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Hadrian's Wall Path, England

Sept 24 - Oct 2, 2009

United Kingdom map

Map of Hadrian's Wall Path


"That's it!", exclaimed D with an old travel magazine open on his lap.  "What's it?", inquired J without even looking up from her laptop.  "I know what I want to do for my 40th birthday", D replied.  "That's great dear", said J with her usual dismissive eye roll.  "We're going to walk across England", said D, "Coast to coast".

It was to be our first true peregrination Ė an 84 mile trek along the ancient frontier between England and Scotland. We had been researching possibilities for years, and the combination of history, scenery, and beer on the Hadrianís Wall Path met most of our criteria for a worthy vacation. Our trip got off to a celebratory start as our flight included a 90 minute layover in Dublin on the 250th anniversary of Arthurís Day when the Guinness brewery was founded. We dutifully toasted the occasion with a couple of freshly pulled pints at 4:30 am. Our plan was to land in Edinburgh and then travel by train to Newcastle from where we would begin our westwardly walk to Bowness-on-Solway. We felt comfortable that we could complete the journey in eight days which would leave us time to see some of Edinburgh before returning home.

When Hadrian succeeded his adoptive father Trajan as emperor of Rome in 117 AD, he inherited an empire at its greatest extent, reaching from Mesopotamia to North Africa to Britannia. Consequently, a vast military was required to maintain the borders, and these soldiers needed to be fed, paid, and kept occupied to remain loyal to the republic. In the forty some years that Romans occupied the British Isles, they were unable to conquer Scotland, as the Pict tribes in the north proved to be a formidable opposition. It is believed that Hadrian made the decision to build a stone wall from the mouth of the Tyne River to Solway Firth as much to protect Roman Britain from the Picts as to keep his troops from the temptations that accompany idleness.

The 10 year endeavor to build a wall across England began with a 10 foot wide stone base known as the Broad Wall, but after a period of time the wall base was reduced to 8 feet perhaps in an effort to speed construction. Situated every Roman mile along the length of the wall are small fort-like structures called milecastles which were used to house troops and often to control traffic through a nearby gate. A Roman mile was about 5,000 ft and equated to the distance a legion travelled in 1,000 paces (mile = mille), so there are 80 or so milecastles along the length of the wall. In addition, there were also believed to be 17 forts which could hold another 1,000 soldiers each and were vital to providing security and storing supplies. Local Britons often provided goods to the fort, and in some cases small civilian settlements began to form on their periphery which were precursors to some of the towns in the region today. While the wall was estimated to be between 12 and 15 feet high in places, the height was bolstered by a 6 foot ditch dug at the base of the northern side of the wall. To the south of the wall, another broader ditch called the vallum was created to perhaps designate the beginning of the military zone and serve as a barrier to the civilian population. Between the vallum and the wall ran a military road used to move supplies and troops between milecastles and forts.

When Hadrian died in 138 AD, his own adopted son Antoninus Pius became emperor and abandoned the wall in favor of a new shorter wall 100 miles to the north between the firths of Forth and Clyde. Consequently, Hadrian's Wall began to deteriorate from neglect, and locals used it as a quarry to provide stone for new buildings. A considerable portion of the wall was destroyed by General George Wade who built a military road as a means to easily transport troops along the frontier with Scotland to quell the Jacobite uprising led by Bonnie Prince Charlie. Much of the credit to the wall's survival is attributed to John Clayton, a Newcastle lawyer, who began buying up farms containing remnants of the wall and investing the profits into its reconstruction. Just about all of the wall standing today has been partially reconstructed by either Clayton or the National Trust.

A restored section of the wall at Segedunum.
Restored section of wall

The Roman fort at Segedunum guarded the easternmost end of the wall
Roman ruins of Segedunum

Arbeia has been restored to provide a look into the regions Roman past
Arbeia

The Boathouse Pub
The Boathouse Pub

Segedunum
Segedunum

Mouth of the Tyne from South Shields
Mouth of the Tyne from South Shields

Newcastle to Newburn

Newcastle itself is located a few miles inland from where the Tyne River meets the North Sea. The Romans actually built fortifications overlooking the mouth of the Tyne at a location known today as South Shields. The fort was known as Arbeia and was used to protect the Tyne as well as provide supplies to the legions guarding the frontier. Some of the site has been reconstructed but the fort remains an active archeological site.

