A story that’s dead in the water?

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The Lewis Creighton painting of Dead Man’s Pool near Beggar’s Bridge in Glaisdale, North Yorkshire
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A salmon leaps out of the water in the corner above Creighton’s signature
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Another of Creighton’s paintings on my aunt’s wall, this one of Beggar’s Bridge near Glaisdale, North Yorkshire

I was visiting my aunt in Pickering recently and remarked upon the several Lewis Creighton pictures on her wall. He was known as The Moorland Painter, thanks to his wonderful depictions of the North York Moors.

Creighton was a familiar feature of my childhood, in as much as my grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, all had his paintings. My dad’s maternal grandparents ran the Anglers’ Rest pub in Glaisdale, and the family story goes that Creighton used to frequent the pub and would sometimes settle his tab with paintings. I have no idea if that is true, but we do seem to have accumulated a fair few of them.

You will still find pieces of his work for sale today and they fetch a few hundred pounds. I don’t understand why they are not more expensive, as some that are in our hands are very well done. He had a particular gift for mood, colour, light and shade.

One of the four on my aunt’s wall caught my eye, as it had a slightly different feel to the others. Instead of rugged moorland scenery, it illustrated the calm and serene waters of a river. My aunt explained that it was a spot called Dead Man’s Pool, which lies on the River Esk, not far from Beggar’s Bridge in Glaisdale.

From what I can gather, Dead Man’s Pool is a particularly deep section, and over the years has had a reputation for being a favourite place to catch salmon and brown trout. In fact, my ancestors, the Rheas, were instrumental in re-introducing salmon to the Esk, I think in the 1920s or 30s, after they had died out about a decade earlier. As I mentioned, my great grandfather, Thomas Rhea, ran a public house which was originally called Three Blast Furnaces after the local iron works. The works had closed down in 1875, yet fishing in the area was very popular, with people travelling from all over try their luck in the Esk. So in the 1930s, Thomas Rhea changed the name of the pub to Anglers’ Rest.

I asked my aunt if she knew how that part of the river got such a tragic name, and she said something along the lines of “People used to go up there to finish themselves off”! Of course, I then needed to find out more, and to discover whether what she was saying was true.

It turns out there is not a vast amount written about Dead Man’s Pool, but I did find an article in the Whitby Gazette from 30th October 1903 which described it as ‘the only salmon-anglers’ paradise in Yorkshire’.

The same piece goes on to say, ‘It is a piece of dead-looking water where three years ago an angler fished up a good boot from the bottom, the very boot, so ‘tis said, which was lost by the unfortunate person after whom this pool was named.’ But the writer does not elaborate further on the story.

I also came across a sad tale that happened a few years later, in 1906. Appearing in the Leeds and Yorkshire Mercury on June 1st of that year, it explained: ‘The unaccountable absence of Mr Wm Middleton, residing at the Anglers’ Quarters, Glaisdale, occasioned much anxiety to his relatives throughout Wednesday, and during the latter portion of the day, a search for him was instituted. This resulted in his body being found in Dead Man’s Pool, Arncliffe Woods, about eight o’clock in the evening.’

A report from the same day in the Whitby Gazette stated that Mr Middleton was a businessman from Stratford, London, who’d been staying with his brother-in-law, Edward Caygill, in Glaisdale for some weeks. At the inquest, Mr Caygill testified that something had been troubling Mr Middleton, but he could not say what, although on the night before his disappearance, he had been ‘as full of life as could be’. He had never threatened to take his own life. However, the jury returned a verdict of suicide by drowning while in an unsound state of mind. Records show that the pool was named many years before this event though.

Incidentally, during my search, I found that an oil painting of Dead Man’s Pool by a Mr & Mrs Lester Sutcliffe, sold for £7.7s in October 1897.

Anyone know how much that would be worth in today’s money?

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 29th April and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 27th April 2022.

