Them convulsions are such a bind!

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Convolvulus (bindweed) creeping up a hawthorn tree
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The bindweed’s beautiful flower belies its deadly intent

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 15th September 2017, & the Malton Gazette & Herald on 13th September 2017)

It is so often the way that things we loved as children, our parents didn’t so much, such as the litters of kittens in our garden shed and the battles with grounded swifts that I mentioned last week. And in Dad’s column of 11th September 1976, he talks of another battle with a persistent garden invader.

He’d been in the pub talking to ‘Auld George’, a local village character: “If there’s owt that niggles me it’s them convulsions,” said Auld George, “I can’t shift ‘em…they grow and git tangled up with ivverything. They’ve gitten amang t’currant bushes, shinned up t’walls and spouting, and managed ti git fastened ti ivvery thing that’s still growing. And ti cap it all, they allus comes ageean when ivverything else has bin howed oot.”

For those in need of translation, he was talking about the bane of many a gardener’s life, the notorious convolvulus, or bindweed. There are many different species and at this time of year, it is possibly one of the prettiest flowers that can be spotted in the countryside among the hedgerows, with its white or pink trumpet-shaped flowers, and yet it is one of the most deadly to other, weaker plants. If left unchecked, it can completely submerge whatever it attaches itself to.

That said, it was such a good plant to play with as a child. We used to see who could unwind the longest unbroken piece, which if you were really careful, could stretch to a few metres. It was also perfect for making crowns for any regal or fairy ‘Let’s Pretend’ games. But despite the pleasure that we gained from it, it was actually the wicked stepmother of plants. For homeowners who took the time, dedication and care to create beautiful garden displays, the benignly pretty exterior of the bindweed hid a ruthless, murderous character.

I think I’m safe in claiming that many a swearword has been uttered in the pursuit of a bindweed-free garden. It is one of the most difficult weeds to get rid of as its roots can stretch many feet down into the earth and yet when you try to pull them up, they easily break, and the remaining roots continue on their relentless journey. Not only that, but the plant produces adventitious roots which stretch horizontally underground to emerge far away from its parent, stealthily creeping up a poor unsuspecting rose bush, apple tree or even an innocent gazebo. It has no shame or sympathy and will simply overwhelm whatever lies in its track unless brought under control.

Obviously tackling such a horticultural pest requires expert horticultural knowledge, so on your behalf, I consulted the Royal Horticultural Society (well, their website anyway!) and they say this pesky plant is very difficult to eradicate without resorting to chemicals – unless you manage to dig your whole garden clear of all roots, and then make sure you have deep solid barriers going into the ground along all your boundary fences to stop them infiltrating from your traitorous bindweed-friendly neighbours. Easy peasy then! Seriously though, if you are struggling with this leafy leviathan, then do go to the RHS website (rhs.org.uk) as it has a comprehensive list of both chemical and non-chemical ways to tackle the problem (you might need to hit the gym before you tackle the non-chemical method though!).

By the way, did you notice the new word I used? Did you know what ‘adventitious’ meant? I didn’t when I read it in Dad’s original column and, having looked it up, I found out that in botanical terms, it means a root appearing in an unexpected or unusual place (a bit like middle-aged hair growth then). Non-botanically it has a similar meaning to extrinsic, that is being associated with something by chance rather than as an integral part.

So there. And after almost 30 years as a writer myself, I’m still learning from my dad.

Dad’s swift action stopped a catastrophe

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L-R Me, Andrew, Dad, Tricia, Mum, Nana & Janet in 1970 outside the garden shed that became a feline maternity ward
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Our cat Mamalade in 1976. She lived for 18 years and her death was the first time I saw my dad to openly cry.
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Marmalade’s kittens Pip and Squeak

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 8th September 2017, & the Malton Gazette & Herald on 6th September 2017)

It only seems like five minutes since the children were breaking up for the holidays, yet as soon as September appears on the calendar, I can feel Christmas begin its stealthy trot towards me, and I know that before long it’ll be in a full-on gallop!

But let’s not worry about that while we enjoy the unrivalled luminosity of sunny autumn evenings unmatched at any other time of year. Dad describes it as ‘a glorious carpet of colour that defies description’ in his September 4th 1976 column. He continues:

‘I like the cool freshness of the mornings, the sound of the robin’s song and the rustle of dry leaves underfoot. I like the sight of dewy cobwebs in the hedgerows, and the feeling that the countryside is undergoing a complete change. It is a month of unusual beauty.’

He goes on to say that September was also the month of his less than beautiful annual chore of clearing out the gutters. It was essential due to the number of swifts that nested under the eaves of our cottage. By mid-August, they’d abandoned us for warmer climes, selfishly leaving all their their straw, grass and eggshell debris behind (my kids do the same with shoes, socks, and dirty plates). Left unchecked, rainwater couldn’t drain away and would have found its way into the fabric of our house.

The swifts had been coming to us for years, and brought with them a perennial problem that Dad dreaded because he was the one who had to deal with it – that of finding a grounded swift. It wasn’t just the swift that was the issue, it was also that our cat, Marmalade, would often get hold of it first.

