Skiing on Cheviot was an arduous business. If one included the initial hill ascent up to some miserable patch of snow in the Lambden Burn, then totalled the individual ‘runs’, one came to a ratio of about 50:1 between walking up and skiing down!
There were some happy consequences of all that walking. For example, skiing accidents were rare, because by the time people climbed up Cheviot, then walked up and skied down the Lambden Burn 20 or 30 times, their legs were either like wet macaroni or they were so strong that the mountain broke first, and, for a double-whammy, the slog up the hill has probably contributed to the long-term improved cardio-vascular health that has kept so many ex-members alive!
Expending this amount of effort every weekend ensured that the mass of Northumbrian Ski Club members were generally in favour of any kind of mechanical uplift, just so long as it was cheap and someone else did all the work! The demand was clearly there and the availability of skilled engineers, plus the raw cunning of people who were willing to use the resources of their employers to the full, ensured that the needs were met – at least in part. Shortage of money (no Lottery Fund in those days) meant that new kit was out of the question, so the ski tow projects were based on the conversion of various items of obsolescent equipment, from motor bikes through calf-dozers to full-size farm tractors.
All of this took place before mechanised uplift on ski hills became popular, and before car ownership became common. From 1955 on, the Northumbrian Ski Club was a very popular organisation, with a growing membership and a strong ‘esprit de corps’ – bus trips and Club weekends were very well supported and enthusiasm for ski tows and bothies on Cheviot was high. By the early 1960’s, things were changing rapidly – with growing levels of prosperity, wider car ownership and big developments on Cairngorm. Suddenly, people started travelling much further afield for skiing, support for bus trips vanished overnight, enthusiasm for trogging up Cheviot evaporated and Club members were developing a preference for skiing at Allenheads. Big things were happening and changes were occurring that would lead to the eventual demise of the Club.
More than sixty years have been and gone since those happy days, only memories linger in the wind on those draughty hillsides, peace has returned to the Cheviot corries, the Lambden Bothy has collapsed and the tows moulder away quietly in the Cheviot peat, awaiting a new day when industrial archaeologists disinter their remains and speculate on exactly what an ordinary Fordson Major farm tractor was doing at an altitude of almost 2000 ft!
Comments and photos shown are gleaned from club members who were involved in some way in the design, construction, delivery, and ultimate disposal of these mighty machines. If YOU were involved in some way, have some photos, or just want to have your two-penn’orth, then please do get in touch.
Tow number 1 – Motorcycle based
The first tow was based on a 1934 350cc Triumph side valve motorcycle which came into my possession as a purchase from Anne’s father Andy Henderson on his retirement from Wallsend Slipway. I used the Triumph for a few years as transport for work, Leam Lane to Hebburn, and odd trips to the Lakes. The replacement was a rather posh Matchless 500cc twin machine.
My memory is rather vague on dates (probably 1957/58). The main members of the team on the first project were Albert Knight, Rick Bareham and myself for all work carried out at my garage in Leam Lane. The original motorcycle’s main frame was supported by tube struts; these were then anchored to timber support sleepers front and rear – the sleepers being drilled to take the stake/spike to anchor the unit on the hill, this method proved to be a major problem in practice. Assembly of the tapered drum at the rear to take the rope was coordinated by the Reyrolle Toolroom and I think that George Ritson may have provided the drum itself or the end cheeks for the bearings. The photo shows the machine outside the garage at Langleeford with Stuart Smith standing alongside. I assume Stuart must have transported the unit from Felling to Langleeford in his A35 Austin van, one of the few with car type transport at the time. I have checked with Bert Knight and he thinks the club purchased the tow/rope new for this venture.
I worked on the winch drum during my lunch breaks in the Toolroom at Reyrolles, almost got fired when the big boss found me drilling some large diameter holes on a radial-arm drilling machine. He knew that I was a keen skier and Club member, so he told me to see him after lunch, when he said “don’t let me catch you doing Ski Club ‘homers’ again”. My reply is easily imagined. ‘C’ Company were well represented as porters during the big carry-up too, with Adrian Gill and myself in the photo, and others out of shot, but quite why I wore the pakamac now escapes me, although I see that Robbie Patterson wore one too (and doesn’t John Bowman look youthful!)
Yes, I turned the winch drum for the motor-bike tow and I was there with my mate Robbie when we hauled the machine up Cheviot. I also helped Ricky Bareham and Chas Sharman in working on the calf-dozer in Ricky’s garage at Heddon.
As I recall it, the first attempt at a tow it was a motor cycle engine mounted on skids, size 350cc or 500cc, I can’t remember which. I first became involved with the engine when it was at John Bowman’s house for maintenance and new cooling baffles (home made) which were being attached to the cooling fins on the cylinder. The part I was involved with was the drum that handled the rope at the end of the tow. The drum was a car or motor cycle tyre rim on which I was asked to weld Â½ inch diameter pieces diagonally across near the centre of the rim (approx. 6 pieces). This was done to get more traction on the rope. As to how it got to the foot of Cheviot I do not know. I can only suggest you get in touch with John Bowman or Bert Knight. Possibly Ray Rees or Alan Bloomfield could help as they kept diaries of those years. As for the rope for the tow, my father got that for us from a boat yard in South Shields and Bert Knight and I went to collect it. It was of various lengths and diameter – total length 600ft. None of us knew how to splice the rope together but Vera Bruce asked her father Bill to come up the mountain and splice the rope for us and that is what he did. I do not recall any dates or time of year but the above is fairly accurate – I seem to recollect this scheme was a failure as the engine was not strong enough to pull a person on skis up a slope! I also cannot remember what happened to the engine after that and again I suggest you talk to John or Bert.
