Making merry at New Year

Rather startlingly (to me at least), this is my 80th column and the last for 2018. This time 40 years ago, on 30th December 1978, my dad was reflecting on his time writing Countryman’s Diary since succeeding the ‘Grand Old Man’, Major Jack Fairfax-Blakeborough. He echoes my thoughts precisely when he writes, “It seems barely possible that so many months have been left behind since I took over.”

He goes on to talk about the relationship between himself and his readers, many of whom would send him letters and furnish him with extra facts, questions and interesting details to enhance his ever-growing collection of files. He was delighted when people contacted him, and I too am thrilled to get letters and feedback from readers, although it has to be said that fewer and fewer people actually sit flown to hand-write and post a letter these days. Although I do get some letters, I also receive emails and contact through my blog and social media channels, which I absolutely treasure, even when it is to point out a mistake. It is such a thrill, as it shows me that people are actually reading what I am writing.

And today, with such tough times for local and regional newspapers, we need to encourage even more interaction with our readers. I agree with what Dad was saying back in 1978 and believe it is even more true today: “It is the readers who keep the column alive.”

It’s a sad fact that the future of local newspapers is under threat, and if they go, then columns like this would disappear. With Countryman’s Diary (now Daughter) having lasted almost 100 years, that would be sad day indeed. Looking back over this year’s topics, I wonder where else you’d get discussions over such diverse subjects as goats, mulberries, leeches, roadkill, James Cook, sheriffs, the dawn chorus, rats, horse chestnuts, Mastiles Lane, fox poo, fly tipping and Mischief Night to name just a few. It’s not exactly groundbreaking reading, but I hope it is at least an entertaining break from the more serious stuff (You might have noticed that I didn’t mention Brexit once over the past 12 months!).

With so many media outlets competing over the same news, it is the unique extras like the various columns, the letters pages, the local history features and the farming pages that make our regional papers so special.

I don’t know what the solution is, but we definitely need to find ways to attract and sustain a younger audience and encourage them to spend a little over £1 a week to buy a paper. It is much less than the cost of a takeaway coffee or a fizzy drink, and I wonder what we can do to draw them in. If you have any suggestions, I’d be delighted to hear them!

As 2018 draws to a close, it is normal to have high hopes for the coming year. In days gone by, there were a number of superstitions surrounding that time of the year, one of which was to enter the new year with merriment and high spirits because the traditional belief was that whatever was happening at the very moment the new year began, that would prevail throughout the next 12 months.

So if you were making merry, then you were certain to have a happy year to come. If, however, you found yourself with no money in your pocket, then you would spend the year feeling the pinch. This belief was so strong for some people that they would borrow money, just to make sure they had cash in their pocket at the stroke of midnight.

There was a similar belief around the larder, so there would be much baking leading up to 31st December to ensure it was well stocked as the clock struck 12.

And according to this ancient poem, whatever was happening with the weather as the new year dawned was an indicator of what was to come:

If New Year’s Eve wind blows south,
It betokeneth warmth and growth;
If west, much milk and fish in the sea;
If north, much cold and storms there’ll be;
If east, the trees will bear much fruit;
If north-east, flee it, man and brute.

So I shall keep a keen eye on the wind direction as I merrily welcome the new year in with my friends. May I wish you all very happy, healthy and wealthy 2019.

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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 28th December & the Gazette & Herald on 30th December 2018



Remembering loved ones at Christmas


This is my last column before Christmas and so I want to say thank you to those for whom it is just another working day, and to think about people who have lost loved ones or who are experiencing Christmas with someone who is sick. As my dad writes in his column from 23rd December 1978, we all owe a debt of gratitude to those who work in the emergency services, in the caring and medical professions, in transport, to our farmers, vets, milkmen and those who work in TV, radio and written media, and countless others I’ve not mentioned.

As many of you know, we had particular reason to be grateful to them last Christmas and during this festive season, I find it impossible to not think about what was happening 12 months ago. So I’m going to describe what it was like in the hope that those of you who are able to share it with your loved ones will spare a thought for what others might be going through.

One of the things I dreaded was the present shopping because there was so much of it to do, never mind all the wrapping. But with almost daily trips to St James’s Hospital in Leeds and no idea how long my sister Tricia had left, the thought of having to complete that mammoth task was almost overwhelming.

Of course, kind people said, “Don’t bother buying me a present this year…” I don’t know if it’s something innately British, but I just couldn’t bring myself not to.

