December 18, 2009

Kielder viaduct - A North Tyne icon

By Donald Clegg and Clive Dalton

View of the Bakethin resevoir from the Kielder viaduct

Victorian engineers

This wonderful example of Victorian engineering fortunately survived two major threats - the closure of the Riccarton-Newcastle railway line, and the the flooding of the upper Tyne valley to form the Kielder resevoir.

The viaduct was designed by John Furness Tone to get the railway across the Deadwater burn at an angle, and to do this, the contractors William Hutchinson and Peter Nicholson of Newcastle-upon-Tyne used the 'skew arch' construction, where stone masons cut and dressed each individual stone to be laid along helical courses for the seven arches with the longest span of 12m. There are three piers in the water which were an added challenge.

The bridge plaque describes Nicholson as a 'pioneer geometrician who worked out how the stones should be cut. Imagine the time he would have put into the mathmatics of that, and how quickly it would be done today with 'Computer Assisted Drafting' (CAD). All the plans would be hand drawn and copies made by hand - no digital scanning or copying machines.

This construction was not unique to Kielder and was used on other bridges on both the North British and Wansbeck line. Examples were the bridge near Chollerton station for rail over the road the bridge for road and rail across the river Rede at Reedsmouth (completed in 1861), and the road bridge over the old line path near Scotsgap's old station. So the Kielder viaduct would not be the first structure on which the technique was used - but it's certainly the most spectacular on the line.

Words on plaque at Kielder viaduct
'In 1969 after being in use for 100 years this viaduct was preserved for the public by the Northumberland and Newcastle Society through the generosity of many donors. The viaduct was constructed in 1862 to carry the North Tyne railway and is a notable example of Victorian engineering. It is a rare and the finest surviving example of the skew arch form of construction. This required that each stone in the arches should be individually shaped in accordance with the method evolved by Peter Nicholson of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a pioneer geometrician in this field'.

Time on the job
The job was started in 1858 and finished in 1862 - which was not bad going considering the technology of the time. The quarrying and carting the stone to the job with horse and cart would be a major job, and then all the dressing of the stone by the masons would follow that. Then without modern cranes and hoists, imagine the work in putting up the scaffolding and then getting the dressed stones up into the archways. Each stone would have been a two-man lift.

The viaduct was a joint project between the Border Counties Railway (BCR) and the North British Railway (NBR) which merged in 1860 into the NBR to extend the line up the North Tyne valley to Riccarton junction. The hoped-for bonanze of coal from Plashetts pit for Scottish mills never happened, and the Edinburgh-Newcastle route via Hexham never competed with the much faster route via Berwick on Tweed.

In 1923 the line and the all the bridges on it became the property of the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) and then to British Rail in 1948 before closure for passengers in 1956 and freight in 1958. The Bellingham Heritage Centre has a special display about the railway - see their website for information.

The history of the line is well explained by G.W.M. Sewell in his book "The North British Railway in Northumberland (1991), Merlin Books. ISBN 0-86303-613-9.

This is an outstanding book with some marvelous photos of stations, trains and people. It also includes detailed plans of all the railways and sidings at each station. It has been reprinted twice.

Because the Duke of Northumberland owned the shooting lodge near by and was a major land owner, he must have had enough influence to dictate the style of the bridge which ended up with what look like battlements along the parapet and imitation arrow slits.

Blacksmith's art
The Duke would be very pleased to see the works of art which have now fill the gaps in the battlement along the parapet.

These were made by blacksmiths in response to a competition.

Theme: bee and honeycomb

Note the 'Border Counties Railway (NBR), North British Railway (NBR) and the final owners the London and North Eastern Railway
( LNER)' - and the passing train.

A wonderful montage reflecting railway and river.

Fish, eels and reeds in the river.

Brambles ready for picking

Nice big salmon moving up stream to spawn.

Saint Cuthbert: A great Northumbrian

By Dr Clive Dalton

St Cuthbert's church in Bellingham, Northumberland.
I was christened here, tolled the bell and pumped the organ.
Photo: The Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

St Cuthbert on the Net
It's staggering how much information there is about ' Saint Cuthbert' on the Internet - he would be gay pleased aboot that if he has access to it from his tomb in Durham cathedral. It makes you wonder who wrote it all doon for the sake of posterity. It would have been a gay slow process at the time with quill and knife. Nee delete, undo or cut and paste buttons back then.

These are my favourite bits of his story - having been christened by Rev W.J. (Daddy) Flower in St Cuthbert's church in Bellingham, Northumberland. He used water from 'Cuddy's well' below the church to wet me heed, using a large tropical sea shell he brought back from Ceylon.

The church was first built in the mid 1100s and then after many burnings by the thieving Scots, it was rebuilt in 1609 with a stone fireproof roof and stone vaulted nave needing buttresses to support the weight, and a bell tower which the first model didn't have.

It's worth Googling 'St Cuthbert's churches' for a fascinating history of them all.

As Church of England kids we were regularly told St Cuthbert's story, and we all felt a special relationship with 'wor Saint' though, as we were oft reminded, we were far from being 'little saints' worsels!

A 'Daft Laddie"
Now Cuthbert was not the son of an Irish king - and Aa bet he was pleased aboot that, as it could have caused him a serious lot of problems. He was in fact a shepherding 'Daft Laddie' on 'the Scotch side', heordin sheep aroond Melrose Abbey. Nuw I feel great empathy with him in this, as I started as a Daft Laddie chasin sheep 12 miles on the English side - but a bit later in time mind you.

While heordin, you can imagine him having a few canny cracks with the monks aboot the state of his yowes, his gimmers and hoggs, and where he was gana git a decent tup for the season, as the tup sales at Hawick, Lanark and St Boswells wouldn't be ganin in them days.

And Aa bet he pulled the monks' legs about the antics of the tups in their human flocks around the district, if they were allowed ootside the monastery te keep an eye on things.

St Aiden and the angels
Then whaat seemed to trigger an interest in the chorch for a job, was the image he saa of St Aiden being carried up to heaven by angels. Nuw that must hev given him a canny gliff and got him thinkin. It wad anybody eh!

But before he decided whaat te dee, he did his national service in the army to help the local lads protect Northumbria from King Penda from Mercia - that other kingdom doon sooth below Northumbria. You would have thowt that seein the angels would have made him fancy joinin the airforce, but AD 660 was mebe orly days for that.

Anyway, after demob, back to Melrose he went and then to Ripon as the heed man - the 'Master'. I wonder how on earth he got there? He probably waalked a canny bit of the way in his sandals, as he wouldn't have had a decent pair of Rogerson's 'heather louper' shepherd's boots with hob nails and turned up toes (that we lads used to wear), to help him through the potholes and sporlins on the road. Hopefully somebody lent him a powny te save his legs.

There is now a walkway called 'St Cuthbert's Walkway' from Melrose to Lindisfarne commemorating his historic journey - but fortunately for today's walkers, it doesn't include the diversions he had before he finally got to "Holy Island".

Backin a loser
But the poor lad backed a loser - big time. At Ripon, he went with the 'Roman Rite' in the Catholic Church, rather than wi the 'Celtic' rite. He seemed to have tean the huff ower this and went tappy lappy back to Melrose where in AD 664 he became Prior to get away from them Romans. Ye can sartainly understand this, because there'd be plenty of reminders of Roman rule left aroond the coonty when they'd cleared off, leavin the local lads wi that muckle useless waall and aall their netties te clean oot.

But in AD 664, the old gadgees in the Synod of Whitby voted te gan for the Roman Rite, so Cuthbert had to swally his pride and just keep tewin on supporin the team he didn't like. It's happened a lot in history - Aa remember folk that even changed from Newcassel to support Sunderland! Can ye imagine owt warse than that?

Now on Lindisfarne there was a fair row ganin on between the Catholics and Celts, so Cuthbert was picked to be the lad te gan and sort them oot - him having been a Celtic supporter afore that so he knew the score. The story says that he had a 'lot of tact and patience' - soonds that if Newcastle United had him on the board, they'd still be in the Premiers man.

Hermit on Farne - 'Cuddy's ducks'
But Cuthbert clearly wasn't happy in the job, so in AD 676, he must have had a meein with his boss the Abbott who granted him leave te gan te the Inner Farne islands, not far from Lindisfarne, to be a hermit. He clearly wanted te git away from it aall and commune wi God.

Nowt rang wi that mind ye. The poor sowl obviously had things to sort oot in his heed, and there are plenty of folk aboot the nuw who will understand this. Aa knaa plenty of parents who would'nt mind a bit time away as a hermit when the bairns are teethin!

