Communications And Economy
Although the northern boundaries of Alwinton and Kidland lay along the border with Scotland, unlike North Tynedale and Redesdale, there was no direct road through the Coquet valley into Scotland. A number of drove roads, such as the Street, crossed the Border and permitted cattle and sheep to be driven down the Coquet valley into England, but these did not constitute a permanent highway.
The only road that followed the river from Alwinton to Makendon, the last farm in the northern part of the valley, finally led over the watershed into the neighbouring Rede valley. The status of this road was simply a track that crossed and re-crossed the river on a number of occasions as it went steadily northwards. In addition, there were no bridges at these crossing points and travellers simply had to ford the river, a process not helped by the Coquet’s propensity to rise rapidly following rain in the hills making passage of the river very dangerous.
Progress of goods and people up and down the valley was limited and Barrowburn, where one of the major fords was located, became a dropping-off point for many trades people. Goods would be left at this farm to be collected by residents in the upper part of the valley at times which were convenient for the purchasers and when the river could be safely crossed.
This situation began to change in 1881 when a new bridge was erected across the Alwin, near to Alwinton, by public subscription. This bridge was adopted by the County Council and permitted access to the valley as far as Linbriggs where the first of the fords was encountered. Further work on the road and bridges did not take place until the 1930s, when road improvements were carried out and a bridge constructed at Linbriggs.
No further work took place until after the Second World War when, in the 1950s, concrete beam bridges were installed that carried the road to the northern end of the valley, where final small bridges were built at Makendon and Fulhope in 1968. Even with these improvements, local people remember that goods were left at Barrowburn for collection up until the early 1970s! Another important feature of the Coquet valley was the absence of any railway development. Rothbury was the nearest railway station to the upper valley and access to it was subject to the same problems that afflicted the transport of goods and livestock in general.
Such limited means of communication meant that travel to and from much of upper Coquetdale was limited. Although stock wagons might reach the farms if the weather was good, droving continued to be the usual method of sending stock to market until the second half of the twentieth century. In many ways, this was not a major problem as farming in upper Coquetdale was limited to the production of cattle and sheep and wool.
There was very limited cultivation of grain and root crops and, on the few farms where this did take place, it was strictly for home consumption and not for sale. Purchases of grain and fodder crops were also limited so that there was little need for extensive transportation of agricultural goods.
Beyond agriculture, there was virtually no other economic activity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There were limited coal deposits in the valley of the Wilkwood burn lying to the east of Harbottle and Holystone, but these were only mined for purely local sales and employed only a small number of miners. Because of the limited numbers of employees and sales, this activity receives no mention in nineteenth century directories of trades in the area. The only trades that are mentioned are those usually connected with rural village life – shop keepers, innkeepers, cobblers, stonemasons and estate workers such as agents and gamekeepers.
Although there may have been some visitors to the upper Coquet valley for the purposes of shooting and other field sports, the absence of game books and other evidence from the local estates means that this type of activity cannot be quantified. Tourists probably penetrated as far as the villages of Harbottle, Holystone and Alwinton in Victorian times, but the absence of a road system to the upper valley probably meant there were few visitors other than the most intrepid walkers before the second half of the twentieth century.
At this point, the advent of travel by private motor car for greater numbers of people than previously increased the number of tourists to the area. Local sources suggest that many of these visitors were from other parts of Northumberland, for example the mining districts of the county, rather than from other parts of the UK or overseas. Even this trade dipped in the 1980s and early 1990s, but has since recovered.
Such a resurgence is to be welcomed as a result of the decline in the number of farms in the valley and the loss of employment opportunities that has been characteristic of upper Coquetdale as much as North Tynedale and Redesdale in the twentieth century. During the late nineteenth century, farms and estates in upper Coquetdale had been affected by the depression in prices for both wool and sheep meat. As far as can be determined from the limited evidence available, prices and rentals decreased in a comparable manner to those experienced in the neighbouring valleys.
Thus, there was little resistance from some of the landowners when the Army offered to purchase property to form part of the new artillery training area for which land in the Rede valley was also being purchased. In the case of one estate, that belonging to the Selby family, it was already being offered for sale due to massive financial problems faced by the owner. In consequence, the Army was able to purchase over 12,000 acres of upper Coquetdale for military purposes. Although this did not lead to an immediate loss of work in farming, the way was paved for the future.
In a similar manner to the experience of North Tynedale and Redesdale, farming in Coquetdale also suffered from a further collapse in prices in the 1920s and 1930s. Although this produced some loss of jobs as labour was reduced on farms, the eventual outcome was the sale of some parts of the valley to the Forestry Commission. Tree planting followed, particularly in the period 1950 to 1970, resulting in substantial areas of woodland around Uswayford, in Kidland and to the west and south of Harbottle.
Initially the replacement of sheep farming by afforestation created alternative employment for those who would have formerly worked in agriculture. However, the development of mechanical aids for forest work and the increasing use of contractors, rather than labour directly employed labour by the Commission, has resulted in rural depopulation and an increasing need for alternative work. This has increasingly taken the form of work in the tourist industry, but the shortness of the season has meant that there are only a small number of seasonal jobs that has only reduced the loss of population, not stemmed it.
In order to understand the changes that have taken place in the valley, have impacted on the individual communities, the history of the settlements of Harbottle and Holystone is examined in more detail below.