Allendale—valley of the shining water

Handcoloured map of Allendale, 1865This area of the North Pennines lies 800 feet above sea level and has been designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The principal settlement in the dale is Allendale Town. Variously Alwenton and Allenton in its past, is is a village of some 1,500 inhabitants lying on a bridging point in the East Allen Valley. 

View a video: Allendale and the River

The River Allen is thought to be derived from Alwent—the Saxon for shining water. A plaque on the church testifies to Allendale's claim to be at the geographical heart of Great Britain, and it is said a small cottage (now ruined) in the valley just above the village is built on the exact coordinates.

Click here for a detailed local map.

Farming and lead mining

Allendale lead flueOriginally a market town serving a farming area, Allendale expanded in the nineteenth century as a lead mining centre. The mineral was mined at Allenheads, and other locations in the dale, and smelted at Allen Mill.

Great flues were constructed underground which directed fumes to chimneys miles away on the fell top. This was so that lead, which solidified on the walls of the flues as the fumes cooled, could be scraped off and collected.

In the early twentieth century these flues and tunnels were used by local children (including Ivy and Basil Fairlamb) who played on old bogey carts before the rail tracks were removed. By the 1950s this had become a more dangerous pastime as collapses became more frequent.

Gradually the architecture of the lead industry assumed a more romantic and dilapidated air, reclaimed by ivy, willowherb and heather. The chimneys themselves gradually collapsed until, in the 1990s, the more intact of the two chimneys was restored following a severe lightning strike.

GraphThe population of the dale fell sharply at the end of the nineteenth century as the lead mining industry declined. View the graph of Allendale's population between 1800 and 2000.

John William Hall (b.1842) wrote a memoir in the late 1920s about his early life at High Studdon in Allendale(1). Here he describes the life of an Allendale lead miner.

The length of the Dale is about ten miles (from Allenheads on the south to Catton on the north) and at that time it was thickly populated—quite unlike the present time. Lead mining was extensive, and very prosperous, and houses were scattered everywhere. High Studdon had three mining families, Low Studdon six, West Studdon two, Scotch Hall ten families, [and] Sinderhope [had] eighteen families.

Working four days a week, or even only three, a miner was an old man at fifty: the work was so unhealthy. So, his little farm occupied him the remaining time. The miners stood in water up to their knees, more often than not, and the mines were ill-ventilated. A complaint of the breathing was very common. Boys began at the age of ten to wash the ore outside the mine.

The miners would keep two or three cows on their land and usually each family had a fell pony. Every family, in April or May, cut peats on the fell—each about 18 inches long and 4 inches thick—enough for about fifty cartloads. They were left to dry and in July, August or September the men would lead them home and pack them in large stacks. Coals were little known in the district in the early days, so the miners had considerable occupation in leading twelve months supply. They were allowed to cut their peats for nothing on the moors, and these ponies of theirs were often called 'peat leaders'.

The miners were distinctly religious and betting and gambling were unknown. Several fairs were held through the year and these were a great opportunity for friendly greetings; also for a display of horsemanship. With these spirited Galloways, or mountain ponies, there was furious riding and all manner of sports. As these ponies lived on the fells and went in droves, it was not uncommon to borrow—without leave—a neighbour’s horse and ride off to the fair before the rightful owner had reached the fell. Mountebanks and all manner of sights could be met with and a good deal of treating and drinking was everywhere apparent. Today these fairs are things of the past. At Christmas they had much feasting and had 'toffee joins' at each other’s houses. Toffee was made from, say, one stone of black treacle and some butter, and when cooked everyone had a share.

Country retreat

Town bridge, AllendaleIn the twentieth century Allendale became popular as a tourist destination for visitors from the expanding urban region of Tyneside.  

Arrival was on the single track railway line which ran from Hexham, via Studdon, before the engine was turned around to make the return trip.

Allendale Station itself was a good mile outside the village and throughout the early years of the last century the yard was busy with six to eight horsedrawn vehicles vying to carry people along the Station Road into Allendale.

Ivy Fairlamb remembers traps, a landau, and Mr. Shield's 'brake (which carried a lot of people), alongside other carriages waiting to meet the Hexham train.

Given its reputation as a picturesque tourist destination Allendale developed more than its fair share of pubs and hotels, most situated around the large market square. Some still remain despite the fall in the tourist trade from the Sixties onwards.

New Year's Eve

New Year's Eve 2000/1Allendale is perhaps most famous for its Tar Barl ceremony. Each New Year's Eve a procession of flaming tar barrels and a big bonfire are held in the town square to celebrate.

View a video: Tar Barrels & Fire 2000/01

The origins of the procession around the village, culminating in the barrels being thrown on a bonfire just before midnight, is unclear.

Folklore suggests it goes back centuries and is connected with pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. Other evidence suggests while the fire might be a longer tradition, the tar barrels themselves are a more recent fixture.