I can solve the mystery of exactly who moved the machine, it was transported by an acquaintance of ours who operated a small garage near where Brenda and I lived. On the day, a whole crowd of us travelled up in the same van to Langleeford. Incidentally, Pitch Wilson showed me a copy of the original plans for the machine when we met at the 50 year reunion in 2003. Until then I did not know that he had been involved!
My first sight of Tow number 1 was at John Bowman’s when it was ready to be taken to Langleeford. It wouldn’t start! It was coughing and spluttering but wouldn’t run. An ex-speedway rider was there ( a stranger to me), and he diagnosed stale petrol (by sniffing at the exhaust) – someone got some fresh petrol and it burst into life.
I think this person took it up to Langleeford for us in his van. Is that the van on the left of the photo of Stuart inspecting the tow at Langleeford? I have a slide of the tow there and another of it being taken up the hill on a trailer behind a tractor driven by the local farmer. The slide is dated December 1959, and I also have several slides of it being carried up by relays of hardy members, also known as the slave gang. These include Adrian Gill, Trevor Hipkin, John Bowman, Ricky Bareham, Robby Patterson, George Ritson, John Cuthbertson, Stuart Smith, Ray Rees, Jack Addison, and myself with a full supporting cast of wives or wives to be. As the photo shows, Stuart is right about Mr Bruce splicing the rope. I seem to remember the rope was carried up tied to a rucksack frame.
NSC Tow Number 2 – Fordson Tractor
I helped in negotiating purchase of the Fordson Major tractor from Eric Charlton (it cost £28, in old money), and in collecting the machine from him and delivery to Peter Barrett Senior for conversion. The tractor had been in use at Pasture House Farm in Wark for many years, until it was superseded by smaller tractors of the Ferguson type. The Fordson was of dual-fuel design, it had two fuel tanks and was designed to start on petrol and then to run on a type of paraffin (called TVO for you perfectionists).
Vera and I went up to Wark on Remembrance Sunday 1961 and we drove the machine down through Newcastle and over the Tyne Bridge to the Barrett house in Washington. Amazingly, no-one stopped us or questioned the propriety of such an unusual machine on Northumberland Street – this was just as well, the tractor was not taxed or insured, nor did I possess the appropriate driving licence!
I was there when we took the machine up the hill, my main memories being of the big crowd of people at the bottom of the hill while we were trying to start the engine, and of being impressed by Charlie Sharman’s bravery as he drove the tractor in a zigzag fashion up some of the steeper parts, with people hanging on to ropes on the uphill side, giving Chas a ‘psychological belay’ and trying to prevent a potentially catastrophic capsize.
I was involved with Chas Sharman and others collecting the modified tractor with new differential axle unit to the rear power take-off. We moved this from Washington to East Boldon ready for an early start on the Saturday.
A team of people drove the tractor unit to Wooler – I cannot imagine how we were not stopped driving up Northumberland Street on a Saturday. Transport was provided by Charlie Sharman, Stuart Smith and Alan Bloomfield to carry spare drivers and support team. On Sunday the tractor was taken around to Goldscleugh farm, from where the original supplier Eric Charlton drove it up into the lower section of the Lambden burn. Vera (Bruce) Hodge’s father Bill Bruce was on hand to make a ‘long splice’ in the tow-rope. The tow was very successful in operation, rather a pity that the engine became damaged, we assume heavy rear end settling had gone unnoticed causing some starvation to the front end connecting-rod. We found it impossible to repair on the hill; and our agreement with the land agent meant that all tows and snow fencing had to be removed during the summer. Rather sad to think we had to bury the tractor in the lower reaches of the Lambden burn, similar to aircraft downed on Cheviot during the war.
Our next adventure into the ski tow business was the tractor, sometime around 1960 but I’m not too sure of that date. I did not have a lot to do with this scheme, again it was at John Bowman’s house and Charlie Sharman drove it through Newcastle while I drove his car.(not many people had cars in those days!). Half way to Wooler we changed drivers and I took the tractor the rest of the way to the hostel. The next day I helped to drive it up the mountain to the final position. Lots of people were involved in this, I can remember George Ritson, Alan Bell, John and Ann Bowman and Meg Knox, but there were tons of others. We got the rope on and were at that point all ready to go when the snow came and I remember it was agreed the price would be set at one shilling per day. On the first day of snow we tried the ski tow out but unfortunately, after about half an hour, there was an explosion and the pistons came through the engine block! I remember George Ritson was very pleased because at that point he had already had twelve tows! Nobody paid the shilling! I was not involved in the disposal of the tractor but I was told that they took the brake off and it went downhill into a peat bog, where a hole was dug and the whole thing decently buried.
