All a flutter in the garden

 

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Me, far left, with my siblings in our 1970s flower-filled garden
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My mum with my brother in the garden in front of a bed of nasturtiums
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The once common small tortoiseshell butterfly is now under threat

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Timeson 4th May, & the Gazette & Herald on 2nd May 2018).

It’s always a bit of thrill when I look back to my Dad’s columns and find myself mentioned. On 6th May 1978, the 10-year-old me had found a caterpillar and wanted to know which butterfly it would turn into. It was an inch long, had two sets of short legs, six at the front and eight at the rear, with rows of yellow dots running the length of its pale green body. The head was small and green too.

Dad couldn’t identify it at first glance, but, as is still the case today, his study was stuffed full of reference books which he called upon, and sure enough, within minutes we had identified it as the caterpillar of the Meadow Brown butterfly.

The Meadow Brown is one of the UK’s most common and prolific butterflies with mainly brown wings, in the middle of which are what look like beady black little eyes with tiny white pupils. The females can be distinguished by their obvious splash of orange towards the tips of the upper wings. They emerge from their chrysalis’ around late June and are active over the summer months.

Sadly, some of the 59 treasured UK butterfly species are not faring so well. In fact, butterflies are one of the most threatened groups of wildlife in the country, with two-thirds of their species in decline.

Last year, the small tortoiseshell, once one of our most populous varieties, was placed on Countryfile Magazine’s list of the ten most endangered animal species in Britain, alongside natterjack toads and red squirrels. The reason was its rapid recent decline of 77% over the ten years up to 2013. Year after year of wet springs and summers, which some attribute to global warming, have led to a serious decline in its natural habitat.

Other perhaps less well known species also fared very badly over the past couple of years. In 2017, the Grizzled Skipper and the Grayling suffered their worst year since records began. Grizzled Skipper numbers have halved since the 1970s, and Grayling numbers are down 63% over the last decade.

The Cabbage White was one of those I saw most often growing up, and so was sad to learn that it is in a state of long-term decline. I do remember a bed of nasturtiums in the back garden which used to be teeming with them. They’d lay their bright yellow eggs on the underside of the leaves, and then soon dozens of caterpillars would appear and feast on them, much to my mum’s aggravation.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. The Red Admiral is up 78% compared to 2016, and the Comma is up an impressive 91%, with both increasing in numbers over the long-term.

The remedy for stopping the decline is pretty straightforward, if not always simple to implement. If their natural habitat is available, then the species will thrive. The thing is though, different species prefer different types of habitat, and not all are easy, or even possible, to replicate.

There are things you can do to attract certain butterflies to your garden and help keep numbers healthy. They need flowering plants right from early spring through to late September (the Internet is a rich source of recommendations), and if you choose different plants, you will attract different species. Place your flowers in warm, sunny spots sheltered from the wind, and put the same plants in blocks together. Increase the life of your flowers with regular deadheading and by mulching with organic compost. Avoid insecticides and pesticides, and also, if you’re buying compost, get one that is peat free. Peat, which is a declining natural resource, is an important habitat for a number of special animals and plants, including the Large Heath butterfly.

Sadly, it’s rather difficult for us to use our gardens to help the most threatened species I mentioned earlier, as their habitats are very different. The Grizzled Skipper thrives in woodland glades, wild grasslands, abandoned industrial sites and even rubbish tips. The Grayling enjoys coastal cliffs, dunes, salt marshes and old quarries. But what we can do is support conservation efforts by raising awareness, volunteering and fundraising.

I can’t end this column without commenting on the spectacular names given to some of these fluttering marvels. Who is responsible for Grizzled Skipper? Was it an old voyage-weary ship’s captain? And what about Mountain Ringlet and Glanville Fritillary? And you can only wonder how Cryptic Wood White and Purple Hairstreak got their names (Source: butterfly-conservation.com).

 

A year without the Countryman

 

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My sister Tricia and my dad, who both died recently 
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Me with sister Tricia in London in September 2017
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Me with my dad in summer 2016

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 20th April 2018 and the Gazette and Herald newspaper on 18th April 2018. 

