Northumberland, farming, humour, dialect, Daft Laddies, floods, camping , history, 1950s
By Donald Clegg
Picture shows the gate into the forest along from Dally Castle, on the way to Chirdon farm
Draining the peat for tree planting
After National Service I returned to work on a farm in the North Tyne and where I had my Daft Laddie wrestle with the bracken crusher.
In those pre-Kielder dam days the North Tyne River was prone to regular seasonal flooding. Forestry had taken over many thousands of acres of hill country which had, for generations, been grazed by sheep.
One of the first operations undertaken by the new industry prior to planting trees was the ploughing of hundreds of miles of drains. Parallel lines of deep channels, two feet deep and only a couple of yards apart scored the hillsides as far as the eye could see. Their function was to drain the peat moorland and provide a more secure footing for the millions of Sitka Spruce, Norway Spruce, Scots Pine and Japanese Larch which were to follow.
The drains were too successful
The drains proved to be very successful – too successful it would seem, because now when it rained, the water made its way within a few hours into the sykes and burns and thence to the main North Tyne river.
Picture shows a newly-cut drain in the peat soil. It was cut by a special single furrow plough (called the Cuthbertson plough) pulled by a powerful bulldozer tractor with a big winch on the back incase they got bogged. The drivers
were called 'the Circus', as they traveled around each forest in turn preparing for planting season
The trees were planted in a slit in the upturned furrow, cut with a spade. This prevented the roots of the young trees becoming waterlogged until they got established
This drain was photographed in the late 1950s immediately after cutting, and you can see that already the water is flowing from the wet peat, even before heavy rain.
This sudden influx of water meant that the river couldn’t cope and flooding of the flat haughs became a regular event, inundating not only crops but also endangering livestock. It also added great stress to local folk who lived near the river, and especially farmers who had to keep thor lugs cocked during the night for rain, to get up and move stock from the river haughs.
Many a cattle beast and sheep was washed to its death in these flash floods, which also took hay pikes and corn stooks off to foreign parts, never to be retrieved. One early morning , after very heavy rain had fallen during the night, I reached the farm road on my way to work to find that 'the Tyne was oot' and had already covered much of the haughs below me.
A marooned tent
It was just before Easter and I knew there were Scouts camping by the riverside. Sure enough, there was a tent perched forlornly on a slight rise, surrounded by the rising waters. I rushed up to the farm and started up the old Case tractor, yoked the flat trailer and hurried to the rescue. The water was almost 18 inches deep by now and getting deeper by the minute. When I reached the tent I found the four Scouts were still fast asleep inside, totally oblivious to the danger swirling round their tiny island.
Howay lads, git oot o' bed
I soon woke them to the reality of their situation and bundled them, their belongings, and their tent on to the trailer and started back for dry land. By now the water was up to the underside of the tractor’s engine and the trailer had actually begun to float in one or two deeper slacks.
Unfortunately for me, the Case had a fixed power take-off pulley wheel attached to the side of the engine – just on water level. By the time we reached dry land the spray sent up from the constantly revolving pulley wheel meant that I was wetter than any of the rescued Scouts. Thereafter the Scouts were dried out and fed in the farmhouse and sent home on the bus to Hexham later.
One big lake
Over the next two hours the river continued to rise so that, eventually, the whole of the flat land from the Riding Bank to Charlton and from the old railway embankment to Hesleyside hall was just one great lake of surging, brown water. Of the valley road which ran parallel to the river, only the top six inches of the fence posts on either side were visible.
The water receded almost as fast as it had risen but in the aftermath, we found fences flattened, our giant muck midden had disappeared down stream and that we had inherited all the turnips from our neighbour’s farm on the other side of the river. “ It’s an ill wind (or flood)”, as they say! I’m surprised they didn’t find out and arrive to collect them.