The official National Trail actually begins not surprisingly at Wallsend on the outskirts of Newcastle. From South Shields, we crossed the Tyne by ferry and then the Metro to the starting point of our trek. Segedunum, a massive Roman fort marking the beginning of Hadrianís Wall and the walking path itself. The glass observation tower offers a panoramic view of the excavations, but perhaps the most interesting feature is a reconstructed segment of the wall giving one a glimpse of the imposing 15 ft high barrier that the tribes to the north had to face.

The course of the original wall runs through downtown Newcastle and essentially none of it remains today. Therfore, the path winds along the banks of the Tyne past clusters of condominiums. Newcastle, too often thought of as a center of coal and industry, has more recently become known for its youthful population and vibrant nightlife. In fact, the central location of our hotel made it a popular accommodation for members of hen or stag parties carousing to the wee hours of the morning.

Newcastle-upon-Tyne, as it is officially known, had its own origins as a Roman fort called Pons Aelius, alluding to a bridge that one crossed the Tyne at that point. This was the original endpoint of the wall, but it soon became evident that the natives to the north could cross further downstream so the wall was extended to Segedunum. The Pons Aelius site has always had strategic importance and has been continuously fortified even after Roman rule came to an end when the town became known as Monkchester. It wasnít until the Norman Conquest that the elder son of William the Conqueror chose this site to build a new castle in 1080, giving the city its present name.

As we made our way past the various bridges spanning the Tyne, we began to feel the effects of the long flight and the time change. There was still some daylight left so we traversed Newcastleís old town to see remnants of the city walls before settling down for a pint of Newcastle Brown at the spectacularly situated Bridge Hotel. We had comfortably walked about 4 miles on pavement and felt pretty good despite having arrived by plane that morning.

We got a late start the next morning to shake off the jet lag but knew we didnít have too long to go for the day. Once we figured how to get back on the route from our hotel, the walk was quite pleasant as it followed the course of the Tyne through the Newcastle suburbs. This was our first segment wearing our backpacks, and it took some time to get used to them. Many people who hike the entire trail have their belongings driven to their next destination, but this felt like cheating to us somehow, so we decided to hike with packs, hoping that we wouldnít regret it. Our main concern at the moment was where we would stop for a pint and a pee. Surprisingly, the sun beat down on us for most of the way and much of the walk was on pavement, but we soon settled into the Boathouse for a refreshing Boddingtons knowing that our ultimate destination for the evening was only a few yards down the road at the Big Lamp Brewery and Inn. We spent the rest of the evening securing provisions for the next segment of the journey, confident that we could handle the rest of the walk if we got an early start each morning.

The Newcastle Keep is part of the fortification that gave Newcastle its name
Newcastle Keep

The Bridge Hotel
Bridge Hotel

The Black Gate is also part of the original Newcastle fortification.
Black Gate

Newcastle city walls
City walls

Travelers' respite
Travelers' respite

The path forward
The path forward

Newcastle bridges
Newcastle bridges

Home of the Newcastle United Magpies
St. James Park

Tyne sunset
Tyne sunset

Wallsend
Wallsend

The Keelman
The Keelman


Tooling marks are evident in some of the wall stones
Stones with tooling marks

Heddon-on-the-Wall
Heddon-on-the-Wall

J navigates the minefield
J navigates the minefield

Newburn to Chollerford

The stretch of trail ahead was expected to be long Ė the longest of the entire journey. We started out before sunrise hoping to make it to Chollerford before dark. Heddon-on-the-Wall gave us our first genuine glimpse of what was to come. Just off the trail was a 150 yard section of the Broad Wall which somehow escaped General Wade. We took some extra time examining both sides of the wall noting the tool marks still visible on many of the stones. It was early on a Saturday morning, and not much was open in Heddon save for a gas station. We loaded up on cold meat pies for the march ahead unsure if we would find anything else before lunchtime. The terrain was mostly asphalt until we hit the farmland which required passing through gate after gate after gate - loads of gates that the guide books failed to mention. While most were contained swing gates that offered only enough room for a walker to squeeze through, there were also the more cumbersome ladder stiles which requires one to climb steps, carefully straddle the wall or fence, and then descend the other side. Not as easy as it sounds with a full pack on your back. We trod on through a number of fields taking care to give wide berths to the cows and especially their calves. Just before we left the US, we came across a news item in which a third hiker of the year had been trampled by a cow in the UK. There was even a hotline to call if you were attacked or chased by a cow. What began as concern quickly turned into alarm when we began to see how many cows we would ultimately encounter on this trek. We followed a few basic steps to ensure our safety Ė approach the cows slowly, talk to them so that they know you are there, avoid the calves at all costs, and be prepared to run like hell just in case.