April 21st marks the first anniversary of my dad Peter Walker’s death from prostate cancer. By a sad coincidence, it is also the same day as Bill Maynard’s funeral (he played Dad’s loveable Heartbeat character, Claude Jeremiah Greengrass, on screen), so my thoughts will be with his family as I reflect on my own loss.

It’s been a strange and difficult year, so I hope you will indulge me as I ponder on what has happened, and pay tribute to the services that we didn’t truly appreciate before we had to call upon them (It’s going to be a tough column to write, so I’ve opened an industrial-sized box of Maltesers to help me through!).

Dad left a gaping hole in our family’s lives that I’m sure all of you who have lost someone close will understand. My sense of loss has not yet lessened, and sometimes it knocks the wind out of my sails. Silly things get me, like making mashed potato, as my dad made the best mash on the planet (and I’ll fight anyone who says different). And one evening I was making pizza when I remembered the time Dad tried to describe one. “You know, them round flat things that Italians eat!” he’d said. We fell about laughing, as it was such a Yorkshire way to put it. It’s one of my daftest and fondest memories, and made me smile over my pizza dough, yet seconds later I was in floods of tears as his absence hit me like a blow to the stomach.

The progression of Dad’s illness had been very slow over ten years until it suddenly sped up in April 2017. He went from being physically very able to needing round-the-clock care within a couple of weeks. It was then that we discovered the Ryedale Community Response Team, and I don’t think I exaggerate when I say they were like angels sent from above. Hearing their cheery ‘hello’ as they stepped through the door provided instant relief with every single visit. The team act as emergency help to people who suddenly realise they are no longer able to cope alone. They are a short-term bridge of support until more appropriate care is found.

But very soon, Dad’s needs became such that even four visits a day were not enough, and managing him and his medication the rest of the time was too much for us. Thankfully, a space became available at St Leonard’s Hospice in York and he was taken there on the morning of 21st April. He died later that night.

For us, these past months have been doubly difficult as we were bracing ourselves for our first Christmas without Dad when my sister, Tricia Walker, fell ill at the beginning of December. What she had been dismissing as a stomach bug turned out to be a rare and very aggressive form of cancer. We could barely believe it was happening all over again.

Although Tricia lived in Bournemouth, she wanted to come home to Yorkshire, and was transferred to the specialist cancer unit in the Bexley Wing at St James’ Hospital in Leeds.

Everyone in Bexley looked after Tricia extremely well. It is one of the top cancer centres in the country, so we are blessed here in Yorkshire to have it on our doorstep. We knew she was in the best hands, but sometimes, there just isn’t an answer. It was on 4th January, only four weeks into her illness, that Tricia decided to go into a hospice. She was admitted to St Leonard’s three days later and died in the early hours of 8th January, aged just 53.

Although both my dad and sister were in St Leonard’s for less than a day, I cannot overstate the value of the place. For those last few precious hours, we could forget about everything else, let the hospice staff take over the essential stuff, and just focus on being with them in their final moments. We had a dedicated nurse of whom we could ask just about anything. She displayed empathy, gentle sensitivity and an uncanny instinct for producing a cup of tea exactly when you needed it.

I’m sure those of you who have had experience of other hospices in the area, like St Catherine’s (Scarborough), Martin House (Boston Spa), St Michael’s (Harrogate) and St Teresa’s (Darlington), will understand what I mean when I say that once your loved one crosses over their threshold, it’s like a huge pair of comforting arms is wrapped around you. The hospital and in-home carers were brilliant, but they only had the time and resources to look after the patient. The hospices can accommodate the whole posse of people surrounding the sick person, who, through the stress and worry about what is inevitable, can be somewhat high maintenance themselves.

One of the most significant benefits of losing a loved one in a hospice is that once they are gone, the care for those who’ve been bereaved doesn’t end. They guide you through the next, difficult practical steps and are also at pains to ensure you are supported, should you need it, for many months afterwards.

