Blog Post – A tour of Isaac’s Tea Trail by Nuala Obrien

Isaac Holden was a remarkable man. He was born into a lead mining family around 1805. When the mines closed he ran a grocery in Allendale with his wife from where he sallied forth on foot delivering tea to customers in the furthermost parts of the North Pennines. Along the way, he raised money for charitable ventures in support of the communities he served.

In Allendale he made his mark by establishing a fresh-water supply at Isaac’s Well, in an era when cholera was rife, rebuilding the chapels (one now the public library), helping to fund the Savings Bank and a clothing fund for the poor.

Most people travelled on foot carrying whatever they needed with them. This extended even to the bodies of the deceased who were taken, often for miles, to the local church along what became sometimes known as corpse roads. Isaac devised a plan to buy a hearse for the community in the West Allen and they built a hearse house to store the vehicle. Suspecting that people may not feel too generously inclined if they knew what he had in mind, he kept the plan secret until the hearse was bought and delivered. At its height, it was used around ten times a year for over fifty years as far as Alston and Allendale, proving to have been well worth the investment.

The hearse house has recently been restored by the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) Partnership as one of a series of initiatives of the Allen Valleys Landscape Partnership Scheme .

In 2001, Roger Morris, a man with a long standing connection with the area and a passion for its history, created the 36 mile Isaac’s Tea Trail taking in Allendale, Ninebanks, Alston and Nenthead, using the area covered by Isaac on his deliveries. Today Roger is leading a coach tour taking in some of the main sights along the trail which is itself is another project of the North Pennines AONB.

It has to be said that it would be hard to find a better man for the job! Roger’s passion for the area and its history is immediately obvious and his knowledge is encyclopaedic. In the tiny details of people’s lives, loves and work he brings the past back to life.

Along the way we pass bastles (fortified houses common across a region known for its lawlessness) both existing and ruined, churches and chapels, some derelict and others enjoying new lives as family homes. Pausing first to hear about Keenley Methodist Chapel, the oldest Methodist chapel in continuous use, the bus continues past quiet villages and hamlets dotted along the West Allen valley.

Mining had brought a boom to the North Pennines and sizeable villages sprang up in some of the most remote and inhospitable parts of the Allen Valleys. It’s hard to believe that now as so little trace remains. At Coalcleugh for example, at the head of the West Allen and once the highest village in England, just a few buildings remain of what was once a village of around 200 people with shops, pubs and a library. Mining there was at the cutting edge of engineering in its day but all that’s left today are, to the untrained eye, just folds and bumps in the landscape.

A little further down the valley an old mine shop at Barney Craig, one small reminder of that time, is being restored for use as a bunkhouse by the North Pennines AONB with Allen Valleys Enterprise Limited.

A continuing legacy of the industrial heritage is that, implausible as it seems in this beautiful landscape, both the West Allen and the Nent rivers are heavily polluted from water leaching from mine waste and work is underway to reduce the damaging effects of the spoil.

As we de-bus at the top where the road sign marks the boundary of Northumberland and Cumbria, one of the passengers volunteers that his uncle used to shepherd the moorland around us. On a day in June, with green hills stretching as far as the eye can see, the weather is sufficiently bracing to make me wonder what shepherding would be like in less clement weather.

We carry on down to the village of Nenthead where the church is shrouded as it awaits the recommencement of repairs following the recent financial collapse of the building contractors. But all is not lost. Roger has a gem to show us – a model village in the garden of a local house, all exquisitely built to scale using local materials.

A little further in we de-bus again at Nentsberry to walk a short section of Isaac’s Tea Trail. Following the river where the banks, eroded by recent storms, are being restored with willow and other material to create a living barrier against the winter torrents, we suddenly come across an unexpected relic of industry. Surrounded by a metal cage is what on first sight looks like a deep well. In fact it is a ventilation shaft for an underground railway which ran a full two thirds of the way between Allendale and Alston serving the mines along the way. So efficient was it that, according to an elderly miner among us, when his uncle was injured in the mine he was taken home along the railway rather than risk the journey above ground.

Back on the bus we head for a welcome lunch stop at the restored train station at Alston from where steam trains still run a few miles along the old track towards Haltwhistle in the South Tyne valley. Here too is another local gem, the Hub Museum.

After a welcome cuppa and cake we board the bus for a final run along the East Allen valley to bring us back to Allendale. For my part, I’m so enthused I plan to pick up some of the highlights again and walk Isaac’s Tea Trail in sections, rather like Anne Leuchars does in her excellent blog – click here.

Written by Nuala Obrien – The Incidental Blogger