Isaac’s Tea Trail is the inspired creation of Roger Morris who had the original idea, devised the route, brought it to a reality and is constantly working to maintain and improve it. So it was very special to have Roger join us for this walk.
From Ninebanks Youth Hostel the Tea Trail follows a lane to reach a cluster of cottages at Redheugh. Isaac Holden was born in one of these buildings in 1804; his father was a miner at Keirsleywell Lead Mine nearby and Isaac and his brother would probably have joined other young boys working on the washing floor, sieving lumps of ore in water to extract the heavier, more valuable particles.
After skirting the cottages we walked along a grassy ridge with the Mohope Burn below.
In the 1800s the green hillside that framed our views to the left would have been an obviously industrial area with lead mines along its length. The remaining structures at Mohopehead Mine are Grade II listed, but even where buildings have disappeared the landscape is contorted by mine workings. On the Ordnance Survey map there are repeated rows of the words ‘shafts (dis)’ and ‘level (dis)’, along with some evocative place names such as Scabby Tongue, Fairplay, Blackish Cleugh, Benty Rods, Emily Tongue, Deadman’s Cleugh, Rough Tongue. Each could inspire a story – a romance? a ghost story? a murder mystery? an episode of Vera?
The joy of walking with Roger Morris is his detailed knowledge of the Tea Trail and his enthusiasm for every aspect of it. Not just the landscape but geography, wildlife, farming, the changing land-use and economy of the area, and the people who live here. So it was that when we reached the valley floor he veered towards the bank of the Mohope Burn and pointed out an underwater limestone pavement.
Moving on from a geological gem we soon reached a social history gem: a hearse house. Built in 1856, it was paid for by Isaac Holden’s fundraising efforts as a way of bringing dignity to funerals. Death rates were high in an area of mining and an era of cholera and typhus fever. The hearse house had become derelict, but was restored by the North Pennines AONB Partnership’s Allen Valleys Landscape Partnership Scheme with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The building is now a mini-museum and home to quirky tea memorabilia, much of it provided by Roger who took the opportunity to tidy up the notice board while we had a nice sit down inside.
The hearse house is a few hundred yards off the official Isaac’s Tea Trail route, but well worth the small detour. To find it, walk up the narrow footpath from the road bridge over the River West Allen and instead of crossing the lane to reach the footpath a little to the left, turn right and walk up the lane past the church. The hearse house is just round the next bend.
Returning from the hearse house we walked in front of the Church Hall which was displaying a notice about its licence as a Pop Up Pub (the last Thursday of the month from 7pm if you fancy a pint). A small gate at the end of the graveyard led to a tarmac lane and a steepish hill up the valley side. Even if you’re fit enough to march straight up to the top (ie everyone except me) it’s worth pausing at intervals to look at the view behind you. There are many different landscapes along the 37 miles of the Tea Trail so I like to savour each one before it merges into the next, especially looking back at the Mohope area which has its own special character and a wealth of interest. Roger describes it as the Koh-i-Noor of the Tea Trail.
Soon I spotted a new waymarker on the horizon ahead, well-positioned to show the way up the grassy hillside. The signposting and condition of the footpaths is under constant review and this new post will save some scrutiny of the map. As well as the distinctive waymarkers there are vintage tea adverts on gateposts and fences, and teapots tucked into stone walls to look out for.
The slightly boggy pastures of the next section of our walk are a favoured breeding area for waders, and although the curlews and lapwings no longer patrol the sky and scurry among the rushes, we did see a snipe which rocketed up from a nearby tussock.
Crossing the cute bridge at Far Dryburn we walked up to join a stone track at the ruined farmstead of Birk Hott. This track passes several ruined buildings, again each sparking the imagination with stories about the lives lived here – a romance? a ghost story? a murder mystery? an episode of Vera?
After traversing open country for the entire walk, the final mile was through woodland. Monk Wood is a Site of Special Scientific Interest for its ancient sessile oaks, some at least 300 years old. The farm at the end of the woods is even older, built around bastles from the 16th and 17th centuries. These are unique to Northumberland and the Scottish Borders, solid defensive buildings designed to withstand violent raids from cattle rustlers and reivers.
Isaac’s Tea Trail continues across fields behind Monk Farm, but we walked down the farm drive and on to Whitfield, where the Elk’s Head is well-positioned for a welcome cup of tea.
There’s more information about Isaac’s Tea Trail at http://isaacs-tea-trail.co.uk/ and at http://www.northpennines.org.uk/?s=isaacs+tea+trail
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