Bardon Mill and Henshaw – two villages, two parishes and a lot in between – but all linked together as one community which is looking forward to a brand new village hall.
THE view from Maureen Brook’s living room across the Tyne Valley, rising to the hills of Plenmeller Common is something to behold. You could sit in front of the window and while away the day watching the birds flit about the garden. And Maureen insists she does, although it’s hard to believe she ever finds the time.
For Maureen is, and always has been, one of those people who immerses themselves in their local community to get things done. If you want a village panto, organising, Maureen will do it. Or how about a conker championship? No sooner said than done.
Brought up in Whitley Bay, Maureen’s family – the Charltons – originally came from Bamburgh and she has no doubts that some of her ancestors were equally active, but in a less constructive role as members of those cattle-raiding Border Reivers.
“All my life, from the time I was married, I was involved in something,” she said. “After I got married, I was secretary of Bywell WI. From then on, wherever we have lived, I have been involved in things. From poetry groups to writing groups to lots of drama and things like WIs, townswomen’s guilds and the like. Also, it’s meant that when we’ve moved to a new place, I’ve not been shy of introducing myself.”
Maureen and her husband Fred moved to Bardon Mill in 1994, after returning to the North-East ten years earlier. Fred’s job as an economics lecturer and later as an HMI schools inspector had previously taken the couple to the south coast and Stafford. “We had started off in Tynedale,” said Maureen. “When we got married, we lived in Stocksfield and we wanted to come back.”
Back to Tynedale they came, settling in the “lovely welcoming village” of Bardon Mill, but as Maureen points out, she and other villagers use the name generically to cover a much larger area. There’s Redburn, where Maureen lives, Thorngrafton, Broadacres, Tow House and the neighbouring parish of Henshaw where the school is situated. The two parishes of Bardon Mill and Henshaw cover a vast swathe of Tynedale, up to the county boundary near Gilsland.
“There are so many little settlements. Even the people of Thorngrafton would all say they were from Bardon Mill and then specify where they were from,” said Maureen.
Wherever they live, villagers in Bardon Mill and Henshaw all had cause to celebrate in May, after securing the £500,000 needed to build a community hall, thanks to a £380,000 Lottery grant and a lot of fund-raising.
The eco-friendly hall, equipped with solar panels and an underground heat source pump, will be built at Redburn Park – the site of the Bardon Mill Colliery which closed in 1973. In homage to its predecessor, the hall will have an entrance designed to look like the entrance to a drift mine.
It’s something the area has needed for a long time, said Maureen. “We lost the village shop in Bardon Mill – definitely missed because the post office decided to pull out. It was one of the busiest post offices in Tynedale, but they closed it down. You used to pop in and stand and chat. It was a focal point for passing news between us. We are so spread out along the river bank and up the hill in little settlements. But the village works in that we do have the school which becomes the focus.”
It was the school where villagers gathered to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and it is also the place where the Women’s Institute meets. Other buildings currently fulfil the roles of a village hall, like the Bowes Hotel where the leek club meets, or the cricket pavilion which hosts Bardon Mill Parish Council, and the church rooms at Henshaw used by the parish council there.
“I get involved in whatever is going on. I do not do much except the chivvying along other people to do things. I keep up the spirits.”
A former church in Henshaw had served as a village hall since the 1950s, but it became too expensive to run. “We were getting to the stage where we were spending all of our time to keep this hall going so it was sold in 2003,” said Maureen. “So we have been without a village hall since then and the loss has been felt quite severely.”
But that’s not stopped villagers from rallying together. Within weeks of launching a membership scheme for the new village hall, hundreds of local people signed up. A total of £143,167 was raised towards the project. And the village held its first pantomime last year, with Maureen involved as producer. She’s also been heavily involved with the Bardon Mill conker championships, so much so that during a walk around Hexham recently, a group of youngsters called out to her: “You’re the conker lady!”
“I have been doing the front of house for nine or ten years – even sending my daughter in London to collect conkers from Hampstead Heath because we did not have any one year,” she said. “A couple of years ago I got a call from someone in Wells after reading in the Courant that we needed conkers. He and his son went to collect conkers from the cathedral green and sent them.”
Maureen was also the driving force behind the first refurbishment of Redburn Park which is now a play area with a pitman’s trail through the wood.
But in 2004 she had to take a step back after suffering a brain haemorrhage. “I was chairman of Henshaw Parish Council at the time, but dropped out because of it. My brother died of the same thing and my cousin’s mum in America. I was lucky.
“I had gone to bed because I did not feel well. I was supposed to be going to a town twinning committee meeting in Haltwhistle. I woke up with a stiff neck feeling sick and Fred rang the NHS helpline and I was told to take a couple of paracetamols.
“I rang them myself and an emergency doctor came out. By then I had a splitting headache. Next I remember was being wheeled down to a big scanner and then being in a bed with all my family there, being told what they are going to do to me and I’m thinking, ‘this is serious’.
“They whipped me into Hexham General at 11pm, then Newcastle General where I had the country’s top neurologist who goes all round the world lecturing on this sort of procedure – they put these coils in to strengthen the artery. Usually you have a terrible headache. I found I stopped dress-making because every time I bent down to cut a pattern, it would hurt. I was in Newcastle General for 11 days and they let me out on Fred’s birthday.
“That is when I stopped doing so many things. I’m perhaps not quite so involved with the running of the things – the nitty gritty. Just the glam part!”
But Maureen still very much involves herself with the community. She has, after all, been the village correspondent for the Hexham Courant for the past eight years, supplying the paper with all the local news.
And with a love of local history, the English and history graduate, who also taught the subjects, has written two books – one about the 75th anniversary of the WI in Northumberland and another – Herring Girls and Hiring Fairs: Memories of Northumberland Coast and Countryside –which she still gives talks about.
“I’m working on lots of little things at the moment,” she said modestly. “I get involved in whatever is going on. I do not do much except the chivvying along other people to do things. I keep up the spirits!”