It’s fair to say that whilst the Wandering Wainwrights did come home last July quite glad that they could stay put for a bit, it’s turned out they’ve felt just a teeny bit confined to base this year. Imagine their delight, then, at hearing that their plan to walk the length of Hadrian’s Wall by way of a summer outing had been sanctioned by the authorities. Let’s hear how that went, shall we?
Newcastle, a Friday night in August. We’ve rendezvoued with lifelong friends Mr and Mrs Derbyshire, braved the Metro out to Wallsend, whose station boasts smart signage in Latin; we’ve taken the obligatory photo with the metal centurion statue, and hiked the 7 km back into the city. It’s a balmy night, and we’re enjoying pre-dinner drinks outside and watching the world go by. A group of pink mini-skirted ladies tumble out of Wetherspoons dressed for a hen do: the leader proudly wears her banner, “No longer a Mrs”. Day progresses to evening and the heels get higher and the skirts get shorter. We’re kitted out for hiking – Mr Derbyshire is carrying a rucksack which is worthy of a minor emergency in the Lake District, while Mrs Derbyshire is wearing a waterproof map case; we’re sweaty and disheveled, and we start to feel underdressed – but that word is redefined by the next young lady to totter past us, as her minidress has a front and a back, but no sides.
Saturday’s walk begins with a visit to the actual castle of Newcastle, from where you have a splendid view of this wonderfully solid and architecturally splendid city. The golden stone and warm red brick of yesteryear are punctuated by bursts of modern metal and glass, all striving skywards, with the glittering ribbon of the Tyne at their feet. Following the river westwards, we marvel at the succession of bridges – the graceful white arc of the pedestrian Millenium bridge; the 5000 tons of iron that make up the engineering triumph of Stephenson’s High Level bridge towering above the ancient low, flat swing bridge, sitting on its artificial island in the middle of the river; the airy metal metro bridge popping in and out of its tunnels; the strangely floaty concrete Redheugh road bridge; the King Edward VII railway bridge that provides the traveller with a marvellous view on arrival into Newcastle’s glorious station; and of course the iconic New Tyne bridge, sister to the Sydney Harbour bridge. By late afternoon we’ve left the city 20 km behind, having learned much about the industrial history from the information boards along the way, and feel that we deserve our drinks in a pub garden looking over a broad sweep of Northumberland as we await collection from our obliging b&b host.
Before the walking begins in earnest we make a brief visit to the railway-side cottage where George Stephenson spent his illiterate childhood watching horses haul coal wagons to the city, and began to dream of better ways of propelling carts. He paid for night school education whilst working his apprenticeship in the pit; learned to make shoes and mend clocks; invented a miner’s safety lamp known as the Geordie lamp and from which the townspeople take their soubriquet; designed his locomotives, and fathered and educated Robert, of bridge, tunnel and locomotive fame. The day’s walk takes us through glorious countryside with a few glimpses of sections of Roman wall to give us a taste of what is to come, to Corbridge, where the Roman town ruins and museum of treasures impress and educate. The next two days take us through increasingly wilder, higher and spacious landscapes, with the wall now our constant companion. We’ve surveyed breathtaking views from a succession of milecastles and turrets, and marvelled at temples. We’ve learned to recognise where the wall still runs buried beneath pastureland, and can pick out where the fortified ditch ran to the north, and the line of the Vallum, the perplexing huge earthwork that ran along the south side of the wall, possibly acting as a demilitarized zone.
By Wednesday we’ve clocked up 100 km, and it’s officially our rest day: we’d thought of using the bus to get back to Housesteads, but the day dawns bright and clear, and the views are too enticing, so we decide on walking. It’s only three miles, which would normally take an hour, but that doesn’t account for the uphill stretches or the need to take a photo every five minutes. Happily, there’s also a slightly easier, flatter route – the Military Way – and on that we make a dash for our allocated time slot into Housesteads. This beautifully well-preserved structure perches high on the edge of the escarpment and gives you scope to imagine the lives of soldiers and civilians living in and below the fort. We particularly liked the granaries, with their raised floors, with spaces for dogs to get in and chase the rats. Pleasingly, my phone, in its efforts to label every picture with its location, has decided to label today’s collection ‘Frontiers of the Roman Empire’.
The hike from Housesteads to Vindolanda is especially charming, the land rising and falling in waves away to the south, as if shaken out like a giant bedspread. Vindolanda is an archaeological work in progress, with new finds every year changing the way Roman life in Britain is understood. Significant finds include a huge number of shoes, including many leather children’s and women’s shoes, some intricately carved into decorative patterns and with complex studded sole designs. Bead necklaces, hairnets and a midge-repelling wig made of moss are some of the more extraordinary items pulled from the anaerobic mud, but it is the Vindolanda writing tablets that really overturned the understanding of the society of the time. These wafer thin, postcard-sized wooden fragments bear witness to the day-to-day concerns of military personnel and their families: a birthday party invitation, a gripe about a colleague, a request for supplies of grain, and information from someone’s mum about a consignment of socks and underpants. From the collection of tiny treasures I’m particularly taken by the soldier’s ring inscribed ‘mum and dad’.