Mind Cuthbert would be aall right on Farne, as there were plenty of sea bords and fresh free-range eggs to live on. The Farne Eider ducks are called 'Cuddy's ducks' after him. Google 'Eider duck' for fascinating details about the birds and St Cuthbert.

And there'd be plenty of fresh fish if he'd tekin some gear alang. Nee reason he cudn't have netted and smoked a few herring and made them inte kippers and bloaters. He wadn't have needed the Eyemouth fish man te caall each week like we later locals did.

Consecrated at York
Then the bosses were at him again to gan back to Lindisfarne and tek the Bishop's job, but it meant he had te gan te York to be consecrated. If it had been me, Aad hev torned the job doon. It would have been another hell of a lang waalk in sandals, but hopefully somebody would have had the goodness of heart to lend the lad a powny te save his feet and legs.

Why cudn't he git dun at Newcassel as they had a canny chorch there? Aa doot it wud have made any difference to God. Hopefully he negotiated gud pay and conditions in his new job, alang with a hefty bonus and a regular supply of tetties and swedes te gan with his ducks and fish!

Anyway, summat must have gaen seriously rang wi the lad, and he must hev felt bad enough te realise that his time on this orth was ganna end. So off he went back ower to his beloved Inner Farne where he passed away on March 20, 687.

Poor lad - he really must have been feelin bad. Nee chance of a rescue helicopter ride to the RVI in Newcassel in them days. As a former shephord, I bet he mused on the fact that he was ganna dee just as the inbye lambin was cumin in. Somebody must hev fund him and took his body back to Lindisfarne for buriel.

Cartin Cuthbert aboot
But now his story takes another loup. Things were ganin canny with aall sorts of folk ganin ower te the island te worship at his grave - a real magnet for 'pilgrims' apparently. (See my blog aboot me chorch days and ganin as a pilgrim to Lindisfarne). Some folk even reported miracles when they visited the grave - sadly there wor nen on my trip.

Then his lads (the monks) got the wheeze that the Danes were cumin ower again for more rape and pillage (wor they any gud at owt else), so the lads fled from Lindisfarne with their prized possessions, including St Cuthbert of course, and humped them aboot the North East for seven lang years.

Imagine that for a job! I bet they didn't get time and a half at weekends, or wet days off. You wad hev thowt theyd' have gitten a barrow te cart him aboot, and save thor showlders and backs. No, them grand lads did it the hard way - six of them at a time in aall weathers.

Anyway, eftor thor lang waalk, they ended up in a chorch at Chester-le-Street, varry handy for Durham. But then the damned Danes came ower again in the late 900s, so they moved the lad to Ripon for safe keepin.

Nuw if ye work this oot, it's 300 years after he went there to work as Master. Pity that he was deed or he cud have had a great time catchin up on things.

But after only a few months at Ripon, which after aall was in what was to become Yorkshire, (where they aall talked funny), they heeded off back to Chester-le-Street, stopping off at Durham.

Nuw summat vary queer happened here as the lads got a 'sign' to say Cuthbert would like to bide there. It's not mentioned whaat the sign was - nowadays they'd git a text or a tweet! Maybe they hord some morse from his coffin! Anyway, it was serious stuff and they took heed.

So at Durham, a series of chorches (not just one) were built to house aall the treasures from Lindisfarne, the first chorch being built on the site of the present cathedral and consecrated in AD 999 which soonds like a memorable year to finish a job. You would have thowt they'd have kept the job ganin for one more year, to roond off the numbers and leave 999 for emergency phone caalls later on.

The 'Harrying of the North'
Yill remember 1066 and aall that. Well in 1069, that uninvited Froggy guest 'William the Lionheart' from ower the watta in Normandy who knackered wor Harold at Hastings, must have got sare worrked up and decided te gan and sort oot the Northern lads that had been playin up a bit.

It was probably nowt much - just a few ower many of what in later history would become Newcassel broons. The northern lads didn't like whaat this daft Frenchman was dein doon sooth - and which wor also affectin them up north, and especially wi wor language. So Froggie Willie thowt a good harrying wad de the trick. Hard luck bonny lad - in the end he had a lang waalk for nowt!

But it's worth rememberin, the one great thing Harold started for us aall, and carried on by wor 'Ethelread the Unready' was to protect wor English language. Can ye imagine readin this tale in Frog speak? Nee body wud understand a woord. Yiv got te admit that any language that dictates the sex a bike, a wheel barra and a pair of kippers, has got to be totally barmy!

Howay lads - back te Lindisfarne
Then to avoid the harryin, Cuthbert's lads took him back to Lindisfarne again for safety. Cuthbert must have put sum miles in by nuw - both deed and alive. Fortunately the hu-ha was soon ower and they took his bones back to Durham where in 1104, they laid his remains doon in the new Cathedral intiv a proper shrine. Even though he was deed, his owld bones must have been gay pleased to rest at last.

Then summat queer happened - again! During the shift, some of the lads must have have a bit keek inte the coffin, and loo and behold they fund that his body was porfectly preserved - not quite as good as new, but sartainly a lang way better than mowldy dust. He was declared to be 'incorrupt' - Grade A, top shelf, double top! A state very rare in today's politicians aroond the world.

St Oswald's heed
Now here's another the bit of the story I like. When they opened Cuthbert's coffin - lyin there was the heed of St Oswald, King of Northumbria from 605-642. Whaat a gliff that wud hev given them Aa bet. St Ossie is weell worth a Google anall te see what an amazin lad he was. He did a grand job for us Northumbrians.

Then, somebody had the idea of using St Oswald's heed as the symbol of St Cuthbert. I suppose that seemed a gud idea at the time, but why cudn't they just have used St Cuthbert's own heed? It wud hev been a bettor fit you would hev thowt and more like him.

Now imagine the scene when the lads were packing up on Lindisfarne, with the Danes just ower the horizon sniffing more rape, pillage and Newcassel broon. The monk that fund St Owald's heed must have said something like.

"Hi lads, whaat are we gana dee wi this?
The reply must have been - ' whaat is it Brother'?

There had to be some smart Alec who would reply - 'Why whaat the hell de ye think it is man- a Swede tornup wi hair on'?

You can imagine suggestions like - 'Oh just put it in a Co-op broon paper carrier bag' or, 'find an owld tettie sack man' (nee plastic bags which would have done the job) or, 'Just wrap it an owld fisherman's gansey', as there wud be plenty lyin aboot on Lindisfarne at the time!

Then somebody must have said in haste:
'Hey lads, get yor skates on and just hoy it in with Cuddy'.

'Champion idea' would be the reply -'Nuw lets' git gannin afore them big hairy buggas wi cuws' horns on thor heeds git heor from ower the watta'. 'Aa can see thor sails just off the Farnes'.

The English Reformation- and plunder
Remember the Reformation in the Middle Ages? You can imagine what a draw-card St Cuthbert's tomb must have been to the plunderers of the time, as there would be no charge for entry to Cathedrals in those days.

The story goes that during the Reformation, St Cuthbert's tomb was plundered, but then another version says that the monks knew it was cumin so hid his body in the Cathedral beforehand - which was a canny idea you wud have thowt.

Only one problem though - and it happens today despite sophisticated computer systems and data backups - some daft goniel forgot to record where the hidey hole was.

It's all right lads - we've fund him
Then in 1827 - what took them so long, a secret tomb was found in the Cathedral - complete with a body. But, whees was the body inside - was it that of St Cuthbert? Huw would anybody knaa?

Even today, DNA would be no good without a relative's DNA for comparison or some guaranteed proof of some sort from his clothing. And monks weren't supposed to leave progeny and it would be hard to find any of his owld claes or his hairbrush or toothbrush on the Farnes.

Maybe the answer would be to clone him from his remains ( a future possibility for sure), and then we could compare his facial features with the old ones in the engravings and paintings. But hing on a bit, did you ever knaa anybody who looked like their passport photo nivor mind an engraving?

So for better or for worse, the bones on display in Durham Cathedral are declared to be the authentic bones of St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne and the Farnes - Wor Cuddy!

The Lindisfarne Gospels
St Cuthbert's name is always associated with this great literary and artistic treasure. It is considered by scholars to be the best surviving example of Celtic calligraphy and illustration. It is now safe in the British Museum in London. (Google its history which tells how lucky it was to survive).

What I like to ponder is the prospect of there being no deadlines for the journalistic monks who did the great works, no concern about whether there was enough advertising to cover the cost, and no fear that the information could be pirated for distribution on the Internet!

