For many centuries, this time of year was known as Lammastide when fairs and festivals were held. Some of the fairs lasted a long time - in some cases, it was common for them to span a period of 11 days. Among them were massive sheep fairs where part of the festivities included sports, games, music and dancing.

One curiously modem idea at Lammastide was for young people to enjoy what might be termed a trial marriage. For the duration of a fair, a courting couple were allowed to spend the whole time together in an effort to decide whether or not they were suited for marriage. If they discovered they were not suited to one another, they were allowed to part. This seems to be a strangely modern approach to marriage, even if it happened centuries ago.

Lammastide was a period of days based on August 1 which was also known as the Gule of August in England, but called Lughnasad Day in Celtic Scotland. The Celts had a god called Lugh, hence this name, and in both countries it was regarded as a verv important pagan festival whose purpose was to celebrate the first fruits of the harvest. It was also a quarter day for the Celts.

When Christianity superceded the old pagan religion, the Catholic church got rid of pagan idols and ceremonies, but retained many of the earlier festivals and adapted them to the needs of the new faith.

On or near the Gule of August, therefore, loaves of bread made from the first ripened corn were blessed at Mass and the communion wafers were also baked from that first ripened corn. Not surprisingly, this became known as the Loaf Mass. In some areas, Cumberland in particular, this celebration was called Lowermass which was a derivation of Loaf Mass, but it is probably from this source that the term Lammas has entered our language.

As part of the celebrations around this period, certain areas of land where ripened crops had grown, were now thrown open for common use. This land could be used either as pasture land or for any other purpose, and in some cases it remained available until the following spring.

The warm nights of August have also given rise to the saying that after Lammas, the corn ripens as much by night as it does by day.

A brief visit to Northumberland last week produced the sighting of an interesting bird on Bolam Lake. I spotted a female red-breasted merganser among the ducks, geese and swans which grace this fine inland water, although it did appear to keep a considerable distance from the groups of ducks and geese. The somewhat snooty swans seemed keen on keeping a discreet distance from all the other birds too.

The merganser is a type of duck which is not popular among trout and salmon fishermen because it has a powerful appetite for the young fish. It has finely serrated cutting edges to its beak, one of only two species in this country which boast this feature. The other sawbill is the goosander, another very similar type of duck.

Their saw-like beaks allow the birds to seize and hold slippery fish and this makes both species unpopular among fisherfolk, both on the coast and inland, even though both species do take the young of other fish such as eels and pike. The male merganser is a handsome fellow with a bottle green head sporting a double crest, and he has what appears to be a collar of reddish-brown feathers around the lower part of his neck. With white underparts and a darker back, offset by brilliant white flashes on his wings, he is a very well-dressed duck.

His mate, on the other hand, is not dressed so brightly. Her head is a warm brownish-red colour with a lighter shade on her lower neck, although she does sport the species' double crest, and her upper parts tend to be lighter coloured than those of the male. They appear to be more greyish in colour, although she does have the white patches on her wings.

In spotting her on the lake, I was aware that the woodland surrounding me was also the haunt of several species of animal, including red squirrels; indeed, there were notices on the nearby roads to warn motorists of the presence of these delightful animals whose road-sense is almost non-existent. Red squirrels are also present in other parts of Northumberland, particularly Kidland forest which is part of the massive Kielder forest district. This is England's largest afforested area, covering some 200 square miles between County Durham and the Scottish border. It is one of the few areas in England where red squirrels are plentiful but experts now accept that, without careful management of the forest, the squirrels could become extinct, even within a time span as short as ten years.

For this reason, scientists are devising a scheme, aided by computers, which will produce a safe haven for red squirrels within this forest. One example is that the chief source of food for these squirrels is conifer seeds and if the felled conifers are replaced with, say, oaks, then the red squirrels' food supply will dwindle. Not only that, but acorns are a favourite of the grey squirrel who would then begin to dominate the area. If oaks are planted in the area, therefore, they will be far enough away from the haunt of the reds not to produce a dangerous influx of the domineering greys.

In exploring this region, my companion reminded me that such areas had just re-opened after the devastating effects of foot-and-mouth disease in this locality.

While the woodlands and other footpaths had remained closed, nature had re-established itself and, as my companion said, "The wild animals hereabouts have regained a lot of their confidence - they can be seen at close quarters now but with the re-opening of the paths and woods, people will return in large numbers and the wild life will retreat into the background once again."

He did tell me of some night-time excursions into the woods when he'd observed badgers within a few feet of him - one was heading his way and the short-sighted creature almost collided with him before realising a human was blocking its well-established pathway.

On the topic of observing wild life at night, a couple of evenings ago my wife and I had just settled into bed when the security light at the front of the house was activated.

Wondering if we had an intruder in the grounds, I peered through the curtains to see a large and very handsome tawny owl sitting in the middle of the lawn, apparently dazzled by the light. He must have passed close enough to the sensor for a combination of his movements and the heat of his body to activate the device. As we watched, he began to move slowly, waddling across the lawn on his white feathered legs, with a slow, rolling gait that reminded me of a penguin. I got the impression that the brilliance of the light was rather too much for his sensitive eyes, but within a short time, the light switched itself off and he flew off to hunt elsewhere.

Another wild life story comes from a reader at North Cowton near Northallerton who tells how her son-in-law's labrador found a baby stoat which had been abandoned. Being accustomed to rearing ferrets, the gentleman took the stoat home and reared it; now, it goes for walks with him, romping around his overcoat and vanishing up the sleeves! At home, it likes to play games with a young ferret and even answers to its name - Stoatie!

And finally, a reader from Richmond has written about Finkle Street. He wonders if there might be a link with the Dutch winkel which means a shop - as all our Finkle Streets are full of shops! As my son-in-law is Dutch, we have spent time in his country, exploring various winkels, winkelcentrums and being attended by winkeljuffrouws. On this subject, there were computer-generated misprints in my piece about Finkle Streets. The computer printed the Danish word as vinide when, of course, it should have been vinkle meaning a corner or bend. I'm not sure what Rip Van Winkle would have thought if he'd been called Rip Van Vinide.