Tuesday, June 13, 2006

# "A hydro-field cuts through my neighbourhood, somehow that always just made me feel good..." # - Barenaked Ladies


I want to tell you about the village where I grew up. This isn't one of those rose-tinted perspectives, years later, looking back and dreamily half-remembering how it was. It's only in the last year that I've moved away from there and it still has its problems of wandering gangs of kids, drugs on street corners and fast cars just looking for the next slow pedestrian to put a foot onto the road. But I lived there for most of my young life, growing up with that sort of thing surrounding me, and I still love the place.

You'll always remember the good AND the bad things of any place you go to, but part of truly appreciating somewhere I think is seeing past the crap that seems determined to ruin the great things in this world. And so that's how I intend to remember Westerhope.




My folks were pretty much the travelling types on a local front as I grew up. They owned three of their own houses after marrying and then after I was born and reached the age of three onwards, we moved between four council houses which all for one reason or another centred on Westerhope village. We went to church and school there, and as my Mam and Dad are very much dog people, growing up, we walked the length and breadth of the village and the surrounding area all of the time, excercising the hounds.

There is a local joke that says the village took its name from a John Wayne western, at the end of which he is asked as he gets on his horse, "Where are you off to now, John?" And before riding into the sunset, the Duke says boldly, "Well, west-I-hope!" My family lore states that we came "west, full of hope" when my grandmother on my dad's side decided in the 1960s that she couldn't allow her family to be brought up in the inner west end of Newcastle any longer (Westgate Road is pretty run down now, so we are endlessely indebted to her) and somehow she managed to get a flat near Westerhope which then was a small community with lots of fields and was basically on the fringe of the countryside. (Although today, Westerhope is still called a village, huge housing estates surround it and even though the escape exit to the green belt does still exist, via a golf course, huge electiricity pylons dominate the vista in that direction...)

That's how we got to Westerhope, but the village itself is much older than that - it began as a mining community in the 1880s. There's still the original pit houses standing across a hill at the northwest end of the village on a street called Beaumont Terrace. Growing up I was once fortunate enough to meet the then oldest man in the village - Joe Allison - he was a miner like his father before him at the Walbottle mine. I interviewed him for a school project and am thankful I still have his memories on tape, because he died in his late-90s a few years ago. On the southeast and northwest limits of the village are two commemorative minecarts which welcome visitors or motorists simply passing through. Each cart displays a plaque remembering the mining heritage of the village. All of these historical tidbits of the place fascinate me as a writer - in the front garden of a neighbour of my parents in Westerhope there still stands an old methane funnel post which would allow the dangerous gas to escape from the mine shafts below the area instead of building up and exploding.

In Westerhope, it is perhaps of little suprise, then, that there is a village preservation group who are often seen replanting the flower tubs or generally cleaning the paths and pavements. All of them seem to be of an elder age but all share a respect and love for the place they live in. Maybe I'm old before my years at 29 - but these days, that seems to be a rare quality found in people. These same people no doubt helped to get the Millennium clock erected which now stands proudly by the Methodist church in the village.

I love film and cinemas, and in Westerhope there's a bingo house that used to be a one-screen cinema. It's called the Orion (named after an elusive film called "Florion" which was out around the 1950s and the locals decided to drop the "Fl" from the beginning of the name). The Orion as a cinema had "go-as-you-please" evenings as well as showing the film of the week and accompanying shorts like Laurel & Hardy's newest effort, and there was even a fish'n'chip shop "Gormans" right next door where queues of people could be seen before and after performances. (Now it's a not-bad pizza place)

I've seen inside the Orion nowadays and there's still the remnants of the old cinema to be seen - the ticket booth, the balcony seating, even the curtain that concealed the screen is still there (but sadly not the screen itself.) Unfortunately a haze of cigarette smoke occupies your senses as you walk into the Orion, due to the filled-to-the-brim patrons of the bingo nights it hosts today. To see them going in is an amazing sight though. The village is invaded by hordes of eager old (and some not-so-old) women clutching their purses, ready for their great night out. (I'm not being sarcastic here - I genuinely think every one of them look forward to it, and good for them, why shouldn't they?)

Westerhope has given me so much to think about as a writer. The names and faces it's indented in my memory will stay with me until I write them down and use them somehow in a future story - Anderson's buses, Dookun the Dentist, the Runnymede pub, the old "haunted" Black Swine farm, the Spine Road, the Matchbox, the Chute, Dumfries, Rob's corner shop, Cobbler's Corner, "Granny" Potts, Bart and Sally, old Wilfie's tall trees and the small paths and alleyways that acted as short cuts just when you needed them...

Now, going back to Westerhope from the new place I'm making a home in my adult life, is somehow like a dream. Without trying to sound sickly-sweet, it feels like returning to the home country when I drive back off the A1 and turn past the Black Swine onto Stamfordham Road. I'll always be thankful that I lived in Westerhope, for the people I met and for the lessons the place taught me. It's weird to think that none of this would mean anything to me if Margaret Allan (nee Buckle) hadn't taken charge about half a century ago and decided she'd move her family west...

