Towering appeal

The house I visited with a 14th century peel tower still standing. The slits, through which residents would have fired arrows to defend themselves against their enemies, are clearly visible at the top.

As part of my travels recently I had the pleasure of visiting a house that still had an in-tact peel tower, a squarish fortified construction over three floors, with the third being open to the elements. Constructed in the 14th century, it was an essential tool for protection against any invaders, particularly the Scots, who regularly marched south in their quest to gain independence from the English in the 13th and 14th centuries. They are a particular feature of the north of England and Scotland, and especially prevalent along the border counties. Having said that, not many original full towers still exist, because when James VI of Scotland became James I of England in 1603, uniting the Scottish and English crowns, he ordered that they be destroyed as a symbol of the end of conflict. Many ruins now dot the landscape along the border.

Sometimes called a ‘pele’ tower, this building is like a small fortified castle, built specifically to aid defence. Often over several floors, the windowless ground floor would usually be used for storage, holding enough supplies to withstand a sustained siege, but also with room to keep livestock while under attack. The first floor would usually be a kitchen and dining room, and any subsequent floors would be living and sleeping quarters. The walls were incredibly thick, some up to eight feet, and the upper floors could only be accessed by a ladder which would be drawn up when necessary.

In the example that I saw, which was attached to a private house in Bolton-on-Swale, the top floor had no roof, but was surrounded by a high wall which would allow the residents to stay shielded while keeping a bird’s eye view on what was going on for miles around. Each of the four walls had two narrow slits integrated into them so that arrows could be fired down on any marauding enemies.

I did wonder how these towers came across their name, and pondered the question when I visited my family. As usual, my brother put forward an interesting suggestion. The top floor, he said, was equipped with a bell, and when the enemy was spotted approaching, the alarm would be raised by the peels of the bell ringing out across the surrounding land. The warning would be heard by nearby residents who would be alerted and so able to prepare themselves, and if they too owned a peel tower, they would sound their own bell, and so the message would be relayed from village to village.

However, I also read that the very early versions of these towers would have been topped by a tall fence called a palisade which was made from wooden spikes called ‘pales’ and that is where the words ‘peel’ and ‘pele’ come from. So which is right?

My research also revealed that it wasn’t just bells that were used to sound the alarm. Some homeowners would light fires at the top of the towers which would have the same effect as lighting a beacon at the top of hill, and the flames could be seen from miles around, warning your allies that the opponents were approaching.

Obviously, peel towers were not owned by your average man, but were the preserve of rich English landowners and Scottish lairds, and in later centuries, when the threats of invasion had disappeared, these towers became a symbol of wealth and were added on to a country house as a display of status, its original purpose no longer being necessary.

In my dad’s column from 27th June 1981, he talks about the Yorkshire dialect word ‘lair’ and I wondered if it was connected to the word ‘laird’ but it seems not. Laird means ‘landed proprietor’  and is the Scottish version of ‘Lord’ with no apparent no connection to our dialect word at all. On the other hand, ‘lair’ in Old English meant ‘bed’ or ‘resting place’, and similar words exist in Old Norse, Dutch and German. Barns would have a space at one end for the labourers to sleep on a wooden platform strewn with hay or straw. It was often separated by a wooden partition and was known as a ‘lair’.

Over time, the barns themselves were referred to as ‘lairs’ by Yorkshire folk, although the word has largely fallen out of use now. Unless you know different?

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 2nd July and the Gazette & Herald on 30th June  2021

Lucky in Lovett

Blue beads from the Edward Lovett Collection in the Science Museum. They were carried to protect against bronchitis (photo courtesy of the Science Museum, London)
A lucky shamrock fashioned by a first world war soldier from Ypres out of the shrapnel that nearly killed him (photo courtesy of the Lovett Collection in the Science Museum, London)
The Lovett Motor Mascott was jam-packed with good luck symbols (photo  courtesy of Southwark Heritage Centre)

Following my column about horseshoes a couple of weeks ago, I had a message from reader John Larkin from Easington, County Durham, who wrote: ‘My late father-in-law was a blacksmith who learned his trade in the 1920s…He always said, and was told as an apprentice, that horseshoes should be hung in the ‘five to’ or ‘five past’ position so that you get a constant flow of good luck. In the upright position, the luck just stays at the bottom and remains the same luck. Upside down, and you’re not getting any, but the people who pass get it all.’