Instead, I pinched an idea from my eldest sister Janet, and adopted a family ‘Secret Santa’ approach with my boys. We set a budget of £100 each, and put everyone’s name into a hat. We then each drew one person out, who was the only one we’d to have to buy for. It made it a whole lot less stressful, and cheaper, for me (This year, I’ve discovered online ‘Secret Santa’ sites, which make it even easier, especially when you don’t all live in the same house!).

I still had the problem of everyone else, but thankfully God invented online shopping. I dedicated one evening (and several glasses of wine) to it, spending hours ensuring I ticked off every name. I was so relieved at getting it done, one more chore knocked off the seemingly endless list.

Christmas Day itself was rather odd, with a stark juxtaposition between morning and afternoon. A few of us went to see Tricia in the morning, and in hospital it was business as usual, apart from a few members of staff wearing festive hats. Tricia was increasingly ill, but remained characteristically upbeat while opening the presents we’d brought. It is a bizarre thing to experience, smiling and celebrating while battening down your true feelings at knowing it is the last Christmas you’ll share with someone.

I don’t know if Tricia felt the same, but I never once heard her acknowledge that she was dying. She remained determinedly positive, and I’m yet to fathom whether this was because she wanted to protect us from the reality, or whether she was protecting herself. Perhaps it was a bit of both.

We arrived home about 3pm, which is when our ‘normal’ Christmas Day began. The turkey was in the Aga, and Mum and I had prepared all the vegetables and trimmings the previous day, so they just needed finishing off.

There was a slight hiccup with the turkey (and by that I mean, near disaster) meaning it wasn’t ready until an hour after expected, but we finally sat down to eat at around 5pm. The rest of the food was a bit overcooked but we didn’t care, because we knew there were more important things to worry about that year.

A few Christmasses ago, Tricia gave everyone in the family a heart-shaped tree decoration, so we have put it on top of the tree, and will remember her every time we look at it. Dad also has his own special ‘star’ decoration which sits not far away.

I’m hoping for a less eventful festive season this year and despite there being two empty chairs at the table, we will thoroughly enjoy the company of the loved ones still here and raise a glass to those we have lost.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all.

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

A storyteller to the end

Dad was a great storyteller right to the end

Us Yorkshire folk have a reputation for being quite straightforward and even blunt on occasion, and many of us have an uncanny knack of describing things in a direct yet humorous way.

In his column from 16th December 1978, my dad highlights this reputed characteristic, declaring that the Yorkshireman or woman does not always see the humour in his or her words that others do, as to them it is just a logical reply or comment.

He recounts the tale of a local reporter interviewing a Dalesman in his cottage. The reporter asked: “Have you lived here all your life?” to which the man replied, “Not yet.”

He also included another tale which had me giggling, and I hope you don’t mind me including it here.

A couple of Yorkshire locals were discussing birth and death in the pub. “Was thoo born ‘ere?” asked one.

“Nay, I was born ower ‘t’ill in Rossdall. Mind I’ve lived in these parts for maist o’ me life.”

“Thoo’ll likely die here, then?” suggested his friend.

“Now I can’t be sure o’ that. If I knew where I was gahin ti die, I’d keep well clear o’ t’spot!”

My dad was a brilliant storyteller, not just in print, but in conversation too and possessed a seemingly endless mental library of good Yorkshire tales to share. He was one of those people that, should a new visitor come to the house, he would soon put them at ease with his chatter and anecdotes.

I’ve mentioned before how he continued to write until he was too sick to use a keyboard or pick up a pen. But even then he continued his storytelling to anyone with the time to listen.

When it was obvious the inevitable was not far away, one of the worst things for me was knowing that I would never again be able to listen to him telling his stories. I’d heard many of them a thousand times before, and yet would have given anything to hear them a thousand times again.

I very strongly wanted to preserve the sound of his voice and because I sat with him for long periods towards the end, I started to record what he was saying on my iPad. It gave me great comfort at a time of utmost difficulty knowing that I would have something to hold onto when he was no longer here.

Having said that, I am yet to pluck up the courage to listen back to those recordings as even though he’s been gone for 20 months, it still feels too soon and too raw. But at least I know they are there, and when I’m ready, I’ll play them back.

Not long before he died, Dad and I were working on a book together, rather ironically, all about death and he recalled some of the cases he’d come across while he was a bobby. It was a very ‘Heartbeat-esque’ collection, some funny, some mysterious, some moving and others just downright bizarre.

But one of my favourites was an oft-told local tale which we were going to include in the introduction, and it made me howl with laughter. It is so typical of my dad, and so I think it is right to share it with you:

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.” 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.”

