Off to School in a Heartbeat

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 10th August, & the Gazette & Herald on 8th August 2018)

My dad failed his English so joined the police as a 16-year-old cadet

I was thrilled to learn that Heartbeat has been voted the greatest Yorkshire Television programme of all time by readers of The Dalesman magazine, which is fitting in the year that marks 50 years since YTV was born (It came third in the overall poll behind two wonderful rivals, Last of the Summer Wine (2nd) and All Creatures Great and Small (1st), both made by the BBC).

More than 3,000 people voted and, were he here, my dad would be amazed to know that the programme is still held in such high esteem more than 26 years after the first episode aired. Fans continue to visit Goathland, where the series was set, to rekindle their nostalgic memories about the lovable characters and beautiful locations featured in the show.

Heartbeat was based upon my dad’s Constable series of books in which he drew upon his 30 years’ experience as a rural policeman. He was born to write, and persisted despite a number of setbacks in the beginning. He didn’t do well in English at school and his teacher was less than encouraging about his writing abilities. But Dad possessed what you need if you are going to make it in the creative industries – a bucketload of self-belief. This took him far, including beyond his first 13 novel rejections. His inspiration was Major Jack Fairfax-Blakeborough, the highly successful author and Countryman’s Diary columnist who hailed from Westerdale on the North York Moors. In 1947, when Dad was just 10, the Major had presented him with one of his books, and I believe that was a turning point in Dad’s life as it made him realise that you could, in fact, earn a living through writing stories.

Dad used to say to me that if you were a male and came from the moors, you usually went in one of two directions, either into farming, or into the uniformed services. At first, Dad did try to buck the trend by asking for a job at the local paper, the Whitby Gazette, when he left school at 16. But they turned him down, and so, not knowing what else to do, he joined the police.

I think leaving school with few qualifications left a very deep impression on him as, after being rejected by the Gazette, and at first unable to immediately fulfil his ambition to write, he didn’t have many qualifications to fall back upon so had to do something ‘conventional’ to earn a living.

So I think it was that which made him believe that getting an education was highly important, and I now understand why he worked so hard to make sure we children went to good schools. In his column from 8th August 1978, he talks about the difficulty of motivating children from rural backgrounds to go to school before it was compulsory in the 19th century: “It must have been very difficult to encourage parents to send their youngsters to school when those same youngsters could be better employed in the house or fields working productively alongside their parents.”

It was only after the Agricultural Children’s Act of 1873 that things began to change, as it forbade children under the age of eight to work on a farm unless it was their own, which meant that children whose parents didn’t own a farm were free to attend school. Three years later, the law was changed again making it compulsory for children under 12 to attend school, with the exception of the six weeks during which the hay and corn needed to be gathered in, which is how the long summer school holidays covering July and August came about.

All working parents today will understand the mixed blessings of a long summer holiday. This year, for the first time in 18 years (thanks to my youngest finishing his GCSEs) I was able to plan and take a two-week holiday when most children were still at school. So by the last week of June, we were all free and hotfooted it to France while the going was so good.

While in France, like most of us Brits do, I worked very hard on my tan, only to come home and find I had no boasting rights to speak of as, thanks to this amazing spell of hot weather, everyone else was the same colour as me! Life just isn’t fair sometimes.

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We’ve taken a wrong Turner

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 27th July, & the Gazette & Herald on 25th July 2018)

As I have remarked a number of times before, one of the loveliest things about using my dad’s archived columns from 40 years ago is when I come across a story that he relates about our family life back then. It stirs up and refreshes long-forgotten memories, or enlightens me about events that I have no memory of whatsoever.

It’s particularly thrilling when I can link what my dad is talking about to photographs I have seen in our family archives, and when they are pieced together, it adds a whole new layer of detail to an otherwise patchy recollection.

And so it has happened again this week when I read about a rather curious and adventurous family day out. Dad had decided to keep us entertained by using an old map for a trip up into the Dales, with our intended destination being Malham. All went well until we arrived in Kilnsey, famous for its annual show and impressive crag.