He added: ‘My wife Catherine said her dad, Billy Dickenson, used to make horseshoes for her especially to put on the gate.’

Most people I have spoken to since writing the piece have said that they recall horseshoes being hung like the letter ‘U’ rather than facing downwards or in the ‘C’ position.

During my research, I came across a fascinating chap called Edward Lovett (1852-1933) who was obsessed by collecting trinkets that held importance in the world of folklore. Although he worked by day as a bank cashier in London, he spent all of his spare time trawling the back streets, scouring bric-a-brac shops and markets, taking the time to question the locals about the comfort they gained from the magic they associated with everyday objects.

He hosted lectures and wrote many articles and books about his findings, much of his work coming from discussions with the people he met on his travels. He was clearly good at getting them to open up about their long-held superstitions and his writings are full of anecdotes amassed from his conversations. He also had a knack for getting his subjects to part with their treasured trinkets and some of his vast collection can be seen at the Science Museum in London, such as strings of blue beads that people carried to protect themselves against bronchitis. He also recorded that phials of mercury would be stashed in pockets to prevent rheumatism, and torn playing cards were kept on the person for good luck.

Animal teeth were also carried in little bags in the belief that they would cure toothache. It was hoped that the pain would be transferred from the person to the tooth. It wasn’t just animal teeth that were used for this purpose, though, as human teeth were sometimes removed from the recently deceased for the same reason while an incisor-shaped piece of flint was believed to ease the suffering of teething children.

During the First World War, Lovett made a study of the many and varied forms of charm carried by soldiers in the hope that they may be protected for death or injury. He discovered that troops from Ireland wore charms around their necks made out of green Connemara marble, such as hearts, boots and shamrocks. Black bog-oak would be used to fashion lucky cats and pigs. Some talismans were made by soldiers who narrowly escaped death. They collected the shrapnel that should have killed them, believing it carried  the power to protect them. Lovett acquired a tin and copper shamrock amulet believed to have been worn by a soldier at Ypres in Belgium. Another horseshoe amulet was made from a fragment of a German shell by a Belgian soldier who had survived an attack.

He was an enterprising man, and in 1912 produced his own good luck horseshoe targeted at superstitious well-heeled car owners. Called the ‘Lovett Motor Mascot’ it was sold at fancy department store Gamages, now more famous for its hand-crafted watches.

The mascot offered ‘Good Luck To All Travellers’ and boldly claimed: ‘This mascot is by far the most powerful one that has ever been devised, consisting as it does of five of the most widely recognised types of amulet in existence, some of which have been in use for more than two thousand years.’

He was taking no chances on this one, the 16cm brass horseshoe design being jam packed with lucky symbols from around the world. It featured seven nail holes (seven was considered lucky), and held within it the crescent moon of Diana, a Byzantine crescent with a star in the centre and the wheel of a sun chariot. It was topped by a swastika, an ancient symbol of divinity in Asia long before it was hijacked by the Nazis.

What I’d really like to know, though, is did it work?

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 25th and the Gazette & Herald on 23rd  June 2021

Nutty about this little bird

Nuthatches have the unique ability to walk down as well as up tree trunks (photo by

One of the benefits of using my Dad’s archive to research my columns is the incredible way in which it is expanding my rural knowledge. In particular, I am discovering more about our native bird life. Both my parents were, and my mum still is, keen bird watchers, and several feeders and nesting boxes are dotted about Mum’s garden, while binoculars are left by the window to observe the fascinating activities of these feathered friends.