A bit of a pig

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Residents of Staithes are a ‘superstitious lot’, according to my aunt, whose roots lie in the North Yorkshire fishing village. Picture by Alastair Smith

An aunt of mine who lives up on the North York Moors called me after reading the column I wrote last month about robins and the superstitions associated with them. I’d mentioned that in times gone by, seeing a robin was bad luck and some people, if they received a Christmas card featuring a robin, refused to display it. I wondered if that superstition still prevailed today.

According to my aunt, it certainly persists on the Moors and the east coast. A friend of hers, who died just four years ago and lived in the village of Loftus near Saltburn, would tear up any Christmas cards she received with a robin on them as she believed they were portents of death. My aunt also belongs to a local history group that meets regularly in the picturesque fishing village of Staithes, and she reported that a couple of members still refuse to display cards with robins on them.

My aunt’s paternal side of the family hail from Staithes, and she declared they were a ‘superstitious lot’, as were residents of many of the villages dotting that part of the east coast. She also revealed that some members of her group refuse to say the word ‘pig’ aloud and will either spell it out letter by letter, or refer to them as ‘squealers’. It is well known that seafaring communities have many superstitions that have lasted down the centuries, such as not whistling on a boat as that would ‘whistle down the wind’, encouraging a storm to brew. When your way of life is so hazardous, when your very livelihood, never mind your life, lies at the mercy of unpredictable weather, it is not surprising that you resort to whatever means at your disposal to try to keep yourself and your loved ones safe.

But I was mystified as to why the word ‘pig’ was so taboo. I have found a couple of explanations, but none that I would call ‘definitive’. One was that as pigs couldn’t swim, it was considered a temptation of fate to either utter their name or to bring them on board. What confuses me about this theory is that many sailors had never been taught to swim either. So how come their presence didn’t tempt fate too?

Another suggestion is that the pig is one of the most important animals associated with Celtic myths. Manannan was a sea-god heavily associated swine, purportedly being the custodian of a never-diminishing herd. If the numbers reduced for any reason, they would magically and spontaneously replenish. Sows were associated with fertility and wealth, while male boars were symbols of courage. However, they were also associated with deception, disobedience and with bringing about death. So perhaps therein lies the the root of the superstition.

My aunt also mentioned that it was unlucky for seafarers to cross paths with a woman en route to their boats. If they did, they would turn tail, go all the way back home and start their journey again before daring to set sail. Some also believed that having women on board a vessel was unlucky. There were similar beliefs around church ministers too, with one explanation being that this symbol of what they called the ‘new religion’ would earn the wrath of the ancient sea gods.

I found an interesting quote from 1968 in the Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland which goes: “We don’t mention pigs. We call ‘em Grecians, jacks, four-legged dinners, ‘owt but a pig. But the odd thing about Staithes people is that while they won’t speak of pigs, almost every fishing family keeps one.” There were similar beliefs around salmon, which would be replaced with the words ‘fine bit fish’ or ‘reid fish’, while rabbits became ‘bob tail’, ‘fower fitter’ or ‘mappin’. Rats and cats are also said to be unlucky (although I was under the impression that a ship’s cat was an essential member of the crew, its job being to keep the rat population down!).

If by some dreadful misfortune the unlucky word was uttered, the only way to turn fortunes back again was to touch something metal and declare the words ‘cold iron’. Others believed that the only way to undo the curse was to spill the blood of the animal in question.

I hope the same didn’t apply to women and church ministers!

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

A wasted move

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Work takes me to some lovely places, including the North York Moors

My dad’s column from 8th August 1981 starts with a rant on one of his favourite topics, that of inconsiderate drivers clogging up our country roads. Although he was a patient man, Dad couldn’t abide what he called ‘Sunday drivers’ (His rant sparked one of my own, which you can read further down!).

I giggled as I read, hearing his voice in my head as I had heard it for real on many occasions: “I saw one at the head of a procession this week, trundling merrily along with a fuming queue behind. In the queue was a caravan, a lorry and a bus, and our hero’s selfish behaviour meant the caravan driver couldn’t overtake, and his slow speed was such that the caravan could not climb a steep hill. Our little man sailed over the summit leaving behind a queue of very angry motorists all stuck behind a caravan on a steep hill. I’ve no doubt, though, that he would congratulate himself on his skills.”

