The Mystery of the Disappearing Chestnuts

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Marmalade the cat

 

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Sweet chestnuts

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 19th January 2018, & the Gazette & Herald on 17th January 2018. 

You may remember that in my column from the Gazette & Herald on 6th September 2017 (‘Dad’s swift actions stop a catastrophe’) and the D&S Times from 8th September 2017 (‘Saved from catastrophe by Dad’s swift action’) that I talked about the various family cats, both tame and feral, that lived in and around my childhood home.

Dad recounts a lovely story about our longest-surviving cat, Marmalade, in his January 21st 1978 column. She had wandered into our garden as a very young stray and never left, becoming a much-loved part of the family. She had come from a nearby farm, but the farmer had no interest in the cats that frequented his hay barn and was more than happy when they took up residence elsewhere.

Mum and Dad had been stumped by the mystery of the disappearing chestnuts from the windowsill. What was a full bowl a few days earlier, was now no more than half full, and no-one confessed to having eaten any.

Then one day, Dad saw the cat jump on to the ledge and scoop out a chestnut with her paw, which then fell to the ground. She leapt after it in an uncharacteristically energetic way, and chased it across the floor, flicking it up into the air and batting it from paw to paw, as she would had she caught a mouse. Once the chestnut had disappeared under the furniture, she went back again for another one. What was it about the chestnut that ignited this new obsession? Dad had no idea, and my own searches have shed no light on it.

It brings to mind the effect of catnip, often used to scent pet toys. Catnip is a plant from the nepeta, or catmint, genus in the Lamiaceae family, and there are many varieties. In an article by the appropriately-named Kat Arney on the Royal Society of Chemistry website (www.chemistryworld.com), she explains that catnip contains a chemical called nepetalactone, which in cats induces behaviour similar to a person having taken drugs. They act with languid abandon, brushing their bodies against the leaves or rolling around among the stems. If they chew or eat it, they soon become what one might call ‘out of it’. For us humans, the plant can be infused to make herbal tea, and in times gone by small doses were used as a mild sedative. It is not recommended to be taken in large quantities, even though hopeful hippies gave it a go in search of a cheap high. All they ended up with was a painful headache and an upset stomach.

Catmint is a lovely garden plant, but to avoid delirious kitties flattening your borders, it is recommended that you place a small crop of nepeta cataria, the most potent catnip, in a place where you don’t mind them being mauled by frolicking felines, and then they will ignore the other milder varieties you have planted in pride of place. I have no idea if this distraction tactic works, and would be delighted if any readers can tell me!

After Marmalade arrived, she was soon followed by her sister Eric (my brother chose this name. He was outnumbered by females of both the human and feline variety, which might explain why!).

Eric remained feral, and we could never get close enough to tame her. After she had been with us for about a year, she produced a litter of kittens. We’d known she was pregnant and, due to her sudden change in appearance, that she had given birth, but we couldn’t find her litter anywhere. Then, on Christmas Eve 1977, she produced her own feline nativity scene in a very prominent position near our back door. Of course when we found the kittens, we instantly fell in love, and they were named (again courtesy of my brother) Alfred, Rodney (both girls) and Jackson (a boy).

But Eric would never be able to live indoors, and so Dad found the little family a cosy place in our disused henhouse, ensuring they had plenty of straw to keep them warm. We carried the kittens up to the henhouse ourselves, and lured Eric with some cat food on a spoon. She stayed there for about a week, before bringing her kittens back down to the back door on New Year’s Eve. So we repeated the process again, and this time she stayed. The young kittens thrived, and although they never became household pets, they became very much a part of our family history.

A mass farewell to 2017

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Dad’s column from this week in 1976 was dated Christmas Day itself

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My Dad pulling a cracker with his grandson Joseph in 2006

 

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 29th December 2017, & the Gazette & Herald on 27th December 2017.

I can’t quite believe that here we are already at my last column of 2017. Writing it every week has been an absolute pleasure, giving me an excuse to spend some time alone with my thoughts, and some time alone with my Dad’s thoughts from long ago.

I was surprised to find that the column I planned to work from this week is actually dated Christmas Day itself, and as that day was a Saturday in 1976, I wondered when the day of issue for the Darlington and Stockton Times changed to a Friday. I’m sure someone somewhere knows and will tell me! In it, Dad talks about our family tradition of attending Midnight Mass at the local catholic church. At first, I was too little to go, and would get frustrated at being the only child left behind in bed while my three siblings would totter off with my dad at the excitingly late hour of 11.30. There is an oft-repeated family story that one year, one of us fell asleep on the kitchen table while waiting to go, but to this day we debate which one of us it was. My mum says it was me!

