Kielder Oral History Report
By: Leona Skelton
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Kielder in Northumberland, England’s remotest village, has its roots in Kielder Forest, Northern Europe’s largest man-made forest. The first houses, in Castle Drive, were constructed in the 1930s next to an existing railway station. They were built to house forestry workers engaged in establishing a national timber reserve after the First World War. In 1932, the government acquired the Kielder estate as payment of the Duke of Northumberland’s death duties. Experimentation with the first plantings began in 1926. Subsequently, the Forestry Commission transformed this primarily sheep-farming area into a commercial forest employing increasing numbers of men and women. Kielder Forest expanded. Planting was boosted by the introduction of tractors and ploughs in the 1940s. From the 1950s, it produced ever larger volumes of timber. Harvesting was mechanized with the introduction of chainsaws in the 1960s and, more recently, highly sophisticated robotic harvesters. The Forestry Commission is still a relatively large employer in the area, but increased mechanisation has drastically reduced the labour needed to plant and harvest the timber. Many villagers now maintain their income through seasonal work and multiple part-time jobs in the tourism industry. Kielder Water, the largest artificial lake in the UK by volume, is managed by Northumbrian Water plc. The lake was created after the Kielder dam was constructed between 1975 and 1981, flooding the valley, and thus changing the landscape as dramatically as planting the forest.
Kielder Water and Forest Park is now marketed as a single destination for tourists by the Kielder Development Trust. It is run by the Forestry Commission, Northumbrian Water, the Calvert Trust (which organises activity holidays for the disabled), and Northumberland County Council. The park is enjoyed by over a quarter of a million tourists who visit it for various recreational purposes each year. In the last decade, many newcomers have moved to Kielder from far afield, largely drawn to the area’s tranquillity and beautiful, albeit artificial, landscape. Many of the original villagers who were employed by the Forestry Commission have moved on, thereby undermining social cohesion and community spirit in the village. Moreover, some village houses are second homes, largely unoccupied throughout the year, and essential services such as the post office, village store and Kielder First School are underused. Thurs, over the course of the twentieth century, Kielder witnessed significant and dramatic environmental changes as it was transformed from a pastoral agricultural landscape, to that of a dense, commercial forest and finally it received the addition of a large manmade lake. Since these changes have taken place in living memory, oral history is an ideal tool to analyse them. Kielder’s twentieth-century story provides a useful, unique and revealing lens through which to deepen our understanding of how dramatic changes in the environment and landscape can impact on the social, economic and cultural histories of local places, and how the inhabitants of those places respond to environmental changes.
Seamless historical map provided by the National Library of Scotland.
The Kielder Oral History Project was conducted in October 2012 as part of a wider, national project on the theme of environmental change, ‘The Places that Speak to us and the Publics we Talk with: Shaping Environmental Histories’, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), and involving researchers from the universities of Bristol, East Anglia, Durham, Nottingham and York. The researcher and coordinator of the Kielder Oral History Project were greatly assisted in preparing the project and setting up the interviews by Northumbrian Water plc, in particular Andrew Moore and Tonia Reeve, the Forestry Commission, especially Graham Gill, the Calvert Trust, Steve and Julie Webb of Kielder Village Store and Post Office and the residents of the Kielder area. Thanks to all concerned.
The researcher asked a range of questions during the interviews regarding: perceptions of the changing environment; social and community life; recreation and the use of Kielder water and forest as a leisure facility; the use of village facilities; interest in local wildlife; perception of the landscape; memories of employment; the construction of the dam; the expansion of the forest; changes in agricultural and forestry working practices; attitudes towards increasing tourism; and efforts to regenerate the local community and economy with the establishment of Kielder Ltd. The main objective of this focused, local case study was to deepen our understanding of how people who are closely connected with the immediate local Kielder area have perceived, understood and experienced their surrounding environment, nature and landscape over the course of the twentieth and early twenty first centuries, and how the dramatic changes in Kielder’s environment have impacted on their lives, past and present. Thirty-six individuals were interviewed. They represent a diverse and representative cross-section of men and women from widely different age groups, long-term residents and relative newcomers, those born in the immediate local and area and those born much further afield, employees of Northumbrian Water, the Forestry Commission and the Calvert Trust, as well as farmers and employees of smaller tourism-based businesses. Several individuals who never lived in Kielder, but have worked there or visited for recreational and professional purposes, were also interviewed. The interviews lasted from three to sixty minutes. Five individuals requested to remain anonymous, but they gave permission for all material recorded to be used, except for their names. The interviews generated a wealth of fascinating insights on the subject of the project. Only some representative examples can be included in this concise report. Further publications, to make fuller use of the interviews, are planned.