I am often in my car for work and enjoy it when the journeys take me to lovely locations around North Yorkshire. I’ve been despatched a number of times recently to Goathland, now a tourist honeypot since playing Aidensfield in the TV series Heartbeat, which was based on my dad’s Constable series of books.

I was due to meet a couple interested in buying a house on the North York Moors. I’m not one to often get cross, but this particular day was a very busy one, and a round trip to Goathland was more than two hours in the car on a baking hot day. I’m more than happy to make the journey for those with a genuine interest in seeing the house with a view to possibly buying it. However, this particular couple spent 10 minutes looking around, most of the time pointing out the faults of this pretty little moorland cottage, before the wife said, “I’m sorry you’ve had a wasted trip all the way from York, but we knew we didn’t’t want it before we came.”

Never has the word ‘sorry’ meant less. She can’t have been sorry about wasting my time, otherwise she would have let me know she didn’t want it before I drove all the way out there, wouldn’t she? Did it ever cross her mind that my hard-working boss would have to pay me for my time and my petrol just so she could spend 10 minutes poking around a house she had no intention of ever buying? Does she think we do this because we love nothing more than to meet selfish and thoughtless time wasters like her? Small businesses like ours are grateful to have survived the pandemic, but if everyone behaved like that, we would have no business at all.

The reason she didn’t want it, she explained, was because she knew there was a holiday home on neighbouring land. She said that they loved the moors and wanted to find a home but without visitors staying nearby.

So, if you want that quiet idyllic country lifestyle, but without the visitors, then perhaps it’s not the best idea to go looking in areas that are tourist hotspots, don’t you think? I do wonder sometimes if people forget that those who live and work in rural areas have to create ways to earn their living, and it’s no secret that places like the Dales and the Moors struggle to keep their young folk because there are simply not enough career opportunities to keep them there.

There are pros and cons of becoming a popular destination. The cons are obvious, but I would argue that the pros outnumber them. It would be interesting to find out from the North York Moors National Park Authority how much income is generated by visitors, income that helps maintain and look after our wonderful county and its beauty spots. And it would also be interesting to know just how many jobs have been created as a direct result of the success of Heartbeat, All Creatures Great and Small, Harry Potter and the like. Think of all the business that must generated for the hotels, guest houses, holiday cottages, restaurants, cafes, museums and other attractions, many of which are small independent organisations.

If I come across that couple again, I might suggest they move to the moon.

Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 13th and the Gazette & Herald on  11th August 2021

Shoe the bad luck away

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A lucky horseshoe outside a building in Bournemouth. Picture by Mick Gisbourne
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A horseshoe above a garage in Staithes, North Yorkshire. Picture by Alastair Smith

It’s funny how, despite all the advances in science and technology, some of us still hang on to old superstitions that common sense tells us cannot make any difference to our everyday lives.

We insist on saluting magpies, throwing salt over our shoulders and blessing people when they sneeze. One of the oldest and most persistent of superstitions surrounds the horseshoe, an item of equine foot protection that dates back to at least 400BC. The need to preserve the hooves of these hard-working animals was recognised almost as soon as horses were domesticated, and early versions, known to the Romans as ‘hipposandals’, were fashioned out of materials such as woven plants, leather and rawhide.

It wasn’t until around the sixth and seventh centuries AD that metal horseshoes began to be used in the colder Northern European climates to help steeds get a better grip on frozen terrain. They also shielded hooves that were easily damaged by hard daily toil over rough ground. It became apparent that if the hoof was covered, it enabled a horse to move faster, and therefore became an important tool not only in everyday life, but also in the sport of horse racing.

