Don’t bleat about the bush

The Sycamore Gap tree in Northumberland

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The famous Sycamore Gap tree
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The mulberry tree at Wakefield prison (copyright Yorkshire Post).
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The Mulberry logo

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 9th February 2018, & the Gazette & Herald on 7th February 2018.

One of the things I battle with when researching these columns is my habit of going slightly ‘off-piste’ when looking for interesting topics to talk about. I get easily distracted by something that I am unlikely to use, but is nevertheless less quite fascinating. In fact, when I was looking for a new notepad, I found one that boldly declared on the front ‘I am 100% NOT procrastinating…HONEST!’. I had to buy it.

This week, having read my dad’s column from 11th February 1978, I was on the hunt for interesting facts about mulberries, as he talked about the origins of the words to the famous nursery song ‘Here we go round the mulberry bush’.

Of course, when I googled it, one of the first things that came up was a link to the website of the famous leather goods brand. Over the past few years, a Mulberry bag has become one of the most sought-after accessories for women of a certain age, so of course, I got distracted by all the images of gorgeous bags, purses and shoes. What also caught my eye (apart from the eye-watering prices) was the ‘Our Story’ tab.

I discovered that Mulberry was founded in 1971 by Roger Saul who set up the business from his kitchen with a £500 loan from his mum. He called his new brand Mulberry after some trees he passed on his way to school, and his sister designed the now famous Mulberry tree logo.

What was odd though, was that apart from a brief mention at the beginning, Mr Saul did not feature further on the ‘Our Story’ tab. After a bit more research, I found a twisted plot so dastardly that it outdid the Machiavellian exploits of the Ewings in the 1980s TV hit ‘Dallas’. And now I’ve said that, you’ll want to know what happened, won’t you? So you see how easy it is to get distracted? I promise to come back to the mulberry bush…

In the early 2000s, Mulberry needed an injection of cash which came from a Singaporean billionaire called Christina Ong, who bought 41.5p.c. of the company’s shares. Mrs Ong, who had huge ambitions for the business, then engineered a boardroom coup to oust its founder and chairman. To remain at the helm, Saul, who owned just 38p.c. of the shares, needed the support of his long-term friend and deputy chairman Godfrey Davis. Davis controlled 4.5p.c of the shares, which would have given Saul the majority he needed. But to Saul’s horror, Davis sided with Ong, and his fate was sealed. He was left to watch from the sidelines as his former friend replaced him as chairman, and the business he founded in his kitchen went on to become a global fashion powerhouse.

So, distraction over, it’s back to the mulberry bush song. According to a book published in 1994 by former Wakefield Prison governor Robert Stephen Duncan, female inmates came up with the song to keep their children entertained as they walked around a mulberry tree in the exercise yard. Some killjoys cast doubt that it is its true origin, but why let the facts get in the way of a lovely story? As far as I am aware, the mulberry tree still stands, and in 2016 was nominated for the tree equivalent of the Oscars, the Woodland Trust’s ‘Tree of the Year’ awards. Sadly, it didn’t win and was beaten by that woody upstart, the Sycamore Gap Tree in Northumberland. To be fair, that is a spectacular tree, far more pleasing to the eye than Wakefield’s wizened mulberry. It nestles in a dramatic dip, with Hadrian’s Wall rising either side, and is said to be one of the most photographed spots within the Northumbrian National Park. It gained its own piece of Hollywood fame when it was featured in the 1991 Kevin Costner film, ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’, and so is also known as ‘The Robin Hood Tree’ (but I bet there isn’t a song about it!).

I would like to express my thanks to the many people who have sent their condolences, prayers and good wishes following the death of my sister, Tricia Walker, on 8th January. The past few months have been a very difficult time for our family, as Tricia’s cancer progressed so quickly and came so soon after Dad passed away. Your good wishes are helping to keep us strong. Thank you.

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!

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.