Jim Baker, WA
Hadrian's Wall is possibly the best known example of a border of the Roman Empire, which dominated what is now Europe for five centuries. The wall was built at the behest of Emperor Hadrian (AD117-138), and stretched 117 kilometres from the north-west coast of England, to Wallsend, on the banks of the River Tyne in the east. An excellent account of the history of the wall can be found here.
Hadrian's Wall Path was established as a National Trail in 2003 and for the most part follows the original line of the wall, close beside the stonework that still exists. Over the centuries many of the stones were plundered for the building of churches, houses and farm buildings, but some of the original wall remains and many sections have been painstakingly reconstructed.
I set out with friends Steve and Brian to walk the Path in five days from west to east, keeping the prevailing wind on our backs. Our journey began in Bowness-on-Solway on the Solway Firth, a large stretch of shallow water and mudflats that defines the border between England and Scotland.
Contrary to popular belief, Hadrian's Wall does not run along the Scotland-England border but is wholly contained within England, the eastern end being more than 100km south of the border. Why was it built? The common understanding is that it was to prevent incursion of the Picts and the Scots into England, although scholars suggest that this was never a problem severe enough to warrant such a huge venture. More likely it was a political ploy to enhance Hadrian's status as a guardian of the borders of the Empire, and probably worked as a revenue source through customs control of those who passed through its gateways.
The start point of the walk is on the south bank of the Firth and is defined by information boards and an arch-way inscribed "Wallsend 84 miles, good luck go with you."
Our first day was an easy walk of 24km along minor roads, field tracks and riverside paths. The Greyhound Inn at Burgh by Sands provided welcome refreshment half-way along the route before our arrival in the city of Carlisle, with its ancient castle. Thus far there was no evidence of the wall—a long stretch from Bowness was constructed from turf, presumably because there were no sources of suitable stones nearby, and has long since vanished.
The sun stayed out all day (were we really in the north of England?) and on a balmy evening in Carlisle we found ourselves amidst crowds of people. Assuming our arrival had caused the excitement we were disappointed to discover that the reason was a concert by veteran rock super star Rod Stewart! The discovery of an excellent Thai restaurant together with the consumption of an ale or two soon settled us down, however.
Day two dawned sunny and we set off early on a 30km trek along the floodplain of the River Eden through parkland and farmland, where the first signs of the earthworks of the wall appear. Most prominent was the deep ditch or Vallum that the Romans constructed behind the wall.
From here the line of the turf wall is followed, with the Vallum remaining prominent, until parts of the stone wall begin to appear, including the section at Hare Hill, standing almost three meters tall.
This was also an easy day, the weather stayed fine and the walk was leisurely. The second night was spent at Gilsland, a village that straddles the border between Cumbria and Northumberland. Good food and good ale once again sustained us—which was as well, since day three took us by surprise.
Our schedule was to take us from Gilsland to Chollerford, a distance of 32km, and was described on the itinerary as "strenuous". The landlady of our B&B threw up her hands in horror when we told her, and insisted that we would never make it—she even gave us a card for the local taxi company! Again the day dawned bright and we set out, wondering what confronted us—it didn't look that hard on the map.
What we encountered was one of the most exhilarating and fascinating days of walking I have experienced in the UK—on a par with the Lake District sections of the Coast to Coast Walk. Not only does the Path rise high into the Pennines, offering wonderful views all around, it also accentuates the incredible effort that went into the construction of the wall, as it sweeps for mile upon mile across the landscape. Some of the details of the construction also become clear, such as the milecastles, which as their name suggests were control points set up a Roman mile apart—to control exactly what, no-one is sure.
It was beautiful, but it was tough. The Path goes over a series of rocky crags, rising to over 300m, and the continuous ups and downs, some of them over very rough, rocky terrain, are strength sapping.
A break at the half-way stage led us down off the ridge to Housesteads, the best preserved Roman fort along the Wall, but it was the lure of the kiosk selling cold drinks rather than the history of the fort that persuaded us to visit. Nearby is the curiously named village of Once Brewed, or Twice Brewed if you arrive from the other direction. Don't ask!
Suitably refreshed we climbed back up and resumed our walk. By now the sun was high in the sky and I was getting sunburned—in the UK!
Finally we scaled the topmost crag and set off down the long grassy descent to Chollerford. We didn't need the taxi but it took us eleven hours to cover 32km—a long day, despite which we walked another mile to the Crown Inn in Humshaugh for an excellent dinner.
Two days were left, and the remains of the wall were largely left behind. The Path runs parallel to the old Military Road (now the modern B6318), across pasture land, over many stiles and through countless gates.
Our destination on day four was the village of Wylam, which involved a comfortable 24km walk. For the first time on the walk the weather began to look threatening, and the rain jackets came out of the packs. The first shower hit just as we arrived at the Errington Arms pub, where hot coffee was gratefully consumed. The rain stopped and then started again just as we got to the Robin Hood pub at lunch time, and cleared up as soon as we finished lunch. Rain jackets not required—sometimes you get lucky.
Wylam is a pretty village, birthplace of George Stephenson, famous railway pioneer responsible for the railway engine "the Rocket" and his birthplace cottage is open to the public. The owner of or B&B directed us to the Black Bull Inn for dinner—once again good pub food and excellent ale.
The final day started fine and dry, but with rain forecast. After leaving the village along the Wylam Waggonway, a dismantled rail track bed which wends its way through an attractive forest, the Path soon arrives on the bank of the mighty river Tyne, which becomes a constant companion for the remainder of the trek. Although this section is largely through an urban area it is an interesting walk, passing under the historic bridges that span the river, with many signboards explaining the history of Newcastle and the surrounding area.
The rain arrived as we completed the last couple of miles to arrive at the eastern terminus of the path, the Roman Fort of Segedunum. Segedunum is the most excavated of all the Roman forts in the UK, covering almost two and a half hectares, with all the buildings identified and their outlines clearly defined with gravel. A 100ft tower overlooks the site, offering an excellent overview of the layout. The tower incorporates a museum that houses a model reconstruction of the fort and offers an excellent widescreen movie that relates the history of Hadrian's Wall.
Following a visit to the museum and the surroundings we succumbed to the trappings of urban life and took the train into the centre of Newcastle to celebrate our successful walk over an Italian meal and a few glasses of red wine!