IT is not easy to pinpoint a precise commencement date that witnessed the very first April Fool practical joke played on friends and relatives. Generally, it is thought that the famous English author and antiquarian, John Aubrey (1626-1697) first identified this custom in Germany but it also seems to have been commonly practised in other parts of Europe, France in particular.
By the middle of the 17th century it was a popular form of fun in this country when it became known as All Fools’ Day. Even then, the pranks were similar to those practiced in our time, such as sending people on fictitious errands to collect a bucket of steam, or go for a long stand in the market place, ordering a pint of pigeon’s milk or visiting a bookshop to collect the biography of Eve’s mother. There were many more imaginative pranks – children were especially good at devising new ones.
With the advent of radio and television, our broadcasting services produced jokes that were so realistically performed that people believed they were true. I remember Richard Dimbleby’s famous spaghetti harvest on BBC television where he showed strings of ripe spaghetti being harvested whilst hanging from the branches of trees.
Similarly, big business concerns would pay for adverts in national newspapers that were April-the-first jokes. I recall a car manufacturer who claimed to have invented a self-inflating car tyre whilst BBC radio once broadcast a tribute to a non-existent person whom, it was claimed, was a famous expert but I forget his area of expertise.
In similar vein I believe it was The Guardian newspaper that published a very realistic travel article about a non-existent tropical island; on another occasion some sixth formers advertised their West Riding grammar school for sale, then a local newspaper published a story about the sale of Whitby’s famous 199 steps.
One prank was to send an innocent victim to deliver a letter but when the letter-carrier arrived, the recipient said it was not for him but for another person whom he named. So the deliverer set off to find that person and when he did so, that person also declined to accept it, naming another person as the true recipient…and so it went on and on.
In some parts of Yorkshire, particularly Skipton in the Dales and Whitby on the coast, the name for an April Fool was gowk, a term also used in Scotland where a gowk was another name for a cuckoo. In some areas of Yorkshire, gowk was pronounced as gawk but it could then also mean someone who was clumsy or awkward. Even so, a local dialect name for an April Fool victim in the moors where I lived as a child was April Gowk.
However, the pranks were subjected to a strict rule – that they must be perpetrated on April 1st but before 12noon. Pranks played outside that narrow time range were not considered genuine April Fools. Most jokes were taken in good part, and it is also true to say that some were never known as jokes - they were considered true events.
There are times when I sometimes wonder whether a few of our folk tales began as April Fool jokes. One is a tale that Robin Hood and his Merry Men often sheltered in Arncliffe Wood near Glaisdale in the Esk Valley deep in the North York Moors. There is supposed to be a cave that he and his companions used to hide from the authorities, but also an underground tunnel that stretches from that woodland all the way to Robin Hood’s Bay to where they would flee if hotly pursued.
The tale of the underground tunnel is highly unlikely due to the terrain and the distance involved (at least ten miles) but as a child I also searched for the famous cave but never found it. Certainly, the stories are now told as legends but could they have begun life as April Fool jokes? It is not impossible.
Similarly, the famous Sutton Bank on the A170 between Thirsk and Helmsley boasts several tales involving white mares. Even the alternative name for Lake Gormire – White Mere – is said to be derived from white mare.
One oft-told tale concerns a young jockey from the nearby racing stables who rose to the challenge that a particular white mare could not be trained to carry a rider. He is reported to have claimed “I’ll either best the mare or ride her to the Devil!”
The horse permitted the lad to mount but then set off on a wild three-mile gallop that took the pair towards the sheer cliffs overlooking Lake Gormire. As the magnificent mare hurtled towards the drop, spectators hurried to watch, but the mare leapt off the cliff with the lad aboard. Neither has been seen since and no bodies were recovered.
The cliff is still known as White Mare Crag.
RECENTLY, my wife and I went to the nature reserve between West Tanfield and Nosterfield not far from Thirsk. It is managed by the Lower Ure Conservation Trust and we were hoping to see the murmuration of starlings that we watched nearby last year, but it seems they have left the area. Nonetheless, there is always plenty of interest on the waters of this former quarry; the hides are well equipped with up-to-date information, comfortable seats and splendid viewing points.
As we left the car, the noise from the assembled gulls and other water fowl was intense but as we walked to the hide, I could hear a skylark singing almost overhead. Despite the cacophony of sound from all those birds, we could hear the gentle song of the skylark somewhere over our heads, but despite searching the skies with binoculars, I could not see him.
The skylark is very much a bird of the moors and open countryside rather than towns and parks. It is resident in this country throughout the year although some winter migrants may arrive. It is a small bird slightly larger than a robin but its plumage (male and female) is sombre mixture of browns. This makes it difficult to see when on the ground where it nests and I think it is fair comment that few of us have seen a skylark – but many of us have heard its song as it hovers above and sings apparently ceaselessly.
On the moors where I grew up, it was known as the laverock or lavrock, a name rarely used in modern times, but its name does appear on local farms, eg Laverock Farm or Laverock Hall, or in place-names such as Laverock on its own or Laverick Hill.
Although we saw and heard some unusual species at the nature reserve, it is the song of the skylark that lingers in my mind. end