There was a time when being in the North Pennines around Alston Moor would mean hard toil and long hours – sometimes in the face of the most extreme English weather. Today any physical hardship is likely to be self-imposed, purely recreational and timed carefully to fit in with the good weather essential to experience these magnificent dales at their best. That’s certainly the objective of this bike ride anyway, which is intended as a two-wheeled alternative to Isaac’s Tea Trail, a 37-mile walking trail between Allendale, in Northumberland, and Alston in Cumbria. The trail traces the sales route of Isaac Holden, lead miner turned peripatetic tea-seller and philanthropist, who was one of Allendale’s most respected sons.
Stats at a Glance
Distance 64 km/39.7 miles | Height Gain 1343 m/4406 ft | Max Elevation 609 m/1998 ft | Going Metalled roads with off-road options. Generally hilly – long, steep to very steep (up & down) in places but with extended flat sections also. Very exposed in places, particularly on wide hill tops | Supplies & Hospitality Allendale (All); Allenheads (Ca; PH); Nenthead (Ca; Cy; PH); Alston (All); Whitley Castle (Ca); Slaggyford (Ca*); Bearsbridge (PH) | Start & Finish Isaac’s Well, Allendale Town, Northumberland NY 838558 | Grade Challenge
*Opening hours restricted to train services
About Isaac Holden
Isaac was born in West Allendale, sometime around 1805 and, like most boys in the dale at that time, eventually went to work in its lead mines. After losing his job when the industry slumped he began selling tea around towns and villages visited by today’s Tea Trail. He became a devout Methodist before marrying his childhood sweetheart, Ann Telfer, in Kirkhaugh Church in 1834. Later, as a successful grocer in Allendale, he raised funds for amenities such as chapels, hearses and tragically – after the death of one of his two daughters – the ‘well’ or public fountain in Allendale which bears his name and from where the trail and this ride both start. Such was the level of respect for Isaac that, when he died in 1857, his memorial headstone in the churchyard of St Cuthbert’s was paid for by public subscription.
Overview of the Route
First of all, this cycling route isn’t intended for the physically naive but neither is it only for the super-fit. Yes, there are strenuous climbs – some long and some steep; there are also fast descents, and gnarly off-road options – some of which are quite technical. For balance, there’s a lengthy flat section on a railway path, all linked by gentle undulations on well-surfaced, quiet roads. I rode it twice over three days for the purposes of documenting the route – on a tourer and on a mountain bike – and enjoyed it equally both times.
To facilitate road bikes, what I describe as the main route uses metalled road surfaces – with the exception of 4.5 miles of the shared South Tyne Trail between Alston and Slaggyford. While it offers a superb opportunity to relax and take in the wonderful views, it is unsurfaced and bumpy in parts. Cyclists with narrow, high-pressure tyres, more suited to the road, might prefer the busier A689 alternative which runs parallel.
To keep everybody happy, several off-road options are included. These are suited ideally to bikes with specific off-road features such as wider tyres with deep treads, a wide range of gears and even suspension (I managed tolerably well on a touring bike with 28c tyres but was far more comfortable on a mountain bike the second time). Photographs of all the sections are attached to the route on the map above.
There’s also a road option to include Allenheads which could arguably be part of the main route. However, the route as published makes the ascent onto Allendale Common more gradual and less tiring. It’s lumpy and steep past Thorngreen Lime Kilns to Paxhill and stopping in Allenheads at either The Hemmel Cafe (a popular stopping point on the C2C cross-country cycling route) or Allenheads Inn would be a bit too early for my taste. You’ll get an extra couple of miles out of it though.
Clockwise is my preferred direction, to make the most of a glorious 5-mile descent on the well-surfaced A696 where traffic is light but fast-moving. The ‘shorter’ off-road alternative (see the image below) which I did on the second ride is only for the die-hard trail rider in my opinion: apart from passing up the long road descent, it’s much slower, involves several awkward gates and may even be flooded into the bargain, as it was for me (I couldn’t avoid getting my feet well and truly soaked). What fun there is to be had from the relatively short section of rocky downhill is insufficient as far as I’m concerned. After taking one for the team, it’s the road for me from now on.
In the spirit of the tea-trail which the ride has been designed to shadow, I’ve suggested Allendale Town’s public fountain – which Isaac funded and which is known as Isaac’s Well – as an appropriate start/finish point. It also benefits from well maintained public toilet facilities nearby.
One last thing: it’s worth pointing out that the C2C in the early part of the ride, over Allendale Common, is exposed to the normally prevailing westerly wind and will be hard work if it’s blowing (I had an easterly tailwind on both occasions when I tested the route but I’ve endured many a headwind over the years). Other than over the top of Alston Moor the remainder of the route is quite sheltered.
The route is within the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and Geopark, which is a bit of a mouthful to say or write but basically means that it offers fantastic countryside and open spaces for the whole day. The landscape is one of limited agriculture, livestock grazing and high grouse moors. Outside of a few sections of busier road, lanes are quiet and follow the dictates of historical habitation.