Fig. 1: Year of Birth and Gender of the Sample (36)
As figure one shows, the majority of the sample was born between 1931 and 1970, the most common decade being 1941-50. In total, twenty two men and fourteen women were interviewed, a split of 61% and 39% respectively.
The Dichotomous Village
The village, both the original forestry houses on Castle Drive and the newer forestry housing down the hill (see Google map and Street View), known as Butteryhaugh, boasts approximately two hundred residents, a pub and restaurant, post office and grocery store, campsite, tearoom, Youth Hostel, Kielder First School, a library, several commercial workshops, two bicycle hire shops and a self-service petrol station. An infrequent bus service operates a limited service on certain days.
The question regarding birthplace demonstrated the diverse backgrounds of residents.
Fig. 2: Interviewees’ Birthplaces
Most interviewees, 44%, were born over 50 miles away from the immediate Kielder area. The second largest group, 28%, were born within 50 miles of Kielder and only a quarter of the interviewees were born in the immediate Kielder area. This reflects the large extent to which Kielder’s environment, remoteness and tranquillity is capable of drawing people from far afield to begin a new life in this perceived idyllic community and beautiful landscape.
Kielder lies a few miles south of the Anglo-Scottish border and its residents utilise medical and retail services in Hawick and Newcastleton in Scotland as well as in Bellingham, England. Raymond highlighted cross-border social relationships:
Oh aye they have a whist drive, … it’s very good because … some of them come … from their home, Newcastleton, they come down and support it so people from Kielder when they … have a one they go up and support theirs you see.
Social events are held in Kielder, such as vintage car rallies, leek-growing competitions, bonfire displays, bingo evenings and Halloween events for children. However, Kielder’s past social cohesion has been undermined relatively recently by the decrease in Forestry Commission employment, the Forestry Commission’s consequent declining influence in community and social life and an influx of newcomers who are necessarily excluded from the strong sense of forestry history, unified identity and shared memories of what was effectively a forestry commission village with an intense community spirit.
The inevitable difficulties associated with settling into an established, socio-economically and geographically isolated village can be challenging for newcomers, especially those who have moved from very far afield. The integration of newcomers into the village is affected by the length of time they have lived there.
Fig. 3: Table to show how long Interviewees have lived in the area
The majority, 53%, are established residents, a quarter has lived there for twenty years or fewer and 22% have close connections to the area through work or recreation, but never lived in the immediate local area.
Keith, who was born in Portsmouth and moved to Kielder in 2002, said that although moving to Kielder was ‘the best thing I’ve ever done in my life’ he didn’t expect to feel part of the community for ‘another thirty years I expect and by that I mean, you know I, I’m from Portsmouth and I think a lot of people here think no he’s, he’s still a damn southerner’. An anonymous retired forestry worker, who was once a newcomer himself, now feels part of the established community. His sense of integration may reflect his experience of working in the forest. He spoke highly of the work he did, which permitted him intimate moments with nature outdoors in the landscape which he so clearly admired and appreciated. He had ‘never experienced the seasons in any other job apart from this one … you could tell the seasons were changing, you experienced it more, and I used to love that’. He recalled having ‘one of the best jobs in the forestry commission … and I used to walk the hills … see things you never see now, black cock … and I used to love to see snipe here, … they go up, fly down, then tail feathers flutter … and that was the sound, the sound of summer and I used to be thrilled to bits’. Kielder’s environment, nature and landscape seemingly compensated for the negative aspects of living in a Forestry Commission village. In sharp contrast to other established residents, he believed community spirit had strengthened since the Forestry Commission’s withdrawal,
Before it was a forestry commission village, and forestry ruled the roost and everything was done to their beck and call. … they used to run the village, it was their land, it was their houses, it was their road … and they ruled everything … they owned all business, the little shop up there, … the little café, they owned all the books, they wanted to own everything … all revolved around the forestry commission.
