Greenhead to Alston
Updated: Jan 20, 2020
Pennine Journey - Day 10 - 15.4 miles
I wake to sunshine streaming through the curtains. It’s the first time I've seen morning sun since I left Settle nine days back.
As a consequence I’m out early, Zoe dropping me back at Greenhead as part of the school run so I’m onto the trail for nine.
Today the Journey follows a mix of Pennine Way and the newer South Tyne Trail. And cresting the early tussocked slopes of Blenkinsopp Common – fluffy clouds trawling the blue, Maytime clarity offering views to faraway Criffel, shades of green in layered waves rolling east below the Whin Sill-topped Wall – life feels good. Interludes like this make sense of even the toughest long distance walk.
Bouyed by the weather, and knowing that I’m on the homeward leg now – heading south for the first time on my Journey – I get cocky.
The Pennine Way section between Greenhead and the A689 a few miles south is notorious both for soupy conditions underfoot and navigational challenges. But with a fair wind in my sails I wonder what the fuss is about. It’s hardly inspiring walking, but the path’s clear enough and two miles in my boots are still bone dry.
Such smugness rarely lasts long. And a mile south of the panoramic viewpoint of Black Hill the path takes an eastern swerve on Hartleyburn Common to contour above a marsh, then disappears. I reach a wall-stile with a Pennine Way sign – more by luck than judgement, and only after much clod-hopping – which is to be the first of many directional mismatches that culminates in me ending up half-a-mile from where I should be, and wondering how and where I mamaged to go so wrong. And dry feet? They last barely five minutes longer than my ill-conceived moment of self congratulation.
Maybe there’s a lesson hidden there somewhere.
But the crossing begs questions.
How, I wonder, is it possible for a long distance path trod by thousands, maybe even tens of thousands a year, which has been walked for a grand total of 55 years, to be absent from the ground?
I mean, even Bowes Moor has a semi-established path.
But here…? Nowt. Reliable trods that moments later disappear into rushes. Signs of a track that become many wayed-sheep trods.
Maybe the paths don’t stand a chance against the encroaching marsh.
At the A689 the Pennine Journey abandons the Pennine Way for a happy few miles along the South Tyne Trail. The Trail, that links the north Pennine market town of Alston with Haltwhistle, follows the route of the one-time South Tynedale Railway that ran between 1852 and its closure in 1976.
I’m not sure what rationale there is for the PJ to follow the South Tyne Trail – particularly as Wainwright, still on a Roman tip, describes following the Maiden Way, the 20-mile Roman thoroughfair that was once as important as Watling Street. But missing the Maiden Way is no loss; the Pennine Way follows it along much of this section and in most places is little more than a marshy plod along field boundaries.
By contrast the South Tyne Trail is joined at Lambley Viaduct, a magnificent, 850ft-long series of arches that tower bove the humbled Tyne far below. From here it’s easy, level walking along tree-lined embankents with ever-changing line-side foliage, the highlight a silver birch avenue that would not be out of place at a society wedding. And a mile down the line … a bench! The first trail-side bench I’ve come across in 100-or-so-miles. I remove my pack and sit by the old line, birches shimmering in the breeze, butterflies dancing over parsley fronds and listen to the songbirds. Such is the stillness that in time rabbits leave the safety of their burrows to play where once engines steamed by.
At the gentle backwater hamlet of Slaggyford (it remains every bit as charming as in AW’s day) the Pennine Journey rejoins the Pennine Way for the final miles to Alston.
It’s a diversion that starts magnificently, an early stretch alongside the peat-browned river, over water meadows and through banked copses. Then it reverts to Pennine Way form, weaving a convoluted way through boggy pastures then back onto the moor to ensure that if you’ve not yet got wet feet, now is the time.
The adoption of the Pennine Way for these final miles is a strange one, as, once again, the PJ deliberately chooses to avoid AW's footsteps, through Kirkside Wood on the far side of the valley, where he gets Morrissey-style morose after witnessing a couple courting by moonlight.
So what to do? Follow the Pennine Way and official Pennine Journey route? Or explore his actual route by entering Kirkside Wood? I decide to split the difference and choose instead to return to the South Tyne Trail, mainly on the basis that the walking’s easy and I'm feeling lazy.
The criss-crossing of paths as the different trails weave ever-higher up the South Tyne valley raises a few interesting questions.
The first is hypothetical: if the South Tyne Trail had existed when Tom Stephenson had created his long green trail, would he have picked it?
And given he didn’t – because at that time, with the railway still shifting lead from the Alston mines, he couldn’t – would it ever be possible to revise the Penine Way to potentially improve it?
Sacrilege! The Pennine Way enthusiast replies. Mess with a classic?!
But behind the vision and commitment and politics and years of hard graft that went into crafting the UK’s first (and I think finest) long distance trail there was a pragmatic and practical soul: Tom Stephenson used the paths he could against an access background that was largely hostile.
Walkers of today have never had it so good. And one wonders where Stephenson's green trail might have gone given the many thousands more acres of open access land we enjoy today thanks, in part, to the CROW Act.
