FEBRUARY is sometimes known as The Gateway of the Year because, as the month progresses and there are longer spells of daylight, there are many signs of new life in our gardens and the countryside.

This can began as early as February 2, otherwise known as Candlemas Day or Groundhog Day when snowdrops often break into bloom whereas the latter days of this month show many more signs of spring. In some cases, birds may be nesting towards the end of February and these can include blackbirds, rooks, ravens, starlings and even herons or tawny owls. Moles are active too and if the weather is mild, creatures like frogs and toads may be on the move.

This February is slightly different from the previous three because it has an extra day, February 29. This happens once every four years and it has become known as a leap year. It is also known by more complex names such as an Intercalary Day or a Bissextile Day, the latter meaning both literally and lawfully, two days in one. This is a device created long ago by Julius Caesar to balance the calendar because he knew that each year was too long by five hours, 48 minutes and 46 seconds.

If left uncorrected for a long period, it would throw the seasons into chaos. The addition of that extra day at the end of February offered a solution and so, for a time, February 24 appeared twice, the calendar reading February 23,24,24,25. Legally in England those two days were classified as a single day through a law passed by Henry III in 1175 but later the international calendar changed by placing the extra day at the end of February once every four years. This led to the appearance of February 29, which is usually called Leap Year Day. It means our calendar is correct once every four years.

Not surprisingly, this extra day has attracted a lot of traditions. One was that women could propose marriage to men on Leap Year Day and it is said the custom began when St Bridget complained to St Patrick that women should be allowed to propose marriage. Patrick agreed but said it should only be allowed on February 29, and so Bridget promptly proposed marriage to Patrick. However Patrick rejected her in favour of an unmarried career within the church although he did present her with a splendid silk gown.

One practice that developed from this idea was that a woman who proposed marriage to a man on Leap Year Day should wear a red petticoat, part of which must show beneath her dress. It was this custom that led to the term “scarlet woman.”

There used to be an old Yorkshire belief that anything started on February 29 would be successful. For that reason, it was considered an ideal day to be born or to begin a new enterprise or business, whilst a leap year was generally regarded as a suitable time to get married. Starting a long journey on February 29 was also regarded as a wise thing to do and at one time, it was the practice to give such travellers a bunch of forget-me-knots as they departed.

For some strange reason, however, February 29 was not considered a good day to plant your beans. If you did, it was said they would grow backwards in their pods, and so the date became known as Backward Bean Day.

Rocking history

DURING a casual chat with a visiting stranger in Thirsk, I was asked how the famous Brimham Rocks were created. The tourist had been advised to visit the Rocks when he was in Yorkshire, and I happened to be seated next to him in a local hostelry. I think he thought my Yorkshire accent indicated I should know something about Brimham Rocks.

Fortuitously, we used to take our grandchildren there when they (the children) were much smaller; they could play safety among the acres of huge and somewhat grotesque rocks, trying to work out why they had been given such curious but interesting individual names.

Brimham Rocks are about one mile south of the B6265 Ripon to Pateley Bridge road. The junction of the lane that leads to the Rocks is at Crossgates; they can also be reached from the village of Summer Bridge on the B6165 between Pateley Bridge and Ripley. There are plenty of signs to guide the visitor to the site.

The Rocks are in the care of the National Trust; there is an information centre and shop on the site, along with spacious car parks. Entry all through the year was free the last time we visited but the facilities opened only from April to October.

So what can be seen at Brimham Rocks? I must add that in addition to the fabulous, gigantic rocks, there are stunning long-distance views from the lofty site, especially down Nidderdale and as far as the North York Moors or even York Minster. Wild animals such as hares and deer can sometime be spotted along with birds of prey and even Dalesbred sheep. However, it is the fabulous rocks themselves that are the main attraction. They are massive and imposing, and have been sculpted by nature into all manner of curious and grotesque shapes. It was those shapes that gave rise to legends about giant hands being at work, or even tales of vast volcanic eruptions that shaped the rocks. Even the Devil is said to have been involved in their creation but scientists tell us that the rocks are the result of erosion by the weather, wind and rain.

They are an integral part of that moorland scene along with heather, bracken, bilberries and other vegetation, and they began to attract visitors as long ago as the seventeenth century. People climbed the moors to get a closer look at these curious and gigantic shapes.

To fully appreciate their size and variety, it is sensible to view them from close quarters; some massive stones can even be rocked on their bases and from this grew the legend that they can only be rocked by honest people. It is said that no Yorkshireman has ever achieved this!

There are too many shapes to list in total but here are some examples to look for if you visit the site: Dancing Bear, Idol Rock, Yoke of Oxen, Pivot Rock, Chimney Rock, Druid’s Skull, Needle’s Eye, Cannon Rock, Druids’ Telescope, the Pulpit, Flower Pot, Baboon’s Head, Sphinx, Dog, Frog, Tiger, Rabbit, Wishing Stone, Hippopotamus, Elephant, Tortoise, Boar’s Snout and many others. A cave on the site is said to be the haunt of a witch called Great Sybil whilst one writer in the past said the rocks looked like giant chessmen. Another writer called them nature’s ruins.

In other words, the site enables visitors to make full use of their own imagination, particularly when the sun is setting and lots of shadows begin to haunt the rocks.