The history of Allendale tar barls ceremony has always been shrouded in mystery, or fantasy, with one enthusiastic Tynedale publicist once advertising it as the Baal Fire Ceremony! In fact, the reverse is true, for rather than being linked to Baal, the ancient Phoenician sun god also known as Beelzebub, it seems that the ceremony was started by the Methodists.

The newsletter says that in 1858, some men of Allendale singing en route to a watch night service at the Methodist Chapel found the tallow candles used for lighting their music kept blowing out in the high wind.

It was then suggested that a tar barl might be set alight as a means of illumination for the music. Tar barrels could be easily found, for Allendale was surrounded by farms, where tar was used in sheep dipping.

from the Hexham Courant

St Cuthbert's Church

St Cuthbert's churchA church has stood on the site since at least 1174. Orginally the dedication was The Church of Our Lady but at some point the dedication was changed to St Cuthbert's.

The present structure dates only from 1873 when the previous church, built in 1807, was pulled down.

Generations of Fairlamb family events have been celebrated at St Cuthbert's, and the family has long had a tradition of serving in a lay capacity as churchwardens and bellringers.

The Fairlambs of the late eighteenth and nineteenth century were often joiners. They secured the contract to supply much of the woodwork seen inside the present church.

The parish church of St. Cuthbert, which was rebuilt in 1807, is to be replaced in 1873 by a handsome structure; it will be in the Geometrical Pointed style, and consist of nave, aisles, and chancel, and north and south chancel aisles, and will contain a beautiful font, to be presented by Mrs. George Arnison in memory of an infant son.

The designs for the erection of the edifice are by Messrs. Austin and Johnson, of Newcastle; the contractors for the masonry, Peter Laing and Sons; and for the woodwork, the Messrs. Fairlamb, of Allendale: the cost of the building is to be about £1,500, collected by the present rector.

The register dates from the year 1662. The living is a rectory, yearly value £300, in the gift of the lord of the manor, and held by the Rev. Titus Emerson, of University College, Durham.

Kelly's Directory of Northumberland and Durham (1873), p. 484

The fallen of the Great War

Click here to learn more about the men who died in the Great War and are commemorated on Allendale lych gate.

The Allendale dialect

Allendale had its own distinctive dialect which is disappearing due to the social changes of the late twentieth century.

Listen to Basil Fairlamb (b.1907) talk about an exhibition of side-saddle riding at Allendale Agricultural Show (recorded 1980).

Follow this link to listen to George Sparks (b.1898) talk about the merging of mineworkers smallholdings into farms such as Byerhope (recorded 1955). The British Museum, through the Collect Britain website, has made a range of northern dialect recordings available online.

John Wesley & Methodism

John WesleyLocal folklore has it that Wesley preached in a glade down the Dene, close to where the Philipburn and the Allen meet.

Methodism secured a place in the Allen valley in 1823. One day two strangers appeared in Allenheads, and began to sing about being soldiers of Christ.

The young men employed in washing lead ore rushed from their work to hear the strange men, and many of the mothers, thinking the newcomers were recruiting sergeants, whose object was to get their sons enlisted into the King's Army, with more force than politeness ordered the strangers to be ‘off about their business’.

Friday 29 July 1748

At noon I went to the Cross in Allandale town, where Mr. Topping, with a company of the better sort, waited for us. I soon found it was but a vain attempt to dispute or reason with him.

He skipped so from one point to another, that it was not possible to keep up with him: So after a few minutes I removed about an hundred yards, and preached in peace to a very large congregation; it being the general payday, which is but once in six months.

John Wesley

Most Allendale folk, and the Fairlambs, were strong High Anglicans, whom frustrated Methodists referred to as despotic agents of high churchism.

In Allendale Town services were first conducted in a heckler's shop (a branch of business long since extinct), and there the nucleus was formed of what afterwards developed into a numerous society.

As elsewhere, cottages, barns, workshops were the initial homes of the societies in Allendale, later chapels were built in Allendale and elsewhere in the Dale.

There is a story about a local brass band which Mr. Wild tells with enthusiasm. The members of it had decided to go into the street to drown the processionists (Methodists).

The noise produced by the bandsmen and the singers was tremendous, the excitement indescribable; all the people in the little town seemed to be in the street.

In the Contest the band utterly failed, and the processionists sang lustily to the chapel, where a glorious meeting was held. The bandsmen retired to a public-house, with a sense of humiliation, several members declaring that that was their last night in the band.

Northern Primitive Methodism by WM Patterson, E Dalton (London 1909), p171-83

Links & further information

The Keys to the Past website has local history information about Allendale.

Northumberland Communities contains photographs, manuscripts, maps, printed material and sound files associated with Allendale.


(1)The whole memoir can be accessed here (unfortunately I have been unable to contact the site's owner to obtain permission to reproduce the material but hope this link and acknowledgement will suffice).

home | allendale | bishopside | documents | family tree | fenwicks | history | reunion | visuals | 1650 deed