He describes hearing a commotion outside the back door and found Marmalade with a pair of flapping wings protruding from her jaws. He managed to free the bird, but no sooner had he done so than it flew straight into the house, followed by the cat, and so a cat-swift-man version of the Wacky Races ensued around our kitchen. Thankfully, Dad was the winner, and managed to corner the bird which he placed in an old cage until able to release it the following day. This wasn’t the first or last of such escapades, and although Dad dreaded them, we of course found them really exciting!

Grounded swifts are still fairly common, often caused by a fledgling chick bodging its maiden launch. Some people think swifts can’t take off from the ground due to their short legs and long wingspan, but according to the RSPB, healthy birds should still be able to. If you spot one that can’t take off, the advice is not to throw it into the air, but to gently pick it up and rest it on your palms, then waft your arms up and down so it feels the air under its wings. If it doesn’t take off, or lands again nearby, there might be something wrong. In that case, put it into a ventilated, lidded shoebox with a soft blanket, and leave it somewhere quiet before calling the RSPB, RSPCA or your local vet. Don’t feed it, but occasionally wipe a watery cotton bud around its beak, avoiding its nostrils.

In my youth, Dad was real cat lover, with Marmalade outlasting a long familial line. After she died at the ripe old age of 18, he swore never to have another as it was too difficult losing her. Like a true Yorkshireman, he hadn’t openly shed a tear until that cat died.

Our four-legged dynasty came mainly from the litters of local strays who used our outbuildings as some kind of feline maternity ward, much to our delight and Mum’s consternation. Our long line of adoptees included Topol, Felix, Bungle, Marmalade, Marmalade’s kittens Pip and Squeak, Marmalade’s sister Eric (yes, Eric) and her offspring Alfred and Jackson. The line ended after I came home from school one day to find that Eric and her newest litter had vanished. Apparently they’d mysteriously ‘gone away’. I was never told where, but my adult self prefers not to think about that!

Cereal, squabbles and soggy picnics

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Me at Brotherswater in the Lake District in 1973
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My sister Tricia with me, Mum and my other sister Janet following, Lake District 1973
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Mum, Janet, me, Tricia & Andrew on Ashness Bridge in the Lakes
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Dad proudly driving our Ford Cortina estate on the way to France in 1979

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 1st September 2017, & the Malton Gazette & Herald on 30th August 2017)

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been looking back at Dad’s Countryman’s Diary from the same week 40 years ago for these columns. But I’ve had a bit of a hiccup – there is a gap in the archive from the end of August until late 1977 and after a bit of digging, it turns out there was a strike at the Darlington and Stockton Times, and the paper was not published for several months.

So instead, as this is my first year, I’m going back to Dad’s first year, which was 1976. In his column from 28th August, he recounts returning from our family holiday in the Lake District.

It made me chuckle when I read: “With a family of four growing children, it is just as pleasant to explore Great Britain than to go roaming in foreign parts.” It was a bit of a standing joke that Dad would much rather stay home than go abroad, and in fact, we only ever went on one foreign family holiday to France for a week in 1979.

His resistance to going abroad wasn’t just because he didn’t want to, but we didn’t have that kind of money anyway. So a week in the Lake District was our highly-anticipated annual treat.

The car journey there was a source of great excitement for at least ten minutes until squabbles and boredom set in. It was before compulsory seatbelts, and so the six of us and all our luggage would cram into a five-seater Ford Cortina estate. With four kids squashed together, back-seat fisticuffs were common, as was the sound of Dad shouting at whoever was behind him digging their wriggling knees into his back. I do recall volunteering to ride in the boot which at the time was preferable to sitting next to my sisters (as a parent now, there’ve been many times during fraught car journeys that I wished I could shove my three into the boot, but sadly it is no longer allowed!).

One of my absolute favourite things about the holiday was that we had a picnic every single day. I remember boasting about it to my friends and celebrating the fact that we did it EVEN when it was raining (& being the Lake District, it did that quite a lot!). Many a lunchtime was spent drawing faces in steamed-up car windows and watching the rain come down as we ate our sandwiches. It was only as an adult that Mum confessed that the reason we always had picnics was that we couldn’t afford to eat out. They managed to shield us from what must have been a real struggle, and all credit to them that we never felt hard done-by for not eating in restaurants. Instead, though, we were often allowed ice creams, and if we were very lucky, went to the pub for a lemonade and a packet of crisps. And it was an added bonus that we got to eat things we didn’t get very often at home, such as Heinz tinned tomato soup, Vesta meals with crispy noodles, and best of all, a Kellogg’s variety pack. We never had sugary cereals normally, so this was unparalleled luxury. Of course, sharing out the mini packs was another squabble-filled drama. We fought to get the Frosties, Ricicles and Co-co Pops (other brands of sugary cereal are available), and fought not to get the boring old cornflakes, Bran Flakes and, heaven forbid, the All Bran.

Thankfully, as Dad became more successful, our family finances improved and as I mentioned, we were able to afford a modest holiday in France in 1979. Towards the end of the week, we went out for a meal to a rather nice restaurant. As it was such a rare occasion, Dad decided to treat himself and Mum to a bottle of wine. He selected one that he calculated would cost £3, which he thought was a fair price.

He nearly fell off his chair when the bill came – the wine was actually £30 (over £150 in today’s money!). Poor old Dad!

 

 

How Dad landed a Major undertaking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Motivation and superstition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Credit: superstitiondictionary.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Show some respect for your elders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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