Epiacum, the Romans called it, a second-century fort built to guard the empire’s interests in Pennine lead mining, and probably to provide backup for Hadrian’s Wall. It’s unique in being the only lozenge-shaped fort in Britain – rather than the more familiar playing-card shape, and has the most complex defences of any Roman fort yet found. By coincidence, I’ve just finished reading Bernard Cornwell’s latest historical novel War of the Wolf, where he uses the fort fictionally in a climactic Viking battle several centuries after the Romans left our shores.
It’s a wonderfully lonely spot, high up on the fells with just isolated farms nearby and miles of wild countryside all around. You can drive there, but we preferred to walk from the market town of Alston, three miles away. The paths up there are pleasant too, the Pennine Way and Isaac’s Tea Trail.
Isaac’s Tea Trail? Isn’t that grand! But this isn’t an invented route linking up all the tea-shops in the vicinity. It’s named in honour of the legendary tea-seller, itinerant, jagger and well thought-of fundraiser Isaac Holden. Isaac began his working life as a lead miner in these hills. He travelled these hills, selling tea – then quite a pricey commodity – to isolated farming communities. The trail, thirty-six miles long, uses many of the ancient paths he would have taken.
We hope to walk much more of this path in time, but we very much enjoyed our first experience of it on the walk up to Epiacum – the Roman fort must have been quite a familiar sight to Isaac as he earned his hard living.
I’ve written before about the joys of Alston – high up in the North Pennines. Familiar if you’ve never been there as a film location. Productions of Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre and some of the Catherine Cookson films have used it as a setting. You can see why. Take away the cars and some minor infrastructure and you could easily be back a couple of centuries.
Memories of a war of a later time were evoked as we walked past Alston’s War Memorial. I write this as we near the centenary of the Armistice. My great uncle, Harry Howl Jeffs was killed in October 1918, just a fortnight before the end of the Great War, having served for much of the conflict. Fortunately my grandfather Joseph Bainbridge came home from the Trenches. My own father, another Joe Bainbridge, survived a great deal of fighting in World War Two. I read the names on all war memorials – men and women who lived in beautiful countryside like this never to come back. I wonder what the Romans stationed up at Epiacum would think if they could know that two thousand years after their time we still haven’t found a way of weaning the human race away from war.
A lovely stretch of the Tea Trail and Pennine Way followed as we made our way uphill into wilder countryside. It reminded me of some parts of the Scottish Borders and, of course, it really is. The wild frontier of the Roman Empire. At least after the Romans had to withdraw from the line of the Antonine Wall.
After Harbut Law, we climbed and then descended to the beautiful valley of the Gilderdale Burn, which we crossed on a footbridge. The Gilderdale Burn is the boundary between Cumberland and Northumberland. It must have been so familiar to the Romans marching this way along the nearby Roman road known as the Maiden Way.
A long but gradual ascent through sheep ranges brought us at last to Whitley Castle, Epiacum. Even though all that is left are the long mounds which were once the footage of walls and the defensive ditches it is still very impressive. Such was the confidence of its Roman defenders, that it’s actually overlooked by higher ground, itself covered by the mounds and scars of more recent lead mining activity.
We searched the molehills in vain for Roman artefacts – not that we ever have any luck. Some people do, however, and “molehill archaeology” events are occasionally held at the site. There’s a board with a useful illustration of what Epiacum might have looked like. The glory that was the Roman Empire might have left this spot, but the site is still magnificent.
We followed the footpath down to Kirkhaugh Railway Station, on what is now the South Tynedale Railway heritage line. In fact, the station is a shelter and not much more but, in the season, you can catch an old train here from Alston and walk up to Epiacum – a thrilling way to get there.
The South Tynedale Railway was once part of the main railway line between Alston and Haltwhistle. In an act of folly by British Rail it was closed to passengers in 1976. Fortunately, enthusiasts replaced the line with a two foot narrow gauge railway – the highest in England and is now run as a charitable institution. The charity has several steam and diesel engines and is working on the restoration of more. We will certainly be seeking a ride in the future.
The South Tyne Trail runs alongside the railway line, fenced off for safety. A lovely level stretch of the trail, open for both walkers and cyclists. The scenery along the South Tyne river is very attractive. We crossed back from Northumberland into Cumberland along the way back to Alston.
As we wandered back, I thought a lot about Isaac Holden, the jagger in tea, who would have known every fell and valley in these wild hills. A tough life no doubt, but probably a healthier and safer one than lead mining. We hope to walk more of his Tea Trail in the future.
Despite the Tea Trail route and the Pennine Way, this is still countryside neglected by lots of walkers. So if you fancy a change from the fells of the Lake District why not give it a go?