Re-igniting classroom memories

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IT’S 27 years since Brown Rigg Boarding School, situated high on the fells above the village of Bellingham in the North Tyne Valley, last closed its doors, its students dispersed far and wide, but the unique school, its rows of wooden huts more resembling a POW camp than a ground-breaking educational establishment, left an indelible mark in the memory of all who attended and the weekend of June 8–10 will see people travelling from all over Northumberland and the world to attend the 10th biannual reunion of former pupils.

Among the many hundreds of children who experienced the Brown Rigg way of life were many from mid-Northumberland. The wide open countryside of the Bellingham area was a great attraction for those from the mining communities of Ashington, Newbiggin, Lynemouth and the many surrounding colliery villages.

There they mixed happily with children from the rural areas west of Morpeth, for whom, attending a school with some 250 pupils was a whole new experience.

Children came from all sorts of rural communities, the attendance record showing pupils from Whalton, Hartburn, Scots Gap and Cambo. There were even some who went to Brown Rigg from the remote school at Fontburn, which has now vanished without trace.

In the 1940s and ’50s children traveled to Brown Rigg by train, the trip over the legendary ‘Wannie Line’, stopping to collect pupils at Meldon, Middleton and Scots Gap before terminating at Bellingham railway station, from where they had to haul their suitcases the 1½ miles up the road to the school. After the closure of the railway, a fleet of buses were used, the yellow and blue Bedfords of taits of Kirkwelpington being used for many years.

The reunion weekend means a bonanza for the village of Bellingham with every hotel, guest house and B&B fully booked weeks in advance while the cafes, tearooms and hostelries also do a roaring trade.

Up at Brown Rigg itself, the school’s former science block and sick bay have been turned into a complex of superbly appointed self-catering lodges. They are all booked solid with parties of former pupils who will be staying at the school once more, after a gap of almost half-a-century.

It’s absolutely amazing. The interest just grows bigger year after year and, with the advent of social networking, more and more people are getting in touch and expressing an interest.

In the last few weeks, I have spoken to an 82-year-old lady who was evacuated there in 1940. The school wasn’t even completed when she arrived and she had to wash in a stream.

There have been calls from all over the world, several people are flying in from Australia and there are hundreds more looking for old school chums they haven’t seen for many, many years.

One guy who is now an international showjumper first sat on a horse at Brown Rigg and he wants to come back and do it again.

The main focus for visitors to the Brown Rigg Reunion is to meet up with old school pals and see the place once again but the reunion organizers have organised a series of events including a welcome barbeque, an evening of entertainment in Bellingham Town Hall, while the final event of the weekend will be the traditional Brown Rigg church service in the village’s Methodist URC church.

For more details on the Brown Rigg School Reunion, please contact me:

Eddie Graham,

Brownrigg Reunion Society

Tel: 01661 833167