St Cuthbert must have been an aaful a canny lad and we Northumbrians are very proud of him. It would have been nicer te hev had his bones in Northumberland, but if he's happy in Durham - we'll just let him lie. One things for sure though, if he ever does need another shift, his bones will sartainly knaa their way heme.

St Cuthbert's Day is March 20th.

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December 15, 2009

Noble Street kids - Yil het te gan te chorch!

By Dr Clive Dalton

Saturday - day of play
Saturday was the best day of the week for us Noble Street ‘yunguns’ – because there was ‘nee school’ and we were free from the terrors of Jean Milburn in the Juniors, before progressing to Joe Lumley in the seniors. Here you knew that the dreaded 11+ exam would descend upon you and dictate your future, because it meant Grammar School for free, private secondary school paid for by parents, or more of Joe. Nobody, expected us to pass the exam – so most of us confirmed their expectations.

Sunday - day of misery
The only problem with Saturday was that it was followed by Sunday – not seen by us as ‘the day of rest’ but more as a ‘day of misery’, because us laddies knew the mantra that would waft aroond wor lugs all day – ‘New divn’t git yorsels dorty, as yil het te gan te Sunday School, and yill het te gan te church’.

Sunday school was in the morning and church was at some other time decided by mother.

Oh what misery, especially as the other kids in the street I played with like the Benson lads or Billy Little didn’t have to face this. Why had I got to leave the rabbitin, the football or the cricket on the fell behind the houses, and they didn’t? What great benefits would this sacrifice bestow on me, that they would miss oot on? Would the ‘chorchifying’ guarantee that ‘Aad gan up te Heaven’ when I’d much rather ‘gan up Hareshaw Lynn’.

I suppose we were lucky as our parent's Victorian generation were not allowed to play games on Sundays. The lads were not allowed to fish or the girls to knit, and playing cards was a deadly sin. Even whistling in some houses could bring problems from on high!

Drafting into flocks
Walking to church was like sheep being ‘caaed oot’ on to their appropriate hefts on the hill. The Catholics had the longest trek (mornings only for them) to their church on the corner near the Tyne Bridge to hear the good word of Father Delaney.

We Church of Englanders (C of E) headed for the resting place of St Cuthbert carefully guarded by the Black Bull and Fox and Hounds. St Cuthbert’s spirit no doubt rested peacefully because of this as he had been on that spot. The story was that after his death on the Farne Islands, his coffin was carried around by his devotees and where it rested they built a church. They must have had a ‘lang walk te git te Bellingham’. They found a good source of fresh water just by the church which is known as 'Cuddy's well'. To this day it's beautiful water to drink and there to be enjoyed by walkers on the Pennine Way as they pass right by it on their trek.

The Methodists were right in the village, (handy for the public netties) and the Presbyterians had a short hike up the Otterburn road to their church and manse. We all passed each other nodding politely –quietly believing that ‘wor lot’ was better than their lot.

Mixing breeds
We Anglican lot had a bit of affinity with the Presbyterians as they took communion once a quarter, and we were qualified to join them. But there was less affinity between us and the Methodists where any thought of suppin wine at a communion was out of all bounds for them.

Years later our Anglican minister in Leeds told my wife and I that if we used a Methodist Godmother for our son’s christening (who was his aunt), the minister wouldn’t answer for wor lad at the final Day of Judgement! He lost our business after that daftness.

We never worked out what came over the poor sowl. We worshipped in an old tin hut and when the new church and C of E school was built he changed and wanted to go ‘High Church’ and wanted to start confession like the Catholics. I felt sorry for him and he left soon after to go back to missionary work ‘doon sooth’ from where he came. He was a canny lad for a suthenor!

Oh and the other rule he brought in was that you couldn't send your bairns to the new C of E primary school if you were not a 'practicing communicant'. We sent our son to the council school.

Beware of the Catholics
The biggest danger for us Anglicans (and maybe any other church lot in the village as far as I can remember) was to get mixed up with the Catholics! Complete isolation was the safest policy in the village in those days. I have a faint memory that wor lot could have taken mass in the Catholic church, but nobody in my day would ever have dared risk sampling Father Delaney's brew.

It’s hilarious today to see the Pope now having opened his gate to dis-satisfied Anglicans and the farcical antics of the British Anglicans over women clergy and dare I mention - gay clergy. It's hard to believe at times that this is the 21st Century.

Sunday School
For us C of E bairns, Sunday school was held at 10am in the Reeds School, and I considered it an absolute agony going back there on a Sunday, as Monday to Friday was enough for any laddie. We had a woman teacher (Miss Turnbull I think) and her good work was regularly supplemented by the appearance of the Rev (later to be Canon) W.J (Daddy) Flower himself, when his other Sunday duties allowed. Who named him Daddy would have been interesting to know as you couldn't call him a 'father figure' and they had no children.

St Cuthbert's church Sunday School 1935?
Daddy Flower far right

The parish was officially ‘Bellingham and Corsenside’ (in Woodburn) so Daddy had a fairly busy day on most Sundays. When he visited the ordinary Reeds school classes (which he did regularly), one of his favourite lessons was the story about tea picking in Ceylon as he’d served there during his naval service.

He’d bring a bit of privet hedge along, as it was the nearest he could find to the tea plant, and show us how the pickers plucked out the very top leaves and threw them over their shoulder into a basked on their back.

Sunday school meant that our young lugs were bashed with concepts far above ‘wor heeds’ like what sinners we were (which we knew from many other sources too), why Jesus suffered death on the cross for wor sins, and what we had to do to fix the situation (‘repent’ - which we didn’t really understand). Then there was the Holy Spirit who could help us oot, but he always seemed a hard man te git a howld on!

The Christmas story was good as it was associated with Santa, and I knew plenty good shepherds who came to the marts although most would not have been attracted by a star in the East – but more like the light above the Railway Hotel door!

We had to turn out at midnight for a service and communion for this celebration. The big bonus was when Christmas day fell on a Sunday - yipee a double banger so no extra church during the week!

Easter was a very confusing time for kids with all its grief of the death of Jesus and then his return (at any time like the thief in the night) to save us. Then IF we got to heaven, we’d be sorted into sheep and goats (which I knew a lot aboot) so we’d better behave worsels and keep confessin wor sins! Whew - it was heavy stuff for young heeds.

The bad news about Easter was that there were services on Good Friday that we had to attend. We only had one day's play between more church. But the good news was that it was the end of Lent and the end of official fasting - whatever you had decided to give up for Lent.

In our case - mother encouraged us to give up sweets or chocolate, which was not a great sacrifice as we'd got used to going without these during the war. But the feast at the end of Lent was worth it, even if feeling a bit sick was the result.

Noah and mucking oot
I liked the story of Noah and his ark imagining him getting all the animals in there and tied up. I could appreciate his problem, knowing what it was like in a byre when cows got into the wrong stalls. And then I wondered how he mucked them oot each morning, as spending so much time at Dove Cottage I knew it was no easy job hoyin muck high on to the midden each morning with a shovel. But then all Noah had to do was to hoy the muck ower the side of the ark inte the watta! I thought that would have been handy, but then he'd have nee muck left to spread on his hayfields when the rain stopped.

Adam and Eve
This was a canny story but then you dare not look too close at their pictures 'wi nee claes on' and in any case the bits you really wanted to see where covered in leaves! We all knew about 'forbidden fruit' thanks to a bloke called Hitler who cut off our supplies so we were never tempted.

Joseph and his coat
We could all identify with the story of Joseph and his coat of many colours as we all had jerseys like that, made by our mothers during the war from all the odd bits of wool left over from various jobs. We were all good knitters too making blanket squares for the soldiers and scarves.

Recognition for good attendance
The only tangible benefit most of us saw from suffering Sunday school was a new book at the end of the year for our good attendance. Our parents didn’t buy us books as there was no money for such things so our Sunday school books were very precious,

I was not a great reader, but I well remember receiving and reading many times ‘Treasure Island’ and ‘Black Beauty’ that I got at Sunday school. Always in the front was a little label with St Cuthbert’s Parish Church Sunday school and your name and ‘Presented by Rev W.J.Flower for good attendance’.

Trip to Whitley Bay
But the real ‘Big Deal’ form Sunday school was the annual trip to Whitley Bay on a bus. “The Spanish City” with all it’s roond-aboots and staalls begging for wor money – oh what sins that could have entered on wor slates.

Mrs Mary Mitchell of the Black Bull, (our church organist when needed and often the only member of the choir), always went with us to Whitley Bay- accompanied by her accordion. This alone was worth the trip, as some of her antics on the way home playing while dancing up and down the aisle of the bus, hyping up us bairns was unforgettable. We loved her.

