long after they peaked in the 17th century.

In 1983, during excavations at the site of the Judge’s Lodging building on Lendal in York (on ground which was the disused graveyard of St Wilfrid’s Church) York Archaeological Trust discovered a 16th century stoneware bottle with its cork still in place. It was a rare find, not only because it was barely damaged, but also because the stopper meant its contents were still there too. The bottle had a long neck and a bell-shaped base and was found to contain copper alloy pins along with a piece of textile, while further examination revealed traces of urine. Witch bottles were placed in graveyards because it was believed that concealing a bottle on hallowed ground would break a curse that had been placed upon you.

More than 200 bottles have been found across the UK, and as well as graveyards, and at entry and exit points of dwellings, they have also been found in river beds and banks, as it was believed that witches could not cross water. There are likely to be many more hidden up and down the country that will never ever see the light of day.

I hope you are doing something suitable spooky this Halloween. It’s going to be a first for me as I am attending the Yorktoberfest beer festival. I might not be dressed like a witch this year, but I will certainly come across a bottle or two!

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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 29th and the Gazette & Herald on 27th October 2021

A load of old Crapper

Dad was an expert on many things, including Yorkshire dialect

My dad was an expert in various things, including Yorkshire dialect, and dialect words often crop up in his past columns that I look upon for inspiration.

In his column from 17th October 1981, he talks about the word ‘tyke’ being associated with people from Yorkshire. I would not take offence if someone called me a tyke, but rather I’d see it as a term of endearment. Having said that, its origins are not so friendly. It is thought that it comes from the Old Norse word ‘tik’ which meant a female dog although was later used across the country to refer to a rough ill-mannered lout. I’m not sure when it began to change from being an insult into a more affectionate term but, according to Dad, it is only after the 18th century that we find references where it was reserved solely for people from Yorkshire.

In another column from November 1978 Dad talks about the curious Yorkshire saying that describes something as a ‘bramah’. It is one of those words that I haven’t come across, and so I take great joy in the process of discovering what it’s all about.

The word was used to describe something that is of excellent quality, or rather unusual. For example, you might stay, “Eee, it’s a right bramah that one.” I can’t say that I have heard the phrase used, and wonder if it is still said? Perhaps someone reading this can enlighten me. 

The origin of the word is likely to have come from a South Yorkshire man by the name of Joseph Bramah who was born a farmer’s lad near Barnsley in 1748. He grew up to be an exceptional inventor and engineer, most famous for his locks, the first one of which was patented in 1784. 

Bramah was noted for his close attention to detail, and understood how important precision was in engineering. His locks earned a reputation for being extremely secure and high quality, and people with property and valuables worth protecting found themselves worrying less if they were secured by a Bramah lock. They crop up in works by Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw and Frederick Forsyth and according to Peter Wright, who wrote the controversial book ‘Spycatcher’, Bramah locks were used for diamond safes and were by far the most difficult to break and practically impossible to pick.

The company that Joseph Bramah founded in London in 1784 still exists, and has expanded further into the security field by producing alarm systems. 

Perhaps Bramah’s most important invention was the hydraulic press which enabled the force of a few pounds on a lever to be converted into hundreds of pounds of pressure, and Bramah’s perfection of this method using a small pump plunger found various uses in industry, including book binding, paper production, printing, leather work, engineering and the electrical trades.

Bramah became a leading inventor of the industrial revolution and other ideas he patented included a fountain pen, a fire engine and a valve for a flushing toilet that meant it didn’t freeze up in the winter. Many of his inventions can be seen at the Science Museum in London and one of his toilets still works at Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s residence on the Isle of Wight.

It seems that lots of people have been involved in improving the original flushing toilet. The aptly named Thomas Crapper is thought by many to have invented it, but this is not actually true, although he did help to increase its popularity. Apparently it was Sir John Harrington, the godson of Queen Elizabeth 1 who, in his work Metamorphosis of Ajax, first described a toilet with a raised cistern connected to the basin by a small pipe which released water when a valve was opened. The Queen had one installed in her palace in Richmond, yet it was a further 200 years before Alexander Cummings invented the ‘S’ pipe underneath to prevent foul odours from escaping. It wasn’t until the end of the 18th century that flushing toilets became the norm.

Incidentally, the word ‘crap’ was used for some years before Thomas Crapper happened upon the toiletting scene so, surprisingly, is not in fact related to his name. It is first recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1846, 15 years before Mr Crapper launched his bathroom-related business. 

