FOR the first time in my life, I attended a hunt meet. It was on the first Saturday following the now notorious ban on fox hunting, February 19. The venue was the market place in Easingwold, the hunt was the York and Ainsty and the day was bitterly cold, but dry.

We arrived to find the small market town absolutely packed with cars and people, the market place itself being free from parked vehicles in favour of the foxhounds, which were on view in a small corral.

Members of the public, and children in particular, were invited to meet the gentle hounds. There were horses galore with the hunt members all adorned in their finest outfits - a woman standing near me counted 120 horses, then a further dozen or so arrived.

It is difficult to estimate the number of spectators, save to say the town centre was packed. There must have been hundreds, young and old, from town and country, from every conceivable background. There were lots of photographers too, both professional and amateur, along with at least one television crew and several newspaper reporters.

Police officers hovered discreetly in the background as traffic was diverted away from the main thoroughfare. Hunt members were moving among the crowd, dispensing leaflets issued by the Countryside Alliance, issuing stickers to supporters and collecting funds for future legal battles.

Throughout the meet, I was not aware of any anti-hunt demonstrators, nor was there any kind of antagonism or threatening atmosphere. Indeed, there was a feeling of cheerful optimism coupled with deep emotion. The entire event was conducted with good humour, while laced with a determination to overcome, in a civilised and lawful manner, the ban on hunting with hounds.

In the speeches which preceded the hunt moving off, the emphasis was on a steadfast will to continue riding to hounds, but in such a way that the new law was not infringed. There are plenty of ways of doing so because the Hunting Act is so badly drafted as to be virtually unenforceable, and guidance to hunts to help them remain within the law was provided by the leaflets distributed by the Countryside Alliance.

The eventual repeal of the act is the goal. Whatever one's personal views on the hunting debate, one could not help being impressed by the quiet resolve of the hunt followers to continue this rural way of life in spite of the obstacles which have been laid before them.

The one powerful emotion which did emerge was that everyone felt badly treated by the present Government. There was a distinct feeling that the Hunting Act is based on prejudice and ignorance and not on the welfare of the fox.

After the speeches, during which the police were thanked for their help with the arrangements for the meet, and after everyone had the chance to see the hounds and admire a couple of greyhounds (both winners of the Waterloo Cup in recent years), the corral was opened.

As the spectacular hunt was preparing to ride out of town, there came the familiar sound of the huntsman's horn.

To rising cheers, and indeed tears in some cases, that picturesque procession of riders and hounds completed a tour of the town centre before heading into the countryside.

The entire occasion was profoundly moving as the dignity of those country people in their adversity impressed everyone present.

Quite deliberately in recent months, I have refrained from commenting in this column on the hunting debate because the topic has received far more than its fair share of press coverage, but in reflecting on the new law, I am reminded of another statute, also passed by the Government of this country, which sought to criminalise a law-abiding section of the community.

That was the Treason Act of 1534. After becoming known as "the Act of Words", it was eventually repealed.

I have come across a strange belief which appears to have survived until the 1930s in the North-East. It is linked to a very old coastal superstition which said one should not attempt to rescue a drowning person.

This appears to have been fairly common along the North-East coastline, but the reason is not certain. One suggestion is that our forefathers thought that if someone rescued a person who was drowning in the sea, then that person would later turn against his or her rescuer, even to the extent of killing them. Certainly, they would later seek to harm their rescuer.

The idea persisted in the north of Scotland too, and there is an old account dating to about 1880 in which three men stood and watched a neighbour drowning off the coast of the Shetland Islands.

It was also thought harm would come to anyone who hauled a dead body from the sea. It is from this source that we learn of the curious North-Eastern belief to which I refer in my opening paragraph. At an inquest at Hebburn in 1934, the coroner asked several witnesses why they did not help to get the body of a man out of the Tyne, even though they were the ones who had discovered it. They explained that they believed that, if they did recover the corpse, they were responsible for burying it.

It may be that this curious notion can be linked to the older belief that the rescue of a drowning person will turn him or her against the rescuer. However, there has always been a deep superstition that the water will always gets its way so far as the death of humans are concerned. Even within living memory, people have said that some rivers claimed a specified number of human lives each year.

A water spirit who lived in the River Tweed was said to claim at least one human life annually, while the Tees had a blood-thirsty spirit called Peg Powler who haunted the river near Piercebridge. Peg had green hair and was said to claim at least one human life per year. There was also a kelpie who lived in the Ure near Middleham and was said to carry off unwary people who ventured too close to the riverside, while the Ribble had Peg O'Nell, who claimed one human life every seven years.

Most northern rivers, lakes and ponds were said to contain an evil spirit known as Jenny Greenteeth, who would drag anyone who ventured too close to the edge into the water. I believe she would also drag animals to their deaths as they drank from the river banks.

There was a slightly different spirit in the River Swale, however. This was said to be the ghost of a highwayman called Tom Hoggett. In the 18th century, he drowned in the Swale while trying to avoid being arrested and his ghost was said to haunt the river ever afterwards. In some stories, however, he was changed into a water spirit, living in one of the deeper pools. If anyone ventured into that pool, the spirit of Tom Hoggett would drag the person below the surface and drown them.

These old beliefs were still remembered about a century ago and, in some cases, if a child was drowned in the local river, the village elders would not use it as an excuse to prevent other children playing near the water's edge. Their logic was that, as the river had taken its due for that year, there would be no further drownings.

From notes received from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), it seems the great spotted woodpecker is not a very nice bird. This might explain why the smaller species which use our garden feeders always keep well away when our local great spotted woodpecker pays one of her regular visits.

I have no reason to think the woodpecker will attack smaller species, but it seems it is known to throw willow tits out of their nesting cavities, thus causing a reduction in the number of willow tits. This is not difficult because the tits tend to make use of trees with softer wood, but this woodpecker also usurps the nesting holes of its cousin, the lesser spotted woodpecker. So is the great spotted woodpecker the bully of the bird world?