Winter in the high north Pennines can be rough. We currently have about 18 inches of snow here, drifting to about 3-4 feet in places. Main roads are blocked between County Durham and Cumbria. Sheep are being dug out of drifts where they have sheltered by dry stone walls. Roe deer are being driven by hunger to raid the sheep and cattle feed. The river Wear is the only guaranteed source of water for many wild animals, as everything else is frozen solid.
It’s bad.... but it HAS been worse in living memory.
I was talking to Michael, one of the local farmers, the other day. He was born and raised in this area, and has always worked on the land. He was laughing at the news that London and the South were struggling under 10 inches of snow. He pointed to a telegraph pole down the road, which must be 30ft high. He told me it had a mark on it, made by his penknife, with his initials next to it. He cut this line in the wood to mark the snow line “some years ago”, and he told me it is around 18 inches from the top of the pole.... That means the snow was a good 28 foot deep. He drove off on his Quad to feed his sheep and his ponies saying “they don’t know they’re born lass....!”
In times past it really WAS bad here. Perhaps not TOO bad when Michael was a lad, because the presence of telegraph poles indicates some degree of civilisation, but if you delve into the history of the area, you will encounter tales of real hardship.
There was no electricity, no mains water, no gas, no transport other than horse and cart, no work other than mining, walling and farming. It would seem however, that there was more sense of community. The little hamlet called Sidehead, where the sanctuary is situated, once boasted of a team of 21 cricket players. There are only 8 houses.
John Wesley knew this area well – he preached at some of the churches around here – and every family would walk to church on a Sunday, whatever the weather.
Measles, Scarlet Fever and TB were rife. Many died. They couldn’t bury their dead when the snow was 20 feet plus deep, so they would store them in the barn, covered in salt, until they could physically dig a deep enough hole. And they would carry on working, when their kids, wife, granddad, lay there in the byre waiting for springtime..... It must have been so hard.
There must have been fun times too however. For the children at least.
There is a limestone quarry close to my house. A few years ago, my daughter and I walked past it, late one night. We were walking the 2 miles downhill to where we parked the cars, to retrieve a couple of bags of shopping, which would be needed the next day. It was snowing heavily, and drifts of 6 foot deep. A winter wonderland, complete with full moon, making the hillside look even more magical.
As we past the quarry, we heard the sound of kids playing, laughing, shouting.... the thrump of snowballs being thrown in jest..... There was a great game going on in there. But there were no footprints in the snow. Well actually there were footprints – but only rabbit ones – and it certainly wasn’t a rabbit snowball fight. And we were sure that if we had ventured, (or should that be “waded”) into the pristine snowscape that was the quarry, we would have risked getting hit by one of their icy missiles. Kids – even ghost kids – love to play in the snow.
That same winter, a neighbour heard the voices of ghostly miners going to work, past their front door – chatting about the weather, and the bonus they would get for Christmas.
Ghosts.... but nice ones. Like the one who would plait our pony’s mane every night (perhaps he was getting her ready for the annual show?) That old pony has long since died, and the ghost hasn’t bothered with other ponies we have had here. Perhaps that palomino Arab cross was.... special. He still occasionally pops by..... He makes himself known by the smell of his pipe tobacco. Very distinctive – in a house of non-smokers. We call him Old Jack.
Then there is the old cook/cleaner / farmer’s wife, we sometimes see in the kitchen..... the little boy ghost who plays on the stairs, and the tall dark man who’s a tad more mysterious and only comes indoors in bad weather... but their stories are for another day.