Mike Allport has been an independent board member here at Healthwatch Northumberland for four years, and lives in Wooler. We asked Mike to tell us more about life in rural Northumberland and the issues local people face when accessing health and social care services.

Mike’s story

As I became older I was increasingly aware that I might need more medical services and therefore became more interested in how those services were provided. I realised there were problems with medical provision in this area as many years ago when I was headteacher of one of Northumberland’s outdoor centres I enquired about the needs of a child with a nut allergy who was visiting my centre. I was told we would need to get him to a hospital within twenty minutes of eating nuts. As the nearest hospital was 18 miles away and the nearest emergency hospital was over 50 miles away, this would have been impossible.

Similarly, I once attempted to arrange a first aid course for my staff and myself in the area but was told by someone from Morpeth it was too far to travel. The first aid courses were a requirement of work and the mountain rescue team of which we were part. I have since organised a number of courses in our area with instructors willing to travel north.

How things change over time!

When we moved to Wooler 48 years ago there were only nine houses for sale in an area which covered a triangle from Berwick upon Tweed to Kelso to Wooler. Now there are at least that number in Wooler alone. Four housing estates have been built in the years we have been here. We decided on Wooler as, at the time, we thought it would provide all the services we needed. As well as a good variety of shops there were two doctor’s surgeries, two schools and three banks.

The number of houses in the town has increased but the population has remained static at around 2000 for over a hundred years. More older people have moved here from the south. I suspect this has more to do with the price of houses compared to those further south than the reputation Wooler once had of living to a ripe old age. It was once rumoured Grace Darling moved here because of the long life expectancy. Time has changed things and if you walk down the High Street it no longer has the variety of shops it once had. There are now fewer shops and we no longer have any banks.

Accessing services

On the other hand there has always been good doctors’ provision and support for the town and the surrounding community, and there still is. Until a few years ago, doctor services were in two separate buildings within the town, but this changed when a new clinic was built in one of the car parks. Both surgeries moved into the building along with several additional medical providers. Slowly these providers have become fewer; we now have to travel 50 miles for a hearing test. The surgeries were heavily supported by the community and by the formation of a Doctors Fund. The latter did and still does provide funding for extra equipment to be used in the surgeries. Most of the funding comes from donations through wills. A small amount of equipment is provided by local groups such as the scoop stretcher given by the ski club, which I formed. It once had over 300 members and was represented by a member on the National Ski Council of Great Britain committee. The club no longer exists due to climate change.

In common with all GP practices across the country, Wooler was required to introduce a Patient Participation Group (PPG). As there were two surgeries there were two PPGs. I was invited to join the one which was attached to the Cheviot Surgery. Both surgeries covered vast amounts of the north Northumberland area. This is a remote and beautiful landscape, and it is said that it has a far greater population of sheep than people. That’s perhaps why Wooler also has a very active vet’s practice.

Before the GP surgeries and PPGs combined, a board member of Healthwatch Northumberland living in the north of the county resigned due to health issues. He suggested that I might be a good member to represent the area and as a result I applied for the position.

Just living in Wooler I thought I had major problems accessing some medical services. For example, I was bitten fifteen times on my hand by a grey squirrel. As the surgery was not open at the time I went to the walk-in centre at Wansbeck General Hospital, a round trip of just under eighty miles. Another member of the PPG who lives nine miles outside of the town said it would be impossible for them to do that – even if they wanted to go to the medical provision in Berwick they would have to get a taxi into Wooler to catch the early morning bus, then get treatment and wait in Berwick until a return bus would be available in the afternoon. A now deceased friend of mine always wanted to fly in a helicopter. He got his wish; after having an accident on a farm where he was a manager he was flown to the RVI. Not a way I would recommend for regular travel from the area. Life would be difficult to fit things in outside the town and the surrounding countryside if you didn’t have access to a car.

Even though the facilities have diminished since we moved into the town it still is a very pleasant place to live. I don’t need to go to a gym to get exercise but just have to walk out of the door to keep up my level of fitness. Mind, as I get older, I wonder who keeps making the hills steeper. In the town there are plenty of societies and clubs which keep the mind active.

This once market town, the gateway to the Cheviots, has probably in some people’s minds been downgraded to a village.

To share your own or your family’s experiences of accessing NHS or social care services, please get in touch.