Eventually, I was old enough for my parents to have confidence that I wouldn’t nod off half way through, or fidget and whine noisily. Poor misguided fools! I lost count of the amount of times I was ‘shushed’ due to my habit of sighing very loudly. And as long as I maintained contact between bottom and pew, then I classed that as sitting still. Arm folding and unfolding, feet tapping and swinging, or bum shuffling and shifting were all perfectly acceptable to me. Otherwise, how does a five-year-old get through an hour-long Catholic mass led by an elderly priest? It’s a lifetime, especially when all you really care about is the moment when you emerge excitedly from church, knowing it is finally officially Christmas Day, look up into the night sky and try and spot Santa on the way to your house with all the presents. You also hoped that by some miracle, while you were in there, the snow fairy would have paid a visit and sprinkled a little bit of her Christmas magic around for your walk home (sometimes she even did!).

Our family tradition continued for many years, and there were countless moments of light relief, including the time when our friend’s little boy, dressed as a shepherd near the altar, proudly held up his hand and shouted, “My tooth’s come out!” And another time, when a little boy was sitting next to his friend and both of them had taken their hands out of their jumper sleeves. One bumped the other and they both toppled over like weebles (they wobbled and they did fall down).

When we were young adults, Midnight Mass was where we ended up after the evening in the pub. Some of us were guilty of being slightly north of sober, which we thought we hid very well, until one of us (not me) became very unwell in a pew. It must have been so annoying for everyone else (sorry!) and drunkenness was cited as one of the reasons why the service ended up being moved to 8.30pm in recent years (which must have come as a relief for many parents of young children!).

But enough of Christmas, that’s all over – it is nearly the New Year now! Dad’s last column of 1976 was published on New Year’s Eve, and in it he pays tribute to his predecessor, Major Jack Fairfax-Blakeborough, who died almost exactly one year before. As those who’ve been reading my columns since I began in June will know, Major JFB wrote the Countryman’s Diary for 54 years, and my dad took it over in 1976 until his own death in April this year.

JFB was a very special influence in Dad’s life, and I hope that it would fill him with pride to know that 41 years later, the words of his tribute to the Major could very easily be applied to him.

‘His individual contribution to the understanding of country life and lore will never be forgotten. He was a man of immense knowledge, industry and faith.

‘The Grand Old Man now lies buried at Lealholm but his work will live on forever in the libraries of the world.’

I want to thank you all for being so understanding and supportive in reading my columns thus far, for all the wonderful letters and feedback, and for putting me right when I go wrong!

I wish you all the very best for 2018.

All Spruced Up For Christmas

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Christmas selfie with my dad and mum last year, 2016. We didn’t know then that it would be Dad’s last one.

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 22nd December 2017, & the Gazette & Herald on 20th December 2017.

As a child, I used to nag my parents to get our Christmas tree early, but they steadfastly refused to buy one until the very last minute. I’d see trees going up in windows all around the village and looked on with envious frustration. Some people even had those trendy new artificial silver ones, whose shimmer and sparkle were mesmerising to those of us eagerly awaiting December 25th, which always approached at the pace of a sloth on a slow day.

Finally, around 23rd December, when I was about fit to burst, Dad would go to buy a real tree and out would come all our decorations that had seen many, many years of use. Back then, the round baubles were nearly all made of wafer-thin glass, so we’d usually lose one or two mid-decorating. We also had more ornate metal baubles which varied in shape from the conventional, like yellow bells and red santas, to the more bizarre, like pink bunches of grapes (why?), green minarets, and those with the front scooped out to reveal the shiny innards (well that’s what they looked like to me).

The good, bushy tinsel would have pride of place, front and centre, while its sad, threadbare relatives, now barely more than straggly string, would be relegated to a lowly position round the back (We all know the unwritten rule of Christmas is still ‘Thou Shalt Not Dispose of Old and Tatty Decorations but Keep Them Forever Even if They Will Never Again See the Light of Day’).

Our plastic Christmas fairy, in a faded net tutu, would go on top last of all. She wasn’t the smartest or prettiest fairy, but we never thought to get rid of her until one Christmas, when we were all grown up, we came home to find she had been replaced with a rather fancy star.

The mood of 1970s glam rock was reflected in the baubles and tinsel, a glittery assortment of styles and colours which now would be considered the polar opposite of taste and sophistication. But we loved it all, and were prepared to suffer the pain of a thousand Norway Spruce needles in our fingers to make sure we covered the tree in just about every decoration we owned. There was no such thing as too much tinsel back then. Today’s kids, with their poncy soft-needled, non-dropping, fire-retardant Nordman Firs will never understand the kind of dogged determination needed to decorate a Norway Spruce.

In his column from 18th December 1976, Dad explains that the Norway Spruce was by far the most popular real tree of the day, and the reason he and Mum were so reluctant to put one up early was its propensity for shedding. We did keep it up, as tradition dictated, until the Epiphany on January 6th though, which was when we regretted our decorating zeal, as removing them was like rolling your arms along a hedgehog over and over again. Then Dad would carry this bone-dry fire hazard outside, followed by a thick trail of browning needles.

