What a right old mess


This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 26th October & the Gazette & Herald on 24th October 2018

My dad wasn’t known for causing too much of a stir through his writing, but in his column from 28th October 1978 he does say something which I think would have been quite controversial.

He says: “I am sure that country folk behave better in towns than townsfolk behave in the country.”

I’d like to know if people reading this agree?

I suppose, though, you have to decide first if you’re a townsperson or a country person. Obviously, it’s cut and dried for those who come from our larger towns and cities. But what are you if you hail from somewhere like Helmsley, Malton, Bedale or Thirsk?

It upsets me when thoughtless visitors to the countryside leave their litter behind or when a rural lay-by is desecrated by fly tipping. It is so selfish, and already stretched resources have to be used to clear it up and, ultimately, these costs will be passed on to us all. I’m also flummoxed by how many full dog poo bags are left lining popular walking routes. If you’re going to do something that is so socially unacceptable as leave your own dog’s mess behind, why do you put it in a bag at all? If it doesn’t end up on the sole of someone’s shoe, it will naturally decompose eventually. But taking the trouble to pick it up and put it into a plastic bag before tossing it on the ground is unspeakably dim.

I do remember, growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, there were a number of Public Information Films to highlight how antisocial dropping litter was, and it really did become unacceptable among the vast majority of us. Big names were recruited to get the message through to us young ones, and it had a significant impact. A-list celebrities of the day, such as Abba, David Cassidy, Marc Bolan, Frank Bruno and Morecambe and Wise backed the Keep Britain Tidy message.

Interestingly, in those days, it wasn’t uncommon for major celebrities to endorse causes without expectation of payment, which meant they chose things they actually believed in. Today, we can assume that most celebrity endorsements come about thanks to offers of substantial fees, publicity, and kickbacks, and therefore we question whether they genuinely believe in whatever it is they claim to support.

So I think this lack of credibility is one reason why it is difficult to get these messages across to our youngsters. Also, they are a generation who do not sit in front of the TV as they used to, and instead use smartphones to watch YouTube videos or programmes on paid-for streaming services such as Netflix or Amazon Prime. It means the traditional TV campaign will not work on them any more.

But it’s not just our youngsters who are guilty of littering. My friends and I regularly go to the races at York, and love to enjoy a picnic on the cheap side when the weather is good. We take along bags to collect up all our rubbish and recycling at the end of the day. Despite that, there is always a sea of waste left behind by inconsiderate racegoers. A team of litter pickers then clears up the mess, the cost of which will be reflected through rising ticket prices. But the people dropping the litter must be too stupid to realise that the more they drop, the more they will pay.

I don’t know what the answer is, but am hopeful that the impact of programmes such as Attenborough’s Blue Planet and more recently Liz Bonnin’s Drowning in Plastic will at least draw attention to the fact that we all have a duty to take responsibility for our own waste. If we all did our little bit, it would add up to a massive difference.

A quick thank you to Nigel Pattison who, having read my column in August about BBC Radio York’s Cake and a Cuppa event on Yorkshire Day, invited me along to his monthly Cake and a Cuppa at Pickering Methodist Church Hall. It was lovely to see all the people there, young and old, coming together to socialise over a cup of tea and a slice of cake. Nigel is well-known for his freshly baked Eccles cakes and I can honestly say they were delicious! Thank you Nigel!

Visit my blog at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug.


Outfoxed on a dog walk

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 19th October & the Gazette & Herald on 17th October 2018

Until today, when I read my dad’s column from 21st October 1978, I had no idea that badgers were such clean, house-proud animals. Apparently their setts have several similarities in design to the human house, and how they manage that and keep it spic and span is a lesson to many (particularly my own sons who could learn a thing or two about tidiness and hygiene).

Its home is the centre of a badger’s world and is made up of a number of underground interconnecting tunnels and chambers. Like a human house, it has separate quarters for sleeping, or for the sow to use when she gives birth, and a number of different entrances. Both the male and females regularly bring in fresh bedding, which consists leaves, grass, bracken and even bluebells, and they keep their feet clean by scraping their claws across a scratching post just outside the set.