By 1978, when Dad was 42, he was already well known as a rural expert and his Countryman’s Diary had been running for two years in the Darlington and Stockton Times. He was still a policeman, though, by then Press Officer for the North Riding Constabulary with the rank of inspector. He was often consulted by his colleagues at the Newby Wiske headquarters on country matters, and one day someone asked him to help identify a bird that had been spotted in the grounds.

The colourful little creature resembled a mini woodpecker and had been seen making its way down a tree trunk. It was about the size of a finch, with a long black beak, slate-grey feathers, peach-tinged breast, and it appeared to be wearing what looked like the mask of Zorro – a black stripe running from its beak, past its eyes to the back of its head.

Dad immediately identified one of his favourite species, the nuthatch, and went on to recount why he was so fond of that particular bird.

He had grown up in the village of Glaisdale on the North York Moors and spent much of his youth exploring nearby Arncliffe Wood. One day he found a nest in a hole ten feet up a beech tree, and was intrigued by the fact that the entrance had been reduced in size by layers of mud applied around the edges.

In fact this is the nuthatch’s ingenious security measure, designed to prevent larger interlopers from gatecrashing its home. The nest inside is lined with wafer-thin pieces of bark stripped from trees like the pine, sometimes supplemented with dry leaves.

Dad was thrilled with his find, as in his youth nuthatches were not common in the north of England. But by the 1970s they had started to become more populous in Yorkshire and today are seen as far north as Scotland, with numbers in our region healthily robust.

They are the only native bird that is known to walk both up and down tree trunks, which enables them to pick up insects when they are travelling back down the tree that they may have missed on the way up. They also have the ability to hang upside down from branches. Nuthatches are highly intelligent, and in the warmer months when food is plentiful, they store nuts and seeds within the nooks and crevices of the bark of their home tree trunk, a habit known as ‘seed caching’. They then cover these stashes of food with bark or lichen so that they won’t be stolen by competitors. When the colder weather sets in, they can then retrieve their supplies to ensure they survive the winter.

These fascinating little birds can be found in mature woods and parkland, but they avoid trees that are exposed to industrial pollution. As well as insects, it feeds on hazelnuts, beech mast and acorns, as its name suggests, using its powerful beak to peck at the outer shells until these tough delicacies break open. Their strong beaks also serve another purpose, in that they use them to create their nesting site. If they fail to find a suitable hole, such as an abandoned woodpecker nest, they create their own from scratch, choosing a spot high up in a trunk, and using their beaks to dig out the bark until the cavity is big enough to house a growing family. They are monogamous, and stay with their mate over several breeding seasons. Although the typical lifespan of a nuthatch is not much more than two years, one has been recorded in the UK to have reached almost 13 years of age.

They don’t wander far from the woods where they were born and, as they are native to this country, they can be seen all year round. So next time you’re having a woodland wander, keep looking up to see if you can spot a nuthatch nest.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 18th and the Gazette & Herald on 16th June 2021

Keep it in the family

Diane Lund’s ancestors, who died before they were christened, lie in unmarked graves in Crayke churchyard
Diane Lund’s ancestors lie somewhere in the graveyard but she doesn’t know where

Following my column about Crayke village a few weeks back, I had an email from a reader concerning the the graveyard there.

Diane Lund, from Lealholm, wrote, “My grandparents were married in Crayke Church in 1923. I have a copy of the newspaper report of their ‘pretty wedding’. They went to live in Grandpa’s home village of Huttons Ambo. Less than a year later, on a day they returned to Crayke to visit Grandma’s parents, my grandmother went into labour and gave birth to triplets. John lived for four days, Geoffrey lived for two days and Ronald died after one day. Such a tragedy; no scans, no incubators. The triplets were buried in Crayke churchyard but as they hadn’t been christened, their grave was unmarked.”

What a sad and tragic story, and as I mentioned in that column, people were often buried with no grave markers either because they could not afford a headstone or, as Diane says, because they were not christened. I find it quite sad that their ancestors living today can’t go and pay their respects because they do not know where their relatives’ remains lie.

