|The Pennine Way|
Meadows of flowers near Bleagate Farm
A lazy day lay before me. The mere 4 miles (7 kilometres) to Alston would barely stretch my legs. The day itself was quite misty with a bit of a chill in the air.
|The George & Dragon Inn||Pub||01434 381293|
|Ivy House||B&B||01434 382501|
I left Garrigill late along the main street and soon got to the track where the Pennine Way left the road to follow the South Tyne river. I did have one detour as I realised that the jingling in my back pocket were the keys to my room and I raced back to the George and Dragon Inn to return them. After a bad start - through a bit of a junkyard - the path settled down to a nice stroll beside the river.
I had a small break at a footbridge across the river - shortened by some bothersome flies. Across the river, the Pennine Way passes through pastures all the way to Alston. Some of the pastures were very pretty, especially the flowery meadows past Bleagate Farm. There are a few glimpses of the valley in which the South Tyne flows. The river expands dramatically from the placid flow that you see at the bridge with the added flow from Black Burn.
The final approach to Alston passes through a local beauty spot and into the main street. I left my gear at the Blue Bell Inn and went off to explore the town. Alston is built on a hill with many winding lanes in its older section - it is almost possible to get lost in the lanes. It has a number of small, quaint shops arranged around its market square. Many of the tall terrace houses have second storey front doors reached by steep stone steps. Alston will never be much of a tourist trap since its location surrounded by bleak moors gives it a cold appearance. This is an illusion - up close the town has many interesting nooks and crannies.
The Pennine Way actually bypasses Alston by immediately crossing the bridge over the River South Tyne. The town is still worth a detour even if only to replenish your supplies. If you are walking from Garrigill then lunch in the Angel Inn (there since 1614) is a good option. I stayed at the Blue Bell Inn (a bit basic) but there is also the Alston Youth Hostel in the town.
You may have gathered by now that I am a Kiwi with strong links to the north of England. These links are my parents: my father was born in Gateshead near Newcastle (making him a Geordie) and my mother was born in Frosterley, County Durham. I still have a few relatives "up North". Gateshead is a fair distance from the Pennine Way. On the other hand Frosterley is in Weardale which is just a moor over from Alston and a short trip on the bus away. So I decided to have a day off for a trip into Weardale.
The bus into Weardale did not depart until late in the day so I had a morning to fill in. Alston is the starting point of the South Tynedale Railway. This is a narrow gauge steam railway along the trackbed of an older railway (closed in 1976). When I rode it, it ran up to Gilderdale Bridge (4 km). However there were plans to extend the line up to Slaggyford (9 km). Steam train rides are always interesting and the terminus at Gilderdale was pretty. I had a talk to the conductor which decided my route for the next day. To avoid some roadwalking, the Pennine Way takes some round-about detours through fields and over many stiles after Alston. I decided to walk straight up the railway - there is a path beside the existing track and few obstacles on the rest of the disused railway.
Back in Alston, I picked up a Sunday paper and had a read by the market square. The bus arrived and I left on it over the moors. This is quite an interesting trip even if you don't have local connections. It crossed over a broad ridge of moor to enter the dale of the River Nent and headed up-river to the village of Nenthead. A dash up and over the bleak landscape of Slate Hill takes the road past Killhope Cross and steeply down into Killhope (by the burn of the same name). The bus can stop at the Killhope Wheel Lead Mining Centre (surrounded by one of the few plantations of pines in the area - Weardale Forest). You can spend a few hours here learning about the tough lives of the Weardale miners. But I went on and soon was passing the small villages at the head of Weardale. Beyond St. John's Chapel, the road crossed to the other side of the Wear. At Eastgate the only blemish in the dale was passed - the Eastgate Cement Works with funnily enough a leisure centre right next door. The bus next stopped at Stanhope which is the main village in Weardale. A few miles more and I was standing in The Green in Frosterley once more.
Frosterley ('Foresters Lee') is a typical Weardale village with older houses around a green stretched along the main road, newer housing estates to either end and a church between the road and the river. Frosterley is locally famous for previous quarrying of 'Frosterley marble' - a dark stone which when polished reveals small white and gray fossils. Many of the columns in Durham Cathedral are made of Frosterley marble. A prime example is closer at hand in the new font in the church. The old quarry is nearby - quarrying stopped when a stream flooded the workings. It is still possible to have a careful look around and pick up bits of Frosterley marble.
I had a bit of a walk around and then retired to the Black Bull Inn down by the bridge across the Wear to Bridge End. This had recently reopened and in my opinion is much better than the Frosterley Inn up in the village. My intention was to have a couple of pints of cider and perhaps a chat with the locals before grabbing the next (and only) bus back to Alston (about 5 o'clock). Around about 10 o'clock I was in a taxi back to Alston in a merry condition. Blame it on good cider, strong scotch and friendly locals.
I started off chatting to the landlady who vaguely remembered my mothers family and was soon introduced to a friend of my uncle Alan (hi Ronny Burrup, if you are reading this). I spent most of the evening with Ronny and his friends picking up some family gossip and comparing views. The pub was quite busy - I think that there had been a hunt during the day since I saw a couple of people in hunting attire (scarlet tunic and jodhpurs). At one point I switched from cider to scotch which is why some of my memories are blurry. Eventually I tore myself away from the good company and poured myself into the taxi to Alston. Altogether a wonderful day and evening - what's better I didn't even have a hangover in the morning!