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.

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!

Who put the snail in the mail?

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The post box near Eden Camp, Malton, with its adapted slot to deter hungry snails

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 8th December 2017, & the Gazette & Herald on 6th December 2017

Now that it’s December, I’ve lifted my embargo on all things Christmas. I no longer shut my eyes when the festive John Lewis TV advert comes on and am less irritated by Christmas music. Talking of the John Lewis ad, hasn’t that become such a ‘thing’? Although they’d been making cutesy adverts for years, Monty the Penguin really captured our imaginations in 2014. Set to Tom Odell’s tender version of the Beatles’ Real Love, it was a perfect storm of fluffy snowflakes, twinkling lights and festive coziness enveloping the heartwarming story at its centre. When the little boy found a longed-for friend for Monty, it had the nation reaching for the tissues before we hurried out to the shops to stock up on cuddly Monty’s for our little ones. Every year, we await the new John Lewis advert with great anticipation. What a marketing triumph it has been, and other retailers must look on with envy. Most have tried to emulate it, but it is still John Lewis that sets the bar for Christmas TV advertising.

I love Christmas, but hate the way the build-up has crept forward over the years, diluting the excitement while increasing the stress. I blame the supermarkets who put up ‘Back to School’ displays before the children have even broken up for the summer holidays, and then when they go back in September, out comes the Christmas stock. And no sooner have you finished singing Auld Lang Syne than the Easter Eggs are on the shelves. The supermarkets say its down to consumer demand, but I don’t believe it. I don’t know anyone who buys their Easter eggs in January unless they are posting them to Outer Mongolia via snail mail.

Talking of snail mail, do you know when that term first began to be used? Although it had been heard sporadically before, it is American tech entrepreneur Jim Rutt who is credited with being the first to use the term when comparing the speed of surface mail to email.

I know for certain it wasn’t in common use when Dad wrote his column on 4th December 1976, as he would never have passed up the opportunity for a pun when naming this story, which he instead called ‘Snails in the post’.

Apparently, a recent decision to stop postal collections on a Sunday lay behind a new problem. According to Dad, some rural areas became plagued with the arrival of snails in their pillar boxes over the weekends.

Instead of heading for their usual feeding grounds, namely our vegetable patches and flowerbeds, they would slither up and into the postbox and feast upon the missives within. A snail’s tongue comprises thousands of rasp-like teeth, which they used to gnaw through the defenceless piles of post.

But what was making the mail so attractive to these ghastly gastrpods? It turned out that the gum used to seal the envelopes contained something akin to snail catnip. As the last collection was lunchtime on a Saturday, the snails had all weekend to sniff out the letters and feast to their hearts’ content. Come Monday morning, the poor postman would open the box to find it full of replete snails lounging on beds of mutilated mail.

Despite Dad highlighting the problem 41 years ago, it still hasn’t been solved. I’ve found articles in the national press from 2001, 2009, 2012, 2014 and 2016 (most of whom by then, of course, were using the ‘snail mail’ pun in their headlines!). The most recent was a case near Eden Camp, Malton, in April this year.

Various deterrents have been implemented, including leaving slug pellets in the pillar box and adapting the posting slot by either fitting bristles to it, or by reducing its size. So far, no-one has come up with a definitive solution, and it leaves a challenge for all you ingenious thinkers out there.

As I was only nine when Sunday collections ceased, I’d forgotten all about them, but Dad was pretty miffed, especially as it was the first time since the reign of Charles I that this country didn’t have a Sunday mail collection. So miffed, in fact, that he included in his column the address where you could send a note of protest to the Post Office.

He advised people to send their letters before the weekend, or risk it becoming a snail’s breakfast.

 

One potato, two potatoes, three potatoes…Splat!

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 17th November 2017, & the Gazette & Herald on 15th November 2017

As Dad mentions in his column from November 13th 1976, last Saturday 11th November was St Martin’s Day, and the custom in this part of the world was that it marked the start of the ‘hirings’, when farmers and prospective labourers would gather to suss each other out, discuss wages, working conditions and the like. They’d enter a mutual agreement which would bind them to each other for the coming year. The practice came to an end in 1924 with the passing of the Agriculture Wages Act which formalised a minimum wage for farm workers.

It was common in our village for youngsters aged 14 and above to go ‘taty’ picking on a local farm for a fortnight in the autumn. I’m not sure the farmer who employed us had read the Wages Act, but I didn’t care. I couldn’t wait to turn 14 so I could earn some real money, a whole 50p an hour.

I was nervous on my first day to be alongside the intimidating older kids, but hours on end spent plucking row after row of potatoes was a real leveller. You soon worked out who were the more robust pluckers, who was lazy, and who were the naughty ones.