On a slightly separate but related note, I was doing some research for another project recently that talked about the effect on people whose loved ones have, for example, gone missing, or are lost at sea. According to Professor Pauline Boss, a pioneer into the study of stress on families, if we do not have physical proof that our loved one has died, then our human brain can’t let go. It’s known as ‘ambiguous loss’ and is one of the worst things anyone has to experience. To achieve some kind of closure, we need to see for ourselves evidence of their transformation from life to death.

Churches and graveyards have long been rich sources of information for anyone doing research into their forbears. Graves with inscriptions usually give dates of birth and death, and sometimes they give occupations and details of other family members too. Church of England churches also used to be tasked with holding the parish registers of baptisms, deaths and marriages in what was known as the parish chest.

Parish registers were formally adopted in 1538 when Thomas Cromwell ordered that records of all christenings, weddings and burials had to be kept and stored in a secure chest in the local church. At first, they were written on loose leaves of paper, but it wasn’t very efficient as they could get mixed up, pages could get lost, and the paper could easily disintegrate. In 1598, Elizabeth I decreed that these records be copied on to more robust parchment and transcribed into proper books, starting from the beginning of her reign in 1558. That’s why many parishes today have registers dating back to then, but not before, as the nearly all the loose leaf versions have perished.

I was doing some research into these chests and discovered that at St Mary’s Church, Kilburn, they still have the original wooden chest in which these records were kept. However, the fragile documents have been moved to a more suitable place for preservation within North Yorkshire County Council’s Record Office.

Researching family history used be far more difficult than it is now, as today you can subscribe to websites that offer a huge amount of information and advice on how to do it and where to go. In my dad’s column from 6th June 1981, he says, “People doing research into their family history have to be prepared for long hours of painstaking work in libraries, churches, museums and various other record offices, and on many occasions, their efforts meet little success.” I can imagine that the physical effort may be less these days, but I’m sure, as there is so much more stuff so readily available, that you could quite easily disappear down an information rabbit hole and never come out again.

But it is very satisfying when you do find a nugget of useful material. My dad also mentions in his column that a reader from Buckinghamshire had contacted him asking if he could help them trace some family members who lived and worked in Wensleydale 200 years earlier.

My dad was able to assist because, unbeknownst to the reader, a descendant of theirs lived just a hundred yards away from our house!

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 11th and the Gazette & Herald on 9th June 2021

No horsing around

It used to be believed that someone who had a gift with horses possessed what was known as the ‘Horseman’s Word’. Picture by Alastair Smith
The badly-spelled letter I wrote to my parents when I was eight asking to buy me a black stallion
Me, aged about 11, kitted out in my riding gear

As a little girl, I was mad about horses and when I was eight, I wrote a letter to my parents begging them to get me what I considered the perfect mount for a small child, a black stallion.

I also entered the annual ‘Win A Pony’ competition run by WH Smith in the hope that I’d beat the gazillion other children with the same dream, not stopping to consider whether my parents could afford to look after one, nor with any notion of where we’d put it. When I started to write this, I assumed that such competitions would be prohibited now, but it appears not. Nowadays, those offering winners a real pony have a duty to carry out ‘due diligence’ on entrants, which just wasn’t considered back in the 1970s. Thankfully, competition hopefuls now have to have parental consent and must prove they have the skills, finances and knowledge to take on the substantial commitment of owning a pony.

To my parents’ eternal gratitude, I never won the competition, but the disappointment was softened when they instead agreed to pay for me to have weekly riding lessons at a local stables. That kept me happy until about the age of 15 when, after a particularly miserable wet and cold day in the saddle, I’d had enough and gave up.

I was a distinctly average rider, and can’t say I had any special connection with any of the horses I ever rode. But there are those who have what you might call a ‘gift’ when it comes to communicating with these very intelligent and noble creatures. As my dad mentions in his column from 30th May 1981, people like this were believed to possess a charm known as the ‘Horseman’s Word’.

Those living and working in the equine field used to put great faith in this secret ‘word’, and believed that there were only a select few who knew what it was. When it was whispered into a horse’s ear, it had the effect of instantly calming even the most flighty of steeds.