St Leonard’s offered me bereavement support after Dad died, but I declined, and then offered it again after losing Tricia, and this time I accepted. I wasn’t sure I needed it, but it is possibly one of the best things I’ve done. Being able to offload all the stuff in my head is like releasing the pressure in an overfilled tyre (And as a result, the local stocks of Maltesers have thankfully remained buoyant).

This level of care, which is so desperately important to those who need it, is all free of charge, so hospices have to rely on constant fundraising. St Leonard’s has to raise at least £5million every year to continue to offer these essential services.

The initial 12 months of grief are the most difficult, with a year of first hurdles to overcome. Things like birthdays, (theirs and your own), anniversaries, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day and Christmas become occasions to be endured, and it is a relief when the first one has passed as you hope that the next year it will be that little bit easier.

This year, we are marking Dad’s first anniversary quietly at home with the family.

 

It’s all in a name

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The cast of Heartbeat, with Bill Maynard, far right, who played one of Dads most well-known characters, Claude Jeremiah Greengrass
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Dad’s Heartbeat mugs in his study
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The mug Dad received from the cast after the series ended

 

 

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The mugs on the shelf in Dad’s study where I had ignored them for years

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

Dad had a talent for coming up with splendid names in his books, and he insisted that the best ones were inspired by real people from his life growing up and working as a bobby on the North York Moors.

One of Heartbeat’s best-known characters was the loveable rogue that was Claude Jeremiah Greengrass, portrayed so brilliantly by the inimitable Bill Maynard, who sadly died just a couple of weeks ago. According to Dad, that was a genuine name he had come across as a young bobby many years before it ended up on the pages of the first ‘Heartbeat’ novel, Constable on the Hill, published in 1979.

In Dad’s column from 15th April 1978, we encounter the august-sounding Septimus. Septimus was a schoolfriend, and was so called because he was his family’s seventh son. He was unique because his father was also a seventh son, and so he was in the traditionally auspicious position of being the seventh son of a seventh son.

These fortunate beings were supposed to have been blessed with supernatural powers, but Dad observed that his friend, whom everyone called Sep, displayed no discernible mystical talents. It was possible though, at the tender age of eleven, they were yet to burst forth.

In mediaeval times, it was believed that for the gift to work, the son must be seventh in a line of only boys. If a daughter appeared before the seventh son was born, then the chain, and all the powers associated with it, was broken.

One of their legendary skills was the ability to heal the sick, and back in the day people would travel miles just to be touched by the blessed one. Families would encourage these children to train to be doctors, but those who couldn’t afford to pay for such an education ended up as peasants and labourers, who were nevertheless subject to a constant stream of visits from the great unwell.

It was widely believed that they had a particular talent for curing the illness known as the King’s Evil, or scrofula, a type of lymphatic tuberculosis that resulted in enlarged glands in the neck. Dad recounts a story, reported to have happened as late as the start of the twentieth century, of a Somerset man who had the reputation for curing people with scrofula. On Sundays, he would touch the affected parts of patients, who had to have fasted, and repeated the words of a prayer that only he was allowed to know.

The belief was not confined to England, but was also very strong in Scotland, particularly in the Highlands, and in Ireland where the lucky one was also thought to have the gift of second sight. In France, they called this person a ‘Marcou’, and their body was said to be marked somewhere with a fleur-de-lis. Those with scrofula would touch this marking in the belief that it would rid them of the disease.

Going back to names, I was up at my mum’s the other day and, as I often do, I went into my dad’s study to mooch about a bit. I was intrigued by a couple of mugs on his shelves that had been there for a number of years but which before I’d never really paid much attention to. The two mugs were covered in lists of first names. One mug had ‘Heartbeat VI’ on the front, and when I picked up the other, I found a curled up piece of paper in it which read ‘A gift from the Heartbeat actors’. So I deduced that these must have been ‘end of series’ presents from the actors to the crew. The slightly sad thing about the second mug is that on the inside was inscribed ‘Heartbeat R.I.P.’ next to the picture of a broken heart.

