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and done, the dunnocks and pipits must be a bit dim not to notice that their cute little fledglings have vanished and been replaced by a ravenous monster that looks nothing like them.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!

All a flutter in the garden

 

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Me, far left, with my siblings in our 1970s flower-filled garden
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My mum with my brother in the garden in front of a bed of nasturtiums
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The once common small tortoiseshell butterfly is now under threat

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Timeson 4th May, & the Gazette & Herald on 2nd May 2018).

It’s always a bit of thrill when I look back to my Dad’s columns and find myself mentioned. On 6th May 1978, the 10-year-old me had found a caterpillar and wanted to know which butterfly it would turn into. It was an inch long, had two sets of short legs, six at the front and eight at the rear, with rows of yellow dots running the length of its pale green body. The head was small and green too.

Dad couldn’t identify it at first glance, but, as is still the case today, his study was stuffed full of reference books which he called upon, and sure enough, within minutes we had identified it as the caterpillar of the Meadow Brown butterfly.

The Meadow Brown is one of the UK’s most common and prolific butterflies with mainly brown wings, in the middle of which are what look like beady black little eyes with tiny white pupils. The females can be distinguished by their obvious splash of orange towards the tips of the upper wings. They emerge from their chrysalis’ around late June and are active over the summer months.

Sadly, some of the 59 treasured UK butterfly species are not faring so well. In fact, butterflies are one of the most threatened groups of wildlife in the country, with two-thirds of their species in decline.

Last year, the small tortoiseshell, once one of our most populous varieties, was placed on Countryfile Magazine’s list of the ten most endangered animal species in Britain, alongside natterjack toads and red squirrels. The reason was its rapid recent decline of 77% over the ten years up to 2013. Year after year of wet springs and summers, which some attribute to global warming, have led to a serious decline in its natural habitat.

Other perhaps less well known species also fared very badly over the past couple of years. In 2017, the Grizzled Skipper and the Grayling suffered their worst year since records began. Grizzled Skipper numbers have halved since the 1970s, and Grayling numbers are down 63% over the last decade.

The Cabbage White was one of those I saw most often growing up, and so was sad to learn that it is in a state of long-term decline. I do remember a bed of nasturtiums in the back garden which used to be teeming with them. They’d lay their bright yellow eggs on the underside of the leaves, and then soon dozens of caterpillars would appear and feast on them, much to my mum’s aggravation.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. The Red Admiral is up 78% compared to 2016, and the Comma is up an impressive 91%, with both increasing in numbers over the long-term.

The remedy for stopping the decline is pretty straightforward, if not always simple to implement. If their natural habitat is available, then the species will thrive. The thing is though, different species prefer different types of habitat, and not all are easy, or even possible, to replicate.

There are things you can do to attract certain butterflies to your garden and help keep numbers healthy. They need flowering plants right from early spring through to late September (the Internet is a rich source of recommendations), and if you choose different plants, you will attract different species. Place your flowers in warm, sunny spots sheltered from the wind, and put the same plants in blocks together. Increase the life of your flowers with regular deadheading and by mulching with organic compost. Avoid insecticides and pesticides, and also, if you’re buying compost, get one that is peat free. Peat, which is a declining natural resource, is an important habitat for a number of special animals and plants, including the Large Heath butterfly.

Sadly, it’s rather difficult for us to use our gardens to help the most threatened species I mentioned earlier, as their habitats are very different. The Grizzled Skipper thrives in woodland glades, wild grasslands, abandoned industrial sites and even rubbish tips. The Grayling enjoys coastal cliffs, dunes, salt marshes and old quarries. But what we can do is support conservation efforts by raising awareness, volunteering and fundraising.

I can’t end this column without commenting on the spectacular names given to some of these fluttering marvels. Who is responsible for Grizzled Skipper? Was it an old voyage-weary ship’s captain? And what about Mountain Ringlet and Glanville Fritillary? And you can only wonder how Cryptic Wood White and Purple Hairstreak got their names (Source: butterfly-conservation.com).

 

A year without the Countryman

 

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My sister Tricia and my dad, who both died recently 
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Me with sister Tricia in London in September 2017
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Me with my dad in summer 2016

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 20th April 2018 and the Gazette and Herald newspaper on 18th April 2018. 