In 1858, American horse trainer John Rarey brought a new style of training over to England. Rarey had a reputation for being able to rehabilitate vicious or abused horses, and perpetuated the idea of ‘natural horsemanship’ which went against the traditional approach of ‘if the stick doesn’t work, get a bigger stick’. Instead of trying to control a horse through fear, Rarey addressed things from the point of view of the horse, saying that if it kicked, bit or bucked you off, it would be because you had done something wrong, not the horse.

It was a revolutionary concept inspired by Spanish settlers known as the Vaquero who landed in America in the 16th century and brought with them a technique whereby riders worked with the horse’s nature, gaining its trust so that it felt safe and secure around humans. They understood that if you did that, then you were far more likely to get the horse to behave in the way you wanted it to without the need for physical intimidation.

The English assumed that Rarey had the gift of the ‘Horseman’s Word’, although it was never a term he used himself. He was summoned by Queen Victoria to visit a supposedly untameable mare. The queen watched in awe as Rarey placed his hands on the wild beast, which then placidly lay down, and Rarey lay next to it, resting his head on its hooves.

Today we would call someone like him a ‘horse whisperer’, thanks to the term being popularised by Nicholas Evans’ best-selling book of that name which was made into a successful film in 1998 starring Robert Redford. Although the main character is fictional, he is based upon an amalgamation of several people who were famous for training horses in this way, brothers Tom and Bill Dorrance, Ray Hunt and Buck Brannaman, the latter being the lead equine consultant on the film and a stunt double for Redford.

Brannaman took the approach one step further than his predecessors. He grew up being emotionally and physically abused by his father, and recognised that mistreated horses behave in similar ways to abused children. “They trust no-one and expect the worst. But patience, leadership, compassion and firmness can help them overcome their pasts,” he said.

Surely, right there is a lesson for us all.

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


This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 4th and the Gazette & Herald on 2nd June 2021

Shoe the bad luck away

A lucky horseshoe outside a building in Bournemouth. Picture by Mick Gisbourne
A horseshoe above a garage in Staithes, North Yorkshire. Picture by Alastair Smith

It’s funny how, despite all the advances in science and technology, some of us still hang on to old superstitions that common sense tells us cannot make any difference to our everyday lives.

We insist on saluting magpies, throwing salt over our shoulders and blessing people when they sneeze. One of the oldest and most persistent of superstitions surrounds the horseshoe, an item of equine foot protection that dates back to at least 400BC. The need to preserve the hooves of these hard-working animals was recognised almost as soon as horses were domesticated, and early versions, known to the Romans as ‘hipposandals’, were fashioned out of materials such as woven plants, leather and rawhide.

It wasn’t until around the sixth and seventh centuries AD that metal horseshoes began to be used in the colder Northern European climates to help steeds get a better grip on frozen terrain. They also shielded hooves that were easily damaged by hard daily toil over rough ground. It became apparent that if the hoof was covered, it enabled a horse to move faster, and therefore became an important tool not only in everyday life, but also in the sport of horse racing.

The first metal horseshoes were fashioned out of cast bronze, with iron following in the fourteenth century, the preferred material until relatively recently. Today though, you get horseshoes made of steel, aluminium, composite plastic and even rubber, the substance dependant upon what kind of activity the hooves will be subjected to. For example, steel is used for heavy horses and heavy work, whereas aluminium is appropriate for lighter duties and needs to be replaced more often. Composite and rubber shoes help to cushion the hoof and are useful on softer surfaces, or if the horse has an injury.

But why the association with luck? According to my dad in his column from 23rd May 1981, the origins of the connection are hard to pin down, but there are a number of theories. One is its shape; a horseshoe resembles a crescent moon, a motif that has so many links to historical symbolisms that it is impossible to explore them fully here. Another thread of discussion stems from the fact that ancient man would have found it hard to understand how a metal object could be nailed to a foot without causing any pain or spilling any blood. Also, when knocked against a stone, the shoe produces sparks, so it’s not hard to understand how a primitive mind might have associated this object with magical powers.

