By Matthew Engel, 2014
The following is an (edited) extract from the above book from the author’s three-year travel through England. He travelled through thirty-nine counties and included Wheatley Hill in his final write-up in the County Durham section. The book was loaned to us by History Club member Brian Maddison, who felt it could be shared in this newsletter.
“The dog track was below the village, the other side from the closed-down pit, just below the closed-down pub. It comprised some of the ugliest buildings in the palatinate of Durham; a mixture of breezeblocks and Meccano. The kennels looked as though they had burned down—and they had! Nearby were several tethered ponies, munching in reasonable contentment. Sometimes they get raced on a Sunday.
The greyhounds arrived in white vans. Nothing was fancy here except the mechanical hare that was covered in pink, green and blue and looked like a dead parrot. The prize money was £15 for the winner in most races and a fiver for second. Everyone knew everyone (except me). Everyone seemed to know what was going on (except me). Money changed hands but there were no receipts, everyone was known by their name or nickname, including me. By the end of the night I was the ‘Welsh author’.
Since the pit closed, the population of Wheatley Hill has halved. The workingmens club and the Chonshie’s Club have both faded, especially since the smoking ban. The bowling green was terminally vandalised long ago and the brass band packed up. Before electronic payouts, there was always a queue at the post office first thing for benefit payments. Many men are known to have been on the sick for years.
A villager told me that Wheatley Hill’s decline began long before the pit closure. The Attlee government wanted to shift people into the new towns of Peterlee and Newton Aycliffe and banned expansion in villages like Wheatley Hill which were classed as Category D, a term still used casually in Durham. By 1964, 121 of the country’s villages were placed on the planning equivalent of Death Row—new developments banned, and property that did become available was subject of compulsory purchase and demolition.
I know some of you will be disappointed by Matthew Engel’s account of our village, but I have provided only an edited version. He was advised to come here by Mike Amos, formerly of The Northern Echo. Matthew’s experiences at the dog track formed a major part of the section on Wheatley Hill and it appears no-one he spoke to mentioned the community spirit that still exists here.