Brewing up on Isaac’s Tea Trail


Isaac Holden I presume.

After a very parched weekend along the Gritstone Trail in June, I was determined to pick somewhere with guaranteed watering holes this time. A little trail in the North Pennines called Isaacs Tea Trail looked like it would fit the bill nicely, though with some pretty good pubs in the area it was always going to be a battle of wills between a cup of churtle and a pint of ale.

Isaacs Tea Trail is a pretty varied trek across the moors and besides rivers in the North Pennines, pretty much at the point where Northumberland, Durham and Cumbria meet.  The trail follows in the footsteps of Isaac Holden, a wandering Victorian tea seller who plied his trade in the area, and at a shade over 36 miles makes for a decent couple of days circular backpack in a quiet area.

Isaac's Tea Trail

Isaac’s Tea Trail

You can pretty much start anywhere around the route, I decided to start at Allendale mainly as that would put me somewhere north of Alston for the overnight with probably better options for a wild camp.

As it happens Allendale is quite a picturesque little village with plenty of shops and pubs, making it perfect for my last minute planning. The walk was a last minute decision the previous night and I’d not bothered to buy any food in advance. First stop Spar, followed by breakfast in the village Tea Rooms. This was roughing it tea shop style.

The first stretch follows the River East Allen south for about 5 miles, a gentle start through fields and past Rowantree Stob Bastle (one of many of these fortified farmhouses dotted along the Anglo Scottish border).

We seem to have had a pretty good summer this year and this weekend was another hot and dry one. This time I was carrying enough water to float the Ark Royal in, all in vein as it turned out.

The trail then climbs steadily to the open moor along the Black Way, and ancient route used by lead miners but I’m pretty sure it must have been a route over Swinhope Moor and Carrshield Moor long before that.

I must have been daydreaming for a while along this stretch and found myself heading downhill towards Allenheads when I should have been heading uphill with distant views of Killhope Law, the highest point in Durham. I’m admittedly lazy when it comes to retracing steps so I just took a bearing back to the right path and spent a knackering half hour across an assault course of bog and deep peat ditches. By the time I got back to where I should have been I was wasted so parked my backside, brewed myself a midday cup of Earl Grey, and then lay there taking in the view and listening to skylarks overhead.

It’s 6 miles over the moors to Nenthead, past The Dodd at 614m and on down past a line of old lead mine shafts at Brownley Hill Mines. After the peaceful solitude of a couple of hours over the moors, Nenthead brings you straight back into civvy street, albeit a cobbled civvy street.

The village of Nenthead is pretty much midway along the Coast to Coast cycle route from Whitehaven in the west, to Tyneside in the east. It’s also almost at the top of a long uphill drag out of Alston, so it’s normal to find a crowd of sweating cyclists here, abandoning bikes outside the Miners Arms. Today an equally damp backpacker joined them for a couple of pints.


Coming into Nenthead

From Nenthead it’s 6 miles down the valley to Alston, the highest market town in England. Again you wind your way through old mine workings and past horse levels which lead into tunnels stretching way across the border into Northumberland. Unlike so many areas in the Pennines many of the farms around here still appear to be just that, farms. I guess it’s just far enough away from the city jobs to avoid becomming a commuters retreat. The area has a lovely timeless quality about it.

I downed two litres of orange juice in Alston market square, stocked up on some food for the night and then set about finding somewhere to bed down for the night. I’ve done the next stretch north out of Alston numerous times in the past as it pretty much follows the Pennine Way for about 4 miles, so I had a rough idea of where I planned to camp. Somewhere near the site of Whitley Castle Roman Fort.

In the end I chose to pitch by a stream a little way before the fort as it was nicely hidden. Not always a good idea even if it meant I had good water on tap. My tent was rapidly invaded by an couple of battalions of flying insects, not the biting variety, just the pesky sort that have you spending the next two hours viscously exterminating them with your fingers against the inside of the flysheet.


Camped north of Alston

In an effort to toast Sir Isaac’s memory, evening brews included a couple of strange teas; a Yogi Liquorice Tea, and a Dr Stuarts Hibiscus Ginger and Goji Berry, tea bags that had been gathering dust in the back of the kitchen cupboard since trying legal remedies to get a good nights sleep. They never worked back then.

I woke up hours later, it was dark, it was raining, I was shivering like a dog passing razor blades, and I made a mental note not to drink tea that left my mouth tasting of cloves. It took several tots of Oban Single Malt to restore my taste buds.

