Regulars on this site are generally aware of historical links between the Youth Hostels Association and the long defunct Northumbrian Ski Club, but casual visitors are perhaps less aware of a connection between the Ski Club and the popular annual fell race known as the Chevy Chase.
The development of skiing in the North East sprang in part from a post-war upsurge of interest in the great outdoors. Many returning servicemen had travelled widely and wanted to resume the roaming lifestyle that began with the formation of the YHA in the early part of the 1930s before disruption by WWII.
Local YHA folk took an active part in these developments, including the renovation of a ruinous bothy to form Wholehope Cottage and a 1949 hostellers initiative to rebuild and extend the hostel at Mjolfjell in Norway
By the early 1950s the expansion phase was over and the local Hostels Management Group was concerned to increase the number of ‘bednights’ at the larger (hence more costly to run) hostels. Wooler was one of the most expensive hostels, so the YHA looked to increase usage by encouraging the development of skiing on Cheviot.
A meeting was held in the Crow’s Nest pub in Newcastle Haymarket, a resolution was passed and the ‘YHA Ski Club’ (later renamed The Northumbrian Ski Club) was duly formed, with weekly meetings to be held in the same pub. Many of the YHA members present at that inaugural meeting were regular visitors to Wholehope Cottage hostel in Upper Coquetdale. Click here to read more about that magical place.
The annual ‘Chevy Chase’ fell race is another YHA initiative from the 1950s. Starting in 1955, the first iterations of the event were for hill-walkers and started from Alnham YH with a course over Cheviot to the finish at Wooler YH.
The inaugural event was won by Mal Chesney and two out of the next three events were won by Geoff Cobbing, with George Harrison in second place. All three were YHA members and all three were members of the Ski Club.
George Harrison comments:
The route involved climbing the steep hill directly outside Alnham YHA and Shank House, Low and High Bleakhope , Scotsman’s Knowe, Cheviot, then to Wooler via Cold hill.
The first Chevy Chase was run in sandshoes. Boots were worn and rucksacks carried thereafter.
I don’t remember who won the 1956 race, but Geoff Cobbing was 2nd and myself third in 4 hours 25 minutes. In 1957 Geoff won it and I was 2nd in 3 hours 55 minutes but a point of note in this race was that a lad from Gosforth was suffering fatigue on Scotsman’s knowe and two of us stopped with him for a moment or two. I could see Geoff below and in the distance catching up with us.
On the Monday after the race I could barely walk due to stiff legs. Another point is that Geoff’s training for the second race included a Friday moonlit walk from Wooler to Ferneyhirst SYHA!
Female hostellers were represented too, as Val Cobbing comments;
‘In the mid to late 1950s I was Secretary of the YHA local social group, which met at the British Legion Club in Windsor Terrace Jesmond. That’s where I met Geoff and many other Ski Club pals. We were a very social group – any excuse for a weekend party or a bus trip – no one had transport in those days, of course.
I took part in the first ever ‘ladies’ section event – as I remember it was from Alnham YH via Cheviot to Wooler YH and omitted Hedgehope. Ashamedly, I made a name for myself and even ended up in the ‘Journal’ newspaper.
Somehow after checking in on Cheviot (no one else around) I started the descent and about a third of the way down realised all was not well as the trees I could see were not the distinctive shape of Langleeford – like an idiot I carried on and ended up at Hownam, in the College Valley, where by some strange coincidence I met Ricky Bareham who took me back in his Morgan to the Dunsdale Ski Club hut for a cup of tea, after which he said “you’d better start on your way back to Wooler” (I mistakenly thought he was going to give me a lift) so he set me on the track towards Broadstruther – by which time there were search parties out for me – I never did compete again’.
In Val’s day the event survived and prospered by the hard work of YHA stalwart Laurence Hislop, but nowadays it is organised by Wooler Running Club, see the 2016 video here
Peter Whewell did his bit to keep history alive too, click here