Not too far from the home will be a spot or two where they go to the toilet, thus keeping the inside of their sett very clean.

They live in clans, with several badger families using the same one, which will often have been established over many generations. Setts can be extensive, and consist of the main sett, and a number of sub-setts nearby.

In the column I mentioned earlier, Dad talks about a debate he was having with some of his colleagues over lunch which concerned whether foxes and badgers were known to live side by side in the same burrow. It seems the opinion was split with some arguing that badgers and foxes made quite happy housemates, while others declared it would never happen because, where badgers were the Hyacinth Bouquets of the woodland world, foxes, on the other hand, were the Waynetta Slobs.

A fox will eat just about anything, dead or alive, rotting or fresh, and also has a very stinky scent gland at the root of its tail. If it is being hunted, it will try to disguise its distinctive B.O. by rolling in farmyard muck, and it has no qualms about dragging all that pongy poo and plother into its home.

I have to say, that even when I despair of the state of my children’s bedrooms, which can resemble student squats, I haven’t yet got to the point where I don’t want to live with them, and maybe the badger is tolerant like that. According to the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), foxes and rabbits will not only inhabit abandoned setts, but have also been known to live side by side with badgers. So if they say that, then it must be true and puts an end to the argument.

There is one thing about the fox, though, that really irritates me, and that is: Why do they have to poo in places popular with dog walkers?

To some dogs, fox poo is like a heavenly elixir sent down by the gods themselves. They gleefully gallop up to it, usually when the owner isn’t looking, and joyfully roll around in it until as much of their fur as possible is coated in its smelly sticky loveliness.

To the owner, however, a dog coated in fox poo is arguably the worst thing to experience on a walk. It is one of the most disgusting, nauseating stinks ever known to man, and trying to remove it is akin to trying to eradicate toxic waste from a nuclear bomb site. It just stays, wash after wash, and ordinary dog shampoo is no match for it.

I haven’t come across many novel or foolproof suggestions for getting rid of the rancid smell, but one suggestion that has cropped up more than once is to use tomato ketchup. I haven’t yet tried that myself, but would love to hear from anyone who has. I prefer to stick to special fox poo shampoo, although it still takes several applications to work effectively.

Once experienced, you never want to go through that kind of trauma ever again, and so when I’m walking dogs in rural areas, nowadays I turn my fox poo radar up to maximum. However, it is inevitable that at some point my guard will slip.

So if you spot me on a walk, and I am shouting “Nooooooooooooooooo…..” while sprinting towards a dog in a ‘Tom-Cruise-in-Mission-Impossible-Just-Before-The-Bomb-Goes-Off’ fashion, you will know why.

Visit my blog at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug.

Feeling the blues in Bilsdale

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 12th October & the Gazette & Herald on 10th October 2018

One of my all-time favourite routes to drive has to be the B1257 between Helmsley and Chop Gate through Bilsdale. Along with the spectacular views and landscape, the road has a pleasing undulating quality to it that sets it apart from other well-trodden highways. If I am heading back home from the North-East, I sometimes deliberately come off the A19 early just so I can take this road. It is longer, but my goodness, it doesn’t half stir the soul!

The reason I mention it is because I saw the heading ‘Bilsdale Blues’ in my dad’s column from 14th October 1978 and assumed it was going to be about that glorious part of North Yorkshire. So I was quite surprised upon reading it that he was in fact talking about pigs!

The Bilsdale Blue, also known as the Yorkshire Blue and White, was commonly seen at local agricultural shows until the just after the Second World War. It was a white pig with big blue spots and had large, floppy ears. Unfortunately Dad reports, “I have no records of its continued existence, nor do I know if examples of this breed still exist.”

