Alston, Cumbria

infobox UK place
country = England
official_name= Alston
latitude= 54.8102
longitude= -2.4411

static_image_caption= Alston town centre
population = 1,128
shire_district= Eden
shire_county = Cumbria
region= North West England
constituency_westminster= Penrith and The Border
post_town= ALSTON
postcode_district = CA9
postcode_area= CA
dial_code= 01434
os_grid_reference= NY716462

Alston is a small town in Cumbria, England on the River South Tyne. It is said to be the highest elevation market town in the country, at about 1000 feet (300 m) above sea level.


The town lies on the confluence of the 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.

The landscape has been heavily influenced by the effects of varying methods of mining over the centuries.

Nearby villages include Garrigill and Nenthead.

Its name is recorded in 1164-11712 as Aldeneby and in 1209 as Aldeneston, and seems to mean "the settlement or farmstead belonging to [a Viking man named] Halfdan".


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 (2 miles or 3 kilometres NNW 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 (Castra) of Epiacum [] built and rebuilt by the Sixth and Twentieth Legions between the second and third centuries. The fort's main purpose was to extract and protect lead and silver deposits in the upper reaches of the south Tyne valley.


In the 10th century, Alston Moor was part of The Liberty of Tynedale which was an estate of the Scottish Kings within England, a situation that resulted in many years of confusion over the sovereignty of the area.

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, John de Balliol, the king of Scotland invaded the north of England, as a result of this Edward 1st moved to reclaim the Scottish estates and Tynedale which included Alston Moor was taken into direct control of the English crown where it remains.

Despite the town being on the Tyne and being historically part of Tynedale the area has never been part of either Hexhamshire or Northumberland but part of Cumberland and later Cumbria. This was probably because the mines in the area were at one time administered from Carlisle.


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 long ton or 1.2 g/kg 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 Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) organisation with enlightened employment policies established an interest in the area during the early 1700s. 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. The surrounding area is a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Alston is noted for its cobbled streets and 17th century stone buildings. [] The Pennine Way, the UK's first National Trail, passes through Alston.

Shopping is remarkably good for such a small place. Shops include a whole foods shop, a Co-op supermarket, a vegetable shop, two butchers, a newsagent's which also sells hardware, an outdoor clothing shop, an organic bakery and a number of craft, gift and antique shops.

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, [] a company that was started in 1947 by William (Bill) Ball. The company produces stainless steel and super-alloy castings, employing around 65 workers.


The population census figures show that at its peak during 1831 the population of the parish of Alston Moor was 6,858 people. Today that figure is about 2,000. The population of the town of Alston was 1128 according to the 2001 Census. [] The community has its own website which is a result of the Cybermoor Project [] which has brought the Internet to almost every home on Alston Moor, and broadband to many. The problem of the area's relative remoteness compared to other areas of England was solved by utilising IEEE 802.11 technology to construct the network infrastructure.

Landmarks and buildings of note

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.

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. [] []

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 truck. []

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

Nent force

During the area's peak of prosperity in 1776 John Smeaton began construction of an underground drain to assist with the transport of extracted materials as well as 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 3.75 miles (6 km) to allow boat use, with a rise of 35 fathoms (64 m) 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.

amuel King's School

As well as having a primary school, the town is host to England's smallest secondary school (an 11–16 comprehensive) Samuel King's School. Alston Moor has a second small primary school at Nenthead. []

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 front street and market cross of the town were used as a filming location in an adaptation of Jane Eyre. Despite three days of set preparation and two days of actual filming only a few seconds of footage were used.

The town was also adapted to resemble a seaside village where Oliver is born for the ITV TV miniseries Oliver Twist.

Millennium celebrations

To mark the millennium, 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.

2005: Alston in crisis?

In August 2005, Alston made national, and indeed international, news headlines regarding the town's apparent lack of womenfolk. The news reports claim a ratio of 10 men to every woman in the town. (This is despite the 2001 Census for Alston reporting almost equal numbers of males and females in its population of 1128. [] ) 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), [] all in an effort to persuade women to come to Alston to find love. Articles appeared in such national media as The Daily Telegraph [] , The Guardian [,,1551311,00.html] and the BBC [] A documentary was shown on Channel 4 on 11 October 2006.

More than two years later the Guardian did a follow up article. [,,2181494,00.html] The "Alston Moor Regeneration Society" had gone national as the Villages in Crisis campaign. Alston shared first position with Bere Alston in Devon in the top 10 list of places in Britain where the imbalance appears to be at its worst.


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 announced in 1973 and the line closed on 1 May 1976. Part of the route, between Alston and Kirkhaugh, two and a quarter 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. []

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 via Hexham, Haydon Bridge, Alston and Penrith from July to September each year. All local bus services are now under threat of end of service as the County Council wish to remove subsidies. This will leave only the Alston to Carlisle bus in operation.

ee also

The parish of Alston Moor.

Further reading

"A history of Alston Moor" by Alastair Robertson ISBN 0-9547339-1-6

Related websites

* [ Cybermoor community website with news, comment, webcams and information about Alston Moor]
* [ Profile of Alston]
* [ South Tynedale Railway Preservation Society]
* [ Wright Bros Coaches website]
* [ Northumbrian Railways]
* [ Alston Moor Newsletter]

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