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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 22nd October and the Gazette & Herald on 20th October 2021

Have you the clue to Banniscue?


Did Spandau Ballet really write a song that included the lyrics ‘The sound of muscles’?


The theme of misunderstood words and lyrics continues to bear fruit and I have a few more to pass on. 

Clare Proctor remembered that back in the sweatband clad 1980s, there seemed to be a few pop songs in the charts where references to the male physique were prominent either in the lyrics or in the accompanying dry-ice-laden videos. Olivia Newton-John’s rather saucy example, ‘Physical’, features an abundance of toned Adonises working out, while Diana Ross’ video for her song, ‘Muscles’ was filmed in a similar vein.

It was against this backdrop that Clare writes: “A new Spandau Ballet song came on the radio, and in front of all my staff I groaned, ‘Not another song about muscles!’ …The song? ‘True’. The line? I heard ‘This is the sound of muscles.’ Tony Hadley was actually singing: ‘This is the sound of my soul’!”

Roger Barlow wrote to me saying: “I had a good laugh at ‘Peter God’. It reminded me of my childhood when I asked my mum why her bag was called a ‘ham bag’. ‘Did you used to put ham in it?’ I enquired.”

It seems these instances of misheard phrases have their own particular name. Peter Sotheran wrote: “They are called ‘Mondegreens’ from a common mishearing of a line from the 17th century ballad ‘The Bonnie Earl o’Moray’.”

As Peter explains, the words are often sung like so:

‘Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands, Oh, where hae ye been?

They hae slain the Earl O’Moray, And Lady Mondegreen.’

In fact, the term ‘mondegreen’ came about thanks to American writer Sylvia Wright who had an essay published in Harper’s Magazine in 1954 entitled ‘The Death of Lady Mondegreen’. It was as a child that when singing the ballad, she envisioned the earl dying tragically next to his true love, Lady Mondegreen. In fact, the proper lyric is ‘And layd him on the green’. But Wright preferred her own much more romantic version and, following the publication of her essay, the term began to be used for misheard song lyrics that change the intended meaning of the original.

Peter also mentions another fairly well-known mondegreen, that of ‘Gladly, the cross-eyed bear.’ Many a child would believe the pious bear featured in the hymn ‘Keep Thou My Way’, whereas the actual line is ‘Gladly the cross I’ll bear’.

In 2015, the Independent newspaper asked for people to send in their favourite mondegreens, and they included ‘The ants are my friends, they’re blowin’ in the wind’ (The answer my friend, is blowin’ in the wind’, Bob Dylan), ‘All the whiskey in the sea’ (‘All that’s missing is the sea’, Club Tropicana, by Wham) and the obvious ‘I don’t know why we had a divorce; we’d roll and fall in brie’ (‘Out on the wiley, windy moors, we’d roll and fall in green’, Wuthering Heights, by Kate bush). 

I’m sure you have your own, and please do keep em’ coming. They don’t half make me chuckle! Some of you might also be able to help with a query from another reader. Ian Atkinson contacted me after having read my column about the quirky farm names near Husthwaite. Ian’s wife Linda was brought up on a farm with the name ‘Banniscue’. Ian says: “Nobody has ever been able to shed any light on its origins, so I wonder if your readers might.”

I did a bit of research myself, and found that Banniscue is the area in Ryedale between Hawnby Hill and Easterside Hill, near Rievaulx. There used to be three farms, High Banniscue, Low Banniscue and Little Banniscue, all situated around Banniscue Wood, but only High Banniscue exists now. I couldn’t find any clues as to how it got its name, and wondered if there was any influence from the Viking language. I found a few Old Norse words that may or may not be connected. ‘Banna’ means ‘to forbid’, while ‘bana’ means ‘to kill’, and ‘bani’ means ‘a cause of death’, or ‘slayer’. It could also be influenced by Old Brittonic, where ‘benn’ means peak and ‘isca’ means ‘water’, so perhaps the word refers to its location overlooking a nearby beck?

I’d be intrigued to know where this farm name comes from and whether anyone can shed light on its origins. Contact this paper by letter or email, or use the contact page at

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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 15th October and the Gazette & Herald on 13th October 2021

Snow way to say ‘I do’

My mum in St Hedda’s Church, Egton Bridge, where she and Dad were married on 10th January 1959.

