the north pennines & the upper clyde valley
the roads less travelled
With the beauties of the Lake District to take in and the splendours of Edinburgh just a few hours North, you wouldn't necessarily think to stop off in the border lands in-between. After a family motoring holiday exploring the North Pennines and the Upper Clyde Valley, Jonathan Crouch thinks you should.
Alston isn't one of those places you would ordinarily go out of your way to visit. Not because it isn't picturesque or noteworthy - in fact, it's both those things, one of the highest towns in England and said to be the only one with a stretch of cobbled A-road running through it. The issue is more one of competing attractions, the tranquil Lake District lands just to the South, historic Hadrians' Wall border country just to the North. There's also an hour's twisty, turny drive to the nearest motorway. So you have to make an effort to come here. Which is always a good sign if you're looking for a relatively undiscovered destination.
Which was exactly my family's objective heading North for a showery May half term. We'd previously been to the Lake District. And we'd been to the Central cities in Scotland. What we hadn't done was to explore the rolling lands in-between, in England those of the North Pennines and in Scotland, the Upper Clyde Valley. Time to put that right.
Certainly Alston seemed like a good base for the North Pennines leg of the trip, an East Cumbrian town surrounded by quiet wooded valleys, green hills, bleak moors and misty crags. A place that's inspired poets, authors and artists throughout the generations. And drivers? Perhaps. The route you take here using the nearby A66 is, according to the AA, supposed to number amongst the 'Top Ten Drives in the World'. True enough, if I'd had a sportscar without three kids on the back seat, I'd certainly have relished tackling the dips and troughs, hairpin bends and occasional sheep hazards that spice up the journey in this part of the world.
Even with a family in tow though, this part of Cumbria is a great base for a motoring holiday, just an hour or so from the Lake District National Park and Windemere to the South West if you really must tackle the tourist trail. Really though, this is a part of the North Pennines to be enjoyed in its own right. Enjoyment of course that depends a great deal upon selecting the right base for your trip.
We tried Alston House, an 18th century Grade II listed building that for centuries has served as a stopping off point for hardy outdoor types travelling the Pennine Way. It's a historic building situated at the bottom of the High Street just a few hundred yards from a babbling stream that provided the aural backdrop to our stay. We found the food as hearty as the welcome and as you eat, there are views of mist rolling in across the fells. There was everything we needed here - and nothing we didn't. With its comfortable chairs and open fires, it's a wonderful place to hibernate from the winter. Or indeed from the Spring, given that at the time of my visit, we'd just emerged from the coldest one since 1979.
But there were too many calls into the countryside for that. This is a region to be explored, not only during the summer when the sun bathes the valleys but also in the early Spring when the famous daffodils brighten the landscape and well into the Autumn when the leaves turn to gold and dark storm clouds shadow the little lakes between the fells. My children enjoyed the South Tynedale Railway, a narrow gauge line that winds its way through the beautiful South Tyne Valley. My wife enjoyed the little shops on Alston's hilly winding High Street. And me? Well, with the car to myself, I enjoyed the dips and crests of the A689 in the Audi A8 3.0 TDI we'd brought along on the journey.
Too soon, it was time to head north on the second leg of our trip into the border lands of Scotland. An hour and a half's easy drive from the North Pennine region brings you into the beautiful Upper Clyde Valley where, just outside the pleasant town of Biggar, lies the Shieldhill Castle hotel, our base for the Scottish section of our trip. The landscape here is less extreme than that of Cumbria but in its own way just as captivatingly beautiful, with miles of well surfaced and largely empty roads winding through the green-dappled landscape.
There's history here too - even at our hotel, which dated back to 1199 and offered great character and charm amongst elegant surroundings. Whatever your objective in visiting the area - perhaps to go mountain biking at Innerleithen or maybe to walk the 13 mile John Buchan Way from Broughton to Peebles - it'd be a good spot to choose. Our goal was to explore the highways and byways of the Scottish Southern Uplands, taking in the sights and sounds of the region along the way. The model town of New Lanark, for example, founded early in the Nineteenth Century by philanthropist and industrial pioneer Robert Owen as an example of how an industrial cotton mill town could profitably work for the benefit of all its inhabitants.
From here, we could have gone north to Edinburgh and Lothians - or West to Dumfries and Galloway. But it was time to turn South once more and head home, armed with a rich memory picturebook of challenging drives, open, welcoming people and unspoilt rolling country. The road less travelled isn't often the obvious one. But it's usually lined with lasting memories.
FACTS AT A GLANCE
MOTORING TRAVEL IN THE NORTH PENNINES & THE UPPER CLYDE VALLEY
Where to Stay: [North Pennines] - Alston House Hotel www.alstonhousehotel.co.uk / 01434-382200
[Scotland - Upper Clyde Valley] Shieldhill Castle Hotel - www.shieldhillcastlehotel.co.uk / 01899-220035