10 comments:

  1. Hi
    I grew up in Westerhope from my birth 1937, when it was still a village, outside Newcastle - although across the road from our house you walked into the Newcastle City authority - we were in Newburn District on our side of the street. That was Wellfield Lane at The Black Swine. There was no Western bypass, only a bridle path which went across the fields to Kenton Bank Foot, and ran past a hill which we called the dip, at the bottom of which was an ancient well, at grass level, was covered by two massive (to a child) rectangular slabs of stone. Along the bottom of the dip was a burn. Later in my childhood, in the postwar years, prefabs were built in the field beyond the burn. at the top of the village, near where my grandma lived (in Mitford Drive) on the main road, was the picture house that you show - the Orion - except we pronounced it the Orrion - we were't into classical Greek. It was run by Percy Longhorn, who also was the village studio photographer - I still have a photo of myself aged 4. It is embossed with P. Longhorn & Son, Copyright. His son, who helped out at the Orion sometimes, taught at Westerhope County Primary - my school, which I was amazed to see being knocked down on a nostalgic visit to the area. (I have videos of the occasion to prove it). We used to go to the pictures on Saturday mornings. When I was a teenager I would go in the evening. There were stalls and what was termed a circle, but you had to keep your head down as you went in to continuous showings, or your shadow would loom large on the screen and everyone in the house would shout out "Sit DOWN!". During rationing, my father would send me up to the cinema on a Friday evening, with money and sweet coupons, to buy the week's supply of confectionery - Longhorns had the best selection in the village at the cinema sweet kiosk. Sometimes his son was in the kiosk, but usually it was Mrs Longhorn. They were all very rotund. The N. Walbottle colliery was still a working pit at the N.West of the village, while the fields on the North & S. East, were farmed as grazing and arable land, and I would help the farmers in the harvesting during school holidays.
    I left the area when I was 19, but go back often and am amazed how much the village, and the Black Swine area in particular, has become gentrified since my day. There weren't criminal gangs roaming the streets, but it was rather dreary post war.
    Margaret nee Jackman

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    1. I think my mention of Longhorn junior being a master at Westerhope County Primary might be wrong, and that I was getting confused with the teacher called Laidlaw. Nothing like Longhorn, agreed, but names have always been a problem for me, and I remember the initial letter, but don't always get the rest of it right!

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    2. Thanks, Margaret - interesting that the village had a dedicated photography studio! Both names are quite unique but appreciate the amendement.

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  2. Hi, Margaret!

    Great to get your comment and memories of Westerhope - it really is a wonderful village still today too... Recent developments include a new commemorative mining sink wheel at one end of the village:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/tyne/content/articles/2008/07/30/westerhope_wheel_feature.shtml

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  3. Hello

    I grew up in Wellfield Lane, the Newcastle side. I was two years old when the family moved there from Slatyford in 1959. My parents still live there. I used to play in the nearby fields, the dip, all gone now. And the prefabs where lots of my friends lived, all gone too. All the children in my street and Garthfield Crescent went to Westerhope school but I had to go to Hilton Primary as we lived on the Newcastle side of the street. I longed to join them!

    I live in Whitley Bay now, but regularly visit my parents in Westerhope.

    Jan(ice) nee Worrall

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  4. Hi, Jan,
    thanks a lot for posting a comment - really have fond memories of living in Westerhope. There's really a sense of "home" about it when I drive past the new mining sinkwheel they've put up for the anniversary of the village a few years ago.
    Thanks again for reading my blog! Chris

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  5. Hi
    Jan, I had already moved away in 57, and I think my parents moved to Whitley Bay in 1960, so you wouldn't have known them, either. I wonder who's house your parents took over. Mrs Dixon, an elderly widow, lived in the house immediately next to the dip, then next to her were a brother and sister who lived with their elderly mother. They were the Bradys. Then, next to them and opposite us, were the Burns family. Their son, John worked with Roger Dunford in his nursery gardens down from the Black Swine on Stamfordham Road. Next door to the Burns was Alice, an eccentric of unknowable age to a child. Her family had originally owned the Black Swine Farm whose land had been sold for the Wellfield Lane development, but she still owned agricultural land (those fields that later housed a secondary school which later became the police headquarters) and rented it out to brothers who farmed in the Sunderland area, and let the kep,one of their tractors on her front drive - an old Fordson Major that I used to drive when I helped them with harvesting hay and wheat. They were George and Newby, who was my special friend. I used to go with one or the other down to the school dinner preparation buliding at Kenton, on the Stamfordham Road, where they had used to cut the grass for hay.

    On the other side of Wellfield Lane, nearest to Garthfield Crescent, lived Mrs Baxter, also a widow, with her son Tony who was a year older that me. Next were the Howlets - who seemed to have rather a lot of sons, then us, the Jackmans in Whitethorn, the first of the white houses, then the Alders, Mamie, Dick ad their son Kenneth, in the other white semi, in the house called Poplars, I think, though they had a monkey-puzzle tree in their front garden. Kenneth was about 4 years older than me. Those were the only houses in the street at that time. Now there are several more - one squeezed between us and the Howlet house. It seems to have been built in their orchard. We had an Anderson shelter in our back garden, used by the Jackmans and Alders in wartime. The Alders kept chickens in their back garden.
    I am given to reminiscing about Westerhope among other things in my blog at:
    http://margaretjackman.blogspot.co.uk/

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  6. Margaret, thanks a lot for revisiting my blog after so long - so pleased it inspired more of your memories of Westerhope to be sparked too :) It really is (and was) and inspiring place to live...

    http://margaretjackman.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/blog-journal-of-writer-cgallan-hydro.html

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  7. I still live in westerhope today I grew up here and im 40 now! westerhope never had a bad rep and still don't! my parents still to tis day live in there ex council house they bought 20 years ago

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    1. Thanks for your comment. I make frequent trips back to Westerhope and love to see the things that have changed and the things that have stayed the same. It'll always feel like home to me, making my way through Stamfordham Road, past the commemorative sinkwheel and minecart. A great part of the world.

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