The picturesque town of Alston nestles in the beautiful South Tyne Valley, in the majestic North Pennines which dominate the eastern border of Cumbria, a land quite different from the Lake District.
The highest market town in England, Alston enjoys beautiful views of the fells and valleys of the North Pennines, designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Alston is easily accessible despite its position in the fells: the A686 trans-Pennine road passes through the town as does the A689 west to Carlisle and east to Bishop Auckland and the A1(M), the B6277 to Barnard Castle and Scotch Corner on the A66/A1.
The town is remarkable for its charming cobblestoned main street and its Market Cross in the centre of the town, originally donated by a former inhabitant of the town who became a Lord Mayor of London. A stroll around the lanes in the town will reveal more appealing sights and places of interest. There are numerous small shops, an Arts and Crafts Gallery and some of the locally produced specialist foods (such as exotic mustards and sausages) which have a reputation for high quality and tastiness.
The area is best known to walkers who travel the Pennine Way, one of the longest walks in Britain. Since the opening of the Sea to Sea cycle way ( a cycle route across the North of England taking in the area's best countryside) a new kind of visitor is becoming familiar with the charms of the area. There are other shorter walks that reveal the rich and diverse flora and fauna of the peaceful countryside. The hills and valleys provide good habitats for wild and rare animals such as the red squirrel and birds of prey.
The many attractions for the visitor to the area include the South Tynedale Railway, which is a narrow gauge railway, with steam and diesel hauled diesel trains operating along a 2¼ mile line from Alston to Kirkhaugh through the scenic South Tyne Valley. There is also a restored water wheel to be found in the town. Nearby there are restored Lead Mines open as museums, waterfalls, and spectacular underground caverns.
The Roman road known as the Maiden Way passes near the town on its way to Whitley Castle , a mile or so to the north, a Roman fort of which the elaborate defensive ditches are still visible.
There is an Earthwork by the River South Tyne dating back to the Iron Age, but whether a permanent settlement or used only during the summer can only be guessed at. Alston gets no mention in the Domesday Book of 1086, the area was in the control of the Scots Kings at the time.
The manor of Alston (then known as Alderstone) enters recorded history when it was given to William de Veteripont by William I, 'The Lion', King of Scotland in 1209. By 1280 the area was in the hands of the English, but Edward I king of England confirmed the ownership of the de Veteripont family. It then passed by marriage to the Whytlawe family who in 1443 granted it to the Stapletons of Edenhall. From them it passed as part of their daughter's dowry to the Hilton family of Durham.
Alston and the surrounding fells have been mined for silver, lead, coal and anthracite since Roman times. In 1718 there were 119 mines producing £70,000 a year. The town grew in size to accommodate the ever-increasing number of workers, though many miners lived near their places of work, often in appalling conditions. From the middle of the nineteenth century mining gradually died out as a major employer and with its demise the population shrank. Some small coal mines still operate today.
Sheep farming has been a constant means of income and employment but now there are new sources with the manufacture of specialist mountain/walking clothing and engineering .
The Alston area has won many friends over the years and some visitors have been known to make it their home, an indication of how special the place is, and how worthwhile to visit.
Text copyright© EDGE 1997-2001reproduced by permission.