Saturday 3 March 2012

Isaac's Tea Trail

 Thursday 23rd February
The alternative title may well be as fitting; 'a radical wrinkly's mud fest!' Having heard that I may have long term health problems it was an easy decision to have a few days away to clear my head a bit. My first choice had been the Lake District. Astronomical fares scotched that idea. Mike Knipe, ( made a suggestion and a very kindly offer. A quick perusal of the maps and an idea was hatched. The tea trail was something I had noticed before in my travels to the northern regions. Some further reading, a guide book purchased and a few e mails exchanged with Mike. Thus it was that on the Thursday last I arrived at Durham station to be picked up by Mike, who had offered to drive me over to Allendale Town. The trail actually starts at Ninebanks, however, for practical reasons I found the start at Allendale Town easier. A bonus was that Mike had brought along super dawg, Bruno, a fine chap. Mike was going to walk with me for the first few miles. Crossing the Allen bridge the path heads off across fields and rough pasture.Straight away it became obvious that things underfoot where going to be wet and claggy. The path also proved difficult to actually find. There were paths a plenty but staying on the correct path was immediately a navigational conundrum. Our route led us through a farmyard that was a sea of wet, glutinous mud. A few miles out of town it was obvious the wind was rising. Mike suggested I aim for an early camp rather than continue on to higher exposed ground. Heeding his advice we stopped for a bite of lunch at an area  that offered a reasonable spot for a discreet wild camp. With Mike and Bruno heading off to get a few miles in before heading home, I scouted around and found a suitable bit of ground for the tent just on the edge of a small plantation.
Really, it has been a lazy afternoon, just a stroll out, but that suits me fine. Tomorrow  the actual walking starts.
A hard day, it was not that early a start, but I was underway by nine o clock. The night had been windy but mild. A mad pheasant managed to blunder in to the tent in the early hours of the morning. The noisome beast voiced it's disapproval loud and raucously while my heart rate rose by several degrees.Checking the guide book it was noticeable how many stiles where mentioned in the first few miles. Please, I am a pedestrian not a hurdler!Clambering over serried ranks of stiles with a full pack becomes a mite tedious! Mind, I found those kissing gates a tad awkward at times too. Trying to shoogle through them without getting jammed in tight was a mite interesting!Things proved difficult almost from the start. Underfoot the ground was saturated, fields with sheep in them where poached to a porridge like consistency. The trail is not well marked, footpath signs abounded but the difficulty was choosing the right one.At one point I found myself heading in the direction of Low Acton and had to backtrack. It required constant map reading and close concentration to keep on course. Footbridge, stile, stile, footbridge, stile. Progress was slow and it was a welcome relief to reach the Black Way track heading up on to the moor. Even then a close eye had to be kept on the map. The Black Way swings off to the left but the trail continues onward over the moor. There is a path, of  sorts, in places it was a tad hard to actually see it. The occasional marker post was certainly a great help. The ground, being so waterlogged was a total bog fest. A strong head wind also hindered progress a little. Curlews and lapwings where in abundance and I welcomed their company. Reaching a junction at Carrshield Moor, I almost went astray. There is a well defined track that swings left. A check of the map and I saw it actually went over to Shivery hill. My route led straight on down and around to Coalcleugh. By now I was keeping an eye open for a spot to camp.It was not to be though; everything was bog and mire. Map reading here was tricky, the trail did a dog leg around by Roughside.Where the actual path went I am unsure. Basically I aimed for the ruined buildings and the track that led down to Nenthead. It was a little reassuring to find at the end of the track a Tea Trail sign. Walking down through the village I found another, Disconcertingly it pointed at a chapel car park, odd! Studying the map closely though I could see that the route actually went down to the main road. There was a footpath leading off the car park and I found it led to where I needed to go. The way on led through the remains of old mine workings, an old mine portal leading into the hill side, heavily gated. Footpaths led across fields that had been heavily churned by horses and sheep. A sticky, wet morass. Inquisitive horses wandered over on the hope of free handouts. Curiosity satisfied and no handouts, they ambled off. By now it was getting late and I needed to set up camp soon. Haggs mine looked a viable option.There was little in the way of remains,but a series of hollows offered a discreet spot out of sight and out of the wind. It was last light when I stopped and I was tired.
Today was a shorter day and that was quite deliberate. My intention had never been to do the trail at a fast rate of knots. Once more careful map reading was required. The path contoured around above Nenthall. There was no uncertainty about the first part of the foot. It went directly behind a couple of building, up a short bit of hill . A sign at a jumble of farm machinery  read, 'No Entry' with the footpath signed off to the left. A drinking trough for the horses grazing in the field was steadily overflowing adding to the texture of the cloying mud.Yes, I know some folk are going to think I have a phobia about mud but honestly, I encountered an awful lot of it and oh my, there is only so much mud plugging a lass can put up with! Fortunately I had chosen at the last moment not to bring my gaiters but had brought my old salopettes instead. They where coated to above the knees. It was a steep descent down to Nenthall bridge. Someone though has started work on building a series of steps. The way on from there is a delightful walk; the footpath hugging the river edge. There was a sign warning that in places, due to erosion there may be no way ahead. Obviously the local farmer did not walkers cutting through his fields. Indeed the river bank had been eroded, washing away the path. A large circular structure, capped over with heavy duty wire mesh attracted my attention. It was an air shaft, a part of an amazing feat of engineering. An underground canal  started in the eighteenth century to drain existing mine levels. It is staggering to think of the sheer immensity of labour and difficulties involved. The path just before Foreshield Bridge had been completely swept away by the river and I resorted to the flooded field. A sign on a field gate read 'Private'. Too late, I had already trespassed! A short up hill road section and then it was back to footpaths. As was now the norm, careful map reading was required. Before heading in to Alston I attempted to clean off the worst of the mud. Mind, I still felt awfully scruffy. There is a good cafe in Alston at the bottom of the hill. Being a good walker, I was not going to pass up on a cup of tea and a bite to eat. The chappy in the cafe was unfazed by my scruffy condition and assured me I need not take of my bib and brace overalls. My old Ron Hill's where fairly respectable!!. Suitably refreshed and stocked up with a large slab of homemade fruit cake I headed out of Alston. The rest of the day was an easy one. The trail and Pennine Way join together out of Alston. A walk through fields to Harbut Lodge, out on to the main road, a short distance and turn left and then an uphill plod and over to the Gilderdale Burn. Studying the map I had it in mind that it may be a decent spot for a wild camp. This proved to be the case. With light, mizzly rain being driven down the valley, it was good to get the tent up and just chill out.