There is an unmistakable social dichotomy of original forestry villagers and newcomers, underlining the importance of the length of time incomers have lived in the village and the nature of their work. Kathy, an established resident, talked about this issue:
A lot of the newcomers … come in and think that they would know better than people who have lived here for a lot of years, and they can do wonders, but they soon find out that things don’t move as quickly as in other areas. Others has come in and just … join in with what’s going on and try to improve gradually rather than make drastic changes that don’t work … some have fitted in, some haven’t.
Another established resident and forestry worker, Simon, feels that the newcomers do not support much needed tourism:
The forestry encourage events, the water authority [i.e. Northumbrian Water] encourage events, but some people that come into the village, they have a tendency not to support them … which is a little bit disappointing cos they came into the area knowing what it was like originally so they shouldn’t be trying to change it.
Terry, a self-employed businessman who moved to Kielder nine years ago, shared his thoughts on Kielder’s divisions:
I feel part of certain parts of the village community, the village has several tribes, … and if you’re not … on one tribe then you’re not allowed to be on the other … it’s a bit like a soap opera, there isn’t … one big happy community where we all get on … there is a community, it’s quite a strong community but it’s got its own little factions
Notably, Anthony, a retired forestry worker who moved to Kielder from Dover twenty years ago, also used the word ‘tribal’, linking it to local border reiver history: ‘it’s quite a bit tribal around here because there are … local families that were these … raiders … reivers … and the families are still here now’.
The dichotomous composition of the village becomes even clearer when the interviewees’ first memories are categorised.
Fig. 4: Categorised First Memories of Kielder
Of the seven who cited the view of Kielder Forest and Water as they drove from Bellingham, three were newcomers, four never lived in the immediate Kielder area and none was an established resident. Newcomers retain a lasting impression of their first sight of the beautiful scenery, perhaps because that first view fuelled their desire to live and/or work in the area on a long-term basis. Unsurprisingly, all ten interviewees whose first memories are of childhood are established residents. Of the five interviewees whose first memory was of hospitality and strong community spirit, four are established residents and only one is a newcomer. Established residents recall primarily social, deeply entrenched and collective memories from which newcomers are more likely to be and perhaps even feel excluded. Yvonne, the proprietor of the village tearoom, who has lived in Kielder all her life, recalled,
Every … single house was a forestry commission employee and … everybody knew everybody whereas now there’s so many people have moved in so that you don’t probably know … a lot of people who live in the village … the numbers in the school have dwindled … there was always bingo and there was WI and there was crafts … whereas now … there’s not a great lot.
And, Stevie, a forestry worker and established resident, remembered,
It’s changed drastically. … There used to be loads of stuff going, y’know, village fairs, … village dances, and … because of legislation and costs and people coming into the village that we call outsiders, they’re not part of the village, they don’t want to be part of the village, they don’t, there isn’t a community anymore like there used to be because everybody knew everybody, everybody worked together and on a Thursday you got your pay, you went to the pub and you were all there wi’yah mates and now … there’s no community at all.
Moreover, Susan, who has lived in the area her whole life, recalled,
We lived originally … in a little farm called Bewshaugh, which is now under the lake … just always loved playing down at ma first home … being outside playing in the … fields and the hay fields … when the hay’s been baled and getting told off for climbing on the stacks.
