Hadrian’s Wall may have been the most expensive public relations exercise in history. This Roman display of uber-organisation not only marked the edge of the empire, it showed the Scots that attack would be futile. Money well spent — the Scot’s never tried to climb over it.
Fast forward sixteen centuries and there’s not much left of Hadrian’s Wall. Like the Colosseum and countless similar structures, crafty folk carried away stones to build other things, recycling if you like. There is, however, Hadrian’s Wall Path which, in places, clings to the bits of wall still standing. Thousands of hikers have trekked part or all of the 84 miles of Hadrian’s Wall Path over the years. In August, I became one of them.
Day 1 Wallsend to Heddon-on-the-Wall
I decided to do the path east to west. Most hikers do it west to east because of the wind coming off the Atlantic. I didn’t know that at the time, thus I started where I should have finished, at Wallsend — guess I missed a vital clue in that name. The good folk of Wallsend takes their historical responsibility seriously with signs in both English and Latin. The track along the Tyne into Newcastle was an easy stroll.
Once past Tyneside’s many bridges, suburbia fell away. Warm concrete behind me, I stopped for a sandwich and a refreshingly cold shandy at an historic pub, The Boat House. After lunch, the path took me through a giant park, then an exclusive country-club/estate. Apart from keeping out of the way of fast-paced agricultural vehicles driven by texting teenage boys, this section was a doddle. At 3pm, feeling rather chuffed with my progress, I arrived at my first overnight stop, Heddon-on-the Wall.
At last some wall! A short stretch, preserved for prosperity. The locals, taking their cue from the burgers of Wallsend, have named their streets with Roman monikers. My accommodation, Heddon B&B, was comfortable and, despite saying I didn’t need a cooked breakfast, the owner provided one, “in case you changed your mind.” It was delicious.
From the two options for dinner, I chose The Swan. A good choice, excellent food, lovely service.
Day 2 Heddon-on-the Wall to Chollerford
Now we were talking wall. Lots of wall. The weather was all over the place: one-minute sparkling sunshine and the next squalls of rain. I walked most of the day with two Italians, Giancarlo and Nicola, who were in the UK for a wedding. Nice blokes, if a little disorganised.
Parted company with my companions at Chollerford, me to my room at The George Hotel, and they to find somewhere to bed down for the night. The George, the only place in town, was full. Though its glory may have faded, the room was comfortable. After a hot bath, I took myself to The George’s restaurant for soup and cheese and a glass of red wine. Just what I needed.
Day 3 Chollersford to Once Brewed
Off I went, into the bright blue morning, tummy full from a complimentary breakfast. It wasn’t part of the package, but when I tried to pay, they waved me away. Just up the road, I found Chesters Fort and how lucky to be there on a day with enactments featuring very fine-looking Roman soldiers and the accoutrements of day-to-day life along the wall.
Alas, I had such a great time I stayed too long on what was to be the most difficult part of the walk. I had noted the walking distance for this section was around 11 miles, making it the shortest leg. That’ll teach me to confuse distance with difficulty. When the tail-end of Hurricane Gert swept in from the Atlantic, I was on one of the highest, most remote parts of the wall. Even worse, couldn’t find a place to eat — no welcoming pubs as per the previous days. Thank heavens for the delicious jam pastry purchased at Chesters. Did I mention the lack of ‘facilities’, ie toilets?
Yes, it was tricky, especially when my rain-shield became a spinnaker and I had to stay low to the ground to prevent take-off. But the spectacular scenery was worth it — see the photo at the top. As was the whiskey I downed when I finally made it to the meet-up point, a pub called Twice Brewed, which is in a village called Once Brewed.
Who was I meeting up with? Malcolm, the host at Bush Nook Guesthouse, my digs for two nights. My stay at Bush Nook was a highlight — the place was beyond comfortable, the breakfast generous. But what made it memorable was Malcolm, genial, full of info who even drove me and fellow-guests to a nearby pub for dinner — so welcome after a hard day’s walk.
Day 4 Once Brewed to Gilsland
Just as scenic but nowhere near as difficult, this leg featured glorious sunshine and stunning views. Plus a brilliantly interactive display at the Roman Army Museum at Cavoran Fort, and the delightful company of Philip and Adrian, father and son from London on their final day of a three-day walk.
On a down-hill section, we were greeted by an authentic-looking Roman soldier. Happy to pose for a photo, this picturesque chap explained he was an actual soldier, taking part in a charity walk.
Note to the Rome Tourist Board: why not invite some of these British guys to the Colosseum? They are way more authentic than their daggy Roman counterparts who look as if they are on their way to a fancy dress party.
As mentioned, we stopped at a Roman history museum with a brilliant 3D film, Edge of Empire, showing what life was like for those living and working on the wall. After an eagle’s eye view of the wall, we followed the progress of a foot-soldier through basic training. There was a clever twist at the end and narration by Brian Cox, the actor not the physicist.
Day 5 Gilsland to Carlisle
Day 5 held both the longest distance to cover and a bright, still day to walk through. First stop was another historic site — though I hadn’t planned this to be a history walk as much as a challenging hike, by now I was hooked. However, mindful this was my longest stretch, and not wanting to repeat the mistake of day 3, I didn’t linger.
This was the leg of ‘honesty boxes’: thoughtful and trusting locals leave water and snacks along the way. One place even offered a porta-loo — a seriously welcome site in the endless acres of green and pleasant farmland.
I stopped for lunch at Lanercost Priory, didn’t have time to look inside the actual Priory but the food was excellent, as was the beer. Yes, I know I keep mentioning food and alcohol, but filling your empty stomach after a long, long walk is surely one of the great pleasures of hiking.
While I knew this day was going to be long, I couldn’t have anticipated my slow progress due to sodden fields laced with cow dung, and diversions caused by erosion.
Darkness descended as I reached Carlisle. I received a warm northern welcome at Abberley House, where I was booked for two nights. The original plan was to walk for another day to Bowness then take public transport back to Carlisle. But I met a walker coming from Bowness who said most of the walk was diversions. He added that he was ‘seriously over’ tramping through cow dung. Didn’t have the heart to let him know what he was in for.
Funniest site of the day: leaving a dung-covered path and rounding a corner to see a dog walker cleaning up her pooch’s tiny poo.
Tips for a successful assault on Hadrian’s Wall
- Book well in advance. I booked last minute but was lucky that the company I used, Book My Trail, were new. I suspect owner Matthew was unwilling to turn away business. Whichever, he did a great job. He booked all my accommodation and my luggage haul. You could do it yourself, but why go to the hassle? Let someone who knows what they are doing take care of it
- Go west to east and avoid walking into the wind off the Atlantic
- Be prepared: wear sturdy boots and thick socks. Pack a rain jacket, water, sunscreen, hat, small first-aid kit and something sweet like a jam tart or block of chocolate
- Choose a good map, I picked up a Harvey National Trail map at Cotswolds Outdoor in Newcastle. While you can find this info on Google, it’s not likely to be all in the one place and expertly curated.