Just My Cup of Tea – Isaac’s Tea Trail in the North Pennines

Written by Anne Leuchars
(A Runner-up entry in the Off the Beaten Track Writing Competition.)

Isaac's Tea Trail near Alston
Wild moorland on Isaac’s Tea Trail near Alston

I never thought I’d do anything worthy of the record books, but surely taking six months to walk 36 miles wins the prize for ‘Slowest Completion of a Long Distance Trail’? But when those miles progress through the deliciously varied scenery of the North Pennines it’s worth savouring every footstep. The route is not only off the beaten track, it follows a track beaten by a Victorian tea pedlar.

Isaac’s Tea Trail is in the corner where Northumberland, Cumbria and Durham meet. It commemorates Isaac Holden, who was born in 1804 and started work at a lead mine when he was just eight years old. Serious ill health took him away from mining and into the grocery business. By then he was a devout Methodist and as he trekked these hills and valleys selling his tea door-to-door at remote farms and villages he raised money for good causes. The Tea Trail devised in his name links the locations of many of his customers and the remaining testimonials to his charity work.

Tea Trail signIt’s a circular route, best begun in the village of Allendale in Northumberland. Here Isaac Holden’s fundraising gave the village a fresh-water well in 1849, when cholera and other water-borne diseases were rife. The churchyard has a memorial commemorating Isaac’s death in 1857 carved with the words ‘He gained the esteem and respect of the public by his untiring diligence in originating works of charity and public usefulness’.

The circular Isaac’s Tea Trail could easily be called ‘North Pennines in a Nutshell’. The variety of scenery is astonishing – it offers high wild moorland, lush leafy riverbanks, hay meadows packed with wild flowers, characterful towns and villages, history and heritage, and a genuine sense of place.

North Pennines: l near Allendale
Lush leafy riverbank near Allendale

I’m a slow walker (especially uphill) and the ageing process is eroding my stamina, but I managed the high-level tracks across heathery hills. These routes not only followed the footsteps of Isaac Holden and his bags of tea, but the hoofsteps of pack ponies carrying lead from the mines to be smelted.

Hard to believe this beautiful, peaceful area was once famous throughout Europe for the heavy industry of metal extraction.

Fitter walkers than I usually walk the Tea Trail in four sections. Allendale to Nenthead is 11 miles, Nenthead to Alston is the shortest day at six miles, then Alston to Ninebanks is 12 miles, finishing with an eight-mile walk from Ninebanks to Allendale. Short detours also offer accommodation and refreshments at nearby Allenheads and Whitfield.

Isaac's Tea Trail at Whitfield
Detour to Whitfield

My much shorter sections were achieved by using two cars, one at each end of the walk, or getting a lift. Delightfully, two of the sections are accessible by steam train – the South Tynedale Railway heads north from Alston and links in beautifully with Isaac’s Tea Trail.

This part of the North Pennines is officially designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and it definitely deserves such an accolade. Even the short sections I walked packed in a diversity of landscape, with wide views to the far horizons offering even more delights in the distance. The evidence of lead mining doesn’t blight the scenery at all – the lumps in the land and the relic buildings are an integral part of this special place.

Isaac's Tea Trail near Ninebanks
Stone bridge near Ninebanks

Other eras of history have also left their mark. The Tea Trail passes an impressive Roman Fort, several bastles testifying to the lawless days of the Border Reivers when families needed to defend their homes and livestock from marauding gangs, and a great many Methodist chapels, some of which heard the founder of Methodism John Wesley preach.

There are all sorts of other surprise sightings. The route passes an ordinary bungalow with an extraordinary garden – the lawn is covered with model villages and miniature stately homes, plus a twelve-foot high Big Ben with working clockface. Elsewhere, the route passes through a farmyard where among the usual tractors and miscellaneous machinery is a Jet Provost military trainer aircraft.

Isaac's Tea Trail near Mohope
Isaac’s Tea Trail near Mohope

The North Pennines are often ignored by visitors heading to their western neighbour the Lake District, or Hadrian’s Wall and Scotland to the north, or the beaches of the North East Coast. I can’t decide if that’s a bad thing or a good thing. It’s a great shame that so many people miss out on experiencing the special qualities of the area traversed by Isaac’s tea Trail.

On the other hand, it means those of us who do know about it can revel in our secret.

POSTED 14th MARCH 2017 by STEVE HANSON on behalf of ANNE LEUCHARS. The photographs were supplied by the author after the competition had been judged.