Conversely, the newcomers tend to lack deep social roots in the area, they are arguably long-term tourists who have moved to the area primarily to enjoy Kielder’s tranquillity and beautiful landscape. Their exclusion from original villagers’ collective memories of childhood, hospitality, community and the forestry village, which still binds the remainder of that original community together, has created a divisive village today. Newcomers recall experiences of wildlife, the tranquil environment and the scenery, more physical aspects of the area. They have a close relationship with that environment, but the deep social histories and roots of their previous lives lie geographically elsewhere. Nevertheless, the newcomers’ relationship with the environment is still complex, powerful and important. Some newcomers moved to Kielder purposely from markedly different highly urbanised areas far afield as part of a major life change. Some newcomers experienced intense emotions as part of this process. Steve, from London, who runs the village post office and store, moved to Kielder in 2005:
I loved the area and I love this type of place … and it was like wow … and to the point of where, when I was driving here with my friend one Sunday afternoon … my legs were shaking because I was coming here and I thought I can’t believe … I was that giddy from coming here … that told me that I was doing the right thing.
Steve’s wife, Julie, has similarly fond memories of moving to Kielder with their two young sons:
I’ve lived in cities and towns, but … wouldn’t go back to that sort of life, it’s too busy, I love the quietness and the freedom the kids can have, I mean the forest is their playground, it’s fantastic … I don’t … miss … shopping, that doesn’t appeal at all anymore.
Indeed, Anonymous C, now an established resident, once shared the newcomers’ dream himself as an urban inhabitant:
My Mrs … on our days off … we used to go around the borders … and she used to always say would you like to live there in some pokey little house miles and miles away from anywhere? … see a little white cottage ten mile away, and I used to say no way, no way and she thought it was great. Eventually, we came up to Kielder, and she talked is into it and I walked in to see the head man there at the time, just asked him for a job … so I rang him about every day for a fortnight … and he offered me a job and that was it.
For many newcomers, Kielder represents a markedly different lifestyle, a widely shared stereotypical dream of and escape to a calmer, quieter life in a strong community enjoying closer contact with the natural environment, wildlife and a beautiful landscape. Thus, Kielder’s villagers can be split into three categories: those who were born there; those who have lived there for a long time and worked in forestry and the more recent incomers who have not worked in forestry.
Perceptions of Environment
Even people who have never lived in Kielder and are removed from Kielder’s social life, but who have worked in the area for many years, can develop and enjoy intimate long-term relationships with its environment and nature. Tonia, who has worked for Northumbrian Water at Kielder for many years recalled visiting Kielder for the day from her home in Bellingham in the 1970s:
With ma friend … we stopped off for our baite [i.e. snack] … and just admired the view … knowing that it was to change radically … with the construction of the reservoir, … just seeing the massive trees and the different farms and then trying to envisage how it would look … it was very difficult to picture that at that stage but I was obviously very very young then
Similarly, Duncan Hutt, Head of Land Management at the Northumberland Wildlife Trust, has never lived in Kielder, but he values his experience of its wildlife, which has clearly shaped his life. He recalled his happiest memories:
Those little sort of moments that you’re driving through the forest and something, a bit of wildlife jumps out in front of you, … a red squirrel or even just a couple of roe deer … that you notice that sort of the secret life of Kielder, the goshawk flying down the forest right in front of you, … the unusual dragonfly … in the ponds … the relatively intimate moments with nature … the hen harriers over the top of the hills … displaying to each other … that actually become I suppose more memorable than the … general area which is … there day on day, year on year … whereas the wildlife is … a moment … to remember really.
Ken, of Bellingham, taught Kielder’s children at Bellingham Middle School for many years. He recalled:
When the dam was built … my wife and I were in Carlisle to buy a bag of potatoes at an auction mart … we managed to buy this boat instead … and … I think we were virtually one of the first boats on Kielder water … we took out one of the local farmers on the lake, sailing down and he lived near Bull Crag, he says, “I recognise that, I recognise the fields from here”, he says “we must be about the top of my farm at the moment” and he was really, y’know, he thought it was great and I said “well what d’ya think, are you pleased you’re out of it?” oh, he says “yes, it was a hard life”.
