Update: the footbridge at Kirkhaugh was thoroughly wrecked during flooding. The nearest alternative river crossings are bridges at Alston to the south or Slaggyford to the north. The South Tynedale Railway runs trains to both, so check their timetable

What a great way to start a walk – looking out of a train window at stunning North Pennines scenery veiled by white smoke from a steam train. This section of Isaac’s Tea Trail begins at Kirkhaugh, a station on the South Tynedale Railway.

Locomotive Barber was on duty (see blog post ‘Isaac and Richard’) as I boarded at Alston for the trip along the South Tyne Valley.  The Tea Trail is just a few yards from the platform at Kirkhaugh, so the evocative sound of Barber chuff-chuffing along the track accompanied the beginning of the walk. The route descends towards the river and a footbridge which doubles as a grandstand for viewing oystercatcher fly-pasts and spectacular aerobatics by lapwings.

Isaac 20.6 Kirkhaugh footbridge

Across the meadows of the valley floor I could see the skinny spire of the Church of the Holy Paraclete (the Holy Ghost) in the tiny hamlet of Kirkhaugh. This church is where Isaac Holden and Ann Telfer were married in December 1834. Ann had worked as a servant at Castle Nook Farm nearby, and after their marriage the couple ran a grocery shop in Allendale. Isaac then took to the road, selling tea door-to-door around the hills and valleys, and also selling his poems and even his portrait to raise money for community causes.

By the time I’d reached the church Barber was heading back towards Alston, sending white smoke streaming above the distant tree tops and tooting a happy soundtrack to my walk. Happy indeed for anyone out in that valley, bathed in sunshine, bathed in woodland birdsong, in thrall to the colours and sounds of Spring. The lane towards Randalholm has the river on one side and a beech wood bank embroidered with wild flowers on the other.

Isaac 20.13 Lane from Kirkhaugh, alongside river

So far so sunny, but it is a truth universally acknowledged among walkers that rain is most likely when you have least shelter. Hence as the route turned to ascend a wide open field the shower that had been smudging the horizon arrived. The rain didn’t close in the views entirely though, so the gain in height brought a growing panorama up the valley towards Alston and Cross Fell.

To anorak or not to anorak? Reasons in favour: (1) a cagoule keeps you dry; (2) I like the pitter-patter sound of rain on my jacket hood; (3) getting too wet and cold could lead to an embarrassing encounter with the Mountain Rescue Team. Reasons against: (1) even the most modern breathable fabrics are hot and sweaty; (2) by the time you’ve taken off your rucksack, unrolled and put on your anorak and replaced your rucksack you’re pretty wet anyway; (3) my hood has a peak, a kind of driptray protrusion designed to shelter the face, but it points downwards over my eyes and I can’t see where I’m going; (4) wearing an anorak makes it harder to get at the tissues in my trouser pockets when hayfever strikes, and tissues in my anorak pocket get wet when rainwater dribbles in; (5) by the time you’ve dealt with all that, the rain has stopped and the sun is out.

Anyway, I did put on my anorak. A couple of meadows later, near the hamlet of Ayle, I was thrilled to witness a wildlife event that I’ve never seen before. A mole was obviously digging just in front of me and pushing up soil as it excavated its tunnel. I never saw the actual mole, just the pile of earth palpitating as more was added to the mound from below.

Isaac’s Tea Trail joins the lane through Ayle for a few hundred yards before heading off across the fields once more, downhill to the Ayle Burn.

Isaac 20.21 footbridge across Ayle Burn

The other universal truth of walking anywhere but in Holland is that after a down there must be an up. From the burn the rest of the walk was a steady ascent of the valley side, passing Grade II listed Clarghyll Hall. Then a short stretch of a quiet tarmac lane before the Tea Trail followed a track past the former Clarghyll Colliery.

The final climb up to the A686 was along a stony, rutted track which it turns out I should not have been using on such a wet day.

Isaac 20.30 Ausie sign

Such signs are a feature of the Australian outback, and somehow one has found its way to a Cumbrian hillside. Isaac’s Tea Trail is full of surprises.

My map is only intended to locate the walk route – Ordnance Survey map OL31 North Pennines will provide the detail.

There’s more information about Isaac’s Tea Trail at


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