Past and present merge into one in the remote lands of the North Pennines where Ninebanks lies.
IT’S been called one of Britain’s last, great wildernesses: a forgotten valley of scattered, weather-beaten stone buildings and winding country lanes amid endless, rolling hills and sheep-dotted fells.
Today, the tiny hamlet of Ninebanks looks idyllic, but go back 200 years and you find a place where lead miners were scratching a living from the ground amid grinding poverty.
Marina Wallace has traced her family history back 300 years and has built up a clear picture of what life would have been like for the miners and their families in the Ninebanks of yesteryear.
“Life, back then, was very bleak,” she said. “It was the lead miners’ job to take the lead ore up Leadgate Bank to Allen Mills at Allendale to be smelted. They used ponies laden with panniers to climb the steep bank in all weathers. And they were paid a pittance. They had big families and there was a high mortality rate. It was, quite simply, a struggle to survive.
“Ninebanks was a very different community then. The sheer number of people meant that there were shops and two temperance hotels. It was a busy place. But all that changed once the price of lead started to plummet. Then, many of the miners moved away to find work but a few stayed – the ones with farms and a stint on Allendale Common where they were allowed to keep sheep. It was those precious stints that often kept them from the brink of starvation.”
Slag heaps are now all that remain of the area’s biggest mines at Wellhope, Mohope and Coalcleugh although there are stories of abandoned shovels and buckets still lying deep underground.
Over time the abandoned houses left behind by the miners were bought up, restored and transformed into cosy homes for commuters and their families. And now the small community is a mixture of people who have lived in Ninebanks all their lives and newcomers.
Heather Robinson is the latter. She moved to Middle Rigg in Ninebanks 15 years ago with husband Joe and three children under four. “We fell in love with this valley,” she said. “We thought it would be a wonderful place to bring up our kids and we were right. They’re teenagers now and we wondered if they would want to move away once they grew up, but they still love it here. It’s their home and has been for as long as they can remember.”
Heather and Marina count themselves as neighbours even though they live a good mile apart and they are a good support for each other. “That’s how it works up here,” said Heather. “In the snow it is the farmers who get out first, clearing the roads with their tractors and ploughs. Without them we could be stranded for weeks up here.”
The Jubilee was a springboard for us. It reminded people just how good it feels to get together, as a community, have fun and support each other.
“But we need the newcomers too,” said Marina. “They have brought the community to life.” Community spirit is obviously alive and well in Ninebanks and its surrounding settlements, Mohope, Carrshield, Limestone Brae and The Middle where celebrations for Kate and William’s wedding and the Queen’s Jubilee were hailed a huge success.
“I have never known anything like the Jubilee,” said Marina. “There used to be dances in the church hall a long time ago but I never thought I’d see the day when young and old joined together to dance once again.
“We had The Curlew ceilidh band from Alston and everyone joined in, including me and I’ve had two new hips! It was just wonderful. We presented 50 Jubilee coins to the children, had quizzes, games and afternoon teas. And nearly 100 people turned up for the evening do, the barbecue, ceilidh and a bowl of strawberries and cream. We had the church hall refurbished not so long ago for events just like this one so it was great to see it being so well used by the whole community.”
Weekly keep fit sessions are now being held in the hall with high hopes of other community events to follow. “The Jubilee was a springboard for us,” said Marina. “It reminded people just how good it feels to get together, as a community, have fun and support each other.”
Heather is now planning to create a historic Ninebanks wall hanging, to be exhibited in the church hall, with the help of some talented friends and local craftspeople. “I went round at the Jubilee asking if anyone was interested in helping out and managed to cover two sides of A4 with names of people eager to take part,” she said. “From proggy matters to felters, everyone seems keen to do something.”
Ninebanks is certainly a hive of creativity. Over the years it has been home to a number of talented people from authors to artists – even young entrepreneurs with an eye for a good business opportunity and a fantastic footballer.
Resident writer Celia Burney had her prize-winning short story about life as a health visitor in inner-city Newcastle read on Radio Four while Bobby Dover, who was born and raised at Ninebanks, is remembered most fondly for his time playing for the Blue Back Club, the Whitfield football team. Bobby made a living from drystone walling but his passions in life were undoubtedly his football and, in later life, his quoits.
Artist Rod Sutterby is famous for his illustrations for a number of publications from natural history books to wildlife calendars while his son Lee, an award-winning cameraman, won international acclaim for his work on The Bevin Boys, a film about the 48,000 young men aged 17-18 who were conscripted to work in coal mines towards the end of the Second World War.
Teenager Josh Campey-Lancaster turned his hobby of looking after hens into a business when he launched Josh’s Fresh Free Range Eggs in response to local demand. But perhaps most famously Isaac Holden was born here around 1804 and baptised at St Mark’s Church in Ninebanks. His working life began in the lead mines of Mohope and the West Allen where, at the tender age of eight, he was a washer boy, spending long, tedious hours sifting through lead ore.
When the mine closed he became a tea pedlar, selling tea door to door in farms and hamlets across the North Pennines. But at heart he was a humble philanthropist who was driven by a single-minded devotion to raise money for good causes. He raised funds to provide a fresh water supply in Allendale and Isaac’s Well did much to stem the threat posed by cholera and typhoid. His swan song was to raise money for a hearse for the West Allen.
Today a memorial stands to this “kindly and godly man” in St Cuthbert’s churchyard in Allendale and his name lives on in the 40-odd miles of footpaths which have been linked together to form Isaac’s Tea Trail.
The trail, created by the Friends of Ninebanks Youth Hostel in partnership with Northumberland Countryside Service, opened in October 2002 and allows modern day walkers to follow in Isaac’s legendary footsteps.
Historically, buildings of note along the way include the newly-restored early 16th century Ninebanks Tower, sometimes described as a pele tower but possibly built as a watchtower. The sandstone tower, which dates from around 1520, is all that remains above ground of a large, medieval house.
Another focal point in the community is the youth hostel at Mohope – a restored lead miner’s cottage and lodge. It is the first hostel in the country to have electric vehicle charging points, making it a haven for not only walkers but environmentally friendly motorists.
There was a school at Ninebanks until some 50 years ago. Now the building, just next to St Mark’s Church and the refurbished church hall has been transformed into three homes, but memories of school days are still vivid for many in the valley.
Records show that in winter and spring severe snow storms closed the school for days on end. Scarlet fever and other epidemics had a similar effect. And during lambing and hay harvest, children were kept off school for days at a time so they could help out on the family farm where it was very much a case of “all hands on deck”.
Infant teacher Kate Clementson was a much-loved and respected member of the community along with head teacher Miss Dorothy Potts who organised a new maypole for the school – the first in the district. Former pupils remember school dinners of lumpy mashed potato, watery stew, semolina and jam.
Then and now, however, the most prominent feature of life in the West Allen Valley is the absolutely breath-taking scenery. “Nothing can beat it,” said Heather. “We go away on holiday but we are always glad to come home. You never become immune. It’s a beautiful part of the world and nothing rivals it as far as I’m concerned.”