Tow Number 2 is seared forever into my memory. Newly demobbed (Sept. 1961), I became involved when the tractor had been piloted up to Goldscleugh farm. Lots of people were there, including John and Maureen Walker, Charlie Sharman, Alan Bell, Meg Knox, and other names that I don’t recall after 44 years. Chas and Alan seemed to be the prime movers and we spent a lot of time hand cranking the engine, we had pulled shoulder muscles before the damn thing started. A whole team of people drove it up the main part of the hill, but at the steepest part no one seemed keen to drive the tractor in case it turned over. Suddenly, it was my turn! I still don’t know how I got roped into being in the driving seat; probably I was the smallest and lightest guy (I certainly didn’t volunteer, that’s one thing I learned in the army!). I reversed the machine up the first part of the hill, giving it full throttle up the slope to a shallower grade and turned it around to face uphill.
We all stuck our rucksacks on the back of the tractor and I headed up towards the prepared location near the bothy. Arriving near the site, I applied the foot brake, which worked by push rods, but the rucksacks had jammed the rods and before I knew it the tractor started to roll backward at quite a speed. I spun the wheel to turn the tractor across the hill slope but was thrown over to one side with my head down near the front wheel. In desperation I threw myself out into the heather and the tractor spun around 180 degrees and stopped upright. No harm done, except to my nerves! By this time, the rest of the team were running up the hill, so, somewhat reluctantly, I got back in the driving seat with Charlie and Johnny following close behind with rocks which were jammed behind the wheels when I stopped. I believe I should have received a medal for this act! (Editor’s note: I’ll buy you a pint next time we meet!)
I was there during the one and only day of operation. We had wooden handles with an angled slot which was placed over the rope, leaning back allowed the handle to grip, shooting one forward at a high rate of knots, and almost pulling one’s arm joints out. Alas, the tractor broke down, possibly due to lack of lubrication, the only good news being that I had at least six lifts before the event.
Tow Number 2 was unlucky to the end. Our attempts to lower the beast in a controlled manner failed because it was just too heavy for us to hold and it ran away down the hill and crashed into a cleft of the burn. We buried it where it lay.
I helped move the tractor up the hill, and I was there on the first (and last!) day of operation, in March 1962. Although the Ilford slide has degraded badly over the years, the photo shows the scene after the engine destroyed itself, quite spoiled our day!
NSC Tow Number 3 – Calf Dozer
Rick Bareham had spotted the redundant calf dozer on a site near the quayside (north side) and had it transported to his garage at Heddon-on-the-Wall. Conversion work was carried out mainly by Rick himself and the tracked unit was driven on to Cheviot from the south side. It was unsuccessful from the start, kicking off tracks and digging itself into the soft peat (near the first fence).
Charlie Sharman was heavily involved in this project, we mounted a redundant Armstrong-Siddeley gearbox on the top in order to drive the rope. Unfortunately, the tow never actually made it to the ski runs!
Ricky’s neighbours were not impressed by this tow. I spent some time out at Heddon working with Ricky and Charlie, and Alan Didsbury (and others that I don’t remember), but I do recall the noise whenever we started the thing up! (Editor’s note: Jim had some other comments on this tow, see SKI CLUB DAYS )
NSC had one further tow, but not on Cheviot. The Club had grown considerably in size, and in funds. A large number of members were only skiing at Allenheads (unlike the earlier hardy types who were prepared to trudge up Cheviot). Approaches were made to do something for them, so we formed an Allenheads Sub-Committee under Gordon Murray. As we were in funds, we purchased a tractor from a small engineering company in Newton and commissioned them to modify it, which involved driving a separate back-axle unit from the rear power take-off.
In the meantime, the Sub-Committee had decided to go it alone and split off to form the Northern Branch of the British Norwegian Ski Club. They made some unsuccessful efforts to construct their own tow, so in the end Adrian Gill had the honour of driving the NSC tow from Newton to Allenheads. This was done on a freezing cold day, my role being to follow and to keep Adrian topped up with coffee! This tow was successfully operated on the right-hand side of the field, and next year the BNSC people installed their new tow on that side, so our machine moved over to the left!
I don’t know the end of the story, or what happened to the machine in the long run.
Peter Lockey had a very successful tow – used by his clients on the lower hill north side below Lambden burn, access from Langleeford (kept Bill Brown sweet) – the tow was a Landrover , rope drum bolted to rear wheel (jacked up). The unit was self sufficient, all rope and return pulley wheels carried in rear.
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2 thoughts on “The Cheviot Ski Tows”
I belong to Strathkelvin Ramblers which is based in East Dunbartonshire north of Glasgow. I am originally from Northumberland and I was delighted to discover a member of the group was from Blyth, where my dad was from. We chatted about Northumberland and she told me that she used to belong to a club that went skiing in the Cheviots using their own ski tows. I wondered whether anyone remembers her? Her married name is Vera Hodges and she is now in her eighties.
Vera is a close personal friend and is well known to all Northumbrian Ski Club members, many of whom ‘migrated’ to Speyside when Cairngorm opened as a snow resort.