Article from The Northern Echo, Thursday, November 20, 1986
First of all, let us explain a much-used Wheatley Hill expression.
The “Nash” is short for National Insurance; more commonly know these days as the Department of Health and Social Security.
“The bloke from the Nash” – more dreaded than any member of the constabulary – is the constant shadow over men’s lives.
Many are registered unemployed or long-term sick, or both and have regular and lucrative work.
Wheatley Hill, in fact , has more fiddles than the Northern Sinfonia orchestra.
But that is not for the reason that it is the village of the Big Lie.
It is the village of the Big Lie because of reports like the one in September by Professor Peter Townsend of the Bristol University.
Statistically, Wheatley Hill emerged as a social, environmental and spiritual hospice, enduring – actually and metaphorically – a slow death.
The former East Durham pit village was named least healthy in a chronically sinking region: unemployment, sickness and deprivation abounded.
Professor Townsend, it is rubbish.
Go, as we did, for a Wheatley Hill weekend and begin on Friday night at the dog track. Admittedly the atmosphere in the bar is somewhat carcinogenic but outside the bookies business is healthy enough.
A man of 58 bets £10 at 2-1 on a greyhound called Cappy. “I’m registered nine-tenths disabled and never been fitter in my life,” he confides.
Bookie Bob Renshaw says there’s no better gambling track in County Durham. “You get a lot of scores laid,” he adds.
Albert Tunstall, 48 years racing Wheatley Hill dogs, says: “It’s fantastic. I daren’t tell you how much money goes around”.
In the workmen’s club the same night the All Saints church dance – to records like Rafferty’s Motor Car – raises £150 for the central heating fund.
It’s a simple pleasure but a very real one. “Such a lovely, warm atmosphere,” says Tom Thubron, the cheery vicar.
Next day the Front Street that not even its own mother could call beautiful is cheerfully busy from early on.
Wheatley Hill has a big new Co-o, a good range of other shops and half way up the main street some new light industrial units. In both Charles Waite’s betting shops they’re gearing for the November Handicap – “it’ll be really busy today,” they say.
The bar in the workmen’s is filling too, though there’s a walk out when the photographer arrives.
“They might see it at the Nash,” they say, and a young dad uses the diversion to nip outside to see if the bairn’s all right in his pram.
Upstairs in the Nimmo it’s Graeme Atkinson and Joan Hackworth’s wedding reception: a lovely, noisy, kid-filled, best-ircaked bun fight.
She is 19, he’s 21, both are from Wheatley Hill. Neither has a job nor expects to get one. They’ll never move, though. “All our friends are here. “Wheatley Hill’s home.”
On the big council estate where bride and groom came from the abundant cars are mainly just three or four years old: extraordinary, Townsend claimed Wheatley Hill car ownership was one-tenth the national average.
“Shortage?” echoes Brian Miller, the local councilor who lives on the estate. “There’s a parking problem. Our family’s got three and the lad next door, Geordie, has fower sons at home and they all have cars.”
The bingo’s suffering, but that’s because everyone’s off on the bus to Hartlepool and Durham where there’s more to be won. Eyes down is 7-30 and Sandra Metcalfe, manageress of the 700-seat former Regal cinema, hasn’t a Saturday night customer till ten past. “There’s no future for the little bingos,” she says.
At the Old Scouts Club (licensed) Bobby Elliot’s sons have planned a surprise party for his 50th birthday, highlighted by a bunny girly Roly-Polygram.
“I thought I might get a bunny for my birthday,” he says, “but not a bloody Flemish giant.”
On Sunday the young scouts are on Remembrance Day parade, but before that 50 or so people are at All Saints’ 9.15 eucharist.
Tom Thubron preaches a lovely sermon, the congregation recesses to the Dambusters March and heads over the road for the combined service in the full to heaving Methodists.
Outside the freezing rain slashes against the windows; two coaches wait for the mile long journey to the cenotaph.
