You could, if you wished, hide away in Tarset and not see another soul. But its wide open spaces and remoteness seems to have the opposite effect on people, who regularly meet up and take part in a whole range of creative activities
JOHN Holland and his fellow drinking companions sup on their pints inside Greenhaugh’s Holly Bush Inn before launching into a discussion about cabbages and kings and everything else in between.
It’s a Tuesday night and a table has been reserved for the group of similarly aged gentlemen – aka the Tarset Grumpies – who get together in the village pub to put the worlds to rights.
It’s all a bit of light-hearted banter really and just another way to meet up in one of the most rural and isolated areas in the Tynedale district. The parish of Tarset and Greystead is spread over 70 plus square miles of countryside and fewer than 300 people live there.
You’d have thought no-one would ever see anyone else – and you could live the life of a hermit here if you wished. But so much goes on in this community that if you had the energy, you could spend every waking hour taking part in some activity or other.
The Grumpies is just one of several groups which brings people together in Tarset’s main focal points, the pub, and the village hall which lies a couple of miles down the road in the hamlet of Lanehead.
There’s a film club, archive group, ceilidh band, leek club, archery club, Bellingham Amateur Dramatic Group – many of the members are from adjoining Tarset – and events like the annual bogie race. This is Tarset’s own version of wacky races when home-made vehicles hurtle along the lanes in spectacular style.
John and his wife Jennifer and family moved to the area 22 years ago from Oxfordshire, and already knowing people there, were well aware of its attractions. “Part of the appeal was the community spirit,” said John, who had been offered the chance by his employers, Hewlett-Packard to work from home. “It gave me the benefits of rural living and working for a big organisation,” he said.
Now retired, he is able to spend more time enjoying what he describes as “a very good quality of life” and with Kielder Water on the doorstep, one of his passions – sailing.
“The nice thing about the area is, I can remember the first day we moved in and Alastair Murray who ran the blacksmith’s came down and said hello. We had broken a wrought iron candelabra in the move and he took it away and mended it for us.
“There are people around who you trust to keep an eye on your house if you are away and a lot of people have an open door policy. I just love it.”
Tarset and its village at Greenhaugh have long been popular places. The reivers used to pay it frequent and unwelcome visits and when it became safer to roam outside, the area was on a main drovers’ route.
One man who probably knows more about its history than anyone else is the aforementioned Alastair Murray, who has lived in the area all his life. Walking through Greenhaugh, he can bring the past to life, pointing out visible reminders of days gone by.
The whole reason for the village’s existence is because it was on a route used by drovers, some who came from as far away as the Isle of Skye to take their livestock to the markets of Newcastle and Stagshaw Common, north of Corbridge – once one of the largest of its kind in the country.
“They would have travelled for months,” said Alastair. “That was where the markets were – particularly when the Industrial Revolution took off when the trade increased. So a little place like this became a gold mine from the early part of the 1700s to the 1850s. The thing that changed everything though was the coming of the railways.”
Walking into the village from the north, one of the first buildings the drovers would have come to was the blacksmith’s on the right, now a house, which Alastair is all too familiar with. He used to live there, as well as a farm further up the road. The remains of mountings on the ground outside the former smithy were for a crane and a blocked up doorway once led into the forge.
“The house opposite was a cobbler’s and a tailor’s,” said Alastair. “They were all little farms as well to help make a living. Next to the blacksmith’s was the general store. The sign that hung there is now on a wall in the back of the pub. I found it in a shed. The shop was there until 1967 and above it was a granary with a block and tackle arrangement in the granary loft.”
Further down the street on the left, a row of terraced cottages were lived in by the coal miners who once worked in the area. “Around here there are millions of tons of coal,” explained Alastair. “It was mostly drift mines or bell pits and was a big industry from the early 1700s up to the 1950s. What they took out of the ground was a pinprick.”
The pub is one of the oldest buildings in the village and used to serve the needs of the drovers, although after several weeks travelling on muddy tracks without a wash, drovers weren’t particularly welcome inside. Instead, their beer was served through a hole in the wall which still survives.
“They would have had hurdles around the village to make pens and the drovers would have pitched tents up against the wall of the pub,” said Alastair. “They would have been filthy and stank.”