The first metal horseshoes were fashioned out of cast bronze, with iron following in the fourteenth century, the preferred material until relatively recently. Today though, you get horseshoes made of steel, aluminium, composite plastic and even rubber, the substance dependant upon what kind of activity the hooves will be subjected to. For example, steel is used for heavy horses and heavy work, whereas aluminium is appropriate for lighter duties and needs to be replaced more often. Composite and rubber shoes help to cushion the hoof and are useful on softer surfaces, or if the horse has an injury.

But why the association with luck? According to my dad in his column from 23rd May 1981, the origins of the connection are hard to pin down, but there are a number of theories. One is its shape; a horseshoe resembles a crescent moon, a motif that has so many links to historical symbolisms that it is impossible to explore them fully here. Another thread of discussion stems from the fact that ancient man would have found it hard to understand how a metal object could be nailed to a foot without causing any pain or spilling any blood. Also, when knocked against a stone, the shoe produces sparks, so it’s not hard to understand how a primitive mind might have associated this object with magical powers.

But which way up is the correct way to hang a lucky horseshoe? This again is a topic for debate. What is not disputed is that it needs to be hung either above the entrance to a building, or on an outside wall.

If you hang it like the letter ‘U’, then the idea is that it will ‘collect’ luck, like a bucket collects water. However, if you hang it the other way up, then it pours the luck over anyone who crosses the threshold. If there were seven holes in the shoe, it was important that you hung it using nails in all of them, as that was a lucky number. Some people would hang them sideways like the letter ‘C’, and this is supposed to symbolise Christ.

The amalgamation of paganism and Christianity clearly comes to the fore when it comes this practice. The horseshoe’s association with luck predates Christianity, and yet, as I referred to in the opening paragraph, people have always found it difficult to let go of long-held superstitions that haven been passed down from one generation to another. I wonder if some early Christians with pagan forefathers may already have had a horseshoe above their door and simply decided to turn it on its side to reflect the new religion? Nailing it in place also had the obvious connection with nailing Christ to the cross.

To this day, the horseshoe symbolises luck, and a quick scan of any card shop shelf will reveal a healthy crop of examples of the image. But I wonder how many readers still have horseshoes nailed above their doorways? And which way up is most commonly seen where you live? And has anyone spotted one that is turned on its side like the letter ‘C’?

Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 28th and the Gazette & Herald on 26th May 2021

A fledgling emergency

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(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 15th June, & the Gazette & Herald on 13th June 2018).

I was on a dog walk this morning when I came across a scruffy, chubby little chick perched by the side of the path. Every now and then, he’d give a few cheeps and look about himself in bewilderment, as if saying, “How on earth did I get here? And now what am I supposed to do?”

I had visions of him bravely leaping out of his nest into the unknown, and landing in unfamiliar territory without any notion of how to take off again. He didn’t look very happy, and I wondered if I ought to help him in any way. I couldn’t spot his parents anywhere.

In years gone by, I would have stood there agonising about what to do, fearing he’d be a tasty meal for the next passing cat. But one of the benefits of the modern age is that we have technology at our fingertips. So I took out my phone and Googled ‘What to do if I find a baby bird’. Those clever people at the RSPB came to my rescue, having dedicated a whole page on their website to just such a emergency.

For those you who don’t know, they say: “It’s common in spring and summer to find young birds sitting on the ground or hopping about without any sign of their parents…interfering with a young bird like this will do more harm than good.” It goes on to say they will not have been abandoned by their parents, who will either be watching unseen, or gathering food, and that you should leave them as they they are. “Removal of a fledgling from the wild has to be a very last resort – then only if it is injured or has definitely been abandoned or orphaned.”

So, thanks to my phone, I was very quickly reassured that I was doing the right thing by simply leaving it where it was, despite its anxious chirping and my worries about dastardly feline predators.

He was quite a chunky, round, fellow, with pleasantly dishevelled feathers, a tell-tale sign that he was just a youngster. He was mostly dark brown, yet speckled with dashes of light brown, and my gut instinct told me he was a baby blackbird, although I wasn’t sure. I took a few photos to look it up on my return, and, sure enough I was right. I think my dad would have been pleased. My countryside knowledge is growing by the week!