Daddy always smiled politely at Mary’s antics, but certainly not Mrs Flower who had a face like thunder! It would have done her the world of good to have hiked her skirts up and joined in – and who was to know she wasn’t craving to do just this!

Tommy Breckons – the Good Shepherd
My old friend and great Northumbrian Tommy Breckons of the Foundry Farm in Bellingham, sadly now passed on, had this story told about him when he attended Sunday school as a wee laddie.

The tale goes that young Tommy was asked by the teacher – ‘why the Good Shepherd had left the ninety and nine sheep in his flock, to go and seek that which was lost’? Tommy replied that ‘Well - it was probably the only tup he had’!

But things got worse for a growing laddie who had things to do at weekends. In my case from age seven I couldn’t wait to go to Jimmy and Helen Wood’s little farm at Dove Cottage at Reedsmouth. I biked there and also went on the train and could have lived there all weekend – sometimes I was allowed to. They were like extra parents to me as they lived next to us in Noble Street when first married and before getting the Dove Cottage tenancy from Robbie Allen.

At Dove Cottage there was muck to spread, the cow and goat to be milked, and hay to be made – all in my view far more essential events than ‘ganin te chorch’ to be harangued about what sinners we were and to ‘git riddy for the next woorld! But in mother’s views – ye had teg an te chorch and that was the end of it.

At around age 12-13 I think, Daddy Flower came around (always in time for a cup of tea and rock buns) and suggested that it was time I started ‘Confirmation Classes’ so I could be ‘confirmed’ and then be allowed to take ‘Holy Communion”.

Mothers were the decision makers on religious issues in most houses, as fathers were usually fairly reluctant churchgoers, and were generally ‘oot’ on essential business like tending their leeks when the vicar called.

Hareshaw Head village hall
I had to suffer confirmation classes at Hareshaw Head on a Sunday afternoon in the little corrugated village hall there. My Reeds schoolmate Kenneth Pick was another candidate, and as Ken couldn’t get to Bellingham on a Sunday as there was no school car, Daddy Flower collected me and we’d take off in his little blue Standard 10 car for Hareshaw.

Ken and I must have had half a dozen of these weekly classes, confirming that we were little sinners, for ever in need of repentance, and going through a little red book that we had to keep and use regularly thereafter, to guide our prayers before we were ‘ready’ for the Bishop of Newcastle to ‘lay his hands on wor heeds’ and give us his blessing, and allow us to take communion. This book then had to be our lifelong companion.

I had to get cleaned up for these classes and couldn’t just ‘gan in me aad play claes’ – so that was more agony, especially if I had to leave a game we were in the middle of.

Falstone church
Confirmation took place in Falstone's St Peter's Church of England, and I remember mother and I having to get there on Norman’s bus. Ken and I were there in ‘wor Sunday claes’ along with lasses that we’d never seen before from other parishes in white dresses. We had afternoon tea in the church hall, which I thought was the best bit of day. Then back home on the bus back to Bellingham.

But what I didn't appreciate at the time was that being confirmed made Sundays even worse, as the decision had to be made about which Communion to go to. Each week, Daddy Flower before he started the sermon would read out the ‘announcements’ from the pulpit.

There was a range of these, starting with the passing of a parishioner where - ‘We have heard with great regret of the passing of Mrs So and So, and passing on all our sympathies to the family.

Then there was reading the bans of marriage at the morning service –‘Where if any of ye had any cause or just intent why these two etc etc’.

Then there were other events like meetings of the Mother’s Union in the Rectory. Finally we were told about who the collections would be for next Sunday.

Communions - which to go to?
I was always depressed by this announcement:

‘There will be celebrations of the Holy Communion on Sunday next at 7 o’clock, 8 o’clock and at the 11 o’clock service’.

The reason was the decision about which one ‘te gan te’. Thank goodness you were only allowed to take the bread and wine once on a Sunday. Somebody in the Anglican church, presumably guided by higher authority must have been keen to prevent us becoming alcoholics!

Getting up early for the seven and eight-o-clock session was never a good option on a Sunday, yet it was a way of getting it over with so you had a clear day ahead to play. But then you were reminded that going to Communion didn’t absolve you from the other services of ‘Matins’ (11am) or ‘Evensong’ (6pm).

The worst deal was to go to the morning service and then discover that it was communion as well – and you felt that you had to stay and participate in full. You had to be fairly brave to walk out before the communion started unless you had taken communion earlier – because you knew that ‘God knew of your every move’. Communion at Matins really did stuff up your morning, as it lengthened the hour’s service to an hour and a half. Such valuable time wasted was my view.

How much to mix
We used to laugh at this, and there were other vicars up the valley apparently that were even better at it than Daddy. What they had to do was to look around the congregation and do a mental calculation of how much of the communion wine and water to mix to serve the numbers present.

But they were masters at just underestimating this and running out before the last row. So they had to mix some more, and for this mix they always overestimated, and of course they couldn’t pour this consecrated mix doon the drain. They had to ‘knock it back’ before the alter before God, and it was easy to tell how generous they’d been by the length of their swig! You could tell this from the vibrations of their Adam's apple - nee doot Adam would have approved.

Pulpits and lecterns have always fascinated me as a place to demonstrate power over fellow beings. Sometimes in the empty church, I’d sneak up into the pulpit and have a quick look down on the pews.

What an impressive feeling it gave you ‘looking doon’ on your audience – I felt the power, even an empty church! I could easily have ‘borst forth’ haranguing the sinners sitting before me, threatening with hell’s fires unless they behaved and confessed their sins!

Maybe this was the job for me – I knew aboot sheep and what a good shepherd had to do. Sheep were my favourite animal and playing auctioneers was a game I regularly played. Great qualifications I thought for herding a parish! As we used to joke - in the human flock 'the tups stay oot aall year roond'.

But I never dared stay long in the pulpit or try out my voice incase I got ‘copped’. The mind boggles over the feeling of power you must get high up in the pulpit of a mighty Cathedral and a full hoose. The other funny thing about raised pulpits is that they seem to make folk speak in that great pontificating sing-song voice that bishops and archbishops seem to develop. That muckle eagle that often fronts the pulpit lectern may add to their feeling of superiority when speaking on behalf of God.

I liked the few lay preachers that came never addressed us from the pulpit and spoke to us from floor level. It gave us all a more comforting feeling and usually you could understand their message.

‘May the words of my lips ….’
As we gave voice to the last verse of the hymn, and Daddy mounted the few stairs to the pulpit, took out and fitted his ‘pince-nez’ specs on his nose, my only thoughts were – how long will be going for this time.

We stood for the initial salutation - ‘May the words of my lips and the meditations of all our hearts, be always acceptable unto thee etc etc, before parking our backsides on the hard varnished pine pews - often as cold as charity on a winter's night, if you weren't lucky enough to get into the pew first and get beside the scalding hot pipes by the wall. 'Gentlemen' never went first into the pew!

Some of the pews had cushions but you had to be very careful that you got into your ‘right pew’! From olden days certain families paid for ‘their pew’ as a means of financing the church, and there was a little bit of that left in our day. You certainly never sat into the pew Mrs Flower sat in! She would have glowered you out of the church.

The collects
Then we had the ‘Collects’ – (pronounced ‘col-lects’ ). The ‘Collect for the day’ is usually the prayer proper to the Sunday of the current week. However, the Collect of a Principal Feast, other Principal Holy Day or Festival always takes precedence over the Sunday Collect and becomes the Collect of the day. When a Lesser Festival falls on a weekday its Collect may be used in place of the Sunday Collect. (Mr Google told me that).

The Text for the day
Then we’d have the appropriate ‘text for the day’, which Daddy read to us twice for maximum emphasis. My old memory still remembers what must have been Daddy’s favourite text, as we seemed to have it often, or it’s hard wired into my old brain:

‘And He will come like a thief in the night, He will come like a thief in the night’!

This was a serious warning to us to be prepared, and not take any risks with our sins as we ‘cud git catched oot’ when our Redeemer came back to save us – IF we had been behaving like sheep and were worth saving, and had not acting like goats! I knew a lot about the behaviour of both these animals so the message was always clear.

Then away we’d go – my mind on the long wander, occasionally lapsing back to what Daddy was saying, now and again taking a sly look at the watch, then back to looking around the stone roof wondering how on earth they built those stone arches and got the stone slabs on the roof to stop the reivers' fires.

