Wholehope was described in the YHA hostel handbook as a remote cottage at an elevation of 1300 feet some three miles up a track known as Clennell Street, above the village of Alwinton in Upper Coquetdale, Northumberland. The Handbook stated the place had 14 beds, 8 for men and 6 for women
My impressions of the place on my first visit, in May of 1954, were mixed. At that period of time, myself and two ex school friends John Cuthbertson and Jack Addison formed a determined trio to seek out places to visit throughout the two counties. Dirt Pot, Acomb, Alnham and Once Brewed had been our usual selected hostels, but we became dismayed by the noisy weekends especially when the Rye Hill mob were around! They would appear late at the hostel, sporting ragged jackets and Scottish kilts with black boots embedded with studs. The more studs the better! To complete the uniform all wore thick white socks rolled down to cover the boot tops. Even the girls were boisterous; everyone had the traditional ‘Commando’ rucksack.
One sunny spring day, while we stood in the Hexham bus station, Jack suggested that the remote Wholehope Hostel would be a change as the ‘West End’ lot rarely ventured off the main roads, the ‘in thing’ being to hitch-hike around without the use of public transport. Thus the three of us took the Friday 7.20pm Wooler bus from the Haymarket for Whittingham, then walked with some Reyrolles chaps up to Alnham for 10.15pm. Next morning we set off for Wholehope, with the sun shining, but by Biddlestone Church the clouds came down and the rain started and by the time we reached Clennell House the group had split up, some were even demoralised! I followed the leaders up the Alwin Burn road to the bottom of Kidlandlee Dene, which in those days was devoid of all trees, the whole area being bare apart from a few gaunt saplings. On climbing up the zigzag track along the front of the farm I merely followed someone in front, until at last I caught sight of a rather uninviting white painted cottage; the well reported Wholehope Hostel.
I arrived drenched on the door-step, the rain then suddenly stopped and the sun came out! We soon had a fire going; I dried my socks and my black naval boots, using some wood and coal from the store house which was also used as to house the men’s chemical toilet. I wondered who emptied the thing! Once we had obtained the signing in book from the blanket cupboard and the cottage had warmed up, I found the place was not as bad as my first impressions had indicated.
On viewing the mile of the Clennell track leading down to Alwinton, a burly figure was observed coming over the last rise on the track from the village and then progressing steadily up to the hostel. He eventually arrived and was wearing an old coat and a tatty rucksack and wellies! I recognised him as the person we had encountered some two years before at Alnham during a Concert Weekend when the whole hostel was booked up for the Hosteller’s Review at the Alnham School hall. On that occasion, John Cuthbertson had become alarmed while cooking his beans for tea by the appearance of, in his words, a tramp coming into the kitchen and stirring the beans, which were heating on the stove. The chap was just being helpful and seemed to be most popular. Here at Wholehope was the same man; who introduced himself on arrival as Charles McGonnigal from Ashington.
On New Year’s Day 1955, Jack Addison, Hugh Harrison and I, fitted out in new boots, bused to Thropton then set off for Alwinton. We arrived at the Rose and Thistle pub in total darkness. On enquiring if there any hostellers up at Wholehope, Jeff Foreman the landlord stated, ‘Oh yes! some were in here and went off at midnight’. We arrived at the hostel on a frosty night, not a sign of snow, to find the place packed and some were just getting out of bed! It appeared that sleeping in the available beds was being done in shifts! Others were making ready to leave for a dash down to the village for the 7 o’clock bus for home. There was much merriment especially by two young chaps, Hugh Hunter and Malcolm Chesney who kept declaring the virtues of skiing the local hills. Hugh declared that he had arranged for his father to go early next day to the Murton’s winter sale in town, to buy a pair of Norwegian-Gresvig skis to replace his ex-army pair. They were expecting snow soon and appeared to be patient. That was the first time I had heard mention of skis in a hostel! My friend Jack appeared to know them all quite well as Jack and the whole contingent had all been on a bus to Glen Coe Youth Hostel for the Christmas, looking for snow, there had been none!
