Located at about 1000ft above sea level, Alston is one of the highest towns in England. It’s an enchanting place to wander round – its steep, cobbled main street home to several attractive buildings dating as far back as the early seventeenth century.
Like many settlements in the North Pennines, including nearby Garrigill and Nenthead, it owes much to the growth of the lead mining industry. In the eighteenth century, this was largely conducted by the London Lead Company, a Quaker-owned institution that took an interest in its employees’ welfare and built a school, library and other facilities in the town.
From 1840 to 1976, Alston was linked to the main Carlisle to Newcastle railway line by a 14-mile branch line. While part of this is now occupied by the South Tyne Trail, a 23-mile walking and cycling route, the southern end has been converted to a narrow-gauge railway – the highest of its type in England. The South Tynedale Railway runs north for five miles, from Alston to Slaggyford just over the county border in Northumberland. Steam-hauled passenger services usually operate from spring to autumn, with Santa ‘specials’ in December.
Alston has several small hotels and B&Bs, as well as a YHA hostel that is popular with long-distance walkers hoping to complete the Pennine Way and cyclists on the Sea to Sea (C2C) route. The latter passes close to Alston after climbing the A686’s infamous switchbacks up to Hartside Pass, one of the highest road passes in the UK.
Seven miles south of Alston, you’ll find an English rarity – a ski centre. Yad Moss isn’t exactly St Moritz, but it does have a ski tow, several runs and a tiny, heated hut that provides much-needed shelter from the biting Pennine winds.