My approach to walking the 36 miles of Isaac’s Tea Trail has been to bumble about, walking a few miles at a time. Now I have to find a word for the opposite of bumble to describe the approach of Will Horsley – he ran the whole route in less than eight hours, accidentally adding a couple of miles.
Will lives in Chester-le-Street but knows the North Pennines countryside through his membership of the Northumberland Fell Runners. “I’d seen the Tea Trail on the map and knew a few sections of it, but had never done the whole thing,” he says. “So one September day I decided to go for it.” He planned to run the route anti-clockwise, starting at Nenthead at 8.20 in the morning. This gave him a great start, with a fairly short climb followed by a long descent down the River East Allen valley. However, it also gave him a dispiriting final few miles.
The weather improved as the day went on, and Will was pleased to find that the route is fairly sheltered most of the way, with low-level paths alongside rivers and streams, through pastures and on farm tracks. But one frustration was the number of gates and stiles. Now to a leisurely walker like me, a stile offers the opportunity for a sneaky sit down on the top step, but Will says the stiles were tiring to negotiate and they broke up the running rhythm, which is important towards the end of a long run.
He ate chocolate and a few oat bars en route, and narrowly avoided filling his water bottle from a stream that had previously flowed through the corpse of a dead rabbit. Instead, he bought a bottle of pop in Alston, and that was his entire sustenance for the day. I’d like to see him try and run with the weight of my rucksack stuffed with its usual food and treats.
Looking back, Will says he will never forget his day on Isaac’s Tea Trail. “I saw scenery I’d never seen before and I absolutely loved it. Isaac must have been a tough old boot to walk that area delivering his tea. I imagine he just put his head down and got on with it.”
Among many highlights, Will remembers the section north west of Alston, where the Tea Trail joins the Pennine Way and passes Epiacum Roman Fort. “It was lovely and grassy underfoot and the views were amazing,” he says.
The worst bit of his epic endeavour came as he neared the end of his route, running from Alston to Nenthead. The riverside path was eroded, and then when it left the riverbank it followed a road uphill to loop around a tributary valley.
He was exhausted, and having to detour more than a mile just to return to the riverbank a few hundred yards upstream, was particularly demoralising. He says: “At one stage I was on course to do the route in less than seven hours, but those final few miles wore me down and I was pretty much walking at the end.”
Will has challenged other fell runners to tackle Isaac’s Tea Trail in one day, and he’s sure some members of North East running clubs could do the 36 miles in 6 hours. In fact, Will calculates that he did 38 miles with a couple of navigation indiscretions and wide diversions around herds of cows. It took him 7 hours 44 minutes. “When I got home I had a large mug of tea and thanked Isaac for choosing such a beautiful place to ply his trade,” he remembers.
Although injury has now put an end to Will’s fell running, he wants to walk the Tea Trail one weekend, this time starting in Allendale, with a night at Ninebanks Youth Hostel. “It’s just amazing what countryside we have on our doorstep,” he says. “Some people travel thousands of miles around the world to find great scenery and we have it right here.”
I’m still struggling to find a verb that means the opposite of bumble, but as I am the Bumbling Blogger, he must be Whizzing Will!