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.

 

An unforgettable moment of inspiration

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Our garden was full of flowers. Here’s me, far left, with my sisters Janet and Tricia and brother Andrew
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The same day in 1970 with Dad, Mum and Nana (Dad’s mum)
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Dad’s study, and the now silent keyboard, where I first had the idea to taken on his columns

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 24th November 2017, & the Gazette & Herald on 22nd November 2017

One of the most satisfying things about writing these columns, apart from the obvious joy of reading my dad’s words from long ago, is that every week I learn something new, be it about the countryside, North Yorkshire, customs, folklore, history, or special days in the calendar to name a few of the topics he covered. It is expanding my knowledge in a way that never would have happened under different circumstances. All those months ago, when we were facing the most awful of times, I never imagined I would be where I am now.

I had absolutely no thoughts about taking on Dad’s columns. But I very clearly remember the moment when it struck me how sad it would be that something he had loyally written for so many years would come to an end. It came when I was staying with my mum, and along with my siblings we were sharing Dad’s care. He’d moved into a room downstairs with a surgical bed and all the paraphernalia that was needed to look after him. By now, his health was deteriorating rapidly, and we knew the inevitable was a matter of days away.

I’d gone into my dad’s study for something and there lying across his now silent computer keyboard was his latest column, which my mum had cut from the newspaper to keep. I was taken aback, as his happy, healthy smiling face beamed out at me from the paper, while in reality, he lay gravely ill at the other end of the corridor. The contrast was stark, and hit me like a blow to the stomach. When you’re in the midst of caring for someone, you’re so busy, and so taken up with the practicalities of the care, that you can easily block out, perhaps intentionally, what is actually happening to them. Seeing him in that picture, reading his words, written as if there was nothing at all wrong, made it abundantly clear to me that his readers would have no idea what was about to happen.

And so I determined that I needed to do something to ensure the columns would not be forgotten. I knew Dad had written them for many years, but at the time, was unaware of the story behind him taking them on from Major Jack-Fairfax Blakeborough. It was only later, with help from my family, that I found out that the Major had written the column for 54 years before his death on January 1st 1976, and that he had been a significant influence on my dad becoming a writer and countryside expert.

This weekend, my brother revealed that he’d found a book given by the Major to my dad when he was aged just 10. The book was called ‘Lizzie Leckonby’ and was a collection of stories from the Whitby Gazette about the exploits of moorswoman Lizzie and her wayward contemporaries. It seems this little book was a source of huge inspiration to Dad, and the seeds that were to become his Constable series (which inspired the ITV drama Heartbeat) must have been sown through reading that book.

This morning, when I sat down to read his column from November 20th 1976, I could picture my dad gazing towards the garden as I read his words about an old Yorkshire saying that suggested a bad winter was due when flowers bloom in late autumn: “As I look from my study window,” he says, “I wonder how much truth there is in this ancient piece of weather lore. Nasturtiums are in full colour, and smaller flowers adorn the rockeries and borders of our cottage garden. I’ve a primrose in bloom, the hydrangea is glowing pink, roses are out and one rose-bud is about to burst into colour. If this argument holds good, it seems we are in for a rough time.”

He wasn’t to know then, but the old Yorkshire folklore was spot on, as I discovered when I looked it up. The website netweather.tv has a history of British winters, stretching right back to the 17th century. It says that heavy snow fell in early December 1976, and then in January 1977 there were drifts of up to six feet! It continued to be heavy, particularly in the north-east, into February too.

So take a look out of the windows into your garden at your flowering plants. Are we in for a cruel winter?