On the subject of gravestones, we have discovered that deciding what to put on a loved one’s permanent memorial is no easy task. It’s only a few words, but when you know that it is going to be there forever, you really do have to think carefully about what you’re going to write. We decided to go with very simple wording to remember both Dad and my sister. Dad might be a bit disappointed that we couldn’t fit a typically humorous Yorkshire line on his gravestone, but I hope he’s happy with what we chose in the end.

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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 7th December & the Gazette & Herald on 5th December 2018

In gods we trust

In the village where I grew up, St Hilda is a prominent presence. We have a church, a village hall, a school and a street all named after her. She was reputed to have been an extremely kind and devout woman who devoted her life to teaching and the inclusivity of ‘ordinary folk’. She became the founding abbess of a monastery on the cliff top at Whitby in 657AD and its reputation as a centre for education spread internationally.

Most of what we know about her comes from the the Venerable Bede (672-735AD) who wrote: “All who knew her called her ‘mother’ because of her outstanding devotion and grace.” In fact her reputation was such, that myths and legends grew about the divine powers she possessed.

In my dad’s column from 9th December 1978, he talks about her connection to ‘adder stones’ that can still be found if you look hard enough along Whitby’s beaches. They’re called adder stones because of the pattern of a snake imprinted upon the surface.

The legend went that the town was plagued with poisonous snakes and St Hilda prayed for them to be thrown into the sea. The deadly serpents all gathered on the cliff top by the monastery and Hilda lashed them with her whip, severing their heads, before driving them over the edge with her wooden staff. The snakes coiled themselves up as they fell and, upon landing, were turned into stones.

In the pagan tradition, they use the term ‘adder stones’ for any which have a naturally-formed hole in them, and they are associated with witchcraft. They are also known as hag-stones, witch-stones, holey stones or mare-stones, and people used to hang them around their homes to ward off evil spells.

Of course, thanks to the advances in science, we now know that Whitby’s adder stones are actually ammonites, fossilised remains of long-dead sea creatures. It fascinates me how, in times gone by, we humans created our own explanations for the inexplicable. It was a way of easing our worries against things that we did not have the power or knowledge to yet understand.

As a former student of Ancient History and the Rise of Christianity, I was fascinated how the ancient tales surrounding the Greek and Roman gods came about. Can you imagine what it must have been like to experience an earthquake when you had no understanding of the nature of tectonic plates? Or the eruption of a volcano a couple of thousand years before vulcanology became a thing? Or how do you explain where a terrible hurricane comes from when you don’t even know there’s such a thing as weather?

Well, if you were a Greek living in about 500BC you’d know that if the earth was shaking beneath your feet, then Poseidon, god of the sea, was having an almighty spat with his arch enemy Athena. You’d also know that the volcanic eruption was merely god of the underworld, Hephaestus, forging new weapons for his king Zeus. And Poseidon was at it again when a hurricane came around, as he was also responsible for the wind and in fact most weather-related phenomena.

All the gods and goddesses of the ancient world had associations which allowed people to explain to themselves why mystifying life events occurred, to make sense out of times of confusion.

These ancients beliefs which passed from the Greeks to the Romans actually formed the basis of much of the founding beliefs of Christianity, and you might be surprised at how many of today’s Christian tales and practices actually their have roots in the myths and legends of Ancient Greece. For example, the story of Pandora opening the forbidden box to allow evil to spread into the world is similar to the tale of Eve biting the forbidden fruit, which is the biblical tale of original sin.

Greeks put a lot of time and effort into appeasing their gods, and being brought up Catholic, I knew how important it was to keep our God happy. I went to Mass on a Sunday and I lost count of how many times I had to apologise for fighting with my sisters or not keeping my bedroom tidy at weekly confession.

There may or may not have been worse things I had to confess to, but I think I’ll keep you guessing as to what they were.

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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 7th December & the Gazette & Herald on 5th December 2018

Plenty of food for thought

I’m writing this two weeks before you’ll read it and we’ve just had the commemorations for the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One. What an emotional time it has been, and I was pleased to see so many of our local communities put great thought and effort into their own ways of remembering the fallen.

Three things particularly stood out for me. The first was the arresting front cover of the Remembrance weekend Yorkshire Post, which forwent any news stories and instead had a full size black and white picture of soldiers amid the war-ravaged landscape of Passchendaele, alongside a special prayer from the Archbishop of York. One BBC reviewer stated that it ‘swept the board’ of the national front covers marking the Armistice. He also said: “Of all the regions of our great country, Yorkshire seems to pride itself on taking most pride in itself.” Yes, we certainly do.

