…in which wolves are made into pies, pubs are disguised as churches and sheep form nocturnal choirs.
Alston to Knarsdale, 12 miles.
A day of almost incomprehensible richness and civilisation after wild and woolly Cross Fell. Alston is a proper town with not one but two supermarkets. A large Spar at the petrol station just visible from The Way enables walkers in a hurry to fill their packs with a wide selection of convenience foods. For those on a more relaxed schedule, there’s a Co-Op and other interesting local shops uphill in the town centre. Falling into the latter category on this easy day, we enjoyed wandering into this pretty, characterful town whose businesses always feel slightly on the edge of survival and deserve support.
There’s a great charity shop, an impressively-stocked outdoor shop, a chippie, pubs, you name it; there was even a minimal but lively country market with eggs and produce for sale, appropriately at the old town cross. The tea room in the town centre, having something of a monopoly, doesn’t have to try too hard. They’re nice, decent people, the loos are well-appointed and there’s nothing wrong with their food, it’s positively pleasant in fact, it’s just not pushing any envelopes.
Bursting artisanally out of all envelopes was the legendary Wolf Pie from the Moody Baker co-operative further up the hill. This is basically a large plate pie of deliciously short and tasty crust containing an entire meat and three veg meal. It’s extraordinary, a pie that fully justified its slightly ambitious price of, I think, £3.75. Service at the Moody Baker is quirky but this is slow food and a total delight, their buns are top-notch too. Another important resource for Wayfarers at Alston is the hostel, now independent, which is conveniently next to The Way as you approach the town. Lovely people and also well worth supporting.
Leaving the A689 at Slaggyford the Yew Tree Chapel where The Way turns right off the lane has a Wayfarer-accessible drinking water tap, a not unimportant consideration in summer although bottled water is widely buyable in Alston. The house opposite had a sign outside in October 2016 saying ‘takeaway tea or coffee, 50p’.
At Knarsdale there’s informal camping by the house at Stone Hall Farm, you just turn up, pitch up and pay your fiver a head (June 2016) whenever the friendly family come home. There’s a loo (learn to whistle), a cold water tap and great views of Tynedale; that’s it. I’d avoid the back wall under the trees as hundreds of incredibly vocal sheep may gather on the other side of it at night and they don’t seem to sleep much. The dilemma of camping here is that it’s a bit of a detour off The Way proper, but of course it’s not a detour at all if you, ahem, walk along the road from Slaggyford.
The overwhelming reason to stop at Knarsdale is the excellent Kirkstyle Inn, a total treat. Part of its charm is its old-fashioned set hours but the website is as well-kept as the beer; don’t forget to check it for the times they don’t do food, at the time of writing these were Sunday evenings and Mondays. In addition in winter it seems they’re not open at all on Tuesdays. This is just a great place, but don’t take my word for it, check on TA. The NTG will tell you it’s 0.7 miles from The Way but that can’t be right – from where The Way joins the A689 under the viaduct I can tell you the pub door is just 450 of my fast and joyful paces. Maybe the ‘0.7 miles’ is there and back, but who cares? By this point on The Way The Kirkstyle Inn feels like a little bit of heaven.
This sounds silly indeed but after crossing the Tyne at about 723 432 it’s possible to get lost at the appropriately-named Low Sillyhall because the fingerpost is pointing in a slightly misleading direction. Don’t keep going uphill! Once you get to the fingerpost The Way contours ahead northwest through a gap in the tumbledown wall. If you keep going further uphill you may well end up in a ramshackle but charming farmyard and, in June, may find yourself adopted by hordes of tiny and highly vocal lambs, which will then embarrassingly follow you through tiny gaps and crannies in walls and gates.
Even worse, you may then find yourself wandering dazed and confused around a baffling golf course before retracing your steps and finding the totally obscure and invisible public footpath down through the fields to rejoin The Way at Bleagate. Who would do that? Ahem. The Way to Alston is an easy walk along the contour of the valley; it hardly goes uphill at all.
Isaac’s Tea Trail must be one of England’s most utterly obscure trails but find the Gilderdale bridge and you’re home and dry in Northumberland. Unless it’s October, in which case you’re home and wet-footed. From Kirkhaugh to Lintley the paths are various and confusing, it doesn’t really matter whether you go high or low as long as you end up heading under the obvious viaduct at about 687 512 rather than along the railway line. At no point, so far as I can recall, does the Pennine Way actually go along the railway line, and a good thing too as the said line is progressively being restored and re-trained.
