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).

 

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)