England LONG READ National Trails

Chapter 11 – Hadrian’s Wall. “Walking is man’s best medicine”

Hadrian’s Wall

The world famous B6318

“Walking is man’s best medicine” – Hippocrates

On a trip to the USA recently, I read an article in the Alaska Airlines inflight magazine – it was a four-page comprehensive guide to Hadrian’s Wall.  There I was, flying at 40,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean, reading about a ‘local’ walk – surreal. The route is of such international renown, you will find it listed with The Great Wall of China and Offa’s Dyke in ‘Top 10’ walks in the archaeological world.  It is justifiably popular, how lucky we are in Britain to have two.

The remnants of Hurricane Gonzalo delayed my start for a week. Yes, it is true –  we have such conditions in the British Isles, although by the time it had crossed the Atlantic it had been downgraded to a tropical storm.  It is late October and not the best time, weather-wise, or for conditions underfoot – but I wanted to get another path done before the winter.  

This is the second northern boundary of the Roman Empire. Antonine’s Wall was built further north between the modern day Glasgow and Edinburgh but it was quickly abandoned.  Construction began on Hadrian’s Wall, in AD 122, some 1,900 years ago and completed in six years. The Romans abandoned the fortifications around AD 410. There is some evidence of continued use for the remainder of the 5th Century, until its ultimate decline.

At eighty-four miles, Hadrian’s Wall National Trail stretches from Wallsend, Newcastle to Bowness-on-Solway, near Carlisle. I chose to walk it in this direction, primarily due to lower travel cost and simplified logistics.  The entire journey took five days, but I could have stayed for two weeks’ to fully explore the archaeological attractions. This was a luxury tour, staying in B&Bs and Inns, if it had been summer I would have camped.

The east coast mainline train to Newcastle is a pleasure. I connected quickly with the local Metro network to alight near the start in Wallsend around midday. If you were to extend the path five miles east to the North Sea, you could call this a Coast-to-Coast route. The wall terminated where the River Tyne widened, at Segedunum, a major Roman Fort. I should have paused to look around the excellent museum, but I had to get to my accommodation, ten miles west. So I set off along a litter-strewn path through the aptly named Walker estate to Newcastle centre, passing daytime dogs walkers.

The approach to the city centre telescopes the beauty of the bridges over the River Tyne. I find myself whistling Lindisfarne’s – Fog on the Tyne folk tune as I reach the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, and eye-achingly beautiful foot and cycle bridge that blinks as it pivots to allow shipping traffic to pass.  There follows a civil engineering museum of pedestrian, road and rail bridges overlooked proudly by St James’ Park football stadium. The locals, known as ‘Geordies’, are friendly with an attractive disarming accent and distinct identity.  The origins of the label are disputed, either named after a coal mining lamp or to honour their loyalty to King George I.

I leave Newcastle behind and head into the countryside, climbing a hill into Heddon-on-the-Wall to leave the mighty Tyne.  A local cafe is about to close, but they are more than happy to serve me a meal.

“Pie, Beans and Chips ok?” the owner says.  She disappears into the kitchen, as her friends, devoid of her conversation, turn in my direction.

“What brings you to Heddon?”; they ask, and we fall into a pleasant natter about the local community and my journey.  After cake and tea, I say my goodbyes and seek out a farmhouse B&B having received a copious explanation about the best way to get there.  “Paula will take care of you, it’s a nice place to stay”. It is a bit of a cliche, but I cannot imagine having such a warm chat in a cafe in the south of England.

I am met by Paula, who takes me across the yard to a purpose-built bunkhouse.  I am the only guest tonight. “Which pub do you recommend – I hear there is a microbrewery nearby. I’d like to try the beer”.

“Ah! That’ll be Wylam’s, you’ll get a pint at The Swan”; as she directs back into the village.

I can’t resist a few pints, very nice indeed, served with a thick foam head, northern style.  It is a struggle to walk home, not, as you might think, due to excessive consumption, but my legs have seized up – I am not used to the day’s enthusiastic pace.

Breakfast appears through the kitchen/dining room serving hatch the next morning and an empty plate is returned. I pack, but the farm dogs don’t want me to leave; they want to play with a tennis ball. I oblige by kicking it across the yard, repeatedly – they are in charge, they are playing with me.

“Phhheww. Phewwwit.”; a quick whistle and the game is over, the dogs jump into the back of the Land Rover and the farmer is away to the fields.

I cross the A69, a busy dual-carriageway between Newcastle and Carlisle to reach Milecastle 13. These are small forts spaced at one-mile intervals, I am not sure where No.1 to 12 went, somewhere towards the city.  Now the Wall is evident, as is the ‘Vallum’, a defensive ditch and mound. This runs parallel to the Wall marking the southern boundary of the structure, as does the B6318 –  a minor military road built in the 18th Century, using materials from the Roman constructions. This archaeological vandalism, which continued as farmers’ sought building materials, was eventually curtailed by John Clayton, in the 1830s. He had to foresight to buy up the land and farms to protect the monument.