According to Dad’s old map there was a road that directly linked Kilnsey with Malham, but when we turned up the road, we found it was clearly rarely used. After a while, the road turned into cobbles, and as we passed the ‘Unsuitable for Motors’ sign, you’d have thought that perhaps we would have stopped and turned round.

But not my dad. For when he set his mind to something, he could be very determined indeed! What is even more astonishing about this unconventional detour is the fact that we were not driving any old car, but my dad’s pride and joy, his beautiful, sky blue classic 1968 Mark II Jaguar. And if you know anything about these cars, you will appreciate that they are very low slung, and so we bumped, scraped and jolted our way on up, high into the hills along what was no more than a rocky track.

It was only when the track actually disappeared into grass and mud that Dad did finally admit defeat and drew to a halt. But by then, we were so high up that the views were incredible, which of course made it entirely worth it, as Dad explains: “We concluded our journey in a field of cows high on the hills above Wharfedale with stirring views below and the Pennines all around.”

I do have vague memories now of that day, but because I was just 11 years old, I had no idea, and took no notice, of where we had ended up. But reading that column today, I discovered that it was in fact Mastiles Lane, an old drovers’ road that would have been been a busy thoroughfare in times gone by between Malham and Kilnsey.

When I read that, a little light went off in my head, as I knew I’d heard the name before. It turns out that I had recently walked that very same route without realising that I’d already been there, albeit in a Jaguar 40 years earlier!

My friends and I regularly walk near Kilnsey, and it’s a beautiful area to visit. So beautiful, in fact, that artist JMW Turner himself made sketches and drawings in and around the village during his 1816 tour of Yorkshire. His watercolour study ‘Kilnsey Crag and Conistone, Upper Wharfedale’ is now housed in Tate London, alongside books containing other sketches of the area, although sadly a full painting has never been discovered, so it’s unclear whether he did in fact complete one.

Unfortunately for Turner though, he didn’t enjoy the kind of dry, sunny weather that we have been experiencing. For him, it was unrelenting rain as a result of climatic disturbance caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora in the Philippines, which led to 1816 being dubbed ‘the year without summer’.

It must have made working rather difficult for him. Indeed some of his sketches and watercolours from that trip are visibly water-stained, and he wrote from Richmond on 31 July 1816 to his friend James Holworthy: “Weather miserably wet; I shall be web-footed like a drake.”

And then in a later letter, he recounts a dreadful journey: “…the passage out of Teesdale leaves everything far behind for difficulty – bogged most completely Horse and its Rider, and nine hours making eleven miles.”

Thankfully our own passage back out of the Dales in our Jag, although rather bumpy, was significantly quicker! (Source:

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Raising a toast to Dad

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 27th July, & the Gazette & Herald on 25th July 2018).

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Next week marks the most important day of the year which, as all who read this newspaper know, is August 1st, or Yorkshire Day.

According to my Dad’s column from 29 July 1978, the day was established to mark the demise in 1974 of the three Yorkshire Ridings when county boundaries were rearranged and Cleveland and Humberside were established. It was originally more commonly known as Minden Day, a commemoration of the 1759 Battle of Minden in which the soldiers were said to have plucked roses from the hedgerows on their way into battle. So on Minden Day, soldiers place red roses in their ceremonial headwear as a tribute to their predecessors and Yorkshire soldiers use white roses instead to represent their county.

My dad loved his food and one of the things he most looked forward to on Yorkshire Day was the traditional meal with Yorkshire puddings eaten in the classic way, as a starter with gravy, followed by roast beef and vegetables. He would particularly enjoy it if it was accompanied by a glass of good red wine. On our recent holiday to France, we stayed near Bordeaux, and as I drove past field upon field of vines, I couldn’t help but think of my dad, and recall a special family holiday we had to the same area eleven years ago in 2007.

We’d gone to celebrate my parents’ 70th birthdays, but also because we’d had a difficult year. Dad had been diagnosed with prostate cancer a few months earlier and his diagnosis had been very serious. But thankfully he responded remarkably well to the treatment and was in relatively good health, even through we still had no idea what the future might hold. So my mum decided that a special family holiday was in order and found a splendid manor house between Bordeaux and Perigueux in south-west France that could accommodate all 16 of us.

