Alston, Cumberland

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Market Cross, Alston, Cumbria (2005).jpg
Alston town centre
Grid reference: NY716462
Location: 54°48’36"N, 2°26’28"W
Population: 1,128
Post town: Alston
Postcode: CA9
Dialling code: 01434
Local Government
Council: Westmorland & Furness
Penrith and The Border

Alston is a small town in Cumberland on the River South Tyne. It is one of the highest-elevation towns in the country, at about 1,000 feet above sea level.

Alston claims to be the highest market town, at about 1,000 feet above sea level. It is within the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, more than 15 miles from the nearest town, and is surrounded by moorland.[1]

Nearby villages include Garrigill and Nenthead.

The name of Alston is recorded in 1164-1171 as Aldeneby and in 1209 as Aldeneston,[2] and seems to mean "Halfdan's farmstead"; Halfdan is a Norse name.


The town lies on the confluence of the River South Tyne and the River Nent. The landscape of the area is built up from limestone, sandstone and shale. The area is rich in minerals, in particular lead deposits, and the landscape has been heavily influenced by the effects of varying methods of mining over the centuries.

Alston from the west


Early settlements

The earliest evidence of population in the area comes from pottery fragments, a gold basket-earring and flint tools found in one of two barrows excavated in 1935 (two miles north-west of Alston at Kirkhaugh), these were dated between 2000 BC and 1700 BC.

Evidence of Roman activity in the area comes from the earth remains of Whitley Castle, thought to be the Roman fort of Epiacum[3] built and rebuilt by the Sixth and Twentieth Legions between the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The fort's main purpose was to extract and protect lead and silver deposits in the upper reaches of the South Tyne valley.

Border wars

In the 10th century, Alston Moor was part of The Liberty of Tynedale which was an estate of the Scottish Kings. In 1085, the Barons de Vertiponte became the first recorded Lords of the Manor, they held the moor on behalf of the kings of Scotland while the kings of England retained the mineral rights. This was confirmed in a hearing during 1279 which concluded that the miners of the area were distinct from the local population thus paying their dues to the English crown instead of Scotland. As a result, the miners lived in their own self regulated communities under English protection.

In 1269, King John of Scotland, John Balliol, invaded the north of England. As a result of this Edward I moved to reclaim the Scottish estates and Tynedale which included Alston Moor was taken into direct control of the English crown, and later the British crown, where it remains.


Historically the area has been mined for lead, silver, zinc, coal and fluorspar.

In the 13th century, the area was known as the silver mines of Carlisle—silver was found in a high proportion (up to 40 troy ounces per ton of smelted lead) and was used to create coinage in the Royal Mint established in Carlisle for the purpose. Most mining was very small scale until the mid-18th century,

The biggest mine owner in the area was the London Lead Company; this Quaker organisation with enlightened employment policies established an interest in the area during the early 18th century. In 1745, it began construction of a school, a library, a sanitary house, a surgeon's house, a market hall with clock tower, a laundry and a 'ready-money' shop in Nenthead, four miles away.

The last mines closed in the 1950s but as of 2005 Ayle colliery was still active.

Modern industry

The area is no longer actively mined although the mining history is exploited for tourism purposes.


The moorland is mainly used for sheep farming however many farmers also have other enterprises, such as Bed and Breakfast accommodation


Tourism is now a key source of income for the area. Alston and the surrounding area is part of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and European Geopark.[4] Alston is noted for its cobbled streets and 17th century stone buildings.[5] The Pennine Way, Britain's first National Trail, passes through Alston.

Shopping is remarkably good for such a small place. Shops include a whole foods shop, a supermarket and convenience store, a greengrocer's, butcher's, a baker's and various practical local shops; including those for outdoor clothing and craft.

There are a number of public houses in Alston including The Cumberland Inn, The Elks Head and the famous Angel Inn.

Steam trains on the narrow-gauge South Tynedale Railway run from April to October, offering a short journey though pleasant scenery.

To mark the turn of the 21st century, a significant proportion of the population of the moor gathered in front of the market cross to pose for a commemorative photo to echo an abandoned tradition.

Metal working

For much of the 20th century, between 1940 and its closure in 1980, a foundry employed around 200 people. The closure of this foundry increased unemployment in the area from 8.9% to over 25%.

Currently the area's main employer is Precision Products,[6] a company that was started in 1947 by William (Bilbo) Ball. The company produces stainless steel and super-alloy castings, employing around 65 workers.

Sights about the town

Town Hall

The Town Hall is a focal point for the community, being a venue for many local social events. It also contains the tourist information centre and some local administration offices. Up until the late 1980s the Town Hall also contained the public library and a branch of the Trustee Savings Bank. The bank closed down but the library moved to premises in the Market Place, then moved back to the Town Hall in September 2008.

