Trails and trials of the writer who walks
This week I am tracing a path through a landscape of Victorian history.
In the very centre of the land mass known as Britain, is an area of outstanding natural beauty, of dales and fells abundant in wild-life. It’s not very far from Hadrian’s Wall, yet secluded from visitor foot-fall and cherished secretly by those who live or holiday here.
The 36-mile trail begins in the hamlet of Nenthead, in the Northern Pennines. In the dale of the River Nent, and in the wild fells above, nature is re-absorbing all the man-made gouging and prominences of 19th century lead and zinc mining. In the first half of that century lived Isaac Holden who lost his job due to mine closure and became a peddler of tea, calling at remote farm-houses, hamlets and miners’ dwellings.
I’m following the circular route he was said to have taken.
It’s a delightfully mixed backdrop to his life. Roe deer are plentiful in the woodlands. Streams rush and tumble over waterfalls and under disused railway bridges. On the lower flanks of the fells are ancient fields bounded by dry-stone walls where lapwings quarrel over nesting sites. As I climb higher, the breeze stiffens, carrying the whistle of curlews and a biting chill. Grouse, black as well as red, conspire to startle me, breaking cover almost under my feet.
In this moorland emptiness, lonely farmhouses stand or totter, naked of roofs and doors, their names lingering stubbornly on the map long after abandonment. Did Isaac call at this one? Did he offer a sample and sit down to drink tea with the lady of the house, perhaps bringing her gossip and news from the valley? Did she see him toiling up the track with his chest of tea strapped to his back and call out ‘Isaac’s coming! Put the kettle on!’?
Along the route are the market towns of Allendale and Alston where home-baked cakes beckon. So too, do the lamb and rosemary pies and pints of Pennine Pale. This is where I step out of Isaac’s shoes – he was a Methodist who would have eschewed the demon drink, but Allendale Brewery is one of my favourites so I have no intention of passing it by.
Alston is a steep little town, full of cobbles and ginnels, of mis-matched houses leaning into each other and secret spaces. It is also home to the South Tynedale Railway: a playground of narrow-gauge steam traction and volunteers in brass-buttoned uniforms.
I have saved, for my last day, a four-mile section of Isaac’s trail which climbs above Alston following the line of the railway. Puffs of steam drift along the treetops and glimpses of powder-blue livery tell me it’s the ‘Helen Kathyrn’ working the line today. I’m going to finish my ‘tea’ pilgrimage by taking a ride with her back to Alston.
I have one more treat planned: a night at the Youth Hostel. Despite the bunk beds, despite actually having enough time to catch the last bus home, I want to stay at the hostel so that I can watch the red squirrels over my breakfast – closer than I have ever seen red squirrels – through the dining room’s picture window.
Their feeding boxes are fixed to the tall fir trees just outside. There’s a supporting cast of tits and finches as well and a useful poster which helps me identify several species.
Isaac did quite well selling his tea. He was also a philanthropist, raising money for local charities along the way, so his name crops up in many a hamlet: here a much-needed water well, there a reading-room. He died in his fifties, as did many a lead miner. One of his legacies was a community hearse so that the poor would not have to shoulder the coffins of loved ones over long distances and rough terrain. And the first body to be carried in this newly donated hearse? Sadly, it was Isaac himself.