But which way up is the correct way to hang a lucky horseshoe? This again is a topic for debate. What is not disputed is that it needs to be hung either above the entrance to a building, or on an outside wall.

If you hang it like the letter ‘U’, then the idea is that it will ‘collect’ luck, like a bucket collects water. However, if you hang it the other way up, then it pours the luck over anyone who crosses the threshold. If there were seven holes in the shoe, it was important that you hung it using nails in all of them, as that was a lucky number. Some people would hang them sideways like the letter ‘C’, and this is supposed to symbolise Christ.

The amalgamation of paganism and Christianity clearly comes to the fore when it comes this practice. The horseshoe’s association with luck predates Christianity, and yet, as I referred to in the opening paragraph, people have always found it difficult to let go of long-held superstitions that haven been passed down from one generation to another. I wonder if some early Christians with pagan forefathers may already have had a horseshoe above their door and simply decided to turn it on its side to reflect the new religion? Nailing it in place also had the obvious connection with nailing Christ to the cross.

To this day, the horseshoe symbolises luck, and a quick scan of any card shop shelf will reveal a healthy crop of examples of the image. But I wonder how many readers still have horseshoes nailed above their doorways? And which way up is most commonly seen where you live? And has anyone spotted one that is turned on its side like the letter ‘C’?

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 28th and the Gazette & Herald on 26th May 2021

A tasty kind of dandy

Dandelions are so much more than just a pesky weed
The dandelion possesses one of the most effective ways of spreading seeds thanks to its trademark clock

I am to gardening what Freddy Kruger is to precision surgery. In my hands, the blade of a trowel and prongs of a fork are lethal to any living thing. Where some people have beautifully manicured lush green lawns, mine is a scraggy, patchy, overgrown mess. Moss, daisies and dandelions are perfectly at home among the scruffy tufts of various grass species that inhabit the patch of land surrounding my home.

I don’t despair though, because I see it as part of my job to encourage wild flowers (otherwise known as weeds) as they are so important to help our vital pollinating insects to thrive. In the past, the dandelion was one of the most accursed of visitors, its strong roots growing so deep into the ground that you had to possess almost superhuman strength to pull it up. And even when you did, often the roots would snap, leaving the ends deep in the soil, ensuring it would soon re-emerge.

But the reputation of dandelions has transformed over the years, and they are now recognised as very useful plants indeed. Those who still regard them as unwelcome invaders of their herbaceous borders might not be pleased to know that a quick look on the internet will throw up lots of advice on how to propagate and grow them successfully. As every frustrated and exhausted gardener knows, the distinctive dandelion clock is one off the most efficient ways of spreading seeds and is one of the reasons they are so hard to eliminate entirely.

I think my dad was ahead of the curve 40 years ago when he suggested that we should consider growing it as a crop in his column from 16th May 1981. “Why do we insist that the dandelion is a weed? It has wonderful properties and could be a most useful asset to the human race,” he writes.

It is well known that the leaves can be eaten in a salad or, as my dad suggests, wilted it in a pan with butter as you would spinach. As my lawn is home to what one might term a ‘healthy crop’, I decided to test out these suggestions. After throughly washing a few leaves, I took a bite out of one while I tried to wilt more with butter.

First of all, the leaves didn’t wilt like spinach, but just kind of shrivelled up, and secondly, they were about as tasty as the brown stuff my mum used to paint on my nails to stop me biting them. I’ve still got the bitter aftertaste in my mouth as I write, so I’m not sure I will ever be tempted to add them to a salad. However, there are lots of recipes online, and if anyone has one that will prove me wrong, please feel free to send it my way.

Another curious revelation my dad makes is that the roots can be roasted to make a healthy and caffeine-free alternative to coffee. He claims that it is ‘barely distinguishable’ from real coffee, which I found hard to believe until I did a bit more research. Sure enough, most reviews I found said that it was possibly the closest alternative to real coffee, but tasted less acidic and slightly sweeter. You can try digging up and roasting your own roots, although it does seem like a bit of a palaver, so if you fancy giving it a whirl, it might be easier to try one of the suppliers online who sell it relatively cheaply.

