The central part of the small market town of Alston was designated as a Conservation Area on 27 May 1976. Most of the buildings around the Market Square date from the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and several of the individual buildings there and within the wider Conservation Area are heritage-listed. The originally entirely cobbled Front Street is now partially tarmaced, but the overall setting and style of the buildings makes Alston a very special place. Designation as a Conservation Area (and specific ‘Article 4’ requirements) protects the important characteristics, and must be considered in all planning applications. The Conservation Area is just one aspect of the many designations which celebrate the extraordinary history of Alston Moor.
In 2011, the Alston Conservation Area was identified as ‘Heritage at Risk’.
Deterioration of the historic fabric and the loss of important architectural features were a result of the local economic downturn, with reduced trade resulting in more shops being unoccupied, and business owners having inadequate income to undertake necessary repairs and renovation.
Very luckily, a local conservation architect, Peter Kempsey, had a conversation with Eden District Council’s conservation officer, and realised the possibility of obtaining a Townscape Heritage grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF). Alston Moor Partnership took on the long process of establishing the Alston Townscape Heritage Scheme, the only non-local authority organisation to achieve such funding.
With financial commitment and support from Eden District Council and Alston Moor Parish Council, £1.3 million was granted and in 2015, after two years of undertaking all the preliminary stages, the scheme was ready to begin.
A total of thirteen properties were improved, funded by the property owners and the NLHF. The focus of the work was on the frontage as seen from the street, but much was done to ensure the structural safety and weather security of each property. The look of Front Street (the main road through Alston) has been transformed from top to bottom.
The work on the properties, while the key focus of the project, was by no means the only activity. The whole community benefitted from the associated events and training programme.
The events engaged local people in the work on the properties, and in some of the associated crafts which had contributed to the historic work. Legacy aspects included a maintenance calendar, enabling the many local households with old stone-built houses to do as much as possible to ensure the wellbeing of those properties and the people living in them.
The training has had a massive lasting benefit. Local contractors who participated in the building techniques workshops learned key skills for work on traditional buildings, which has stood them in good stead with developing their businesses to undertake such specialised work. Additionally, drystone walling courses with a local master craftsman have assisted in the maintenance of the traditional local landscape.