I was, and still am, mystified as to why ITV axed Heartbeat in 2009 when it was still achieving some of the best viewing figures on that channel. Today an active and significant band of fans continues to express their affection for the show through things like Facebook and Twitter. So who knows what the future holds?

It is Dad’s first anniversary soon, and going into his study still stirs up such mixed emotions, as it is the place where I feel his absence most keenly, and yet, his presence is all around me, in his books, in his files, in his collection of trinkets and Heartbeat mementos. Does the time ever come when you stop missing your Dad?

 

Fear of the fatal fungi

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Chef Tommy Banks in the garden of the Black Swan, Oldstead
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The White Horse at Kilburn
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The aptly-named Death Cap mushroom

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 9th March 2018, & the Gazette & Herald on 7th March 2018.

I’ll never forget the moment when local boy Tommy Banks, enthusiastic forager and head chef at the Michelin-starred Black Swan, Oldstead, produced his incredibly personal tribute to his late grandfather on the TV show Great British Menu in 2016. He had created his dish, a dessert called ‘My Great Briton’, with precision, tenderness and obviously deep love for his grandfather, who for many years was custodian of nearby landmark, the White Horse of Kilburn. Tommy flavoured a parfait with oil extracted from the Douglas fir trees that grow on the hills around the White Horse. When the dish was served to a soundtrack of his grandfather’s voice, it had us all, and Tommy too, in tears. His appearance on that show catapulted him and his family-run restaurant into the stratosphere and Oldstead became a must-go destination for the serious foodie.

The thing about foraging, though, is that you really do have to know your stuff. In his column from March 11th 1978, Dad talks about the dangers of confusing your fungi, and how calamitous it could be to get it wrong. His topic came about as a result of a colleague asking him if Death Cap mushrooms grew in North Yorkshire. Dad had never seen one, but he knew it grew in moist shady areas covered by deciduous trees such as oaks, chestnuts and beeches, and so deduced it was entirely possible.

The Death Cap is incredibly toxic and accounts for more than 90% of deaths from fungus poisonings. One of the reasons people make mistakes is because they look similar to perfectly edible varieties, and are rather tasty when cooked. In 2014, there was a surge in poisonings in California after a spell of heavy rain and mild temperatures caused the mushrooms to flourish. Fourteen cases were reported over a few weeks, with three of those afflicted needing liver transplants. In 2008, a woman from the Isle of Wight died after mistakenly picking and cooking a Death Cap, and in 2013 another from Bridgewater suffered organ failure after putting one from her own garden into her soup. That year, there were 237 reported cases of fungus poisonings in the UK.

In 2016, warnings were issued across the country after the wet and mild autumn had led to significant proliferations of the deadly mushroom, and as last autumn was similar, I’m assuming those warnings are still valid.

But the Death Cap isn’t the only toxic mushroom that grows here, and many have appropriately lethal names, such as Destroying Angel, Funeral Bell, Fool’s Funnel and Panther Cap. But if I came across one on a country ramble, I wouldn’t know my Meadow Wax Cap (edible) from my Deadly Web Cap (poisonous).

In a 2014 statement issued by Public Heath England, Dr John Thompson, director of the National Poisons Information Service (Cardiff Unit), said: “When it comes to wild mushrooms, people really need to be aware of the very real potential dangers involved…While mushrooms growing in the wild are tasty and safe to eat, it is not always easy to differentiate between toxic and non-toxic species, even for people with experience in foraging.”

This was certainly the case for Nicholas Evans, bestselling author of The Horse Whisperer, whose story resembles a plot straight out of one of his own novels. The writer almost killed himself, his wife, his sister and his brother-in-law in 2008 after cooking what he thought were innocent ceps. Evans, a seasoned countryman, was usually extremely careful in checking what he had picked against a trusted book of mushrooms. But this time, he didn’t, and cooked several Deadly Web Caps for dinner with butter and parsley. The next day, they started to feel ill with nausea and stomach cramps, and within hours, all four were in intensive care. Thankfully, they survived, but were sick for months afterwards, and the consequences were life long. For three of them, their kidneys were destroyed, and they ended up having to have dialysis for several hours, several days each week, and eventually, all underwent kidney transplants, with Evans receiving his from his own daughter in 2011.