People have also been known to make dandelion beer and wine, although one friend reported that when she tried it, the resulting brew ‘smelled like the bottom of a beck’. So I won’t be tempted to give it a go.

The English name for this versatile flower is a corruption of the French ‘dent de lion’, which means ‘lion’s tooth’, a reflection of the spiky shape of its leaves. I also wonder whether the bright yellow ‘mane-like’ flower has something to do with it. It is known colloquially by many other names such as blowball, cankerwort, milk witch and monk’s head to name but a few.

Another well-known alternative name refers to the fact that it has an undesirable side-effect if you consume too much of it. This side effect is revealed in the name itself: ‘wet-a-bed’!

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 21st and the Gazette & Herald on 19th May 2021

The flat and curlies

Parsley is a herb associated with many superstitions 

When I was younger, we believed that if we had garlicky breath, the best way to get rid of it was to chew fresh parsley. As I was a big fan of garlic bread and a big hater of halitosis, I could regularly be found with a mouthful of this curly-leaved green herb. Eating it raw like this wasn’t very pleasant as it tasted not much better than the sawdust at the bottom of a bird cage, but I was prepared to martyr myself in the pursuit of non-stinky-post-garlic-bread breath.
Continue reading “The flat and curlies”

A grand old village

The beautiful village of Crayke is steeped in history
One of the gravestones in St Cuthbert’s Churchyard, Crayke, with just initials identifying the lost loved ones
Another headstone in Crayke church yard with initials only. Why is this?

The end of April saw a spell of dry, sunny weather, and I made the most of it by playing lots of tennis and going out for plenty of walks. One of my routes takes me through the gorgeous village of Crayke, which lies on a hill almost 20 miles north of York.

The main thoroughfare is Church Hill, so-called because St Cuthbert’s Church sits at the top. The hill was covered in late-blooming daffodils and looked absolutely beautiful, so I decided on the spur of the moment to stop and have a wander around.

It is a place steeped in history, and someone once told me that the hill was the one that the Grand Old Duke of York marched his 10,000 men up and down, although a brief search on the internet doesn’t suggest there is a connection with the famous rhyme. Nevertheless, strategically it is the perfect place to spot enemies coming from any direction as the summit of the hill commands spectacular views all around. Some say that there was a Roman watchtower on the hill, but it has never been proven, although Roman roads did pass close by and Roman artefacts have been found in the village.

According to my dad in one of his books (Folk Tales from the North York Moors), there was a timber castle in Saxon times, and this was replaced by a Norman motte-and-bailey castle in the 12th century, some of which still exists as part of the current Crayke Castle building, located at the highest point in the village. However, we know it was almost totally rebuilt and extended in the 15th century, thanks to accounts from 1441 which list the changes made. In the 17th century it was repaired and restored again, and this is more or less what stands to this day.

I took a walk around the beautiful church yard, and you can really get a feel for the age and history associated with that place. The original church was founded by St Cuthbert, who lived from around AD634 until 20th March AD687. He spent much of his time in the ancient kingdom of Northumbria, particularly at the monastery in Lindisfarne, and he was so admired for his spiritual devotion that King Ecgfrith gifted him the village of Crayke (then known as Crec) and lands for three miles around so that he had his own place to rest on his regular journeys between Lindisfarne and York. After Cuthbert died, he was initially interred at Lindisfarne, but there were fears that his grave might be destroyed by invading Vikings, and so his body was moved. It was carried to a number of different places over the centuries due to continuing unrest, one of which is believed to be Crayke, although his final shrine is in Durham Cathedral. Because of its connections to Cuthbert, Crayke was officially considered part of Durham right up to 1844 when it was returned to Yorkshire. The local pub is called The Durham Ox.