Dad just loved the nature that surrounded him, and he described June as a ‘beautiful time’ in his column from 17th June 1978. He goes on to talk about its reputation of being a ‘dry’ month, and the long-range forecast in that year predicted it would live up to that reputation. “However,” he adds, “We must not overlook the possibility of heavy downpours – indeed they’ve already come!”

Which is pretty much the same as now, with the first few days of June being as Dad described 40 years ago. I’ve checked the long-range forecast for this month too and it is strikingly similar, predicting mostly dry weather with the occasional heavy downpour.

He goes on to explain that is also known as the month of the ‘haysel’, an ancient word no longer in use, and not found in any of his trusty dialect glossaries. It refers to the period of gathering in the hay, when the ripe grass is cut, dried and carried into the barns for storage. When Dad was a boy, it was a time of great communal activity, and the whole village would turn out to help the farmers gather in their hay before the next heavy downpour. The farmer’s wife would provide a ready supply of drinks to the thirsty workers, including beer and cider, although according to Dad, the rather unappetising-sounding ‘cold tea’ was more commonly drunk.

Dad’s favourite part was once they were in the yard, when him and the other small children would launch themselves into the barn and, as it was in the days before bale machines, make dens and hiding places in the fresh, warm grass as it was unloaded off the carts. He notes that by 1978, almost all of the hay-gathering was done by machinery, and wistfully observes, “Haysel has gone from our language; I wonder how long it will be before haymaking as we knew it also disappears?”

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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!

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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?

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From memories to remembrance

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(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 25th May, & the Gazette & Herald on 23rd May 2018).

Sometimes, researching material for these columns is a bit like being a detective. I read Dad’s words from the corresponding week 40 years ago, and that triggers off an idea which can require me to delve into the archives of cuttings and photographs that we have stored at my parents’ home. Usually this, along with a few targeted questions to my mum and siblings, and some rummaging around the internet, helps me to build up a picture of what was going on in the world at the time Dad was writing the column.

This week, I was reading his column from May 27th 1978, in which he talks about the visit by Prince Charles to Great Ayton. That is just about all he says about the visit itself, and he goes on to talk about the school in the village where Captain James Cook was educated as a young boy.

I then recalled having seen a picture in our archives of Prince Charles with my dad standing in the background and wondered if it was that same occasion at Great Ayton. If I could find it, then wouldn’t it be a good accompanying picture to this week’s column!

So I called my mum and asked about said picture, at which point she put me straight, “Oh no, that was Whitby up at the Captain Cook memorial,” she said.

Momentarily disappointed, I thought my quest had come to an end. But when I googled ‘Prince Charles visit to Great Ayton 1978’, the results also showed that his visit to Whitby was on 1st June 1978. And going back to the first paragraph of my dad’s column, he said the visit to Great Ayton was ‘on the following Thursday’, i.e. 1st June 1978 too, so of course Charles would be visiting both places on the same day! My quest was back on track.

The visit was part of the Royal Tour of Cleveland, which included celebrations for the 250th anniversary of Cook’s birth, and so Prince Charles was visiting some of the spots that were significant in Cook’s life. He unveiled a plaque at the Cook Memorial, which is where the picture showing my dad in the background was taken. Unfortunately I don’t possess an original, just a copy of the photo from the paper. Annoyingly, I couldn’t lay my hands on the original cutting either, despite raiding my dad’s mind-boggling collection of cuttings, and so had to continue my Poirot-esque quest for information elsewhere.

What Dad fails to mention in his article is that at the time, he was press officer for North Yorkshire Police, and as such, was heavily involved in all royal visits to the region. Another search of the internet threw up some photographs from that day, and sure enough, Dad can be spotted lurking in some of them. It’s an odd feeling when you find photos of your loved ones that you never knew existed, and it added another small piece to the jigsaw of my dad’s life that I am piecing together now he’s gone. The pictures were taken during Dad’s thankfully short-lived ‘moustache’ phase, when, in his uniform, he wouldn’t have looked out of place next to a line-up of the Village People.