April 21st marks the first anniversary of my dad Peter Walker’s death from prostate cancer. By a sad coincidence, it is also the same day as Bill Maynard’s funeral (he played Dad’s loveable Heartbeat character, Claude Jeremiah Greengrass, on screen), so my thoughts will be with his family as I reflect on my own loss.

It’s been a strange and difficult year, so I hope you will indulge me as I ponder on what has happened, and pay tribute to the services that we didn’t truly appreciate before we had to call upon them (It’s going to be a tough column to write, so I’ve opened an industrial-sized box of Maltesers to help me through!).

Dad left a gaping hole in our family’s lives that I’m sure all of you who have lost someone close will understand. My sense of loss has not yet lessened, and sometimes it knocks the wind out of my sails. Silly things get me, like making mashed potato, as my dad made the best mash on the planet (and I’ll fight anyone who says different). And one evening I was making pizza when I remembered the time Dad tried to describe one. “You know, them round flat things that Italians eat!” he’d said. We fell about laughing, as it was such a Yorkshire way to put it. It’s one of my daftest and fondest memories, and made me smile over my pizza dough, yet seconds later I was in floods of tears as his absence hit me like a blow to the stomach.

The progression of Dad’s illness had been very slow over ten years until it suddenly sped up in April 2017. He went from being physically very able to needing round-the-clock care within a couple of weeks. It was then that we discovered the Ryedale Community Response Team, and I don’t think I exaggerate when I say they were like angels sent from above. Hearing their cheery ‘hello’ as they stepped through the door provided instant relief with every single visit. The team act as emergency help to people who suddenly realise they are no longer able to cope alone. They are a short-term bridge of support until more appropriate care is found.

But very soon, Dad’s needs became such that even four visits a day were not enough, and managing him and his medication the rest of the time was too much for us. Thankfully, a space became available at St Leonard’s Hospice in York and he was taken there on the morning of 21st April. He died later that night.

For us, these past months have been doubly difficult as we were bracing ourselves for our first Christmas without Dad when my sister, Tricia Walker, fell ill at the beginning of December. What she had been dismissing as a stomach bug turned out to be a rare and very aggressive form of cancer. We could barely believe it was happening all over again.

Although Tricia lived in Bournemouth, she wanted to come home to Yorkshire, and was transferred to the specialist cancer unit in the Bexley Wing at St James’ Hospital in Leeds.

Everyone in Bexley looked after Tricia extremely well. It is one of the top cancer centres in the country, so we are blessed here in Yorkshire to have it on our doorstep. We knew she was in the best hands, but sometimes, there just isn’t an answer. It was on 4th January, only four weeks into her illness, that Tricia decided to go into a hospice. She was admitted to St Leonard’s three days later and died in the early hours of 8th January, aged just 53.

Although both my dad and sister were in St Leonard’s for less than a day, I cannot overstate the value of the place. For those last few precious hours, we could forget about everything else, let the hospice staff take over the essential stuff, and just focus on being with them in their final moments. We had a dedicated nurse of whom we could ask just about anything. She displayed empathy, gentle sensitivity and an uncanny instinct for producing a cup of tea exactly when you needed it.

I’m sure those of you who have had experience of other hospices in the area, like St Catherine’s (Scarborough), Martin House (Boston Spa), St Michael’s (Harrogate) and St Teresa’s (Darlington), will understand what I mean when I say that once your loved one crosses over their threshold, it’s like a huge pair of comforting arms is wrapped around you. The hospital and in-home carers were brilliant, but they only had the time and resources to look after the patient. The hospices can accommodate the whole posse of people surrounding the sick person, who, through the stress and worry about what is inevitable, can be somewhat high maintenance themselves.

One of the most significant benefits of losing a loved one in a hospice is that once they are gone, the care for those who’ve been bereaved doesn’t end. They guide you through the next, difficult practical steps and are also at pains to ensure you are supported, should you need it, for many months afterwards.