Despite these fungal nightmares, one of my favourite things to eat will forever be mushrooms on toast, and I have heard that the flavour of foraged mushrooms is in another league to the mass-produced varieties on our supermarket shelves. But I’m going to take some convincing before I dare to venture into the wild to pick my own. (Source: wildfoodsuk.com)

 

On the March for a myth

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Me & Dad on the Greek island of Mykonos, which is in the Cyclades, in 1986

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 2nd March 2018, & the Gazette & Herald on 28th February 2018.

In my dad’s column from 4th March 1978 he mentions an old Greek myth relating to ‘angry’ March, so described because of the wind which tends to blow in from all directions throughout the month.

The myth stated that March was angry because an old woman from the island of Kythnos mistook him for a summer month, so he borrowed a day from his brother, February, and froze the old woman to death, along with her flock of sheep. It seems a rather extreme punishment for such a crime (I hope March isn’t reading this or he might come for me!).

My university degree covered the myths of Ancient Greece, and I spent a year in the country after leaving school at 18, and Mum & Dad came to visit me while I was out there. But I had never come across this tale and so set about researching it on the Internet. For ages I could find absolutely nothing and went through countless variations of search terms relating to the myth until I finally came across a brief reference on a site called The Internet Archive (archive.org). This amazing resource is a bit like an international version of the National Archives. Started in 1996, just as the Internet was beginning to take off, its grand mission is to provide ‘Universal Access to All Knowledge’ and now claims to have an almost unbelievable 279 billion web pages, 11 million books and texts, four million audio recordings and three million videos in its archive, all of which is free to access.

I found the bit I wanted in a substantial 19th century volume called ‘Weather Lore; A Collection of Proverbs, Sayings and Rules Concerning the Weather’ by a man called Richard Inwards. There were a couple of lines about the myth, which he attributed to a ‘T.Bent’. Nothing else.

In past columns, I’ve talked about my habit of wandering off topic so, of course, once again I set off meandering through the Internet to discover who this mystery ‘T.Bent’ was. I felt like a detective tying to get to the bottom of a rather obscure clue, having to think laterally and persist in search after search. I even went as far as page three on one set of Google results. I know, hard core.

But I’m glad I did, as it turns out ‘T.Bent’ had a very interesting story, and better than that, he was a Yorkshireman! Mr James Theodore Bent was brought up in the West Riding village of Baildon, and came from a well-to-do family. He developed a keen interest in history and grew up to become a distinguished archaeologist and adventurer. What is wonderful about this story, especially in a year when we are marking the achievements of the suffragette movement, is that his wife Mabel was as well known and as adventurous as he was. Together they toured the world to discover everything they could about foreign cultures and civilisations, and their findings contributed greatly to society’s knowledge about those unfamiliar worlds. Their resulting books were very popular and well-respected, presumably because, being fearless and intrepid explorers who often put themselves in considerable danger, their work must have been incredibly exciting to their less adventurous readers back home.

One of Theodore’s most well-known works was ‘The Cyclades, or Life Among The Insular Greeks’, published in 1885, which recounts his and Mabel’s adventures living among the rural inhabitants of these remote islands, and this is where he mentions the myth about March (and it is literally, just a mention, so I have no more to report on that!). He is not very complimentary about the island of Kythnos, declaring, ‘We thought we had never visited a more dreary, inhospitable shore.’

Sadly, it was on one of their adventures that Theodore contracted malaria and died prematurely at the age of 45 in 1897. Mabel was distraught, but found the strength to finish the book about ‘Southern Arabia’ that her husband had been writing at the time. But her deep grief was reflected in her words: “It has been very sad to me, but I have been helped by knowing that, however imperfect this book may be, what is written here will surely be a help to those who, by following in our footsteps, will be able to get beyond them.”

