You know that slightly anxious feeling when you’re out walking and not exactly lost but not exactly confident that you’re on the right route? Then you see a fencepost in the distance with a little yellow blob on it, and the thought-bubble “phew!” bobs above your head like a balloon as you get closer and see that it is indeed a waymaker. A small yellow arrow brings instant reassurance, and when it’s accompanied by the solemn portrait of a Victorian tea-pedlar you know you’re still on Isaac’s Tea Trail.
As I’ve been exploring the Tea Trail around the North Pennines I must admit I haven’t given much thought to how these invaluable little signs get there. Now I’ve witnessed the waymarking and met the band of volunteers happy to carry heavy hammers and other tools across the countryside to maintain the signposting. Members of Hexham Ramblers look after many miles of rights of way and it’s a methodical, well-organised operation. I joined a group as they met in Allendale to plan a day which would involve checking more than 10 miles of Isaac’s Tea Trail.
One of the organisers, Julia Forster, tells me that they began their waymarker patrols in 2011, checking the paths in the parish of Riding Mill. Since then they have done Slaley, Chollerford, Birtley, Bavington and Haydon Bridge parishes, and also the Pennine Way from Hadrian’s Wall to Alston.
“We realised that the cuts to local authority funding could affect maintenance of the rights of way network so we thought we’d volunteer to help with a task that’s time-consuming and probably not high priority,” says Julia. “We were given training by Northumberland County Council’s Area Countryside Officer, and now around 20 of us regularly turn out with our tool kits and a bag of new waymarker signs.”
They check every sign along the route, and replace any that have faded or become damaged.
The walkers are issued with maps showing any problems that have been reported to the creator of Isaac’s Tea Trail Roger Morris (see blog entry ‘Isaac and Roger’). He devised the 36-mile circuit as a tribute to Isaac Holden who lived in the North Pennines and became quite a celebrity in the first half of the nineteenth century. A devout Methodist, he combined selling tea door-to-door throughout the hills and valleys with raising money for good causes.
The Tea Trail was launched in 2002 and over the years the elements have taken their toll on the infrastructure, and on the land itself. During their waymarking patrols the Ramblers make notes of any hazards they come across such as obstructions or landslips.
The heavy rain and floods of last winter have caused headaches for rights of way managers across the region, and Isaac’s Tea Trail has suffered damage in places. So one group of Ramblers was despatched to check out a major diversion that avoids a stretch where a riverside boardwalk has been washed away. The boardwalk gives access to Tommy Stout’s Wood near Thornley Gate, and you can see what it used to look like in the blog entry “First Walk in Isaac’s Footsteps”. Until it can be repaired, the recommended detour involves a steep descent to the Crockton Burn, north east of Keenley Chapel, then across meadows and onto the road to reach Thornley Gate. This route will now be walked more frequently than previously so it too had some of its waymarkers replaced.
Julia Forster says the team gets a great sense of satisfaction from their footpath inspections. “We feel we’re putting something back in to the countryside that gives us so much pleasure,” she says. Their efforts were rewarded in 2012 when they entered the Love Northumberland competition and won Highly Commended, presented by the Duchess of Northumberland at Alnwick Gardens. It’s an award scheme run by the County Council to promote improving the environment of Northumberland. Having witnessed the improvements the Ramblers achieved in just one day, I can testify that they richly deserve their award …… and also a hearty thank-you from walkers on Isaac’s Tea Trail.