A little tip for walking Isaac’s Tea Trail: allow extra time for the path north from Nenthead. It runs alongside a unique garden where retired miner and builder Lowson Robinson has created several model villages. You will want to stand and marvel at the details, you will want to chat to Lowson who’s usually there working on a new building, and you might even want to sing along with Elvis when his voice emanates from the model of Graceland.
Having written about the village and photographed it for several previous blog postings (for example, see May 2019, February 2019 or April 2016) I decided to photograph the grassy bank on the opposite side of the path this time. I don’t know if the lupins were wild or garden escapes but they were very bonny, with contrasting bright orange hawkweed (known as ‘fox and cubs’), and yellow buttercups (which should be known as ‘profusion and plethora’ because they are in such abundance across the area at the moment).
The number of legs in our group had doubled from 10 to 20 since the previous walk as Daschund Dora was with us and we were joined by Lenny and her curly-coated retriever Paddy. After marvelling at the model villages we followed the path alongside the River Nent, which is heavily polluted with lead, zinc and cadmium from the former mines. The concentrations are well above the levels that harm wildlife so it’s not the type of riverbank where you’re tempted to linger and look for fish and invertebrates.
Soon we were climbing away from the valley floor and when we reached a field of sheep we realised we’d lost Dora’s lead. I donated my trouser belt as a substitute and we continued along the valley side about 100 feet above the river. One very wobbly stile had been undermined by a huge rabbit warren which had so many burrows it’s amazing that the earth on the surface is holding together at all.
Six stiles later (each posing a different challenge to the dogs – and to me) we reached the hamlet of Nentsberry, a key centre of the lead mining industry in the 1700s and 1800s. Every time I walk in the North Pennines I make a conscious effort to imagine what it was like as an area of heavy industry, one of the world’s leading producers of zinc and lead, but I find it impossible because of the peace and beauty around me.
Some of that beauty is actually as a result of the mining activity. An area near Haggs Bank mine at Nentsberry is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Area of Conservation because of a unique plant community that can tolerate the heavy metal content in the mining waste. It’s called Calaminarian grassland and it has a very restricted distribution in England. My favourite indicator plant is the mountain pansy, and others include alpine penny-cress, spring sandwort, Pyrenean scurvygrass and the fern moonwort.
The well-signposted path out of Nentsberry took us along the valley again to High Nentsberry and Nether Nentsberry. To our left we had 180-degree views up, down and across the valley, while on our right were gorgeous hay meadows. Utterly gorgeous.
Another joyful element of this walk is that there’s a coffee opportunity roughly half way along the route. So we had a lovely rest in the shady garden of Nent Hall Country Hotel, where we were served a marvellously strong pot of coffee. None of us managed the dainty royal method of holding cups as demonstrated in one of the quirky signs on the Tea Trail.
As well as providing fine coffee, the waitress at the hotel also provided exceptional service in finding a long red ribbon that we could use as a lead for Dora, so once we were caffeined up and my trousers were held up, we joined the path alongside the western bank of the River Nent.
At Lovelady Shield there’s a mine shaft that always give me the shivers. It was sunk in 1807 and drops 237 feet to an underground canal. It runs from Alston to Nentsberry and was designed to ventilate the Nent Force Level and to remove spoil from the mines. The canal was a visitor attraction in Victorian times, with the trade directory Kelly’s calling it a ‘Grand Aqueduct’ with boats in it and ‘guides in readiness at any of the inns for those who wish to explore these subterraneous wonders’.
The pyramid-shaped safety cover is called a Clwyd Cap (yup, every day’s a school day). These are commonly used in other former mining areas such as Cornwall and Wales, especially where bats need access to roosts in shafts and tunnels.
Our destination, Alston, was two miles downstream, but there’s no right of way along the half-mile of riverbank from Foreshield Bridge to the bridge south of Blagill, so Isaac’s Tea Trail takes to the road instead. It’s a far from tedious detour. The lane climbs up above the valley with views of the road bridge we would eventually cross before returning to the riverbank path.
Once we were back on the valley floor we were treated to six curlews in flight. They were cruising anxiously as a buzzard appeared, then one curlew took on a passing heron in a mid-air skirmish that produced a croaked expletive from the heron.
Adding to the variety of scenery on the walk, we next entered woodland for a leafy path alongside a series of waterfalls. By now Isaac’s Tea Ladies were harbouring tea cravings and although we were tired, the pace picked up along the final track leading in to Alston.
There’s more information about Isaac’s Tea Trail at http://isaacs-tea-trail.co.uk/