As I was walking around the graveyard, I noticed that a few of the headstones were inscribed with only initials, rather than the full name of the deceased, and very few further details, not even the date they died. I wondered why, as I have not come across this before. I asked my mum and brother if they had any any idea, and they didn’t. One theory we had was that they came from families that couldn’t afford a full inscription (if the stonemason charged by the letter). Another was that they were possibly criminals, or died in some kind of shame, and another suggestion was that they were in fact footstones, but I did not see a corresponding headstone at the other end of the graves.

No-one I spoke to had come across them before, but it was quite common in days gone by for people who could not afford a headstone to be buried with no marker at all. I wonder whether the stonemason used by the folk of Crayke was a kindly soul who offered to place markers on the graves of his fellow villagers who could not afford to pay him?

I’d be very interested to get to the bottom of this little mystery, so do get in touch either through this paper or via my webpage below if you know the answer.

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

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 7th and the Gazette & Herald on 5th May 2021

No need to be blue

I had a rather eventful day last week. I work occasionally for an estate agent and was showing some people around a house they were interested in buying. I usually arrive early so that I can do things like switch on lights and make sure that there is nothing amiss before the viewers arrive. On this particular day, though, they were early and so I had not had time to go in and check it out.

I unlocked the front door and led them into the kitchen, only to be confronted with a huge hole in the ceiling, plaster all over the floor and water pouring in! Needless to say, they didn’t buy the house, although they were very gracious about the whole thing. One of their party then recounted a story of when she was also an estate agent and arrived to a house full of birds that had come in through an open window and couldn’t find their way out again. As a result every floor, surface and piece of furniture was covered in bird you-know-what.

According to my dad in his column from 25th April 1981, if blue tits get trapped in a building, they will start to tear paper into strips, either from the walls or from any source they can find. It’s not certain why they do this, but one theory is that they are trying to find food, and mimicking they way they rip away tree bark to find insects and grubs.

In 1981, we still had milk delivered to our doorstep in glass bottles which were sealed with foil tops, and somehow, blue tits knew that they contained something tasty. If you didn’t remember to leave out a pot or something else for the milkman to cover them, you would often wake up to find that the pesky wee birds had pecked through the foil to help themselves to the lovely cream, which we called ‘top of the milk’. In our house, it was a race to see who could get the ‘top of the milk’ to pour onto their cornflakes in the morning. As Dad was often the first up, he usually won.

Blue tits start looking for suitable nesting spots from February, and often return to the same places each spring, the adults living for an average of three years. They love a crack in a tree, a small hole in a wall, or a suitably-placed nesting box. When I was last at my mum’s we spotted them checking out the nesting box on our garage wall, and it always gives us a thrill to know they have moved in for another year. They’ve also been known to nest in rather unusual places, such as letter boxes, cigarette butt bins and hollow street lamps.

There is a tale told that in 1779 some blue tits decided to build a nest in a large stone bottle that was left to drain on a plum tree in an orchard belonging to Oxbridge Farm in Stockton-on-Tees. For the following 76 years, with the exception of 1851, the same bottle was occupied by successive generations of blue tits. This little bird produces one of the largest clutches among its avian peers, with the female laying between eight and 12 eggs, often more, and it was estimated that the bottle saw around 1000 chicks fledge from that spot.

The original plum tree was removed in 1820, and the bottle was moved to another tree, yet the birds still found it. In 1851, though, the blue tits found that the entrance to their favourite spot was blocked by an old nest as the farmer had forgotten to remove it, so they decamped elsewhere, only to return the following year once the problem had been rectified.

This tale was written down in an old book called ‘Whellan’s Durham County Directory for 1856’, and there are no further records of how long the bottle remained in situ, nor how long it was used as a nesting site for blue tits. A reader had written to Dad saying that he remembered the farmer telling him about the bottle in the 1920s, but unfortunately, Oxbridge Farm was eventually demolished.

If you have any stories about curious places that blue tits have been found nesting, do get in touch either via this paper, or via my web page (see below).

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


This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 30th April and the Gazette & Herald on 28th April 2021