David Bellamy dubbed the North Pennines 'England's last great wilderness', and it is a tag that proves hard to dispute. The wildest part of all - the big, bleak, wide-open space of Alston Moor - is a landscape of fell and rolling mountain pervaded by an uncanny, all-consuming solitude.

From the top of Cross Fell - at 2,930 feet the highest point of the mountain chain - you can see curlew, grouse and, if you're lucky, the odd merlin dancing against the majestic backdrop of the Lakeland peaks. Over there in the west, in cream-tea land, the cars and lorries crawl in ill-tempered queues, casting clouds of carbon monoxide over Penrith and Ambleside, clogging the lanes of Keswick. But the traffic on Alston Moor is mainly human. People in boots, carrying backpacks and guidebooks, struggle up from the south through all sorts of terrain and weather, and stumble into the bar of the Blue Bell Inn, Alston's walkers' boozer, there to swap stories of rolling fog and sudden, unseasonal hailstorms. A happier, more deliriously exhausted bunch it would be hard to find.

Only about 3,000 people now live on Alston Moor. It is very different from the old days. This end of the Pennines - the very top of the backbone of England - was once one of the world's leading lead mining areas. Thousands of miners were employed at Nenthead from the late 1600s to the 1880s by the London Lead Company, one of the first Quaker corporations, which showed an enlightened concern for its workforce, providing public baths and compulsory education. In the cobbled streets of Alston, and in Nenthead and Garrigill, you can still see the relics of the lead boom: fine old houses, handsome cul-de-sacs, a proliferation of chapels. Near the centre of Alston stands a Quaker Meeting House, built in 1732, a picture of provincial propriety that looks as if it will stand for ever.

The moor is sprinkled with places to stay - pubs and a smattering of remote country house hotels - but unless you are looking for near-Buddhist solitude, you should base yourself in the town, or brace yourself for winding drives or hefty walks every time you want to go somewhere.

The tourist leaflets tell you that Alston is England's highest market town, though in truth it is now little more than a large village. At the turn of the century the population was more than 10,000; today it stands at around 1,400.

No one commutes from Alston. This is a remote spot, reached by difficult, winding passes from all directions, by roads that are often dangerous or closed during the harshest days of winter. The people, too, have that sense of self-containment which comes from marking the boundaries of one's world in a handful of miles, instead of easy tens or hundreds.

This is not a new condition. In 1748, John Wesley preached to a small crowd at the Market Cross and noted 'a quiet, staring people, who seemed to be little concerned, one way or another'. Incomers, so bewitched by the place in summer that they have lingered, are susceptible to serious outbreaks of stir craziness when the snow comes to stop up the roads.

Until 1976, Alston was served by one of the most beautiful railway lines in Britain, its viaducts small cousins of the great beast that straddles the Ribble on the still-operational Carlisle-to-Settle route. The single-track, dead-end train climbed from Haltwhistle, through hills and scrubby little woods, until BR's axe fell. Now there is just a jolly little private steam and diesel narrow- gauge line, running a mile-and-a- half south from Alston to the Northumberland border, with a walk back for the energetic.

Happily, and surprisingly, public transport into the wilderness is good. Buses ply the five spectacular roads which link the town with remote outposts of the moor. There is even a service that meets up near Penrith with trains on the wonderful Settle line. So you don't have to take the car, though I suspect most people will.

The town's principal sights are swiftly seen: the old buildings of Front Street and the Butts; the station; some interesting little nooks and crannies, and a handful of warm pubs. The shops remain individual, even downright eccentric. You can buy some of the best Cumberland sausages, to try with one of several varieties of local mustard, then browse through an eclectic selection of art galleries, craft shops and second-hand bookshops.

Well-signposted paths lead out in all directions. The walk behind the town from the delightfully named street of Gossipgate is one of the best. From the top of the hill there is an exceptional view of this little mountain community tucked into its corner of the high South Tyne valley. If you're feeling energetic, you can carry on to outlying Garrigill, which David Bellamy says has the freshest air in all England, and to Nenthead.

But watch the weather, which can turn ugly at very short notice, and always remember that every yard you cover on the way out will feel like two on the return journey.

If you want to conquer the big fell itself, you need to follow the Pennine Way, either from Alston or - for a shorter, though still arduous hike - from Garrigill. If you're feeling plain idle, take the Hartside Pass, the road leading west out of Alston, over the Pennine ridge, down to Penrith, beneath the shadow of Cross Fell. At 1,903 feet, Hartside must be the highest road in England to be crossed by a public bus service.

At the top of the pass there is a small car park. To the west, the horizon stretches spectacularly from the highest peaks of the Lake District across to the watery triangle of the Solway Firth.

Three great rivers rise on Alston Moor: the Tyne, which feeds a merry little race that runs through the town, the Wear and the Tees. It is hard to associate these unpolluted, burbling streams with the sluggish, filthy waterways they will become on their way to the sea. Roads and accompanying bus services follow these rivers out of the fells, and so allow you to approach and leave Alston with variety.

The simplest way out is the short hop down to Brampton, near Carlisle, partly along the route followed by the extension of the Pennine Way. To the south lie two more dramatic river exits. Beyond Nenthead, you reach Weardale, passing the recreation of a lead mining centre at Killhope, the attractive hill villages of Ireshopeburn, St John's Chapel and Westgate, before entering Weardale proper, on an attractive road that eventually winds down to Bishop Auckland.

The Teesdale route is more in keeping with Alston itself, gloriously desolate for much of its length. Some 18 miles out of Alston lies High Force, England's biggest waterfall, with a 70ft drop. This is estate land so you need to pay 75p to park and another 40p to walk to the waterfall, but it's worth it. The Tees bursts through the rock in a noisy rush that sums up the primitive grandeur of the North Pennines.

A few miles beyond lies the smart little town of Middleton in Teesdale, where the shops sell mint cake and shortbread, and coach parties gawp. You know you are back in cream-tea land.

Information: Alston Tourist Information Centre: 0434 381696. An excellent leaflet on public transport from the North Pennines Tourism Partnership (0434 382069) is essential if you want to use buses and trains.

Accommodation and food: I stayed at the Lowbyer Manor Hotel (0434 381230), five minutes from the town centre, double rooms from around pounds 61 per night, two nights with dinner from pounds 82.50 per person. There is a wide range of B&B accommodation available through the tourist office, in town and on local farms, from around pounds 11 per night. Farmhouse accommodation and activities are available for the whole of Cumbria from a farmers' co-operative, Cumbrian Farm Leisure: 0228 791108. The Youth Hostel Association has seven hostels across the North Pennines, including one in Alston: 0434 381509.

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