St Leonard’s offered me bereavement support after Dad died, but I declined, and then offered it again after losing Tricia, and this time I accepted. I wasn’t sure I needed it, but it is possibly one of the best things I’ve done. Being able to offload all the stuff in my head is like releasing the pressure in an overfilled tyre (And as a result, the local stocks of Maltesers have thankfully remained buoyant).

This level of care, which is so desperately important to those who need it, is all free of charge, so hospices have to rely on constant fundraising. St Leonard’s has to raise at least £5million every year to continue to offer these essential services.

The initial 12 months of grief are the most difficult, with a year of first hurdles to overcome. Things like birthdays, (theirs and your own), anniversaries, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day and Christmas become occasions to be endured, and it is a relief when the first one has passed as you hope that the next year it will be that little bit easier.

This year, we are marking Dad’s first anniversary quietly at home with the family.

 

It’s all in a name

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The cast of Heartbeat, with Bill Maynard, far right, who played one of Dads most well-known characters, Claude Jeremiah Greengrass
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Dad’s Heartbeat mugs in his study
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The mug Dad received from the cast after the series ended

 

 

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The mugs on the shelf in Dad’s study where I had ignored them for years

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 13th April 2018, & the Gazette & Herald 11th April 2018. 

Dad had a talent for coming up with splendid names in his books, and he insisted that the best ones were inspired by real people from his life growing up and working as a bobby on the North York Moors.

One of Heartbeat’s best-known characters was the loveable rogue that was Claude Jeremiah Greengrass, portrayed so brilliantly by the inimitable Bill Maynard, who sadly died just a couple of weeks ago. According to Dad, that was a genuine name he had come across as a young bobby many years before it ended up on the pages of the first ‘Heartbeat’ novel, Constable on the Hill, published in 1979.

In Dad’s column from 15th April 1978, we encounter the august-sounding Septimus. Septimus was a schoolfriend, and was so called because he was his family’s seventh son. He was unique because his father was also a seventh son, and so he was in the traditionally auspicious position of being the seventh son of a seventh son.

These fortunate beings were supposed to have been blessed with supernatural powers, but Dad observed that his friend, whom everyone called Sep, displayed no discernible mystical talents. It was possible though, at the tender age of eleven, they were yet to burst forth.

In mediaeval times, it was believed that for the gift to work, the son must be seventh in a line of only boys. If a daughter appeared before the seventh son was born, then the chain, and all the powers associated with it, was broken.

One of their legendary skills was the ability to heal the sick, and back in the day people would travel miles just to be touched by the blessed one. Families would encourage these children to train to be doctors, but those who couldn’t afford to pay for such an education ended up as peasants and labourers, who were nevertheless subject to a constant stream of visits from the great unwell.

It was widely believed that they had a particular talent for curing the illness known as the King’s Evil, or scrofula, a type of lymphatic tuberculosis that resulted in enlarged glands in the neck. Dad recounts a story, reported to have happened as late as the start of the twentieth century, of a Somerset man who had the reputation for curing people with scrofula. On Sundays, he would touch the affected parts of patients, who had to have fasted, and repeated the words of a prayer that only he was allowed to know.

The belief was not confined to England, but was also very strong in Scotland, particularly in the Highlands, and in Ireland where the lucky one was also thought to have the gift of second sight. In France, they called this person a ‘Marcou’, and their body was said to be marked somewhere with a fleur-de-lis. Those with scrofula would touch this marking in the belief that it would rid them of the disease.

Going back to names, I was up at my mum’s the other day and, as I often do, I went into my dad’s study to mooch about a bit. I was intrigued by a couple of mugs on his shelves that had been there for a number of years but which before I’d never really paid much attention to. The two mugs were covered in lists of first names. One mug had ‘Heartbeat VI’ on the front, and when I picked up the other, I found a curled up piece of paper in it which read ‘A gift from the Heartbeat actors’. So I deduced that these must have been ‘end of series’ presents from the actors to the crew. The slightly sad thing about the second mug is that on the inside was inscribed ‘Heartbeat R.I.P.’ next to the picture of a broken heart.

I was, and still am, mystified as to why ITV axed Heartbeat in 2009 when it was still achieving some of the best viewing figures on that channel. Today an active and significant band of fans continues to express their affection for the show through things like Facebook and Twitter. So who knows what the future holds?