Of course, I had to find out, and it didn’t take me long to discover that sadly, the breed is now extinct. According to the British Pig Association (BPA), by 1954, only three boars were licensed, which was a minuscule figure when compared to the 16,751 Large White boars on the register. In the early days of pig rearing, individual breeds were developed in different regions to suit the local conditions and market. The Bilsdale Blue was popular because of its hardy characteristics and the fact that the sows made excellent mothers.

But as transportation became easier, and tastes for meat changed, breeds became less localised, and numbers of pure native breeds like the Bilsdale Blue diminished.

The BPA states that today, none of our native breeds have more than 500 sows registered, which puts them at risk of extinction, so it is working towards a goal of having stable figure of at least 1000 to secure the survival of their unique genetic heritage.

My research led me to the Rare Breeds Survival Trust which highlights the plight of livestock under threat. Set up in 1973, a key part of its work is collecting genetic material and storing it at the UK National Livestock Gene Bank making it possible to reintroduce a breed if extinction occurs.

Sadly, it came too late for our poor Bilsdale Blue, but according to the trust, it hasn’t lost a single breed since it was established. Pig breeds under the most threat at the moment include the British Landrace, the British Lop, the Large Black and the Middle White, with fewer than 200 sows currently registered for each one. As well as pigs, there are watchlists for sheep, cattle, equine, poultry and goats.

I was particularly saddened to learn about their latest appeal, ‘Save Our Working Class Heroes’ which is dedicated to rescuing three of our most recognisable heavy horses, the Shire, the Clydesdale and the Suffolk, all of which are at dangerously low levels. Despite the mechanisation of farming and warfare, which meant the traditional roles of these horses disappeared, the trust argues that they still have a useful role to play in areas such as the army, policing, equine therapy and commercial logging.

It would be such a shame to see these wonderful beasts vanish, especially as they served the generations before us so loyally. I remember as a child being awestruck when the magnificent Shires, decked out in their gleaming leather tack and brasses, used to visit our local shows.

Samuel Smiths brewery still stables two Shires behind the Angel and White Horse pub in Tadcaster, and the pair make local beer deliveries five days a week. Perhaps there is scope for the pub community to pull together to help save these beautiful horses. After all, to this day many of them still display the brasses from the days when the horses were used to deliver the beer. But how sad if these animals, these working class heroes for whom those brasses were made, are no longer in existence.

Thank you to Paul Foster and Jenny Horne who commented through my blog, James Larcombe who emailed, and my mum who phoned me – all think that my mystery plant featured two weeks ago is a climbing hydrangea (hydrangea petiolaris). Mystery solved!

Visit my blog at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug.


An apple a day

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 5th October & the Gazette & Herald on 3rd October 2018

A friend of mine owns a commercial carrot farm, and he was featured on Countryfile this week, explaining that his yield is 30% less than last year (which by contrast was very good). He sells them by weight, and although those from the early crop were healthily large, the ones gathered so far from his main harvest are less than half the size thanks to the persistently dry weather. The story is the same for other root vegetables like onions, and although the potato harvest is only recently under way, things are not looking good. You have to feel for the farmers who are having such a difficult year.

On the other hand, it has been a good year for our autumn fruit harvest, with very healthy numbers of apples, pears, plums, and blackberries. It seems 1978 boasted similar success in the fruit world. From his October 7th column of that year, Dad mentions that our garden had produced a bumper crop of apples and plums. We had three plum trees, but they hadn’t produced any fruit for the previous ten years which meant that only in 1978 did we discover we had in fact three different varieties – one was a greengage, one a Victoria and the third a mystery, although the plums were large and bluey in colour. Dad wondered if they were Merryweather Damsons, but wasn’t sure.

We also had four apple trees which in 1978 had done very well too although, like we have experienced in recent weeks with storm Ali, high winds meant we had boxes of windfalls to contend with.

