WHEN I was a serving police officer and undertaking my duties as Press Officer, it was our policy to remind the public that the law was not suspended tonight to allow Mischief Night revellers to behave illegally.

Those people, especially teenagers, had to be reminded that if they committed damage or broke the law in any other way, they were liable to prosecution and probably a fine or some other form of penalty.

It seems that some of the Mischief Night revelry has been transferred to Hallowe’en in the form of Trick or Treat but in any case Mischief Night did not appear to take place in many areas of England. It seemed to be restricted to the northern parts of North Yorkshire, but reaching into Cleveland, County Durham and Northumberland. The southerly parts of Yorkshire did not seem to suffer from the Mischief Night revels, although some western areas of Yorkshire did so.

The practice was for the mischiefmakers to play pranks on people they encountered such as simple ones like pointing up to the sky and watching others do so, hoping to see something interesting when there was nothing there. Saying “Don’t trip over your shoe lace” was another prank but in time some of the tricks became rather more serious.

Garden gates were taken off their hinges, grease or butter was rubbed onto door knobs or smeared on windows, letter boxes sealed and door bells rung as the culprits ran away before the householder could open the door. Sadly by the time of the 1970s or thereabouts, many pranks had become serious acts of damage, sometimes with an element of danger to the public, and so police patrols on Mischief Night were strengthened to combat the elements of law-breaking and danger. It seemed to have worked and so far, trick or treat seems to be tolerated.

It seems, however, that some mischief-making spilled into the following day, November 5 otherwise known as Guy Fawkes Day which is often called Bonfire Night. As I have often mentioned, bonfires were widely used during all sorts of celebrations and tomorrow, November 5, is also the feast day of the Norse god, Thor.

In the former North Riding, bonfires were lit on or about this date as an aid to the celebrations but tharf cakes were also eaten as youths ran around carrying blazing brooms.

In the dialect of the North Riding, tharf meant shy or diffident which seems to be contradictory to such a boisterous occasion, although one theory is that tharf was somehow associated with the god Thor and the celebrations associated with his feast day. Tharf cakes were spicy buns but links with Thor seem rather obscure.

Nonetheless, there are always reasons for celebrating.

In some parts of Yorkshire, Guy Fawkes Day was known as Plot Day when roast potatoes, ginger parkin and parkin pigs, a type of biscuit, were eaten. Another name was Tar Brush Night. Home-made Plot Toffee was also enjoyed but in the North Riding Guy Fawkes was known as Awd Grimey and a strange verse was sung in front of his effigy as it was consumed by the bonfire. These are the words:

Awd Grimey sits upon yon hill,
As black as onny awd crow;
He’s sittin’ on his lang grey coat
Wi’ t’buttons doon on t’floor.

The significance of that dialect verse escapes me.

Decline of cuckoo

IN a recent Diary I wrote about the decline of the cuckoo in this region and expressed the possibility that it might be due to the decline of the host species into whose nests the female cuckoo lays her eggs. They are usually the dunnock, reed warbler and meadow pipit although the female might select the nests of others.

Clearly, the cuckoos’ own decline in this country is rather more complicated and I have received two erudite letters from readers in Swaledale and Teesdale. To research the topic, I relied on sources other than my memory, and I think my response to both may provide some help to other readers. This is my reply to each of those correspondents.

I was prompted to write about the decline of cuckoos by a recent edition of the RSPB’s Handbook of British Birds published in 2014. It said that the cuckoo population in England and Wales has declined by 60% but increased in Scotland.

It adds that the decline has been linked to a reduction of numbers of the host species, suggesting this might be indirectly affected by changes in agriculture and also changes to its winter quarters in Africa.

The same publication names the main host species as dunnock, reed warbler and meadow pipit, although sometimes the cuckoo will lay her eggs in the nests of others. When I checked, in the same volume, the decline in those named hosts, it states that numbers of dunnock fell between 1975 and 1995 but have since recovered; the reed warbler suffered a decline in the past due to drainage of large reed beds but has since recovered whilst the meadow pipit has declined by over 40 per cent of its UK population.

An earlier edition of that book (2002 with updates) states that the decline of the cuckoo in this country fell by 65% and adds that this may be due to the decline in its host species but also by agricultural changes and possibly changes to its winter quarters in Africa.

It seems there is no clear answer to the decline of the cuckoo but the above information may prove useful to other interested readers. I thank my two correspondents for their interest.

Part of a parish

FROM time to time I am asked to explain the difference between a hamlet and a village. One of my many dictionaries was not much help because it described a hamlet as a small village – which in some way is true.

It seems that a key distinction in a village is the presence of a parish church although my Oxford English Dictionary does not confirm this. It states that a village is a collection of houses in a rural area larger than a hamlet but smaller than a town. Most of us know of small communities that lack a parish church and many are known as villages.

I am currently undertaking research into a 17th century priest and on a map dated 1636, there are lots of small collections of domestic houses.

The houses themselves do not form a hamlet or have individual names but take the name of the locality. For example one was called Brig Holme, brig meaning bridge and holme being a flat area of land close to a river. It is now known as Egton Bridge.

I was once assured that to qualify as a hamlet, a group of houses required a set of stocks or a scaffold but my New Law Dictionary published in 1764 says that a hamlet, also known as a Hamel or Hampfel, was part of a village or parish but with no mention of stocks, gallows or a parish church.

In fact, it could be part of a parish.