Alston to Greenhead
Updated: Jan 28
Pennine Way - Day 13 - 15.7 miles - 'Highest'
Here’s a fact for you: the market town of Alston, where today’s walk started, is the highest market settlement in England.
Here’s another: it is also the most remote market settlement in England, pocketed in a quiet backwater valley south of Northumberland and roughly equidistant between Carlisle and Hexham.
And here’s a third: Alston has fewer women as a proportion of its population than anywhere else in Britain. Men here outnumber the fairer sex ten to one, which bought the town notoriety of sorts in 2005 when the local menfolk embarked on a campaign to attract more girls to their fair(ish) town.
My walking companion today, my cousin Sam, is sceptical about these various claims to fame. They may be true, he says, but there are so many of them (Alston Moor is the location of the highest road in Britain, Alston has the highest narrow gauge railway in the north of England, and England's highest roadside cafe is just a stone's throw away), it starts to feel as if anything can be famous for something – as long as you introduce enough qualifications.
Around here that qualification is height. Because Alston sits at 1,000ft above sea level pretty much everything in the town is, by definition, the highest in Britain. So it has the highest market square. The highest estate agents. The highest chippie. And – best of all – the highest sign proclaiming the town to be the highest in England.
Anyway, those lonely-hearted men.
Back in 2005 the womenfolk of Alston had, apparently, all fled to the bright city lights, leaving the men to gaze broodingly at the peat moors and sit in pubs talking about football, tractors and whatever else men talk about in Alston.
But the men didn't take this exodus lying down (as it were).
Instead they created a society – the Alston Moor Regeneration Society – with a mission to use the weapons of new and traditional media to woo women back to this unlikely 'Ibiza of the north' (as they rechristened Alston).
To that end, posters were circulated around neighbouring towns and cities that read as follows:
"Are you a single female? Sick of putting up with boring, lazy, ugly, unconsiderate [sic] and poor men? Then the town of Alston Moor is looking for you."
The average male in Alston was "single, athletic, intelligent, well groomed with an extremely good sense of humour," the poster continued, "owns his own vehicle and in many cases owns land and property as well".
"Compare this to the average male from your area and you will see why you were lucky to spot this notice."
The lucky young lady spotting the poster was directed to a website which contained a number of profiles of local men, including plumber and DJ Ben Coombes, 21, who was looking for a girl who liked clubbing (presumably not in Alston) and George 'Joner Boy' Smith, 24, a sensitive machinist and fisherman who was looking for "a woman who is a good cook and who doesn't mind a bit of hard work round the house like cutting logs".
As I say, this all happened back in 2005, after which, judging by the lack of any follow-up, those covering the story in the national media got bored and moved onto other things.
Like the women of Alston.
The official Pennine Way for the Alston > Greenhead leg sets off on a pointlessly indirect ramble.
It wanders up and down marshy dale, climbs dozens of stiles and fords farm ditches when there's a flat, fast and charming alternative available down in the valley alongside the South Tynedale Railway – the North of England’s highest narrow gauge railway.
Given that the branchline only closed in 1976, the trackbed – and the footpath that runs alongside it – would have been unavailable to Tom Stephenson. If he was planning the route today he'd surely have taken advantage of it.
That was my excuse, anyway, for rejecting the Way and following the line for the first six or so miles to Burntstones. It had nothing to do (honest) with the fact that I’m done with Pennine moors and if I can find an alternative I’ll happily take it.
The South Tynesdale Railway is a rather lovely thing.
While British Rail was pulling up the tracks on the mothballed line in the mid 1970s the newly formed South Tynedale Railway Preservation Society was already dreaming about steam rising again from the valley.
Early attempts to buy the line intact failed – as did a fallback plan to retain just one-and-a-half miles of it. So the Society decided to sod the powers that be and build their own narrow gauge railway instead.
Over the past 34 years they’ve raised funds not only to buy the trackbed, but also begin restoring the line and its stations. It now runs for three-and-a-half miles from Alston to Lintley Halt and brings a respectable number of visitors into the valley.
But the Society isn’t stopping there. An extension underway will take the line another mile to Slaggyford. After that it’s the big one: the final nine mile stretch to Haltwhistle, where passengers could once again join the mainline Newcastle & Carlisle Railway.
Who knows if the volunteers will ever make it that far, but they, and their contractors, were busy preparing the trackbed while we walked beside it. I wish them well. If they ever join the mainline the South Tyneside Railway will once again open up the valley to the outside world.
For which those lonely-hearted menfolk might end up being very grateful.
The railway, in the end, proved to be the best of the walk.
Bar a short stretch along the river, with its brown peaty waters and limestone ledges, the Pennine Way reverted to moorland form, crossing a few more miles of marsh, and, in a rare break from the norm, on footpaths that frequently disappeared into the murk. Either this was the Pennine Way's least-trod leg, or more than a few walkers had been claimed by the peat pools.
The stretch that looked most interesting on the map, following the Maiden Way roman road (which once ran from Carlisle to York), offered nothing of antiquity but ancient cow pats, while crossing the intriguing sounding Blenkinsopp Common was only enlivened when a few cows mooed louder than usual.
The day ended with a pathless descent to the one-street hamlet of Greenhead which has one tea shop, one bunk house, one row of bungalows and one pub, where we sat and drunk one pint.
It's saying something that the most fun we had all day came from chuckling at a panorama sign that labelled a nearby hill 'hill'.
Still, that's the beauty of the Pennine Way. Some days you win big, and some you don't.