Skiing: Yad Moss: the St Moritz of the north

If you're looking for skiing close to home, search no more, writes Joe Gilbert. The Cumbrian fells around Alston, just a 45-minute drive from Carlisle, are often thick with snow ...

The old market town of Alston, the highest in England, gets cut off for a day or two most winters due to snow. These conditions have been exploited by Carlisle Ski Centre. The company runs a popular ski-resort at Yad Moss, eight miles east of Alston on the B6277 road to Bernard Castle.

"Most British skiers head for the Alps at the first opportunity," Paul Wensley, company chairman, says. "But it dawned on us how perfect conditions are at Yad Moss. We usually get snow on and off from November through to February. The constant cold and often the lack of wind keep the snow surface perfectly intact."

Yad Moss is a steep, 800m fell in one of the most remote and beautiful parts of the country, right in the heart of the area David Bellamy christened "England's last wilderness". The dramatic Pennine landscape is dotted with the remains of old lead mines and isolated farmhouses. The only visitors tend to be migrating curlews - and skiers.

Winter sportsmen began renting the fell from a local farmer a few years ago. Now the slopes have a drag-lift which can tow 500 skiers an hour up the steep, 600m gradient. The hum of a fell-top generator breaks the glacial silence and hauls 30 visitors a time up the icy incline.

"We've got four ski-runs of different lengths and gradients," says Paul Wensley, "and can comfortably take 300 skiers, though we've been getting more in recent winters because conditions have been so good."

The entrance charge is pounds 8 per day including all-day use of the ski-lift with a 50 per cent reduction on becoming a member of Carlisle Ski Centre. When you consider the cost of a flight to Switzerland or Austria, you can see why Yad Moss is doing good business.

There's also a rough and ready quality to the place which is distinctly refreshing. Forget chic, apres-ski bars and designer casuals. At Yad Moss, it's more a case of sharing a flask with a Cumbrian hill-farmer getting away from his sheep for a few hours.

Yad Moss is open every weekend of the season, conditions allowing, and the centre runs a phone-line giving up-to-the-minute information on the outlook for skiing. "Snow-falls are so heavy that the centre itself occasionally gets cut off," Paul smiles. "But snow-ploughs are available to clear the approach roads if necessary so access isn't usually a problem."

Because Yad Moss is so remote from large centres of population, local accommodation also tends to be of the homely kind. This again is an attraction to the visitor who really wants to get away from it all.

The picturesque village of Garrigill is the nearest community with comfortable bed-and-breakfast available at the only pub, the George and Dragon. Next door, the village shop doubles as a Post Office and also has several rooms available for B&B.

Garrigill is a good base for a weekend's skiing at Yad Moss with only a few minutes' drive between the two. The scenery is breathtaking with the dominant slopes of Cross Fell, at nearly 3,000ft the highest point in the Pennines, providing a moody back-cloth to the run.

A few miles north-west of Garrigill, Alston straddles the South Tyne and is another convenient base for a weekend in the snow. Alston is itself a lovely old town complete with steep, cobbled high street and quaint market cross. It's straight out of Catherine Cookson and recently made an ideal setting for the filming of Jane Eyre.

Alston has several pubs offering good B&B accommodation with dinner available in some. Rates are low in this remote spot and B&B in a family house can cost as little as pounds 12 per person. You'll pay only a couple of pounds more at the Blueberry Tea Room on the corner of the market place. Built in 1603, its beamed interior and low white-washed ceilings are a delight.

Here the excellent cuisine includes local delicacies like Alston and Cumberland sausage, sticky toffee pudding and the obligatory full Cumbrian breakfasts. These gigantic fry-ups would fill most people for the day, but after a couple of hours in the snow-fields of Yad Moss, don't be surprised if you feel like another.

Phone the Carlisle Ski Centre (01228-561634) before travelling to Yad Moss to ensure the outlook is suitable for skiing. For details on accommodation and transport phone the Penrith Tourist Information Office: 01768-867466.

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