New freedoms beckoned after the restrictions and austerity of the war years, and to a 14 year-old the YHA looked like a big adventure, with old hostels reopening and new ones starting up, even Fenwicks shop in Newcastle had a place where folk could join and get that first YHA card.
My first hostel experience was at Edmundbyers, but I soon moved on to Alnham, a hostel in a converted border pele tower that soon became like a second home (the pele is now a private home, thanks to Mike Searle for the header image).
These were some of the best days of my life; I roamed the Cheviot Hills, over the moors to Linhope Spout, climbing Hedgehope and down to Wooler to meet other walkers at the bus stop – I had found my love, off the roads and into the hills.
A little later, I transferred my affections to Once Brewed Hostel, where I fell in love with the Wall and all things Roman, not a difficult thing for a Wallsender. One thing led to another, I had a chat with two chaps carrying a rope and they introduced me to rock climbing, one of my interests to this day.
At 15, having visited all of the hostels in Northumberland, I set out to bag some big hills and see the hostels in the Lake District. Things were different over there, we always cooked our own food at home so it was a surprise to find the Warden expected to cater for you. A lot of good hills were climbed that holiday but I decided that hostelling in the Lakes was for tourists and that camping was the answer, every holiday right up in the hills – Sty Head Tarn was the favourite spot.
Back at home, I was still hostelling every week end, particularly to Rothley Sheil – Friday night over the Simonsides and up to Wholehope on Saturday, then on to Wooler via Cheviot on Sunday for the bus home.
National Service for two years in North Wales meant access to Snowdonia and I got some good hill experience there; service life had other compensations, I was due a seven day train travel permit and when the issuing clerk asked where I wanted to go I specified Kyle of Lochalsh, so I had a week on Skye for free! I even got a weeks leave to go with my pals who had arranged an Armstrongs bus to Glen Coe – my first proper ski holiday, years before the first ski tow was erected on Meall a Bhuiridh.
A chance encounter there changed my life forever; my future wife was there with colleagues from the Aberdeen University climbing club! The evening venue was the Clachaig hotel bar, then back to the Hostel where the Warden supplied a glass bowl and we boiled up oranges, sugar and anything else we had, everyone emptied their booze bottle in and the Warden joined our Punch party.
Postwar, wonderful equipment became available in the Army & Navy stores, white painted hickory skis, long and wide, without steel edges but still a wonderful way to get to the hills when the snow came. One weekend, I set off alone from Wholehope intending to ski to Cheviot, only to find that the white stuff was rutted ice and the distance too far so a new venue had to be found. Dunsdale was ideal and I was introduced to the notion of snow camping in the top of the Bizzel, a hard flog up, but a good ski down.
The man to watch at that time was Chum Warmington; apparently he had been involved in a rock fall and was quite badly hurt, but once out of hospital his idea of convalescence was to go climbing in Chamonix – some guy!
As the number of hikers increased, Sunday night in the Central Station Cafe rendezvous point started to get out of hand – rucksacks were everywhere and the lads could make a mug of tea last for two hours. Eventually, we were asked to move our meeting place to the Rye Hill Club, with results as noted by Ray Rees in his Wholehope Diaries piece on this website.
Although I was a regular visitor at Wholehope, I only slept inside the cottage once, on the floor in the loft, up a ladder over a large drum of paraffin, not a good idea. The outside byre with lots of bracken on the floor was a popular venue, we once had 12 chaps sleeping in there, no problem with ventilation as someone had pinched the top half of the door! Camping outside was another choice – in mid-summer 1950, John Davison, Hal Crane and Ann King camped and carried heavy rucksacks to Wooler via Cheviot – no light mountain tents then!