‘My life as a farmer’

I was so hoping to be there, at last night’s crowded event in the Sinderhope Community Centre where Robert Philipson chatted about his life as a farmer in this valley, for the Allen Valleys Wildlife Group’s regular meeting. Unfortunately for me, my health capacity is delimited for a little while, although I do have some background to contribute to mark this event in the diary, at least, and fortunately for the diary, Catherine Stirling Hill was there, and sends along her report of Robert’s talk, which really helps make this diary a kind of record for posterity, so do keep reading until the very end!

In May, 2018, Robert was the recipient of the Pendlebury Award from the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, an award that recognises environmental and conservation efforts throughout these North Pennines. Robert’s contributions were particularly noted in terms of the wading birds on his fellside farmlands, where he has seen a remarkable increase in numbers because of his enlightened farming practises.

Of course, I know him better as a neighbour sheep farmer who loves to zoom around on his ATV, usually carrying a bale or two of hay, along with his sheep dog, but I’ve been aware of his diligent activities on the Parish Council, and his work with Anne Grieve and Mary Potsig in particular, on the renovation of the near-derelict community centre up at Sinderhope. And everyone knows, or should know, to slow to a crawl along the Allenheads road when overtaking the long trail of Sinderhope Pony Trekkers, a Philipson family enterprise for several decades now.

Reports from the Allen Valleys Wildlife Group with photos of the full house appeared already late last night, thanking Robert for an entertaining, amusing, informative and at times nostalgic meander through some anecdotes of his lifetime. Comments added today ranged from ‘memorable, enjoyable’ to ‘brilliant, hilarious, and moving talk’. I was especially intrigued by Jos Mahon’s note about the lovely views down the valley from Robert’s farm (I’ve stood there in some awe too at various times — the different sides of the East Allen have such different views!), and the silhouette of a horse in the full moon, but it sounds like the attendees were greatly entertained!

And Catherine takes up the story in reportial mode, based on her 12 pages of copious notes (Thanks Catherine!):

Robert Philipson told a compelling story last night, the true story of his family’s life (and that of many others) on the farms of the North Pennines, over the centuries from the time of lead-mining in the Dale, to the worries of Brexit today.

There were around 100 people there, squeezed into the (already cosy) High Forest Community Hall, who sat, riveted, as Robert spoke for nearly two hours; informing, entertaining and moving his audience, in his quiet and humorous way.

The land around what is now Broadgates Farm was first enclosed in the 1700s for sturdy Galloway ponies, to carry lead to Hexhamshire for processing.

Around that time, Robert’s family moved into the Dale and worked as lead miners and smallholders. The mine was in the valley below Sinderhope, and above, now known as Shop House, was the lodging house, where miners from further afield slept during the week.

As lead mining declined, the smallholding became more important as a way of life and to make a living. Broad Gate was bought in 1908 by Robert’s grandfather and his brother, Henderson Philipson, with the aid of a mortgage. After Henderson sold the farm he also owned at Denton Burn, he was able to buy Ashleigh House at auction, pay off the mortgage for Broad Gate, and buy the neighbouring farms of High Sinderhope and Shop House.

As a small boy, Robert remembers the hay ‘pikes’, which were stacks of hay which had to be transported to the barn by trailer or, if you were lucky, a pike lift. Unfortunately this new-fangled implement nearly killed Robert’s father when it landed on his old grey Ferguson tractor (no cab in those days) and nearly crushed them both. Farmer’s lung was a common disease, caused by the dust as the hay was transported and stored.

All the farms in the valley were dairy farms, and Robert remembers the warm, gentle beasts in the well lit byre: Beth; Bella; and Bertha; as well as the Jersey which gave creamy milk for the household.

At 10, Robert ‘helped’ with the collection and delivery of the milk around the valley; from Broadgates at 8am on Hubert Dodd’s wagon to Black Bank at Oldman Bottom, where John Coulson, who lost an arm after a shotgun accident, could still milk the cows, lift hay bales, drive a tractor and, later, build stone walls.. Then to Mr Smailes at High Knock Shield, who harvested the hay pikes so late they often had a covering of snow! His daughter Jane walked to school at Allendale from there, and eventually the council provided a foot bridge over the Allen at Oldman Bottom (it’s not ‘Old Man’s Bottom!) to make it safer in the winter and when the river was high. At Middle Knock Shield the farmer was always late with the milk, and invariably had a joke and a tale from the pub the night before. Eventually, via Bull’s Hill, (where Mrs Pigg climbed aboard and applied her make-up, to the young lad’s amazement), Low Gate, and Errington, the milk finally arrived at the Dairy at Stocksfield.

At Allendale Primary School, Robert was taught to pass the 11+, which he did, in 1963, and went to the Grammar School in Hexham, keen to do well and become a banker. He remembers the terrible winters, stuck behind the snowplough, also stuck in a drift, and the year the ploughs had to knock down walls to find a way through. When the helicopter arrived at the farm with hay bales for the animals, Robert missed the exciting event – he was in Allendale waiting for the expected helicopter there, which never arrived.