Slaggyford presents a dilemma. The Merry Knowe loop is just a country walk. The views are not particularly impressive and, apart from the very pretty river crossing at 673 528 and the old railway bridge immediately after it, the ambience and the navigation are agricultural (you go through the middle of the farm buildings at Merry Knowe then back down somebody’s drive and over a tricky low stile in their garden wall). It puts more distance between you and the pub. Whereas, if you just walk along the road….
If you did come into Knarsdale along the A689 you would take the right fork at the village hall to find the campsite thereafter more or less immediately on the right and the pub soon afterwards. In the new NTG the pub is exactly on the split of the maps between pages 146 and 147. The path from the campsite back to the A689 is Northumberland’s shortest bridleway. No, really.
It’s not every morning you wake up in a misty kiddies’ playground but that sort of treat is all part and parcel of The Way. The South Tyne is still a young river at Garrigill and quite frisky but it rapidly gains girth and gravitas as you follow it to Alston. The Pennine Way basically accompanies it and at Alston both are joined by a railway not so long ago condemned to oblivion but now rapidly being resurrected by enthusiasts. There’s a strong sense of the importance of this valley from time immemorial as an artery of trade and communication; Tynedale is sort of the Watford Gap of dales. By early June Wayfarers must push through wild flowers along the riverbank, more than I could name and many not yet in bloom. July along here must be amazing.
The only section of the riverside walk to Alston that isn’t pretty is the first bit, which is what we call in Norfolk a rustic shambles; shacks, an old caravan almost certainly inhabited, goats, free-range chickens and ducks, piles of wood, old vehicles, piles of scrap. It seems to be urban dwellers who find such outbreaks of mild squalor among beautiful countryside unsettling. Rural residents ourselves, we just ambled through going ’oh, hello goat’. All the animals were calm and well-behaved and again city folk might wonder whether one could say the same about the human denizen(s). We felt optimistic, not least because close to where we live there is, hidden away, a very similar set-up occupied by a sweet dreadlocked young couple.
After the adventure of getting lost at Low Sillyhall, involving lambs and a golf course as noted above, we made it into Alston. Starved of urban life, we did the shops, although of course without actually shopping as we weren’t about to add to the weight of our packs. This must have baffled and possibly frustrated the shopkeepers. I did manage to add significantly to my own weight in the form of a Wolf Pie, while commiserating with a fellow-Wayfarer whose bashed knee from a fall was prematurely terminating his trail.
With a slight enthusiasm deficit and a non-trivial weight gain we ambled out of Alston on the nonexistent Isaac’s Tea Trail towards Whitley Castle. This we could take or leave, really, even though it’s labelled as the most awesomest Roman wossname in Europe. We’re not that big on forts and castles, however glorified by age, unless they harbour either rare wildlife or a tearoom, preferably both. I’m fifty-seven years old, how many times do I have to stand and ‘imagine what it must have been like to be a legionary’ as the signs always exhort? Veni, vidi, imaginici.
I’m quite big on Victorian civil engineering however and the South Tyne is England’s highest narrow gauge railway, opened in 1852 with nine spectacular Victorian viaducts (ha ha, thanks Romans) and closed in 1976. It’s already running again as far as Lintley and the plan is eventually to link again into the main network at Haltwhistle. The viaducts are beautiful as well as impressive and The Way passes directly and interestingly below a couple of them. At Lintley I was over the moon under the bridge to see a pair of Spotted Flycatchers gathering food for their young. The expense of restoring these viaducts to safety must be huge as they have quite substantial trees emerging from their masonry – a sycamore can grow seriously big in forty years.
OK, OK, we did walk along the road from Slaggyford, due to my companion’s blisters. These did not however prevent us from exploring the completely delightful little church, or kirk, at Knarsdale while waiting for the pub, which is right next door, to open. The story goes that the Inn was deliberately built in the style of a kirk, and so named, to confuse and ward off the malevolent forces of temperance, i.e. the vicar. After a really top-notch meal and some superb ale we repaired to our tent against the wall. Behind this for the whole night what sounded like about a thousand sheep kept up animated conversation, interspersed with intermittently practising their scrummage against the stones.
You can tell we weren’t particularly inspired on this day as only one photo of the entire walk exists, and this is it. Kind of sweet, though…