North Pennines AONB
Great Views and Windswept Moorland
You have to look up to an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, especially if it’s the North Pennines.
The title means it satisfies international standards of attractiveness which only 16% of England and Wales meet. Yet the North Pennines AONB extends to a stunning 700 square miles.
This is the roof of England, a mix of gentle valleys and wind-blasted heather moorland softened in summer by flowery old hay meadows.
It contains the highest village in England – Allenheads – sheep and grouse country. Farther down the East Allen Valley is its neighbour Allendale, 10 miles from Hexham.
The dale is remote and the living can be tough. In some spots mains electricity is a recent arrival. Even entertainment is a feat of strength and daring – notably the New Year’s Eve tar barrel ceremony at Allendale, when 40 men carry flaming barrels on their heads.
Perhaps it is the remoteness that breeds self-reliance. When the fabric of local life is threatened by loss of a service, villagers band together to run it themselves or find a new use for its home.
A disused building is now Allenheads Heritage Centre for the village trust with a restored blacksmith’s shop, a cafe, craft shop and a play area. Across the road, the 18th century Allenheads Inn is very much alive and a popular stopover for Pennine Way walkers, cyclists, skiiers and shooting parties.
“This is the roof of England, a mix of gentle valleys and wind-blasted heather moorland.”
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the dale was a thriving area for lead mining, which was started here by the Romans. The industry was killed by cheap imports. The heavy loads were carted to the smelter by Dales ponies, now a rare breed. A horse track still spirals down into the mine at Allenheads.
In another example of creativity, the local smelting mill now houses a brewery and Allenmills Regeneration Project.
The mine was owned by the Blackett family, who had bought local farming estates in the late 17th century. Descendant Viscount Allendale still owns land for miles around.
Allendale is a busy village with a health centre, mix of shops, churches, pubs and caravan park. The parish church of St Cuthbert has an 1842 sundial on the outside wall, making a claim to be the centre of Britain with the inscribed latitude 54° 50′.
Attractions in the area include South Tynedale steam railway and The Garden Station, a restored wooden Victorian station at Langley on Tyne.
But the great outdoors is incomparable. Visitors can walk all day without having to cross a road, horse riders follow pack horse trails for miles and bird watchers find plenty to admire. Accessible routes for disabled people are laid out for fishing, horse riding and cycling. Allen Banks and Staward Gorge is a National Trust nature reserve.
At the south edge of Northumberland’s section of North Pennines is the Derwent reservoir, a centre for sailing, windsurfing and angling in rolling countryside.
If pursuing outdoor activities in the North Pennines, please bear safety in mind. Weather can be unpredictable, so check a recent forecast and take appropriate clothing and footwear. On the moors take a map and compass and tell someone where you are going and when you should be back.
Close to the Durham border lies picturesque, honey-coloured Blanchland, one of only six listed villages in the country.
It first made a living from tourism in the reign of Henry VIII and depends upon it again as lovers of outdoor pursuits come to stay. Among the most important economically are grouse shooting parties from all over the world – a parish survey has found that 55% of the population are involved in the season.
The village was bought by Bishop of Durham, Nathaniel Lord Crewe in 1708 and after his death it became part of a charitable trust set up in his will. When John Wesley visited in 1747 to preach to lead miners, he described the place as “little more than a heap of ruins” as the old abbey was being dismantled to build houses.
The abbot’s lodge and guest house survives as the atmospheric Lord Crewe Arms Hotel, with priest’s hiding hole where Jacobite commander Tom Forster is said to have been hidden by his sister Dorothy in 1715. Dorothy is reputed to haunt the building, looking for her brother.