Pitch Wilson, who I met for the first time, was in fine voice with his Scottish songs, he appeared to keeping order with his close mate Walter Wilkinson who seemed proud of his old naval coat. did later venture to ask where it had come from. Someone suggested the Titanic! The wind by late night was severe and a young fellow by the name of Johnny Gorman, from Morpeth, was appointed to collect water from the stream above the hostel. He appeared to me as a tough young fellow as it was black as pitch outside. By about 9 o’clock the noise of a motor cycle was heard approaching and then a stocky figure appeared who turned out to be Tug Wilson, one of the local shepherds from Uswayford Farm. He apparently knew most of the regulars and declared he was to continue up over Bloodybush Edge to return back to the farm. Better him than me as it was a difficult track with large boggy places. To me he appeared a tough character and quite fearless. As the three of us had arrived late, we had to sleep on the benches which were drawn up by the fire. A couple of chaps turned up who were strangers to all, except I recognised one as an ex-fellow Tynemouth school pupil, John Graham, who elected not to recognise me. For the last night I obtained a bed and we all had the luxury of a fire in the bedroom. Home next evening on the bus to arrive home at 10.00pm – I recall my parents were very worried about my late arrival.
Four weeks later, the winter came out of the north, the snow fell for days and some of the other remote Upper Coquetdale farms were isolated for weeks. The RAF had to fly supplies in to feed both animals and people, with Charlie McGonnigal and Bill Pearson helping out at Uswayford.
I kept a diary for years during the 1950’s and extracted the following:
One Friday evening in early March (1955), Jack and myself met, by arrangement, a very young Parsons apprentice Eric Rayson at the Haymarket bus stop for Wooler. The three of us had arranged to travel as far as Whittingham then drop off for Alnham for the night. Next day, the plan was to walk over the hills to Wholehope for the Saturday evening, then back home Sunday. At the bus were a group of hostellers with skis, all with plenty to say and most were those I had met at Wholehope on New Year’s Day some 5 weeks previous. They had claimed that there was snow all over the Cheviots and had been to Wholehope the week-end before. Now a week later they were all off the Wooler for the big-hill skiing and had arranged for a lorry to take them all up to the College Valley on the Saturday and Sunday. I did not at that time know where that valley was other than it was on the North side of Cheviot.
Pitch Wilson again was the apparent ace of the group and tried to encourage us three to join them and continue on to Wooler instead of battling the deep snow, which had lain around the county for 3 weeks. However, our minds were set on our own track, regardless of what depth of snow had been reported, it was only later I realised Jack had left a pair of borrowed skis in the barn at the Rose and Thistle pub the week before. We left the bus at Whittingham and we walked up to Alnham for 11.00pm. The snow lay some 12 inches deep everywhere, although the roads were mostly clear. Next day the three of us walked over to Alwinton and just up the Clennell Track at the first gate, the snow had formed an 8 feet drift over the 6 bar gate! Along the top of the drift ran several sets of ski tracks, we wondered whose, maybe those of Jack and the Wooler bound group the week-end before.