In 2000, Chris Smout, highlighted that Scotland’s visitor surveys of the 1990s demonstrate that scenery attracts tourists, noting the key words used: ‘wide open spaces’; ‘rugged landscapes’; ‘freedom, emptiness, isolation, peace, loneliness, variety [and] unspoilt countryside’. His comments on the words used can be compared and contrasted with the words used by interviewees in the Kielder project when they were asked to define the words ‘environment’, ‘nature’ and ‘landscape’. Fig. 5 shows the relative frequency of the words they used.
Fig. 5: Frequency of Words used to define Environment’ (in 22 definitions)
The words are striking, with ‘around us’ or ‘around you’ being the most commonly used, closely followed by ‘living’ or ‘live’ and ‘surroundings’. This suggests that people interviewed at Kielder see the environment as all-encompassing; and they see themselves as the central point around which their environment is arranged. The words ‘living’ or live’ suggest that people see their environment as something in which they live.
Fig. 6: Frequency of Words used to Define ‘Nature’ (in 17 definitions)
‘Wildlife’, the most common word, excludes plant life. It was closely followed by ‘animals’ and ‘everything’. The words ‘wildlife’ and ‘animals’ are unsurprising, but the use of the word ‘everything’ is surprising, suggesting they include themselves and their whole environment in their definition, thus highlighting a popular local perception that the whole environment at Kielder – with its artificial forest and lake – is ‘natural’.
Fig. 7: Frequency of Words used to define ‘Landscape’ (in 15 definitions)
When defining ‘landscape’, ‘look’ and ‘looking’ were most commonly used, suggesting that the interviewees conceived it as what they saw what it looked like. These definitions are specific to the thirty six interviewees at Kielder and are not necessarily representative of a larger population. Living and working in such a remote village and so closely with ‘nature’ could well blur the boundaries between the human and non-human worlds. For example, it would perhaps be unlikely that a Londoner would define ‘nature’ as ‘everything’. Moreover, the interviewees were aware that the landscape at Kielder is unusual and artificial in a British context. Indeed, Duncan Hutt said that Kielder’s landscape, ‘the non-natural sort of conifer plantations’, is so unusual in Britain that ‘they’re almost like driving through a forest within North America or within Scandinavia’. The interviews also revealed generational differences in people’s perceptions of the ‘landscape’, which may have been shaped by their reactions to dramatic change in the area. Jonty Hall grew up at nearby Deadwater Farm, was selected from the pupils at Kielder First School to open the first dam at Bakethin reservoir in 1979, and is currently Northumbrian Water’s Leisure Department Coordinator at Kielder. He highlighted:
For my grandparents or ma great grandparents, y’know, the forest being planted and the … outlook of the whole valley changing would have been a massive thing for them and then to then see that transformation again with the reservoir and like for me the reservoir … it’s natural because I can’t really remember the … valley before and for like my daughter, this again will be completely natural to her whereas for looking back to ma parents and ma grandparents … in the early stages it was very alien to them.
Employment Past and Present
Fig. 8: Interviewees’ Current Employment
Fig. 9: Interviewees’ Employment
The Forestry Commission employs a fraction of its previous workforce, but the interviewees who are still employed speak positively about mechanisation and their current work. Tom, an established resident who is currently employed by the Forestry Commission to operate a mechanical harvester, commented:
There’s not the employment opportunities, but for those that do have their jobs, they work in quite a nice environment, sitting in these big machines [i.e. timber harvesters], … some of them’s fitted with six CD auto changers, you’ve got cool boxes for putting ya drinks in in the summer and you’ve got pie warmers.
Tourism is a significant source of income in the local area, which has developed over the last two to three decades. However, work in tourism is largely seasonal and many hold multiple jobs to make ends meet. Carl Garsman, of neighbouring Falstone village, has three part-time jobs: as a barman, a cleaner and a waiter. Kielder Limited was set up to boost the village economy by providing several affordable houses to retain and attract young families, building some commercial workshops, keeping the petrol station open, developing the campsite and transforming the community centre into a Youth Hostel.