It was a truly memorable holiday, and Dad was in his element, enjoying the local food and wine to the full. He found himself a special little corner in the garden where he could write up column notes while enjoying a glass of something lovely.

As we were so close to some famous wine-producing domaines, he and my mum spent one day visiting a chateau near St Emilion. Although one might imagine chateaus being ancient castles with turrets and towers (of which France has many), the word also refers simply to an estate upon which wine is produced and sold.

I managed to find the column he wrote in 2007 following that holiday, and it’s interesting to read back on it now, especially following last week’s column in which I wrote about how much better the French road network is compared to ours. Dad apparently felt the same way. “I must say that the French roads, whether urban, rural or motorways, are splendid,” he wrote.

During my holiday this year, I was also determined to visit a chateau and sample a local vintage so the boys and I set out one day along a long straight local road which was lined with vineyards.

We pulled into Chateau Haute-Goujon, a smart, modern-looking place, and were very fortunate to be shown around by the owner himself, Monsieur Vincent Garde, whose family have produced red wine there since the early 20th century. In excellent English, he explained the process, taking us through the vinification room, with huge stainless steel vats where the grape juice is fermented and turned into wine, then to a room full of hand-made oak barrels, where the wine is aged, to a vast cellar-like room full of resting bottles, and then finally to the labelling facility. The labels are only put on last minute to deter thieves. If the wine is unmarked, they will have no idea what they are stealing, explained Mr Garde.

Of course, I had to buy some and was pleasantly surprised to find the choices weren’t as expensive as I’d imagined, with prices starting at £10 and the most expensive being around £50. I bought some at the average price, and then a couple of a more expensive one. It’s just a shame Dad isn’t here to enjoy it with me, but I will raise a toast to him when I open it.

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The road to hell?

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(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 20th July, & the Gazette & Herald on 18th July 2018).

The state of our roads and managing our increasingly congested national network has long been a political hot potato, and it seems that forty years ago, it was no different, as I discovered when I read my dad’s column from 22nd July 1978.

“So many highways and byways are becoming very neglected by our authorities,” says Dad. “They do not have the money to effect repairs and lots of roads, urban and rural, have degenerated rapidly over the past months.”

He blames the policy of only maintaining popular routes for the deterioration of quieter ones, the rationale being that by ignoring the less busy roads, it left money in the budget to maintain the ones that are used more.

Having just landed back home after a two-week holiday in south-West France, where I drove all the way, I became very well acquainted with both our own and our French neighbour’s highways and byways. So with the benefit of that recent experience, I can say that driving in France is a much more enjoyable experience than here. I covered almost the length of the country, there and back, and did same in the UK (between North Yorkshire and the south coast).

In France (Paris excepting), the roads seemed significantly quieter and were extremely well maintained, no doubt thanks to their toll system. Drivers were courteous, patient, and everyone followed the rule of pulling back into the inside lane as soon as possible after overtaking. There was no such thing as middle-lane hoggers, and if a slower car did pull out, drivers just sat back patiently until it had completed its manoeuvre, presumably because they knew that it would pull in again straight away. I saw very few of the shenanigans between drivers that we get over here, such as driving intimidatingly close to a slower car in front to get them to pull over.

By contrast, my return journey from the south to the north of the UK couldn’t have been more different, with bad-tempered, impatient drivers, lane hoggers and more roadworks than you could shake a stick at. I blame the dreaded ‘Average Speed Checks’ for contributing to a nation of frustrated and angry drivers. They are spreading across the country like a plague of locusts and I lost count of how many I encountered en route. When we spend mile after mile on the motorway crawling along at a 40mph limit, it’s no wonder we get cross with other drivers who we feel impede our way.

We are a nation of selfish drivers who, once we are at the wheel, undergo some kind of Jekyll and Hyde personality transformation. We enter our own little cocoon, where our desire to get to our particular destination is the number one priority. We are all out for ourselves, and woe betide any fellow road users that get in our way.

In France, on the other hand, they seem to understand that if we all abide by the road rules and respect our fellow drivers, on the whole it will mean that we will get to our destination more quickly and safely, and emerge from our car as happy as when we got in it.