It amazes me that, if stored correctly, apples can last several months. They are best kept in a cool, dry, frost-free atmosphere at between three and five degrees Celsius. Apparently, rooms above stables are ideal, as the heat from the horses keeps the temperature just about right. But for those of you who aren’t lucky enough to have a horse, a garage or cellar will do as long as the fruit is kept away from pungent smells emitted by things such as garlic and onions, or paint tins and the like. They don’t have to be covered, but my dad believed the best way to prolong their lives was to cover them with newspaper or straw and lay them in trays so they are not touching each other. This is very important to stop the spread of rot, which can happen if one bad apple is touching another, so windfalls should be pristine with the stalk in tact.

You can also keep them in an unheated bedroom, which were plentiful in the 1970s, although one of those might be hard to find in 2018 among us unhardy, central-heating-loving lightweights.

I would worry though, if I were storing fruit, how one keeps the rats and mice at bay as surely, tray upon tray of lovely ripening fruit would attract them into our garages? I’ve tried to find out if there is a foolproof way to deter them, but have not come up with anything failsafe. Obviously, traps and poison are an option, but I was wondering if there was another less severe method.

According to TV presenter and Guardian newspaper columnist Alys Fowler, rats hate the prickly nature of holly, so if you dry it out (it becomes even more prickly that way) and spread sprigs of it in and around your apples, it may help. They are also said to dislike fresh mint and mothballs, so they too might be worth a try.

All this talk of apples reminds me of a stay I had with a friend in London. She was in the middle of preparing dinner and asked: “Is there anything you don’t eat?”

“Only bananas. They’re the one thing I really can’t abide. Their smell, their texture, everything about them, ugh…” I said with a shudder.

“Oh dear,” replied my friend, and continued stirring the caramel sauce which I quickly found out she was making for banoffie pie.

I felt very bad, and tried to hastily remove my foot from my mouth. But I needn’t have worried. Having already made the buttery biscuit base, my resourceful friend covered one half with bananas as planned, but the other with baked sliced apple. It was delicious.

We couldn’t come up with a satisfactory name for this new half-and-half pie, though. Any suggestions? (Sources: hobsonfarming.co.uk, rhs.org.uk)

Visit my blog at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug.

Nostalgia for childhood freedoms

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 21st September & the Gazette & Herald on 19th September 2018

Reading through Dad’s columns from 1978, us children often get a mention thanks to the things we have brought back home from on our days playing outside in the countryside.

We were very blessed in ways that perhaps our town-living peers weren’t, and today’s primary-school-age children certainly aren’t, in that we could disappear out of the front door in the morning and our parents would not worry if we didn’t come back until the end of the day.

I was talking about this to my mum the other day, and reminiscing about how much freedom we were afforded back then. She confirmed that they never worried about us while we were out, nor felt the need to contact us in any way. If something happened, then so be it! Thankfully, bar a case of food poisoning caused by undercooked sausages the first time me and my friend went camping up the nearby field, we got off relatively lightly.

That’s not to say we didn’t have the odd scrape and near-miss (you may have read about our less-than-safe trips atop a stack of bales on the back of a tractor a couple of weeks ago). One particularly memorable occasion was the time we were playing in the hay barn right at the top when the whole lot came crashing down. We were lucky not to have been crushed or suffocated, and of course, like every well-behaved child, instead of owning up, we scarpered when we saw what a mess of tumbled down bales we had caused. I don’t think the farmer would have been in any doubt who was behind the calamity, and yet he never told us off. What a patient soul he was!

In Dad’s column from 30th September 1978 he mentions that we had brought home some red berries we had found growing in a hedgerow. Although it is likely that he knew what they were, he wanted us to find out for ourselves, and says something which I believe too (yet I might be on losing wicket): “I encourage them to do their own research, believing that it enables them to understand the value of books and also that they remember what they find if they do it themselves.”

Despite being grandchildren of an author of some 130 books, and sons of a writer, I’m afraid that these days, my own children are rarely seen with a book in their hands. ‘Research’ to them involves watching a video on YouTube or a visit to Wikipedia, which I think is not unusual among their generation. Although to give my oldest his due, I did recently come downstairs and almost fainted when I caught him sat on the sofa reading a book. It turned out to be a biography of Silicon Valley billionaire Elon Musk. I’m very proud to say that he has recently graduated with a degree in web programming so hopefully some of Musk’s talent and entrepreneurial skills will rub off on him so that soon, he will be able to keep his mum in the manner to which I’d like to get accustomed.