There was the old church’s history to ponder, the flaking paint, the stained glass windows and those families who had paid for some of them, the joints, knots and grain in the wood of the pews, anything to pass the time waiting for the magic words which signalled that maybe the end of my agony was nigh. And there was always the mystery of the ‘Lang Pack’ to ponder as the stone coffin lay outside by the church door. What was in it now - old bones or dust?

It was all too easy to nod off taking great lunges forward before you came to, or your head would fall back creaking your neck. The biggest fear was to start snoring – as some of the older gentlemen members of the congregation sometimes did before some kind wife would dig them in the ribs. This had to be done carefully otherwise they’d awaken with a muckle snort like an old bull or their lurch upright could break wind!

‘And finally dear brethen..’
You waited with baited breath to hear Daddy say these magic words – ‘And finally dear brethren’! It was a sign that he was coming to an end. It was his last big point to make before my release.

But it was a trick, and one I have used over the years –thinking of Daddy whenever I did. It’s a ‘sucker punch’ as you can see the poor sufferers at your feet visibly suddenly brighten up in anticipation of you finally relieving them of their agony. But it’s NOT over!

Daddy wasn’t going to end there. He would get going again, supposedly to summarise his message, except that the summary would introduce new issues, and further warnings about ‘the thief in the night’. He’d try another ‘And finally dear brethren’– but he had worked out that a third was too much.

‘And now to God the Father…..’
Oh those magic words – still imprinted on my old memory. It was when Daddy finally gathered up his notes, took off his specs and put them in their well-worn case, turned to the alter and out came those magic words:

‘And now to God the father, God the son and God the Holy Spirit, be as is most justly due, all glory, might, majesty, dominion and power, now and for ever more. Amen.

It was over, and I had to be very careful not to be the first to leap to my feet, as I was so keen to get out of there. Wonderful – I’d be home after the next hymn, the collection and the blessing.

Brownrigg Camp School
Brownrigg school was in its hey day in the 1950s and the pupils used to go to their appropriate churches in the village – probably under threat. The Anglicans came to St Cuthberts, sitting in the back pews behind Mrs Flower, and the poor beggars used to get bored during the sermon and started whispering and yakking quietly to each other. Then a bit of pushing and grabbing developed to help pass the boredom and Daddy's words where at risk of being drooned oot.

Some of the old stalwarts in the congregation would turn around and give them a ‘glower’ hoping they would get the message and shut up, but on occasions – Daddy had to reprimand them from the pulpit! He didn’t realise they were maybe getting fed up with his interpretation of God’s word! He didn't realise the best thing he could have done was to 'give ower'.

How may times?
The question I used to wonder about frequently, but never dared ask anyone for an answer was – how many times did I need ‘te gan te chorch te be safe from etornal damnation’?

It seemed to me that the Catholic kids in our street (The Weltons) had it made. They only had one morning service each week, and got their slates cleaned for the following week – no problem. If I’d gone to all the possible services on a Sunday – would that have guaranteed me freedom from this sinful life I was leading, and the very high risk of endin up in hell?

How come the Presbyterians only had to take Communion once a quarter and I had ‘te gan ivry week? I never debated religion with my parents, nor with anyone else either. It was not done in those days. I wanted to know what was the least I could get away with to balance playtime with keeping a clean record for the next world! I should have asked Daddy at our Hareshaw meetings – imagine that.

Blowing the organ
At about age 12 I think, I was asked to blow the organ – for pay! But this meant going to both morning and evening services – and listening to even more sermons.

Along the side of the organ was a narrow passage with a solid wooden handle sticking out of side. This had to be pumped up and down to work bellows on the inside, and your guide was a little metal weight which slid down the wall on a string, which must have some how been attached to the bellows.

There was a mark on the wood to show ‘full’ (at the top of its range) and one to show ‘empty’ (at the bottom). Empty meant no air so no music, and you’d hear the organist in a loud whisper saying – ‘Blow Clive Blow’.

These marks kept changing because as the string came out of a wooden hole in the side of the organ, after a time it wore thin and would break, having to be shortened.

When you heard Daddy announce a hymn, you started pumping like mad to build up a head of wind before the first verse. You could have short breaks during the playing as the slide slowly fell, but it was unwise to let the weight get down below half way, just incase there was a sudden demand for air in the music.

So hymns like ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ were hard work compared to ‘There is a green hill far away’. ‘Jerusalem’ generated a sweat! You had to know the service well, as wind was needed in small bursts for all the responses, and it was easy to nod off when there was not a lot of action. The air also slowly leaked from the bellows so you couldn’t rely on your past pumping staying in storage.

During the sermon you could come out and sit in the pew opposite the pulpit (and be watched so had to behave), rather than perch on the hard stool, hidden in the cubby-hole. You had to stand to pump and could only sneak an occasional quick sit on the hard stool while watching the metal weight move up as air was used up. For it to drop you had to pump!

Log of past blowers
The wooden side of the organ held a wonderful log of past organ blowers, as in moments of idleness, and secure in the fact that nobody could see, it was essential to write your name for posterity.

My name is still there a friend told me some years ago when they went to check! How wonderful – I hope it scores me some points when the sheep and goats are drafted! I remember older lads like John Howarth, Aynsley Glass, Fenwick Daly and my brother Geoff having their names engraved in pencil on the soft pine.

Collecting my pay
To do this I had to go to the rectory at an appointed time, met at the door by Mrs Flower or the maid, and shown into a small side room where we’d sit down at a small table and Daddy would get out a little note book with a red cover.

In it he had recorded each time I had blown the organ and the fee of I think a few shillings for each job. I was paid on a quarterly basis so after signing on the final page beside the massive grand total which he had added up, I proudly ran home with a small fortune of a few quid to show for my labours.

Tommy Hedley was a regular organist at Evensong while Jean Milburn generally played at Matins. It suited Tommy’s schedule because after church Tommy he was regular pianist at the Black Bull around the corner till hoyin oot time at 10pm.

Tommy had another trick - after the slow semi-solum music played as the congregation filed out of the church, after he had a bit keek around the curtain to see they had all gone, he was a demon for letting strip with a piece of air-guzzling Mozart which you had to be prepared for. I think he was warming up before the Black Bull session.

Mrs Mitchell (landlord at the Black Bull) was also an accomplished organist, and when she wasn’t playing, she was often the only member of the choir! She read the music as she sang – the remaining few in the choir couldn’t do that! She loved to get into a high note that echoed through the ancient roof.

During the sermon the organist always sat in the pew directly below the pulpit and facing back to the organ rather than the alter. Tommy Hedley being a farmer at the Demesne loved the Harvest Festivals, as the pulpit was always surrounded by sheaves of oats – probably donated by him.

He spent the time during the sermon selecting grains, removing the chaff and chewing the grain. Tommy knew what a decent ‘pickle’ was – a good fat grain. He really gave the organ full bore when he got back to play ‘We plough the fields and scatter’ and he knew the great feeling of satisfaction when ‘All was safely gathered in –ere the winter storms begin’.

For those in peril on the sea
 With Daddy Flower being ex Royal Navy (he always had a small anchor embroidered on his stoll) we knew that if it was a really clarty rough winter’s night, we’d launch into the sailor’s hymn of ‘Eternal Father strong to save’ with great gusto. We'd build up great gusto on the 'Oh hear us when we cry to thee' and slowy come back down to earth on the 'for those in peril on the sea'. A great hymn without doubt, and one to give the organ blower a decent work out.

And of course during the prayers, we always prayed for ‘Those who went down to the sea in ships and occupied their business in great waters’, after we did the Royal Family. No wonder the Queens have been long livers – with all the praying I said for them.

Tolling the bell
As well as blowing the organ, there was also the bell to toll. This was a tricky job, as pulling the long thick rope had to be done with a sharp click so the hammer hit the side of the bell and didn’t just move in sync with it, as there’d be no ring. You hadn’t to let the rope go free but keep it under tension between pulls.

It was a good feeling hammering the old bell that had been up there for a few hundred years. If you got the tolling wrong, everyone in the village heard your stops and starts.

Reading the lesson
I was never allowed to read the lesson as Joe Lumley had the job sewn up. He always did it well too. But I did fancy the job and remember doing it maybe twice. It paid you to know which were the lessons for that Sunday and have a practice beforehand as you could easily have been 'catched oot' by a biblical name that got you tongue tied.

Taking the collection
After a great deal of fund raising (I forget where from now), the organ got an electric motor so there was no more manual handle cranking. This cut my income but I wasn’t worried as it freed me from regular attendance.