Mum and Dad on their snowy wedding day in 1959, taken by Whitby photographer John Tindale from the top of his Land Rover


A few years ago I wrote a column about my parents’ wedding day. They were married on 10th January 1959 at St Hedda’s Church in Egton Bridge, and the night before there was a great blizzard.

I recalled that the registrar happened to be a retired sergeant whom Dad remembered having a fiery temper and had once forced him, when he was a young cadet, to clear snow from the path to his private house. It had given Dad great pleasure to hand the man a spade to help clear the snow from outside the church.

On his way to the ceremony, this registrar had ended up stuck in a snowdrift, but he was rescued by the wedding photographer who happened upon him en route. Using his Land Rover, a vehicle suited to winters in the country, he helped tow the stranded car out before giving the registrar a lift the rest of the way. What I did not mention first time round was that this photographer was well-known Whitby figure, John Tindale.

I was very fortunate recently to be invited to the launch of an exhibition at Whitby Museum featuring John’s work and celebrating his life. John was an excellent photographer, and his passion was to document the lives of the ordinary people who lived and worked in the town. Most families earned their livings either from the sea or from moorland agriculture, and John’s work, which spanned the years between the 1950s and the 1990s, celebrated the everyday, yet remarkable, stories of these people.

Although it was this kind of photography that John most enjoyed, his main income came from working as a news photographer for the Whitby Gazette, and also as a wedding photographer, sometimes attending up the three ceremonies in one day. He could often be seen standing atop his trusty Land Rover to get a better position from which to take a shot. In fact, one of my favourite photos of my parents’ wedding was taken by John looking down from the top of his car as they left the church.

At the centre of the exhibition, which can be seen until the end of May next year, is a film called ‘A Vision of Whitby’, created by film maker Anne Dodsworth. She invited my mum to participate to talk about her memories of the wedding day, and the part John played in it. I must admit, seeing Mum describing the occasion on screen for the first time was very moving, especially as Dad was not there to share in the moment.

There is a companion exhibition in the museum’s Costume Gallery which showcases the changing fashions in wedding dresses spanning the years that John operated as a bridal photographer. My mum’s simple cotton broderie anglaise dress is one of those featured, as is a stunning and far more elaborate gown belonging to the Marchioness of Normanby.

Alongside my mum’s dress is a plaque showing an article that appeared in the Whitby Gazette at the time. I loved reading the contemporary account, which describes how Tindale helped the registrar get to the church, only to arrive and find that the bride herself had not turned up.

The article goes on to say: ‘Inquiry showed that the taxi she had ordered to convey her from her home to the church was held up. Mr Tindale tried to help but ran into a drift and after half an hour’s delay, the bride had to take off her wedding shoes, don a pair of boots, and walk to the church, using the schoolroom to change her footwear before the wedding ceremony.

‘The bridegroom had not risked road conditions, and had travelled to Egton Bridge by rail.’

I took my mum for a trip back over the moors a couple of months ago, somewhere she hadn’t been for a long time. We visited Lealholm, driving past the house where she was born, and also through Glaisdale where Dad was born, then went to lay some flowers where her late parents and sister lie in Sleights Church yard.

A highlight of the trip was visiting St Hedda’s Church, which is absolutely beautiful inside, and well worth a visit. More than 62 years after she said ‘I do’, Mum lit a candle for Dad, and remembered that very special snowy day back in 1959.

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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 8th October and the Gazette & Herald on 6th October 2021

Oh man, the tales we tell!

York Minster, which an American visitor described as ‘That wee little church’


The theme of word confusion has prompted a few readers to get in touch with their own funny stories and I thought that sharing a few might brighten your day.

A rich source of mirth are the things that children say, be they malapropisms, mispronunciations or valiant attempts at the right word. Alastair Smith said his daughter would call her brother ‘Ditchead’ instead of ‘Richard’ and swans were ‘Fonz’. When Lynn Catena’s son was little, she wasn’t sure what he meant when he asked her if he could listen to the ‘old fashioned CDs’. It took her a moment to work out that he was referring to her vinyl LPs. And Teresa Watkin’s son invented his very own word whenever his parents would try to tickle him. “Legoffme!” he would shout, instead of ‘Let go of me’ (I think that word deserves its own entry in the English dictionary). One of Lynnette Brammah’s funniest came courtesy of a friend’s daughter, whose favourite film was the one with Dorothy and the ruby slippers. She referred to it as ‘The Buzzard of Was’.

