Local Historical Stories


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Early in 1996 I was asked if I would write a couple of historical articles for the Alston Moor Newsletter. I thought I could manage three or four but in the event, over 20 years later, they’re still going. Once, and only once, I received an unsolicited article from an outside source, this was the reminiscence of a school for wartime evacuees at Nent Hall that came from Mr. Michael Dickinson and it was gratefully included in the series.

They’re a real mixed bag, too random to put into a book, but they’re still worth keeping in a more permanent form, so here they are.

Material for the articles came largely from local sources, from the Alston Moor Historical Society Archives, St. Augustine’s Church Records, Alston Library, the Cumbria County Records Office in Carlisle and the County Records Office Northumberland.

There has been editing in some cases that will be noted at the beginning of each item, otherwise the articles have been left as they were written, complete with occasional references to such things as cement lorries, the millennium, and foot and mouth disease, which are themselves now things of the past (?).
Read on …

Alastair Robertson

Story No 25: An Episode In The History Of Nenthall

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This article was included by permission and encouragement of its author, Michael G. Dickinson.

“Glenhow” was a private preparatory school situated for most of its life (c1925-1970) at Saltburn-by-the-Sea near Middlesborough.

The headmaster during the war was Mr. Percy H. Sykes, M.A., who kept discipline to a high standard by the usual means in those days. He was a humane, Christian man who strove to give us skills, roots and mutual trust in a visibly unstable world. Mrs. Sykes was the one who kept house and maintained the school in all aspects of its daily and long-term needs.

Following the events at Dunkirk, Glenhow School, being so near the coast, was evacuated in a panic, first to the High Force Hotel near Middleton-in-Teesdale. In June 1940 I was eight years and three months old. I remember the long bus journey during which I was repeatedly travel sick before we reached the hotel.

We were taught in the bar on one side of the hotel entrance, while the hotel business was carried out in the lounge on the other side. This temporary arrangement lasted for the latter part of the summer term of 1940. For the autumn term a longer lasting arrangement had been entered into.

Having had to return to their homes for the summer holiday, in September the pupils assembled on Darlington (Bank Top) Station. The main line train came in already full. We were squeezed in among some soldiers and their kitbags in the corridor – no chance of getting into a compartment. At Newcastle we changed trains again. We stopped at Haltwhistle, but did not have to change there as it was a through train for Alston. Then there followed the bus journey to Nent Hall, where we Saltburn “day boys” moved up a peg to become “boarders”.

At the outbreak of war in 1939, Nent Hall was run by the Holiday Fellowship, perhaps as a temperance hotel or hostel for walkers and cyclists. There may well have been other hotels of this kind around the country. When Glenhow began its lease, crockery with the company mark, “Holiday Fellowship”, written around a knapsack in brown, was still in use.

The layout of the rooms was then little altered from its original state. However a timber, or brick and timber building had been added in the garden at the back of the hotel. This contained shower rooms, toilets and so on and on the first floor there were ‘cubicles’ for sleeping.

The front door was then the original one at the base of the tower. This gave access first to a porch then to a hallway. A room to other side of this looked out over the forecourt. A passage to the left led to at least one other room and the main staircase was next to it. Opposite to this another passage led to the kitchen and the other service rooms. A third large room was entered from the far end of the hallway. It had a large fireplace and looked out over the garden. I have only a confused recollection of the layout of the first floor rooms. Other parts of the house, the tower room, for example, were out of bounds to us boys.

The large room on the left when facing the house was used by Glenhow for both assemblies and classes. It was here that Mr. Hardisty, no longer in his teacher’s gown, but in battledress, said goodbye tom us. Here too we were told of the sinking of H.M.S., Hood. A friend of mine, Pick, who was from Northallerton, and I used to draw pictures of warships together. The piano at which Mr. Sykes exercised his considerable musical skill was also in this room. At prayers the hymn book ‘Songs of Praise’ was the one which was in use, it had a blue binding. It had some fine tunes – “A Londonderry Air” (always then so called) and “Ton y Botel”. We also sang “The Battler Hymn of the Republic”, though not to the “John Brown’s Body” melody. When told that the Germans used one of our tunes for their national anthem, our reaction was to act this out with goose-stepping and raised arms at the first available opportunity.

It was here that the choir was taught a range of descant parts for the hymn tunes and numbers from Gilbert and Sullivan operas, Handel’s “Let the Bright Seraphim”, “The Keeper”, “The Minstrel Boy”, The Land o’ the Leal” and “Nymphs and Shepherds”, the last of these always caused a schoolboy laugh. As well as leading us to make our own entertainment in this room, the school staff entertained us with Gilbert and Sullivan excerpts, sketches and charades. In the final mime for the word “Singapore”, Mr. Sykes gave an awe-inspiring performance, crouched on his haunches as a Japanese soldier.