The second thing was the TV coverage of the Festival of Remembrance from the Royal Albert Hall. I don’t often watch these kinds of events, and came across it while switching channels, and then couldn’t leave. The personal stories of people affected by war, past and present, were brought to life in such an engaging way, and I found the event extremely moving.

The third thing that stood out for me was the film ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’, directed by Peter Jackson, best known for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Having spent many months trawling through century-old footage from the BBC and the Imperial War Museum, he compiled a mesmerising film that told the story of WWI based upon the voices of the people who were actually there. He used expert lip readers to analyse what those in the silent footage were saying, and then their words were brought to life by current serving soldiers. Using state-of-the-art technology, Jackson made the whole thing extremely vivid, and there is a jaw-dropping ‘wow’ moment early on in the film (which I won’t spoil for you), but from then on, my youngest son and I were transfixed. I would challenge anyone else to make the telling of the story of the Great War equally captivating for my generation and for that of my 16-year-old son.

Of course, while commemorating the Armistice and WWI, we also remembered those affected by the Second World War and other conflicts. As children, my parents lived through WWII and food rationing affected them for some time afterwards. In his column from 2nd December 1978 Dad explains that late November and early December used to be ‘pig killing time’ for rural folk, many of whom had raised their own pig in a sty in the back garden. Indeed, the old cottage in which I grew up had an ancient shed outside which I’m sure would have been used for keeping a pig or two in days gone by. A pig would be a good investment as the animal would provide food for the whole family all winter. But during the war, if you had a pig you had to register it and when it came to slaughter, you had give half of it towards the communal rationing supplies.

Groups of people were encouraged to set up ‘pig clubs’ where those that joined the club pitched in to raise the swine, and the community would support the effort by donating their kitchen scraps to feed them. Club members would then benefit from the produce once slaughter time came around, after the local authorities had received their share for rations of course.

It was hard graft butchering a pig and producing all the foodstuffs and very little went to waste. There’s an old Yorkshire saying that goes ‘There’s nowt wasted on a pig except it’s squeal.’ You had to make lard, pork chops, pork joints, bacon and black pudding and the bladder would be hung from sturdy hooks in the kitchen or pantry, alongside massive joints of ham. Our old kitchen used to have hooks in the ceiling beams which we believe were used for this purpose.

Dad also mentions “scrappings made so crisp and tasty with salt”. I presume these were what I would know as ‘pork scratchings’, one of my guilty pleasures today. Have any readers raised their own and pig and made their own pork scrappings, I wonder?

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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 28th November & the Gazette & Herald on 30th  2018

Not just any old jumper

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 23rd November & the Gazette & Herald on 21st November 2018

I have a favourite old grey jumper that I wear a lot. It is rather baggy, a bit worn with a hole in the sleeve. Some people point out the hole, and wonder why I choose to wear such a thing. But this jumper is rather special, as it belonged to my late sister and was one of her favourites.

After she died, we had the difficult but necessary task of clearing out her flat, and wondered what to do with all her things. The flat was only small and she had relatively few possessions, and yet there still seemed to be so much. Sorting through her clothes was especially poignant as we could remember the occasions she wore certain things, and knew the pieces she liked best. She had an abundance of scarves too and myself, my mum, my sister, her close friends, and her nieces were all able to choose one from the collection.

Every time I put on her jumper, or wear her scarf, I think of her, and sometimes I have sad thoughts, and other times, the memories are happy. But very personal keepsakes like this are a simple way of holding that person close, even though they are no longer with you.

In my dad’s column from 25th November 1978, he talks about old superstitions that were associated with the wearing of dead people’s clothes. There was a saying which, bearing in mind my special jumper, seems rather apt: “The clothes of the dead always wear full of holes.”

For some, the wearing of such clothes carried unwanted stigma, and they preferred to pass them on to the poor of the parish. There was an ancient belief that clothes once worn by the dead would soon perish, and therefore should not be kept. In Denmark, there was a stronger belief that if someone was buried in a living person’s clothing, then the living person’s health would deteriorate as the clothes rotted in the grave.

There are specific Yorkshire superstitions relating to clothing. For example, if a married woman’s apron fell off then it foretold that something annoying was going to happen to her. If an unmarried girl’s apron fell off, then that was a sign that she was thinking about her future sweetheart. Another one was that if a girl’s petticoat showed below her skirts, then it was a sign that her mother did not love her as much as her father. How bizarre, and one wonders how such a belief could possibly have come about!