It is Dad’s first anniversary soon, and going into his study still stirs up such mixed emotions, as it is the place where I feel his absence most keenly, and yet, his presence is all around me, in his books, in his files, in his collection of trinkets and Heartbeat mementos. Does the time ever come when you stop missing your Dad?

 

Never too old – A fond farewell to Hannah

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Hannah Hauxwell, who has died aged 91
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Yorkshireman Henry Jenkins is said to have lived until he was 169 years old
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Henry Jenkins’ grave stone at St Mary’s Church, Bolton-on-Swale

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 16th February 2018, & the Gazette & Herald on 14th February 2018.

I was saddened to hear that Daleswoman Hannah Hauxwell passed away on January 31st. Hannah rose to fame in the 1970s following the Yorkshire Television documentary ‘Too Long A Winter’ which filmed her arduous existence on her remote farm in Baldersdale. Her everyday struggles against the elements with no running water or electricity touched the nation, and her lovely, engaging personality led to several books and further TV appearances.

She left the farm and moved to a nearby cottage in the late 1980s, but, because the land surrounding it had been cultivated using traditional methods for so long, it was taken over by the Durham Wildlife Trust and is now a nature reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest, known as Hannah’s Meadow.

Hannah’s hardy lifestyle may have contributed to her living to the ripe old age of 91, but, as my dad reveals in his column of 16th February 1978, there is a legend of a Yorkshireman who outlived her by an incredible 78 years! Henry Jenkins is said to have been born in Ellerton-on-Swale in 1501, and the Bolton parish records show he died on December 9th 1670. Unfortunately, births did not have to be registered until 1538, so the claim cannot be verified, but there are several reasons why they are believed, and why Jenkins deserves his memorial at St Mary’s Church in Bolton-on-Swale.

We know most of his young life was spent in agriculture, and as an adult he earned a living as a thatcher and fisherman, although was always a poor man. The most reliable account comes from Anne Saville, who was visiting her sister, Elizabeth Wastell, at Bolton Old Hall. She was intrigued by the elderly gentlemen who wandered into the kitchen asking for alms. Anne, who was well educated, wrote a letter to Dr Tancred Robinson, fellow of the Royal Society, explaining what she had heard from the old man. He authenticated her account and published it in the Society’s Philosophical Transactions, suggesting further investigation into how Jenkins had lived so long.

Anne had asked Jenkins how old he was, and he’d replied that he was around 162 or 163. She writes: “I asked him what kings he remembered. He said Henry VIII. I asked him what public thing he could longest remember. He said Flodden Field. I asked him which king was there. He said , None, he was in France, and the Earl of Surrey was general.”

He went on to tell Anne how at the age of 10 or 12, he was sent to Northallerton with a cart full of arrows which was then given to a bigger boy to take to the army. Anne checked her history books and learned that the battle of Flodden Field had been fought 152 years earlier and that if he had been 10 or 12 then it really did make him around 163 years old when she spoke to him. She discovered that indeed, bows and arrows were used at Flodden Field, and that Jenkins was right about the Earl of Surrey, and that Henry VIII was indeed at Tournay in France. For an uneducated man who could neither read nor write, and one who had been questioned on the spur of the moment, his historical recollections were flawless. Anne went on to question other aged village residents, who said that since their own childhoods, Henry Jenkins had always been elderly.

Because of his age, he was often called upon to settle disputes over rights of way, and he was called to testify in such a case at York Assizes in 1620. He swore on oath to having 120 years of memory, meaning he was alive when the original dispute arose around 100 years earlier. The judge did not believe him, but after Jenkins said he was employed as a butler by Lord Conyers of Hornby Hall at the time, when they checked the records, sure enough his name was listed.

There is no way of knowing for sure how old Henry Jenkins was, but there are claims of a Bolivian living to 123 years old, an Indonesian to 145, an Ethiopian to 160, and an Azerbaijani to 168. But it is French woman Jeanne Louise Calment who holds the place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest person to have been proven to have lived for 122 years and 164 days before she died in 1997.

ENDS