We took refuge at the Robin Hood Inn for a hot lunch and a cool pint of ale. We were both feeling the pain as blisters started to form and joints began to ache from the constant pounding of our packs. It took all our energy to leave the comfort of the inn and get back on the trail. Chollerford could not come soon enough, and when it did, we had put in 18 miles for the day. Unfortunately, we still had one more to go to reach our accommodations in the neighboring town of Humshaugh. Due to a kitchen problem, the innkeeper could not provide us with any food, so we ate what remained of our road snacks, showered, and fell into bed thoroughly exhausted. We stared at the ceiling, unable to move, and had an earnest discussion about giving up the absurd idea of walking the next segment settling instead for taking the bus. We decided to sleep on it.

Chollerford Bridge
Chollerford Bridge

Traces of the Vallum
Traces of the Vallum

The North ditch
The North ditch

A profile of the wall, ditch and vallum
Profile of wall system

The Errington Arms
The Errington Arms

Early morning hay bales
Early morning hay bales


Remnants of an arched milecastle entryway
Arched entry

Burnhead
Burnhead

The Vallum at Cawfields
The Vallum at Cawfields

Mithras temple
Mithras temple

 

Signpost
Showing us the way

 

Crag Lough
Crag Lough

 

An unamused ram
Eeeeeeasy, Big Fella

 

The fort at Housesteads
The fort at Housesteads

Chollerford to Cawfields

A good night sleep did wonders for our physical and psychological wounds, and we were back on the trail again at 7 am the next morning brimming with confidence. The innkeeper scrounged up some containers of yogurt and a couple of bananas to take with us on the upcoming stretch. We were in to the most scenic yet demanding part of the hike. The sharply angled crags formed by glacial erosion provided spectacular views of the border country to the north. The early morning sunshine quickly turned to overcast skies, and the westerly wind began to pick up. Although most (if not all) of the guidebooks lay out the segments of the walk from east to west, it seemed that most of the hikers we met were working their way to Newcastle. We were about to learn the hard way that walking eastward is the more traditional direction as it keeps the wind to your back.

As we pushed on, it became evident that this section of the journey was as advertised, and the views of the serpentine wall disappearing over the crags were worth the effort it took to get there. The climb down the crags seemed much more demanding than the march up, and we soon began to feel the pounding on our knees. As this part of the trail entered the Northumberland National Park, there were no towns at which we could stop to rest and replenish ourselves. Our morning rations were long gone, and we began to get concerned as it was a Sunday which meant there was no guarantee that anything would be open. Discounting our meager breakfast rations, we had not had a proper meal since the day before, and we had completely run out of water. We had trod up another hill along the length of the ruined Roman fort at Housesteads when our salvation appeared before us like a vision Ė the fortís gift shop. In true barbarian spirit, we raided it. We relieved them of all their bottled water and bought a tower of exquisite chocolate-covered shortbread. To the dismay of the other visitors, we sprawled out on the lawn outside the shop to air out our socks and tear into our plunder.

After a bathroom break and a sock change, we pressed on past scenic Crag Lough and the famous Sycamore Gap. As we reached Twice Brewed, we were already spent. Our feet and knees ached from the nonstop ascent and descent over the crags, but we knew that our B&B was still some 3 more miles ahead of us. We paused for awhile looking at the inn about a half mile downhill off of the trail. We could almost smell the food and hear the clanging of pint glasses. How far was it really? How many steps would that be? Did we have the energy to make it back up the hill? Maybe we could stash our packs somewhere and walk there. Would we have enough time before it got dark? We sat and debated for awhile, running over the calculations. Reluctantly, we decided to plod on hoping to reach our final destination before nightfall.