They understand that to keep traffic flowing through roadworks, you leave space for people to enter the queue, rather than drive bumper to bumper, like we do, to stop those people we think are trying to queue jump from easily getting in. But by doing that we are in fact compounding the problem and the knock-on effect is to make the traffic jam worse. In France, drivers are educated to use all the lanes as they approach the roadworks, right up to a lane closure, knowing that the etiquette is for every car to let one into the queue. It’s such a simple and sensible a system that keeps the traffic moving. If everyone does it, then everyone benefits. But once we are behind the wheel, we seem to have trouble with that communal concept.

So, obviously, the answer to the money question would be to introduce tolls, but how do we make bad road etiquette socially unacceptable? Answers on a postcard please…

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Are you dogged by problems?

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(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 13th July, & the Gazette & Herald on 11th July 2018).

For the few years that I’ve been caring for other people’s dogs, I’ve come across all sorts (and that’s just the owners!). I can say with some authority that almost all problem behaviours with dogs are down to the owner’s relationship with them. I’ve seen it time and time again, and so I thought I’d pass on some of the useful things I’ve learned through this work.

A dog is happiest and most relaxed when it is in the right place within the family hierarchy – at the bottom. Generally, all a dog wants is to be allowed to be just a dog, nothing else, and then in return it will be well behaved, placid, and shower its owners with oodles of love. A dog that is not confused about its role is one happy dog.

But problems occur when we treat them too much like furry substitute children, and communicate with them on a human level rather than in a way that a dog can clearly understand. That is when they get anxious and confused and issues creep in.

You are likely to get the desired response with a short, loud ‘No!’ and accompanying hand gesture, rather than from a: ‘Rover, my handsome little poochy wooch, please be good for mummy wummy and don’t jump onto the sofa because we’ve just been out for a muddy wuddy walk and you are all stinky winky.’

Rover hasn’t a clue what you’re saying and is confused by all the words, but he does hear your soft tone of voice, which to him is a happy tone, and so he will think it is OK to jump on the sofa. And then when you get cross with him, he ends up anxious because he doesn’t understand why in the next breath you’re angry with him. Poor old Rover!

Another common complaint from owners is that their dogs are aggressive towards other dogs or people. In almost all the cases that I’ve dealt with, they are not naturally aggressive, but are simply anxious and confused. A dog which grabs the mail as it comes through the letter box, or who snarls and snaps at other passing dogs, does so because it has come to believe that its role is to protect its home or owner.

The most common reason is that the owner has not been assertive enough with their dog and has unwittingly allowed the problem to develop. It can be reversed, but you have to be patient and persistent. One simple tip is to make sure you ALWAYS go through a door or gate before your dog. I use the word ‘Back!’ very firmly, and put myself physically in front of a dog waiting eagerly by the door. If you persist, you will be amazed at how quickly they pick it up. Doing this shows them that you are in charge and don’t need them to go out first, which they do because they are checking there’s nothing out there that might harm you.

Also, never allow a dog to sit higher than you (on the back of the sofa, for example). This often is protective behaviour, and might seem cute at first, but later you might find the dog starts to snap if other people try to sit down because it views the sofa as its territory.

It is debated as to whether animals can feel emotions like we humans do, and there are many documented cases of dogs and other animals pining for lost owners or mates. In my dad’s column from 15th August 1978, he recounts the story of coming across two yellowhammers in the road. One was dead, and the other stood next to it. Dad moved the dead bird to the side of the road, and as he drove off, he saw the other bird go back to what he presumed was its mate and continue its sad vigil.

Although I don’t believe animals can feel emotions in the same way as us humans, I do believe they are sensitive. I’m certain my friend’s dog, a labrador-springer cross, actually smiles with joy when I turn up at his house, while other dogs do appear genuinely sad when they know I’m going to leave them at home while I go shopping. So what do you think? Does your dog show emotion?

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A bee in my bonnet

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(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 6th July, & the Gazette & Herald on 4th July 2018).

When I was small, I was terrified of the bumblebee, as I knew it could sting and it seemed so big and buzzy. One day my dad caught one on his finger and I couldn’t believe he was so calm while this dangerous and threatening creature contemplated its moment to strike his bare flesh.

