This six-mile section of Isaac’s Tea Trail follows the River Nent downstream from Nenthead to Alston, but it’s not riverbank all the way. The route climbs above the river in places, and in others the path drops right into the river.
It’s a grand walk, though, and on a sunny Spring day it offered wonderful wildlife – woodland birds warbling, waders whistling, wagtails, a woodpecker, a weasel and a wed squirrel (must get help for my alliteration addiction).
The first half mile is straight out of Gulliver’s Travels. At first I felt tiny beside the massive mine building used for sorting and crushing zinc ore during the early 1900s. Then I became a giant as I passed a group of miniature villages built on the lawn of a bungalow. The ever-growing collection of detailed replicas started as a retirement hobby for former miner and builder Lowson Robinson, and now he’s adding to them all the time.
All sorts of buildings and structures provided interest along this walk, many of them related to the lead and zinc mining industry. But these days, or course, hill farming characterises the area and at this time of year the fields are dotted white with lambs…. and every shade of brown, beige, chocolate and tan in a herd of alpacas.
Leaving Nenthead behind, the path climbs a little before tracking along the valley side across many meadows. Some tricky stone step stiles meant I had to channel my inner Chris Bonington to climb over the walls, but each mini ascent brought a new viewpoint. Passing the Haggs Bank Lead Mine, which dates back to 1690, the route eventually descends to the river by crossing a damp meadow famed for its rare wetland plant species. That does at least make up for the extreme squelchiness underfoot.
Then – joy of joys – a caffeine opportunity. Nent Hall Hotel is located on the 200 yards of the A689 which the Tea Trail follows. It might be wrong to drink coffee while following in the footsteps of a tea pedlar, but I’m sorry Isaac, tea just doesn’t hit the spot for me despite the charming adverts on the trail signposts.
Marvellously revived, I crossed the road to rejoin the riverside along a smooth grassy path. The river bank is heavily reinforced with stone slabs a little further along, then another section downstream has been repaired with willow hurdles and saplings. In fact, there was frequent evidence of t he destructive scouring power of a full river carrying a load of stones, with eroded and collapsed field edges and rocky beaches of deposited debris.
Through fields beside the river the walking was level and lovely, often with springy grass underfoot and cavorting lapwings above. But amid the fabulously fresh air, occasional reminders of the dark and dank miles of mining tunnels beneath. The ventilation shaft for the Nent Force Level is securely protected, but still a bit scary.
So far the only tarmac encountered was the crossing of Nenthall Bridge – but at Foreshield Bridge Isaac’s Tea Trail leaves the riverbank and heads uphill along the road to Blagill. It’s a steep loop up and then immediately down again, but the puffing ascent does bring distant views not visible from the valley floor.
Reunited with the River Nent, the route once more heads downstream, passing waterfalls and placid pools overhung by trees. Where the path goes through woods it can be slippery, and where it rejoins the riverbank it can disappear altogether. Floods have bitten huge chunks out of the land, causing the path to collapse into the water in a couple of places. After picking my way across boulders, I was glad to reach the soft carpet of another meadow, then onto the easy walking of a wide stony track. This is Gossipgate, once a busy thoroughfare for traffic between Penrith in Cumbria and Corbridge in Northumberland.
The track leads into the higgledy-piggledy cobbled back lanes of Alston, and through into the town centre. Famously, Alston is England’s highest market town and at the end of such a wonderful walk I felt high as a kite on the joy of the day’s journey – and a good slug of coffee.
My map gives you a general idea of the location of the walk, it is not intended as a guide to be followed. For that you can refer to Ordnance Survey OL31 North Pennines.
There’s more information about Isaac’s Tea Trail at allenvalleys.com