Old Man Bottom

I suppose in every language, there are idiosyncrasies that will trip just about everyone up. Things like that verse in the carol ‘Ding-dong merrily on high’ where the line ‘And i-o, i-o, i-o, by priests and people sungen’, and you’re supposed to pronounce those dipthongs as ‘ee-oh’ not ‘eye-oh’. Or when you sing Auld Lang Syne, heaven help you if you utter the words ‘for the sake of’ in the wrong place! [Hint: there’s only one place in the whole song, all verses and every chorus repeat, where that phrase appears.] When I was a lad in Ontario, we had to learn ‘God Save the Queen,’ as you do, but our teacher was a tyrant for the correct placement of ‘our’ and ‘the’. Rapped knuckles if you got them wrong (in the first three lines, it’s ‘our/our/the’ in case you didn’t know — and I notice that here, not many people do!). And far up in the East Allen valley, it’s calling Old Man Bottom Old Man‘s Bottom, that’s the particular pecadillo.

But we happy band of wandering minstrels, oh, young family that we were, were delighted in our ignorance to paddle and picnic at what we thought was Old Man’s Bottom. Really, what kid could resist adding the apostrophe s? It’s an iconic spot, beloved by locals and visitors alike. I well remember stopping off of a lovely October afternoon and picking bundles of Wood Blewit mushrooms. They have a lavender colour and a very particular aroma. They also taste pretty good, in garlic and butter! The children loved to try to catch the little fishes (we usually visited OMB when the ford was very low) in the stream, but I don’t think they were ever successful.

It’s very hard to believe, but 30 years ago, in 1990, the ford here was the scene of a tragedy . . . Annie Bishop was reminded of the sad story on reading of the debacle of the sheep in the river at The Elk’s Head. Robert Philipson kindly supplies a more comprehensive narrative than we had heard:

“It had been one of those Allenheads days when it continuously rained on the hills. A gentleman [a perusal in the microfiche archives of the Hexham Courant, at the library in the Queen’s Hall, brings up the issue of 9th February, 1990, identifying David (Reg) Tiffin] who lived on the New Line had been to a football match at Newcastle where it had not rained so he’d have been unaware of the condition of the river at Old Man Bottom. Although the river was often in flood in those days there was no central depth gauge, just two markers situated on the banks on either side. These were very misleading as even in flood conditions, the middle water level would never show on the depth gauges on the banks.   

The man’s custom was to take his dog up to Sinderhope and let it run alongside the van as he drove. On this particular evening [Sunday, 4th February] he took his nephew [Neil Adams, 13, from Wallsend] along too. I have crossed the ford many times and when in moderate flood it forms a wave on the upstream of the ford  and a trough in the middle making it look deceptively shallow across the ford but very fast flowing. It was only when something crossed that the water would well up against the obstructing side. There had been other incidents where cars had been stranded but nothing worse.

Paul Eames, our local police officer at the time, said that that evening when they were looking for the van he even thought of driving through himself, and it seems that [Mr. Tiffin] was unaware of the danger involved in crossing.      When the pair failed to return, relatives went up to the area. I understand they found the dog at the water’s edge at Old Man Bottom (it’s believed the dog survived because it hadn’t been in the van). Fearing the worst, they went downstream by torchlight and discovered the empty van 600 meters below. The bodies were only recovered days later.

After a vigorous campaign by the Parish Council, Northumberland County Council relented and agreed to erect a depth gauge in the centre of the river which gives an accurate reading and the depth gauge itself shows the force of the water as it hits,   giving a better idea of the depth and current speed. Hopefully a tragedy like this will never happen again.

Separately, I remember the big thunderstorm over Allenheads & Wearhead one summer’s day possibly in the ’80s which sent a wall of water downriver  carrying thousands of tonnes of stone.  Thomas Forsyth bravely (or foolishly) went out onto the vibrating bridge at Old Man Bottom and sitting on the top section of the bridge his feet could touch the top of the water. Amazingly, out to the side although flooded, it was only a foot deep and quite tranquil, with the current taking the bulk of the water down the centre of the river.”

Thanks very much Robert — a timely illustration of the dangers inherent in that ford! Even thirty years later, our hearts go out to the family involved in the tragedy. Having once misjudged the depth of standing water on a flooded road, I know only too well how easily modern cars will stall if the air intake, or exhaust, are submerged. I hope I’ve learned that lesson sufficiently well so that I never undertake even a cautious ford crossing of a river in spate! So this diary entry today comes with an earnest health warning: do take the utmost care when driving in any situation at risk of flooding.


  1. Larry. Robert told the audience at one of his talks that it’s not even Old Man Bottom but Oldman Bottom named for the landowner a Mr Oldman. I say that probably the only reason the name survives, is the pleasure it gives young and not at all young boys to say Old Man’s Bottom whenever the opportunity arises.
    P.S. I’ll miss my daily dose of Allendale community facts in the New Year. I hope you add something about the future in a postscript to all this. A fascinating and heartwarming journal of a community on the fringe of a mostly urban and alienating society. Thanks Larry.

  2. Thanks for the comments, Paul, and a further intriguing clarification! Words and attributions seem to change with the times: I’ve just been pondering about ‘The Rose of Allandale’ or ‘The Rose of Allendale,’ depending on your perspective. The late great Terry Conway used to insist that Charles Jefferys’ song did not reference Allendale at all, and indeed, both in the original spelling of Mary’s home, and in the third line of the first verse (When Mary left her Highland croft/home) and again on the fifth line (flowers [be]bedecked the mountain’s side) the sense of the song is much more Scottish Highland than the Border region where Allendale is found, of course. But being human, we love to revise, don’t we? The new ‘A Christmas Carol’ television version showcased by the BBC this season is somehow, today, a more apposite telling of the Dickens story than the original, because it chimes so resonantly with our own times.

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