Until you’ve experienced the sight, stench and feel of a rotten potato between your fingers, then you do not know the meaning of proper horror. How a seemingly inoffensive and plain vegetable can transform into such a seething, stinking mass of putrid flesh I find hard to fathom. I’m still getting over the trauma of finding one among my bag of spuds last week.

So you can understand why a rotten potato out in the field brought perverse joy to the person who found it, as you could use it as ammunition against your taty-picking enemies (as long as you spotted it before your busy fingers sank unwittingly into the mush, unleashing a rancid smell that glued itself to the inside of your nostrils). Getting splatted in the back by a flying rotten potato was the ultimate in humiliation, so you had to be constantly on your guard to dodge those vile little missiles.

Although we weren’t paid well, our employers were kind, and would bring us mugs of hot sweet tea and the odd plate of biscuits. The tea was a colour I’d never seen before, like the leftover water in a mop bucket. Despite that, we drank it, presumably because it was hot, and the days were mostly wet and cold. A side-effect of monotonous, repetitive work was that when you tried to go to sleep at night, all you could see when you closed your eyes was row after row of potatoes. I wonder if that’s true in other walks of life?

I am now receiving a steady stream of correspondence as a result of this column and one of the most charming so far comes from John Randles, who has lived in a moorland village since 1939. One of his reminiscences relates to my August piece about Dad taking over Countryman’s Diary from Major Jack Fairfax-Blakeborough. I’m taking the liberty of repeating it here, because unless these wonderful memories are shared, they will disappear forever.

Mr Randles writes: “On the day the Major died (1st January 1976), we had been to my sister’s at Glaisdale. We got back safely, but it was snowing hard. The telephone rang soon after we got in and it was the Major’s son Noel. His wife was stuck in the snow with the car near Blakey pub.”

The Lion Inn, Blakey Ridge, is at the highest point in the North York Moors National Park. Not a place to get stuck, nor to venture out to, in a snow storm. But as we know, us Yorkshire folk are not deterred by a little bit of snow. Nor by a lot of snow, as it happens.

Mr Randles continues: “My son and I put shovels and ropes in the Land Rover. We picked Noel up and set off in the blizzard. We managed to get her and the car down safely. The Major died that night.”

One can only imagine what a difficult and perilous journey that must have been, never mind the effort needed to dig the stranded car out during a blizzard. What a heroic act of selflessness from Mr Randles and his son, one which enabled Noel and his wife to be with the Major during his last moments.

 

 

Conkering a crisis

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My brother Andrew in his conkering heyday
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Conkers can be found up until November depending on the summer weather

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 3rd November 2017, & the Gazette & Herald on 1st November 2017)

I associate conker time with the children going back to school, so it surprised me to read in Dad’s column of October 30th 1976 about the plentiful conker harvest, as it seemed so late in the year. But I’ve discovered that horse-chestnuts can ripen from August right through to early November, depending on the weather during summer.

As soon as they were ripe my three boys would begin conker-gathering but, unlike my own childhood, I recall few occasions when we actually turned them into competitive ‘stringed’ conkers for the school playground. I got into the habit of keeping a carrier bag on my person at all times for the inevitable daily conker-gathering. The bag solved the problem of finding mouldy, festering conkers in unexpected places like trouser pockets, coat pockets, school bags, washing baskets, toy boxes, down the sofa and who knew where else! It didn’t, however, solve the problem of having bagful after bagful to deal with (if you’ve ever experienced the death howl of a child discovering their treasured (mouldy) conker collection has disappeared, you’ll understand why I never just chucked them away).

I came up with an ingenious solution though. “Let’s make a Conker Garden!” I announced enthusiastically one day. The boys responded with unexpected delight. At last, they had something they could do with their conkers, and I would never have to touch a mouldy conker ever again.

For those of you experiencing a conker crisis, here are my step-by-step instructions on how to create your own Conker Garden. Please follow them very carefully:

Step one: Collect conkers in a carrier bag

Step two: Decide where your conker garden will be

Step three: Tip out your bag of conkers in designated spot

Step four: Repeat daily

It was a shame that we didn’t find a better use for them, as I had such fond memories of conker competitions myself. We did lace up a few over the years, but it just didn’t catch on with my boys and their peers, perhaps as a result of being brought up in an age where technology overtook traditional playground pastimes.

My brother was a great conker fan though, and according to my dad’s column, was determined to become the 1976 School Champion. Dad was ‘Coach Conker’ and had passed on the secrets of top conkering, such as soaking them in vinegar and keeping them in a drawer for a whole year, after which they emerged like shiny little brown balls of concrete. My dad taught him to drill his holes in exactly the right place (dead centre), and with the correct diameter (the same width as the string or shoelace it would hang upon. Too large would result in weakening the conker). The knot securing it had to be just the right size, not too big or too small. Points were scored by smashing another conker. So if you defeat one, you are a oner, defeat two, and you become a twoer and so on. If a twenty-sevener knocks out a forty-niner, it becomes a seventy-sevener, by adding all the points together, plus one for the victory.