Lynnette also provides us with an excellent example of when our friends from overseas unwittingly entertain us with their attempts at our very complicated language. She was asked by an American if she knew the way to ‘Can-arse-bow-roo’. Any ideas where that is? I couldn’t work it out! Turns out it’s that pretty town that lies on the River Nidd, otherwise known as Knaresborough. And Lynn Catena was asked by a French visitor if she knew where he could buy ‘shoe’ cream for his wife. He rubbed his face to help Lynn decipher what he meant. “I figured it out,” she says. “He wanted Boots the Chemist. He was close…it was footwear!”

I don’t know about you, but it seems that everything in the USA is bigger than here. Their food portions, for example, are huge, and if you ask for a large carton of cockporn – I mean popcorn – at the cinema, you get enough to feed a small country. The same goes for the width of the roads, the size of the cars, and even the buildings. Dad once told me a story about some visiting Americans who were very proud of their country’s reputation for all things jumbo. He was driving them around York, pointing out the significant sights and landmarks, and they passed a particular one for a second time, at which point one of the guests exclaimed: “Oh gee, look! There’s that wee little church again!” The wee little church? Only York Minster!

And I was walking with a German friend in the Dales a couple of years back, and as we passed by a farm he declared, “Look at all those midgets!”. I looked towards the farm buildings, but not one midget could I see. When he began to flap his arms about his head, I realised he actually meant ‘midges’.  

But it’s not just those from abroad that sometimes get it wrong. It seems our southern neighbours have trouble with understanding the way us northerners might say things. Lucien Smith says: “I had a great Northumberland place name that was Southernised recently. Slayley Hall, pronounced Slay-ley, was poshified to ‘Slarley’. It took me a moment to know where she meant!”

And that brought to mind another memory of mine which always makes me giggle. In the 1990s I used to work in East Grinstead, West Sussex, and as I was handing some paperwork over to a colleague, she said, “It’s Maggie outside.”

“Pardon?” I replied.

“Maggie, outside.”

“Oh, is she? Who’s Maggie?”

“No!’ she laughed, “I mean the weather! It’s warm and maggy!” The penny finally dropped. What she was trying to tell me was that it was a muggy day outside.

On the subject of getting words wrong in church, a reader revealed: “One of my brothers, when he was a kid, used to start the Lord’s Prayer like this: ‘Our father who art in heaven, Alan be thy name…” And one of my friends reported that her daughter used to think that everyone was saying ‘Oh man!’ rather than ‘Amen’. So it turns out that Peter God whom, as I mentioned last time, some of us would thank every week during Mass, now has a mysterious colleague called Alan.

Oh man!

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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 1st October and the Gazette & Herald on 29th September 2021

Vicars, beware of staples!

I lived in Greece for a year when I was 18, and my host wrongly thought I’d taught her son a naughty word.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about certain words or phrases that I had got wrong in childhood. I mentioned that in church, I used to say ‘Thanks Peter God’ rather than ‘Thanks be to God’.

I have spent my life since then assuming I was the only person who ever thought that, but it turns out not to be the case. I was contacted by reader Graham Hunt whose son used to visit St Gregory’s Minster, Kirkdale, near Kirkbymoorside, because his grandfather was the organist and choirmaster there. After one such visit, he returned home to ask his parents “Who is Peter God?”, and the family regularly wheel out the story to this day. He also admits that, similar to my childhood pronunciation of ‘W.H.Smith’ as ‘WuhSmith’, he also used to call a well known brand of ink, ‘Step Hens ink’, until he learned it was actually ‘Stephen’s’.

Since I wrote that column, another couple of corkers came to mind. When I was 18 I took a gap year in Athens, Greece, where I looked after a four-year-old boy named Marios while his parents were at work. After a few weeks, his mum took me aside and said, “I think you have been teaching my son a new word.”

She looked quite cross, and I wondered what word she meant.

“S***t!” she said.

I was shocked, and began to protest my innocence, until she began to giggle, before explaining that Marios had been repeating the word ‘s***t’ to her over and over again, and she was about to seek me out to give me a stern talking to. But then she saw him motion with his hands and say ‘open’. He followed that by clasping his hands together again and saying what she now knew to be ‘shut’!

