Isaac’s Tea Trail has been described as England’s last great undiscovered wilderness trek. The trail runs over 36 miles and is mainly in Northumberland and entirely within the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Following in Isaac’s footsteps is a great way to discover the comparatively unexplored far North of England, (actually, it is near enough the middle of Britain). Check the map for Allendale and Alston, where the trail reaches Cumbria down the Nent Valley. Other walkers are few and far between, unlike the busier parts of the Lake District and on Hadrian’s Wall.
The higher moorland sections offer a challenge, with easier going along the tree fringed river valleys. The trail can be completed over two to three days or longer by doing shorter distances in a more leisurely style.
Isaac’s Tea Trail is named after Isaac Holden, an itinerant tea seller and local philanthropist. Isaac was a lead miner, who was forced to find another livelihood, when he faced the twin blows of illness and the loss of work with the closure of the Mohope mine after a slump in the lead trade. His salvation came in a novel way as a door to door tea seller in the Allendale area. At the same time he also experienced a spiritual re-birth, and in common with other folk in the dales became a convert to Methodism, which by the 1800s had become “the religion of the dale”.
Fuelled by a religious conviction, he combined tea selling with fund raising for the poor and needy in the East and West Allen valleys. At the same time, he promoted an impressive number of other ventures of wider community benefit. His legacy can still be seen around Allendale at Isaac’s Well, in the chapels, where one is now the Allendale Library and the Trinity Chapel still holds regular services. On the corner of the Market Place is The Gift Shop, in the village’s old Savings Bank. While tucked away afew yards further on is the churchyard of St. Cuthbert’s church and is the splendid memorial to Isaac Holden.
Five miles away at Ninebanks in the West Allen valley, is the hearse house built specially for the celebrated “Holden hearse”, near where he worked in his earlier year’s in the lead mines. Reminders of Isaac Holden are found in a landscape, which has changed little since Victorian times.
The trail includes the remote farmsteads and fell side mining hamlets, where Isaac delivered tea. During his perambulations, he sold self penned poems and copies of “of his likeness”, an early photographic impression to raise money. Nenthead, Alston, Kirkhaugh and Ninebanks, are also places with character that played their part Isaac Holden’s life.
In the ups and downs in Victorian family fortunes his cousin (another Isaac), invented looms and manufacured textiles for the Yorkshire woollen industry. The firm of Isaac Holden and Sons generated enormous profits, though little of this wealth trickled down to the Holdens’ poor relations at Nenthead. The woollen mills in Bradford, at The Alston Works, (named after the birth place of Holden’s father) and also in Keighley, processed the wool from 8 million sheep in a single year with other factories at St. Denis in Paris and Roubaix in Northern France.
The heritage of the North Pennines is well represented on Isaac’s Tea Trail with examples from over 2000 years of history with the magnificent Roman Fort of Whitley Castle, the defensive bastle house of Rowantree Stob, and extensive evidence of industrial archaeology and the mining and smelting of lead and silver. A world apart from what has now become one of the most tranquil and unspoilt parts in England.
The trail starts in Allendale at Isaac’s Well in the Market Place and goes over to Nenthead and Alston and returns by Ninebanks (YHA Ninebanks). The route is fully way marked and includes distinctive Isaac signs. The higher sections may be remote, but nowhere is more than 20 minutes from a road. Walking boots and clothing appropriate to the conditions are essential and an awareness that there can be sudden changes in the weather.
Day 1: Allendale to Nenthead (11 miles) (1575 ft ascent) – Follows the East Allen valley upstream crossing denes and through lightly wooded riverside. Then joins the Black Way to Coalcleugh over high heather moors to the County boundary and down a rough moorland track to the road into Nenthead.
Day 2: Nenthead to Alston (5.5 miles) (525 ft ascent) – Alternates between the fell side and waterfalls as the river Nent cascades down to Alston. Plenty of stiles and passes close by some residences.
Day 3: Alston to Ninebanks (11.8 miles) (1214 ft ascent) – Follows the Pennine Way past the Roman fort at Whitley Castle before crossing the River S.Tyne near Kirkhaugh church. Loops back at Randalholm, up the valley of the Ayle Burn over the A686 and up a moorland track by the Pennine Pottery and the old road down into the West Allen at Mohope.
Day 4: Ninebanks to Allendale (7.8 miles) (984 ft ascent) –From Ninebanks (Mohope)crosses the watershed of the West Allen back to the East Allen, through rough pasture, meadows and woodlands with a riverside walk into Allendale. Enjoy the variety and celebrate with a pot of tea in Allendale or even a local beer.