Many people think Queen Victoria’s husband Albert brought the Christmas tree custom over from Germany. But according to Her Majesty the Queen’s own website, http://www.royal.uk (possibly the finest web address on the planet), it was Queen Charlotte, consort of George III, who first introduced a Christmas tree into the royal household in the late 1700s. But the popularity of Victoria and Albert was the reason it became a national institution.

The association of royalty with Christmas trees still persists, and every year, the Queen gives trees to Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral in London, as well as to St Giles’ Cathedral and Canongate Kirk in Edinburgh. She also donates trees to schools near the Sandringham estate where the Royal family spend Christmas.

As we decorated our tree this year (a Nordman Fir put up nice and early!), it was with more than a little sadness that for the first time, Dad wouldn’t be here to share the festivities with us. But we have enjoyed many lovely Christmases with him, and were very lucky that last year, we had a wonderful family celebration with no idea it would be his last. So I want to pass on my good wishes and thoughts for the season to all of you who are missing loved ones at this special time, and ask you to spare a thought too for those who are spending Christmas with no-one at all.

 

 

One less Christmas stress

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My dad Peter Walker heading towards my house to celebrate Christmas on a snowy December 25th in 2010.

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 15th December 2017, & the Gazette & Herald on 13th December 2017.

As a mother of three children and host to family at Christmas, I often had so much to do that one year I decided to put sending cards at the bottom of the priority list. Each year leading up to this decision, I would envision an evening where I’d be sitting cozily by the fire, a glass of mulled wine on the side and Christmas music gently wafting in the background as I lingered over meaningful festive sentiments to express to friends near and far.

But that imagined evening would never materialise. Instead I’d end up at the last minute furiously scribbling the same short bland message in each one, race to our post office to queue for ages under its horrible fluorescent lights, before gasping incredulously at the ever-increasing cost of the stamps.

So I relegated the chore to the bottom of the pile, and of course, it never got done. Amazingly, my friends didn’t disown me, so the following year, I did the same, until eventually I stopped thinking about it altogether. Now, I don’t post any at all except to hand-deliver a few to people I see regularly. Some might see it as a sad diminishing of a well-loved tradition, but I’m just glad to have one less thing to stress about on my festive ‘to-do’ list.

That’s not to say I don’t enjoy receiving them, and am very happy for people who want to carry on the tradition to do so, just as long as they don’t expect one from me. Nowadays, it is so easy to share your good wishes through social media that sending cards is less necessary.

When I was a child, only posh or rich people sent fancy cards worth keeping to turn into gift cards for the following year (Yes, I actually do that!). The rest of us were content with sending those you bought in a box of 50 for a couple of quid, and extravagances such as glitter, embossing and cards thick enough to stay upright were few and far between.

In his column from 11 December 1976, Dad mentions a splendid example from one such posh friend which featured a coach and horses galloping through the snow.

He says: ‘It all looks so cosy and romantic, but in truth it was far from the case. After one coach trip, Queen Elizabeth I confided to the French ambassador that she was unable to sit down for several days.’

That was when coaches had no suspension to speak of, and it must have been incredibly uncomfortable on our appallingly uneven, muddy and pot-holed roads. Springs were introduced in 1754, and by 1775 there were 400 commercial coaches operating, with one running from Leeds to London in 39 hours. As they travelled at an average speed of eight miles an hour, they would have stopped at the various coaching inns along the route to rest, change horses and take on refreshments (and no doubt to rub ointment into sore bottoms!).

The late 1700s became known as the ‘golden era of coaching’ until they were superseded by the ascension of the railways early the following century. One of the most famous coaches was the Wellington, which travelled a route between Newcastle and London. One of its drivers was a Northallerton man called Thomas Layfield, who was reputed to be one of the finest, and a favourite of the Duke of Northumberland. But he realised the days of coaches had come and gone when he set off one day from Newcastle, stopping at Darlington, Northallerton and Thirsk, without collecting a single passenger. By 1830, the railways had become firmly established in our region, reaching speeds of thirty miles an hour.

I’d like to say thank you to readers Frank Boocock and John Woolway who spotted an error in an earlier column (One potato, two potatoes, three potatoes…splat! November 17th). They pointed out that the Lion Inn, Blakey Ridge, is not the highest point in the North York Moors National Park, but that that honour goes to Urra Moor which stands at 1489 feet above sea level (454 metres). The pub lies at a mere 1325 feet (404 metres). Perhaps someone can tell me if instead it’s the highest point accessible by road?

It’s one of those questions that had Dad still been here, he’d have known the answer to immediately. Clearly, I still have a way to go!