A wet and somewhat windy night. Fortunately he rain had eased off in the early hours. It has been amazingly mild. My sleeping bag was almost too warm. Heading up the hill from the burn, once more I found myself picking my way through bog. There is a knack n treading from tussock to tussock. Momentum is necessary, hesitate and you sink. In places the bog quivered like an excited jelly on steroids. However, I made it through. It was then a walk over rough pasture to descend back down to the main road at Castle Nook farm. A roman camp is marked on the map close by. A couple more fields and then the Trail branches away from the Pennine Way. A steep descent down to Kirkhaugh footbridge. The river here is wide and deep; so different from when I first encountered it as an infant stream way up in Teesdale. Met an old farmer out on his quad doing the rounds. His three dogs came running over to check me out and possibly round me up. They flanked me, one on each side and one behind.The gent called them back, reassuring me "thay'll no harm thee lass, there's nowt to fear." Dogs are normally fine with me and these where no exception. they where happy to have someone give them a bit of fuss and attention. It is a lovely walk along a minor, gated road to Randalholm bridge. A footpath just before the bridge heads off up the hill, across a couple of stiles to Ayle. From there further footpaths took me over to Clarghyll Hall. On the ground there was little indication of where the actual path went. Going by the map, I headed through the farm. A different type of mud here, more liquid, that sort of slurped as one paddled through it!  A walk down to the mothballed colliery and on to a very rough track that led up beside a forestry plantation. A pause for a lunch break, my special treat, the slab of fruit cake bought in Alston.Thick, succulent and rich in flavour, most enjoyable. The Pennine Pottery at Clargyhllhead looked as if it served teas. In my mucky state I was not going to chance it. Just beyond the pottery a large area of forestry had been clear felled.Oh my, what a mess, such devastation, an ugly, nasty mess, an eyesore As much as I dislike the densely packed, regimented columns of forestry plantations, the brutality of their demise offends. The brash, in places already heaped for burning. One would have thought that it would have been viable to make use of it, chipping it for fuel or wood pulp? The way on was straight forward, a land rover track snaking across the open moorland. Although fairly high up, I was keeping my eyes open for a spot to camp. The temptation was to carry on down to the hostel at Ninebanks. However, in some respects it would be counter productive. A hot shower and clean clothes would have been nice. The snag was,  I intended to camp somewhere between the hostel and Allendale on the Monday. Mike was picking me up on Tuesday midday and thus I wanted to shorten distances. Casting about I found a spot close to some sheep pens, off the track and the other side of a dry stone wall.A slightly windy spot but fairly dry. Ironically finding fresh water prove more of a problem. A stream issuing from a bog looked good, however, the rotting carcass of a sheep just above suggested it may not be wise to use the water. In the end I settled for a trickle  of water  that at least had no bodies in it. Mind, I still had to filter it through my wee bit of face cloth to remove the worst of the sediment and other bits in it. A fairly early stop,the temperature has dropped a bit and the wind has picked up with the occasional stronger gust buffeting the tent.
Drizzly rain during the night and quite windy. The morning broke with low cloud drifting around the tent. There was no hurry to get underway, the day was going to be a short one. It was mid morning when I finally got going. Descending the hill I quickly dropped out of the cloud and drizzle.From Ninebanks hostel the Trail does a long loop. Up past Keirsleywell Row and then back  along the Mohope valley, following the Mohope burn. Lapwings where in abundance, the air alive with their piping calls. Joining the road by Malakoff bridge, there is a little sign stating that the bridge was named after a battle in the Crimea war. In a way odd, it raises questions as to why; what is the story behind that?  My little potter along the valley  came to an abrupt end at Waterloo bridge; a footpath headed up the hill. A steep little climb that had my legs protesting. Although the path was a tad vague in places, stiles indicated the direction of travel. The path led around the back of  Far Dryburn. A steep drop  down to, what is marked on the map as a footbridge. In fact it is an old, sturdy, stone constructed   bridge with a second, much wider stone bridge off to the left. A packhorse bridge? Once again there is little indication of the actual route of the Trail. Sticking with the map I followed the track to Mount Pleasant farm. Then down to the road and back on another path across to Gate House. Some interesting windows on the end wall of the building, reminiscent of a vaulted  church window. A pleasant walk from there led over to Monks wood. Studying the map, it suggested there may be a spot for a discreet, (very discreet) camp. The wood is on the side of a steep hill but I was hopeful. A bit of scrambling about and some head scratching I opted for a spot  by the Backstone Burn. Not the best of spots, but well above and out of sight of the track. Being deciduous woodland, the floor of the wood was leaf mold and soil, wet too. A further hour or so was spent gathering dead bracken to act as a carpet in the tent and also level up where I was going to sleep.
Was away fairly early this morning. Had a dawn chorus of pheasants with their mad, cackling cries. The wood was a pheasant breeding area. A strip wash in the tent and a general tidy up. everything packed up and no sign of my camp and I was underway by around nine.It was quite straight forward walking through Monks Wood and up the hill toward Harlow Bower farm. As I hesitated, reluctant to disturb a group of newly fed ponies, the farmer gave me a shout. He waved me over to another gate and thanked me for showing some consideration to his livestock. Chatting to him, he told me his wife had walked the Tea Trail and had experienced problems, as had other folks. Heading up toward Quarry House I was impressed with the massive window that dominated a whole section of the building, rising form ground level to the eaves of the building. Some more careful map reading down to Keenley chapel. Unfortunately locked, a sign of our times! More careful map reading to head down through woodlands and fields. Made friends with two exuberant black Labrador pups. The farmer whistled them back and gave me a wave. More pleasant walking along side the river East Allen. At one point the path led through someone's garden. The clock was striking twelve as I entered town. Mike and Bruno turned up a few minute later. Mike's first comment, offered up with a big grin was "Tha's well clarted up Dawn!" .
Overall it has been a good walk. However, the Tea Trail tends to be vague in places. Constant checks of the map where needed to stay on course. Possibly if it was walked with map and constant referral to the guide book it may be easier. Walking though with one's head in a guide book is not my forte. Camping wise, feasible for wild camping but none too easy. Mind, things would be dryer in the summer months? There is plenty of accommodation on the trail for those who prefer hostels and B&B's.