Our day off thus turns out to have covered 17 km and to have been particularly exhausting, but nonetheless the next day we’re sprinting back up to the Wall immediately after breakfast, ready for the challenge of a crazily undulating section of the wall. The morning mist hasn’t lifted yet, and all of yesterday’s glorious views are obscured in white. A lone figure appears out of the mist, clutching half a toothbrush. Dexter was supposed to be setting off on the Pacific Coast Trail, and had packed in his job and bought the kit for a five-month trek. With his plans cancelled he’s consoling himself by covering the Pennine Way in 13 days. Travelling fast and light, he’s wearing his only set of clothes and carrying nothing but sleeping bag, tarp, and food. His rucksack is smaller than Mr Derbyshire’s day pack.
This central section of the Wall, hugging the great igneous Whin Sill that extends out to Bamburgh Castle, is the iconic, photogenic part, and these are glorious miles to hike. But coming down from the tops, much more archaeology awaits. Mile castles, turret towers, bridge abutments that now sit in fields, the river having jumped its course, and the fort at Birdoswald – a Victorian homestead so beloved by its archaeology-obsessed owner that he named his son after it. Sadly the ungrateful Oswald sold his father’s collection of archaeological Roman artefacts, but the remains of the fort are still there, with evidence of a soldiers’ training ground. Milecastles were built exactly to plan every thousand paces, even if that meant building on a 45 degree slope immediately to the east of a piece of completely flat land. They are formulaic in layout and have a gate facing North, South, East and West even if the topography renders them completely unusable. We pass a signal tower that pre-dates the Wall. It’s built at 45 degrees to the line of the Wall and I can imagine the Roman centurion in charge of the building getting to that point and experiencing the same quiet despair I feel about the many and various apostrophe crimes on the sign boards.
On a detour into Gelt Woods we see a curious riven sandstone pavement, and a sandstone gully carved with the names of Victorian visitors. Rejoining the Wall path we meet cheerful old John, raking leaves. He leans on his rake and tells us how the house has been in his son-in-law’s family for generations, the extension built re-using stones from a collapsed barn. Since much of the Wall was cannibalised for building material, it’s likely these stones originated there. Outside the house is a Roman-carved upright stone serving as a money box holder for the honesty box drinks and ice cream stall run by his grandson for years. His face fills with pride as he tells us how much money his grandson raised for the NHS with this, and an end-to-end single run of Hadrian’s Wall; but then his bright blue eyes cloud as he tells us the motivation for the fundraising – his granddaughter’s successive bouts of cancer. He talks about his flowers, tells us of his career as an inspector with Rolls Royce, and how he lost his index finger cleaning his motorcycle as a young man.
Now we’re heading out, downhill through rolling Cumbrian fields, with broad, sweeping views across to Helvellyn and Blencathra on our left, and the giant wind turbines in the Solway Firth and the Grampian mountains to our right. It’s a big day and we’re wondering if we’ll actually make it to Carlisle, so when we stop for coffee in the village hall in Walton we investigate possible public transport links. The village turns out to have a bus once a week on Tuesdays, but the bus shelter fulfils a more useful role as a marvellous book exchange. Our route in through suburban Carlisle was enlivened by cocktails at a newly opened spa, which probably hadn’t visualised Wall walkers as its target market. The smartly-tuniced spa girl asked us had we walked far. “From Newcastle”. She looked bewildered for a moment as she considered where Newcastle was, then asked, “What time did you set off?” “Last Friday.”
The final days take us out of Carlisle along the river banks through overgrowths of Indian Balsam, and out into increasingly flat countryside. A minor diversion off-route leads us through some moss wetland (which is either an SSSI or a midge-infested bog, depending on your viewpoint), with waterlilies, heather and bulrushes as well as a great deal of moss, and squelch our way out of that towards the Solway Firth where we spot egrets, herons, oystercatchers, and a short-eared owl hunting. We don’t know what the brown birds are, but I spy a man in a van, and the fact that his van contains a stove with a chimney out through the roof leads me to believe he spends long days bird spotting, so I amble over to seek bird-identification tips. “I’ve no idea,” he says, “I’m a builder.” His name is Tim, and he lives in his van, going from job to job. “I used to work the ski seasons, and you know, all over, but then I thought it was time to settle down.” When he wants a shower he puts a tank of water on the roof and hopes for some sun to warm it up.
It’s been a long time since we said goodbye to the last of the intact sections of Wall that were so prevalent earlier, but the evidence for its existence is written into the 18th century architecture: enormous country houses, row cottages, and simple farm barns, all made from stones gathered from the Wall. Some bear witness to the past with inscriptions written by Roman soldiers. Then, suddenly, our ten day voyage through history, culture, regional accents, friendship and landscape is at its end. We’ve managed 127 miles on a path of 84 miles, we’ve had the wind consistently at our backs, we’ve only been rained on twice, and we’re all still talking to each other. But we never did get to find out what Mr Derbyshire had in his rucksack.