Isaac Holden is probably older than the ‘guysers’ and the bonfire on New Year’s Eve in Allendale’s Market Square, though he must have seen them during his last decade, but he’s maybe not quite as famous as Allendale’s Tar Bar’l parade anymore. In his time, and after his death, however, he was Allendale’s most famous son, and the obelisk memorialising his life stands tallest in St. Cuthbert’s church graveyard. Funds for the memorial were raised by contributions from 600 people around Allendale and environs as far afield as Alston and Nenthead.
Roger Morris in recent times has done more than anyone to keep Isaac’s memory alive, with his numerous leaflets and books about the humble man available at shops in the village (especially at the Co-op). And, of course, there’s the eponymous Tea Trail, created, well mapped, signposted and described by Roger over the past decades. This 36 mile trail, a kind of peddler’s route through the Allen Valleys and beyond to other connurbations where he could sell his wares (including much more than tea — whatever he could carry on his back) is an active, living trail, and is described much better than I could do by various writers, raconteurs and ramblers, among them various contributors to the online Northumberland Life, Anne Leuchars, Nuala O’Brien, Susie White in her Country Diary slot in The Guardian, Clare Balding on BBC Radio 4’s Rambling series, the Hexham Ramblers.
But here in Allendale, we have the memorial, and a few other reminders of Isaac himself. Hard to believe, but Isaac’s Well was the first fresh water supply available to the public in Allendale, and it was installed in 1849 with funds elicited by Isaac on his travels. Today the well in the wall tends to be parked up, and scarcely accessible, but it is actually an official Grade II listed building, just in front of Arnison Close.
But Isaac’s more living memorial today could well be the old, now renovated Hearse House at Ninebanks, one of many projects developed by the North Pennines Landscape Partnership over the past five years. This hearse house has explanatory story boards within, describing the building and its rationale.
The quirky story of Isaac’s hearse always bears repeating: for years Isaac passed out photographs on his travels (of himself, for pennies), and as he collected the donations, he insisted on keeping the object of his philanthropy a secret until it was finally unveiled, to the consternation of all of his numerous subscribers, as a fancy hearse carriage! Talk about crowdsourcing — Isaac went out and found a crowd in individual small-holdings throughout the region, on foot, one household at a time. And so in an extremely eccentric, but modest way, over the course of some three years, Isaac brought a little bit of civilisation to the region in the form of an honorable burial procession, providing ‘dignity in death’, a high Victorian aspiration, to the region’s families. Indeed, Isaac himself, a man who had achieved ‘dignity in life’ out of some of the worst possible circumstances, was one of the first to be carried in the new hearse, which became known, of course, as ‘Holden’s Hearse’. That carriage has not survived, but examples of the type are apparently held at the Beamish Living Museum of the North in Co. Durham, and this particular reproduction would not be far off what Isaac Holden purchased for his beloved community:
He was said to have been an odd little man, with his tea can on his back and his cheerful demeanour, singing hymns of the Methodist Church on his peddling route, as he provided for his family from out of desperate penury, and seems virtually to have invented philanthrophy in the town based on his Methodist beliefs, but then, from Allendale, you’d have to expect that he’d be something out of the ordinary, wouldn’t you! This photograph, the only one remaining of the 2000 he’d had printed from his 1853 expedition to Hexham to prime the hearse funds, was taken four years before his death.