'A community at the edge of civilisation'- What life is like off-grid in Northumberland's most remote valley

Shepherd Daniel Wood and his wife Samantha who live off-grid from mains gas, electricity and water.Shepherd Daniel Wood and his wife Samantha who live off-grid from mains gas, electricity and water.
Shepherd Daniel Wood and his wife Samantha who live off-grid from mains gas, electricity and water.
Northumberland’s Upper Coquetdale is something of a hidden gem, home to some of the county’s most stunning scenery.

The dramatic landscape, featuring steep sloping hills and the Coquet itself carving its way through the valley, looks like it belongs in a fantasy novel – as do place names like Blindburn, Barrow Burn and Whiteburnshank.

And for most people living in the UK in 2023, living without connections mains gas, electricity and water as well as phone signal is also something you’d only find in a work of fiction. But for people living in this wild part of Northumberland, it’s an all-too-familiar reality.

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Homes are powered using diesel generators, while taps are spring-fed.

Mark and Laura Day, who live at Carlcroft Farm in Alwinton.Mark and Laura Day, who live at Carlcroft Farm in Alwinton.
Mark and Laura Day, who live at Carlcroft Farm in Alwinton.

There’s no gas – central heating relies on oil – and what little internet connection can be found is unreliable and slower than

Mark and Laura Day moved up to Northumberland from Norfolk along with their two children, to fulfil Mark’s dream of being a hill farmer. The couple explained what life is like living at the edge of the world.

Laura said: “It’s a way of life rather than just living here. The biggest learning curve was when we first arrived.

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“We’ve been here since 2018 – we’re originally from Norfolk but we’ve also lived at Blindburn.

“You just have to learn – putting the washing machine and the dryer on at the same time will turn the generator off. You can’t have the whole kitchen on at once.

“If something goes wrong, the nearest engineer for the generator is two hours away.”

Mark added: “We have to get satellite broadband, which is more expensive and nowhere near the speed you expect. It’s 2023 and we’re on generators – there’s remote parts of Scotland that have electricity.”

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Despite the challenges, the couple have learned to love life in the Coquet Valley. Their children, aged 12 and eight, love the freedom of living in this part of the world.

Mark continued: “I’ve always been involved in shepherding. I’m from a farming background and I’ve always wanted to be a hill shepherd.

“Now, we’ve got 700 sheep.”

The Days aren’t the only family facing this unusual situation. According to Coun Steven Bridgett, who represents the Rothbury ward on Northumberland County Council, there are around 50 families in his area living off-grid.

However, things could soon change.

In March, Northern Powergrid lodged plans with Northumberland National Park to bring mains electricity to Upper Coquetdale for the first time.

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Not only that, but the firm is looking to secure an electricity supply three emergency cell masts, which will bring precious mobile phone signal to the area.

If the national park agrees, overhead lines will be installed to connect to underground cables in the park itself, so as not to ruin the natural beauty of the valley.

The power firm says the proposal – involving 12km of overhead lines and 4.7km of interconnecting underground cables – is ‘a technically feasible mix which minimises the environmental and visual intrusion’.

It has already consulted relevant authorities and local residents and secured backing from Alwinton Parish Council and Harbottle Primary School.

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Councillor Bridget said: “This area was never connected in the 1950s because it was too expensive. The campaign has been going on since then.

“It has been a lot of effort. The project will deliver electricity to about 15 residences up the valley. It’s a start.”

Someone who has been campaigning for many years is Sam Wood, who lives further down the valley at Shillmoor.

She has lived in the valley for 19 years, while her husband Daniel has never lived anywhere else, and has followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather to become a shepherd.

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Sam said: “Day to day, you get used to having a generator, but at certain times of the day they can cut out. There’s a limit to how much electricity they can provide.

“Generators between two houses are quite common. When it’s working alright you get used to it, but when there’s a problem it’s different. The engineer we use is in North Scotland.

“We’re a community at the edge of civilisation.”

The issue was put firmly in the spotlight when hundreds of homes in the valley were left without power for several days after Storm Arwen in late 2021.

But after campaigning for so long and experiencing so many false dawns, Sam and Daniel are reluctant to get too excited about the prospect of finally getting connected.

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Daniel said: “They have talked about it for many years. It does seem more promising this time.”

Sam too is cautiously optimistic. However, she warned that if the plans were not approved, the community was at risk.

She added: “It’s the first time we’ve got to planning. They’ve got funding from the MoD, so that’s why we’re getting it done.

“The mobile phone signal will be a great help. When we do have an emergency it’s tricky – and we do have them. Walkers get ill, and one neighbour had a really bad accident.

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“They were trapped in the snow for six to eight hours before they were found.

“There’s no reason not to put it through. If they don’t, it will be a travesty. That will be the end.

“It will put the final nail in the coffin for communities like this.”

The plans have been lodged with Northumberland National Park for consultation before being submitted to the Secretary of State of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy for a final decision.