High Spen. Farewell?

Mavis Oldridge and I in granddads allotment.
Cousin Mavis and I in granddads allotment.

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.

Granddad at the Old Row Stables.
Granddad at the Old Row Stables.

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.

Formerly the "Spen Branch" of the Blaydon Co-op Society
Formerly the “Spen Branch” of the Blaydon Co-op Society
Mum (centre) with Pauline Best and Roy Reay in the Co-op Yard.
Mum (centre) with Pauline Best and Roy Reay in the Co-op Yard.

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.

Newspaper report of domino drive, and my prize.
Newspaper report of domino drive, and my prize.

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.

The stairs up to the "Store Hall".
The stairs up to the “Store Hall”.

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.

The former Box Office and the door into what was the Store Hall.
The former Box Office and the door into what was the Store Hall.

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?


Invitation to party at High Spen.
Invitation to party at High Spen.

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.

4 thoughts on “High Spen. Farewell?

  1. As ever Brian you lead me into your world with cleverly crafted words that fire up my imagination transporting me to the places i am so familier with two.
    Brian future generations will thank you for all your hard work I know i do so my children Christopher and Charlotte will know there family and there history.

    Many many thanks Duncan


  2. Thank you for your kind words. I think its important to write down things we remember so that future generations will know a little about their own and their community’s heritage.


  3. I am currently researching the life and times of my family who were butchers in Spen, Rowlands Gill and I believe Chopwell. I’d like to find out what happened to the shops. My dad (born 1904) was trained as a butcher but worked as a grocer in Crawcrook. Why did he not go Into the family business? The last of his siblings died earlier this year. His father, Thomas Cooper went to the Yorks and Lancs in 1915, was wounded in 1917 but not discharged till1919 with a pension for 52 weeks. When he died in1927 his address was Snowden Terrace but on the death certificate dads address was Front Street. Do you know any more. These are the same Coopers your dad wrote about re-the Methodist movement. I’d love you to get in touch with me.


  4. high spen my husband has no interest in family trees. when asked the name of his grandmother he replied granny bell of course. he has turned out to have had the only famous person in the family sir stuart bell. the two great grandfathers were brothers, denis’ grandfather was born incumberland and in 1911 census lived with his parents at51 highspen George bell aged 17.


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