Raising a toast to Dad

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 27th July, & the Gazette & Herald on 25th July 2018).

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Next week marks the most important day of the year which, as all who read this newspaper know, is August 1st, or Yorkshire Day.

According to my Dad’s column from 29 July 1978, the day was established to mark the demise in 1974 of the three Yorkshire Ridings when county boundaries were rearranged and Cleveland and Humberside were established. It was originally more commonly known as Minden Day, a commemoration of the 1759 Battle of Minden in which the soldiers were said to have plucked roses from the hedgerows on their way into battle. So on Minden Day, soldiers place red roses in their ceremonial headwear as a tribute to their predecessors and Yorkshire soldiers use white roses instead to represent their county.

My dad loved his food and one of the things he most looked forward to on Yorkshire Day was the traditional meal with Yorkshire puddings eaten in the classic way, as a starter with gravy, followed by roast beef and vegetables. He would particularly enjoy it if it was accompanied by a glass of good red wine. On our recent holiday to France, we stayed near Bordeaux, and as I drove past field upon field of vines, I couldn’t help but think of my dad, and recall a special family holiday we had to the same area eleven years ago in 2007.

We’d gone to celebrate my parents’ 70th birthdays, but also because we’d had a difficult year. Dad had been diagnosed with prostate cancer a few months earlier and his diagnosis had been very serious. But thankfully he responded remarkably well to the treatment and was in relatively good health, even through we still had no idea what the future might hold. So my mum decided that a special family holiday was in order and found a splendid manor house between Bordeaux and Perigueux in south-west France that could accommodate all 16 of us.

It was a truly memorable holiday, and Dad was in his element, enjoying the local food and wine to the full. He found himself a special little corner in the garden where he could write up column notes while enjoying a glass of something lovely.

As we were so close to some famous wine-producing domaines, he and my mum spent one day visiting a chateau near St Emilion. Although one might imagine chateaus being ancient castles with turrets and towers (of which France has many), the word also refers simply to an estate upon which wine is produced and sold.

I managed to find the column he wrote in 2007 following that holiday, and it’s interesting to read back on it now, especially following last week’s column in which I wrote about how much better the French road network is compared to ours. Dad apparently felt the same way. “I must say that the French roads, whether urban, rural or motorways, are splendid,” he wrote.

During my holiday this year, I was also determined to visit a chateau and sample a local vintage so the boys and I set out one day along a long straight local road which was lined with vineyards.

We pulled into Chateau Haute-Goujon, a smart, modern-looking place, and were very fortunate to be shown around by the owner himself, Monsieur Vincent Garde, whose family have produced red wine there since the early 20th century. In excellent English, he explained the process, taking us through the vinification room, with huge stainless steel vats where the grape juice is fermented and turned into wine, then to a room full of hand-made oak barrels, where the wine is aged, to a vast cellar-like room full of resting bottles, and then finally to the labelling facility. The labels are only put on last minute to deter thieves. If the wine is unmarked, they will have no idea what they are stealing, explained Mr Garde.

Of course, I had to buy some and was pleasantly surprised to find the choices weren’t as expensive as I’d imagined, with prices starting at £10 and the most expensive being around £50. I bought some at the average price, and then a couple of a more expensive one. It’s just a shame Dad isn’t here to enjoy it with me, but I will raise a toast to him when I open it.

For more information visit chateauhautegoujon.com.

Visit my blog at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

That Old Chestnut

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(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