wholehope 1

One of the most significant places in my life was the small cottage shown here in John Tribe’s excellent 1953 watercolour.

Known colloquially as ‘Woollup’ (actual spelling Wholehope, click the map for the exact location), photo this was a Youth Hostel of the bothy variety, high up in the Cheviot Hills about three miles above Alwinton in upper Coquetdale, Northumberland.

Originally a shepherd’s cottage, in the late 1940’s the scruffy white building was converted into a youth hostel as a jumping-off point for walkers to get into the remoter reaches of the Cheviot Hills. The initiative was successful, by the mid 1950s the reputation of Woollup had spread over the northern part of the UK and many people trekked from Alwinton up the ancient grassy track of Clennel Street, all heading for that tiny building.

Other contributors have their own Woollup stories, but in my case, actually getting there for the first time was almost a chance event, an object lesson into how quickly a life can change.

Aged 16 and newly back from four years living in Australia, at weekends I enviously watched our neighbour Jimmy Richardson going off on his motorbike with a rucksack on his back. Eventually, I plucked up enough courage to talk with him about where he went and what he had been doing over those weekends – Jimmy explained about a cottage that he went to up in the Cheviot hills and said he would be very happy to take me the next weekend, the Easter weekend of 1956.

A mad scramble ensued while I got my gear collected together, then on the next Thursday night off I went on Jimmy’s motorbike, en route to Alwinton and the start of the most formative period of my life.

I must have been deeply affected by the experience, because when writing these words 60 years later I remembered every detail of that long weekend as if it were yesterday – the open nature of the discussions, the primitive cooking arrangements, the bunk beds with rough blankets, the ‘honey bucket’ toilets, my first pint in the Rose and Thistle pub, every item appeared crystal clear.

Entranced, I went back on my own the very next weekend, taking the Friday night bus to Thropton (imagine my dismay when everyone else got off in Rothbury),  then walking the nine lonely miles to Alwinton and three miles up Clennel Street to a dark and cold cottage, empty now of the conversation and laughter of my first visit.

Totally alone for the first time in my life, in the listening silence I lit the Tilley lamp and put a candle in the window to guide anyone else coming up the track, made a big fire and lit a primus stove to make some comforting noise, then crawled into my sleeping bag and tried to get to sleep before the stove ran out of fuel – but Hypnos deserted me, and I watched as the greening dawn crept over the hills and dewdrops condensed on the grimy windows like the tears of the night.

Later, still watching, I saw tiny figures on the track, new friends, folk with stories to share.  I knew that many of the regulars had travelled extensively and I looked forward to sitting in the inglenook beside the fire, listening as these pilgrims talked about their travels and the sights that they had seen.

Wholehope range

Woollup changed my life. Before, I was heading for ‘normal’ life as an engineer of some sort, but that primitive cottage turned out to be a place of great meaning for me, a focal point for my development and practical education and the first place where I was treated as an adult – heady stuff for a 16 year-old.

That humble bothy is where I met Adrian and Doreen Gill, Jim Lavery, Meg Knox, Charlie and Joan Sharman, Bill Storey, Alan Didsbury, Alan Bell, Vera Hodges, Eric Rayson and many more, kindred spirits who became lifelong friends and are forever embedded in the warp and weft of my adult existence – and in my mind the life-force of our little group somehow permeated the very fabric of the place – now a silent pile of stones on a deserted Cheviot hillside, but as entire in my memory as in the black and white images from my teenage years.

Everything changes.  In those callow days we had wings on our heels, but the halcyon Woollup era ended long ago, our wings clipped by the inexorable passage of time.    Now, the only sounds on those empty green hills are the bleating of sheep, the songs of skylarks and curlews and the soughing of the wind – but go there, sit on the stones that mark the site and listen carefully; you may hear faint echoes of our singing and laughter from times long past.

My family know that I want my ashes to be spread over the site, so if in the future you need to talk with me, then that will be the best place to try.

This website covers some of the history of this unique place and stories from those days are included herein, so I won’t go into any more detail, suffice to say that each Woollup weekend seemed to last for ever and the experiences affected my outlook on life and made me a different person.

Thanks to John Tribe for permission to use his images in this piece, including this very atmospheric sketch of the Harbottle piper Joe Hutton in the ‘Rose and Thistle’ pub in Alwinton in the summer of 1956.  To complete the magic, click the link, close your eyes and listen to Joe playing – your imagination will do the rest. For the curious, according to John Tribe the two guys leaning on the back of the settle are John himself and Tug Wilson.
Joe Hutton, Rose and Thistle 1953

Click images to see full size.
Map © and courtesy of Ordnance Survey

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28 thoughts on “Everything changes – Wholehope Cottage – Trevor Hipkin

  1. If you go to the Mountain Bothies Association website (MBA membership is not required), select the About the MBA tab, and then select Archive on the drop down menu, you can read my article about Wholehope Home to Hostel and Bothy to Bygone which explains why Wholehope never became an MBA maintained bothy.

  2. Oh by the way, I enjoyed reading this page on the blog and I think the illustrations are really good and certainly add to the pictorial history of Wholehope, well done Trevor.

  3. My enduring memory of Wholehope, was learning the hard lesson that during winter months it was better to check the loft and, if necessary, to shovel the snow out – before lighting the stove.