Construction of the neo-gothic building started in 1857 when Hugh Lee Pattinson laid the foundation stone. The architecture was designed by A.B. Higham and the estimated costs were £2000, although the final costs were closer to £3000; these were paid for by public subscription.[7]

Market cross

Although the town does not hold a regular market it still maintains the legal right to do so. The market cross which acts as a focal point in the centre of town was constructed in 1983 to replace one constructed in 1863 after it was hit by a lorry.[8]

A regular producers' market now takes place in the Town Hall from April to September selling food and crafts produced in Cumberland, Northumberland, and Durham, celebrating Alston's position at the crux of these three counties.

Nent Force level

During the area's peak of prosperity in 1776 John Smeaton began construction of an underground drain (the "Nent Force Level") to de-water the mines of the Nent Valley and assist with the transport of extracted materials as well as to locate new mineral seams. The canal took 66 years to construct at a cost of £80,000, and became known as "Smeaton's Folly". In the 1830s mine manager and engineer said that it could be visited "in boats 30 feet in length, which are propelled in four feet of water by means of sticks projecting from the sides of the level; and thus may be enjoyed the singular novelty of sailing a few miles underground". It was intended to be 9 feet square but in the softer terrain was extended to 9'x16', dead level for 3¾ miles to allow boat use, with a rise of 35 fathoms at Lovelady Shield and then driven into the Nenthead ground. The amount of ore found was disappointing, though not insignificant.

Access to the Nent Force Level is currently extremely difficult although efforts have been made to develop a heritage centre to make this extraordinary piece of engineering accessible to the public.

Alston in the media

Filming locations

Marketing literature for the town frequently refers to two occasions on which the town has been used as a filming location.

  • The 1997 film Jane Eyre used the Front Street and market cross. Despite three days of set preparation and two days of actual filming only a few seconds of footage were used.
  • Oliver Twist, the ITV miniseries, adapted Alston to resemble a seaside village where Oliver is born.

2005: Alston in crisis?

In August 2005, Alston made national, and indeed international, news headlines regarding the town's apparent lack of women. The news reports claim a ratio of 10 men to every woman in the town. A group of young men from Alston, led by a Mr Vince Peart, began distributing leaflets across the north of England and set up the "Alston Moor Regeneration Society" (founded after a pub survey upped the men-women ratio to 17-1),[9] all in an effort to persuade women to come to Alston to find love. Articles appeared in such national media as The Daily Telegraph,[10] The Guardian[11] and the BBC.[12] A documentary was shown on Channel 4 on 11 October 2006.

More than two years later, the Guardian did a follow up article. The "Alston Moor Regeneration Society" had gone national as the Villages in Crisis campaign. Alston shared first position with the coincidentally named Bere Alston in Devon in the top 10 list of places in Britain where the imbalance appears to be at its worst.[13]

Transport links

The area is stationed on a number of routes including the long distance footpath, the Pennine Way, and the Sea to Sea Cycle Route (C2C) Cycle Route.

The town's rail link to Haltwhistle was completed in 1852 by the Newcastle and Carlisle Railway Company. The closure of the line was decided in the Beeching Report in 1962, but closure was rejected due to lack of a direct road link. A road link built, closure was again proposed in 1973 and the line closed on 1 May 1976. It is believed to be one of the last enacted closures of the Beeching Report (the other being the line from Bridport to Maiden Newton in Dorset).

Part of the route, between Alston and Lintley, three miles in length, is now operated as the narrow-gauge South Tynedale Railway. The railway is particularly popular with tourists and passenger trains operate between April and October, with Santa Special trains operating on certain dates in December each year.[14]

Many of the bus services to and from Alston are operated by Wright Brothers Coaches, which has depots at Nenthead, three miles from Alston and at Blucher, near Newcastle upon Tyne, and operates an 82-mile route linking Newcastle with Keswick by way of Hexham, Haydon Bridge, Alston and Penrith from July to September each year.

Outside links


  1. "Alston and the North Pennines", Eden District Council, accessed July 26, 2010
  2. Mills, David. A Dictionary of British Place-Names. OUP Oxford. 2011.
  3. Togodumnus (Kevan White). "Epiacvm". Retrieved 2012-07-08. 
  4. "North Pennines". Retrieved 2012-07-08. 
  5. "Alston, Cumbria". Retrieved 2012-07-08. 
  6. "Precision Products (Cumberland) Ltd.". Retrieved 2012-07-08. 
  7. [1]
  8. [2]
  9. [3]
  10. "Expat: Brits abroad, UK citizens overseas". Telegraph. 2011-05-31. Retrieved 2012-07-08. 
  11. David Ward (2005-08-17). "Wanted: women to live the high life with lovelorn lads of Alston - must like solitude". The Guardian.,,1551311,00.html. Retrieved 2012-07-08. 
  12. "Men of Alston looking for love, online". BBC News. 2005-08-18. Retrieved 2012-07-08. 
  13. Martin Wainwright (2007-10-01). "Men panic as lure of the city leaves villages with no women". The Guardian.,,2181494,00.html. Retrieved 2012-07-08. 
  14. "South Tynedale Railway". Retrieved 2012-07-08.