Mabel never remarried and died at the age of 83 in 1929. She was buried, as she requested, with her husband at her ancestral home in Essex. (Source: tambent.com)

 

 

Don’t bleat about the bush

The Sycamore Gap tree in Northumberland

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The famous Sycamore Gap tree
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The mulberry tree at Wakefield prison (copyright Yorkshire Post).
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The Mulberry logo

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 9th February 2018, & the Gazette & Herald on 7th February 2018.

One of the things I battle with when researching these columns is my habit of going slightly ‘off-piste’ when looking for interesting topics to talk about. I get easily distracted by something that I am unlikely to use, but is nevertheless less quite fascinating. In fact, when I was looking for a new notepad, I found one that boldly declared on the front ‘I am 100% NOT procrastinating…HONEST!’. I had to buy it.

This week, having read my dad’s column from 11th February 1978, I was on the hunt for interesting facts about mulberries, as he talked about the origins of the words to the famous nursery song ‘Here we go round the mulberry bush’.

Of course, when I googled it, one of the first things that came up was a link to the website of the famous leather goods brand. Over the past few years, a Mulberry bag has become one of the most sought-after accessories for women of a certain age, so of course, I got distracted by all the images of gorgeous bags, purses and shoes. What also caught my eye (apart from the eye-watering prices) was the ‘Our Story’ tab.

I discovered that Mulberry was founded in 1971 by Roger Saul who set up the business from his kitchen with a £500 loan from his mum. He called his new brand Mulberry after some trees he passed on his way to school, and his sister designed the now famous Mulberry tree logo.

What was odd though, was that apart from a brief mention at the beginning, Mr Saul did not feature further on the ‘Our Story’ tab. After a bit more research, I found a twisted plot so dastardly that it outdid the Machiavellian exploits of the Ewings in the 1980s TV hit ‘Dallas’. And now I’ve said that, you’ll want to know what happened, won’t you? So you see how easy it is to get distracted? I promise to come back to the mulberry bush…

In the early 2000s, Mulberry needed an injection of cash which came from a Singaporean billionaire called Christina Ong, who bought 41.5p.c. of the company’s shares. Mrs Ong, who had huge ambitions for the business, then engineered a boardroom coup to oust its founder and chairman. To remain at the helm, Saul, who owned just 38p.c. of the shares, needed the support of his long-term friend and deputy chairman Godfrey Davis. Davis controlled 4.5p.c of the shares, which would have given Saul the majority he needed. But to Saul’s horror, Davis sided with Ong, and his fate was sealed. He was left to watch from the sidelines as his former friend replaced him as chairman, and the business he founded in his kitchen went on to become a global fashion powerhouse.

So, distraction over, it’s back to the mulberry bush song. According to a book published in 1994 by former Wakefield Prison governor Robert Stephen Duncan, female inmates came up with the song to keep their children entertained as they walked around a mulberry tree in the exercise yard. Some killjoys cast doubt that it is its true origin, but why let the facts get in the way of a lovely story? As far as I am aware, the mulberry tree still stands, and in 2016 was nominated for the tree equivalent of the Oscars, the Woodland Trust’s ‘Tree of the Year’ awards. Sadly, it didn’t win and was beaten by that woody upstart, the Sycamore Gap Tree in Northumberland. To be fair, that is a spectacular tree, far more pleasing to the eye than Wakefield’s wizened mulberry. It nestles in a dramatic dip, with Hadrian’s Wall rising either side, and is said to be one of the most photographed spots within the Northumbrian National Park. It gained its own piece of Hollywood fame when it was featured in the 1991 Kevin Costner film, ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’, and so is also known as ‘The Robin Hood Tree’ (but I bet there isn’t a song about it!).

