The new book, A Shoulder on the Hill, brings together 20 years of stories and unforgettable experiences in remote Weardale. Carol Graham’s memoir chronicles the life of the author and her husband as they convert a traditional old stone house (Hill House East) into both a much-loved home and a rural B&B. The changing seasons reflected in the book allow us to discover how the people, animals and places in the Grahams’ life mean Carol could now never imagine living anywhere else.
In the early 2000s, Carol and John Graham bought Hill House East above the village of Westgate. While the house was transformed into a B&B, welcoming visitors from across the world to the dales, the land around it provided the opportunity for Carol and John to keep sheep – or ‘a small flock with enormous personalities,’ as Carol describes them. It is stories about both her guests and her sheep which are included in her book, all accompanied by John’s illustrations.
While Carol has published books in the past, she doesn’t actually consider herself to be an author, and this memoir is very different to her usual style of writing. ‘I couldn’t create a plot,’ she tells us. ‘I couldn’t write a novel but I’m a very good storyteller and I have a phenomenal memory for places, times and actual conversations. I think I would have been the old crone passing on words of wisdom all those years ago.’
Carol had lived in Weardale in the early 1970s when she began a career in teaching. After her first marriage ended, she moved away (never more than 20 miles though). It was only when she met John that she realised how much she missed the area and how much she wanted to go back there.
Running her B&B, Carol decided the wonderful things happening around her would make a great story, so she began to write down snippets of her observations here and there. 'Those got stashed away on computers with a vague idea of “wouldn’t it be lovely one day to make it into a book?” Then I hit retirement so I began writing more,’ Carol explains. ‘But I couldn’t see how I could stitch all these bits together. It certainly didn’t work as a chronological story.’ Now in her seventies, when the first lockdown began, Carol decided there was no better time to try and complete this book-in-the-making. ‘I dug out all the pieces of the puzzle and laid them out around me. They fell into areas of our life here: the animals, the people, our own life and my family. Hopefully I’ve stitched them together well and even done a little bit of embroidery, so to speak.’
Hill House East B&B opened in 2004 and hosted a range of interesting guests over the years including the Adams family (no, not that one) from Portland, Oregon who were travelling from Scotland to Macedonia. They needed a place to stay while travelling and chose Weardale. There were also many guests from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand who were searching for their ancestors. In fact, one family coincidentally found out that their ancestors once owned Hill House East. Many anecdotes are shared in this book of memories, but, as big animal lovers, it’s the four- and two-legged friends that caught our attention.
At Hill House East Carol fulfilled her life long ambition to keep hens. One of our favourite tales are those of the Henny Penny, who became quite a celebrity among locals it seems – strutting her stuff around Weardale. Without spoiling too much for you, we just have to share one unfortunate story to give you a taste of what to expect from Carol’s book. She recalls one of the locals very sadly reversing her car and hitting Henny Penny one day. She had left a message, of course very upset, apologising for the accident, having killed Penny. This led local police to get involved believing she had actually killed a person called Penny, rather than a hen. Carol explains such anecdotes best when she says, 'life and death. Tears and Laughter. The cycle rolls on.’
This cycle Carol speaks of is best reflected when she talks of the changing seasons as well as life being circular, which she truly learned when she began keeping sheep (and delivering lambs too). This part of her life really taught her to respect the farmers who work on Weardale’s land. ‘I can’t find the words to say how much I admire our farmers,’ she says. ‘We’re on a little shoulder before the bottom of the hill here, and it’s 2,000 feet up there. When you’ve got to go out in that to see to your sheep in all weathers, it’s very exhausting and demanding; you have to love what you do and these local hill farmers are truly amazing. Farming is a way of life and one that very few people would be willing to take on.’
There’s so many things Carol loves about Weardale that she can’t pick just one, so we’ll start with the weather. ‘You never know from one day to the next day what the weather is going to do here,’ she says. ‘Whilst you have to accept that probably 75 percent of the time, the weather might be challenging (even in the summer), whatever it throws at you is beautiful in its own way. We always have an ever-changing panorama of views around us here and it can change in day.’
Carol also loves the amazing history that's made Weardale the place it is today. 'I’m no historian but I’ve touched on that a little bit in the book,’ she says. ‘Not only is Weardale fairly little known, certainly compared to the Lake District or the Yorkshire Dales, but a lot of people (even those who live here) don’t know a great deal about its amazing history and what an important place it really is. 'Sitting high within the land of the Prince Bishops, and with its mining history still visible today, Carol says she can still see remnants of its past all around her. ‘You just have to look a little closer,’ she continues. 'I went for a walk to Crawleyside just the other day and it was so peaceful. All I could hear was the grouse. It was icy, there were a few people walking around, but it was utterly calm. Then I realised I was walking on the old railway line and most of the landscapes around me were actually waste-heaps.It would have been totally different during the mining times – it would have been ugly, not beautiful as it is today.’
Of course, we can’t ignore Carol’s love for the wildlife around her too – particularly the birds. ‘They’re stunning,’ she says. As we talk on the phone, Carol is looking out of her study window and describes her view. ‘We have a little wood with a couple of trees and about a dozen pheasants live in there permanently, and we feed them. They come every morning,’ she tells us. ‘At the moment, I can see about eight of them, a moorhen and a couple of mallards, and they’re all pecking around the hen house where there’s food. The birdlife is amazing and curlews feature in the book quite a lot; these birds drop in numbers incredibly elsewhere so those (and the grouse) are unique to the area due to the sheer amount of them.’
When Carol moved to Weardale (both times) she referred to herself as an ‘incomer’ but now, after everything she’s put into the community, she’s became a solid part of it. That’s why we asked for her advice on moving to the area. ‘Because we are still very little known, the chance of making a living from hospitality here is rather thin, but it’s so worthwhile because it’s such a beautiful place to welcome guests,’ she says.
‘My other advice would be that you’ll get as much from living in a place like this as you are prepared to put into it. That’s why the book starts off with the phrase “incomers.” Fortunately, there’s less hostility towards incomers than there was when I first moved here in the 70s, because they were quite a rarity then. if you are prepared to come here and become part of the community, and put into it, it’s so worthwhile.
Over the last 20 years, Carol hopes the main thing she’s learned is the real value of community. ‘It’s the most important thing when you know you can rely on and help other people in your community,’ she says. ‘I feel more privileged than ever to live in Weardale, particularly during lockdown. At times, me and my husband actually feel quite guilty because we are never bored, we are never at a loss for something to do and we are safe here up on our shoulder of the hill. We get all we need around us – the animals, the field, our garden and the hemmel where I can craft.’
A Shoulder on the Hill, published by Wagtail Press, is available to buy online now at wagtailpress.uk to escape into Weardale through Carol's stories