Jim Lavery outside his house in Simcoe, Ontario
Reflecting on my time in the Northumbrian Ski Club makes me realise how lucky I was with that part of my life. Although it was a relatively short period, I often think how unique it all was and how it was to lead to a lifetime of friendships and a deep love of the outdoors. As young people, we had the time and sufficient money (just!) to go away at weekends, and an abundance of beautiful wild country to roam, but thankfully not enough money to buy cars, not that we felt disadvantaged at the time.
Lack of personal transport forced us to go away for weekends rather than day trips; this drew us very close and helped to form the enduring friendships I know we all treasure. In a lifetime of meeting people from all over the world, I have never heard of anything comparable to our experience. For us, it was a window in time that only existed between the early fifties and the mid sixties.
Winter weekends at Wooler and elsewhere were so enjoyable that in the spring of 1957 some of us felt prompted to form the Cheviot club in order to continue our weekend trips during the summer. Those weekends in 1957 added new friends picked up in various peat bogs along the way, such as Bill Storey, Adrian Gill, and Alan Didsbury, to mention a few. In their turn they introduced newer friends such as Alan Bell, the Clarks and Walkers and many others.
My most enduring memories of the early days of skiing on Cheviot are of cold wet feet, and dreams of tows and bothies.
I knew nothing of John Bowman’s motor cycle tow, however it could not have been on the hill before the winter of 59-60 as I went to sea in 59 and I don’t remember any tow before that on Cheviot.
The tractor that is buried in the Lambden burn was the best tow I remember. I believe it was the one brought down from Eric Charlton’s farm in Wark by Trevor and Vera. The tractor ran very well if you pre-heated the manifold with a blow torch and remembered not to stop it while it was running on paraffin.
We bought scrap boiler tubes for tower supports, which we modified at Mr Warburton’s School (he was the Janitor) and I had solid oak pulleys made at Walker Naval Yard. It was quite an impressive setup with its own snow-fencing etc. Unfortunately it seized up early in the season due to lack of oil, an item we had neglected to check. Very sad as it briefly transformed our skiing. The following three pictures show the debris and are courtesy of Gary Nelson and this excellent website.
I was also involved in a small way in helping to convert the calfdozer at Ricky and Brenda’s home in Heddon-on-the-Wall. As I remember it, his neighbours were not too happy with his lack of progress on the garden, as the work on the tow had top priority and went on for some considerable time. Ricky, Alan Didsbury, Bill Storey and I obtained a Wilson pre-selector gearbox out of an old pre-war Armstrong Siddeley, which was subsequently mounted on a rear frame as the drive unit.
This item was obtained from a nudist colony in the hills at Sunnyside, above Consett. The nudists must have been a very tough lot indeed as the place was very breezy and freezing cold, looking a lot like a prison camp from outside, surrounded as it was by a high wooden fence. Late at night, we delivered the gearbox to Ricky’s printing business near Manors Station, causing great excitement amongst the local Constabulary (hello, hello, hello, wot’s going on ‘ere?). Fortunately, Ricky was able to reassure them, so we escaped the nick!
The team derived much fun for some time after this trip with our stories of having to do the job naked, but for a string, with spanners suspended around the waist. Several of the girls seemed to half believe the story (or played us along), all the encouragement we needed. I was not in on the trip up to Cheviot with this tow but I do know that all our work was for nought as it blew up before reaching the Lambden burn and was buried at the spot.
Internment photo by Alan Didsbury
I can add an interesting follow up to this story. About 20 years later in Canada I received an Evening Chronicle cutting documenting the discovery of a calfdozer sticking out of the ground on Cheviot and asking if anyone knew how it got there. How quickly things are forgotten.
Some time around September 1962, we decided to construct an underground Bothy in the Lambden Burn. Despite Adrian Gill and John Walker negotiating with the land owner, we could not get permission to construct any kind of above ground hut. The rationale of burying the hut was that no one would know it was there, and it would appear that this logic was to some degree successful. Maurice Robinson told me that in 2002, a parks warden had tried to stop him crossing the top fence as it was out of bounds. After explaining his purpose was to clean up the Bothy, he found that the warden had no idea it was there.
As I recall, the following people were involved in the construction: the Gills, Walkers, Clarks, Bates’, Bill Storey, Alan Didsbury, Maurice Robinson, and myself. Construction was planned and executed during October-November of 1962, with the invaluable help (!) of Adrian’s mate Ray Bolton, a friendly local gun freak and explosives ‘expert’ who reckoned that he could help minimise the labour needed to dig the hole. The problem was that beneath a thin layer of grass and peat the ground was all rocks and rubble, which took a considerable effort to remove, and in order to speed up the work it was decided to ask Ray to supply some means to blast the hole.
Over two weekends, ‘Blaster’ Bolton supplied a couple of ‘bombs’, neither of which exploded on cue, but as they were buried in the ground we thought it prudent to abandon the site for the balance of the weekends. Ray was relegated to labouring duties after the second dud.
Winter was very early in 1962, and the weekend in November we picked to carry up and install the corrugated roofing sheets had waist deep snow in places and a howling gale. The sheets were abandoned not far above Langleeford farm, but the next weekend we were able to get right up to the bothy site. I remember being impressed by Peter Lockey single-handedly carrying a whole roll of snow fence all the way up. On the first weekend of actual usage, we could not find the bothy as it was buried (surprise, suprise!) and took some probing to locate. We had tried to locate it just at the top of the usual snow pack but miscalculated by a few feet. This pic shows Charlie Sharman as he triumphantly uncovers the entrance!
However, all was in vain for that winter as there was so much snow we weren’t able get up that high on Cheviot. We skied the balance of the season at Carts Bog, someone from Hexham had a real tow at 10 shillings per day – heaven. During these weekends we stayed at the Didsbury country home near Langley Castle, very crowded.
The bothy was of great value in future years as, with a heater installed, the days of cold wet feet were over. We now had warm wet feet. In later years the place was a real eyesore on the mountain as I know from photos supplied by Bill and Liz Storey.
As a final thought, I remember a visitor coming up Cheviot with us one weekend. By the time he got up to the 50 x 100 ft snow patch just below the top fence he thought we were all mad; so much effort for so little snow. Maybe he was right, but he certainly didn’t get the point of why we were there.
It was never just about skiing. It was about companionship, beauty, freedom and the utter joy it gave. Today I can sometimes get bored at a world class resort; I never once got bored on our small patches, and there was always the get-together with the crowd in the Crow’s Nest on Wednesday evening and dreams of endless snow for the next weekend.
Thank you all for the memories and the enduring friendships.