On the ‘potty mouth’ theme, a friend told me the story of their own memorable occasion which has passed down into family legend. She is from a large Irish family, and they all gathered for a special meal, a first for her new boyfriend. Their formidable grandmother, who originated from County Cork and possessed a very strong accent, was in attendance. The boyfriend was rather taken aback when she aggressively demanded of him, “Pass me the f*****g knife.” He fearfully scrabbled for a knife to give to her, but couldn’t understand why she gave him a look. “And the f**k! There, right there by you!” she said impatiently.

It was only with intervention from his girlfriend that he realised that what granny was actually asking was for him to pass her a fork and knife.

One particular avenue of incomprehension that I bet you will have travelled down is undecipherable pop lyrics. We have all at some point merrily sung along with words that we think are right, only to discover years down the line that we’ve been wrong. I can’t be the only one who would sing ‘Sue Lawley’ over and over again to ‘So lonely’ by The Police. Or how about ‘Poppadom Preach’ to Madonna’s ‘Papa Don’t Preach’? And isn’t it true that if we enjoy a song, but don’t really know what the words are, we simply invent noises that vaguely sound like the words, none of which you will ever find in an English language dictionary.

If you like this sort of thing, then I would highly recommend searching online for Peter Kay’s ‘Misheard Song Lyrics’. He recalls taking part in karaoke where they play the backing track, while the words to the song flash up on a screen as you join in. It’s only then that you realise the words you have been singing for the past 15 years have been nothing like the intended lyrics.

It had me in absolute stitches, and once you see him mouth his invented version to the actual song, you will never sing it the right way again. The one that had me laughing loudest was when he lip-synced along to ‘We Are Family’ by Sister Sledge. ‘Just let me staple the vicar’ he sang whereas the real line is ‘Just let me say for the record’.

Now, every time I hear that song, I have images of vicars being stapled by the cassock to the nearest object. I wonder what song lyrics you have unwittingly invented only to discover you were wrong all the time?

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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 24th and the Gazette & Herald on 22nd September 2021

Farming for verses

A poem was written years ago featuring the pretty names of farms surrounding the village of Husthwaite, North Yorkshire.

In my dad’s 1981 archive of columns that I’ve been reading over the past few weeks, he mentions several times a particular verse that was associated with some farms in the Hambleton area of North Yorkshire.

It is a pretty rhyme made up of the names of those farms and I wonder if anyone else has come across similar in their part of the world? It went like this:

‘Rising Sun and Peep o’Day, Throstle Nest and Flower o’May,

Acaster Hill and Baxby Mill, Well Pots Green and Providence Hill.’

A slight variation of the same poem was sent in by a reader who lived at Bickerton near Wetherby, and it read:

‘There’s Rising Sun and Peep o’Day, Throstle Nest and Flower o’May,

Then lying in the mist so far, is Thornton Hill and Acaster.’

According to my dad, the farms were on land surrounding the village of Husthwaite, and the questions in my mind were: When was this poem written and by whom? And did these farms really exist? If so, were any of them still there now? Of course, I set out on a mission to find out.

I’m pleased to report that I have had some success. Listing them in the order of the poem, I found a Rising Sun Farm a mile and a half north-east of Easingwold, although it is some four miles away from Husthwaite. Is it the right one? Peep o’Day Farm is still there, a couple of miles south of the village, next to Peep o’Day Wood. Part of the address of this farm is listed as ‘Thornton Hill’. Is this the Thornton Hill mentioned in the second version of the poem? But if so, would they mention both Peep o’Day and Thornton Hill in the same verse if they were in fact the same place? I couldn’t find another Thornton Hill Farm in the area around Husthwaite. 

I found a Throstle Nest Farm, slightly south of the village, and in the course of my research, I came across two Throstle Nest Plantations (one near Norton-on-Derwent, and one near Darlington) and two Throstle Nest Woods (one near Giggleswick in the Dales, and one near Pocklington in East Yorkshire). Incidentally, my research led me to discover that ‘throstle’ is an old word for a song thrush (of course, my dad would already have known that, as I’m sure many of you reading this do too! But as I said when I first started writing these columns more than four years ago, compared to my dad, my knowledge of such things is scant indeed!).

Flower o’ May is still there, just south of Husthwaite, and Acaster Hill Farm is almost opposite it. ‘Castre’ is the Latin word for ‘camp’, so I wonder if there are any Roman connections?

As for Baxby Mill, I believe the mill itself is either no longer there or derelict, but its location, as you’d expect an old water mill to be, is on the Ings Beck in Husthwaite, at the bottom of the hill heading west out of the village. I drew a blank for Well Pots Green, but there is a Woolpots Farm, a short distance to the south. Is that the one they mean? Providence Hill is still there, to the south west of Husthwaite.

