That Old Chestnut

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The footways are positively brimming with blossoms against a backdrop of vivid and vibrant greens
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A horse chestnut ‘candle’ showing both the yellow (unpollinated) and pink (pollinated) flowers
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The red horse chestnut is significantly smaller than its white relative
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The beautiful horse chestnut at my tennis club that distracted me during a match

(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!

Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

ENDS

No need to get ratty

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(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 1st June, & the Gazette & Herald on 30th May 2018).

I was driving home late one night along one of our quiet country lanes when a great big rat dashed out of the verge and scurried across the road in front of me, its long pink rubbery tail illuminated by my headlights. This is not the first time it has happened, and I always experience an involuntary shudder every time it does.

It makes me wonder why I am so squeamish around rats. I don’t have the same feeling about mice – I recently caught one outside my back door that I found investigating my recycling boxes. I managed to trap it in a plastic tub, and it was so tiny and cute that there was no way I could possibly destroy it, so I released it into some nearby fields (I can hear the seasoned agricultural contingent among you groaning!).

But rats have always suffered from a ‘bad boy’ image, and are regularly depicted as the villains in children’s fiction. Famously they are the worst fear of George Orwell’s unfortunate hero from ‘1984’, Winston, who has to face them through a cage secured to his head in the dreaded Room 101.

It’s possible that this common fear stems from the belief that rats were to blame for the devastation caused by the Black Death. In the mid-fourteenth century, it killed 25 million people across Europe, and even more during later resurgences. The speed of the spread, so it was believed, was due to infected fleas that lived on rats.

But now we know they may well have been unfairly vilified, as a study published in January in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS.org) showed that it is more likely that it was down to human fleas and body lice. Poor old rats having to shoulder the burden of that reputation for so long!

In my dad’s column from 3rd June 1978, he talks of the old custom of ‘rhyming rats to death’. I have to confess that I have never come across that phrase, but according to Dad, it was an Irish belief that rats in the fields and on rural farms could be rendered unconscious if you talked to them in rhyme. No particular poem is mentioned as having these soporific qualities, but Ben Jonson, the English poet and dramatist, wrote: “Rhime them to death, as they do Irish rats,” and Shakespeare also referred to the belief when Rosalind, in As You Like It, says: “I was never so be-rhymed since Pythagoras’ time, that I was an Irish rat.”

Dad also quotes this fascinating little ditty:

“The rat, the cat and Lovel our dog,
Rule all England under a hog.”

This seemingly innocuous verse was in fact a searing criticism of those in power at the time it was written in 1484, and was found pinned to the door of St Paul’s Cathedral and other prominent places all over London. The rat was King Richard III’s confidante, Sir Richard Ratcliffe, the cat was Speaker of the Commons William Catesby, and Lovel was Viscount Lovel, who had a reputation for being the king’s ‘lap dog’ or ‘yes man’. King Richard’s emblem was a white boar, hence the reference to a hog.

The poet was ultimately unmasked and found to be wealthy landowner William Collingbourne, a fierce opponent of the king, and he paid a heavy price for writing those few words as he was put to death for treason.

Despite the general dislike among the population towards rats, they are actually supposed to make very good pets. When I was at school, one of my classmates used to bring his white rat into class, and he was a most well-behaved and tame thing, who would sleep in master’s blazer pockets during lessons, so the teacher never knew he was there.

Domesticated rats are known as ‘fancy rats’, coming from the term ‘animal fancier’, and there are numerous professional breeders and a whole community of rat fanciers, with an estimate of about 100,000 pet rats in the UK. They have a reputation for being cleverer than a dog, and more hygienic than a cat. They are sociable, affectionate, trainable, and easy to keep, and if the National Fancy Rat Society (nfrs.org) is to be believed, they are the best of the rodent population to keep as a pet.

So I have one remaining question then – can you take them for a walk?

Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

 

From memories to remembrance

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My moustachioed dad, then press officer for North Yorkshire Police, watches in the background as Prince Charles unveils a plaque at the Captain Cook memorial in Whitby in 1978
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Armed officers in Malton during the hunt for Barry Prudom
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PC David Haigh who was shot by Prudom
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Sergeant David Winter was also killed

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 25th May, & the Gazette & Herald on 23rd May 2018).

Sometimes, researching material for these columns is a bit like being a detective. I read Dad’s words from the corresponding week 40 years ago, and that triggers off an idea which can require me to delve into the archives of cuttings and photographs that we have stored at my parents’ home. Usually this, along with a few targeted questions to my mum and siblings, and some rummaging around the internet, helps me to build up a picture of what was going on in the world at the time Dad was writing the column.

This week, I was reading his column from May 27th 1978, in which he talks about the visit by Prince Charles to Great Ayton. That is just about all he says about the visit itself, and he goes on to talk about the school in the village where Captain James Cook was educated as a young boy.

I then recalled having seen a picture in our archives of Prince Charles with my dad standing in the background and wondered if it was that same occasion at Great Ayton. If I could find it, then wouldn’t it be a good accompanying picture to this week’s column!

So I called my mum and asked about said picture, at which point she put me straight, “Oh no, that was Whitby up at the Captain Cook memorial,” she said.

Momentarily disappointed, I thought my quest had come to an end. But when I googled ‘Prince Charles visit to Great Ayton 1978’, the results also showed that his visit to Whitby was on 1st June 1978. And going back to the first paragraph of my dad’s column, he said the visit to Great Ayton was ‘on the following Thursday’, i.e. 1st June 1978 too, so of course Charles would be visiting both places on the same day! My quest was back on track.

The visit was part of the Royal Tour of Cleveland, which included celebrations for the 250th anniversary of Cook’s birth, and so Prince Charles was visiting some of the spots that were significant in Cook’s life. He unveiled a plaque at the Cook Memorial, which is where the picture showing my dad in the background was taken. Unfortunately I don’t possess an original, just a copy of the photo from the paper. Annoyingly, I couldn’t lay my hands on the original cutting either, despite raiding my dad’s mind-boggling collection of cuttings, and so had to continue my Poirot-esque quest for information elsewhere.

What Dad fails to mention in his article is that at the time, he was press officer for North Yorkshire Police, and as such, was heavily involved in all royal visits to the region. Another search of the internet threw up some photographs from that day, and sure enough, Dad can be spotted lurking in some of them. It’s an odd feeling when you find photos of your loved ones that you never knew existed, and it added another small piece to the jigsaw of my dad’s life that I am piecing together now he’s gone. The pictures were taken during Dad’s thankfully short-lived ‘moustache’ phase, when, in his uniform, he wouldn’t have looked out of place next to a line-up of the Village People.

Dad worked for North Yorkshire Police for 30 years until he retired in 1982 to write full time. He was always very proud of his police career, and, as a gifted storyteller, particularly enjoyed his time as press officer. I was honoured to be invited along with my mum, sister and brother, to the North Yorkshire Police headquarters for a service on 13th May to remember the lives of those men and women who have either died during their service, or after they left. It was a very moving occasion, particularly hearing about the tragic cases of officers who had fallen while on duty.

One of the most memorable cases Dad dealt with while press officer was the hunt for killer Barry Prudom, who was on the run in North Yorkshire in 1982. Dad’s approach when dealing with the media in this case was quite revolutionary, and he received a commendation as a result, as well as a personal call from Scotland Yard to say it would be adopted nationally. So when the two officers murdered by Prudom were remembered at the service, it was especially poignant.

So please take a moment to remember, and never forget, the names of PC David Haigh and Sergeant David Winter.