After another half hour, we could see the farmhouse that was to be our B&B for the night materialize in the distance. It took us another hour to actually reach it. The final few hundred feet of the walk was surreal. As we rounded the quarry at Cawfields which had provided stone for the wall, we heard the sound of bagpipes. A solitary piper stood by the water practicing his craft and supplying us with a soundtrack to finish the dayís 15 mile effort. We staggered up the driveway and were met by our hosts. After a shower and a change of clothes, we hobbled down the road to the Milecastle Inn where we dived into wild boar and duck meat pies, sticky toffee pudding, and copious amounts of local ale. In the meantime, our gracious hosts at the Burnhead B&B were kind enough to do a load of our laundry to give us enough clean socks to make it to the end.

Sycamore Gap
Sycamore Gap

Cawfields Quarry
Cawfields Quarry

Milecastle #42
Milecastle #42


A turret at Vindolanda
A turret at Vindolanda

Vindolanda
Vindolanda

Twice Brewed Inn
Twice Brewed Inn

A Day Off

Thankfullył we planned a day of rest with which we could ride the Hadrianís Wall Country bus to see a few of the forts and museums that had eluded us thus far. Our main objectives were to separate ourselves from our backpacks for a day and spend as little time on our feet as possible. We toured the Roman Army Museum to study some of the artifacts from years of excavations in the area. We also visited the great fort at Vindolanda which pre-dated Hadrianís Wall by 40 years and was one of the key border fortifications since the beginning of Roman rule in Britain. Despite our desire to see more, we knew it was in our best interest to rest, which we did at a corner table in the Twice Brewed Inn.

Tea time
Tea time

Roman milesotne
Roman milestone

Vindolanda ruins
Vindolanda ruins


Early morning mist
Early morning mist

Misty wall
Misty wall

Curious local
Curious local

Thirlwall Castle
Thirlwall Castle

 

Intersecting the Pennine Way
Intersecting the Pennine Way

 

Wall stones in local farmhouse
Wall stones in local farmhouse

 

Turret ruins
Turret ruins

Cawfields to Lanercost

While the one-day respite permitted us to rest our weary feet and joints, it also allowed the rain clouds to move in. For the first time, we had to break out our wet weather gear. Before embarking on this adventure, we spent a lot of time planning on what we should take along. Knowing that we would have to sling our packs all day long, we needed to pack carefully. We tried to stay optimistic about the weather, but we knew that the odds of avoiding rain for seven days running in the north of England were not good. It was clear we needed some protective rain wear. So we each bought a lightweight jacket and pants on the day before we left which proved to be a wise precaution.

It was only a drizzle, but it was enough to soak our clothes over the 15 or so hours we had to walk that day. The trail also began to muddy, and the steppingstones used to descend the steep crags became treacherously slick. All of this ate into our pace, and we began to lose significant time. Our plan was to make Gilsland for lunch. The terrain soon flattened out and we were once again cutting through farms which helped us get back on track. We made Gilsland just after noon only to find all three pubs in town closed during lunchtime for reasons we still canít understand. We ended up drying out in a tea room while noshing on paninis and chatting with some fellow walkers.

The rain began to let up, and we ventured out again crossing farms and back country roads that led out onto a plateau. We had a magnificent view of the River Irthing and the valley through which it ran. We soon came to an interesting site where the wall crossed the river. Here the wall was transformed into an arched bridge wide enough to drive a chariot over it. Remnants of the abutments can still be seen, and experts speculate that towers stood on both banks from which Roman soldiers could patrol this potential breach in the wall. These soldiers were most likely housed at the nearby Birdoswald fort only a few hundred feet further up the path. We stopped at the fort for a nature break and to have a bite to eat. It was also one of the designated stamping stations. When we began the walk at Segedunum, we each picked up a Hadrianís Wall Passport to be stamped at certain points along the way. If all six stamps were collected, we could exchange the passport for a certificate commemorating our successful completion of the walk.