So, clearly, there are still some questions arising out of these two similar rhymes, such as when they were written, but it is clear that most of the farms mentioned do still exist. I will put money on the fact that a reader will be able to furnish me with a some clues as to how these farms got their names. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone can tell us more, and perhaps even share their memories of the farms in question?

One of dad’s readers drew his attention to the most unusual name for a farm that he had come across which was ‘Gateway to Happy Sparrows’! Dad doesn’t mention where it was, nor whether it still existed in 1981. Not entirely surprisingly, I could find nothing out about it either, but would love to hear from you if you know of it, or have tales about properties with unusual names and how they came about them. If you want to get in touch, either write or email this newspaper, or go to and use the contact page to sent me a message.

Contact me, and read more, at Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 17th and the Gazette & Herald on 15th September 2021

Caught in a trap

The Venus Flytrap plant bought by my son
An unlucky victim!

In 1981, when Dad was writing his column for the corresponding week to this one, there was rather a fuss being made in the news about the height that some local foxgloves were achieving. The average height of a foxglove is between four and six feet, but there were reports of one in York reaching seven foot, and another eight foot six inches.

This ignited my dad’s competitive spirit and he eagerly headed into the garden, armed with a tape measure to find out how our clumps of foxgloves fared against their lanky rivals. Indeed, he found the leader of this unruly bunch, which had colonised a corner near our garden shed, to be at least eight foot tall, and the rest were over six foot. The foxgloves had done unusually well, he believed, because there had been plenty of days of rain that summer, followed by long spells of warmth and sunshine, a bit like this year.

It makes me wonder if any readers have come across any giant foxgloves in 2021? The bumper year four decades ago also prompted Dad to ask: “I wonder if there is such a thing as a world record for the tallest foxglove?”

Of course, had he been asking the question now rather than in 1981, he would have quickly found the answer thanks to the internet. I can reveal that the Guinness World Record has been held since 1997 by Lydia Foy, from County Kildare in Ireland, whose specimen was measured at 10 feet 10 inches.

It might surprise Dad to learn, though, that even that one was beaten by the tallest foxglove yet to be recorded. That honour went to a couple who live Victoria, Canada, who last year measured a still growing flower at more than 11 feet. It prompted Ken Marr, the botany curator of the Royal British Columbia Museum, to declare it was ‘a flower on steroids’. Despite the accolade, the owners were not tempted to apply for inclusion in the Guinness Book of World Records.

The foxglove is excellent at seeding itself, and as such is considered a pest by some. It starts blooming in May or June, the individual bell-shaped flowers adorning its stem, and as it shoots up, the flowers appear higher up, and the lower ones mature into little capsules full of seeds. It is a most useful plant, its dried leaves being the source of the drug Digitalis, which is still used today to treat heart problems. It strengthens the contractions of that vital organ, thus helping a diseased or weakened heart to cope with the demands of the human body. English physician and botanist William Withering (1741 – 1799) was the first to use it in this way. 

Digitalis can also be poisonous, though. Occasionally, toxicity can build up inside the body leading to loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhoea or blurred vision. It can also cause the heart to beat faster or slower than normal, or to become erratic, and in extreme cases, can even lead to heart failure. As a result, the drug must only be taken under close supervision.

Talking of plants, one of nature’s most curious creations currently sits on my kitchen window sill. It is the fascinating, yet undeniably gruesome, Venus Flytrap. My son decided he wanted to buy one because he was captivated by the thought that a plant could be carnivorous. I didn’t object because, thanks to the warm weather, we had hoardes of flies buzzing about the house.

My son takes great pleasure in picking up dead flies and depositing them into the waiting jaws of the trap (he does that because he doesn’t have the patience to wait for a live fly to land upon it). Touching the hairs lining the trap triggers an electric charge which causes the jaws to shut, the interlocking teeth preventing escape. A live insect will continue to struggle, and that prompts the trap to completely seal before secreting digestive juices which dissolve the soft tissue, turning it into a nutritious liquid that is then absorbed by the plant. Once it is completely dissolved, usually about a week later, the trap reopens ready to welcome its next meal. 

I’m not going to lie, it is quite macabre to watch, and yet so interesting, and each time I see it happen, I have to marvel at the wonder of nature. 

Contact me, and read more, at Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 3rd and the Gazette & Herald on 1st September 2021