Less than a mile from where Isaac Holden was born is the headquarters of the mine that employed him as a boy. The manager’s office and the miners’ bunk room are now Ninebanks Youth Hostel – and if any ghostly miners pop back for a look around they will be astonished at the contrast between conditions in their day and the facilities now.
In the nineteenth century North Pennines lead miners slept four to a bunk, with the young boys sleeping across the bottom of the beds. Muddy, wet clothes often didn’t dry overnight and washing facilities were primitive. What would a miner make of today’s ensuite showers and loos, clean dry bed linen and underfloor heating?
The hostel, in the tiny hamlet of Mohope near Ninebanks village, is run by Pauline Elliott and Ian Baker. They live in the adjoining cottage, which was once the mine’s smithy. It’s called Hush Cottage, which could be a sweet and sleepy name but in fact refers to the mining method called ‘hushing’. Water was contained at the top of a slope then released to create a torrent, sweeping away the soil to expose the ore beneath, and leaving the lumps and bumps of the landscape around the Youth Hostel.
“People say the hostel has a real sense of peace,” says Ian. “They arrive and immediately relax. As well as walkers we have cyclists and canoeists staying here, corporate business groups book the whole place, and so do family birthday parties, wedding anniversaries and so on.”
The hostel sleeps 28, and the rooms are named after the rocks and minerals found in the area, complete with their chemical formulae (for example, Malachite is Cu2(CO3)(OH)2, but you knew that). The North Pennines AONB was the first area in Britain to be awarded European Geopark status because of its outstanding geology, and there are plenty of examples of the rocks around the hostel.
The building has been a Youth Hostel since 1947, and in the old days alcohol on the premises was frowned upon. Pauline says beer used to be poured from a teapot (very appropriate for a building located on Isaac’s Tea Trail, but NOT appropriate for Methodist Isaac). Now they sell bottles of local beer and a selection of wines in the hostel’s little shop. “Early on, the hostellers were expected to rough it a bit, there was a feeling of ‘it’s good for you’, but now they are definitely guests and we want them to have a really good time,” says Pauline.
“I love the fact that the building is part of the history of mining, and was designed as a place to stay. It’s not just tourist accommodation sort of parachuted in.”
The couple admit that it can be hard work running the business, but it’s hugely satisfying. “We get a lot out of seeing the place used by people who are obviously enjoying the area,” Pauline says. “Families get to know each other and the parents sit around chatting over their meal, the kids play together, and they really relax.”
As this picture of Ninebanks Youth Hostel in 1952 shows, walking and cycling gear has changed a lot over the decades.
The nature of some of the gatherings has changed as well. Among the groups who book the whole hostel are stag and hen parties. Pauline remembers one hen party with a 1920s theme. “The hostel was decorated, we cooked food from a Waldorf Astoria menu, the girls were all dressed as flappers and danced the Charleston,” she says. “Ian and I were really enjoying it until some very rude cupcakes were brought out. That’s when Ian retired.”