AN ENCOUNTER WITH THE PENNINE WAY’S FAMOUS MUD: ALSTON TO KIRKHAUGH

Update: the footbridge across the River South Tyne at Kirkhaugh was wrecked by flooding. The nearest bridge upstream (south) is at Alston, or downstream it’s at Slaggyford. If the South Tynedale Railway is running (www.south-tynedale-railway.org.uk) you might be able to catch a train to Alston or Slaggyford.

When I’m walking alone I quite often have an ‘earworm’ – a tune going round and round in my head, or even hummed out loud. Most bizarrely, it’s regularly “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” which was apparently first performed in 1918. I know I’m not up to date with modern pop, but that’s ridiculous.

Anyway, on Sunday, for the first time in my entire life, I walked with a hymn inhabiting my head. I was doing another section of Isaac’s Tea Trail and as I began in Alston the carillon bells of St Augustine’s Church were playing ‘Praise My Soul the King of Heaven’. The bells stopped ….. but the tune carried on for the entire four miles.

The walk was part of my ongoing voluntary project for the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Isaac’s Tea Trail is a 36-mile circuit inspired by the life and work of Isaac Holden, a Victorian tea-seller and benefactor. While he sold his tea door-to-door at remote farms and villages he raised money for community projects. Once I’ve done the whole circuit (just two sections to go) my photos will be brought together on the AONB website to give an impression of the route for anyone planning to walk the whole thing or just part of it.

Sunday’s section headed north and west of Alston, along the Pennine Way to South Tynedale Railway’s station at Kirkhaugh and a train ride back to the start.

The walk began with a level section parallel to the River South Tyne, first following a track then along the edges of several grassy fields.  So far so good, so far so dry underfoot. Then came a few soggy patches, then some very muddy patches.

16.5 Approaching Harbut Lodge

After passing through the gate near Harbut Lodge the route started heading uphill to cross the A689 and continued climbing alongside a gappy stone wall. It’s lucky that wetland birds are such a delight at this time of year because that makes the wet land they love tolerable for walkers. Lapwings, curlews and oystercatchers were putting on a fantastic performance all around me, seemingly as exhilarated as I was by the big skies and big views. For variety, this walk also offered wooded scenery with matching birdsong from thrushes, chaffinches and blackbirds.

16.6 track up to A689

Having climbed out of the valley, the journey across several fields is well waymarked with the white acorn of the Pennine Way – a trail famous for masses of mud so, I suppose this section felt it ought to contribute its share.  Some of the squelchy slippy stuff couldn’t be detoured and my boots looked as if they’d been completely coated in chocolate by the end of the walk. It says a lot for the scenery and interest along the way that I didn’t mind wet feet and slow progress.

A bridge across the Gilderdale Burn took me from Cumbria into Northumberland. Then a steep scramble uphill brought me two rewards – a fabulous bench (a strong contender for ‘Best Bench on Isaac’s Tea Trail’) and the remains of an amazing Roman Fort (a strong contender for ‘Best Preserved Fort in the Roman Empire’). Epiacum was probably built in the early second century, at around the same time as Hadrian’s Wall. It would have been built in stone surrounded by ranks of defensive ditches and banks, and is thought to have been garrisoned to control the area’s lead and silver mining. A stone wall crosses the ramparts as if to add the story of the modern use of the land as a sheep farm to the ancient story of Rome’s expanding empire.

16.20 wall across ramparts

Reluctantly leaving the comfortable bench I descended the muddy track towards Castle Nook Farm. Its Victorian occupants were definitely customers of Isaac Holden because it’s here that he met servant Ann Telford who later became his wife.

At the farm Isaac’s Tea Trail crosses the A689 once more to enter another sequence of wet, muddy fields. One of them was a sheep maternity unit with not only new-born lambs, but a couple of only-just-born-a-few-seconds-ago lambs. Slimy, wobbly and with a heart-tugging little bleating noise they somehow manage to stand up and totter to their mothers for milk.

Isaac’s Tea Trail finally leaves the Pennine Way to go over the South Tynedale Railway and down towards the River South Tyne, and that’s where I will start my next section of the Trail.

16.27 bridge over railway at Kirkhaugh

For now, though, I was happy to walk down to the railway platform at Kirkhaugh and wait for the train to take me back to Alston, thinking that my earworm should have been the old Flanders and Swann Hippopotamus song about mud, mud glorious mud. If I ever get an earworm from the 21st century I’ll let you know.

My map is only to help locate the route. To follow the walk in detail please see Ordnance Survey map OL31 North Pennines.

There’s more information about Isaac’s Tea Trail at allenvalleys.com

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