The snow lay around Wholehope about a foot deep and at first had the place to ourselves. As darkness fell, a skier arrived, dressed for the arctic complete with a hooded parka with fur around the hood rim. Later I found he had bought it in Norway a few years previous when he had gone over with Bill Pearson, and some other mates,to build an extension to the youth hostel at Mjolfjell. Click here for more information on this early example of ‘Auf Wiedersehn, Pet’. He also informed us that the fur edging to his hood was to stop his breath condensing on the fabric and icing up, not many know that! Soon, as the frost took a hold on the moon-lit snow Jack and the late arrival, who declared himself as Gordon Hustwick of Heaton, suggested skiing would be good so they ventured out and had many runs down the track to the low south gate. Eric and I also had a few runs each, using their skis but had little control as our walking boots did not fit the foot-bindings. However, that moonlit night was our first shot at skiing and we were little impressed. (Editor’s note: Eric nevertheless took up skiing as a sport, as did his fellow apprentices Bill Storey and Jim Lavery, see Skiing at Wholehope (under construction))
About 11 pm another chap walked in with primitive kit, he was Alan Thompson of South Shields and had walked up from Thropton taking some 7 hours or so. Jack was actually using his mate’s skis but Jack had first claim on them, so they agreed Jack would use them that week-end. I distinctly remember being woken at dawn, still hardly light outside, by the noise of a primus stove by my bunk. Alan had started it up while in his bunk! What a chap, he slept in riding breeches and wore tatty clothes; his socks had several holes so he must have found walking uncomfortable at times. So, one awake all awake, thus started a memorable day. The five of us decided to walk over to the College Valley to meet the Wooler based skiers, Gordon apparently knew them all and they would have the lorry at Hethpool. Once there, our group could climb aboard for the trip into Wooler. It sounded plausible, so we left Wholehope by about 9.30 heading north up the Clennell track for Uswayford farm. The wind was gusting over Bloodybush and the light snow billowed about, but the other four were unconcerned so I followed on thoughtfully as it was for Eric and myself the first time in the deep high hills in winter.
By the time we descended down to the farm, the sun was out and the farmer with his hired shepherd came out to meet us. The shepherd was Tug Wilson who had called in to Wholehope Hostel on the New Year weekend some five weeks previous. Here he was, working at the isolated farm having packed in his apprenticeship as an electrician at Parsons some time before. In later years he was to join the Antarctic Survey as a diesel mechanic.
The two suggested to us the best way up the valley would be direct up to The King’s Seat hill, then onto Cheviot via the fence. Jack and Gordon, the two skiers, broke the path as the snow in that region at 1400 feet must have been 2 feet deep. The three of us merely followed them up past Davison’s Linn, passing over the river by a firm snow bridge, not realising the possible depth of water lying under the snow. On the ridge those who had sandwiches finished them, the long slog up to the West side of Cheviot followed. The sun was bright with no wind, only white everywhere and I followed the others at a distance thinking about snow blindness. By the time we reached the Border fence, the peat hags were under about 3 feet of hard snow so walking was easier. Eventually, at the Cheviot cairn there was very little wind and Gordon even took some photographs, I never did see the results!
At that point, the time might have been 2.30 then our two accompanying skiers decided to set off for Wooler and we 3 walkers turned north down the side of the Bizzle passing several skiers coming up. These skiers had thin skis, similar to Gordon’s and known as the langlauf type. The four and a half miles from Cheviot to Hethpool was covered quite fast and as we passed over the green to Hethpool fence, behold a mass of skiers were coming down Little Hetha Hill and while most were apparently timid, one tall ginger headed individual wearing a bright red ski jacket was so proficient that he could hurl down at a fast speed and pull up with a few yards of the road. Later, I found he was Les McDonald who, after emigrating to Canada, used to come back for the Easter races in Scotland and get some impressive placings in major races. The lorry, complete with a full awning covering the back section, had the additional space for us three walkers, together with another group who I was later informed, were the Dunsdale Lads. So we arrived at the Wooler hostel to join the evening melee.
Easter came and I spent it at Wholehope with Jack and some young Reyrolles apprentices. All the usual gang had gone off to the Cairngorms, by train, the skiing was good as the Scottish winter had also been good for the snow falls. A week later, I hitch-hiked from Rothbury to arrive at Wholehope the same time as Charles McGonnigal who immediately set about emptying the two toilet pans. Jack arrived much later as he had been to Alnham to collect a sleeping bag. On the Sunday, the pair of us were accompanied by Charlie over to Uswayford where he called to see his friend Tug Wilson. Jack and I continued over the Lintlands to Wooler via Scotsman’s Ridge on a clear fine day. Large bands of snow were along the Cheviot top and we found a plane wheel which we assumed was from one of the war planes lost in the vicinity. On the bus home from Wooler we were joined by Les McDonald and his French girl friend, the pair had been skiing in the Bizzle. They had walked over from Coldburn farm in two hours! So they said, it’s about 6.5 miles as the crow flies! Apparently, the pair moved to the Vancouver, BC and I did receive periodic references to them in later years from Les’s long time friend John Todd, one of my associates at Parsons.
