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.

Harvesting the good will of the village

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(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 22nd September 2017, & the Malton Gazette & Herald on 20th September 2017)

T’is the season of the harvest festival where churches up and down the land welcome donations from their generous congregations to help people suffering hardship. I remember as a child the altar and window ledges of our local church being laden with fresh produce of the season, including carrots, potatoes, marrows, apples, pears and tomatoes. I also remember oranges, but obviously these exotic interlopers must have been flown in especially for the occasion to provide an extra splash of colourful glamour to the muted hues of our home-grown exhibits.

In his column from 18th September 1976, Dad describes how churchgoers only brought their finest examples which were spruced up and polished to perfection: ‘Somehow the fruit on display looks more tempting that it did at home…It seems the people bring forth their best for this service,’ he says. There’s no doubt that a whiff of rivalry hovered over parishioners who determined whether competing donations were up to standard. Woe betide anyone seen to be bringing in some unfortunate malformed marrow or a misproportioned potato.

I felt similar pressures when my children were at primary school. By then, harvest festival had become more about helping those less fortunate than yourself than about celebrating the bounty of the harvest. I’ve been trying to find out why, and some sources suggest it is because these days, our locally-grown produce ripens much earlier than mid-September. Certainly, the apples in my garden are about done and the blackberries, elderberries and sloes on my dog-walking routes are more or less over. Others suggest it’s because we have lost seasonality in our produce, with growers being able to ripen fruit and veg all year-round with the help of artificial sources of heat and light.

The truth probably lies somewhere between but I’m sure I wasn’t alone in being one of those mothers who could be found digging around in the kitchen cupboard late of an evening after one of the children had told me that they needed a donation for the school harvest service the following morning. We had to provide non-perishable food or toiletries which would be given to the homeless and people living in poverty. These were the days before late-night-opening shops were within easy distance (today’s parents of young children have no idea of the difficulties we suffered!). So it was usually a toss-up between baked beans, tomato soup, or an out-of-date tin of plum tomatoes (bought by mistake instead of chopped tomatoes and left to languish. Who has the time to chop plum tomatoes?). And obviously, brands were always donated before own brand for fear of being thought a cheapskate. I do wonder how many tins of beans, soup and tomatoes ended up on the church altar, and now feel a pang of guilt for inflicting this uninspiring collection of tomato-based foodstuffs on people who couldn’t choose what they were given.

The word harvest comes from the old English word ‘haerfest’ which referred to the period between August and November, now called Autumn. A Rev. Robert Hawker from Cornwall reportedly started the Christian tradition in 1843 by offering communion bread made from the first corn of the harvest, although the festival itself began life as a pagan celebration many centuries earlier.

Dad loved his food, especially a good old Yorkshire curd tart, and so it’s no surprise that for him, the highlight of the festival was the harvest supper. As he explains: ‘The ladies of the village forget their differences and bake mountains of fresh bread, cakes, pies and buns, and these are laid out beautifully on white clothed tables in the village hall.’ According to my mum, after the supper all the produce that had been brought to church would be sold off to raise much-needed funds. Where I live, the annual harvest supper no longer takes place, but I’d be interested to find out if this tradition still persists elsewhere.

I’d be even more interested to know what differences the ladies of my village had to put aside to work together for the harvest supper? Suggestions on a postcard please…

 

Who was the Countryman?

 

The Countryman was my dad, Peter N Walker (aka Nicholas Rhea), who died on 21st April 2017 from prostate cancer.

He was a full-time writer for more than 35 years, and before that, wrote in his spare time from his job as a policeman. He wrote stories based on his experiences and they were turned into the hugely successful TV series Heartbeat. But he also wrote much more, including crime novels, detective novels, short stories, local history books, collections of folk stories and tales, and also columns for local papers.

When he was younger, he used to read the Countryman’s Diary in the Darlington and Stockton Times by a well-known writer and local history expert, Major John Fairfax-Blakeborough. The Major had always been an inspiration and source of encouragement to my dad, who dreamed of taking over his column, so when he passed away, Dad was thrilled to be invited to take over. He continued that column for 41 years, and another (Rural View) for around 30 years in the Malton Gazette and Herald. Despite his success, he had a huge sense of loyalty and would not give up the weekly columns, continuing right up until a couple of weeks before his death, although towards the end, they were a struggle for him.

After his death, I began to wonder what would happen to his columns, and felt it would be a shame for them to simply disappear after so many years. With support from my family, I called the editors of the papers who readily agreed to my taking them over, even though I don’t have Dad’s writing pedigree, nor his extensive knowledge of all things country and Yorkshire. But, as my brother pointed out, I do have access to my dad’s archive, 40-plus years’ worth of columns to draw upon.

So I decided to take each column from the same week 40 years ago and see what I could use to inspire my column for today. What I have found is not only a wealth of material, but that it is bringing back some memories that were long-since forgotten, memories of my dad, and of our family, of which he was so proud. And it feels like I am getting to know my dad in a way I never expected nor thought possible. It’s an honour to be able to do it and, step by step, week by week, it is helping me make my way along the long road of grief that his passing has left behind.

Sarah xxx