It is a cold morning and there must be more road building ahead, as a Tarmac lorry passes by on the B6318 every fifteen minutes. The intense pine tarmacadam perfume wafts in my direction, not unpleasant by any means.  Mixed with the fresh air like a Fisherman’s Friend it adds another sensory dimension to an invigorating day. The grass path is kept in peak condition by the farmer’s natural lawnmower – sheep – lots of them.

I continue on the path, elevated above the road, crossing the River Tyne into Chollerford. To my delight, a Tea Room is attached to the local garage.

“Fish and Chips and a cuppa tea, please”.  “Coming up”; the waitress replies.

The meal fills my boots. I can relax a bit now as my B&B is only a few miles away.  I walk past ‘Chesters’ Roman Fort, built to defend the river crossing and divert from the path to reach the farmhouse B&B.  I knock at the door, while two cats purr between my muddy boots, wiping them clean – what an unexpected service!

The farmer’s wife shows me to an empty bunkhouse which could host a dozen walkers, a sign that the path gets busy at peak times.  

“We are fully booked over the summer with walking groups”; she is pleased to say. “I’ll just switch the heating on for you”. “I’ll bring breakfast over in the morning. Help yourself to tea and coffee”.

I turn the thermostat down as she leaves, it seems a shame to waste energy.  It also seems a shame to keep that chocolate bar in my pack until tomorrow too.

Sure enough, on time the next morning, she brings over a full breakfast wrapped in foil and sits down for a natter.  They are near retirement and she talks about how difficult it has been to pass on the farm to their children, who have long since left for city life.  

“You’ll enjoy the walk today – the best bit of the Wall”

“You can take a shortcut back to the Wall through the farm”; she explains.  So I set off, to pass the farmer, busy clearing out the barn with his tractor. I am grateful to them for providing such wonderful accommodation. I am sure they profit more from walkers than from the farm business.  

I follow the B6318 for another five miles, passing sections of the Wall; Milecastles’ 29 to 34; a few camps and a fort or two. The road then separates from the path to follow the contour of the land, while the Wall ascends towards Sewingshields Crags at 325m. I am blessed with a glorious day as picture postcard views of Hadrian’s Wall come into view.  Ahead I can see how the Wall follows ‘The Whin Sill’ crags into the distance – a natural geological feature. What is even more striking is the brown colour of the grass and heather to the north in contrast to the green to the south. I am scratching my head trying to work out why. Do cattle graze the north and sheep the south? Is it the wind direction?

The quality of the light is exceptional. So it is no surprise when I meet a professional photographer, overloaded with packs, cameras, lenses and tripods.

“You can’t fail to take a good photograph today”; I suggest. “It’s lovely isn’t it”; he replies. “You must be professional with all that gear”; I continue.

Indeed he is. A freelancer from New York, who makes a living supplying stock photographs for the travel industry.  I tell him the story of my experience on an Alaska Airlines flight, guessing he did not take those photos. While I look on with envy at his camera gear compared to my humble smartphone; he is looking at my boots with equal envy.

“I could do with a pair of those boots, mine have no grip at all. It has taken me an hour to reach this point through the muddy paths”; he said, showing me the smooth leather soles on a pair of boots more suited to fashion than purpose.  

“You can pick up a decent pair in most outdoor shops. You really need to do that before you end up on your arse”.  He turns to show me his mud-stained trousers and jacket. “Ah. I see”.  Several thousand pounds worth of camera gear but what he really needs is a decent pair of boots.

I wouldn’t have swapped boot for camera. Ahead of me is a rollercoaster of crags leading to Greenhead.  Housesteads Fort, a major tourist attraction, is below, but I ‘ll leave that excursion for another time. The ride ahead is too exhilarating;  the endless ascents and descents seem to pump my lungs so full of oxygen that it triggers an intense feeling of joy. I don’t want to stop – I’m in the zone today.   

I have to force myself to pause and take in the tree at Sycamore Gap and Milecastle 39 at Steel Rigg.  If you had two overturned photographs of Hadrian’s Wall on the table, I’d bet this is where they were taken.  The tree famously appeared in Kevin Costner’s film, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’ and has since become known as Robin Hood’s tree. Did he steal it from Sherwood Forest, 150 miles to the south?

The trig point ahead is a good place to stop for lunch before I get dizzy.  The peace and quiet are shattered as an RAF Tornado screech’s overhead and I can follow it for miles as it hugs the landscape.  Re-energised, I descend to the turn off for the Pennine Way. I am now on a familiar path, but now walking in the opposite direction to my earlier journey.  The ride continues into Greenhead, but I do not stop until Gilsland and The Samson Inn. Steak and Chips and a few pints are a fitting end to a glorious day.

I can hear rain as I wake.  I knew my luck would run out.  Never mind. After breakfast, it is the full waterproof kit.  The scenery is about to change too as I cross the River Irthing after walking alongside a well-preserved section of the Wall.  I sense I am descending towards the sea. A plaque is attached to a farm building, in jest:


I retreat into my waterproof hood with only my thoughts for company and I get into a marching rhythm. Without much external stimulus, I ponder the life of a Roman Centurion.

