I pull off the motorway at Tebay services, it’s chaotic. There is virtually no parking space, the whole area is like Blackpool front on a Bank Holiday. So they were correct when it was hinted that all the Benidorm crowds would be let loose in the British countryside. Not that I have anything against Benidorm. I wasn’t going to queue to spend a penny, so I drove out and headed for what I thought would be a quieter area of the country – the Northern Pennines as they are signed off the motorway at Penrith. Nenthead was my starting point for a few days walking Isaac’s Tea Trail
Nenthead was a major centre for lead mining from 1750 to the end of the C19th. The London Lead Company was founded by Quakers, and they built decent houses (considering the period) for the workers, complete with a free lending library and schooling for the children. There was a brief spell of reworking the mines for zinc, but that ceased in 1940. The village clings on as a quiet backwater with little to attract the tourist.
It is however on one of the c2c cycle routes and there in the centre of the village is the bicycle repair man. He is tinkering with the gears on a lady’s bike. I stop to ask him where it might be safe to leave my car for three nights. He points across the way to the mining museum, which looks closed, but there is a large car park with no overnight restrictions, so that is where my car is I hope. I leave Nenthead as quickly as I arrived, I’ll look around when I return.
From the village centre an Isaac’s Tea Trail finger post points along an ordinary looking street but at its end I’m surprised to see a model village of Nenthead with added features from around the world, obviously the lifetime’s work of a local. Along the riverside path, presumably the Nent, I meet a man walking his dogs, I notice one is attached to a harness and wheels. Apparently he has a form of a neurological disorder where they lose the use of their back legs before even worse symptoms develop. The owner is giving his dog some sort of life for now.
The whole area has signs of past mining with the spoil heaps now reclaimed by nature. There are lime kilns and mine entrances scattered across the hillsides. The soft sand from reworked spoil heaps is riddled with rabbit holes. Apart from the grazing sheep, I come across a group of alpacas.
The path is well signed as it crosses from field to field along the valley side on stone stiles. There are a few farms still working, but many have fallen into ruins. At one time up here was a thriving village, Nentsberry, with pub, chapel and school. An old man out walking looks as though he comes from that period, they are probably bred tough up here.
Down some steps the road is reached at a bridge. The Hare and Hounds is ruined, but a once blacksmith’s shop is still standing. Across the bridge is Nent Hall built from the proceeds of the rich Hudgill mine and now a country house hotel.
I meet a woman coming along the riverside path and she warns me of a closure farther along due to flood erosion repairs. So my brief spell by the water comes to an end at the Path Closed sign. I suspect that people are still using it, but I decide to be sensible and follow an alternative FP up past the neglected Lovelady Shield Hotel. I climb steeply up the hillside to meet a quiet road and then a rough mining track contouring the valley. There are a few farms up here, but most of the surviving properties are holiday lets. All around are signs of past mining, I’m getting good views of the valley and stride out purposefully.
The last stretch into Alston is a delightful path alongside the River Nent as it slides over limestone slabs and tumbles down small waterfalls. Along here there has been flood damage from Storm Desmond and repair work has been carried out using European money. What’s the future for funding these projects now?
Alston is reputed to be the highest market town in England and I enter it on twisted cobbled alleys, arriving at the Market Cross. I’ll explore farther tomorrow as I’m ready for a brew and a rest. My Inn for the night is run rather incongruously by a Chinese lady who is most welcoming and full of laughs. I think I’m going to enjoy this walk.