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