I recoiled as my reckless dad then began to gently stoke its furry little back, as if it were a tiny cat. Instead of wreaking its stinging revenge, to my surprise, it sat quite happily there showing no signs of aggression. Dad explained that bees actually had very docile temperaments and would only sting you if they felt threatened.

From that moment, I lost my fear of bees, and know that if they do fly close, they are probably drawn to a bright colour I’m wearing, or to a sweet scent they have picked up nearby. They’re not out to get me, and if I stay still, they will fly off when they realise I’m not a source of pollen. I know many people who get into a tizzy at the mere sound of a buzzing insect and flap their arms crazily about their head like they’re trying to stop a bat landing on it. Honestly, unless you suffer from anaphylaxis, get a grip! By doing that you are more likely to get stung anyway and, more importantly, harm one of our precious bees.

As most people today know, bees are not faring very well, with 13 species in the UK already wiped out, and 35 more under threat of extinction. If bees were allowed to disappear, its effect upon the the planet would be catastrophic. The decline is due to a combination of things, such as a reduction in flowering meadows (97% lost since the 1930s), pesticides, disease and invasive species. Bees are the most productive pollinators in our food chain, so without them, we’d lose the plants and food crops they pollinate, and then all the animals that rely on those plants and food crops, and then, food-wise, we humans would be up the creek without a paddle.

With that in mind, doesn’t it make you think twice about the bees that come within arm-flapping distance? Why not take a few minutes to familiarise yourself with our fascinating buzzing fraternity, so you know the difference between a harmless hoverfly and an angry wasp. There are many websites around that can help you with identification, although one of my most trusted sources (naturally, inherited from my dad) is Collins’ Complete British Wildlife photo guide. In there, you’ll see that certain hoverflies are similar in colouring to wasps, but hoverflies are generally smaller and have a flatter body shape. And they hover. And look like flies.

One organisation doing its bit to educate us about bees is Buckfast Abbey in Devon, famous for its tonic wine and, once upon a time, for its honey. In his column from 8th July 1978, Dad talks about a visit there, and was impressed with their entrepreneurial spirit, the monastery having been destroyed and rebuilt several times over the centuries of its existence. Having started from very little, the Benedictine monks had established a thriving cattle and dairy herd, a pottery, a stained glass workshop and an excellent café.

They were at the time famous for their apiaries and their honey, thanks in the most part to a monk called Brother Adam Kehrle. The monastery had been making honey for a long time, but early in the 20th century, 30 of the abbey’s 46 colonies were wiped out through a virulent disease called Acarine. What Kehrle noticed was that all the bees that died were native British black bees while those of an Italian strain survived. He then set out on a mission to come up with a disease-resistant strain of bee that would be perfect for keeping. After many years of study, travel, experimentation and dedication, he managed to breed a bee that was a good pollen-gatherer with a mild temperament and, most importantly, resistant to Acarine. It was, and still is, known as the Buckfast Bee and is now a recognised species.

The monastery emphasis these days has moved away from commercial honey production and now concentrates on what is termed ‘gentle’ bee keeping with a focus on education and conservation to raise awareness of one of our most precious insect friends (Sources:,

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The love of an English Country Garden

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(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 27th June, & the Gazette & Herald on 29th June 2018).

I’ve just emerged from a busy but fun-filled weekend. On Friday night, I was out at the fabulous Velma Celli Show (Yorkshire boy turned West End star, highly recommended!) and then on Saturday, along with my children and a healthy posse of friends, I completed the St Leonard’s Hospice Midnight Walk in memory of Dad and my sister Tricia (as many of you know, both recently died in St Leonard’s). The theme was ‘Walking Royal Miles’ and we were encouraged to dress in red, white and blue, wear crowns, carry flags and enthusiastically embrace the royal theme. A sea of 800 or so patriotically-adorned men, women and children walked a seven-mile route around York between midnight and 2.30am to raise money for this wonderful cause.

The weekend was rounded off on a beautiful Sunday with a visit to the pretty village of Coxwold with my mum for the village’s ‘Hidden Gardens’ event. I haven’t been to many of these kinds of occasions before, and was amazed to see so many cars filling the local playing field which was acting as a make-shift car park.