As for the red berries, we discovered from one of Dad’s reference books that they were from the guelder rose, which is a small tree fairly common among our hedgerows. It flowers in May, with beautiful umbrella-like white blooms comprising a circle of larger sterile white flowers surrounding a centre of much smaller fertile white flowers, and it is these flowers which produce the red berries in early autumn.

What is particularly distinctive is their odd smell. According to Dad’s column, it is ‘like crispy, fried, well-peppered trout’. Hmmm, is that a good smell? I’ll have to get out there next May and find out.

I have included a photograph with this article taken on one of my dog walks in early June of what I thought was a wild guelder rose, but my research reveals that the foliage is wrong. A guelder rose has leaves with irregularly-toothed prongs, not dissimilar to acer leaves, whereas in my image, although the flowers appear right, the leaves are more teardrop-shaped than ‘prongy’. The nearest I could come to finding one similar is the American wayfaring tree but, as its name suggests, it is not found over here. Can anyone enlighten me as to what mine is?

Visit my blog at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug.

The ups and downs of servant life

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 21st September & the Gazette & Herald on 19th September 2018

I have started to watch ITV’s adaptation of Vanity Fair, and am particularly fascinated by the interactions between the heroine Becky Sharp and the servants who wait on the wealthy Sedley family with whom she is invited to stay. Clearly, they despise the fact that they are to wait on Becky, who is of lowly birth, and whom they see as rising above her true station. How annoying that she gets all the perks afforded to the upper classes while they get none. The footman, Sam, is particularly miffed, and recognises that Becky is on an urgent mission to bag herself a wealthy husband before she has to suffer the humiliation of becoming a mere governess.

Vanity Fair is said to be ITV’s attempt to replace the phenomenal success of its noble predecessor, Downton Abbey, although that has yet to be seen. Set in North Yorkshire (although mostly filmed elsewhere), the shenanigans that go on upstairs with the Crawley family are matched in entertainment by those that go on downstairs, with much jostling for position and displays of bitter resentment towards anyone deemed to be growing too big for their boots. The class system stretched from the very top of the aristocracy right down to the lowliest role.

For example, at the top of the servant hierarchy was the housekeeper (female) and the estate steward (male). The cook was also extremely important, and male cooks were more sought after, though less numerous, than females, with a French male cook seen as the best of the best. They held great influence and importance in the household, as what they produced when entertaining guests could make or break their employers’ reputations. If it wasn’t fashionable, of exquisite quality and visually spectacular, then the hosts could face public humiliation. At the bottom of the pile were the scullery maid and laundry maid, alongside the stable boy and grounds keepers.

In my dad’s column from 23rd September 1978, he talks of the perils servants faced if they didn’t understand certain etiquettes, which often only came to them naturally after years of experience. He found the information in an ancient little handbook that he’d forgotten he had.

The servants had to get their heads around the many, many rules. The etiquette for knocking on doors, for example, was enough to baffle anyone, never mind having to familiarise themselves with the rest of the household conventions. Servants must never knock at a sitting or dining room door, unless they are the cook, who absolutely had to knock. Servants were, however, expected to knock on bedroom doors. If an ignorant servant did knock on the wrong door, then they were displaying their lack of breeding, and if they had recently arrived from another household, then they were demonstrating that their former employer was not very noble.

Another essential skill was to be able to enter and exit a room as quietly as possible, ensuring that the latch went into the socket with very little noise. They must also always close the door, even if they were entering for just a short time, as warm air was very precious and would soon be dispersed by draughts allowed in through a door carelessly left swinging.

It may seem odd to us today, but those being waited upon rarely said ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to the men and women serving them. A mere shaking of the head, or a face turned away, was enough to signify rejection of whatever was being proffered, while acceptance was assumed unless otherwise indicated.