I was then asked to take the collection, either by myself it there was a small attendance or with a partner if we had a ‘full hoose’ which only happened at special festivals. The turned and carved oak platters had a tiny bit of felt in the bottom so the coins landed quietly - good for anyone who had hoyed in a handful of pennies instead of half a crown!

The platters were first handed to the person at the end of the row and they passed it along the row to the next one before its return. You hadn’t to watch how much money folk put on the plate.

After the collection you then took it up to the alter rails, handed it to Daddy and he turned around and held it up high before the alter till presumably God added it up to see if we’d been miserable or generous. You then had to turn around, making sure you didn’t trip down the two steps on your way back to your pew to finish off the hymn.

The choir
You could hardly call it a choir - at best 2-3 of us, struggling to give the impression that we could sing. Daddy had a nice tenor voice and so did Joe Lumley when he was there. Singing was abou the only thing he taught us - but to be fair he did make sure we knew the ten commandments.

Mary Mitchell was a choir on her own, and she loved getting stuck into the high notes and hearing her voice echo through the ancient stone arches of the roof. All I really did was to fill a space, as I sat in the corner seat so could hide from the main congregation.

The Psalms
Hymns were good as they had rhythm, and even if Daddy sprung an unfamiliar one on us, after a few faltering verses we could usually get the hang of it.

But the psalms could be killers, especially if there were only a couple of us in the choir. Daddy must have known this as on such occasions he would declare that we would 'say' the psalm. He he would read one line and we would all read the next. A great idea that in my view should have been standard practice.

What made it hard was having to 'hing on' to one note, while gabbling a whole screed of words before dropping down or rising up to end - and then gasping for air to recover. Mind you this is a skill I still have, and entertain religious friends by singing them a newspaper column and even the ads to a psalm tune.

Good morning’ - Good Evening’ and gone!
The climax was to see Daddy come down from the alter after blessing us and proceed to the door to bid us ‘good morning’ or ‘good evening’ with his very pleasant smile.

I had to make sure I didn’t break into a run until I got past the Town Hall, so as not to show how serious I was te git back inte me aad claes with time to make up before dark!

It was school the next day and back to more regular sinning with Joe Lumley's strap acting on God's behalf to make us good little members of the Church of England.

Pilgrimage to Lindisfarne (Holy Island)
Daddy Flower must have had the idea to give our faith a ' rev up' and organised a Parish bus trip to Lindisfarne - which I thought would be a trip to the seaside like Whitley Bay. There was plenty sea and sand around Holy Island. That was a big mistake as I had underestimated what the word 'pilgrimage' meant, and should have sensed trouble as no buckets and spades were allowed.

We set off with a full bus load from Bellingham and when we got to Beal we de-bussed and after removing shoes and socks to expose our lilly white feet, we set off across the causeway as the tide was out. This must have been well planned. When we got to the island, with footwear back on again, we set off in a long procession with Daddy leading us in his vicar's garb. I can't remember if Mrs Flower was there but I'm sure she would be. It was quite a hike on the road through the village and on to the priory.

This is where I hit trouble, because as we passed one of the big houses (a boarding house), out of the front door came my favourite Aunt Martha and cousins Mary and Chrissie from Winlaton who were having a holiday there. They must have gone to the door to see what all the commotion was. I wanted to leave the throng and stay with them - but no, I had to continue in the procession with mother.

We finally assembled in the ruin of the priory and oh man, the service went on for hours - with no seats, just standing all the time on the grass. There was clergy of all ranks who had to make a long speel - there seemed to be no end to it.

Thinking back now the place was full so there must have been more than us Bellingham folk there. It was the pits for a laddie, to be so near all that sea and sand and not be allowed to 'gan and play'.

All these years later, I can't remember how we got back to the mainland. Maybe we hiked but we could also have paid for one of the ancient rusty taxis that would travel with the water up to the door steps when the tide was not fully out. Their exhausts were all eaten away with the salt water so sounded like tractors.

Mother and I did go back to have a holiday in later years with my aunt and cousins, and they were memorable days with fresh seafood always on the menu. I made sure we didn't spend much time in the priory.

A rare gathering
Daddy's wife was the sister of our local Dr Kirk's wife and this photo, found by Carole Durix is of the Kirk's daughter Pauline's 21st birthday.  Daddy Flower was Carole's grandmother's young half brother.

L to R.  Daddy flower with cigarette, ?. Dr Clements (Kirk's partner and much preferred by all of us to Kirk).  The rest of the ladies unknown.  Seated Dr Kirk, daughter Pauline, Mrs Kirk.

Photo provided by Carole Durix - a great

December 14, 2009

Robert Allen: The costly chimney cowl

Background by Clive Dalton

Graham Batey is the third generation of the Batey family of builders in Bellingham that traded under the name of 'Joseph G. Batey and Sons, Builders and Contractors'.

Graham was the last partner in the business along with his Uncle Arthur when he must have received an order from Robert Allen to fix a cowl on the chimney at Glebe house in Bellingham. Their bill head states 'Estimates Free' so presumably Robert had enjoyed that part of the deal!

Graham kindly sent me a copy of the Batey account for the job, and in reply, Robert's protest at the cost of it - in verse!

It's hilarious, and such a little treasure of a poem. It looks as if it was typed on Robert's old Remmington, badly in need of a new ribbon. The poem had no title but I have called it 'The Costly Cowl'. I hope Robert (my employer as a farm Daft Laddie) would approve.

The account below is made out to Mr R Allen, Esq., Glebe House, Bellingham, Hexham
Date 15 January 1979.

By Robert Allen

For Graham Batey of Lynn View,
Supplying of a poem or two.
With personal delivery to
His front door mat,
The sum of Nineteen pound is due,
Including VAT.

To such a sum my claim I stake,
So in your hand a pen now take.
And in the ledger quickly make
A counter entry;
You’ll find there has been no mistake,
It’s element’ry.

You think you’re over-charged a bit,
For simple shafts of poet’s wit?
We should not quarrel over it,
Nor cross our swords, -
You know inflation’s also hit
The price of words.

When Ossie Saint, the poor sowl,
Went up to fix that eight inch cowl,
He must have dropped his silver trowel
Right down the pot –
I think I’m charged for’t in this foul
Great bill I’ve got.

R.A. Jan 1979

But when I reach life’s final curse,
And ride away in some grim hearse,
May big fools with a bigger purse
To your house come,
And offer for this little verse
Three times the sum!


More Robert Allen
More of Robert's poems can be obtained on CD from the Northumbrian Language Society.

December 13, 2009

The Bellingham Royal Observer Corps - 1939-45 war

By Graham Batey

The Bellingham Royal Observer Corps observation post was a low wooden den-like structure covered in blue shale and turf for camoflage, built on the top of the Blue Heaps, about a mile out of the village on the Woodburn road.

It was manned by volunteers who for various reasons could not, or did not join the forces. Age and lack of fitness were the main criteria and some had served in WW1.

  • Billy Beattie (Post Office) was in charge.
  • Percy Bolam (Railway clerk)
  • George Colling (Roadman)
  • Bert Lamb (Railway worker)
  • George Batey (Builder working on Otterburn military camp)
  • Matty Bowman
  • Jack Gregg (publican)

There were other observer posts at Otterburn, Kielder, Haydon Bridge and I knew a few of the staff at these other posts as I spent a lot of time at the Blue Heaps post as I had to take Dad's bait up at all hours of the night when he was on duty.

We used to sit behind the wall at the Blue Heaps and watch the air raids on Tyneside, complete with searchlights and Ack Ack fire. It was quite something to watch.

December 5, 2009

Daft Laddie tales - Howkin tornups

The Northumbrian art and craft of harvesting (howkin) turnips

By Donald Clegg

A field full of memories
There’s a field in the Upper North Tyne that I pass almost daily as I travel to and from my home near Kielder Water. As soon as I see it, memories take me back almost 60 years and I hear myself telling a phantom passenger – ‘Aye, Aa mind the wintor when me and owld Andy pulled 15 raas o’ tornups there afore dinner time’.

In those days the field wasn’t the serene, green pasture that it is today, or even the acres of golden corn that it had also been in past years. In my day, it was a vast expanse of frozen clarts (mud), encrusted with row upon row of giant turnips.

It was very important for farmers to grow their best crops in fields next to the road where they could be viewed by locals with eagle eyes and big gobs, passing by in the bus and train. Both Norman’s bus and the Riccarton-Hexham-Newcastle railway went past Tarset Hall farm.