‘How fast did they march?’; I wonder. ‘What type of shoes did they wear?’ ‘How long did it take them to march from Rome?’

“Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.
The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why.
The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
My girl’s in Tungria; I sleep alone.
Aulus goes hanging around her place,
I don’t like his manners, I don’t like his face.
Piso’s a Christian, he worships a fish;
There’d be no kissing if he had his wish.
She gave me a ring but I diced it away;
I want my girl and I want my pay.
When I’m a veteran with only one eye
I shall do nothing but look at the sky.  – W H Auden”

The rain continues, but a brief respite is provided by a wonderful honesty cafe.  The small wooden shed is warm and dry. It contains all you need for a tea break: electric kettle; fridge with milk and cake; chocolate; tea bags and so on… The interior is covered in ‘thank you’ notes from all over the world bearing witness to the gratitude of weary walkers.  Several taxi companies see a business opportunity and have left their cards, just in case. Very tempting on a day like today, even as the rain starts to permeate my defences.

I have to keep going to stay warm. I retreat again into my waterproof hood and start marching.  An earworm strikes me.

“Car wash, Car wash, dooooo…dod did diddy did do dooo, Car Wash, Car Wash…..

You might not ever get rich, da da da dut….but let me tell ya it’s better than digging a ditch…da da da dut”, with a subtle change of lyrics… “Walkin’ through a car wash, boy…whoa whoa whoa”

Where did that come from? What’s worse is that I am switching between Christina Aguilera and the original 70s version by Rose Royce.

Weird, but at least mile after Milecastle disappears as I approach Carlisle and the River Eden.  I get chased over the bridge by a dog that objects to my walking poles, as I aim for the centre of town.  The owner says he is a rescue dog who regularly got beaten by a broom. How was I to know? I log that behaviour for future reference.

I stumble upon a great coffee shop ‘John Watt & Sons’.  They welcome a weary walker in.

“What is the most calorific meal you have?”; I ask.

“Ah, you’ll be wanting the Stottie” the waitress replies.  I have no energy to ask what that means. I needn’t have worried as she brings a roast dinner in a bun, complete with a jug of gravy.  “Anything for pudding?”; she asks. The main course is followed by a hefty slice of Dundee cake, floating in a bowl of custard. I have come to the right place.

I wonder how I will now rise from the chair, having taken on so much weight and forgotten that my legs have seized solid.  I topple towards the counter to pay, looking like an animated scarecrow.

“Thank you so much”; I say, with heartfelt sincerity.

I stumble towards my B&B, about a mile away, in Warwick Road. It is a relief to get out of the rain and to be dry again.

Breakfast is epic, about as good as you can get, served in a breakfast room with so much bric-a-brac you cannot see the wallpaper.  The owner has been in this business a while. We chat about what customers like and don’t like and how difficult it is to please everyone.  TripAdvisor doesn’t help he says – “One man’s pleasure is another man’s poison”.

I find the place wonderful and full of character, others would complain about the decoration.  There is no doubt that he takes a great deal of pride in the house. Little did he know that the following year, the River Eden would burst its banks and Warwick Road would be severely flooded.  The evening news caught my eye and I could see his property under several feet of water, only the upstairs window can be used to exit. I was shocked and saddened.

The rain has eased but the paths are very muddy. I reach Milecastle 73 and the Solway Firth. There is an ethereal quality to the light, with views north to the snow-capped moors in Scotland. I cannot linger as spring high tide is due shortly. The road can flood when a combination of tide, pressure and river flow can conspire to raise the water level by 3m.  A picture of a bus wading axle deep gives warning. The road is clear and leads me into Drumburgh a village on a hill, complete with an imposing fortified manor house. Only a few miles remain as I enter Bowness-on-Solway to find a wonderful shelter, built by the local community. There is a Romanesque mosaic on the floor, designed by the local primary school kids, depicting the local bird life and announcing ‘AVE MAIA’, welcome ‘Hail Maia’, the final Roman Fort of the walk.

I wait by the bus stop for a connection to Carlisle and a train home.  The lamppost timetable is at odds with my Smartphone research. A local resident pops out of her house to say the bus will be a while.

“The timetable will need changing – it says 3:40 PM”; I explain. “Oh. Ignore that”; she says, the kids will be home from school soon.  “It’s always on time”

She is right, and soon I am whizzing past the very paths and roads I have walked, to reach the rail station with minutes to spare.

I spend my time on the train googling “Roman soldier marching”.  The benchmark is twenty miles in five summer hours carrying fifty-pound pack –  that’s four mph! No way. A little further research tells me that a Roman mile is shorter than an imperial mile and a Roman hour divides daylight into 12 equal hours.  So a quick re-calculation shows that to be three mph!

That’s the pace I have been walking.  I’m chuffed to bits.

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