Walking the breadth of the country on the historic Hadrian’s Wall Path
We all learn about the Romans at school: their empire, their advanced ways of living, their great engineering and, of course, Hadrian’s Wall. Many of us take a trip up to Northumberland and visit a section of the famous Wall. A few of us discover the National Trail that follows the entire route of Hadrian’s Wall – across 84 miles – and think: “I’ve got to walk that!”. So, in September, I did just that.
I planned my walk back in January but even so much of the best-located accommodation was already fully booked. In its central sections the Wall is quite remote, so places to stay are very limited. If you’ve a car, staying in a hotel 4 miles off the trail doesn’t sound much at all but, when you’re walking, that’s 4 miles of extra hiking in the evening and another 4 miles the next morning to regain the trail. It adds up. Over 11½ days I actually walked 129 miles in order to complete the defined trail – and have a comfy bed and heartening food each evening! For those prepared to accept more basic accommodation in barns, transporting their own sleeping bags, there are a few more options – but after 10 to 12 miles walking I crave a nice warm shower, hot food and a proper bed to rest my tired body. And I only ever carry a day-pack, so for this adventure I relied on Hadrian’s Haul to move my luggage bag daily between hotels and B&Bs (which they did perfectly).
My first surprise was that no wall was visible until my fourth day of walking! It turns out that the most westerly part of the Wall wasn’t built of stone – it was an earth bank with a few stone turrets, all now lost. Whilst this somewhat dented my image of the Wall, following its route from the westerly Bowness-on-Solway through Carlisle and beyond presented an interesting range of very different environments – and easy walking.
The flat, muddy Solway Firth of my first morning – looking north to Scotland and distant wind farms – took on a whole new look in the afternoon when the sun came out and the tide came in.
Then it was on to Carlisle with its imposing red-brick castle and cathedral, the latter softened by the delightful outdoor café space where the first of many ‘coffee and cake’ breaks was greatly appreciated.
The build-up of anticipation made the sudden appearance of the Wall on day four all the more exciting. It didn’t rise much above knee height – more foundation than wall – but there it was at last. I’d like to say that it was amazing to see real Roman masonry, almost 2,000 years old, but most of the now-visible Wall is a reconstruction. The stones were quarried and shaped by the Romans but what we see today is largely a rebuild from mid-19th century or later. As English Heritage tells us: “In the years that followed [the Roman’s departure], Hadrian’s Wall became a quarry for the stone to build castles and churches, farms and houses along its line, until the conservation movement in the 18th and 19th centuries put a stop to that. It was only from the mid-19th century onwards that early archaeologists and historians … began to study Hadrian’s Wall in earnest and sought to protect its still magnificent remains.”
Next, for two exhilarating days, I traversed the Hadrian’s Wall territory that is so familiar from books and postcards. The Wall rollercoasters with the natural undulations of the scarp slope that it tracks, through lonely moorland, with a 300ft cliff drop to the north. The views are breath-taking – the walking challenging. At times it was gruelling, clambering up boulders on all-fours, not looking down for fear of vertigo, but the 360-degree vistas from the peaks were more than worth the effort. The Wall running through the landscape – cutting the terrain in two – is awesome by today’s standards – how impressive and fearsome must it have seemed to people in Roman times? You can’t help but wonder at the brilliance of the original construction so long ago.
Then as quickly as it had appeared, it was gone. The trail dropped to lower altitudes and the walking became more relaxed. After a couple of days of pleasant farmland – with rather too many cow fields to be negotiated without incident! – the Path met the wide River Tyne and followed it right to (aptly named) Wallsend. This entailed traversing 12 miles of Newcastle, from its most western suburbs – where once the vast coalmines were worked – to its extreme eastern suburbs and the remains of Segedunum Roman Fort.
The contrast of modern, urban Newcastle to the rugged, remote landscape of the North Pennines was unmistakeable. Likewise, the difference was tangible between the vast flat expanse of the Solway Firth and the solid structures of Carlisle. It was these variations that kept the Hadrian’s Wall Path interesting from start to finish, giving me the motivation to keep walking day after day. There was always another surprise each day – even if the extent of the actual Hadrian’s Wall remains was rather less than I’d expected.
Author: Sandy Arpino