Five go by coach, over 200 walk in proud procession through their wintry village, frozen juvenile jazz band drummers in the rear.
Tucker Barron, coatless is laying the Constitutional club wreath – “Mind it was like this at Normandy an’all,” he says poignantly – a dozen other wreaths are from organisations as varied as the mother’s club and the Labour Party.
Exposed to Wheatley Hill’s worst weather, the lady British Legion standard-bearer struggles valiantly with the flag. “She’s gettin’ a right chowin’” someone says.
At the going down of the sun it may very well be that many in Wheatley Hill will be thinking of Sunday night in the club. It may also very well be that talk will turn to the man from the Nash and how best to outwit him.
But Wheatley Hill is a vigorous, a caring and (right or wrong) a largely contented community.
To damn it and its neighbours with statistics is only further to nurture the nonsense that the North-East is the nation’s death row.
This is the Big Lie and we must nail it.
John and Marjorie Baker – 71 and 67 – run the village hardware shop. “It’s a very good trading place,” they agree. “Wheatley Hill is just so full of nice people, even the youngsters are very nice kids. We get very little trouble”.
“If we retire tomorrow we’d get somewhere close by, because we’ve been very happy here,” says Marjorie.
Lodge chairman at 24, Brian Miller led the fight to save Wheatley Hill pit. Now 43, he’s unemployed but district councilor and Peterlee magistrate.
“There’s all these people comin’ in writin’ reports and they divvent knaa what ther’re taakin aboot,” he says.
He’s proud of the council’s record on house revitalization, hopes for a leisure centre, despairs of jobs – his sons, 18 and 20 are out of work. “There’s nee way they’ll leave. Even if ye gan away for a job there’s nee houses.
Les Jones has been workmen’s club secretary for 19 years. “We’ve had to economise but it’s going as well as ever,” he says.
“You could just as easily call it the community centre cum workmen’s club, it’s a place for the whole village.
“We have a good afternoon bar of members on the dole. You can come in on Monday and the same people will be in on Saturday. It’s every day of the week.”
Like most, he was aghast at the Townsend report. “People here are very perky, the colliery closed 18 years ago and they’ve learned to live with it. But you can’t argue with his statistics, he’s a professor.”
Norman Fannon from Shiney Row bought the then “decrepit” Wheatley Hill dog track 21 years ago. His pride and joy in the modernisations is a DIY hare system made from a job lot of old army bedsteads.
“It’s the social centre of the village, a real family night out. They’re great lads, I’ve been here 21 years and never had a fight in the stadium,” he says.
“There’s some great dogs, sparkling condition, and that’s because they’re loved.
John O’Neill and Joan Taylor have children aged eight, six and 21 months and are married, to each other.
“I think a woman loses enough when she gets married without losing her name as well,” she says.
Joan, 38 was born in Thornley, half-a-mile away. Her grandmother lived a healthy Wheatley Hill life until she was 96.
She has a social science degree and is a member of the school managers and the regional women’s executive of the Labour Party.
John, also 38, is from north Northumberland and is a horticulturalist. “People usually call me Mr. Taylor,” he says, “except when there are bills to pay.”
The smart new house into which they moved in June is the only one built in Wheatley Hill for eight years.
“I like the sense of community in a small village,” says Ms Taylor (as she is known). “It’s nice to bring children up in an extended family.”
She wrote to Prof. Townsend querying his report. “It painted a pretty bleak picture. It suggested the people of Wheatley Hill didn’t look after their children, or their husbands for that matter.”
Seaham born Tom Thubron, 53, has been vicar of Wheatley Hill since returning from missionary work in Bangladesh six years ago. He has five young children.
His hero has become Peter Lee, the great pitman’s champion and county council leader who “adopted” the village and is buried there.
Externally All Saints church, built in 1873, is not one of the greater glories of Anglican architecture. Inside it’s light and attractive.
Tom says: “I tell them it’s like Wheatley Hill, maybe not very beautiful from the outside but lovely when you get to know it.”
Village fact file