Dad worked for North Yorkshire Police for 30 years until he retired in 1982 to write full time. He was always very proud of his police career, and, as a gifted storyteller, particularly enjoyed his time as press officer. I was honoured to be invited along with my mum, sister and brother, to the North Yorkshire Police headquarters for a service on 13th May to remember the lives of those men and women who have either died during their service, or after they left. It was a very moving occasion, particularly hearing about the tragic cases of officers who had fallen while on duty.

One of the most memorable cases Dad dealt with while press officer was the hunt for killer Barry Prudom, who was on the run in North Yorkshire in 1982. Dad’s approach when dealing with the media in this case was quite revolutionary, and he received a commendation as a result, as well as a personal call from Scotland Yard to say it would be adopted nationally. So when the two officers murdered by Prudom were remembered at the service, it was especially poignant.

So please take a moment to remember, and never forget, the names of PC David Haigh and Sergeant David Winter.

Dawn – a chorus or a cacophony?

 

 

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The blackbird often leads the chorus, like an avian Gareth Malone
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And early bird in full song

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 18th May, & the Gazette & Herald on 25th May 2018).

The insomniacs and early risers among you will have noticed that as the mornings are getting lighter, so the noise produced by our energetic bird population is getting louder.

I have a love-hate relationship with the dawn chorus, depending how much sleep I’ve had during the night. If I’m well rested, then it’s like uplifting music to gently come round to. After a wakeful night, however, it’s more like an unpracticed school orchestra warming up in my garden.

Like the call of the cuckoo I mentioned last week, the arrival of the dawn chorus is another sign that winter is behind us. The chorus is predominantly made up of male birds looking for love, and those with the loudest songs quickly attract partners. The bird produces his tune from an organ called the syrinx, and a lusty syrinx draws the females like bees to pollen. His spirited birdsong saps much of his energy, and so not only does he have to be fit, but he must be an excellent hunter to ensure he has enough food to keep his strength up. So if he can be heard above the other members of the chorus, discerning females will assume that he is likely to not only father healthy chicks, but also be a reliable source of sustenance for the growing family.

The dawn chorus season lasts from late April through to early June, and once a bird has secured his lady love, he is no longer required to sing so loudly. So as the season progresses, fewer birds take part. It’s likely that you will hear the odd bird singing a lonely tune at dawn late on in the season, but sadly he’s probably been saddled with an inadequately-performing syrinx and as such, is destined to remain single and loveless.

As my dad explains in his column from 20th May 1978, there’s an order in which the birds sing the daily chorus, and more often than not it’s the blackbird who starts them off. He is one of our finest songsters and, like the bird equivalent of Gareth Malone, he leads the feathered choir melodiously towards the new day. Soon his contemporaries, such as the song thrush, the wood pigeon, the robin, the turtle dove, the pheasant, the willow-warbler, and the wren all join in.

As the sun comes up, the chorus diminishes, usually lasting from half an hour before to half an hour after sunrise. This is because that once the day has fully dawned, then the insects, seeds and nuts that the birds feed upon become easier to spot. The sounds that you hear during the day are mostly bird calls which are a type of communication, such as alerts to danger, disputes between rivals, or messages to one another.

There’s quite a difference between birdsong and bird calls. Calls are short, simple sounds, whereas songs consist of a more complicated and longer sequence of notes. There is some debate about whether birds can sing just for the sake or enjoyment of it. But when I watch a blackbird in full throttle near the top of the poplars by my house, he certainly looks to be enjoying himself.

The dawn chorus is a phenomenon that happens all over the world, and the first Sunday in May is now International Dawn Chorus Day where we are invited to get up early and appreciate one of nature’s most entertaining performances. The day came about in the 1980s when broadcaster and environmentalist Chris Bailey hosted a birthday party at 4am specifically so that his guests would enjoy the dawn chorus, and it grew from there, with 80 countries now participating. Events are organised all over the UK by bodies such as the Wildlife Trust, the RSPB and the National Trust, so that we can all learn to appreciate the wonder of such a spectacle.