At the High School, Robert enjoyed Geography, and decided to aim for Agricultural College in Aberystwith. Careers advice consisted of ‘Oh well, if you want to do farming you should have gone to Haydon Bridge High…’ In the end Robert’s further education was at Kirkley Hall, which kept him close to home, and able to learn ‘on the job’. And to meet Pat, the girl from Healey who enjoyed the animals and outdoor life as Robert did, and, as an added benefit, was trained in book-keeping! They married and moved to High Sinderhope, where they can still look out the window and watch sunsets over the moorland, lapwing chicks conversing with the ponies, a little owl, or a stoat, and the moon on a clear night, once with the silhouette of a horse framed in its halo.

By this time the farm was looking at new ways to supplement income. They reared 5000 hens, in cages in those days, in a modern poultry shed equipped with six heavy duty electric fans to provide a controlled environment with a constant temperature of 68F, summer and winter. The liquid nitrogen made excellent fertiliser.

A later enterprise was pigs – 6 gilts to start with, who each had litters of 8-10 piglets, reared under heatlamps. The piglets were at risk, and often crushed by their mothers. One was rescued, its side split, with innards bursting out. Pat sewed the unlucky baby up – and it survived! The pigs thrived on the pigswill, as well as the deliveries of stale bread and cakes from the Co-op van, on its way to the shop in Allenheads! (Some were too good for the pigs…) However, around that time it was discovered that pigswill, if not properly sterilised by boiling, was a major cause of the spread of foot and mouth disease, and had to be phased out. This made it difficult to make a profit from pigs, and Robert had to try a new tack.

He found work at the racecourse, cutting grass – in straight lines. The technique came from ploughing a straight furrow on the farm, and was much admired. Friends and neighbours were drafted in to remove hoofprints after a race meeting, and Robert was able to pay off his debt.

In the 1970s Robert’s sister had set up a pony-trekking centre, with a memorable pony called Sparkle. An incident with Basil, the blacksmith, shoeing Sparkle rashly in his slippers when the pony landed on his foot led to Robert’s Dad taking up shoeing himself;- which he did, successfully for over 30 years. In time Robert took over the pony trekking, with the help of Julie, soon to be Julie Howard. In fact the ‘accidental’ meetings of Julie and Nick on many treks, was a serious source of frustration for Robert, trying to run a tight ship, on time! The trekking led to another way of seeing and appreciating the landscape, and was very successful, introducing children and young people from around Tynedale and Tyneside of all abilities and experience to the joys – and challenges – of seeing the country on horseback. Some visitors were very interested in the history of the valley, and the birds they spotted as they trekked. An American declared the heather and views ‘awesome’; high praise after his ‘European tour’! 

Gradually ‘the environment’ became a priority for Defra and other organisations, some more aware than others how farmers already contributed to its conservation in their natural way of working.

In the early 1990s when grants became available for those willing to cut back on production, reduce the use of fertiliser, and take up useful crafts like dry stone-walling, farmers attended a meeting in Allendale to learn the options available. Robert’s son Kevin was a skilled dry stone dyker, and able to benefit from the grants. Robert’s dad remembered a similar meeting in 1959 in the same room at Heatherlea, Allendale which was encouraging a completely opposite approach: increasing production; using more fertiliser………

A Natural England initiative to manage land, creating wetland for wading birds, seemed very complicated, involving the use of different types of drainage and creation of wetland. Miraculously, Robert found that the haphazard methods he had been using (and often failing to drain the land) were exactly what was wanted – and he won The Pendlebury Award in recognition of his efforts.

He prefers to work with Janet Fairclough from the RSPB, and with the North Pennines AONB, who have always been more willing to listen to farmers and others in the community, to understand what they are already doing, and what they might consider in the future. Nick Mason, from the RSPB (who as an organisation are known to criticise farmers) surprised the local community when he told them ‘Whatever you are doing, keep doing it. You’re doing it right’

Some of the environmentalist decisions that have been taken have damaged birds and wildlife through a lack of understanding of the interrelated connections between birds, farm animals, insects and dung, for example. When they banned cattle to graze on land over winter, birds were driven out as the land was taken over by rushes. Young lapwings thrived among the dung and detritus of the ponies – yet farmers were asked not to allow the horses on the same land, and told ‘you have to give something up’. In the West Allen, an area where rare plants and moths were found was fenced off to protect them from sheep. But the lack of grazing changed the balance of nutrients and the moths disappeared.

As Robert points out, it’s easy to take the beautiful – and harsh environment of the North Pennines for granted, when you live in it. But it turns out that the symbiosis of folk who have lived on the land for many years, in harmony with the animals, birds, plants and insects who live there enables a live and let live approach which often works to support the survival of the many species we know and love in our valleys and on our moorlands, and which are becoming all too rare in other parts of the country..

What does Robert love about his life?

The joy of seeing the whole of Northumberland all around him. The birds, nesting, hatching and calling in the Spring. Being part of the farming community and escaping what can be a lonely life to attend the Mart and share successes and concerns with fellow farmers, friends and neighbours.

Who knows where the future leads. But Robert and his neighbours will continue to make the most of their lives in the unique and challenging Allen Valleys.


  1. My great uncle was John Coulson, I spent many a school holiday in the Sinderhope area, in particular on Sipton Terrace where he lived.
    I have very special memories from exploring this area.
    I would love to spend time with anyone who knew him to build more of a picture of his extraordinary strength in life.
    Both Uncle John and my Grandmother are a huge miss.
    This is a fascinating read, thank you for sharing.

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