Townshend’s historic brassica
The turnip –that wonderful brassica, was changed in the Middle Ages from a miserable spindly plant into a fat nutritious store of carbohydrates, sugars and water, by the famous agriculturist ‘Turnip Townshend’ (1674-1738). (See later).

Daft Laddie at Tarset Hall
The first turnips I encountered must have been ancestors of some of Townshend’s best as they were the size of footballs (regulation size 5). I on the other hand, was a 16-year-old Daft Laddie, 5 foot 7inches from end to end, and weighing in at 9 stone no pounds. I didn’t yet realise what a struggle was in store for me!

My parents were both teachers. Father was head teacher at Rochester Church of England Primary School and mother was too busy looking after her four bairns to be available to teach. Incidentally, she came from a long established farming family in Lincolnshire, so perhaps farming was in the genes.

I had only just arrived at Tarset Hall as the hired Daft Laddie straight from school to work for tenant farmer Andy Davidson. I had no farming background but a deep desire to be part of the countryside around me.

At Tarset Hall I was paid £3 per week plus bed and board, working from 7am on Monday until 12 noon on Saturday. ‘Lowse’ (finishing time) each day was not specified. I got Saturday afternoon off to do what Daft Laddie’s did in those days, like hing aboot heame and then at night gan te the local dance. Sunday was to recuperate in preparation for another week, and gan te chorch te clear me sins of the previous yin.

Local names
Back to the ‘tornups’. Technically turnips with green tops are referred to as ‘turnips’ or sometimes ‘soft turnips’, as they have whitish flesh and don’t keep as long. If they have purple tops they are swedes (developed in Sweden would you believe) which are much harder and keep longer. We kids soon learned the difference between green turnips and purple-topped swedes when we crept into a field to pinch one to eat raw. The swedes were always much sweeter.

On the farm 60 years ago they had many names. They were either tornups, swedes, neeps, tumshies, snadgers or bagies, depending on which valley or even village you came from. Farmers grew them mainly for pulling to be fed to cattle that were either tied up in byres or run lowse in hemmels during winter.

Chopping turnips for stock
To prevent them rotting from regular freezing if left in the field, they had to be protected by carting as many as possible of the biggest ones inside, or putting them in a long pit at the side of the field.

Only the small rubbish would be left to be grazed off by sheep, usually the keeping hoggs that had to be grown out well or any kept for sale in the fat market.

Once inside turnips were chopped up in a rotating mincer into small ‘fingors’ (fingers) for sheep prior to lambing, to supplement their diet of hay and a bit cake. Young cattle like calves would be fed this size turnips.

For older cattle turnips were cut into slices with a guillotine-like chopper. These bigger bits were safer for cattle as they were less likely to ‘chowk’ on a piece.

Turnip choppers were great devices for getting you warmed up, as was the exercise needed to carry the ‘swill’ (basket) full to the brim from the chopper to each pair of cows in the byre, or into a big trough in the hemmel.

So the bigger the turnips grown in the field, the fewer there were to handle. Driven by this simple commercial requirement, plant breeders selected for size, encouraged by prizes at local shows for monster specimens.

Nowadays, turnip varieties are much smaller and if they are grown are left in the field before the hard frosts to be eaten in situ, a few rows at a time, as the sheep netting is moved every few days across the field. Daft Laddies have all gone and silage has taken the place of turnips as being much more cost effective and you can make it by never getting off the tractor seat!

Howkin routine
Howkin (pulling) turnips was an art form, especially when you could look behind you and see a neat row, (or often two rows put into one if two folk worked in unison), with the tops either in neat heaps or in a double row between the rows of turnips.

You just quietly hoped that some nosey passenger in the bus or train would later be spreadin the news that:
‘Aye - that luked like a canny crop o’ tornups that Andy and the Daft Laddie at Tarset Haall wor howkin the day as Aa cam by i’ the bus’.

But you also had to be prepared for a rider such as:
‘Aye – be the way yon Daft Laddie was buggarin aboot, he doesn’t seem te hev much idea aboot farmin!

I very soon learned that howkin tornups, was a job for the coldest, frostiest, clartiest days in the backend of the year (early autumn/winter), and it was one of the first jobs to dispel forever the romantic notions I had harboured up to then, about being close to the land, caring for grateful animals and being part of the natural cycle of life that is farming. It I’d been any closer to the land I’d have been under it!

Dressin for battle
You had to be thoroughly garbed for the job, and here’s a selection of claes from our wardrobe. You could wear any combination of the following – as lang as it didn’t cost ower much money!
  • Woollen (itchy) vest or body shirt (optional but usually essential).
  • Thick woollen shirt. (shart or sark) .
  • Lang linins – woolen (itchy) ‘Long Johns’.
  • Thick (itchy) army surplus khaki trousers held up by both braces and belt. A belt was always worn in the belief that it would prevent back injuries when lifting. It was also handy to sort out problems among the bairns in the hoose too!
  • Woolen sweater or ‘gansie’- usually army surplus or family hand-me-doon.
  • Old worn Harris tweed sports or ‘hacking’ jacket, single-vent, worn out elbows or very worn leather-patched.
  • Hats (a wide choice); Trilby, flat tweed (County) cap or one with button on peak, hand knitted woolen balaclava, ex-RAF leather helmet, khaki or black army surplus beret, Glengarry army cap with sides pulled doon. Essential requirement was that all had to be pulled weel doon ower the lugs.
  • Thick fishermen’s stockings (navy surplus). (Aa’ve nivvor did meet a thick fishorman, that Aa knaa of).
  • Wellington boots (Wellies). Only colour was black.
  • Some farm hinds on good wages had a pair of strong, ‘heather louper’ boots made by Rogersons of Rothbury. However, mostly for this kind of wet, clarty work, wellies were best.
  • My own compromise was a pair of ex-army boots topped with a pair of crafty gaiters made from an old pair of wellies with the soles cut off. They kept me legs dry (comparatively!) and stopped soil, grit and old-fashioned farmyard manure (muck) from filling the boots.
Leggings and apron
On top of all this you needed an apron, which went from waist to ankles, made from an old corn sack or Uveco bag. It was held up with a length of binder twine, to keep the worst of the wet and clarts off your legs.

Bearing in mind that this was my very first experience of this annual ritual, I was more than impressed by the amount of time and effort expended, even before getting started! It felt like getting ready to go into the arena to fight a Chillingham bull, and this feeling was reinforced when I was given my weapon.

Turnup knives

Turnip knives: 1, 2 and 3 are knives from farm stores. 4 is made from straight part of scythe blade and 5 is made from the blade tip. 6 is a large carving knife or 'gully'

These weapons came in various shapes and sizes. If you were willing to spend some of your own hard-earned wages, and saw a great future for you in farming, you could buy your own turnip knife from the Northern Farmers’ store in Bellingham.

The commercial models had a turned wooden handle and a thick blade about 10 inches long and 2 inches wide. They came with a straight blade or one with a slight curve, and they all had a hook at the end pointing either upwards or downwards.

Modified butcher’s gullies (knives) - long, strong and sharp, were also used. Some turnip knives were ingeniously fashioned, often by the local blacksmith, from the old blade of a scythe. You could use a middle piece or the pointed end piece.

You were lucky if you worked on a farm that had new knives and it was obvious from the age and state of some of these tools that avoiding spending money was a major priority. Many passed on from tenant to tenant as farms changed hands.

Knives were sharpened on the old sandstone grindstone that stood in every farm stack yard. You needed a second person to slowly turn the handle and keep putting plenty of 'wattor' on the stone, as you needed all your strength to keep the knife blade on the uneven face of the stone – due to many years of wear.

If a second person was not available, you just used the stone stationary to sharpen knives and the like, so over time it made the surface uneven. They could also get knocked when lumps broke off.

There was no way these monster stones could be dressed level like with modern grindstones. They have moved now from stackyards into gardens as fancy ornaments. Photo shows an old stone in very good condition. Can you imagine cutting them out of the quarry and carting them around?

Into battle

Now, fully equipped, we made our way, rather awkwardly because of all our accoutrements to the battlefield. This was not to be the leisurely harvesting of my imagination. It was winter after all, and Mother Nature had other ideas for my initiation.

Naturally, the field was frozen hard and a grey, chilling mist hung about the hilltops. There was no shelter from the cold east wind from Central Russia and within minutes my hands, wet from the frosted turnips, were blue and stinging with cold.

These old-fashioned turnips, bred for size consequently had an enormous, round body topped with a short stem and very few leaves, which by harvest time had started to turn soft and were very slippery when grabbed. Where the leaves had dropped off the scars up the neck, although in theory providing good grip, were very hard on your hands. There was no point in wearing gloves as they got wet in minutes.