  4. Great to hear memories of Wholehope from those who went before. As a matter of interest, did you ever come across a Tommy Richardson of North Shields, a regular hosteller up that way in your era? Really would like to know as I have copies of his YH Card & a few group photos(unidentified members!) from his son . Thanks ( please email me if you can)

  5. Could this be the place where my grandmother was brought……..and journeyed back whenever she could until she died in 1975
    Isabella lived here with her 9 brothers and sisters,while her father tended sheep over the hills…….she told many stories of her life here playing on the hillside

  6. A great place to go as a teenager if you wanted a weekend without adult supervision. there was nobody there. Very difficult to reach by public transport. Bus from the Haymarket to Thropton on a Friday night and a good three to four hour walk. I am going back next week for the first time in nearly forty years.

  7. Omg never knew there was a cottage there. I used to work at the treking centre for the lovely mr & mrs davison in the school holidays when i was 15 & 16. It is so magical up there i still ride my dales pony up there . Please say hello if u see me. Ride up ingram frequently too angela Henderson

  8. Good reading, i @ 15yrs old 1969 camped up in the farm in alwinton & took my pals up to the deserted wholehope cottage, always wet & cold even in july. got the bus from Newcastle Haymarket to thropton & changed to the alwinton coach there…..(.sat & b/hol monday only)

  9. I’ve taken retired police officers up there and one actually took his wife up later the same week!
    Even after all these years it relaxes me to reflect, many times late at night of happy times there in the remoteness of the Cheviots!

  10. My husband John Brock spent two summers at Wholehope as the summer YHA warden in the early 1960’s. He loved his time there playing his Northumberland pipes and with vivid memories still of watching the postman come up the hill and having a kettle of spring water boiling for visitors. It was a wonderful experience never to be forgotten. It was sad when we returned many years later to find only a pile of stones and a pine forest. Have enjoyed reading these memories.

  11. All of us will know the heavy kettle of spring water! A chain was hooked into the handle and the upper end had a hook which could enter holes on a metal vertical bar, thus facilitating the desired height above the fire one wished the kettle to be!

  12. Spent a few days there in about 1958 with my late elder brother & sister. I was around 13 or 14 years of age. Remember having the job of carrying the stream water back to the hostel….have a photo somewhere of me struggling back with it! It was like another world….of times past…atmospheric and silent apart from the sheep. It had tremendous views and the air so pure! Still remember the bacon & eggs…..can’t remember how they were cooked….I left it to my siblings! Also remember the “Bus Stop” sign on the cottage wall! Great and lasting memories.

  13. I walked up to Wholehope last Wednesday 17/02/2020, through dense mist and low cloud which made route finding interesting, even on Clennell street. I knew there had been a hostel here, so sad to sit there on the tumbled walls. These places can give lasting memories when you’re young. My first serious walk was up to Bellingham hostel then on to Kielder hostel, in the days before the reservoir. Happy memories of blisters, horse flies, underage drinking and green bacon for breakfast!

  14. Derek, Coquetdale still catches at my heart. Walking up Clennell Street, I recall those callow teenage years, remember old friends now gone into the darkness and ponder on the life challenges that formed us all. Everything has indeed changed – but we were so lucky to have those experiences and to live through those carefree days. Teenagers had more to fill their lives back then, modern kids have more gadgets, we had more fun!

  15. I remember Wholehope way back in 1951-2 when I was yha supervisor for the weekends, and the happy times I had there. All my friends are now memories but will never forget the good times. I went back in the 70’s and sat on the pile of stones and heard the laughs and singing from those by gone years.

  16. Hello Trevor,
    I hope that, among your past friends, I’m counted along with my ex: Julie Ogden. I think I first met you on a skiing holiday at Glen Shee. You told me about the club that met every Wednesday in the Crow’s Nest in the Haymarket. If you do read this, let’s compare more notes on family, etc. It would be good to hear from you.
    Colin Young

  17. Wonderful evocative memories. I recognise so much in all the stories. Wholehope and Rothbury YHA are defining experiences in my youth, influencing my entire life.

  18. I think I must have been one of the last people to stay at Wholehope Cottage. A friend and I came to Northumberland on a Youth Hostelling tour in August 1964, just after leaving school in Birmingham. It was during a heatwave, the spring nearby where water was supposed to be available was almost dried up, the roof had collapsed over the male dormitory and the female one was near collapse too. We had walked up from Wooler over the Cheviot, and then went on to Kirk Yetholm the next day. I still have a photo of the place somewhere.
    I also remember the hostels at Acomb, Dirt pot, Ninebanks, Bellingham, Rothbury and Rock Hall: I believe all or most are no closed. I fell in love with Northumberland on that trip and still come up two or three times a year.

  19. Hi, Trevor,  That could be a long time coming as it’s buried among many others. As and when I find it I’ll send it. I may ask for you not to put it online as it may include someone in the picture who may not want it posted in public. I’ll have a dig anyway. Best regards,Ian. Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

  20. I never stayed at Wholehope, but I’ve walked past the ruins many times over the years and I get the impression that there is less and less remaining each time I pass. My first experience of Northumberland was in the first week of November 1968 when 5 of us from SE London & Kent Ramblers walked across England from Alnmouth to Gretna with overnights at Rock Hall YHA, Wooler YHA, Trows and Rowhope in Upper Coquetdale, Byrness (there was no YHA then), Kielder YHA (which opened specially for us), Newcastleton, and Langholm. An edited version of the story of the walk was written up in “The Countryman” magazine, Autumn 1972 under the title “A good hard walk”.

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