history of alston...
Alston Moor was occupied by the Romans who worked opencast lead mines here. Whitley Castle, just outside Alston, was not only a garrison fort on the Maiden Way from Kirkby Thore (near Appleby) to Carvoran (on Hadrian's Wall), but also guarded the mineral deposits of the area. Early settlers on Alston Moor scratched a living by raising a few sheep, cattle, pigs and chickens and growing hardy crops (potatoes, oats and turnips). Over time, parts of the barren moorland were converted into productive farmland through drainage and the application of lime and copious quantities of manure.
But farming alone wasn't enough to survive on and many householders supplemented their income through mining. Life on these upland hills was unremittingly hard and many tombstones tell of premature deaths, poverty and a high infant mortality rate.
Alston Moor is honeycombed with old mine workings. Lead, silver and zinc were mined from c. 1350, with copper, barytes and fluorspar also extracted. In the early days, miners would follow an ore vein by sinking bell pits at intervals. These vertical shafts opened into a chamber where the ore was mined, but once the roof became unsafe the pit was abandoned and another opened up further down the ore vein.
A common method of prospecting for minerals was by hushing. A dam would be constructed at the head of a valley and once sufficient water had accumulated, the dam was breached to release a torrent of water that would tear down the valley, stripping away the surface soil and exposing mineral veins. A valley could be repeatedly dammed and hushed, creating an overdeepened notch on the fellside - one of the best known being Dowgang Hush, near Nenthead (easily viewed from the road to Garrigill).