We kept moving as the afternoon wore on making frequent sock changes on account of the rain. Just before turning off to Lanercost, we happened upon a workshop where a man and his son were printing up t-shirts. We investigated further to find that they sold these Hadrianís Wall souvenirs to walkers. D appropriately bought a shirt stenciled with a map of the trail and the words "I came, I saw, I blistered" across the chest. We were reluctant to add any additional weight to our packs, so we paid the extra few pounds to have it sent directly to the US. That evening, we dined with our B&B hosts who were also kind enough to do some laundry for us. We dried out our belongings and enjoyed perhaps the best hot shower in all of England.

Bridge abutment
Bridge abutment

Birdoswald Fort
Birdoswald Fort

Milecastle #49
Milecastle #49


Lanercost Priory
Lanercost Priory

Honesty box
Honesty box

Rickerby Park
Rickerby Park

Lanercost to Carlisle

We were on the road again early the next morning; however, we couldnít leave Lanercost without paying a visit to its top attraction. The Lanercost Priory is notable in that it hosted King Edward I and his royal court while his majesty recovered from dysentery for 6 months in 1306. The priory itself dates back to the 12th century and was constructed using some of the stones from Hadrianís Wall. We spent a few minutes roaming the grounds, but were eager to get on our way to Carlisle.

Most of the impressive sections of wall were behind us. Near Dovecote Bridge, we came upon a mound of turf which was part of the original wall uncovered some years ago. After just a short period of time, the sandstone began to show signs of erosion, and the section was again covered up to preserve it. A little further on, we found an honesty box filled with chocolaty goodness. The concept involves selecting what you want, be it candy, chips, or a drink, and putting money in the box for what you have taken. As Americans, we were a little surprised that the money hadnít been stolen, or the candy, or even the box for that matter. It was nice to see that the honor system was alive and well.

We passed on the honesty box in favor of something warm to eat for lunch at the Centurion Inn, one of the most well-known pubs along the trail. Unfortunately, it will never be well-known to us because it was closed. Our next hope was the Stag Inn which was another five miles up the trail. We were hungry and angry when we got to Crosby-on-Eden to find the Stag was also locked despite it being lunchtime and there being a chalkboard sign out front hyping homemade food.

Pony
Look! It's a pony

Local cottage
Cottage

Wildflowers along the Eden River
Wildflowers along the Eden


Signpost to Bowness on Solway
Almost there

Highland Laddie Inn
Highland Laddie Inn

Warwick Lodge in Carlisle
Warwick Lodge in Carlisle

Carlisle to Bowness-on-Solway

Carlisle was the largest town we encountered since leaving Newcastle, so we indulged ourselves in some sightseeing as we visited the castle and the cathedral before finding a good Indian restaurant for dinner.  In retrospect, this might have been a poor choice of cuisine the night before an all day hike, but we were both craving a good curry.  Our guesthouse was one of the nicest we had experienced during the entire trip, so we slept in a bit and enjoyed a nice salmon omelet breakfast in the morning before setting out along the river, backpack-free for the first time in a week.

After a brief but hearty lunch at the Greyhound Inn, the horizon opened up as the River Eden broadened into the Solway Firth. Our path turned into a long, straight paved road which was trying on our tender feet but at least it as flat. It ran on for miles with a ditch and an embankment to our left and pastureland leading down to the firth on our right. The day was sunny and cool Ė perfect for the last leg of the walk. We moved along at a pretty good clip stopping occasionally to avoid a passing car or one of the cows taking a break from grazing in the pasture to block the road. We were making steady progress to Port Carlisle with J out front as she usually did when there werenít cow pies to worry about. Suddenly she stopped, turned to look back where we had just been, and yelled ďBULL!Ē before bolting down the road. D took a quick glance behind him to see a young bull galloping toward him at full steam. Now we have all heard of those supernatural feats of adrenaline-induced strength such as a mother lifting a car off of her trapped child. Well this was our car-lifting moment. Despite soreness and blisters, we ran for our lives. Things seemed to be happening in slow motion, and maybe they were, because the bull was gaining on us fast. Determined not to be the fourth and fifth hikers trampled to death by a cow in the UK that year, we dove to our left, cleared the ditch, and clung to the embankment for dear life. Where we had gone left, the bull went to the right to meet up with a friendly heifer, the object of his amorous intentions from the start.

