BLOG NO.5 – IF YOU’D LIKE TO READ BLOG NO.4 FIRST, CLICK HERE
…well, that’s how I would have said ‘I’m from Stanley, County Durham’ once upon a time, in my youth. My acting training knocked the accent out of me…although my dad, when he was alive, wouldn’t have allowed myself, or any of my much older seven siblings, using Geordie or Pitmatic dialect words.
I was actually born at Blackhill Hospital, Consett (1957), which is 6 miles west of Stanley; a town once home to the Consett Iron Works. It’s another subject I’ve written a song about (I Used To Paint This Town Red – Part 5). The majority of the jobs in the area would have been at the Iron Works or at one of the many collieries; although, even by the late-1950s, the mines were on the decline. (Blue text are links that will either open in another blog page in a new browser window, or take you to SoundCloud where a track can be played.)
Stanley was once a thriving mining town, which would have been at its height in the 1930s, like most of County Durham and Northumberland. It really started to grow from a small hamlet to the northeast of the current town – hence why West Stanley School and West Stanley colliery were on the east side of the current town – from the mid- to late-19th century, when Lord Joicey (a Shield Row man) began sinking the deep shafts. My song Stanley’s Dawn (Part 2) tells of this growth. There had been plenty of mining going on before his time, but they weren’t reaching the deeper seams. (Stanley Front Street in the 1890s pictured above.)
My dad – John or Jack Wilson – born 1909, would have seen a very different Stanley to the one even I saw. Luckily for him, he wasn’t born any earlier and worked in the West Stanley (Burns) pit, which had a terrible disaster the same year as his birth, with the loss of 168 men and boys and countless pit ponies. My song, And Far Beneath Them (Part 3) is about this awful event. (The survivors from the Tilley Seam pictured below.)
When I was a boy in the 1960s, I witnessed most of the mines in the area closing, usually because the coal seams had been depleted, but sometimes because it had become too costly to extract it. What it did mean is we were left with wonderful – if extremely dangerous in places! – playgrounds, from the old buildings to the pit heaps. Of course, these weren’t our only playgrounds, as we were surrounded by stunning countryside and woodland. It’s strange that one of our favourite play areas, along the length of the Beamish Burn (burn=stream), is now the site of the Beamish Open Air Museum; a museum dedicated to the region’s industrial past. (Entrance pictured below.)
My dad – who had been a miner, but then worked and the Ransome & Marles ballbearing factory – died just before my seventh birthday at the age of 53, and when I was nine we moved from South Stanley to the north-side of the 800 feet high hill, to Shield Row; a place named after the shepherds’ ‘shields’, or protective huts, at a area called Beamish South Moor. (It still is, though most won’t know it.) Not to be confused with South Moor on the southwest side of Stanley. I’ve written a song set in the mid-18th century that uses a fictional love story between a shepherd and shepherdess to relate this. (The Shepherds’ Shields Row – Part 1)
I wrote my first ‘mining ballad’ at the age of 15. Or, rather, I composed my first tune. I set to music my school mate, David Hodgson’s poem Family Footstep, which appears in Part 3 as That Shaded Way. It wasn’t until I’d moved to London at the age of 17 to perform with the National Youth Theatre and pursue an acting career, that I started to write my own. Most of these appear in Parts 3 and 4: Through A Tear, The Colliery Infantry Corps, The Summer Of ’65, The Son Of A Miner, Don’t Send Your Son Down The Pit, Over The Fields On A Sunday Afternoon, Without Her Man, Oh For A Saturday Night, Half A Mile Down And Three Miles Out, When You’ve Worked Down A Pit and In The County Of Durham. Many of these songs I used to sing with my two nephew brothers, Dave and Alan (‘Titchy’) Calvert when I was visiting home; both are several years older than me. (My mother – me mam – Edith Wilson, didn’t have me, the last of eight, until she was 45…BIG surprise!) Alan was the last miner of the family at the time, until a pit accident at Monkwearmouth Colliery forced him to stop mining. He was also known in the region for his fighting abilities, and I recently wrote an American Wild West style song about him called The Shield Row Kid (Part 4). His brother, Dave, was more into art and writing, and has now had several books and articles published. He also has his own blog on the subject of the paranormal.
I may have left Stanley at the age of 17 and lived and worked in various parts of the world whilst on films and television programmes, but my heart still remains in the Northeast – as does most of my huge extended family – even though I have now lived away from the region for almost three-quarters of my life and in Shropshire for over 30 years. Being unable to travel now makes the missing even greater, knowing that I may never get to see it again – and I yearn to be able to walk on the beach at Bamburgh, Northumberland (pictured below) – so, instead, I visit it in music…that and photos, oh, and Google Street View. Thank you technology!
Blog No. 6 will cover the last 4 tracks of Part 1.
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Beamish: A view of ‘Tiny Tim’ the steam hammer at the Beamish Museum entrance. Beamish Museum, County Durham, England. This is the south (arrival) side of the entrance arch of the site. This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.