Action stations
Here was the drill:
  • First bend doon and grab the the turnip by the neck (stem) with one hand.
  • ‘Hoike’ (Pull up) - heaving the turnip oot o’ the grund.
  • If it was hard to budge with one hand, you stuck the hook on your turnip knife into its root with your other hand to get extra purchase.
  • On the up pull, you hung on to the root for a few seconds, taking the knife to dress off the roots and any soil, with a couple of sharp slicing chops.
  • Removing all the soil was very important, as it was bad for stock to be digesting large amounts of soil.
  • Sometimes up to three swipes were needed with the knife to remove all the soil, while rotating the turnip with your wrist. Daft Laddies’ weak arms were a big handicap.
  • If the roots were a bit ‘cleft’ and hairy, you needed extra chops. This happened if the turnips had ‘club root’ caused by a boron deficiency in the soil. If the disease had been bad, you could spend minutes trimming off all the roots so there would be little of the bulb left. Often the crop was a write-off as it went rotten before harvest.
  • If the turnup was a real ‘pomor’ (monster), you’d certainly need three chops at it, and unless you were Superman, you’d most likely have to drop the brute back on the grund to finish it off. Now you had to lift it up again!
  • The secret was to keep pulling, and convert your pulling energy into a smooth swing to get some momentum into the turnip, to propel it into the direction you wanted it to end up. This could be at your feet, or most often oot the side into the row next to you on bare grund.
  • If it was a real bigun, to get it to swing right, you gave it a wee swing in the opposite direction to its final swing – a bit of pendulum motion to generate some kinetic energy for it’s final direction.
  • During this motion, there was a split second when the turnip swung past you, and was held in a horizontal position. It was only a split second! In today’s corporate speak – it was a ‘window of opportunity’ not to be missed.
  • Anticipating this, you had your knife ready raised high to bring doon a muckle chop on the turnip’s neck - a broadsword slash that would have chopped the heed off of any reiver from the Scotch side in one blow!
  • You could only afford one, or else the brute will drop at your feet and you’d have to repeat all the physical work of lifting it with both hands to heave it away from you. And, you’d also have the comments from the hind to deal with – about how you were going to cope at the dance on Saturday night!
  • Done well, the turnip never stopped moving in a beautiful trajectory, and when the released from its neck, it even increased in momentum falling into its final resting place with a resounding thud. Bonnie!

So remember, it was PULL, SWING (right or left side), RAISE KNIFE, CHOP DOON, HING ON TO TOP! Ganin right – it was like poetry in motion!

The turnip tops
The turnip tops were valuable feed, but nowt near as gud as the root. By the time it was ‘howkin time’ the tops had started to yellow, so it was important to get them eaten as soon as possible.

They were collected with the horse and cart, or later in the 1950s by Fergy and trailer and taken to feed the cattle in the byre or hemmel. The trailer was often the old horse coup cart with shafts removed and drawbar fitted. Or they were left on the field for the sheep to clean up.

Piling the tops into heaps as you went along howkin was a great help when you came along afterwards to load them. Otherwise you had to use the ‘grape’ (fork) to gather them up.

Frozzen grund
Unfortunately, I soon learned that the turnips were often well and truly frozen into the ground, and no amount of tugging at the hard, icy slippery stem would budge them. Try as I might, the stubborn bulbs refused to give way, and with hands by now frozen and red raw with the effort, I had to resort to kicking each massive bulb in turn to release it from its frozen hold before lifting it with great difficulty and slashing wildly with my deadly weapon.

Alas, I was neither strong enough, quick enough nor accurate enough, and the turnip fell from my numb fingers still complete with soily roots and short, hard stem. If in my inexperience I had cut off one or two fingers, I would hardly have noticed!

Frozzen fingors
The index finger of the hand holding the turnip neck was most at risk of mutilation, and regularly ended up with your hankie tied around it till it was time for a break for pipes to be lit, and ‘a few draas and a spit’. Then you could ‘gan away te the hoose and git some iodine on’t and a bit of clean cloot’. When you did slice frozen fingers they didn’t seem to bleed much at all!

Achieving perfection
As it was, it must have taken me at least 20 minutes to achieve some semblance of expertise in this new art, by which time the circulation had returned, excruciatingly to my blue fingers. My back refused to straighten up and Andy the boss and Bob the hind were almost out of sight at the other end of the field.

Determined not to be beaten by a field of obstinate brassicas, I redoubled my efforts and managed to complete a creditable number of rows before the boss called it a day. Soaked through to the backside and clarts to the oxters, and by now sweating with the day’s exertions, we plodded back to the farm to a swill doon in the trough, dry wor claes, sup some broth and devour a pie with bread butter and scones in the warm kitchen, and above all a huge mug of steaming and reviving hot tea.

Tomorrow was another day when the turnips would have to be carted away to be taken indoors to await further processing!

TURNIP HISTORY (Dr Clive Dalton)
The turnip is a member of the large Brassicacaea (Brassica) family along with mustard, cabbages, rape, kale and many more.

The original wild plant (Brassica campestris) is believed to have originated in Northern Europe or the Mediterranean and even Asia around 2000 BC. In 1500 BC forms of wild turnip were found in India where it had been used for its oil-bearing seed. It was grown mainly for animal fodder but also a cooked as a table vegetable.

The turnip was developed from the swollen stem of the original plant and not the root, although it’s now always described as a ‘root vegetable’. Neolithic farmers used it, and the Romans who used it widely for cattle fodder would certainly have taken what was then, not a very productive plant to Britain with them.

Honour be to Charles ‘Turnip’ Townshend
Born in 1674, he succeeded to the family title at the age of 12 to become the 2nd Viscount Townshend. He went on to an illustrious career as a Whig politician under King George 1.
After falling out with PM Robert Walpole, he left politics for his estate at Raynham in West Norfolk where he began experimenting with new farming ideas, most importantly with crops and their rotations.

This was a period described as the ‘Agricultural Revolution’ where many people were pioneering improvement of crops and livestock. Breeders like Robert Bakewell, the Collings brothers and Thomas Yates all wanted better feed for their improved stock, especially to feed them during winter.

The turnip was the key to this, because prior to its development, there had to be a big slaughter of stock and nosh-up at Michaelmas (29 September), which was followed by ‘bare commons’ for the rest of the winter. Only essential breeding stock could be nursed through winter on meagre hay before the turnip was developed.

Townshend is credited with developing the concept of crop rotations to increase production, where one crop benefited the following one so soil fertility was maintained and improved. In modern parlance – he improved ‘soil sustainability’ and was really before his time. He could see the turnip as a vital part of what became known as the ‘Norfolk four-course rotation’ of ‘Roots (turnips), Barley, Seeds then Wheat. Prior to this leaving the land fallow was the only way to build up fertility.

The ‘golden hoof’ of the sheep was part of this, as sheep were used to intensively graze the turnips and through their manure, add great fertility to the soil for the following grain crop.

The barley was then followed by new pasture made up of grass and clovers – which was later found to add nitrogen to the soil from the air, through the bacteria in the root nodules. This was all at no charge unlike modern nitrogen fertilisers which come from oil or gas.

It’s not hard to see how Townshend soon saw the need for a better more productive turnip, so he set about doing this through selection using the same techniques as the animal improvers at the time. It was described as ‘breeding the best to the best’.

‘Swede’ turnips were known as turnip-rooted cabbages until the 1780s, when Sweden began exporting the vegetable to Britain and the shorter name resulted.

On our family farm in Stamfordham 60 years ago now we would put both the tops and the trimmed turnips in small heaps ready for lifting on to the coup cart. They would be lifted usually before the first frosts and stored either in a linear heap on the edge of the field, in the stackyard (to be covered with straw/soil for insulation) or in an easy accessible part of the steading (main farm buildings).

Lifting was sometimes done by women folk from the village. It was a real hazard to avoid serious injury to the hands and fingers, particularly on cold days. No Health and Safety regulations in those times!

When opening the store in spring, the turnips would have developed nice yellowish short shoots - edible for kids and also cooked as a vegetable.

Singling turnips in late spring, we had a lot of depredations from rooks. They would pull up the seedlings looking for wireworms and leatherjackets. YFC's would have singling competitions in the district and the skill was much admired, as it had important implications on the yield of the final crop.

In our area there was also a tradition on the larger farms to hire an Irishmen to help with the singling and hay. The same person would come over each year for a few months. This ended about 1940 and when mechanisation gradually took over with single spaced seeding and chemical weed control.