According to the organisers, there were well over 500 visitors – and well over 500 cups of tea poured (according to my exhausted friend Sharon who was serving them non-stop all afternoon).

I am pretty much the kiss of death for most plants, so I steer clear of proper gardening, content instead to admire the handiwork of others (including my mum’s, who turned her garden of mud and rubble into a gorgeous oasis of colour and life).

But the Coxwold gardens were another level of horticultural excellence, hidden behind the quaint facades of the village’s yellow stone cottages. Borders were brimming with flowers of all colours of the rainbow, curving their way in and around the lawns which were surrounded by crowds of lush trees and shrubs. Creepers like like honeysuckles, clematis and wisteria twisted up wooden arches and gazebos and every so often, we came across a bench or a table where we we could sit for a while and appreciate the splendour that has come about thanks to years of hard graft and dedication by the owners.

Now, I’m not very good at naming cultivated flowers and shrubs, but one class of plant that I do recognise is the fern, and they were well represented that Sunday. They’re not what you would call the lead singers in the show, but more like a very reliable backing band, providing support by filling in the gaps and giving coverage in areas that other plants might not do so well.

As my dad explains in his column from 1st July 1978, the fern is quite an unusual plant in being a combination of leaf and fruit. In most cases, the fruit is carried on the underside of the leaf. He says that in autumn, “…you may walk in places where ferns are plentiful and find ripe spores on the undersides of the fronds…By carefully removing one of the fronds, you will acquire many spores from which new ferns can be gown.” So no digging them up, then!

I discovered a couple of rather interesting facts while writing this (thank you!) including that the fern is one of the earliest vascular plants (i.e. they have special tissues within them to conduct water and other essential nutrients through the plant). They are believed to have evolved over 300 million years ago, being very plentiful and growing to tree-like heights. They later died out and their compaction helped to create the coal which we use as fuel today (hence the term ‘fossil fuels’).

Open gardens have become a traditional way for the rural community to raise funds for their own local causes and charities. The first event was held 37 years ago in the Suffolk village of Walsham-le-Willows, and the idea quickly caught on. This year, there are 860 events taking place nationwide, with 42 in Yorkshire alone.

Villagers pitch in to bake cakes and serve teas, local musicians entertain, artists exhibit their works and artisan producers display their wares and, together with the gardeners, raise tens of thousands of pounds for local charities and community projects across the country.

To find out where and when your next local open gardens event is, visit the Open Gardens National Directory at

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It shouldn’t happen to a vet

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(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 20th June, & the Gazette & Herald on 22nd June 2018).

As I write this, I’m recovering from the emotional turmoil of watching the final episode of the latest series of The Yorkshire Vet. One of the main protagonists, Peter Wright, lost his beloved canine companion, 10-year-old Alf. Peter’s sadness was tangible, and hankies were a must.

I absolutely love the programme, love witnessing the ups and downs of life as a country vet, the trials and tribulations of treating the agricultural animal community, the roller-coaster of emotions every family experiences when a cherished pet is sick.

The stories are so engaging, and the compassion that Peter and his (then) colleague Julian Norton so obviously feel shines through and is reflected by the staff at their practice in Thirsk. Not only that, but the way it is filmed celebrates the rural beauty of North Yorkshire in a way that makes you feel proud and truly blessed to live here. What an asset for our tourism industry.

The programme ends on a positive note when Peter and his wife take home a kitten in need. It made me think about my dad, and how much he loved animals. Like Peter Wright, he wasn’t a cat ‘or’ dog person, but rather a cat ‘and’ dog person. He loved both equally, although we just had cats for the practical reason that they were easier to look after (and the fact that stray cats chose to adopt us, which had nothing to do with us kids bribing them to stay with food).

Dad was insistent that he never wanted a dog himself, which used to baffle me whenever I saw how he fussed over other people’s. And despite me pleading with him at least once every few months for the best part of the twenty years or so that I lived at home, he never caved in.

I must have inherited that side of his character, for I love both cats and dogs, and had two lovely rescue cats for about ten years. When they grew old and had to be put to sleep, I didn’t feel the need to replace them as by then I had my own litter of very energetic young puppies (known more commonly as ‘children’).

