My last post was about my first visit to a museum and park in Sunderland, this one’s about what I feared might be my last visit to High Spen, a former mining village which means a lot to me. My family have been associated with High Spen since the 1910s when my paternal grandparents, Nicholas Pears and Susannah Axford, moved there as teenagers with their families. The association continued over the years, and when I came along in 1945, I had, literally, dozens of relatives living at High Spen. I only lived there myself until 1949, but I continued to spend a lot of time there staying with my grandparents at weekends and during holidays, and later visiting relatives. Over the decades since then the number of relatives there has declined sharply as the elderly died off and the younger ones moved away, and by the 1990s there were just two of my father’s cousins, May and Edna with their husbands, Harry and Ronnie, left in the village. Harry died in 2000 and May in 2008, leaving just Edna and Ronnie. Finally, a few weeks ago, Edna and Ronnie left the village and moved to Prudhoe.
My wife and I visited Edna and Ronnie a few days before they moved, and as we walked down what had been “The Old Row” – now merely a footpath through a field – I was in a really nostalgic mood. Memories flooded back of my idyllic childhood days in the village. We passed the site of the colliery stables where I spent many happy hours watching my grandfather tending the ponies, we passed the site of the old pit heap, where I played cowboys and indians with my friends. Spent cartridges which littered the place – this had been the Home Guard shooting range – added a touch of realism to our games.
As we approached Front Street, the large old Co-op building caught my eye. This had been a branch of the Blaydon Co-op Society and was typical of the genre – downstairs Butchers, Drapery and Grocery departments stood side by side while upstairs were the Reading Rooms and the all-purpose “Store Hall”. My mother worked at that store for a while and I well remember shopping there. Our Blaydon store number was 13118, a number etched indelibly into memory. My father told me that when he was a youngster the Store Hall was a cinema called the Picturedrome, but I remember it as the social centre of the village where all sorts of events took place from wedding receptions to socials, shows and dances.
As I thought of the Store Hall I realised that one of my earliest proper memories of High Spen was of an event in that hall. I can remember lots of things which must have occurred earlier, but they are just unordered snippets without any narrative. My first substantial High Spen memories are of two events in 1953: First, watching the present Queen’s coronation on a television in the home of Mr and Mrs Woods, who were neighbours of my grandparents in Watson Street, and, secondly, winning second prize in a domino drive in the Store Hall. I won a pressed glass fruit set which was still in my possession. I well remember that occasion because of the way I was treated. In the early stages of the competition everyone was patting me on the back when I won a game – in the later stages people were openly hostile: “kids shouldn’t be allowed to play” “bloody kids” etc. This verbal aggression made me even more determined to win, and despite being only seven, I nearly did it. Though I attended many more events of various sorts in the Store Hall, somehow I never got to play dominoes there again. I kid myself that they were scared I would beat them, but it’s much more likely that my grandparents were shielding me from the unpleasant individuals who took part in those competitions.
Since the Co-op closed circa 1970 the building had been used by a variety of businesses and there’d been no public access. But as I got closer to the Co-op that afternoon, I noticed that one of the double doors leading up to the former Store Hall was wide open, and a sign advertised “Jake’s Guitars” on the first floor. Feeling as I did that day, I just couldn’t resist having a look upstairs. The wide, steep staircase and handrails struck a chord immediately. They were so familiar, as was the “box office” at the top of the stairs, though it’s now a loo. I was quite surprised, I hadn’t been up there for 55 years or so, but I remembered it vividly – doubtless because I’d been up there so many times back then. I entered what had been the hall itself hoping to see something I recognised, but I was disappointed. Breeze block walls divided the space into separate business units, and nothing of the original features could be seen. At least I’d seen some things I remembered from so long ago.
We visited my relatives and then made our way to the bus stop. Was this really the last time I’d visit this wonderful little village which played such an important part in my life?
PS When I got home I took out the fruit set, and realised it was just taking up space and would probably end up in a skip when we died, so I washed it, photographed it and gave it to a local charity shop.
PPS As I tidied up this post a Facebook message notification popped onto the screen. Incredibly it was an invitation – to High Spen. It was from a young couple – my second cousin once removed and her partner – who’d recently set up home together. I didn’t know they’d settled at Spen as her branch of the family left the village back in the 1950s, but I’m delighted that they have. It just didn’t seem right not to have a family link to High Spen. And of course we’ll be going to the party – they’re family – and they live at High Spen.