The History of Alston
Alston in Cumbria today is a quiet little town that is known to discerning visitors for the narrow gauge railway that has a terminus there, and the surrounding Pennine countryside dotted with sheep farms. But for many centuries, beginning with the Romans if not before, it was a noted mineral producing centre.
Barrows in the area when excavated revealed there had been people living in this elevated location as far back as 2000BC, and an Iron Age fortification nearby demonstrates that settlement continued and must have involved a considerable population. The Romans will have known the place too, Maiden Way passing close by, and they are thought to have garrisoned the area to facilitate and protect the extraction of lead and silver from the mines whose remains can still be spotted. Given the proximity of Hadrian’s Wall to the north that protection would have been a real concern.
The name Alston is thought to be Viking in origin, though little is known of their tenure here.
As part of the Liberty of Tynedale, though Alston was in England the Kings of Scotland owned the land from the 10th century. The mineral rights, however, belonged to the English crown, a situation that saw separate legal systems operating, English law for miners and Scots for others. Edward I resolved this complication in typically direct style, confiscating the lands from John Balliol in 1269. Ostensibly this was a political move, but Edward’s tenure saw increased economic activity, the mines producing large quantities of silver that was used in minting coins in Carlisle . At this same period the monks of Hexham were major landowners in Alston, though it is not clear what their links were to the church in the town in existence since at least the mid-12th century. The town’s first watermill is thought to have been built in this same period.
Mining made the town prosperous, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries, many of the most substantial stone buildings there dating from that time. The Quaker-run London Lead Company owned many of the workings which produced not only lead and silver, but also significant amounts of zinc and iron. True to their principles these Quakers invested in public amenities in nearby Nent and in Alston.
In the 19th century the workings became less viable and the industry went into an irreversible if slow decline, the last metal mines closing in the mid-20th century, though coal continued even after that. Today the industry that once dominated the economy is part of its attraction for tourists. It is hoped that a fascinating aspect of that industrial past can be added in the future to that heritage trail: the Nent Force Level, in effect an underwater canal begun in 1776 as an ambitious way of improving mineral extraction and prospecting.
From Roman Times Alston has been a crossroads, its significance in local transport terms increased when it was linked to the burgeoning national rail network in 1852. In the previous century Alston’s industrial prosperity and its position at the meeting point of five local roads made it an attractive market centre, local sheep and cattle farmers selling their beasts beneath the market cross that was paid for by one of the town’s most famous sons, Sir William Stephenson, eventually Lord Mayor of London .
In 1965 the Pennine Way which passes through the town was opened, bringing a tourist boost to the district, mitigating to a certain extent the loss of its railway link in 1976, though part of the line remains as a narrow gauge tourist attraction.
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