(A note in August 2020: This slightly tongue-in-cheek article was written ten years ago, so look out for changes that have happened since then – history moves on.)
Have you ever wondered why Alston Moor is in Cumbria?
If not, then wonder now. Geographically, the district is separated from Cumbria by the scarp of Cross Fell. Melmerby, the nearest Cumbrian village is ten miles away.
Alston Moor is home to the River South Tyne, a river usually associated with Northumberland. Streams here are called burns, in Cumbria they are called becks. Cumbria has ‘-bys’ and ‘-thwaites’, Alston doesn’t.
The Anglican church here has never had a connection with Cumbria or Cumberland, it was in the diocese of Durham and since 1885 it had been part of the diocese of Newcastle. The team parish is wholly within Northumberland. Methodism was evangelised from Weardale. Historically, the lords of the manor, except for one short period of about forty years, have been from anywhere but Cumberland – the Veteripoints from Scotland, Hiltons from Sunderland, Radcliffes from Tynedale and the Greenwich Hospital in London. Our news, if any, is reported by Border Television, but, unless you have satellite, we receive Tyne Tees and its news.
The Samuel Kings School has strong links with Northumberland schools. A large proportion of the pupils come from Weardale. When the railway arrived in 1852 it came from Haltwhistle in Northumberland. A lot of workers used to travel by train from that town to work at Alston foundry. Of the seven roads out of Alston Moor, only one leads directly into Cumbria. The Hexham road speaks for itself. The road from Nenthead over Black Hill leads to Northumberland. The roads over Killhope and Yad Moss lead to County Durham. The minor road through Ayle and Barhaugh, which joins the Carlisle road at Slaggyford, goes, of course, into Northumberland. On the main road to Carlisle you have to travel through ten miles of Northumberland to get back into Cumbria. The only road that leads directly into Cumbria is over Hartside. There are two direct bus routes out of the Moor that run all year round, the services to Carlisle and the Tuesday bus to Hexham. Half our water rates are paid to Northumbria Water. That’s quite a list of things that make Alston Moor different from the rest of Cumbria, I’m sure there are more, and that’s even without mentioning the lead mines, the produce of which was exported east rather than west.
So what are the connections with Cumbria? We pay our rates and taxes to Eden District Council and Cumbria County Council and we are administered by them accordingly. We are in the Penrith and Border parliamentary constituency. The hospital and schools administrations come under the Cumbrian wing. But culturally and historically, there’s nothing in common. (Send objections to the letters page of this publication, please.) Sorry, there is a reason why Alston Moor is in Cumbria, one reason and one reason only, that I can see. That reason is about 900 years old and ceased to be of any relevance 800 years ago.
Before the arrival of the Normans, Alston Moor was more associated with the kingdom of Northumbria, which then became an earldom. When the Normans, under King William II, moved north in 1092 to take Carlisle and settle it with English, a royal mint was established, and where would the silver come from for the silver pennies? The oldest reference, albeit indirect, to Alston Moor is to “the mine of Carlisle” in a solitary financial document that survives from 1130-31, when the periodical rent of the mine was recorded. Later references show this mine to be located on Alston Moor. During the 1160’s lead was carted from the Moor to “the king’s houses at Windsor” (i.e. Alston lead went into the construction of Windsor Castle.), and across the channel to the Cistercian monastery at Clairvaux in Normandy. The mine was obviously a concern worth a lot of money and the rent escalated accordingly. In 1158 the rent was 100 silver marks (£66.67) per year and by 1166 it had risen to 500 marks (£333.33). But the bubble of speculation burst. In 1179 the debt for rent owed by the lessee was £2,000. Lead must have been obtained from a more convenient source elsewhere, because by 1211 the rent had plummeted to 10 marks (£6.66) per year. The Alston mine, and consequently Alston Moor, was of little or no account or significance.
So within that short span of 100 years, because of its lead and silver, the star of Alston Moor had risen sufficiently for it to have been taken from its loose affiliation with Northumbria and linked with Carlisle, and by extension Cumberland, and then fallen to a point where no one cared where it was. Even as late as 1279, King Edward I was uncertain as to where Alston Moor stood and he had to be assured that it was in Cumberland. Since that time it would seem that there was no reason to question Alston’s inclusion in Cumberland, and when the lead mining boom started again in the eighteenth century and Alston Moor became once more a place of consequence, it was a historical fact that Alston was part of that county.
Today I suspect that, even if there was a campaign to transfer Alston Moor to Northumberland, and Cumbria would probably be quite happy to part with it, this large area, with its thinly populated, mountainous terrain and miles of roads and other services in the back of beyond, difficult and expensive to maintain, Northumberland County Council would not leap at the chance of acquiring it.
Anyway, that is my theory of why Alston Moor is in Cumbria, so, if you have been losing sleep wondering about it, you can now rest easy.