Just like the young me, they have pleaded to get a dog. Unlike my dad though, I eventually (sort of) caved in, but in a way that suits us all. Instead of having our own dog, we now look after other people’s. It means we get all the pleasure, but less of the pain of things like vets’ fees, kennel fees and, worst of all, of losing them. I’ve experienced a whole variety of breeds and temperaments and can honestly say I adore them all, and yet still enjoy the liberation of my dog-free days. Best of both worlds, I’d say.

Dad genuinely loved most animals, and had been fascinated by our bird population since childhood, so that by the time he started his columns, he was arguably a self-taught expert. In his column from June 24th 1978, he talks with clear passion about the songs of the warbler family, particularly the willow warbler that is so active at this time of year. He writes that he would find it difficult to describe the tune, but that an ornithologist he knew captured it perfectly: “The song of the willow warbler was like a sixpence spinning on a china plate, and being allowed to slowly come to rest.”

I had a go with a five pence piece on a saucer, but found it hard to recognise it as birdsong. However, I also have access to a trusty ornithological friend, also known as the RSPB website, and you can look up just about any native bird. Within seconds I’d found a video of the willow warbler in full song. I then understood where the reference to the sixpence came in, but to my mind it is more like the sound of a loose hub cap spiralling off and gradually spinning to rest in the middle of the road. Look it up, have a listen, and see if you agree.

(This is my 53rd column, so it means I’ve completed a full year! Thank you so much for reading them and for all the encouraging comments, letters and messages to date.)

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A fledgling emergency

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(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 15th June, & the Gazette & Herald on 13th June 2018).

I was on a dog walk this morning when I came across a scruffy, chubby little chick perched by the side of the path. Every now and then, he’d give a few cheeps and look about himself in bewilderment, as if saying, “How on earth did I get here? And now what am I supposed to do?”

I had visions of him bravely leaping out of his nest into the unknown, and landing in unfamiliar territory without any notion of how to take off again. He didn’t look very happy, and I wondered if I ought to help him in any way. I couldn’t spot his parents anywhere.

In years gone by, I would have stood there agonising about what to do, fearing he’d be a tasty meal for the next passing cat. But one of the benefits of the modern age is that we have technology at our fingertips. So I took out my phone and Googled ‘What to do if I find a baby bird’. Those clever people at the RSPB came to my rescue, having dedicated a whole page on their website to just such a emergency.

For those you who don’t know, they say: “It’s common in spring and summer to find young birds sitting on the ground or hopping about without any sign of their parents…interfering with a young bird like this will do more harm than good.” It goes on to say they will not have been abandoned by their parents, who will either be watching unseen, or gathering food, and that you should leave them as they they are. “Removal of a fledgling from the wild has to be a very last resort – then only if it is injured or has definitely been abandoned or orphaned.”

So, thanks to my phone, I was very quickly reassured that I was doing the right thing by simply leaving it where it was, despite its anxious chirping and my worries about dastardly feline predators.

He was quite a chunky, round, fellow, with pleasantly dishevelled feathers, a tell-tale sign that he was just a youngster. He was mostly dark brown, yet speckled with dashes of light brown, and my gut instinct told me he was a baby blackbird, although I wasn’t sure. I took a few photos to look it up on my return, and, sure enough I was right. I think my dad would have been pleased. My countryside knowledge is growing by the week!

Dad just loved the nature that surrounded him, and he described June as a ‘beautiful time’ in his column from 17th June 1978. He goes on to talk about its reputation of being a ‘dry’ month, and the long-range forecast in that year predicted it would live up to that reputation. “However,” he adds, “We must not overlook the possibility of heavy downpours – indeed they’ve already come!”

Which is pretty much the same as now, with the first few days of June being as Dad described 40 years ago. I’ve checked the long-range forecast for this month too and it is strikingly similar, predicting mostly dry weather with the occasional heavy downpour.