Most parishes have their grand hall and Greenhaugh’s is now a Buddhist monastery called Land of Joy. It used to be the home of the Spencer family, who made their money in iron and made the news in 1897 when the local squire, John Cuthbert Spencer murdered his wife Annie Mabel there – hacking her to death with an adze. He was eventually declared insane and sent to Broadmoor Criminal Asylum.
Alastair can tell a story about almost every building in the village and lives and breathes Tarset. His partner Barbara Cochrane is from Newcastle and moved to Greenhaugh when they got together, knowing that a move to town for Alastair would have been too much of a wrench. “He is so much part of the landscape here,” she said.
Barbara works at the school of history, classics and archaeology at Newcastle University where the academics perhaps aren’t aware that Tarset has a stone circle of its own. It’s not neolithic, however, having been built by Alastair on a patch of ground which is also the site of a community orchard. But it does probably serve a similar role to its ancient predecessors – as a meeting place and somewhere to watch the sun rise at midsummer.
Known locally as Murray Henge, Alastair went to the site one midsummer morning and took some bearings to see exactly where the sun rose. He’s placed the stones in such a position that on midsummer morning, the sun shines through two of them on to a central stone.
“We had the annual general meeting of the parish council there with the chairman of the parish council and the clerk sitting on the central stone and councillors and members of the public sitting on the other stones,” said Barbara. “Where else in the world would you come to such a place and see that?
“I am exhausted by all the things that are going on here. It is far busier than what is going on in the city.”
Kath Richardson, who is on the village hall committee and organises coffee mornings for elderly folk echoes Barbara’s words. She used to live near the Metrocentre, but finds life in Tarset far more sociable.
“We know far more people here than we ever did where we lived before,” she said. “We see people in Bellingham or Hexham we know from up here and everybody will talk to you. We lived 25 years in our previous house and we only knew the immediate few houses around us because we both worked all day and everybody was busy. I suppose people only have time to get on with their busy lives, whereas here there is a community spirit.
“The first year we came here we were given a copy of a book produced for the Millennium which was very useful because it had photos and information about all the people in the parish.
“That was really useful thing because we got a view of where everybody was and who they were, so when we were talking to people we got an idea about who else they were talking about. For the Queen’s Jubilee the parish council organised an updated one.
“It is hard now to believe we have lived anywhere else. We feel so much more at home here. It surprised me as I never felt uncomfortable where we were.”
“The thing about Tarset in terms of all of these activities is Tarset people are very generous with their time and enthusiasm and will give a project a really good go.”
The enthusiasm for everything that goes on in the area is something Lizzie Kathiravel points to which makes Tarset something special.
“I think people who live here genuinely do love where they live and make the most of it,” she said. “People are really thrilled when the swifts come… when it is frosty and cold people take photographs and share them on the internet…”
With a background working in theatre and music, Lizzie runs a weaving and spinning group in the village hall and is also a member of the ceilidh band. “Really, I play the fiddle, but when the ceilidh band was started I said, ‘do you mind if I bring along my cello’?
“The lovely thing about the ceilidh band is it is an opportunity to bring something along you do not usually play. It is a chance to have a go and that is what I love about it.”
Music and drama plays a big part in the parish and there’s also a singing group run by professional musician Kat Davidson.
“It is a great way of joining in with other people,” said Lizzie who, conversely, can take her dog for a walk on the paths behind her house and not meet a soul.
“The thing about Tarset in terms of all of these activities is Tarset people are very generous with their time and enthusiasm and will give a project a really good go. So the ceilidh band had limited funding, but once that funding had finished it still carried on. People give their time and energy to continue doing it.
“It’s like my spinning group. I think that’s quite unusual and yet you find so much enthusiasm for things. We have people setting things up and having a go and making it happen.
“Some people get involved with absolutely nothing and come home from work and enjoy the peace and quiet and you can understand why, and others do get involved with stuff if they want to. If you wanted to, you could make a career in Tarset just going to things.”
Finding a paid career in Tarset, however, and getting young people to stay in the area can be problematic. It’s issues like these that are being looked at as part of the area’s neighbourhood development plan. John Holland describes the aim as conservation rather than preservation.
“One of the problems we have is an ageing population,” he said. “I have five kids, but none of them lives and works in the valley. There are not that many opportunities for young people in employment. So how do we deal with that in an aging demographic?”
