For Dalesman at Christmas, I met some of the people who make a Yorkshire Christmas special.
The Geese are Getting Fat
Tim Lindley rears geese, a traditional bird for the Christmas feast. When I went to the farm, I was a bit nervous of the birds. I’d been told how geese make very good guard animals, hissing, honking, and even attacking strangers – and Tim has 300 of these birds.
Tim took a different point of view, telling me how his geese are wary of strangers, and he doesn’t like them getting stressed. On a farm where he raises free range turkeys as well as the geese, he takes biosecurity seriously, and says “Therefore, they’re not used to a lot of visitors.”
Tim spoke lovingly of his geese and their habits. They enjoy running and stretching their wings in the mornings, they establish a pecking order, and he can tell who’s who in the flock. When they’re resting, they post a guard: “They’re incredibly alert and astute. They know we’re coming, and if someone is with us, they’ll be very noisy.”
So by the time we got to the field to photograph them, it was a case of who was watching who. I eyed the geese carefully – and dozens of pairs of beady eyes were fixed upon my every move. The heads and necks moved: the eyes did not: they remained upon me.
As I walked slowly round them, hoping they’d get used to me, the geese headed off, en masse, to their shed and night time compound, where, says Tim, “They feel secure.”
The geese all marched together – when one turned, they all turned, like a troop of soldiers. Seeing them there like that, I could see the survival value in it. That single mass of birds had a lot more eyes scanning my movements that one or two birds could possibly have done. Wishing that one would face forward for the camera, I realised that they faced me sideways because that’s how their eyes see – sideways on, they had me in full view.
Eventually, my patience was rewarded and the geese settled down, gathered around, and paraded beautifully for the camera.
Visit Tim’s website at http://www.hostingleyfarmfreerange.co.uk/home/
Ghosts of Christmas Past
Meanwhile, over in Malton, the volunteers of the Charles Dickens (Malton) Society posed beautifully for the camera, resplendent in their Victorian costumes.
They wear costume to celebrate Charles Dickens’ connection to Malton. Dickens, they told me, was friends with a Malton lawyer, Charles Smithson, and visited the family several times. Now, the Society has opened up Smithson’s former office, which is believed to have inspired Dickens’ description of Scrooge’s counting house in his iconic story, A Christmas Carol.
Dressed in Victorian costume, members of the society aim to promote understanding of Dickens’ works, and interpret Malton in his times.
Society member Linda McCarthy says, “Next to
, Dickens is probably the most famous author that Britain has produced. He’s never been out of print, and his characters and plots are as relevant now as when he wrote them.”
In his time, she continues, “He was an internationally recognised author, he toured France, Scotland, America and Canada. And he had this friendship with a man in Malton.” Dickens visited often, and was Godfather to Smithson’s daughter.
“So Malton has a connection with someone of that status,” says Linda. ” Thirsk has James Herriott, Haworth has the Brontes, and I think the Dickens connection with Malton is as equally as strong as those.”
Many of Dickens’ Malton experiences made their way into his books, asserts Linda. A drunken temporary housekeeper; the bells of St Leonard’s Church; the Counting House.
Even poor Mr Smithson may have been immortalised in Dickens’ works, as Linda explains, “Mr Spenlow in David Copperfield is based on Charles Smithson, who died without a will and just before his death he’d cashed in a £3,500 insurance policy. It seems unusual for a man of that occupation. Whether he was strapped for cash, we just don’t know.”
Shortly after Smithson died – unexpectedly young – Dickens sent an inscribed copy of A Christmas Carol to his widow. This book has now been bought for Yorkshire, and will be on display at selected locations prior to Christmas. See http://www.dickensgifttoyorkshire.com/ for details.
Back in Malton, many other buildings are little changed since Dickens’ time, and Malcolm Chalk, shopping centre manager and founder member of the Dickens Malton group, says, “Christmas shoppers in Malton can experience a traditional town centre, largely unspoiled, with Victorian buildings and a wealth of different shops.”
“But the real treasure is the Dickens connection.”
For opening times of the Counting House, see http://www.dickenssocietymalton.co.uk/
A Reindeer is not just for Christmas
While Malton offers shopping, Santa has no need of shops: but he does need his reindeer to deliver the gifts. Becky Burniston, who lives near Ripon, has a fascination for reindeer, and is building her own herd.
Becky is a great animal lover, and had a regular menagerie of goats, sheep, ducks, and chickens, before asking for reindeer as a wedding present.
She says, “When we went to see the reindeer we went with the idea of getting 2 and came away with 4. We bought them from an importer. The reindeer adapted quite well. In summer, they’re fine. The winter’s probably not cold enough for them, so they’re prone to pneumonia. I keep them in an open sided shed to stop them getting wet/drying out/heating up/sweating. I try to minimise drastic change.”
“They do require special care – regular vaccinations against tetanus and so on, and they have to be wormed. Their natural lands are so cold, there are few internal parasites. Here, they’re inundated.”
And, she adds, “You have to keep them separate from sheep. Sheep carry a virus that’s fatal to deer in general. Little is known about it –
deer tend to keep themselves separate from sheep. I knew it was a problem because in New Zealand when they closed down sheep stations and switched to deer for venision, they lost a lot of deer.”
Becky trains her reindeer for special appearances, pulling Santa’s sleigh, at Christmas. However, the deer are naturally nervous, and have to train hard in order to face the crowds who come to see them.
She says, “It’s like training a dog or a horse, except that reindeer are a little more ‘spirited’: they’re nervous, naturally flight animals.”
“Some of the reindeer are more placid, others are so bold, they’d come up and eat out of your hand. But others won’t come and feed until they think you’ve gone.”
With patience, says Becky, “Gradually, you win their trust.” Once they’ve learned to work as a team, and pull a sleigh, she also tries to accustom them to things they might meet when out at a event. She says, “We get them used to different noises, for instance the radio, and to different people, Christmas lights, balloons – we try to get them used to as many situations as possible.”
Despite her care, she says, “Some never like it, so we don’t make them do it. They stay home as pets.”
The natural nervousness of reindeer – in their native Arctic, they are food to many predators, including man, makes them tricky to breed. Becky says, “They abort at almost anything. If the weather turns, or if they even THINK there’s not enough food – they abort.”
Despite this, she has had some success in breeding, and says, ” When they calve, they calve really fast. For instance, my husband went to check one, at 6.30 am and there was NOTHING. Five minutes later, my neighbour rang to say that there were legs showing. So we went to help – and five minutes later, he was up and sucking.”
The young calf accepted his sleigh training easily, because, says Becky, “He’d seen his Mum doing it.”
So, she says, “We hope to breed more in future. All six of our females have gone to the bull, so we’ll see what May time brings.”
Becky’s reindeer can be booked for Christmas events, see http://www.riggmoorreindeer.co.uk/