Postwar Decade

Photograph by Daisy Eggleston showing the two new semis next to the cottages. Canteen and Mission still standing but shortly to be demolished

In 1948 we (the Bewicks) moved up to the top house, as my dad was appointed Water Superintendent. For us, this meant a real bathroom, flush toilet and guardians of the paraffin tank, and the telephone. Paraffin was still needed by Fontburn and the outlying community to keep the lamps lit. We learnt how to take messages on the telephone, but were not allowed to make calls. For that we still had to use the red phone box at Ewesley. But change was afoot.

Dad told the story – true story - of showing the new Tynemouth boss around the Waterworks, and as they were returning towards the dam in his car he asked what the trench was that scarred the hillside west of the cottages. When he learnt that toilet buckets and earth disposal were still in use, he was horrified. Very soon changes began, to install hot water systems and proper sanitation, including bathrooms, into the existing cottages and big house. A pair of modern semis was added to the row at the eastern end, for increased staffing. In the general tidy-up, all vestiges of the old huts were removed – Sandsby’s, the Canteen and the Mission. Alongside these improvements, electricity was brought in to the hamlet, to transform still further. But our role of guardian of the paraffin remained, as the farms were not as yet on the National Grid. However, Fontburn was at last beginning to catch up with the rest of civilisation.

The 1949 drought put Fontburn in the news with reservoir levels seriously low.



The 1949 drought, headlines in the Newcastle Journal

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Sadly, some of the established families moved out. Hepburns had already gone, and the McLennans and the Egglestons moved to East Hartford and Pigdon respectively, still working for Tynemouth, but on the pipe-line system. We missed them very much, even though their replacements were lovely people. It seemed as if the old close community was disintegrating.

When the school was closed in 1951, a watershed was marked. It had symbolised community and had been there and functioning from the very beginning. Now, children were bussed into Rothbury or sent to Bellingham Camp School. The school hadn’t been just a school. It had been a social centre, especially for whist drives, which were one of the few communal activities open to us. Now it was over.

My own life took a turn when I began school at Morpeth in 1948. In winter I left home in the dark and got home in the dark, a 12 hour day, relying on the train. By now the original station buildings had been taken down, and replaced by a minute shelter something akin to a hen hut.


The "Hen Hut" that replaced the original station.
Photo courtesy of Plateway Press

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For five years this hut became my refuge as I waited in the dark with my torch for my train to arrive. I parked my bike in what had been the old communal toilets in the hutted days (still there today), after or before pedalling my way across the dam. My daily travel to Morpeth was something of a bonus to everyone, as I could be used as a courier for shopping and other errands. One of my own special bonuses was that I could visit Morpeth public library, and so for the first time in my life I had access to unlimited books. Not unlimited were sweets, still on ration, but it was still thrilling to be able to make spontaneous purchases of these or apples for the family. I carried food for tea with me, to eat at school and did some homework before I left to catch the 5.50pm train home.

I was not alone, as boys and girls from West Woodburn travelled down on the Wannie Line, to change at Scots Gap and join me already settled in a carriage. In the beginning we had old-style carriages, but these were replaced by corridor-style design which was quite exciting for us, adding to the sort of adventures that we all got up to.

This life came to an end when the rail line was closed to passenger traffic in 1952. We were offered alternative travel arrangements, that made my own daily journeys even more tortuous. By then we had acquired a car, a Morris 12, known to us as Bessie. Bessie took me to the Longhorsley cross roads, where I shivered in wait for Tait’s bus, Knowesgate to Morpeth via Netherwitton. At the end of the day I caught a different bus, Morpeth to Cambo, where I disembarked at Scots Gap and waited for a Fenwick Rutherford taxi to take me home. There always seemed to be a lot of hanging around and I often felt almost too tired to do my homework, by the time I got home.

We had a very limited bus service on Saturdays, that could be caught at the main road, beyond Roughlees, or up near Ritton. Thus it became possible to go to the pictures in Morpeth, but the thought of the hike involved and of the drunks on the late bus (according to some, including the driver) was a deterrent to a timid 16 year old like me. There was also for a short time a bus on Tuesdays that ran from Rothbury to Hexham. This did not seem to us to be particularly useful, but was one way to get over to Scots Gap to visit my new friends.

Most people have happy memories of the Queen’s Coronation in 1953 – a street party, perhaps, or gathering round someone’s TV, a novelty in itself. Not so for us. The powers that be laid on a bus to take us to Rothbury, where we could join in with celebrations. But for that you needed to have friends and extended family. It didn’t work for us. We were glad to get home again at the end of the day.

My mother had become very unsettled as gradually her oldest friends had left the district, the school had closed, and then the train service had stopped. She told me later that it felt as if her life-lines had been cut. We were the last remaining of the old Fontburn families that had lived so closely together through the tough times of the ’30s and ’40s. It was only a matter of time before we, too, moved on.

I have visited Fontburn faithfully, but irregularly, over the intervening 50 years. Did the old sense of ‘community’ revive, with new families pulling together around a common bond? I am not the person to say, but it was with great pleasure that I learnt of the existence of the Fontburn Residents’ Association on one of my visits, in 2003. And I have noticed a children’s playground next to the cottages.


The children's playground. Old brick building behind probably the old communal toilet, where I parked my bike when catching train to school. Line of trees marks the former railway line

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I also know that many of the families living there are not Northumbrian Water employees, but work elsewhere, or perhaps on the fishery side. Fontburn has become a Mecca for fishermen. There is a Fishing Lodge where the old boat house-cum-garage, previously the stables, used to stand.

Living History

  • Simonside Hills

  • Reservoir bringing water to Tynemouth

  • Picnic table a modern move to cater for today's fishermen and tourists

  • Click on picture for larger view

    When I took my Dad to see it all, shortly before he died, he could not believe the changes.

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