The section of Isaac’s Tea Trail from Alston, if you’re walking the Tea Trail clockwise, is slightly complicated by a missing footbridge. Floods took out the bridge across the River South Tyne at Kirkhaugh and it will be many months before it is replaced, but there are several delightful alternatives.
We chose to walk to South Tynedale Railway’s Kirkhaugh Station then catch a train back to Alston. A steam train. An environmentally-friendly steam train that burns wood instead of coal, in a locomotive that had a previous life on a sugar plantation in South Africa.
Before meeting Green Dragon we had 3.8 miles of the Pennine Way to walk. The distinctive Isaac’s Tea Trail waymarkers joined the Pennine Way’s white acorn logo to show the way out of the southern end of Alston, crossing the river on the A686 road bridge before turning north along a stony track.
The track led into open meadows with views across the rooftops of Alston and up onto the high moors. After skirting Harbut Lodge, a rather grand country house, and walking up the tree-lined avenue which makes a rather grand driveway for the house, we crossed the A689 for the main ascent of the walk.
The route up the field wasn’t clear on the ground but it curved slightly to the right as it climbed, following the line of a stone wall on the left. Once the path started to plateau we could see the pale timbers of a new kissing gate in the wall ahead confirming our direction, and a clearer track was visible in the pasture.
Looking at the map I was reminded that there is a third Long Distance Walk sharing this route with Isaac’s Tea Trail and the Pennine Way. Marked as A Pennine Journey, it’s a 247-mile route recreating a walk undertaken by Alfred Wainwright, famed for his guide books of the Lake District fells. In 1938 he set off from Settle in North Yorkshire up the eastern side of the Pennines to Hadrian’s Wall then back south through the western Pennines.
As we reached the Gilderdale Burn we passed through another fine wooden gate, this one with a plaque dedicated to a keen walker who died in November 2016. It was installed by the Friends of the North Pennines as part of their donate-a-gate scheme which replaces stiles with more easily-accessible gates.
The Gilderdale valley has an intimate, secret feel about it and it made a perfect lunch stop before we headed north again towards the Roman Fort of Epiacum. Climbing up out of the valley it could be easy to absent-mindedly follow the farm track as it veers right and downhill to Whitlow Farm buildings. Instead, Isaac’s Tea Trail keeps left and steadily uphill until a detailed information board makes it obvious that you are looking across the Roman fort. Epiacum has been described as ‘the most significant archaeological monument in the region’ and ‘the best preserved fort in the Roman Empire’ by Professor Stewart Ainsworth from Channel 4’s Time Team.
We chatted to a Dutch couple who were loving their walking holiday in the North Pennines.
From the fort our route descended past Castle Nook Farm, where Isaac Holden courted Ann Telfer before they married and settled in Allendale. The path passed through a patch of woodland before we crossed the A689 and into a series of fields leading to the railway line.
After a short wait at Kirkhaugh Station we heard the distant toot of a steam engine and Green Dragon came around the bend. Kirkhaugh is a request stop so we stuck out our hands to stop the train and boarded for the ride northwards to the end of the line at Slaggyford, where we stayed on board for the return journey to Alston. Dottie the dog was a bit anxious about all the hissing and clanking noises, but Dora happily carried out a systematic and very thorough search for crisp crumbs.
The locomotive Green Dragon looked immaculate. It was built in Leeds in 1937 and shipped to Natal in South Africa where it hauled sugar cane from the fields to the mill until the early 1980s. It arrived in Alston in 1998 and came into regular service on the South Tynedale Railway in April 2019.
Green Dragon’s name was chosen because of the locomotive’s environmentally-friendly fuel – it burns wood briquettes made from waste virgin sawdust rather than coal and is the first of its kind in Europe. As we were in the open carriage it meant an occasionally smokey journey but without the eye-stabbing cinders of the olden days. The footplate crew told us they no longer finish a shift covered in soot.
The top speed of trains along this line is 15 miles an hour making our ride back to Alston leisurely and pleasurely, and a great way to end an afternoon in the hills.
There’s more information about Isaac’s Tea Trail at http://isaacs-tea-trail.co.uk/
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