In 2015, members of the AONB recorded an interview with Les and Doris Coulson, now in their 90s, who live at Spartywell Farm near Ninebanks in the West Allen Valley. During the interview, Les talks about the now restored Hearse House near Ninebanks Church, the hearse, the horse that pulled it, and whose coffins it carried. He also talks a little about his childhood, his family, and others who lived in the West Allen Valley, with an exceptional memory for places and names.
The unedited recording is available. Please use the contact form on this website to ask for a copy.
Summary: Interview with Les & Doris Coulson, Spartywell Farm, West Allen Valley.
Time start 9:15
5:00 – The last time the hearse was used was in 1931/32 for Wilkie Armstrong from High Greenley Cleugh. Les’s father owned the hearse’s horse.
6:00 – No picture of hearse exists now. In 1936, Les got his first motor car. Mr Harden took a cottage in 1929 and kept his car in Les’ garage until Les needed it for his own car. So Mr Harden used the Hearse House from then on to keep his car in. He rented it until ’59. He repaired the door.
7:30 – The Hearse House’s small room was used to keep oil for the church; there was no electricity until 1956. Harry Martin filled the lamps for the church.
8:00 – Detail of how hearse was used – they took the coffins straight across the school playground to the Church.
8:30 – The hearse was covered; just a box on wheels.
9:00 – A joiner from the joiners’ shop in Ninebanks bought the hearse, or the Church gave it to him. He broke it up and made Les a ladder from the hearse’s wheel spokes – they were made of hickory wood.
10:00 – Bodies were not kept in the Hearse House; the hearse took them straight to churchyard the morning of the funeral. The hearse was kept in the larger side of the Hearse House.
10:00 – William Coulson was Les’s father. His grandfather lived [at South Chairheads Farm – ed.] And Les’ father’s horse that pulled the hearse was called Bonnie, a Clydesdale. Later she went lame.
11:20 – Herbert Potts’ was the last coffin that the horse pulled. He lived at Greenley Cleugh. He was killed on his motorbike on New Year’s Eve. He set off from the bonfire [at Allendale – ed.] with Norman Reed to go to the Carts Bog Inn, to ‘first foot’. They came off their bikes one after the other; Herbie was killed. But he was not taken in Isaac’s hearse: his wish was to be taken to the Church on an old open coop cart, with iron wheels -‘the cart limos’ as they called them. After that Lance Fairlam [probably Lance Bell? ed.], the undertaker, took the coffins in the car.
14:20 – Mr Harden gave up the Hearse House for his car in ‘59. He had always spent his school holidays at Bog Head. Les tells how one morning he ‘bashed’ his wife with a hatchet; he killed her. He came to the door with his wrists covered in blood when a neighbour called round. He ended up at The Garlands in Carlisle. He lived at Heaton, previously. His son and daughter kept Bog Head for a while after that.
16:00 – Then Doris’s brother took the Hearse House; he stayed there for holidays.
– Les talks about the loss of their only son, Derek, who died two years ago.
18:20 – Many people thought the Hearse House belonged to the vicarage, but it didn’t. Isaac Holden built it for the community.
– Reference to the history of valley written by Rev. Donnelly – vicar at Whitfield, published in ‘60s
20:30 – Mr Harden at Bog Head paid rent to the church for the Hearse House.
21:08 – The Vicarage was sold in 58/59 and the people that bought it thought the Hearse House belonged to them. They filled it with engineering equipment, used it for storage, and left it in there when they moved away. Les cleared it and stored it – but they never came to collect any of it.
21:50 – Kathleen Rumney used to live in what was the school, with her two sons. One became a fireman at Whitley Bay; the other was in Hexham. She also filled the Hearse House with stuff – she kept a motorbike where the oil used to be kept for church. Someone then emptied out the Hearse House again.
23:15 – The land belongs to Corryhill (not a farm now; the house was sold and the land let.)
23:30 – The school caretaker lived in the middle house at the school when Les was at school. He would collect branches blown down and used the lay-by alongside the Hearse House as a wood store. The lay-by was fenced off then from roadside, but the fence went into disrepair. He used the wood for the two school fires. There was also a fence around the Hearse House.
– Discussion of cost of taking down the tree growing into the Hearse House; Les suggests £800? Mr Braybrook [from Corryhill – ed.] wants the wood from the tree.
– Another story: about 12.00 one night, Les and Doris heard a loud bang. Les thought it was the chimney stack coming down – but it was a car that had landed in their back garden [below the level of the road alongside – ed.]. And the car was coming up the bank, not going down. But when Les called out, there was nobody there. Then Ian Ritson ‘phoned – ‘my car’s in your garden.’ He said he didn’t call out as he didn’t want to wake them! Les had to take the wall down to get the car out. – it had jumped the wall, but missed the roadside warning posts and Les and Doris’ planters (which are old chimney pots).
29:40 – There was a 10ft gate at the Hearse House. Someone from Mohope kept hens there. The gate gave access to the field behind, and the track up to Corryhill, for their horse and trap. Another track comes out at ‘The Duck Field’.
