|Businesses in Alston||Towns and Villages of Cumbria|
(See also Alston High Mill)
Cumbria's Eden district isn't as well known as the Lakes district, but its scenery, though different, is just as dramatic. The North Pennine region is sparsely settled, and Alston, a high market village, is at the junction of highways that lead through the mountains. The village's isolated position, in a narrow dale surrounded by fells and moors, miles away from any other major settlement, makes it particularly appealing for walkers and wilderness lovers.
The surrounding area is a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Heather clad moors, fells, valleys, and the South Tyne River enhance the changing moods of the landscape. The Blackburn, Nent, and Gildersdale Burn rivers tumble and twist through deep dells. Tutman Hole, a large cavern, is at nearby Gildersdale Fell. On the south side of Alston Moor, at Dun Fell, is another large cavern with a spider web of chambers and passages. Red squirrel, roe deer, grouse, peregrines, curlews, and lapwings are among the many species that flourish here. Alpine wild flowers grace the hills. Trout frequent the rivers. Cloud-berries (bramble-like cranberries) grow wild.
Alston is noted for its cobbled streets, 17th century stone buildings, and market cross, donated by a former townsman, the Right Hon. Sir William Stephenson, who became Lord Mayor of London in 1764. Alston saw more than markets in its streets. Sheep and cattle fairs, wrestling matches, and races were regular events.
An Iron Age earthwork is sited by the South Tyne River. In William I's time the area was under the control of Scotland. Maiden Way, a Roman road, passes near the town and leads to the site of a Roman fort. The Romans mined lead extensively in the area. In the early 18th century the Quakers set up the London Lead Company and established a purpose-built mining community (similar to Lanark in Scotland) at Nenthead, 4 miles away. By 1718, there were 119 functioning mines that brought in an income of £70,000 per year. Other forms of employment were provided by a brewery, a candle house, and a worsted mill. As mining died out in the middle 1800's, Alston's population decreased. The Mines Heritage Centre, in former workshops, tells the story of the history and geology of the area. Self-guided trails add to the experience.
When the demand for lead fell off, unemployed workers had no remedy except to become inmates of the poorhouse. Alston's was built in the mid 1700's. Ten hours of hard work was the payment for a bed and a meagre diet of porridge, bread, and broth with a bit of milk. Charles Dickens visited Alston in 1838 for background material for his novel, Nicholas Nickleby. Because the town had changed so little since Dickens's day, it was the perfect setting to film Oliver Twist. A town trail, ‘Oliver Twist's Alston’ begins opposite the post office and leads into the marketplace.
Alston boasts a restored watermill in the village centre. The first mill was built in the 1300's and then rebuilt in 1767. It featured a ‘pitch back’ design where water fell onto the buckets at the top of the wheel. A subscription library was instituted at Alston in 1821 to commemorate the coronation of George IV.
A church has existed in the village since the mid 12th century. The early one became a ruin and was pulled down and a new one was built in 1769. It, too, suffered a similar fate when the present St Augustine's was built in 1869. Look for the one-handed 16th century clock inside. It first belonged to the Earl of Derwentwater, whose home was Dilston Hall. The church bell, cast in 1714, also came from the Earl. It was recast in 1845, and is now one of a peel of ten bells. A stone scoup and a few decorated stones in the church porch are all that remain of the original church.
Cheese lovers take note that Alston makes a number of local specialties, including Cumberland Mustard and Alston cheese. Train buffs will enjoy a 2¼ mile journey on the South Tynedale Railway, the highest narrow gauge in the country. Both steam and diesel locomotives run between Alston's restored Victorian station and Kirkhaugh.
Today sheep farming and walkers along the Pennine Way are major sources of income for the locals. Alston, in the heart of the North Pennines, abounds with natural beauty, historic sites, and wildlife. Uncrowded trails, cycle ways, and compelling countryside provide unforgettable views in every direction.
Photos courtesy Graeme Dougal and Mick Garratt The Geograph Britain and Ireland project
Alston is located on the A686, A689, and B6277 16 miles (26km) NE of Penrith.
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