Then came the hot summer of 55 and I ventured to camp at Wholehope at the end of May to try my new sleeping bag. It was to be a night of raw frost and we awoke to white grass outside. Once the sun was high, John Bowman, who I had met for the first time on Coldburn Hill some eight weeks previous, decided to walk to Wooler with a couple of his mates. One being Ken Henderson, one of my fellow STEW club walkers in later year. They set off up the track for Wooler in a hurry and full of enthusiasm. I am sure it was their first crossing which they did very quickly as Jack and I carrying our camping gear, arrived a good while later, having chased them for 14 miles across the hills. At Whit week-end a huge body of people arrived on the Saturday, I had a bed as I had traveled up on the Friday. Stuart Smith arrived with Hugh Hunter and Mal Chesney and even though it was high summer the trio talked about skiing all the hours! Gordon Hustwick also turned up with his dark haired wife who I learned later did not take to hostelling.
Later in the year, having walked again in a fast time over to Wooler, there appeared to be a trend for chaps to claim fast times for the 14 miles crossing. Mal Chesney had claimed by the September that he did it one afternoon in 4 hours, leaving at 12.30pm and actually caught the 5pm bus at Wooler. In the October he tried the very first Chevy Chase from Alnham to Wooler via Cheviot and won it! A year later Geoff Cobbing, who I met at Wholehope for the first time in the summer of 55, entered the Chase and he won it too!
In October of 1955, Pitch Wilson arranged an inaugural ski club meeting at the Blackett Street YMCA and quite a few interested folk turned up as at that time there was a YHA Social Group meeting at intervals and the word about a Ski Club had been passed around. As we left the meeting, I met Pitch Wilson and Jack Addison on the stairs and by the time we reached Isaac Walton’s Store I suggested that a good central meeting place for mid weekly meetings would be the Crow’s Nest in the Haymarket, as my Work’s cricket club used to meet there. We three turned around and made a bee-line for the Crow’s Nest, hence that’s how the foundations of the old Northumbrian Ski Club started.
By the time the club had a firm meeting place, then Wooler appeared to be the week-end haunt for the convenience of all. The ski lorry was provided by a potato merchant of Wallsend and a driver who I only knew as Mac drove to the Haymarket for 1.30 pm each Saturday for the trip to Wooler Hostel. Thus Wholehope from then on passed out of the usual haunts of the ski fraternity.
January 1956 saw a huge snow fall with regular falls each two weeks or so. The skiers met at Wooler each Saturday. However, a particular mid February fall of snow attracted me with Mike Robson to Wholehope and because we were attending Rutherford Tech College with Saturday morning lectures we caught the 4pm Thropton bus with three young ladies, Ray Watson, Meg Knox and Brenda Shanks, the three had not been to Wholehope before and had decided to go after overhearing Mike and I discussing the idea the week before. Charlie McGonnigal joined the bus at Thropton and soon the snow started so by the time we arrived in near darkness at Alwinton the snow was starting to take hold on the roads.
The six of us set off up the track on a pitch black night with snow falling. I think the girls were uneasy, but we reassured them we knew the way. After the first gate, of 5 bars, some skiers came down from the hostel to meet us. One was Jimmy Richardson and the other Hugh Hunter, sporting grand Austrian skis which he had just bought, I never found what had happened to the Gresvigs he had sounded off about a year previous. We all trudged up to the hostel, attracted by the distant light in the window. It was pleasing to get inside with some heat. That night, as the place was full with a ski group, Mike and I had to sleep on the table whereas the three girls went into the loft. Very late on, George Pearson arrived with another two Tynemouth chaps; they were Gordon Dodds and Dave Johnson. The later spent many years in the RAF then on demob bought a house in Alwinton village, by the Church and with crossed skis nailed onto the end wall of the garage.