Saying ‘thank you’ was only acceptable if some extra service was performed. For example if a diner accidentally spilled something and the servant rushed forward to help, then it was fine to thank said servant.

These are just a couple of the rules of old etiquette, but there are so many more. Can you imagine being a novice servant? The opportunities to get it wrong must have been immense, and would no doubt have left them quaking in their boots.

So now, thanks to this column, I have become acquainted with the fact that you can never be too careful when employing your servants. So when I find and marry my aristocratic nobleman, I will make sure that all our servants are given a copy of my dad’s little handbook.

Visit my blog at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug.

All the fun of the farm

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 14th September & the Gazette & Herald on 12th September 2018

Country folk know the dangers of ragwort to horses and cattle, although I didn’t realise that most cases of poisonings come not because an absent-minded animal ate some by mistake, but because it has been hidden in contaminated feed, such as silage or hay. Due to the bitter taste of the plant, the animals sensibly give it a wide berth while grazing in open fields.

In his column from 16th September 1978, my dad tells the tale of some of us children bringing home a bunch of yellow flowers gathered from a nearby farmer’s field, not knowing that this wild flower was in fact that troublesome weed. As far as we were concerned, this tall, handsome bloom could rival any you might find in a shop.

A large part of my childhood was spent helping (or hindering…) the farmer who owned that field. He had a herd of Friesian cows and a number of pigs and my best friend Rhiannon and I would regularly spend all day on his farm, just a short walk from home, mucking out the cows, feeding the pigs, helping with milking, or making dens in the haystacks.

Some of my favourite memories involved harvest time. The farmer, who ran the farm with his son, had some fields high above the village where he grew straw and hay. Once they’d been turned into bales and placed into square stacks of about 24 each, they would attach a piece of equipment to the back of the tractor that could grab the stack, enabling them to transport it down to the barn.

Rhiannon and I would climb on to this metal grabber (apologies to aficionados of 1970s farming equipment, I have no idea what it was called!) and hang on for dear life as he bounced and rocked up the hill to the top fields. There was one particularly steep bit with deep trenches that would send the tractor lurching from side to side as it navigated the ruts. We were tossed about like damp tea towels on a windy washing line, and the threat of losing our grip and being flung off never seemed far away, which of course is why we loved it so much.

The return journey was even more thrilling, and the fear of mortal injury was ever present (imagine the Kumali roller coaster at Flamingoland, but much cheaper and without the queues). After he’d loaded the bale stack into the grabber, we’d clamber on top, and sit there, both hands gripping the metal frame, as he made his unsteady way back down to the farm. When we reached the extra steep bit, the sensation of tilting from side to side was even more exaggerated from atop the bales, and I’m still not sure how we never came a cropper. Thank goodness our mums never knew what we got up to!

The farmer and his son were the most tolerant and friendly of sorts, typical jolly North Yorkshire farmers, and didn’t seem to mind that we hung about so much. In the winter, the cows needed fresh hay and bedding straw each day, and we sometimes helped the son with those tasks.

Like his father, he was ever cheerful, and used to whistle and sing constantly. There were a couple of phrases he’d come out with that I never questioned, but now wonder where they originated.

If he expressed surprise, he’d often say: “Heavens to Murgatroyd!”

Or sing: “Where was Moses when the lights went out?” To which we’d respond: “Underneath his bed, looking for some matches!”

I have found that ‘Heavens to Murgatroyd’ is first recorded as having been said in the 1944 film musical ‘Meet the People’ starring Lucille Ball, but was popularised in the 1960s by the Yogi Bear TV show. More interestingly though, I also discovered that in 1371, a constable called Johanus de Morgateroyde was appointed to the West Yorkshire district of Warley, and his name meant ‘John of the district leading to the moor’.

As for ‘Where was Moses When the Lights Went Out’, it is the title of a song that has been around for a couple of centuries, although we must have made up our response, as our words do not appear in it at all! Can anyone else shed light on these expressions, I wonder? Source: phrases.org.uk).

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