Cumbria may be big, beautiful and on our doorstep, but in this instance it was also a rather handy mid-point between Aberdeen and London. ‘Somewhere in the Lakes’ had been the initial plan for our select gathering of the Tynemouth/Marden High diaspora, and though the North Pennines seemed to be pushing that description, a farmhouse outside Alston proved big enough, middle-of-nowhere enough (no wifi, barely any phone signal), and… actually perfect.
In ‘England’s last wilderness’, you can just put on your boots, walk out the door and keep going. So, having tested the small people’s stamina with a visit to the wonderful Ashgill Force the day before, we packed a picnic and did just that. A 20-minute ramble over the fields brought us to Alston and its prettily restored station, bunting-bedecked and with a jazz band on the platform. The Haltwhistle to Alston branch railway opened in the 1850s and closed in 1976, but a volunteer-run narrow-gauge heritage railway once again takes visitors chuff-chuffing along the scenic route to Lintley in Northumberland and back. You don’t need to be a train geek or Thomas-the-Tank-Engine-obsessed toddler to appreciate the cheerful, crayon-coloured train and the nostalgic mechanical rituals that go with it, especially with views like these. But with rumbling tums we cut the return journey short at Kirkhaugh, and headed down the hillside for a riverbank picnic.
Here the south Tyne is barely more than a big stream, and the kids hunted for treasure on the pebbly shore while we marvelled at the idyllic setting and the fact that on a sunny, early summer bank holiday weekend, we were the only humans there to enjoy it – unlikely to have been the case in Windermere. The population of the North Pennines is a fraction of what it would have been in the area’s 19th century lead-mining heyday, but today the land’s rich mineral deposits are a geological draw instead (the North Pennines AONB became Britain’s first European Geopark in 2003). Far more ancient than those johnny-come-lately Cumbrian hills that get all the plaudits, it’s pretty cool to think that 300 million years ago, this was a tropical ocean, and even cooler when you’re stumbling over rocks with fossilised corals and sea lilies as evidence.
The gentle meander back got us up close and personal with rare upland hay meadows at their most glorious, waist-high with a colourful riot of wildflowers (after-the-fact research tells me that wood cranesbill, marsh hawksbeard, globeflower and lady’s mantle are among the characteristic species). We skirting up the fell, populous with hardy hill sheep and ubiquitous bunnies, then dropped down through a cool wood full of bluebells and deer prints, the scent of wild garlic, and the sound of lapwings and oystercatchers flying over the river.
From 10 year old Lola to 8-month-old Orla, the 7 assorted kids got along brilliantly (we adults tried not to simper about it too much, but it did give us all the warm and fuzzies) and as we packed up to go home a few days later – the kids’ coat pockets stuffed with fossils, lumps of quartz from Ashgill Force and shiny galena from Killhope mining museum – we resolved to make the get-together an annual occurrence. Fresh air essential, wi-fi surprisingly optional. Scotland maybe?
More info: http://walkalstonmoor.com/