A fairly comfortable night resulted and next morning all the skiers were out on the front with most running down the path to the gate. Lovely snow and Hugh Hunter demonstrated his swing parallels with much style. He used the old fashioned long lanyard straps and had great control, none of the skis at that period had release bindings, and maybe they had not been invented. As the day wore on the snow gained in depth slowly so by later afternoon as darkness approached we made for the village but several decided to stay for another night, no doubt they would tell their employers on the Tuesday they were snowed up! Hugh, George, Charlie with Grace and Jimmy Richardson all stayed behind. The trio of girls set off and Mike and I left later to pass them walking down past the last gate into Alwinton. The run down the moor track was one of lifes highlights, in deep powder snow, the skis just hidden underneath the surface. The 5 bar gate had been opened by one of the three and it was straight down to the green to await a taxis to Thropton. What a week-end, as far as I know that was the last time a large group of skiers had been at Wholehope in powder snow. Next day, the Evening Chronicle declared the temperature at Hexham had been -20C during the night!
In March 1957, the winter was damp with little snow, and by mid March a group of us skiers went up to Wholehope with Bert Knight who had just returned from his national service duty. As JLC had been demobbed in June 56, then the two had much to talk about. At the time in early 1957 I was working through a two year deferment due to College Course but expected to be called for National Service in early 1959. The pair suggested for me to do two years would be a waste of time so I had plenty to contemplate. However, as it happened by mid 1958 I elected to stop my deferment and promptly failed the army medical! Jack Addison was taken into the RAF in late 1958 and Bill Storey a mate of Trevor Hipkin entered the army for his two years about the same time.
The only other recollection of note was the Whitsun week-end of 1957. Another big group turned up with Stuart Smith, the appointed warden for the three days. I camped with JLC down by the burn but for all the three days a large disturbed curlew wheeled around showing disproval. Bob Thornton and his sister Maud appeared, together with Trevor Hipkin and his cohorts. The Sunday evenings camp fire was a highlight and merriment all around. Monday again there was the mad dash for Wooler via Cheviot and the 7.20pm bus back to Newcastle. The Wholehope era appeared to end in the early 1960’s and the place closed finally about 1966 when all the equipment passed to the Amble Birdwatcher’s Club.
Raymond Rees – 23 January, 2003 – edited by Trevor Hipkin April 2013
Raymond Rees died in April 2013 after a long period of ill health, bravely borne.
John L.Cuthbertson died in August 1988
Charles McGonnigal died in March 1989 while a Warden at Ingleton Youth Hostel in West Yorkshire. His wife Grace and son David still live in Ingleton
Gordon Dodds died in 1996 after being hospitalised for many years following a road accident
Hugh Hunter married and joined a construction company, then moved to Capetown where he and his wife were murdered by burglars about 1985
Jimmy Richardson died in Hexham about 1999 – his funeral cortege included many vintage cars driven by members of the Northumbrian Motor Club
Gordon Hustwick died in 1990, his sister Joan married a Parsons Project Engineer and still lives in Cullercoats, she was one of the original Rye Hill mob! The pair attended the Once Brewed reunion in 1974
Jack Addison died in North Shields in 2011
Bob Thornton died in Vancouver in about 2010
Malcolm Chesney lived in Scone, Perthshire until he died in 2014.
Alan Thompson married and moved to Wales in the early 1960’s to run a sheep farm
Eric Rayson lives in Kelowna, BC, and worked in the tourist industry
Stuart Smith married in 1964 and moved to Vancouver, then moved to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island where he died in 2017.