In his column, Dad remarks: “I wonder if this has anything to do with the current fashion where petticoats deliberately peep below the hems of skirts?”

My dad wasn’t particularly known for his fashion expertise, and I don’t really recall a proliferation of peeping petticoats, although I do remember that for smart social occasions, dresses were full length, usually high-necked, and often with a large frilled hem around the bottom.

I was not a fan of skirts and dresses, and spent most of my days in trousers or shorts. If ever my mum wanted me to put a dress on, I would have a proper hissy fit. I recall having conversations with my best friend while watching Miss World on TV where we declared that if we ever entered that competition, we wouldn’t be seen dead in those dresses they wore. We would proudly wear our scruffy old jeans. I’m sure the judges would have seen past them to our natural beauty.

I was most disgruntled when, having been invited to a family friend’s daughter’s wedding, I was made to wear a full-length frock. To add insult to injury, we had to have our photograph taken in the back garden (see above). I wasn’t happy at all, and failed to appreciate that my mum had spent hours and hours making the dresses for us. In fact, in those days, she made many of our clothes and I used to think it was because she loved sewing. It was only later in life that I discovered she did it out of necessity because she and dad could not afford to buy us all new clothes.

So, apologies Mum, for being such a pain, and thank you for all your hard work at the sewing machine. I don’t know how you did it.

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The art of the riddle

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 16th November & the Gazette & Herald on 14th November 2018

In Dad’s column from 18th November 1978, he reports that it was unseasonably warm, a bit like it has been this year, which prompted him to mow the lawn behind our cottage one last time, a full month later than normal. He also battled with the bushes and shrubs that needed a good tidy up and, as a result, ended up with a healthy pile of logs which would come in use for our open fire over the winter.

A real fire is one of those things that we all love to enjoy on a cold dark evening. The sound of the crackling embers, the glow of the orange flames, and the warmth thrown out by the burning logs cannot be replicated by an artificial fire, no matter how realistic it looks.

Sadly, the house I now live in doesn’t have a real fire, and I do miss one, especially now that winter is so close. In my last house, we installed a multi-fuel stove and although it was expensive, it was possibly one of the best things we did in terms of making our house feel like a really cosy home.

But if you are going to use a stove, then you do need to learn how to manage it, what fuel to use, how to keep the stove glass clean, and also to master the art of ‘riddling’. Some of you might remember (or even still use) solid fuel Aga and Rayburn stoves, like the one in my godmother’s kitchen. The warmth emanating from that custard-yellow beast was something else, and when I stayed with her, she would read me bedtime stories sitting in front of it.

She was an expert riddler, which is the word for sieving out ash and embers from the bottom of the fire to enable the air to flow through. Stoves have a special handle for this, while my dad used a poker to do it on our open fire. If you don’t riddle enough, then air can’t circulate, and your fire won’t last. Over-riddle, then you allow too much air flow, which can also put your fire out, so you have to master the art of the riddle.

It also helps to know the best wood to use, as different logs behave in different ways. Ash is one of the best, as it dries quickly and produces a steady flame with decent heat. Oak can also be a good choice, but needs at least two years to dry out. It burns slowly, so is best if it is mixed with faster burning wood, such as birch or ash.

In 1978, we didn’t worry too much about the moisture content of logs. If they felt dry, they ended up on the fire. But the logs that my dad mentions from his garden would not have been any good for today’s wood-burners, as they wouldn’t have been seasoned for long enough.

‘Seasoning’ means drying out, and there are several reasons why you should buy properly seasoned or kiln-dried logs. Wood that contains too much moisture won’t burn as well, it will release higher amounts of ‘particulates’ that pollute the atmosphere, and, as the moisture is released, tar and soot will not only coat the inside of your stove glass to obscure the lovely flames, but they will also coat the inside of your flue or chimney. If this is allowed to build up, it can lead to chimney fires, so you should have your chimney cleaned once a year, even if you do use properly dried out wood.

Beware of those that claim to be seasoned, but haven’t been dried for long enough, and the easiest way to check for this is to use a wood moisture meter which you can buy for less than £20, a worthwhile investment if you have a stove. Properly seasoned logs have a moisture content of less than 20%.

It isn’t difficult to season your own logs as long as you split them and stack them correctly. They need to be raised on something like an old pallet so that the air can circulate. Cover them on three sides, leaving one open, but try to ensure they are not exposed to the elements. Once your moisture meter reading shows your logs have less than 20% moisture, then they are seasoned and ready to burn.

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