When the village enjoyed full employment, several women undertook paid forestry work. Hazel, now a Housekeeper for Northumbrian Water, recalled:
We used to go about with an axe and we used to take a slither off the tree, y’know a slither of bark, just to count it, and we were classed as markers or tariffers as they’re called … it was quite nice for a woman.
Similarly, Yvonne recalled how she and other women ‘marked the trees … [and] counted them for the men to fell’. Alf recalled working practices and attitudes to women in the 1940s:
The ground was drained … by hand and the turfs out of the drains we used upside down and a tree planted in the top and the tree was planted back, and that’s the way they grew. … during the war and after the war, they brought in ploughs and tractors, and … threw out a furrow every five foot or so it would be. … I remember when I went at the end of the war, the land army they had just the turf to plough, plant on the turf with the tractors and they used to plant far too close, typical women, wouldn’t put their feet out.
In 1932, six-year-old Alf Weir disembarked the train at the head of what was to become Castle Drive with his family and his dog. His father, Alec Weir, who was a forester, requested a move from Camarthenshire, South Wales. He went to Kielder to oversee the initial stages of large-scale planting. Alf recalled his mother’s first impression of the area and her question, ‘where the God have I got to?’ as she absorbed the view of Ravenshill, the church and the station coach house, but little else. They then walked to their house near the viaduct and close to a bothy inhabited by forestry workers. Regular visiting grocery vans obviated permanent shops and Alf recalled the forestry workers giving him pennies to buy sweets from the travelling stores. Alf attended Kielder school and remembers how ‘the children used to come from quite some miles … on ponies, and they used to … stable them in Bewshaugh Farm’. Alf also recalls planting some trees with his father, which survive today: ‘three or four trees doun the road there, there’s one Douglas-fir on its own in the junction of Castle Drive and the bypass that I held while he planted and … further down there’s a red oak and further on there’s a … thury, and a … sitka spruce’. Alf eventually became Head Forrester and has been a witness to the dramatic changes in the environment at Kielder over his life.
The project revealed much about how the dramatic environmental changes affected people’s lives and how they were involved in them. Few residents recall the time before the start of the forestry plantation in the 1920s, but a few older members of the community, for example, Alf Weir, were able to shed light on the expansion of the forest from the 1930s. Others provided us with some valuable insights into attitudes towards the building of the dam, the creation of the reservoir and the transformation of the area into a major centre for tourism and recreation. We also learned a great deal about the enormous changes in the Forestry Commission’s working practices as technological advances have enabled greater levels of mechanisation in harvesting operations. Recording the interviews has created a valuable source of information about people’s experiences of living and working in a remote rural area that has gone through immense changes in its living memory. The answers to the questions were divided more so by the length of time that the interviewees had lived in the area than they were by their current or previous employers, as might have been expected. The interviews contain a great deal of insight and information from a diverse and representative range of people who have lived in, worked in and experienced Kielder’s environment, landscape, recreational facilities and Kielder village over the course of their lives. The interviews demonstrate the value of oral history as they contain insights that no other source of information could provide. Together they form an important bank of information which will be used to deepen academic and wider understandings of the impact of the dramatic changes, and the involvement in them of the local population, which have occurred in and around Kielder over the course of the twentieth century that continue to this day.
Listen to podcast episode where Leona Skelton and David Moon are discussing the result of the oral history project.
 This project follows in the footsteps of other successful oral environmental history projects which have been conducted in Whitelee forest near Glasgow and further afield in Arizona and Texas.URL: http://www.texaslegacy.org [website accessed 31/01/13]; URL: http://www.greenguide.nau.edu/oral_history.html [website accessed 31/01/12]; R. Tittensor, From Peat Bog to Conifer Forest: An Oral History of Whitelee, its Community and Landscape (Chichester, 2009).
 See http://www.environmentalhistories.net/?page_id=511 [website accessed 02/02/13]
 C. Smout, Nature Contested: Environmental History in Scotland and Northern England since 1600 (Edinburgh, 2000), p. 143.