Slaley Hall, Hexham, Northumberland.
Pictures and text by Christopher Long
Slaley Hall, in Northumberland, was once a glorious sporting estate of around 3,000 acres lying south of Hexham and just north of the Derwent Reservoir on the Durham border. In the mid-1980s, to the amazement of many, it fell into the hands of developers who built houses and golf-courses across the land and gutted the house to create a vast modern hotel. This is a brief account of its happier days...
laley Hall was originally built by the Hunting family in the Victorian baronial style typical of sporting estates of its sort throughout Scotland and northern England. It lay amid unspoilt countryside, moorland and forests which were rich in wildlife. From the moors a river ran through Italianate gardens and then through a series of cascades to a lake fringed by rododendrons and azelias. Originally the house was much larger, built on three floors with high pointed towers and a massive pitched roof.
However, following the First World War and the slaughter of a whole generation of young men, a fundamental change in English social habits occurred. The sensationally lavish Edwardian arrangments made to cater for and entertain very large numbers of guests for shooting and fishing house-parties often lasting for a month or more in both the autumn and Spring seasons declined.
From the 1920s onwards house parties seldom consisted of more than about twenty guests at a time plus their staff. Consequently about fourteen bedrooms including batchelor rooms in the annexe and the extensive servants' quarters above, were found to be uneconomic and the house was reduced to a more managable size.
But even then, as my cousin Christine Priestman remembered: "People came and stayed very much as we do in hotels today. They brought their cars and guns and rods and horses and some staff, but, apart from those, the household provided everything they needed for weeks or months at a time. During the day they were very businesslike about their sport and weren't slow to complain if everything was not arranged exactly as they expected. In the evening the atmosphere changed and we all gathered for drinks and dinner and they were marvellously convivial times. But guests in those days were very demanding and I'm sure I could run a large hotel very well indeed from what I learnt when I was young."
On another occasion she told me: "I'm not sure it was very good form to enquire about people's bedroom habits. They would arrive off various trains and be met and then shown to their rooms. The men would immediately spend a lot of time arranging their dogs in the kennels and looking at each other's new cars and doing whatever men do in the gun-rooms and billiard room. But we women never said hello to each other until drinks time. Then everyone gathered in the morning room, beautifully dressed of course! After dinner they went to their rooms and the next morning they always managed to find themselves in the room allocated to them... but there was certainly a lot of movement in between. Luckily we had two or three layers of carpeting on the landings so that was all right! ... I don't think it was really done ever to discuss anything very serious, you know... You, Christopher, would have been very bored! You would have said all the wrong things and we would have had to send you away for bad behaviour! We'd have put you on the 'milk train' as we said in those days..."
Shortly after World War ll Slaley Hall was bought by Major & Mrs Jack Priestman she being the cousin Christine mentioned above who had sold a similar property, Shotley Park, nearby. No longer needing to live near Ashington Collieries, which they had owned prior to nationalisation of the coal industry in 1948, they concentrated on developing the excellent shooting, hunting and fishing at Slaley Hall. They acquired additonal moorland and invested heavily in forestry and improving the estate's farms.
Over the next forty years and particularly until the death of Jack Priestman, Slaley Hall was a venue for many great sportsmen of the day. Other regular visitors, included the 'hanging judge', Lord Goddard and the kind and gentle artist (and patron of the arts) Col. Fred Beddington.
Latterly Jack's widow, Christine Priestman (née Long), offered an idyllic and tranquil retreat for a hand-picked number of her young cousins the author among them. Slaley gradually ceased to be a shooting and hunting venue and instead became an important informal conservation area for a wide range of flora and fauna.
Nevertheless, it was here, from 1973 onwards that I learned to train and work dogs, to shoot more wisely than I had until then and to avoid at all costs the occasional formal grouse shoots. Instead, our shooting rough, walk-up and and duck-flighting played an increasingly important role in preserving and conserving sustainable balances among the prolific wildlife.
Tenant farmers, foresters, shepherds and other estate workers at the start of a rough shoot at Slaley Hall, Northumberland, in 1979. Seated left is Herbert 'Herbie' Purvis? who was the estate's head woodman. Seated right is the estate's head game-keeper Dennis Dodd whose father Bill, also a keeper, died suddenly in 1954 while shooting with Major Priestman at Styford near Corbridge. After WWll Dennis Dodd and Tommy Dodd were woodman and head woodman respectively, but following his father's death Dennis took charge of the Slaley Hall shoot along with additional land at Espershields, Winnow Hill and Ladycross Quarry. Twenty-five years later I was lucky enough to spend time shooting in the company of these men who knew intimately every inch of the surrounding 3,500 acres and whose gentle wit and profound knowledge of the countryside made every minute a delight regardless of the size of the bag. Days like this were usually followed by an evening of duck flighting as darkness settled over the lake.
[Vital members of the staff at Slaley Hall from the 1950s to the 1970s included: Thomas Kennedy (butler), Lance Robson (head gardener), Herbie Purvis (head woodman), Dennis Dodd (head keeper), Johnny Stoddard (maintenance), Doris Saville (parlour maid), Velma Dodd (kitchen maid), Annie Wilkinson (cook), Nancy Robson (housemaid), Arthur Wilson and Thomas Craig.]
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