Rivers encountered are the East Allen, River Nent, River South Tyne and the West Allen all of which flow into the River Tyne. Geologically the bedrock dates to the Carboniferous period (roughly 290-360 million years ago) with alternating bands of limestone, sandstone and shale indicated in the stepped sides of the valleys – particularly along the River Nent from Nenthead. Glaciers from the last ice-age – which ended slightly more than ten thousand years ago – had the final word in shaping what we see today.
Apart from farming, which has persisted since pre-Roman times, there are still remnants – mainly in the form of shafts, levels and the immediately distinctive spoil heaps (such as those at Swinhope, Black Hill and Nenthead) – of the mining activity that peaked in the dales in the middle of the c19th. Lead ore (galena) and ironstone were the main objectives along with silver (useful for the exchequer of Durham’s Prince Bishops who owned much of the land in the Middle Ages) and, later, minerals like fluorspar and baryte. Alston Moor was particularly important area with Nenthead and East Allendale being sites of intense mining and smelting activities.
As in neighbouring Weardale, limestone quarrying also took place, typically on a thick seam known as the Great Limestone (exposed in quarries at Elpha Green and Blagill). Limestone was crucial in the iron and steel making process being used to absorb impurities in the iron ore that would otherwise contaminate the valuable final product of Durham and Teesside’s blast furnaces. The rock was also used locally – after being roasted in distinctive field kilns and crushed – as mortar, whitewash and fertilizer (useful stuff is limestone). Only relatively thin coal seams occur in the Carboniferous strata at this elevation which were exploited nevertheless by drift mines like those at Barhaugh and Clarghyll.
Apart from mining and quarrying, four historical themes in particular stand out for me that help characterize this ride: Romans, Reivers, Railways and Religion (it’s churches actually but I couldn’t pass up the alliteration).
The Romans built the hill fort at Epiacum (one of the finest sites in the country) early in the 2nd century AD to protect the road known as the Maiden Way. This linked forts at Bravoniacum (Kirkby Thore) and Magnis or Magna (Carvoran) and would undoubtedly have been a vital facility for shipping lead and silver from the mines on Alston Moor that existed even then. While much of the fort remains beneath the surface, it’s likely that a great deal of the missing stone will be found in buildings around the dale.
During the 1500s it became increasingly important for Cumberland and Northumberland farmers to protect both themselves and their livestock from clans of murderous border raiders known as ‘reivers’ (from which the term ‘bereaved’ is thought to be derived). They did this by building fortified dwellings generally known as ‘bastle houses’ or larger ‘towers’. Designs included clever features that made it difficult, if not impossible, for even the most determined raiders to remove possessions before resistance could be organised. The farm at Low Row is a good example, though a highly modified one, of a later bastle-like dwelling while properties at nearby Middle Row and High Row have significant remnants included in their present structure. Clarghyll Hall, further up the dale, across the Ayle Burn, is an evocative example of a building that began as a c16th bastle-house.
The Newcastle & Carlisle Railway established a branch line between Haltwhistle and Alston in 1852 for goods and passengers that remained in operation until closure in 1976. It was a major engineering feat – indicating the continuing importance of the area and its industry – that required the construction of 61 bridges and viaducts including the magnificent Lambley Viaduct which crosses the South Tyne well downstream of the ride route. Today the South Tynedale Railway operates a popular, narrow-gauge heritage line between Alston and Slaggyford which deserves a write-up of its own.
As I suggested earlier, there are a few churches worth pointing out, off the trail and on. The first and most notable is Kirkhaugh Church (above). Difficult to access easily by bike on this route but noteworthy because it’s official name ‘Church of the Holy Paraclete’ or ‘Holy Ghost’ is unique in the UK, because of its dart-like ‘fleche’ spire and because it’s where Isaac Holden married his childhood sweetheart Ann Telfer.
The second is Holy Trinity Church at Whitfield (above) at the foot of the long A686 descent and the looming, steep climb which begins at Blueback Bridge. Its elegant spire is the only part of the church that can be seen from the tea-trail itself and although of no great age (being built in Isaac’s lifetime) it’s a Grade II-listed building and a nice place to stop and contemplate. It also incorporates a charismatic memorial cross to what appears to be solely Northumberland Fusiliers of WWI. The names include a couple of Armstrongs (a notorious reiver surname) and a Whitfield.
The ascent after Blueback Bridge might possibly be the toughest on the route but it’s not the last. Leave enough energy for a steep kicker immediately after crossing the River East Allen, leading up to the marketplace past the dalek (see the map). It’s not too long but it’ll sting the legs (it does mine anyway). The final church on my list is St Cuthbert’s, off the marketplace by The Golden Lion. It stands on the site of a medieval church and is where you’ll find Isaac Holden’s memorial headstone tucked away beneath a tree in the churchyard.
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