In the liquorice fields at Pontefract

My love and I did meet,

And many a burdened liquorice bush

Was blooming round our feet;

Red hair she had and golden skin,

Her sulky lips were shaped for sin,

Her sturdy legs were flannel slack'd,

The strongest legs in Pontefract.

Sir John Betjeman: The Liquorice Fields of Pontefract

LIQUORICE roots go deep in Pontefract. Still they make Pontefract - or sometimes Pomfret - cakes, still hold an annual liquorice festival at which the fortunate may sample liquorice flavoured cheese, and ice cream, and sundry other delights.

The Crusaders are said to have brought the plant to England, monks to have grown it for medicinal purposes in the deep, sandy soil around Pontefract Abbey.

We were there last Saturday, Pontefract Collieries v Washington in the FA Cup, the pits long exhausted but two liquorice works - not torpedoed, aught for their comfit - still churning out the black stuff.

"That's one of the factories over by the far corner flag," they said, Pomfret and proud of it.

The name Pontefract is from the Latin pontus fractus, meaning broken bridge, though locals simply know it as Ponte and superior Leeds lads as Ponte Carlo, perhaps because of the town's reputation for having more pubs per head than any other in England.

Richard II was murdered within the castle walls in 1400. Washington died there on Saturday.

AS in the North-East, the Pontefractive are as likely to ask for a stick of Spanish as for a stick of liquorice. The etymology is puzzling, though one source suggests that it was from the Spanish monks who grew liquorice at Rievaulx, near Thirsk.

Neither, with customary fecklessness, are we able to shed much light on "Spanish practices", said in the Bloomsbury Dictionary of Euphemisms to be a reworking of the phrase "old Spanish customs" - "presumably some sort of reference to the supposed indolence of the Spanish."

How Not To Say What You Mean, an Oxford dictionary of euphemisms, defines it as "regular cheating by employees" with particular reference to Fleet Street before the technological revolution, "where overmanning, falsification of time sheets, paid absenteeism and similar goings-on were endemic".

One of the websites supposes that the phrase could have the same roots as Dutch courage and French leave, a little joke at the expense of our old enemies. The British still carry a grudge.

SO for what confections was the sweet-toothed North-East famous? There were the celebrated Dainty Dinah toffees from Chester-le-Street, Horn's Blue Bird toffee from Crook, Welch's sherbet lemons (and much else), once made in Tynemouth and sucked all over.

Perhaps the best known of all were Jesmona Black Bullets - though a "bullet", of course, is a dialectic name for any kind of sweet - celebrating their centenary this year and thought to take their name from Jesmond, Newcastle.

Suck it and see, they're still hugely popular in the region - but Jesmona Black Bullets are made by Macon's in Sheffield.

AFTER the full Ponte, liquorice's best known by-product may be the liquorice water consumed in prodigious quantities by William Brown - you know, Just William - and his faithful gang, The Outlaws.

When Armada published Just William's Cookin' Book in 1977, the recipe for liquorice water was inevitably included.

There were 38 William books, written by Richmal Crompton and memorably illustrated by Thomas Henry, with which many of us grew up in ill-disguised envy.

William's arch enemy was the fat and pompous Hubert Lane, his smug-faced followers as pampered and as parentally indulged as William's were perennially impoverished.

The fat one's friends were inevitably known as Hubert Laneites, William's as the Brownites - and all that came to mind after last week's ructions in the Labour party.

Gadfly no longer takes sides in such things, but doesn't that self-satisfied image of lardy-cake Lane - led by Violet Elizabeth Bott who'd thcream and thcream until she was thick - bring to mind that toe curling picture of today's head Brownite, gloating insufferably after the events of last Thursday?

PLODGING the Internet on the column's behalf, Mrs Lynn Briggs comes across a "Just William" tie-pin, depicting the lad in his rakish school cap - "one of three William tie-pins issued by Durham Constabulary".

Could this have been the personal work of the late PC Ken Rowland, Shildon lad and Peterlee dog handler, who made a fortune for charity by selling tie-pins?

Or, reprieved from merger, is the Durham polliss trying to smarten up its image?

SPANISH mainly, but now to other matters - like the letter from the Rev Harry Lee in Consett which wonders why, specifically, South Shields folk are traditionally known as Sand Dancers.

Mrs Briggs, aforesaid, reports that within a few doors in Duke Street, Darlington, she spotted a staff agency advertising for "Seven and a half ton drivers" and a charity shop with a notice proclaiming "Ladies 18-35 inside."

In WH Smith's in Bishop Auckland, Paul Dobson came across a book called "Hobby's", a possible birthday present for his sister's husband.

"I was tempted to get in touch with them, but I doubt if they'd understand," he says. "I bought something else instead."

ATHORNABY reader in his late 80s reports receiving from Stockton Borough Council a questionnaire designed "to help take down the barriers which face the disabled".

After all the usual stuff, recipients are, somewhat curiously, asked if they're bisexual, a gay man, lesbian, heterosexual or "other".

He's puzzled. "I've been trying very hard to think what 'other' might be, but clearly the council has more imagination than I have."

So what's it to be then? "Do you know," he says, "I think I've probably forgotten."

CROSSING the borders as usual, one or other of these columns wondered recently why - amid all the streets in the Easington council district named after Socialist politicians - there's a Hailsham Place in Peterlee.

Alastair Gilmour reports that, in Whickham on Tyneside, he lives between Arthur Cook Avenue and Lansbury Road and round the corner from The Crescent and The Drive.

"Apparently when they were built, they were scheduled to be Marx Crescent and Lenin Drive, but someone got cold feet."

Happily, it never happened with Lord Hailsham.

...and finally, the column has at last a new mobile phone, a model called Vodafone Simply which may probably be paraphrased as "technology for idiots." It comes with a user guide described as "reassuringly brief" and which thus is restricted to 36 pages. If returning calls proves even more haphazard than usual, you now know why. It was never like this with Button A. columnists/feature/gadfly