Tales from the Big Trails, in print on 2nd September 2021, available now for pre-order from Vertebrate Publishing. Featuring all 15 National Trails in England and Wales, and the 4 designated long-distance Scotland’s Great Trails. This is the story of the people I meet, the landscapes and coastal scenery and the sheer joy of walking these iconic long-distance routes in the UK. Click on a link below for a copy.
On a trip to the US recently, I read a walking article in the Alaska Airlines flight magazine – it was a 4-page comprehensive guide to Hadrian’s Wall. Such is the renown of this National Trail. Known as one of the best monument walks in the world, alongside Offa’s Dyke and The Great Wall of China, it is justifiably popular.
The walk starts in Wallsend and passes through the wonderful city of Newcastle, before entering glorious countryside and then to the spectacular sections of the wall. It then descends into Carlisle through farmland and hence to Bowness-On-Solway, alongside the River Eden and into the Solway Firth. You have to kick yourself at times to remember that construction of the wall started in AD 122, 1,900 years ago! Views of the border country are rugged and wild.
I completed the walk in early November 2014, it would have been earlier, but I avoided the remnants of Hurricane Gonzalo.
Time of year
The National Trail recommends that you do not walk on the trail in winter, after early November until early March, but really in any heavy wet weather. This is to preserve the grass paths which, outside of these months, make for very pleasant walking. As usual, avoid peak holiday periods when the path can be very busy and accommodations scarce. An 8-mile section coincides with The Pennine Way.
Length of walk
84 miles, short by National Trail standards, but this is about quality, not quantity. I completed the walk in 5 days, including travel to Newcastle and from Bowness, by bus and public transport, so 4 days actual walking. It would be worthwhile taking longer as there are many visitor centres to see off the trail that will give you a more historical context. The path can be tough going at times and the route is quite exposed to the prevailing weather.
As this is a popular route there is a wide range of accommodation. As conditions were not ideal for camping I chose to stay in Farmhouse B&B’s and Inns. They were all wonderful and geared to walkers. The warm welcome and friendliness of the hosts are the best I have experienced on any trail. That in itself makes for a pleasant adventure, as does the excellent beer!
In better conditions, I would have sought out campsites.
This was a last long walk for 2014, I wanted to sneak a last trail into the year and Hadrian’s Wall seemed ideal. The train to Newcastle was almost as much of a pleasure as the walk itself, passing Durham and York. After a short trip on the Metro, I started out from Wallsend. If it had been South Shields this could be a coast to coast walk, I am not sure why they don’t extend it a bit. The initial section leading into Newcastle takes you through historic shipbuilding landscapes, slowly converting to modern use. Looking to the city, you can see the football stadium dominate the view, a measure of the importance of the sport to the city. What impresses more are the bridges that cross the River Tyne. Wonderful architectural diversity yet somehow consistent with purpose. Before long you enter a rural riverside scenery leaving the industrial landscape behind. It wasn’t long before I arrived at my first Farmhouse B&B in Heddon-On-The-Wall, after Pie and Beans at a local cafe. Very welcoming hosts who loved to natter. They brewed beer opposite the B&B 🙂 so I sought out a pint later that evening.
After breakfast and a natter, I entertaining the friendly farmyard dogs before I set off to the wall proper. After passing the first obvious Milecastle, the evidence for the wall became apparent. It is a pity the B6318 was built alongside, but it was this travesty that prompted a growing concern for the protection of the wall. This result in the preservation of much that we can see today. It was cold, gloves were needed. Lafarge Tarmac lorries passed every 15mins, leaving a waft of tar to perfume the fresh air. I crossed the river at Chollerford in good time and stopped for an excellent supper, before arriving at another Farmhouse B&B to the same warm welcome. Comfy.
Super breakfast and the obligatory natter, set me up for the best day. The weather was clear and bright, with good visibility and dramatic skyscapes. The wall is very much in evidence now with the road taking a back seat. Greenfields to the south, brownfields to the north, why, I do not know. Stunning views of the wild and windy landscape, with a beautiful light, you couldn’t fail to take a nice picture. So it was no surprise to meet a professional photographer, from New York, taking stock photos. He could have done with a decent pair of boots though as the bare soles he had, meant he was slipping all over the place. I passed just one other HW walker before reaching the postcard sites at Housesteads and Steel Rigg and stopping for lunch at a Trig Point. Still-air was broken by an RAF Tornado, on exercise, screeching through the sky. The next section ran with The Pennine Way until Greenhead, where I continued on the path to Gilsland and a nice Inn.
Pace had been good, but today the weather turned and I spent a rare day in waterproofs. Woods provided a welcome shelter, but the dramatic nature of the landscape was enhanced by the robust weather. Stopping briefly at a wonderful honesty cafe gave brief respite. I then started singing “Car Wash” – by Rose Royce to cheer me up, seemed appropriate. “Walking through a car wash, yeah, Walk and Walk…”. How did that enter my head? Conditions got softer (means muddy) as I progressed to Carlisle. Looking for a place to eat I stumble on a great cafe, I asked for something calorific and got a Stottie. This is a huge circular loaf, in this case, filled with roast chicken with gravy sauce. Whoa! This was followed my Dundee Cake with Custard. Heaven! Now I can barely walk to the B&B, which is nice, full of bric-a-brac and a chatty landlord.
Tremendous FEB powered my walk from Carlisle across muddy cattle fields until I finally reached wonderful views across the Solway Firth. I was on a mission to catch an infrequent bus from Bowness-On-Solway back to Carlisle. The pace was good and it had to be, as I had noted the night before that it was a Spring High Tide of 9.4m, was timed to spoil my walk. Luckily, I cleared the critical road section before the high tide as I arrived into Drumburgh, with its splendid fortified manor house. A few muddy tracks later I arrived in Port Carlisle and Bowness-On-Solway. A grand reception awaited in the form of a shelter on the Edwardian promenade, full of information about the walk and a superb mosaic floor. Waiting for the bus stressed me out as the timetable on the telegraph pole was incorrect, but I made it back to Carlisle in time to catch the fast-train home.
- Day 1 – 15m – Train to Newcastle, Metro to Wallsend, walk to Heddon-On-The-Wall – B&B and natter
- Day 2 – 17m – Green Carts, B&B and natter
- Day 3 – 18m – Gilsland – Inn and natter
- Day 4 – 19m – Carlisle – B&B and more natter
- Day 5 – 15m – Bowness-On-Solway, bus/train home.
This is a path to do again, just for the natter.