Dad must have felt a surge of pride in seeing my brother’s prize conker on the brink of stardom. It had smashed many naïve young conkers to bits and had earned the esteemed rank of a 108er. But family hopes were dashed when his run came to a bitter end at the hands of a sneaky adversary who knew the trick of getting the strings tangled. This subversive tactic enabled him to yank my brother’s shoelace out of his grip and propel the conker onto the floor, where he promptly stamped on it. My brother was crestfallen, but this was a legitimate move in those days. The blow was softened when the sneaky boy’s young, softer conker only made it one more round before being demolished by the more deserving hard shell of a cultivated opponent.

The tradition of conker competition is still going strong in the form of the World Conker Championships hosted every year by the Ashton Conker Club in Northamptonshire. My brother might be saddened to learn that he would not be permitted to bring his own specially-prepared specimen as the club provides all the conkers and strings. But he will be pleased to know that deliberate string-tangling can lead to disqualification, and stamping on fallen conkers is no longer allowed.

Carry a marrow to school? Must be nuts!

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Me in my Brownie uniform and my sister Tricia in her Girl Guide uniform in our back garden in 1975
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Our cottage from the back garden in the 1970s

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 27th October 2017, & the Gazette & Herald on 25th October 2017)

 

It’s a shameful admission, but I didn’t read my dad’s columns growing up. I was only a child when Dad took over Countryman’s Diary and I was far more interested in playing with my friends than the ‘boring’ stuff he was up to. Presenter Aasmah Mir pulled me up about it when I was on BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Live show on September 2nd. “Hang on a minute, you weren’t always nine!” she admonished me. The only explanation I have is that I never got into the habit of reading his columns, and it never occurred to me to do so once I was an adult (I did read some of his books though, just not all 130!).

In a way, I’m glad I didn’t, because I’m reading them now with completely fresh eyes, finding out things I never knew, learning about the countryside, folklore and traditions alongside discovering memories about our family life that I’d long since forgotten. It’s such a brilliant way of keeping a connection with Dad now he’s no longer here, as if he’s passing his knowledge on to me from beyond the grave.

When I read his column from October 23rd 1976, I discovered that he’d included a story that related directly to me, and one which I cannot remember at all (I never had any idea that I’d made it into the paper, which is probably a good job, or the fame might have gone to my head!).

He explains: “Our youngest daughter, aged nine, announced that she had to take to school some fruits of the hedgerow … and accordingly she disappeared up our garden the other morning and returned with elderberries, wind-blown apples, rose hips, haws, Damson plums, beech mast, an acorn, ivy and holly berries, and assorted weed seeds.” (Beech mast? I had to look that up and found that it refers to the fruit of a beech tree. The word ‘mast’ means a bumper harvest of fruit and nuts).

You have to admire my enthusiasm in collecting such an eclectic array of ‘fruits of the hedgerow’. But I didn’t stop there, having spotted a giant marrow that someone had given Dad. I told him that I thought it qualified as ‘fruit’ for my collection and he said I could take it to school if I could get it there. “It’s not an easy matter for a nine-year-old girl to transport a two and a half stone, 2ft 6in marrow to school…but she solved it by using the garden wheelbarrow and enlisting the services of a little girl next door. Together they trundled their fruit collection through the village street, panting and heaving, and holding the marrow in position, for it reached over the sides of the barrow.”

I can’t remember this incident, nor can I remember my head teacher’s reaction on my arrival, but according to Dad, he painted two eyes on it and left it staring at us all day long.

I managed to achieve a small victory during my forage in the garden by finding a green fruit, about the size of a plum, that initially flummoxed my dad. This was a rare achievement, as he was so knowledgeable about most things country. On closer inspection, he deduced it was an almond, the outer inedible flesh, known as the drupe, hiding the recognisable nut within.

Although more commonly associated with the USA, Spain and the Middle East, almond trees do grow in the UK, and need a warm sunny spot. The reason Dad didn’t recognise the fruit was no doubt because our tree rarely produced any. But thanks to the long, hot 1976 summer, ‘it brought forth a couple of almonds’. He meant that literally. There were two on the whole tree.

Almonds are part of the prunus, or peach, family that includes other stoned fruit such as cherries and plums. Raw and dry-roasted almonds are one of the healthiest snack you can eat, with an ounce (28g) containing more calcium than any other nut, plus 9g of monounsaturated fat (the healthy fat) and 3.5g of fibre. They can also be used to make an alternative to cows milk, or turned into almond butter. The species from our garden, known as the Jordan Almond, was supposed to be ideal for making potions to cleanse or exfoliate the skin, and its oil was very good for massaging aching limbs.

Sadly, we didn’t have enough to even think about creating any of these wonderful products. One little almond went to school, and the other stayed at home.