Housing Alston Moor's resources & information
Sitting on top of the North Pennines, Alston is one of the highest market towns in England at 1000 feet above sea level. Its steeply cobbled streets, hidden courtyards and quaint shops invite exploration at every turn. However, most of Alston’s history can be traced back to its underground riches!
The cobbled core of Alston is centred on the market cross and shelter from which several roads radiate outwards. A self-guided trail, available at Alston Tourist Information Centre, allows you to explore the town centre in more detail.
Beneath Alston Moor were rich deposits of mineral ores. Although we have yet to discover evidence for Roman mining in the North Pennines, archaeologists think that it must have taken place here. Mines in Alston Moor were controlled by the Crown and were worked for lead and silver from 1154 onwards. At 330 metres above sea level, Epiacum (Whitley Castle) was the highest stone-built Roman fort in Britain. It was linked to other forts at Kirkby Thore and Carvoran by the Maiden Way - a Roman road that is still traceable on the ground.
Reminders of the lead and zinc mining industry are everywhere. Grassed-over spoil heaps, sunken pits, rusting machinery and a myriad of tracks and byways all speak of the riches once gleaned from underground. Today, Nenthead Mine and nearby Killhope Mine are the best-preserved remains of lead mining enterprises.
The hardship of living in such a remote area created independent communities, bonded by the need for self-sufficiency. Farmers supplemented their income with mining to eke out a living from the land, and miners cultivated smallholdings to supplement their diet. Non-Conformist religions struck a chord here and Quaker, Methodist and Congregationalist chapels were attended by local people.
The Quaker-owned London Lead Company began to expand production of the Alston Moor lead mines in 1736, whilst ensuring their workers were well looked after. The company generously supported housing for their workforces and gave some financial support for schools. It provided land for chapels to be built on, mainly by public subscription. Under the London Lead Company, Nenthead became a planned industrial village from the 1820s, with a Reading Room built in 1833. Rebuilt in 1855, it now houses a community shop.
The Alston branch of the Carlisle to Newcastle railway opened in 1852 to carry lead ore, coal and other minerals away from the mines. But, gradually, overseas competition and the falling price of lead set in a permanent decline with many miners seeking a new life in North America, Australia and New Zealand. The majority of lead mines had closed before the turn of the 20th century and the few survivors remained until the Second World War. The legacy of mining life can still be seen at Nenthead Mine and Killhope Mine.
The North Pennines AONB is one of the great wilderness areas of England. Purple heather moors, green fields and dales, vibrant hay meadows, silvery rivers and cascading waterfalls combine to create a distinctive landscape that has been protected as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty since 1988.
Courtesy of Eden District Council Tourism Team – Alston Heritage Trail leaflet.