As I’m writing this a few days before Sunday 6th May, I’m yet to make up my mind whether to rise early or not, as in recent days, I have already heard the dawn chorus several times thanks to a doggie guest who seems to want to make sure I don’t miss it! So, as he will have gone home by Sunday, I might just take the opportunity to grab a much needed sleep in!

 

School bully of the bird world?

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(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Timeson 11th May, & the Gazette & Herald on 9th May 2018).

As I write this column (about 2 weeks before you will read it) I’m disappointed to have to report that I am yet to hear the uplifting sound of a cuckoo’s call. It is one of those quintessentially British sounds of the countryside that heralds the firm arrival of warmer weather and brings to mind things like afternoon tea, country fairs and cricket on the village green.

But, as my dad says in his column from 13th May 1978, it is a bit of a mystery a to why we associate this bird so firmly with our shores, as it is not a native, but merely an annual visitor who chooses to come here for the summer to breed when its own home in Africa proves too hot to bear.

The cuckoo is a bit like the school bully of the avian world. They pick on small defenceless little birds, like the dunnock or meadow pipit, and when they are not looking, hoick an egg out of the unwitting little birds’ nests and lay their own in its place. After about 12 days, the young cuckoo hatches, and immediately displays its bullying nature by chucking all the other chicks out so that it can have all the food to itself.

When all is said and done, the dunnocks and pipits must be a bit dim not to notice that their cute little fledglings have vanished and been replaced by a ravenous monster that looks nothing like them. But no, they keep on feeding the imposter until they are dwarfed by it, at which point it flies off without a backward glance or even a thank you. Unbelievable.

Cuckoos have always been notoriously difficult to spot, and even more so today, as they sadly find themselves on the RSPB’s Birds of Conservation Concern Red List, along with 66 other species. They have halved in number over the past 20 years, with an estimate of 15,000 breeding pairs due here this year.

One in four UK birds are of conservation concern and need some form of action to halt and turn around their decline. In 2015, there were a startling 20 new species added to the red list, which sees many familiar names under threat, such as the herring gull, kittiwake, nightingale, hawfinch, yellowhammer, house sparrow, tree sparrow, starling and song thrush to name just a few. Even more worrying is that some, such as the puffin, turtle dove, pochard and Slavonian grebe, are facing global extinction.

Like I mentioned last week when talking about butterflies, there are things you can do to help, such as to support the RSPB’s and other bird charities’ fundraising and conservation efforts, which are already seeing some successes. Bitterns were considered extinct by the 1870s, and yet now, their population is at the highest it has been for 200 years. Similarly the avocet disappeared from the UK in the 19th century, only to make a tentative return in the 1940s, and now, in a large part thanks to the RSPB and other conservation efforts restoring and preserving their natural habitats, their numbers are healthy again.

While I was writing this piece, I began to wonder about the word ‘cuckold’ and it’s relationship to the bird, and sure enough, they are connected. We are all probably aware that a cuckold is a man whose wife has been unfaithful, but the cuckoo connection stems from where another man’s baby is raised in the home and at the expense of the cuckold. He is a human dunnock.

The first written use of the term is recorded in a 12th or 13th century satirical poem called The Owl and the Nightingale (author unknown), and then it was used again by Geoffrey Chaucer in The Miller’s Tale in the late 14th century. Shakespeare was also very fond of it, and a good number of his characters were either unwitting cuckolds, or (rightly or wrongly) suspected their wives to have cuckolded them.

These days it also has the unfortunate fame of being a term in common usage in certain fields of pornography, a fact I only discovered by accident when researching this column. I won’t enlighten you on what eyebrow-raising websites I stumbled upon (albeit only on a Google search results list!), but needless to say, I swiftly changed my search criteria!