THIS week’s Diary follows 40 years of writing these notes. My first column was published on Saturday, January 10, 1976, which coincidentally was also our wedding anniversary. At that time, the paper was published on Saturdays.

Neither I nor my predecessor, Major J Fairfax-Blakeborough, affectionately known as The Major, ever missed a week’s contribution and he once told me he had written these notes for about 60 years. That makes it a century of diaries from only two writers!

I knew Major Blakeborough, as many called him, when I was a young child attending mass at The Church of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart at Lealholm in North Yorkshire’s Esk Valley. He lived at Westerdale while my family lived at Glaisdale, but my father, a rural insurance agent with the Prudential, knew The Major well because he was one of dad’s clients. The Major also knew my grandfather, Tom Rhea.

At mass, our pew was directly in front of The Major’s, so whenever, as a child of six or seven years of age, I lost my place in the prayer book (services were then in Latin, albeit with an English translation in the missals), he could see when I lost my place in the text.

He would gently take the missal from my hands, and point me to the correct place. As I grew older, I asked my parents – “Who is that old man who sits behind us?” and my mother explained he was a famous writer called Major Jack Fairfax-Blakeborough, who wrote a weekly column in the Whitby Gazette and dozens of other local newspapers, as well as lots of books.

As my parents subscribed to the Whitby Gazette, I began to read his column every week and I think that prompted me to become an author. When I passed my scholarship to Whitby Grammar School in 1947, he presented me with a copy of his book of “Lizzie Leckonby” stories which he autographed especially for me. I was then 11 years old – I still have the book on my shelves.

As a young child, I was unaware of The Major’s other accomplishments, many of which involved horse racing. He was an owner, rider, trainer and racecourse official who used his literary skills to write about that world – he wrote histories of racecourses too and showed a keen interest in all forms of Yorkshire life, especially outdoors. Dialect was another of his interests and he once helped me to compile a list of Yorkshire dialect words so I could speak to a local WI meeting. Through visits to him by my father, he kept abreast of my early efforts to become an author and expressed delight when my first crime novel, Carnaby and the Hijackers (as by Peter N Walker, pub. Hale) was published in 1967.

I had published a further two dozen books before The Major died on January 1, 1976, at the age of 93. He was busy at his typewriter until a few hours before his death and is buried in the tiny churchyard at Lealholm Catholic Church. On occasions, I visit his grave and as I have stated, my first D&S Times column appeared in this paper on January 10, 1976, a few days after his death.

My one regret is that he never knew that I had taken over this column and had thus continued his work for this paper (albeit without notes about horse racing). However, he did know of my appreciation for all the help and encouragement he had given me, and which had begun some 70 years ago!

Twelfth Night

A recent article in one of the national newspapers drew attention to the three major religious festivals that are celebrated in this country and elsewhere in the wider Christian world. They were named as Christmas, the Epiphany and Easter. This prompted a friend to ask – “So what happened at the Epiphany and how is it celebrated?”

It might be better explained by its alternative name of Twelfth Night, this being made popular by William Shakespeare. He wrote his comedy of the same name in the hope it would be used as family entertainment on Twelfth Night which is, as many of us know, the twelfth night after Christmas – but also known as The Epiphany.

The word means an appearance or manifestation, because it was the twelfth day after the Birth of Christ, the time when his birth was revealed to the world by the visit of the Three Wise Kings. For centuries, this has been celebrated around the world and is widely regarded as the most festive of all the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Here in the North of England, it was an apple wassailing day with feasting and partying in the orchards, all done to ensure a good crop in the autumn. A further belief in the North was that an east wind on this day heralded full baskets of fruit in the autumn but it was also the day that our Christmas decorations were taken down until next year. If we left them in position for any longer, it was believed bad luck would follow.

One curious celebration occurred at Brough, in what was then Westmorland but not far from the Yorkshire border, when a holly branch was set alight and carried through the town. As it blazed, youths would try to grab the burning twig and carry it to the nearest pub. The successful ones were rewarded with free beer, and it seems a good time was had by all. The purpose and origins of this game have been lost in time, or so we are told!

Preparations and practice for Twelfth Night events took place the previous day, known as the Eve of The Epiphany or Old Christmas Eve. In some places, celebratory bonfires were lit.

It is interesting to look at the days following in January because the month does seem rich with celebrations, many having Christian origins as they celebrate the life of a particular saint. Sometimes that saint is the patron of the local church.

Having said that, St Distaff’s Day (January 7) does not celebrate the life of a saint because there are none called Distaff. It is a jocular name given to a distaff, which is a cleft stick used by spinners to hold the yarn or flax. This method of spinning yarn was introduced to this country in 1505 and the fictitious name was given to January 7 because it was the day spinners returned to work after their Christmas break.

St Hilary’s feast day follows on January 13, this day often being regarded as the coldest in the year, especially in Yorkshire. St Hilary was made a doctor of the church in 1851 and has given his name to the Hilary Term for universities and the legal profession.

January 20 is St Agnes’ Eve when Yorkshire lasses would use all manner of charms to try and learn the identity of their future husband. One ritual was held at St Cedd’s Well at Lastingham deep in the moors where maidens washed their garters to show they would remain pure until they met their true love. At Rosedale, a maid seeking a husband had to visit the churchyard at midnight, select a blade of grass from a bachelor’s grave, then walk backwards to bed. She would then dream of her future husband.

And St Agnes’ Day, January 21, is also Sheep Blessing Day.