One of the North’s best-known chartered building surveyors has penned a book about his 50- year career, with proceeds going to a charity which supported him during cancer treatment. PETER BARRON reports

WHEN he set about writing his memoir, Alan Cowie might easily have called it Home Truths, such is the ‘warts and all’ approach he’s taken to chronicling his experiences over half a century in the property business.

Instead, he chose the title, I Told You Not To Buy It, reflecting the number of times house-buyers have come back to him and confessed: “I wish I’d taken your advice.”

Whatever the title, I’m happy to advise you to buy Alan’s book – not just because it’s an entertaining account of a lifetime sorting out other people’s property problems, but because it’s raising money for a priceless cause.

The Northern Echo: The Darlington Rotarian had been intending to write his autobiography for a while, but when he was diagnosed with cancer, the plan suddenly took on a greater meaning.

With a proud track record in fundraising, he decided the proceeds should go to Macmillan Cancer Support, in recognition of the care he’d received during his own health scare.

“Writing a book had always been on the bucket-list but being diagnosed with cancer accelerated it and gave me a much clearer view about the charity I wanted to benefit,” he explains.

Alan, now 75, is originally from Coundon, where his dad, John, – “a bit of a wheeler-dealer” – ran a corner shop, while mum, Phyllis, was a housewife. The family moved to Kirk Merrington when Alan was a toddler, and then to Shildon when he was four.

The Northern Echo: When he was 10, and a pupil at Timothy Hackworth School, he raided his dad’s secret drawer and finding the manuscript of an unfinished book. “He died not long after that and I vowed that I’d write a book one day and finish it,” recalls Alan.

But the career had to come first. At 16, he started working for Henry Pigg estate agents, in Bishop Auckland, as a junior surveyor. He tried to gain his qualifications as a building surveyor via a correspondence course but “failed spectacularly” and decided to go to Bristol University instead.

After graduating, he joined the architectural department of Stockton Borough Council, before joining estate agents, Goom and Wearmouth, and then launching his own business as a chartered building surveyor, working above a crockery shop in Duke Street, Darlington.

He went on to join forces with friend Peter Fall, launching Peter Fall Cowie, which became the biggest firm of building surveyors in the north, employing 50 people.

The Northern Echo: The cancer diagnosis came two years ago. “It was quite a shock because I’ve always been quite fit,” admits the father-of-three and grandfather-of-two.

He was cared for at the Sir Robert Ogden Macmillan Centre, in Northallerton, and will be forever grateful. “They helped me through it all, gave me someone to talk to, and looked after me so well,” he acknowledges.

He’s now been given the all-clear, he adds, touching the wood of the table in front of him as we chat, and he wants the book to raise funds for a charity that provides comfort for countless people.

“Hopefully, people find it informative and amusing at the same time, and see that it's for a great cause,” he says.

Beautifully complemented with fun illustrations by former Northern Echo cartoonist, Cluff, the anecdotes come thick and fast over 160 pages.

Like the time when Alan was just starting out as a teenager with Henry Pigg, and he was sent to check a house where an old man had died. He happened to kick one of the blackened bricks around an old combination range and, when it came loose, it revealed a hidden Oxo tin with £10,000 in cash inside.

Naturally, he did the right thing and declared the money, and has gone on to unearth all sorts of things that people have stashed away in nooks and crannies, including cash, jewellery, and guns.

Mind you, nothing prepared him for the time he opened a cupboard door while inspecting an empty commercial building, and "a body" fell out. It turned out to be a tramp who been woken from his slumbers but was alive and well.

The Northern Echo: Then there was the time, while viewing a rather nice detached property, when the lady of the house refused to allow Alan into one of the four bedrooms. It transpired that a pigeon had flown in through a window, nested in an open cupboard before laying its eggs, and there was no way the woman was prepared to let it be disturbed.

“Looking back, I’ve really enjoyed my career, and I’ve enjoyed writing it all down, so it would be nice to raise a bit of money for a charity that does a wonderful job and has become close to my heart,” says Alan.

I ALWAYS enjoy my visits as a speaker to the Friends Together group, at Crook, but the latest was tinged with sadness.

That’s because Susan Hall, co-founder, secretary and trustee of the group, recently passed away after a short illness.

Susan, pictured below, became a dedicated volunteer for the group after it was launched by her friend, Eunice Smith, to help combat isolation and loneliness in the area. It started with just six people, and there are now two 40-strong groups, one meeting on Mondays and the other on Thursdays.

The Northern Echo:

Friends Together members, all wearing purple flowers in recognition of Susan’s favourite colour, provided a guard of honour outside St Cuthbert’s RC Church for her funeral.

“Susan gave such a lot to the group,” says Eunice. “She was very artistic and did a lot of crafts with the members. It all happened very quickly and she’ll be missed by us all.”

Trustee, Lindsay Stores, adds: “She was such a lovely lady. Being a volunteer here became a huge part of her life, and a lot of people have reason to be grateful for the time she gave.”

Susan was the wife of late husband, John, and mother to Mark, Phillip. She doted on her grandson, Joseph, and also leaves a sister, Jane, and daughter-in-law, Leanne.

A Friends Together party was held in her honour. “She would have loved that – knowing that people were together having a good time,” smiled Eunice.

Rest in peace, Susan, and thank you for being a good friend to so many.