AS I compile this weekly budget, snow is falling on the hills behind my home.

This first taste of winter comprises a chilly blend of heavy rain, sleet, hailstones and very soggy snowflakes and its progress across the moors is aided by a powerful wind which whips the leaves from the trees and produces whirls of drifting snow.

The mixture of weathers is too wet for the snow to remain for long or even to whiten the roads and roof tops, but it has temporarily covered the hills with a greyish carpet of very wet slush which in turn is producing rivulets of running water. These miniature streams are finding their way down the landscape by well-worn routes and it won't be long before they help to swell the rivers with fast-moving fresh water. If this kind of weather persists, then we shall be worrying anew about the likelihood of floods but although the landscape looks dark and forbidding at this moment, the forecasters reckon it will improve within 24 hours.

One oddity about this first snow of winter is that many of our trees, even well into November, are still bearing green leaves. A heavy frost will send some drifting earthwards, but as I watch the dramatic weather outside my study window, the brisk wind is breaking some stubborn leaves from the boughs. The fall of snow is therefore accompanied by a fall of leaves not a pleasant combination upon our footpaths (or railway lines!)

Gray or gay?

Following my notes about John Peel (D&S, Nov 2), an interesting point has arisen about the wording of the famous song, D'ye Ken John Peel. Should the first line contain the words "coat so gray" or should it be "coat so gay"?

Peel was a large man, well over 6ft tall and weighing some 13 stones, and his hunting gear comprised a long grey coat with brass buttons, corduroy knee breeches, long stockings and a tall, light-coloured beaver hat which showed signs of regular exposure to the Cumbrian weather. He had a very loud voice and his manner of speech was rather rough, invariably in the strong dialect of the region. It seems he was not a very pleasant character, but he was a skilled handler of hounds and 1 like this description of him "ter'ble lang in t'leg and lish, wi' a fine girt neb and grey een that could see for ivver".

When it comes to the wording of the song, however, it appears that the correct version should refer to the grey coat, perhaps in the old-fashioned spelling gray. The original version did contain the words "coat so gray" (or grey) but it seems that when the song became extremely popular in London and other cities, the ill-informed townspeople of the time thought all huntsmen wore hunting pink and so they changed the word to "gay". At that time, of course, gay did not have the modern sexual connotations but it meant something bright coloured, ornate and showy.

For a long time, therefore, the first sentence of the song was delivered as "D'ye ken John Peel with his coat so gay" and although it was inaccurate, both as a mis-used word and as an erroneous description of his clothing, this passed into common usage.

Ancient oaks

A reference to oak trees (as in D&S, Nov 16.) often produces queries about the longevity of this most English of deciduous trees. Most of us have heard stories of ancient oaks, and lots of rural communities can boast an oak tree which spans the centuries with an uncertain age, perhaps being used as a gospel oak in the past or merely standing as an impressive adornment to the village green.

Country people often say that it takes an oak 200 years to grow, another 200 years to mature, and yet a further 200 to die. There is no doubt that lots of ancient oaks seem to hover in a stage somewhere between absolute decay and restricted life I recall one which had crashed to the earth during a gale, leaving a stump behind. The stump decayed and became hollow, almost like a font, and although it appeared to be dead, it continued to produce shoots and soon developed into a sturdy, if dwarf-like oak tree. I have no idea how old it was, but I reckon it had lots of life ahead.

It seems that the average life of an oak is about 250-300 years although there are countless records of some achieving a much greater age. Oaks of 600, 800 or even 1,000 years of age are not uncommon but in many cases, they have to be supported by props because they are in danger of falling down.

One of the oldest is William the Conqueror's Oak in Windsor Great Park, and there used to be another very ancient oak near Dalhousie Castle in Scotland. It was of indeterminate age but a legend said that this oak represented the fortunes of the family who lived at the castle. If the tree died, it was said, so the dynasty would end.

There is a story that in July, 1874, a branch unexpectedly fell from this tree, whereupon an old workman shouted: "The laird's dead noo." Within minutes came the news that the 11th Earl of Dalhousie had died. A similar legend existed in Peking where a Chinese oak was known as the Tree of Dynasty. This had existed for centuries and when it died in 1901, it was supported by countless props and, oddly enough, that particular dynasty fell a mere 12 years after the death of that ancient oak.

Another sad tale involved the Fairlop Oak in Essex. For centuries, this lovely old tree had been the focus of celebrations, with feasting and dancing around it. But in 1820, things went wrong because during festivities, the revellers managed to set fire to the tree. Some accounts say the tree was later blown down.

And finally, one of the oldest in this region was the Cowthorpe Oak near Wetherby, said to have reached the age of 1,600 years.

Lights fantastic

The Chronicler of Kelderdale has furnished more details of a fuss which is currently dividing the residents of this peaceful, if fanciful, rural village. It concerns plans for the Christmas lights.

At an earlier meeting, the parish council, led by its chairman, Adolf Unthank, indicated its intention to decorate the village with a set of Christmas lights which would hang from three beech trees growing along the main street. Funds were available for purchase of the lights, and for their running costs, while volunteers from the parish council would instal them free of charge. Although the plan did not meet with complete approval, a vote was taken among the councillors and a majority of one, albeit with some caustic comments, ensured the lights would be installed.

Further aggravation arose during the discussion about the date for switching on the lights. Coun Muckraker, in supporting the decision in principle, considered that the Saturday before Christmas was the ideal time because he felt the village street should not be subjected to weeks of coloured lights ahead of the festival "We don't want Kelderdale looking like Blackpool on a wet day," he is alleged to have said.

Coun Strokelady, however, pointed out that he had received confidential information that Parkinthwaite, only three miles away, was planning to switch on its lights at noon during the Wednesday before Christmas, and they were going to approach one of the stars of Heartbeat to officiate. "And," he added, "Parkinthwaite has five sets of lights to our three."

"Then we should get another three sets to make ours six. We don't want to be outshone by Parkinthwaite, and if there's not enough trees to hang them on, we'll use lamp posts,' retorted Coun Muckraker. "And we don't want to be switching our lights on at the same time as them. I reckon we should light ours a week earlier than planned, and get one of those EastEnders to press the switch."

The question of cost then arose. Additional sets of lights combined with a longer time of illumination would stretch the budget and it was the chairman who proposed: "We should stick to our three sets of lights for reasons of cost, but we can surely find enough money to switch them on a week ahead of Parkinthwaite. And I'll switch them on, seeing as I am chairman.