We decided that after our near death experience, we needed a pint in a big way, and the Highland Laddie Inn looked as good a place as any. Thanks to the level ground and our unexpected sprint, we still had plenty of time before nightfall. We were finally able to take our time and really enjoy the last segment of the trek. We stopped for a last "trail ale" at the Hope and Anchor Pub before entering Bowness-on-Solway, the end of the road. We found the last stamping station to complete our Hadrianís Wall passport and then posed for an obligatory self portrait at the pagoda marking the official end of the trail just as the sun began to set. It was a bittersweet feeling. We were battered, blistered, and chaffed, but we had a great sense of accomplishment and were sorry that it was all over.

We still had some time before the last bus back to Carlisle, so we headed straight to the Kingís Arms for a couple of celebratory pints and to collect our certificate for having all the stamps in our trail passport. After the barman pulled our ales, D proudly slid him both completed passports and inquired about the certificates. He apologized but said that they had run out of certificates in June and had not received any new ones from the Trust. He suggested we stop by in a month and check again.

Carlisle Cathedral
Carlisle Cathedral

Last bus to the end of Hadrian's Wall
Last chance to take the bus

Statue of Edward I in front of the Greyhound Inn
The Hammer of the Scots

St. Mary Beaumont
St. Mary Beaumont

Solway Firth
Solway Firth

Carlisle Citadel
Carlisle Citadel

The end of Hadrian's Wall Path at Bowbess on Solway.
Finish line

Carlisle Castle.
Carlisle Castle


Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle

Tartan looms
Tartan looms

Holyrood Palace
Holyrood Palace

Tollbooth Tavern
Tollbooth Tavern

Random piper
Piper

Sir Walter Scott Memorial
Walter Scott Memorial

A view up to the castle
Castle rock

Calton Hill
Calton Hill

The Royal Mile
The Royal Mile

Greyfriars Bobby
Greyfriars Bobby

Dynamic Earth
Dynamic Earth

Edinburgh

It's amazing how fast the miles go by when you are on a train. That thought kept running through our heads as we retraced some of our steps on the train from Carlisle to Edinburgh. After completing our 84 mile trek, the last thing we wanted to do was walk anywhere, so the climb from the Edinburgh station to our hotel right on the Royal Mile took much longer than the normal visitor. We were wonderfully situated on the famous thoroughfare linking Edinburgh Castle with Hollyrood Palace, but the notion of doing any sightseeing on foot was out of the question. So despite the chilly October weather, we rode around town on the open air hop-on hop-off buses to see as much as we could. Save for a short stop to take the chill off at the Last Drop pub in Grassmarket, the former location of the city gallows, there wasn't much hopping off, and we found ourselves spending most of the evening in the World's End pub still nursing our wounds.

But on the second day, we felt much improved. We opted for the buses again to get from point to point, but this time we disembarked a number of times to see the sights of Edinburgh. We braved the walk up Calton Hill as a stunning view of this ancient city unfolded before us with the massive Castle Rock dominating the scene. With some weather moving in, we retreated back to the Royal Mile where we could limit our walking to the short distance between pubs. We popped into the Ensign Ewart which has been a pub since the late 1600ís. We gingerly managed the stairs down to the Jolly Judge for a cask ale or two. Our next stop was the uber-touristy Deacon Brodie Tavern, whose namesake, William Brodie, led a double life as a furniture maker by day and a burglar by night. It is said he was the inspiration for Scottish son, Robert Louis Stevensonís story of Jekyll and Hyde.

Everywhere we went served fine Scottish whisky, and a number of whisky houses were within reach, but we just didnít have a taste for it and settled for ales instead. We could have added to our Edinburgh mini-pub crawl, but our feet were still tender, so we decided to park ourselves in the Advocate just beside our hotel for a Belhaven and a bite to eat. This gave us time to reflect proudly on our week-long accomplishment and our willpower to resist using the bus. We covered the entire 84 mile distance on foot Ė a journey that would forever impact both our souls and our soles.

The World's End
The World's End

National Gallery
National Gallery

Grassmarket
Grassmarket

Jacket Potatoes
Jacket Potatoes

John Knox House
John Knox House

Kilt Shop
Kilt shop

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