– ‘Star Bob’ lived at Corryhill, but this was before Les’ time. He used to deliver groceries from the co-op at Whitfield by horse and flat cart. Every order was wrapped in a brown paper parcel. No bags then.
32:00 – Fiona talks about Isaac Holden – the research done. The Hearse House is part of his story and the history of Ninebanks.
33:15 – Les’s suggestion is to pull the Hearse House down, and salvage the roof tiles, then use the area for a car park for the Church. He feels they are just a bit too late to find more information about it. Locals have gone and the valley is now full of incomers.
– Kathleen [owns nearby farm – ed.] drives the Newcastle service bus. Les tells how she once stopped the bus, leaving passengers waiting, to go across the fields and stand up an overturned sheep she had spotted from the road. She was reported by a passenger objecting at being kept waiting.
37:00 – Water is now collecting at the back of the Hearse House. There used to be a big trough in the wall on the corner, where the wall has now fallen down [opposite old entrance to the school playground – ed.]. This trough was originally used by school children. It had a chain and a cup – they used it before the school had plumbed water.
– General discussion of lack of drainage along the local road; floods. Les saw men filling potholes on wettest day, a waste of time. Roads not well maintained in the valley due to a lack of money.
43:15 – There was no special horse harness for Bonnie; just a farm harness. Probably the original and only hearse was the plain one, with a box on the back. Before that they just used a horse and cart. Isaac’s hearse was used until Lance Farlam [undertaker – ed.] used a car.
44:00 – Wilkie Armstrong was the last person to be carried in the hearse. He is buried next to the little wicket gate onto Chapel Hill, in the Churchyard.
45:00 – Les used to dig graves with Harry Martin and Willie Armstrong. They dug this one in the dark with a candle. They had to get measurements then from the undertakers and make the grave fit the shape of the coffin. Some coffins had been known to get stuck half way down.
– Henry, Wilkie Armstrong’s brother, was buried alongside him; he had his place saved there.
47:00 – The joiner made a ladder from the spokes of the hearse’s wheels. Les hasn’t got it anymore. The spokes were made of hickory.
– Les thinks the joiner was a conscientious objector, just before the war. He lived up the Ward Way. Les & Doris used to live at Clint Hill when they first married, and took tea up to him. Then the joiner lived at Low Hartley Cleugh, then Lane View. In 1954-5, when Les had an Austin 10 car, he moved the joiner to Humbleton Cottage – he had to drive over two fields in the dark. Now the cottage has a road to it.
48:00 – Common, the joiner, ended up at the sawmill in Langley and died in the ‘70s.
– Robert used to run the sawmill; now Peter Dodd has it. Les knew Robert’s father; he bought posts off him at Langley. Before then he had a little place near Allen Mills, through two big double doors. He died recently. Robert might move back there and work from there.
– Talk of Les and Doris’ great grandchildren.
55:00 – Discussion of the Hearse House’s refurbishment. Les says they will need to mend the roof soon. It’s a waste of good slates as they drop through hole in the roof. Les is told they will put the building back the same as it is now. They will also clear the recess alongside and level it. They will fell some trees there. There is a large Ash tree, as well as the one that’s growing into the building. Their roots cause damage.
58:00 – Les asks if anyone knows where the ‘10 commandments’ come from that are in the Hearse House? [This is a list of the 10 Commandments painted on a board? – ed.] Les thinks they come from Corryhill Chapel. The Chapel used to be held every Sunday afternoon. It was sold – a builder from Allendale took the roof down to one level. He left the Chapel for the Armstrongs [lived at Far Pasture Cottage next door – ed.] for storage, for a garage. The next people at Far Pasture, the Bartons, sold it.
– Les explains the planners wouldn’t let them put a ridge roof on Corryhill Chapel. There were also steps up to it from the front, off the road.
1:00:00 – Generally discuss Methodism in the valley. Les recalls a lot of the chapels – e.g. Shield Ridge, Whitely Shield, Limestone Brae, Corryhill, High House up Leadgate Bank. At Middle was Hesleywell Chapel. Also mention Mohope Chapel. Local preachers came up every Sunday, to preach at the different chapels. Shield from Allenheads had a charabanc. He delivered the preachers, and then waited at Spartywell. He would sit and sleep! They had to wake him up to go to collect the preachers to take them back home.
– Spartywell dates from 1500s.
1:04:00 –Discuss the AONB in Allen Valleys, with the office at the Village Hall in Allendale. Les is told about the current projects and the buildings involved. Les asks about the Mohope mine – but work here is not currently funded.
– Les agrees that without incomers, many buildings would have remained derelict – such as Bates Hill Barn. Two old houses have been let go up there [up Ward Way – ed.] – one belongs to Kathleen [see Part 3, above; owns nearby farm – ed.]
– Les asks is anything has been done about the Tower at Ninebanks? It was built to fight border reivers. Les used to go into it on the way to school.
– How Les and Doris met. They were married in 1947. Les was two hours late – he had to travel through a snowstorm and the car broke down at Hexham.