THE coming Sunday sees the beginning of yet another year and I am sure many of us will feel that the departing 2016 has whizzed through our lives with ever-increasing speed. As we get older, time appears to pass ever more rapidly.
I can recall events in my childhood when time appeared to be passing so very slowly, one example being school days when it seemed eternity existed between one set of holidays and the next. And when the holidays did eventually arrive, they then seemed to disappear far too quickly. I am sure that scientifically-minded people will have a theory about this, or even an answer.
However, the celebration of New Year’s Day in this country has not always occurred on January 1. In England as late as the early years of the 18th century, the beginning of our legal year was March 25 otherwise known as either Lady Day or St Mary’s Day in Lent.
However, long before the calendar changes of 1752, the Roman emperor Numa instituted a feast honouring the pagan god of the New Year whose name was Janus. This happened as long ago as BC 713 when the Romans honoured gods after whom several months are named.
It was believed that Janus looked after the gates of Heaven so he was honoured as a guardian of doors and gates. Images of Janus show him with two faces, one looking forwards and the other backwards, and he is also honoured as the god of new beginnings. That may be the reason why January is named in his honour, formerly being known as Januarius, the month of Janus.
Then in Anglo-Saxon times, our January became known as Wolfmonath, the month of the hungry wolf. During this time of year, packs of hungry wolves would band together to hunt for food, and if there was a shortage of prey they became both troublesome and dangerous.
Names of some locations on the moors still carry reminders of wolf hunting, eg Wolf Pit Slack on Danby Rigg between Danby and Little Fryup in Eskdale. This may be the Wolf Pit Tumulus shown on some modern maps.
Wild wolves are thought to have become extinct on the North York Moors sometime during the fourteenth century, but the hunting of wolves was organised by the Lord of the Manor who recruited local householders to act as huntsmen and beaters. They hunted in long lines that could be as long as five miles, always flanked on higher ground by more hunters armed with nets and a variety of weapons. The tactics were to drive the wolves into deep pits or ditches that were specially excavated for this purpose, and there the wolves would be killed.
Many wolves survived those hunts and lived alone upon the moors or in local forests, and this required further efforts to eradicate them. At Baysdale near Westerdale in the higher reached of the River Esk, the land rents in the fourteenth century were paid with wolves’ heads, and so important was the control of wolves that a prisoner might be set free if he could produce a specified number of wolves’ heads.
I came across an old saying that When several wolves appear together it is not a society of peace but of war. It is attended with tumult and dreadful prowlings, and indicates an attack of some large animals, probably cattle or horses.
It is difficult if not impossible to determine a precise date for the extinction of wolves in this country but there is a record of one being caught in Cheshire in 1509 although they were believed to have survived further north until 1650. The last wolf in the Lake District is thought to have been killed in 1680 but a wild wolf was reported killed in Scotland in 1743, this one being thought to be the last wild wolf in this island.
On one occasion when I was a police officer in the North Riding as it was called at that time, I found six Canadian Timber Wolves hiding around 3am in a bus shelter near Pickering, but there were quite docile. I radioed to Divisional HQ for the local zoo to be contacted and asked to collect them whilst I detained them in the bus shelter – the shining headlights of my car enabled me to do that.
Then in November 1969, a wolf escaped from captivity near Scarborough but it was shot – it had escaped from somewhere, but I know not where. Now, we continue to experience long lines of huntsmen with firearms on our moors but they are not seeking wolves – grouse are their targets.
And, of course, as we prepare for a new Wolfmonath that starts this coming Sunday, we have nothing to fear from packs of rampaging wild wolves. Or have we?
MAJOR WAS TOP MAN
AT this stage of the year, I look back upon the correspondence I have received during the last twelve months, some of which will have produced topics for further discussion.
I began writing this Diary on Saturday, 10th January 1976, Saturday then being publication day; coincidentally, it was also our 17th wedding anniversary but I inherited the column from the greatly missed Major Jack Fairfax-Blakeborough whom I had known since I was a small child. He died a few days before my first Diary, having written this page for some sixty years. As I have written the column for more than 40 years, it means that together we have spanned a century.
My family and I sat in the pew immediately in front of him in the church of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart at Lealholm in the Esk Valley. If I lost my place in the Latin Missal, he would correct my error.
Sadly, he would never know that the shy ten years old lad to whom he gifted one of his “Lizzie Leckonby” books as a reward for gaining a scholarship to Whitby Grammar School, would one day write his column.
My references to that sequence of events last year drew some heart-warming letters from readers for which I again thank the writers.
I have noticed now that fewer letters are currently being written – many correspondents now use emails – but conversely a handwritten letter has become something to treasure. Certainly, my grandchildren and even my own children seldom use the Royal Mail but prefer their mobile phones and other modern contraptions for keeping in touch.
Those topics that produced interesting correspondence included references to packs of hyenas, ghost stories from the region, Jewish All Fools’ Day origins and long distance views, of which there are many in this region. People have their own ideas about which is the finest!
My notes about the old coaching days, especially in this region, resulted some helpful correspondence, as did my visit to Wensleydale, the heartland of this newspaper. Wing clapping by pigeons and the absence of cuckoos also produced some erudite correspondence.
I thank all readers for their continuing support, and wish everyone a happy, prosperous and successful New Year. end