  1. Ooh-er, I was thinking about Isaac's Tea Trail as a pre-Challenge shake down, the mud you encountered has put me off!

    Back to the drawing board.

    Glad you enjoyed (endured?) it!


  2. Very comprehensive and slightly muddy report there , Dawn.. what's the strange object in the final pic, though?

  3. Hi John, it is not a bad walk, apart from the muddy conditions. Possibly if there was dry spell it would be better.The constant need for map reading was what I found a tad tedious.

  4. Hi Mike, that funny thing in the last photo is actually a fungal growth that was growing on an old tree stump. It is one I have never seen before and am rather flummoxed as to what type of fungi it is.

  5. Ah, I wondered if it was the dead sheep!


  6. It had me wondering when I first spotted it John. Peculiar!!

  7. Hi Dawn, I've been wondering about the Tea Trail too for a while, but hopefully it would be nicer in a dry spell? I'm sure it says on the website that it's well signposted too...
    The abundance of stiles and kissing gates you mention mind(as well as livestock), make me wonder if it would be the best for taking my dog along with me. Very interesting to see someone else's take on something I've thinking of doing myself! Cheers, Chrissie

  8. Hello Chrissie, you may be ok with the dog but, remember a lot of the trail does go through fields. In a drier spell you ought to be ok. The trail is signed in places but in some areas tends to be obscure. A classic example would be the section from Harlow Bower. It is signposted at the cattle grid, however, there are no other signposts until you get down to Keenley chapel. Care is needed on the map reading. Give it a go, it will be interesting to see how someone else gets on. Dawn

  9. A good comprehensive read. Enjoyed it. Mud! You want to see Lancashire mud. That's proper mud. Ha
    Maybe a GPS would have helped with some of the decision making regarding route direction. However if time is not an issue straightforward map reading, mistakes an all, can be rewarding.

  10. True Alan,true. Certainly it was an exercise in map reading.