Magical valley lives again

Lorna Laidler was recovering from an operation when she started thinking about her childhood spent in Upper Coquetdale.

Lorna Laidler was recovering from an operation when she started thinking about her childhood spent in Upper Coquetdale.

Recalling the different characters she had known as a young girl brought a smile to her face - and she was struck with a thought.

"They were all going to be forgotten," she declares.

"This small piece of the world with all of the interesting people in it would simply fade out of people's memories."

Lorna decided to take action and, using her recuperation time from the illness, she wrote her reminiscences of the summers spent with her Nana and Granda Nairn as they worked on their farm.

The 63-year-old, of Killingworth, recalled fond times, from churning butter from thick creamy milk to her attempts to sheep-dip a cow!

As Lorna put pen to paper memory after memory came back to her. Before she knew it she had written a full book, which she called Up the Valley.

It is a lovely account of a rural Northumberland life which doesn't exist anymore.

"After I finished it, I didn't know what to do with it," smiles the mother-of-three and grandmother-of-three.

That was until her husband Wilf's own book needed publishing.

While Lorna had been writing her recollections Wilf, 66, a retired policeman and former shepherd, had in his capacity as Secretary of the Border Stick Dressers Association (BDSA), written a history of the organisation.

He was going to publish a small tome for its members, the First 50 Years of the Border Stick Dressers Association, and the couple decided it would be a good idea to see if they could publish both the BSDA book and Lorna's memoirs at the same time.

"I just wanted to hand out my memories to my cousins who had all grown up in or spent time in Upper Coquetdale," she says.

Despite their simple plans Wilf came across many stumbling blocks in his search for a publisher.

First of all the couple were told they needed an agent before anyone would look at their stories.

They decided they would just print the books themselves - and in 2003 they did.

Wilf and Lorna did not realise they would need an ISDN number to sell the book on Amazon or in bookshops - and to do that they would need to be a publishing company.

"We thought we may as well just set one up," Wilf says, "I had to learn how to use the computer very quickly."

More difficulties followed when they were given prohibitively high printing costs.

"I went to one published about the BDSA book and they were going to charge £4,000 for 500 books!" Wilf says, outraged.

Luckily a local publisher was found - L&S Printers who are based in Camperdown, Tyne and Wear, and who charged considerably less.

The couple also discovered that, because of setting up the press for printing, it would cost the same amount of money to print 500 of Lorna's books as it would 25.

"Well obviously we thought we may as well print the 500 of them!" she laughs.

Lorna and Wilf's backgrounds are both based in rural Northumberland, they actually met at a dance in Wooler.

Lorna's dad had moved the family out there from the East End of Newcastle when he was appointed to the police station there.

Wilf, who was a shepherd at the time in Doddington, recalls: "The social life in the country at the time as fantastic, much better than the young ones have now!

"Everyone would go out to the dances, we'd tour them each night from Coldstream to Rothbury.

"Sometimes I'd got out to a dance, walk 10 miles or more home, arriving back at 1am and starting work again at 5am!"

Lorna and Wilf began courting, much to the disapproval of Lorna's father.

But the pair knew a good thing when they saw it and so the couple eloped.

They were married at Newcastle's Civic Centre without her dad's blessing.

"But he came around eventually," Lorna smiles, "once he had a grandchild on the way!"

The couple have three grown-up children: Stephen , 43, who lives in Killingworth and is site manager at Tynemouth Priory and Castle, who has a daughter, Hannah aged eight; Derek, 41, a physiotherapist, who lives in Wansbeck and has two children Joshua, 14, and Josey, who is two, and Stuart, 31, who is married to Claire also lives in Killingworth.

Shortly after they married in 1964 the couple upped sticks to move to the Cotswolds, where Wilf got a job as a farm manager, and then onto Dorset, where he became an estate manager.

But Lorna was homesick for the North-East and persuaded Wilf to move home in 1967.

On moving back to the region, and finding shepherding dying out as a career, both re-trained.

Lorna became a primary schoolteacher working at Lemington First School, Newcastle, for a couple of years before moving to Bailey Green First School (now Primary) in Killingworth until retiring in 1995.

Wilf trained as a policeman but despite his new and successful career - Wilf ended up becoming superintendent and staff officer to Sir Stanley Bailey - the countryman within did not disappear.

He decided to join The Border Stick Dressing Association, which preserves the ancient craft of shepherds. And he is in illustrious company with both The Prince of Wales and The Duke of Northumberland being patrons of the club.

Wilf's book has now sold out, (although it is still sometimes available on eBay) and Lorna's is into its third printing.

"We started off selling it in county shows," Lorna explains, "and I was surprised by how well it sold.

"Then we actually got approached by a distributor who heard about it and asked if he could sell it for us.

"That was fantastic - it is pretty embarrassing trying to sell something you've written yourself - no matter how it is received."

Northern Heritage (www.northern-heritage.co.uk) now distributes Lorna's book and she has picked up fans from across the country.

Lorna runs to find a letter from one woman in Eastbourne.

"She read the book once and wrote to me to tell me how much she enjoyed it - which was wonderful, and then she called me a second time to say she'd dipped into it again and loved it a second time.

"It is wonderful to know you can have such a lovely effect on someone like that."

Lorna says part of the interest in her book is because Upper Coquetdale has lost many of its inhabitants (who were pretty few to start with!).

"Most of the folk living there were shepherds and once transportation came in the number of shepherds just dropped dramatically.

"It's much less of a job now - sheepdogs aren't sheep dogs any more - you see them riding about on the quad bikes with the farmers!"

Lorna's success with Up the Valley, which is now onto its third reprint, led her to publish another book, this time an account of growing up in the West End of Newcastle as a policeman's daughter.

She said: "It was the other side to the coin. I wanted to show the other side to my Northumberland childhood."

This has also been selling well and now, drawing on her experience as a primary school teacher, Lorna's third book, A Posy of Poems, is a collection of children's verse based on wild flowers is awaiting publication.

"The latest book is in colour, which is much more expensive to publish," Lorna adds.

"And it needs to be bigger because it is for children."

Lorna and Wilf may run a small publishing company, but it is clearly something they both adore doing and they are bringing joy to all the people who are won over by Lorna's stories.

*To buy any of Norma's books visit www.northern-heritage.co.uk or buy direct from Wilf and Norma at www.wlaidler.co.uk

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