It was Easter 1956 at Gestling Youth Hostel near Hastings that I first met David Sevante. We were both helping the warden to prepare for the opening of this new Youth Hostel.
Here, David regaled me with tales of a most unusual remote hostel in the uplands of Northumberland. As we left at the end of the Easter weekend, he bet me I would never get there.
August 1956 saw me wearing ordinary shoes and with what turned out to be a disastrous rucksack, hitchhiking from east Kent up the then not so Great North Road in search of the mythical Wholehope. From High Barnet I had a long distance lift in a smoky, red British Transport lorry with a 30 mph maximum speed sign displayed on its rear. At least this was better than the 20mph of previous years.
Overnight I slept in the lorry cab parked near Wetherby then next day we continued on to Newcastle. I can’t remember how I arrived at Rothbury, but will never forget the unnerving experience that followed being picked up by a potential racing driver in his Land Rover.
The driver paused on Holystone Common and pointed to a tiny white dot between the brilliantly blue sky and the lush green hills. “Thats where you are going. That’s Wholehope.” Later, I found out that my driver was the legendary and much loved Dr. Richardson of Harbottle. A privileged if scary introduction to Upper Coquetdale.
After the three mile climb up Clennell Street with YHA Wholehope a mere 100 yards away, who should appear on his BSA Bantam but the Summer Warden of Wholehope, Davy Sevante. “Get on” was all he said, then back to Rothbury for tea, collecting some groceries and at last returning to Wholehope, I climbed into the first unoccupied bunk.
My intention had been to stay a couple of days and then walk on to Yetholm and beyond to see some of Scotland. However, as things worked out, Yetholm had to wait a few years. That sparkling morning revealed a vast vista from Silverton Hill to the sea near Blyth, with the sombre mysterious Simonsides to the south and the rolling hills upon hills of Upper Coquetdale to the west.
It must have been a Friday that I arrived at Wholehope as, on awakening, many weekenders already there. Conversations were about walks to strange sounding places, like Hen Hole, The Guide Post, Once Brewed and The Byrness all flowing between Jackie Addison, Johnny Gorman and Charlie McGonnigal. At lunch time Charlie announced “you’re all getting a piece of my Grandma’s pie” and all twenty of us indeed did. This was the all embracing spirit of goodwill that set the style of every one of the many hikers I was later to meet.
Our Saturday evening walk was to “Geoff’s place”, which turned out to be the cosiest pub without a bar that I had ever seen. The Rose and Thistle Inn in Alwinton was delightful with its very low doorway surmounted with the same date & day cards that are still in use today. As we entered, immediately on the right was a high backed wooden bench for two, with its shapely arm rest that easily lifted off its tenon. There also was a half model of an enormous Coquet salmon on the wall and buffalo horns draped with fox tails over the window. Windsor chairs lined the room and a round cast iron, marble topped table stood before the fireplace. A small window penetrated the thick wall and was framed outside with a yellow rambling rose.
The view was of the Inn’s garden and its immaculate vegetable patch with the Show field beyond the wall. In the distance across the River Coquet was Angryhaugh hidden in the Aspen trees. Its hill behind, covered with golden bracken hiding the ancient coal workings completed this attractive view.
In the corner was our Landlord’s tiny pantry with its barrel of McEwan’s Scotch Ale, glasses and not much else. Geoff was forever getting his exercise scurrying stooped through to his kitchen to find whatever was ordered that was out of the ordinary.
On moonless nights, walking out of the Rose and Thistle, the blackness hit you like a wall. Having felt your way along the pub wall, you cross the green to the Hoseden Burn, turning left and following the Burn cross the footbridge, turn left and most likely you will arrive in Jimmy Waddlell’s farmyard. Retrace your steps on to the stony road of Clennell Street and follow the ruts to the gate. Then walk the three mile track up Clennell Street always hoping to catch a glimpse of the welcoming light of the oil lamp in the hostel window. The track could be found by carefully feeling your way with your feet for the finer grass of the pathway which generally ran between the course grass tufts of the “bull snouts”.
On the Sunday a walk was proposed to Uswayford. Uswayford, what’s that? After four bracing miles we arrived at five gates in the middle of nowhere, how strange. I followed the group down the path and eventually saw an attractively sited farm nestled between three hills with one long view down the valley to the south west. So this is Uswayford – a farm not a ford.
Our arrival was announced by the barking of kennelled collies and many breeds of hens and ducks including a guardsman like Indian Runner duck patrolling the neat stone cassy before the wide open, green painted farmhouse door.
We turned left down two steps into the large flag stoned kitchen living room. From the black beams above were hung two sides of home cured bacon and a white football size bladder of lard, together with dressed walking sticks and fishing rods. In the picture window sat a bonny thirteen year old girl with her hair in plaits wearing a white blouse and a red tartan skirt. I later knew her as Jean. Draped along the settle was Simon Gray with his leg in plaster, having broken it when fishing the Coquet. In the centre was an enormous table displaying a variety of cakes, buns and the flat griddle scones the local specialty, all made by Annie Telfer, the smiling lady of the house. Her pure white hair set off her dark floral apron.
Behind us glowed the warmth of the black lead polished cast iron range, burning the sweet smelling peats so typical of the hill farmhouses of the period.
Then in came the farmer Dawson Telfer with Johnny Little his shepherd who joined us for Sunday tea which we all enjoyed. I just sat and listened, plate in hand uncomprehending the musical blending of broad Cheviot and Geordie dialects – all totally new to me.
At the end of this holiday I made a watercolour sketch of Uswayford for Dawson and Annie in appreciation of their kindness. Although it was still August, constant snow showers meant I made four trips to beyond Scoop Sike to complete it. “Oh” said Annie “we often we have snow on the hay kyles before we can get it in”. Now that does not happen in Margate!
Uswayford. By kind permission of Nancy Moscrop.
Another fascinating local tradition was stick making. I visited a Mr George Snaith, a local expert who lived at that time in one of the bungalows at The Barrier. He kindly chatted to me about the craft of making dressed sticks and on leaving presented me with a partly worked rams horn to “have a go”. I have it still on my desk in front of me. The next year all the bungalows were gone, demolished by the Ministry of Defence.
Perhaps the most important event of August 1956 was the Public Inquiry into the Rights of Way, Footpaths and Byways. This was held at the Rose and Thistle Inn upstairs in the Long Room. Here, the shepherds and farmers gave evidence to defend their use of the long standing traditional footpaths and byways against the possessiveness of the Land owners of England, and in particular the Ministry of Defence, occupiers of the Otterburn Ranges.
Too shy to push into the crowded Inn, I waited on the road outside. I felt compelled to be there having an interest in the free use of these byways and to support the interest of my friends the Wholehope hikers and the Ramblers Association. It took the inquiry years to finally achieve the victories that now allows us to enjoy wandering these hills so freely.
My next August holiday was again at Wholehope, this time to experience the the lamb sales at Rothbury and Bellingham, hay making at The Creal and Kidlandlee and the stacking of peats near Cock Law. But that’s another year.
John Tribe 2015