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...