I would like to express my thanks to the many people who have sent their condolences, prayers and good wishes following the death of my sister, Tricia Walker, on 8th January. The past few months have been a very difficult time for our family, as Tricia’s cancer progressed so quickly and came so soon after Dad passed away. Your good wishes are helping to keep us strong. Thank you.

Out on a limb for leeches

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Dad loved his garden pond. Here he is feeding the fish a couple of years ago.

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 2nd February 2018, & the Gazette & Herald on 31st January 2018.

I went through the ‘frogs and snails and puppy dogs tales’ phase with each one of my three boys when they were at primary school. They were fascinated by ‘minibeasts’, which was a new word to me, but referred to what we would have called creepy crawlies. They had no squeamishness about picking up spiders, worms, slugs, snails and wood lice and presenting them to me with great glee.

Even more excitement was to be had whenever we came across a pond, as there were more fascinating minibeasts to found in and around it. When my oldest was a toddler, we lived in house with a pond in the garden and I can’t forget the noise the frogs used to make, and the undulating surface of the water, during mating season. The females are attracted to the males with the loudest croak, hence the cacophony! They also lay up to 2000 eggs, so soon our pond would be teeming with tadpoles, although not all would make it to adulthood, and those that did risked a messy confrontation with the lawnmower if they ventured far from the water.

My brother was also fascinated with such creatures in his youth, and in his February 4th 1978 column, Dad recalls the occasion when he built his own pond. Finding that a hole in the ground lined with polythene was no good, my brother resorted to using an old, Belfast sink, sunk into the rockery outside Dad’s study window. He filled it with with plants and pond life gathered from a local disused swimming pool and nearby lakes. He was very proud that soon his family of great crested newts had started breeding. He wouldn’t have known that 40 years later, if he disturbed the habitat of a great crested newt, he’d face up to six months in prison and an unlimited fine!

Alongside newts, frogs, sticklebacks and minnows, he also unwittingly rehomed a number of freshwater leeches, thankfully a small variety which were harmless to humans.

In medieval times, doctors were called ‘leeches’ due to their custom of treating all manner of ailment by bleeding their patients with the sluglike bloodsuckers. For many centuries, it has been one of the most effective treatments for a number of reasons, and this medical practice continues to this day. There is a farm in Wales which breeds medicinal leeches for this purpose, which is known as hirudotherapy (from the Latin name for these leeches, hirudo medicinalis). As well as supplying the NHS, the company sends them all over the world for use in surgery. The leech, which is about three and half inches long, is particularly effective in treating areas of poor circulation, especially in parts of the body with delicate soft tissue, for example when surgeons are trying to repair or reattach a severely injured limb. They clean up the wound by removing the clotted blood that is inhibiting blood flow, and then encourage circulation to restart.

It is the mechanics of mouth of the leech, a curious biological triumph, which makes it so effective for medical treatment. It has a circular, overlapping lip, and then three jaws, shaped a bit like the Mercedes-Benz logo, each with a row of 100 tiny teeth, perfect for making clean incisions into the skin at exactly the right depth. As they bite, they secrete a local anaesthetic, making the bite painless, alongside another substance, known as a vasodilator, which stimulates blood flow. Once the leech has filled its boots with blood, it then simply drops off to digest it. However, it leaves behind two important chemicals called hirudin and calin, which prevent further clotting and continue to stimulate blood flow for up to 48 hours after the leech has dropped off, which is so important when when it comes to success in treating these kinds of injuries. Although it all sounds a bit gruesome, it is one of nature’s amazing accomplishments, far more effective than many other medicinal treatments, and in fact the leeches only consume a relatively small amount of blood before they become full, around 15ml.

Incidentally, trials have shown that the anti-inflammatory and anaesthetic properties of leech saliva have been shown to be effective in treating pain and tenderness in the joints of people suffering conditions such as osteoarthritis. Vets are also finding them useful during surgical procedures on animals.

Now my question is, how would you feel with a leech let loose on your injured limb?
(Sources: biopharm-leeches.com, guysandstthomas.nhs.uk).