Northumberland film group's precious archive is saved

Final film in historic Coquetdale series is restored after scenes mystery is solved by Northumberland film group

Keith Hartnell in 2008
Keith Hartnell in 2008

The final piece has been put into place to complete a film jigsaw of life in a Northumberland valley.

The Upper Coquetdale Film Group started in 1972, made up of local volunteers and led by Sunderland GP Dr Keith McKay.

Dr McKay had a cottage in Coquetdale and enjoyed filming the local landscape and wildlife.

From the 1970s-90s he and a band of local people joined forces to produce 16mm films based on the history, traditions and legends of the area.

The films featured participants from the local community, who made their own costumes.

A scene from the Coquetdale restored film
A scene from the Coquetdale restored film

The group also filmed contemporary events such as the Rothbury Festival in 1978, the Rothbury traditional music festival, and Alwinton Show.

After Dr McKay died in 2001, the group decided that the deteriorating film should be saved and restored for future generations.

They called in Keith Hartnell, who had founded Blagdon-based Northern Heritage to deal in all aspects of the region’s landscape and history, now run by his son Chris.

Keith also set up Blagdon Studios, which restores old film and video, and is now managed by Rob Fitzgerald.

In late 2012 Keith began the task of digitising around 100 hours of the group’s film, with each production being made into a DVD under the Bygone Coquetdale banner.

A scene from the Coquetdale restored film
A scene from the Coquetdale restored film

As he did so he came across scenes which Dr McKay had been working on before his death, and which featured local shepherd and dialect poet Alan Wood in old rural garb.

Keith, who lives in Longhorsley, said: “I noticed that certain scenes kept popping up but I had no idea how they fitted together.”

Then the film group presented Keith with a copy of one of Dr McKay’s favourite books as a thank-you gift to mark the successful film rescue project.

The book was by Dorset-based Victorian writer Richard Jeffries and contained a passage on the hard life of itinerant rural workers.

Keith realised that Dr McKay had been relocating the story into a Coquetdale setting, starring Alan Wood as Joe the Clip, who scraped a living by travelling from farm to farm shearing sheep, digging ditches and building drystone walls.

“When I read the book, it all fell into place ad I could see what Dr McKay was doing,” said Keith.

A scene from the Coquetdale restored film
A scene from the Coquetdale restored film

He assembled and completed the film and Joe the Clip is now available on DVD, which also includes the story of the group, with interviews with members and extracts from their films.

These include Coquetdale Past and Present, Coquet Meander, Sett for Sunday, Dippie’s View And John Barleycorn.

The whole archive has now been saved and digitised, with seven DVDs available from tourist information centres, Shepherd’s Walks and Philips newsagents in Rothbury, and northern-heritage.

Keith said: “The DVDs reflect how the group saw Coquetdale, its history and traditions and also what was happening at the time they were filming.

“These were not professionals but an amateur film group, and theirs was an ambitious venture.

“They were a mix of different people but they had a bond of a love of Coquetdale and a passion for its landscape.”


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