Currently, forestry and farming remain the main employers – the disadvantaged land being ideal for Blackface sheep as well as Swaledales and Mules.
Heading out of Greenhaugh through a sparsely populated landscape dotted with the odd farm, a track past a lodge takes you to a manor house which has been in the hands of the Morrison-Bell family since the late 19th century.
The latest incumbents, William and Cynthia share their time between Highgreen Manor and life in London. William works as a lawyer and his main interests are poetry and literature, whereas Cynthia, originally from Antibes, has always worked with the arts. She studied art history and for the past 20 years has organised exhibitions around the country. With their shared interest, they decided to refurbish some derelict buildings near the house and in 2000 the charity, Visual Arts in Rural Communities (VARC) was born, offering 12-month funded residencies for artists based there.
“What really prompted it was a need to do up the buildings,” said Cynthia. “There was nothing here so we wanted to turn it from a negative into a positive and make the space creative.”
The scheme also involves local people in a big way with the remit for artists at Highgreen being to immerse themselves in the community.
“I was born and brought up here,” said William. “I studied literature at university and have an interest in the arts as well. Having this here fits in very well and complements the other things going on here. It is a very rural community and this has not only benefited the artists, but also the local community as well because it has got people interested in art in other ways in which it might not have come to them.”
William’s family came to Highgreen in the 1880s; a cousin of his great grandfather buying the house as a shooting box. “When I grew up here there was farming and the forestry and if you could not get a job in either of those, you had to leave,” he said. “My father worked this as a working farm. It was very much a living community. It still is, but in a different way.
“Gradually, over time, people have come to live here from outside the valley and brought their own skills and brought their own employment as well. There has been a big change over the past 40 years. It is still a rural community and people have contributed and got back a lot and put down their roots here.”
The latest artist to live at Highgreen is Zoe Childerley, who has swapped her life in Kingston, London where she teaches photography, for the wilds of Tarset.
“Although I do other things, my background is more the documentary side of photography as opposed to landscape – story-telling really and travelling,” she said. “I always wanted to see the world and for me it is like a busman’s holiday.”
One of Zoe’s projects took her to California and, leaving aside the obvious differences in the climate, she sees similarities rather than differences with Tarset. “As I drove up here, I immediately saw the parallels. It was a nice day and it was the first time since I was in California that I have seen that far because of the open skies.
“The desert is really harsh and dry and there are not many people. It is a quite isolated rural environment that is quite harsh and not everybody’s cup of tea. People move from the city as they do here. And there is even a big military base where I was, as there is here.
“What draws me to this place is how important the land is to people. So I always start a project interviewing a lot of people and ask why they live here and what is special about it – and what is tough about it.”
The appeal of Tarset can make it difficult to leave and Helen Pailing is among previous artists who have decided to stay.
When office space became vacant at Highgreen and Cynthia gave Helen the opportunity to move in, she jumped at the chance and now lives there, working a few hours a week for VARC and on her three-year PhD at the University of Sunderland.
“I had had such a great year,” she said. “It was very open and inviting and challenged preconceived ideas about what a rural village might be.”
Helen, ‘artist in residence in the community 2013-2014’ based her exhibition on the weaving and wool heritage of the area and also made it her mission to make an object every day of the year out of anything she had to hand or had come across on her walks. “Then people started giving me things – burned heather; sheep tags from a farmer. It went on from there,” she said.
“This residency was unique. You look around and a lot of residencies were either self-funded or part-time. You had to have a lifestyle that fitted around them, but this offered a distraction-free year so you could commit to something. You can immerse yourself in what is going on.” Part of Helen’s community engagement involved taking part in events at the village hall and the enthusiasm she encountered was a great support.
She said all the factors pointed at her to stay. “I do frequently pinch myself. Every time I drive over the top from the A68 it is incredible. Whatever else is going on fades into significance when you experience that and of course the people have helped that – the energy of the community. Someone said something to me about the resilient nature of the people and I think there is that inner strength in the people who live up here. For me it has been a case of happy circumstance and following the path of least resistance.”
A group show opens at Highgreen on April 23 with work by Helen, Zoe, former VARC artist in residence Karen Rann and painter Chloe Freemantle. For more information about VARC, visit www.varc.org.uk