Thursday, 27 April 2017

The North East in Twelve Favourite Places 4: Rookhope

If you drive up the steep hill at the top of the East Allen valley beyond the village of Allenheads, you arrive at a watershed. It divides the Tyne catchment from the Wear, and is marked by a mighty cairn. To the north, you gaze across Northumberland where the Cheviot crowns the skyline when it is clear. To the south it is County Durham where the whale-backed hills of the North Pennines roll away towards Yorkshire. I once stood on this watershed one freezing New Year’s Eve admiring a colourful mid-afternoon sunset and thinking of the watersheds we travel in human life as one year passes and another takes its place.

The road winds down the valley of the Rookhope Burn. It’s a sparse, deserted landscape here in the “Land of the Prince-Bishops”, much bleaker than on the well-wooded Northumberland side. The poet W. H. Auden who loved the North Pennines called this valley “the most wonderfully desolate of all the dales”. The Bishops used to own great estates all over Weardale where they enjoyed hunting. Not any more; these days much of this majestic landscape consists of grouse moors. You know it’s the grouse-shooting season by the four by fours you will see parked on the roadside. 
You would think this was a purely natural Pennine landscape, not much interfered with by human hands. You would be wrong. For one thing, the forests that once covered the fells were levelled by the Dale’s first settlers. But later, valuable ores were discovered under these hills: lead primarily, but silver too, and iron, zinc and fluorspar.

The lead seams were known as far back as Roman times, but were most extensively worked in the nineteenth century. There is evidence everywhere of mining activity that has profoundly affected the look of these northern hills. There are lumpy spoil heaps long since claimed back by nature, hushes scarring the valley sides where water from reservoirs was released to rush down and expose the minerals, and there are entrances to abandoned pits and levels into which you walk at your peril.
The first landmark down the valley will be to many a striking and unexpected sight. It’s a mine complete with winding gear towering over the deserted dale. This is Groverake which started out as a lead mine but became a leading source of fluorspar until its closure in 1999. There is something haunting about these industrial ruins in their sombre setting. The pithead buildings are from the twentieth century and others, such as the pit owner’s ruined house, are Victorian. But it’s the most melancholy place I know in England. You realise in places like this how the tides have receded that once drove the “northern power house”.
A couple of miles further on, there is more evidence of how fortunes were made and lost in this dale. A stone arch in a field looks for all the world like a survival from Roman times. In fact, it is a relic of the two-mile Rookhope Chimney that carried poisonous gases from the lead smelting works in the village safely on to the moor. Well, that’s the charitable assumption. We know that in the nineteenth century, young children were sent into the chimney to scrape the walls for valuable silver deposits that had precipitated as the gases cooled. Maybe this was the real reason for the chimney. You dread to think what happened to those children who were forced say by day to absorb the lead-soaked atmosphere inside.
Today, Rookhope is not the industrial village it once was, populated by miners and their families and with a dozen pubs to serve them. It has gently subsided back into its remote stillness, a tranquillity broken only by cyclists travelling on the C2C cycle route that joins the Irish Sea to the North Sea. Many of them stay at the Rookhope Inn at the heart of the village. Here, fortified by a night’s rest, they set out to ride the long incline that ascends steeply out of the village towards Bolt’s Law. This was once a wagonway and then a true railway, powered by a stationary steam engine at the summit that hauled ore-filled wagons out of the valley on to a level track at the top. From there trains would connect with lines that led to the great industrial centres on Tyneside and Wearside. Bolt’s Incline makes a magnificent walk. At the summit you can explore the ruins of the engine house before striding out under great skies across Stanhope Moor. It’s a walk for autumn when the heather moors glow a brilliant purple.
Auden said that he found his poetic voice in this magical setting.

In Rookhope I was first aware
Of self and not-self, death and dread...
We once had a little lead-miner’s house in a terrace above the village (you can see the line of houses through the arch in the photo). You have to reckon with winter weather up there: the only way out of the village is up one hill or another. We have stories to tell about what it’s like knowing that you won’t get out until the roads are opened. But if it’s silence and solitude you’re looking for, you can do no better than the North Pennines. Some would say they are the best hills in England. Here in Tynedale, we are lucky to live on the edge of these fierce but glorious landscapes. 

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