So to the final five miles of my re-walking of Isaac’s Tea Trail. Our walking group has become known as Isaac’s Tea Ladies, but although only two of us could make it today (plus Dottie the dog) we were again joined by Isaac’s Tea Boy Roger Morris, the creator of the Tea Trail.
Starting from Whitfield we walked up the grassy hill behind Monk Farm. The early mist added a velvety veil to the view of Holy Trinity Church in Whitfield and the West Allen valley.
After chatting to the friendly Shetland ponies in the next field we reached a stony track with lovely views to the left. The first time I walked this section I was so distracted by the views that I walked right past a stile on the right, where Isaac’s Tea Trail leaves the track to head uphill across a field. I felt less of a numpty when I looked at Roger’s official guide book of the route and saw that the junction is marked on the map with a warning triangle and the note ‘Stile easy to miss’. Today Dottie the dog and Christine were walking slightly ahead of Roger and I and they too didn’t spot the turn-off. I think it’s a shape-shifting stile because in its normal form it’s pretty obvious.
By now we had climbed out of the West Allen valley and were descending gradually into the valley of the East Allen. The two rivers meet one mile north from here and combine to become the River Allen.
During a short section of road walking Roger pointed out the site of a Methodist Chapel which used to stand at a cross roads, one of dozens of chapels in the area often less than a mile from each other. This one was Keenley Primitive Methodist Chapel, demolished in the 1950s after its use declined.
By contrast, just down the road is Keenley Wesleyan Methodist Chapel which is still in use. It was established in 1750 and the present chapel was rebuilt in 1875. Roger told us the tale of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, riding here non-stop from Keswick in Cumbria to marry Grace Murray in 1749, but John’s brother Charles intervened and took Grace to Newcastle where he persuaded her to marry someone else.
In the field next to Keenley Chapel is Hollybush Farm, where pack ponies were kept for the lead mining industry. One pony-driver, John French, apparently showed off his strength by carrying uphill an eight-stone bag of ore over each shoulder, one in each hand and one in his teeth. Truly there’s a story round every corner in the North Pennines.
As we continued downhill from the chapel we passed an oak tree planted in memory of a member of Hexham Ramblers group.
Reaching the riverbank we crossed a footbridge and a stone stile into a field. From now on the route would be on the level all the way to Allendale, apart from the sting of two steep but short ascents. The footpath went through a stunning garden where the colours and shapes of the plants sit perfectly within the landscape. The shrubs and lower layers flow into each other in a natural echo of the woods, fields and stone walls around it. The garden is obviously also a treasure trove for cut flowers as we passed a zingy bowl of pot marigolds.
Our route from the garden followed the river upstream through meadows that were obviously criss-crossed with wild mammal runs only detected by Dottie’s nose, and frustratingly travelling beyond the length of her lead. Her keenness did at least give Christine a pull up the steps installed as a diversion from a major landslip on the riverbank.
Isaac’s Tea Trail switches from the south bank of the River East Allen to the north bank at the former lead smelting mill and then stays beside the river. A stone bench provided a shady resting spot for tired walkers (just me actually, but Roger, Christine and Dottie pretended they needed a sit down too). As well as the wildlife interest along the path there’s the entrance to a tunnel built to drain the lead mines which looked as if it had been draining a little over-enthusiastically and flooded across the path.
The final 200 yards of our journey around the entire Tea Trail was up the steep road into Allendale but the effort required just added to my sense of achievement at having completed the route again. We finished beside the well that Isaac Holden provided for the village, and Roger surprised us by producing a tea pot, tea cups and saucers, hot water and plates of biscuits from his car. Dottie thought the biscuits were the reward for a dog completing the 37 miles of the Tea Trail. To be fair, while we’d been following waymarkers she had been assiduously leaving weemarkers for other dogs to follow.
There’s more information about Isaac’s Tea Trail at http://isaacs-tea-trail.co.uk/
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