Still on the left of the hallway, there was the passageway that led to Mr. Sykes’ study. It was here that we were lined up before meals, just below the stairs. Next there was the dining room, also used for lessons. Our food included lumpy porridge, toad-in-the-hole, vegetables (ugh!) and ‘frogspawn’ – our name for sago (milk) pudding. We never starved, however, and Mrs. Sykes must have cut our coupons from our ration books in her sleep.

For one lesson in this room a big blackboard had been set up and Mr. Sykes began to draw a big circle with big unwieldy compasses. The rubber disc which kept them in position lost its grip and a titter ran through the class. Thereupon “P.H.S.” as we called him, made up the following chant and began to conduct us all in a performance of it:-
“It’s one of the jokes of the year, when the blackboard compasses slip.”
To the right of the entrance looking towards the hall was the third somewhat smaller room for the junior classes. Oddly, though I was among these, I have no recollection relating to it. Next on the right there was a passage with a long coat rack high up on the wall. This led up to the kitchen, normally out of bounds, but in which I had meals with Margaret Grinyer, a young teacher from Lancing, Sussex, and the Sykeses and some others during the time when I had to stay during the holiday.

The junior dormitory was on the left at the top of the stairs above the dining room/classroom and looking out over the garden. The cubicles where the older boys and some of the staff then slept were out in the garden, but the exact relationship to the main building is a puzzle to me.

When we were taken for walks a teacher would call “Macs, caps and respirators!”, which was repeated from one child to another down the line. The gas masks hung over our shoulders on lengths of string or tape. Most of us also had water resistant fabric covers that were a mark of comparative wealth of our parents. We were then assembled in the forecourt and formed into a ‘crocodile’ and marched out through the gate. The teachers always avoided the main road as far as possible. There was the bottom road north up the valley. The top road went uphill opposite the hall and along the valley side, at least in part over open ground. After rain, or in it, water lay sometimes inches deep over the grass.

At Nentsberry there was the mine where there were two doors in the hillside. Under the nearer one, water and a tram track came out and then went over the road. We put our eyes to a crack in this door and could see a short distance into the tunnel. There were also some old buildings and an overshot waterwheel with its launder (a high-level water channel).

I never went on the longest walk of all – the relief expedition to Alston in January or February 1941. Because of a weak heart I stayed at Nent Hall with a few others. Everyone else trudged through the deep snow over the shoulder of the hill into Alston and returned laden with supplies.

As our evacuation was a private arrangement, pupils normally returned home for the holidays. My parents, however, fearing for my safety, arranged for me to stay at Nent Hall for the Christmas holiday of 1940-41. Margaret Grinyer, who was also marooned, befriended me.

It was late March or early April 1942 when I went home at last. Even to a nine-year old boy, the main road south to Nenthead in early spring following a hard winter was a revelation. We had never walked that way. The bus continued over Killhope summit to Wearhead, the railhead. At that time the Weardale branch line was worked by steam railcars – a large, self-propelled carriage. These could be driven from either end and were unusual in having open-plan passenger accommodation with tilting seat backs. We had the railcar to ourselves and soon set about moving the very heavy seat backs to and fro. At first the guard told us off, but then created a diversion by letting some off the older boys into the driving cab, suitably supervised. On reaching Darlington, my father met me on the platform at Bank Top.

There are two questions I would like to ask readers of this article:-

First; was there an electricity power line available at Nent Hall in 1940? I can recall candles and lamps being in use during our time there, but do not think that this was a permanent state of affairs. Whether my memory of black and white silent films shown to Glenhow was during its stay at Nent Hall would depend on the answer to this question.

Secondly; when did Glenhow leave Nent Hall? I have established dates for Glenhow’s wanderings by relating my strongest memories to well known events of the period. (Withdrawal from Dunkirk – 4 June 1940; H.M.S. Hood sunk 24 May 1941; surrender of Singapore – 15 February 1942.) On this basis Glenhow would have left to go to Helmsley, Yorkshire, in late March or early April 1942.

Can anyone confirm this
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Alston Moor Historical Society was founded in 1973 and, due to the nature of Alston Moor, it is a member of both the Northumberland Association of Local History Societies and the Cumbria Federation of Local History Societies.
Alston Moor Historical Society
Alston Moor, Cumbria
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