He goes on to explain that is also known as the month of the ‘haysel’, an ancient word no longer in use, and not found in any of his trusty dialect glossaries. It refers to the period of gathering in the hay, when the ripe grass is cut, dried and carried into the barns for storage. When Dad was a boy, it was a time of great communal activity, and the whole village would turn out to help the farmers gather in their hay before the next heavy downpour. The farmer’s wife would provide a ready supply of drinks to the thirsty workers, including beer and cider, although according to Dad, the rather unappetising-sounding ‘cold tea’ was more commonly drunk.

Dad’s favourite part was once they were in the yard, when him and the other small children would launch themselves into the barn and, as it was in the days before bale machines, make dens and hiding places in the fresh, warm grass as it was unloaded off the carts. He notes that by 1978, almost all of the hay-gathering was done by machinery, and wistfully observes, “Haysel has gone from our language; I wonder how long it will be before haymaking as we knew it also disappears?”

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That Old Chestnut

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(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 8th June, & the Gazette & Herald on 6th June 2018).

One of the best things about being a countryside writer and regular walker of dogs is that I have the enormous privilege (which I never take for granted!) of being able to get outside most days and appreciate the amazing county I am so fortunate to live in.

Today, as I write this, the sun is beaming down and I have been on two good walks where I took the time to really examine the rural world around me. At the moment, the footways and hedgerows are positively brimming with wild flowers and blossoms against a backdrop of vivid and vibrant greens and a walk surrounded by such natural splendour is truly therapeutic. To me, a few doses of this each week is as good as any medication.

And it isn’t just a treat for the eyes. Whenever I pass the stunning pink dog rose, the scent that fills the air is just sublime, and it never ceases to amaze me that such beauty can be found in our wild and uncultivated places.

One of the floral displays that most impresses me around this time of year has to be that of the horse chestnut tree (Aesculus Hippocastanum). I find it truly stunning. I play tennis for a village team, and right by the courts is possibly the most beautiful example I have seen. Last Monday night, I couldn’t help but look at it between points, it was so eye-catching (although I didn’t let it distract me too much to not win the match!) and it seems my dad felt the same way about these glorious trees. On 10th June 1978, he wrote: ‘One of the most striking of our trees is the horse chestnut, with its multitude of candles, as the flowers are so often called. No other tree can put on such a magnificent display of flowers, unless we include the cultivated ones.” And he is right. The sight of a horse chestnut festooned with countless cone-shaped blooms makes it appear like a giant candelabra lighting up the countryside.

At the start of the season, from a distance the blossom appears creamy-white, thanks to the yellow splash at the centre of each white bell-shaped flower head. These bee-friendly blooms are actually very clever, as once they are pollinated, the splash turns vibrant pink to alert approaching insects to the fact they have already been pollinated and so there is no point in visiting them. I’m sure our endlessly busy worker bees are very grateful for this time-saving tip-off. Once the flowers begin being pollinated, the whole tree appears to transform from creamy white to pale pink.

You will see a red variety of horse chestnut (Aesculus x carnea) dotted about the countryside and our open spaces, but is less numerous and generally much smaller than the common horse chestnut. It was introduced into this county from Germany in around 1820 as a hybrid between the common tree and the shrub Aesculus Pavia (or red buckeye). Like its larger relative, it also produces conkers in September and October, but they are usually smaller and housed in less prickly casings than the standard variety.

Both trees are beautiful when in full bloom, but which is your favourite? I must say, for me, the common white variety can’t be surpassed.

I’d like to say a couple of thank you’s here to two readers. I’m afraid I couldn’t decipher the name of the first (it might be AW Grant?) but they sent me a lovely card and in response to my question about butterfly names (May 2nd) they enlightened me on the fact that the Glanville fritillary butterfly is named after 17th century entomologist Lady Eleanor Granville, who was an expert on the creatures.

The second reader is Edith Bennison, from Stokesley, who sent me a lovely letter of condolence, and told a funny story to cheer me up about her son. He was on a visit to North Yorkshire Police Headquarters with his sister, when, much to his sister’s embarrassment, he told the following joke to the room full of policemen:

‘Where do policemen live?’

‘999 Letsbe Avenue!’

Edith says: “Well my daughter was hoping the floor would open up and swallow her…but the policemen just burst out laughing!”

Well that old chestnut certainly did cheer me up. So thank you Edith!

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