A mysterious woodland find sent a nature lover on a journey of discovery, as Barbara Hodgson explains.
WHILE Bill Pattison was out walking in Beamish, he stumbled across an intriguing piece of local history.
His discovery, a curious carved owl, has since taken him on an extraordinary journey of discovery.
It started when the 72-year-old volunteer countryside warden was with two friends near Ousbrough woods and keeping an eye open for suitable wood for the walking sticks he makes.
Near a ruined flint mill, he spotted an old lintel which he went to inspect to see if it showed a date for the mill.
“When I picked it up to turn it over, there was a huge, deliberately dug, hole in the ground,” he says.
“When I looked inside I couldn’t believe it. There was a beautifully carved wooden owl.”
The oak owl was attached to a wooden bamboo pole but the pieces split apart.
Then Bill found it held another surprise. Inside the pole was an old parchment on which was written a poem called Ode To Owl, signed Charles Thomas Isaac and dated August 12, 1897.
Written in ink, with the capital letters at the start of each line decorated in colour, it tells of the killing 10 years earlier of an owl which lived in Ousbrough woods “before the coming of the Mill and Forge”.
It blames “vagrant poacher Lawrence Peth” for poisoning the owl which had “lived fore (sic) nine score years and 10”.
Then it says the dying owl was found in a cave by the burn by “the giant Toff Harding”.
And the furious Toff then beat Peth into “a blind and deaf cripple”.
The final verses of the ode include the lines:
“A carving of Owl and verse laid to rest
in a cave by the burn below the hill crest”
and it ends:
“To those who tell of Owl and verse
upon them I shall lay a curse.
To enter this cave is truly forbidden
for the secret of Owl must remain hidden”.
Bill, of Eighton Banks, Gateshead, says the hole in which he found the owl was “more like a cave” but laughs off the supposed curse.
“I don’t believe in curses,” he says. “I’ve had the owl a while now and nothing’s happened.”
And he remarks of the real owl’s apparent age: “That’s a hell of a long time for an owl to live!”
He and Hugh McKie and Ronnie Lambert, who were with him when he discovered the owl last November, have since invested a huge amount of time and effort in researching the story and the area, and in trying to trace descendents of the men mentioned in the poem.
And they’ve unearthed some extraordinary facts.
“We’ve traced people in the story,” says Bill.
They found that Toff Harding, referred to in the poem as “the giant”, did indeed exist and lived in nearby Hollinside Manor.
“The story goes that he was 7ft tall but we didn’t believe it,” says Bill.
“But in Whickham Church cemetery, where the family was buried, a thigh bone was found which did come from a 7ft man.”
They’ve also seen archive records, read about local stories and learned how another family succeeded the Hardings to Hollinside Manor.
Now they have produced a booklet called The Quest for the Ousbrough Owl.
They have transcribed the poem as the original manuscript is very dry and breaking up, so Bill is reluctant to take it out again from its bamboo holder.
Its contents are included in a short story written by Hugh McKie, a landscape artist who has also painted scenes to illustrate the piece, including a picture of how the old flint mill looked before it fell to ruin.
But now their trail has run dry and they are eager to find out more about the story.
Whether it’s the curse of the owl making its presence felt, Bill feels he is facing a dead end in his attempts to spark people’s interest. And he’s now left wondering what to do with the owl.
No one seems keen to take it on or give it a future home.
“I don’t want to keep it,” says Bill. “I think it should be on display in Beamish Museum.”
Anyone able to shed more light on the story, or with an idea about where the owl can be displayed, can contact Bill on (0191) 482-3161.