Other than that it was a peaceful night, drizzled almost constantly, and memorable for the fact that I completely forgot to eat. How that happened I’ll never understand

Day 2

By morning the weather had cooled considerably, unexpectedly misty and damp for July. After breakfasting on the pasta I’d planned for the previous night I packed up a rather soggy tent and headed off to the earth works of Whitley Castle. The Romans by all accounts built some pretty impressive ramparts here to keep out the unruly Brigantes.

Current occupants three equally unruly looking sheep.

The first few miles of the day were a bit odd to say the least. Down to the Valley bottom and over the River South Tyne, the first thing that greeted me was a large frog, lying dead in the middle of the road with the sort of expression that only comes from drinking copious amounts of Ruddles County.

Walking down a quiet woodland lane to Randalholm the next things to greet me were a ‘Beware of Falling Rocks’ sign which looked like it had been used for target practice by the light infantry, and a mole which had ceased to be, half way across the road.

There was also a battle of wills here between delights of the Knarsdale Inn tempting you to savour a last pint before Greenhead, and tea pots urging temperance. Given it was still early and it looked the Knarsdale Inn may have long gone, I decided tea was the way to go.

From Randalhom the route heads back east, rising gradually up a side valley through forest and up onto Ouston Fell.  Now into Northumberland proper, the route goes over the fell before dropping down to Ninebanks, past the quaint little Youth Hostel, and then follows the valley side north in a series of stiff climbs. One particularly steep little descent takes you to the tiny Dryburn carriers bridge.

Now I’m used to seeing all sorts of rusting implements adorning farmyards, from bailers and trailers to sad looking Massey Fergusons. But what greeted me at Mount Pleasant farm had me completely foxed.  I’m presuming the farmer here must have a pretty extensive farmstead and thinking of using a jet for rapid crop spraying.


Another steep climb up through fields and a short section of rough moorland and the route then levels of as it arrives at monks wood. Lovely spot for a bit of lunch, high on a grassy track overlooking the valley.

And my last brew of the weekend, Yorkshire Tea, I wasn’t risking another herbal concoction with several miles still to go.

After a walk through Monks Wood. an ancient oak woodland which has you herding pheasants along the track in front of you,  the circuit then finishes almost as it has started; across fields and along a riverside, past quaint cottages, Tina Turner’s equine double, and gentle reminder to please leave your M16 at home.

And so there I was, back in Allendale. All in all another great over-nighter in a quiet part of the Pennines with plenty of variety.

As for the variety of teas I drank along the way! Well let’s face it there’s really nothing beats a descent ale at the end of a walk. The tea shops didn’t stand a chance.



Isaacs Tea Trail

6 thoughts on “Brewing up on Isaac’s Tea Trail

  1. A Tea Trail? What a nice idea. If the guy had sold cakes as well as tea on his journey it would have been even more to my liking.
    That’s another tent I see. Have you as many tents as rucksacks???

    I think that is a Jet Provost in the picture, a basic RAF trainer in the 1970s. I know these things because of my high ranking military past (ie I was a Flight Sergeant in the School CCF, RAF Section) – And I was proud indeed to serve my Queen and Country back in my younger days.

    • I’m currently running at a rucksack to tent ratio of 2:1. That still means a lot of tents. This one’s a Six Moons Lunar Solo, bags of room inside and virtually no seems on the fly. I’ve really enjoyed using it over the years, one of my favourites, has a bathtub groundsheet suspended from mozzie mesh like Daphne and weighs a little over 600g. The shallow angle on the backside reduces sleeping area a little (wouldn’t fit two), but they modified it a bit in 2012 and claim they’ve made it more stable and increased headroom. I’ve resisted getting the updated version, I need to clear out some kit.

      So what would a Northumberland farmer be doing with a Jet Provost ? The wings were on a set of pallets on the farm track.

  2. Nice walk John. I must admit that i hadn’t heard of the tea trail before reading this. I didn’t notice it when i did the Pennine Way, many moons ago, but maybe the memory has faded. Its one to keep in mind.

    • It’s a lovely quiet part of the country, in fact I met almost nobody over the weekend. If I’m honest there are as many opportunities for beer as there are for a pot of tea, but I did at one point think about taking a proper tea pot and china cup and really making it a walk with a bit of culture thrown in.

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