Maybe it's time to tidy up the classic. Reboot it for the modern age. No major changes – it's a fabulous walk – but there are myraid new paths, trails and moors unavailable to Stephenson that might give the Pennine Wayfarer a more enjoyable, and varied, romp up the backbone of England.
And from Alston to Greenhead the South Tyne Trail it would surely be – the only stretch of old trackbed followed during the entire 268 mile plod.
That’s not the only question.
With the caveat that John and Heather Pitt have done a superlative job with their Pennine Journey adaptation, the Greenhead–Alston section in particular feels like it could benefit from some judicious re-routing to make for a more faithful take on AW’s original ‘campaign’.
For while AW certainly did get to Greenhead, he spent the night (not a fun one) in Haltwhistle before heading west along increasingly disappointing sections of the Wall before striking south along the Maiden Way then crossing the South Tyne into Kirkside Wood – all of which are studiously avoided on the PJ.
So here’s my PJ 2.0 suggestion.
Follow the Wall to Milecastle 42, just after Cawfield Crags. Then use the footpath south to cross the B6318. From Shield Hill a footpath leads down to Haltwhistle Burn, which can be followed into the town itself.
After a hopefully more salubrious night in Haltwhistle than AW spent, leave the town in its southwest corner, crossing the footbridge onto Bellister Road to join the River Tyne Trail winding through woods before tracking the river to join the South Tyne Trail where the PJ currently does, at Lambley Viaduct. From here you might either follow the railway line south to Alston or, better, continue west for a half mile to join the Maiden Way to Bruntstones, where the South Tyne Trail can be followed – bar the delightful riverside diversion from Whopson’s Well Bridge – to its terminus (literally) at Alston.
True disciplines might even choose to leave the South Tyne Trail at Kikhaugh Bridge to cross the river, then make their way southeast towards Alston via Kirkside Wood using the Isaac's Tea Trail.
And if the youth of today are not preoccupied with Netflix-and-chilling, one might even spot a canoodling couple among the understory bracken I suppose.
Journey’s end in Alston.
I’ve a soft spot for Alston. Valiant attempts to cash in on some of the Lakes' honeypot tourist dollars by rebranding it as the highest market town in England have not made much impact. And despite being (just) inside Cumbria – the border with Northumberland is three miles up the road – Alston must be content with the tourist crumbs from the Lakeland table.
But all is not lost. Hitting the tourist jackpot is – as many Lakes' towns and village are learning – a mixed blessing. And Alston's got Pennine grit in its soul. While Keswick drowns under a tsunami of guest houses and tea shops Alston quietly does its thing; slowly extending the heritage railway line that may one day reconnect with Haltwhistle and offering no-fuss refuge to Pennine wanderers.
And while signs of neglect are impossible to miss – cobbled streets patched with concrete; crumbling terraces behind the main street facades; tourist brochures for the town a victory of fine fonts over footfall – with the Lakes reaching saturation point it’s quieter outposts like this, Sedbergh, Dentdale, Appleby, which offer a gentler kind of break.
Keep at it Alston, your time will come.
I’ve been recommended the Victorian Inn, next door to my guest house, for its Indian food.
It’s an incongruous place: a cavernous old coaching inn that’s bitterly cold (the heating has packed up), with rooms for snooker, darts, dominoes… and absolutely no one sitting at any of the tables. The bar side of the business is run by a grey-haired lady attempting to find a plumber – any plumber within a hundred or so miles – to fix the boiler, while the food business – an Indian restaurant – is managed by a perennially chuckling Chinese matriarch.
By taking a seat I am clearly breaking every Alston rule.
You don’t eat in here.
Instead you order a takeaway by calling the pub. Then you arrive half-an-hour before your food’s due, take a pew at the long bar, buy a pint or three, have a chat and a vape… and only then, when the food finally comes, do you head home for dinner.
Sod Uber Eats and Deliveroo. This is a social kind of takeaway. The chat (and beer) is all part of the deal.
So I sit as people of all ages descend on this dual-role hostelry. There's a five-year-old with his mum, there's a gent in his 80s, there's a single mum free of the kid for the weekend dressed in nightgown and slippers. They all know each other. They all keep their jackets on. And all of them, even the five year old, join the happy line on barstools, placing orders from lager to wine to staight gin, chewing the fat about everything from in-work benefits ("Not what they used to be,") through heating (“We’ll bring up our spare heater, Suzy,") to various sons and daughters of the village who’ve escaped Alston for apparently better lives (“He’s making a fortune in Penrith is my Johnny.")
There’s also – for every newcomer to the pub – a lovely moment where they ask if the takeaway is ready and when they discover it isn't feign surprise, then ever-so-slightly reluctantly say something like: "It’s gonne be a while, like? OK, order me a half.” Which turns into two halves. Then a couple more.
One wonders how deliberate the increasing waits for food are, and what impact those delays have on the pub's profits.
It’s rather lovely in its own way. And the curry is fabulous.
An incongruous place that turns out to be the heart of the commuity.