Hadrian’s Wall – 7 to 9 Sep 2014

Info

  • Map: National Trail, Hadrian’s Wall Path
  • Trails: Hadrian’s Wall Path (white acorn)
  • Type: End-to-end
  • Distance:  About 25-27 miles, depending on your side walks to forts, inns, etc.
  • Time: 3 days of at least 6 hours per day.
  • Exertion: Moderately strenuous, particularly the second day.

Getting There

Newark airport to London Heathrow to Newcastle upon Tyne.  Then the Newcastle Metro to Newcastle Main and Northern Rail to Brampton.  Taxi to the Abbey Bridge Inn in Lanercost.  Your mileage, as they say, may vary.

The Hike

So here we are in September again, and it must be time to go out for a long hike.  A casual acquaintance I meet in the supermarket now and then told me a few years back about a walking trip he’d made to this Hadrian’s Wall Path.  This kind of stuck in the back of my mind over time, I did a little research, and it sounded like a pretty cool idea.  So it wound up on something resembling a Bucket List for me, and this year my wife urged me to “just do it.”  After some of my usual hand-wringing, I took her advice.

So what exactly is Hadrian’s Wall?  Well the Wikipedia article is probably a good place to start, but if I can be excused for being fast and loose with the historical facts, it was a series of gateways (called milecastles) and turrets sited along a (mostly) stone wall that ran across northern Britain, coast to coast for about 84 miles.  The emperor Hadrian had ordered it built in 122 A.D. as part of a strategy to define the borders of the Roman Empire.  Simply put, north of the wall was land (primarily what we know as Scotland today, or Caledonia as the Romans called it) that Rome did not want or care about.  They just wanted to control the flow of people and goods in and out of their territory to the south.  The Wall was basically a border crossing, not unlike the immigration checkpoint I had to stand in line for <rant>a goddamn hour and a half in Heathrow while a single, as in one, immigration agent checked everyone’s passport while asking his boilerplate questions and caused me to miss my connection to Newcastle when I arrived on Saturday morning, pretty tired and cranky already because I can’t sleep on planes.</rant>

In addition to the wall and its turrets and milecastles, there were also forts every five miles, garrisoning auxiliary troops who could be dispatched quickly to any point along a road (the Military Way) that ran to the south of and parallel to the Wall.  Just to be sure everyone knew the Romans were being serious about this, they also dug 6 to 8 foot ditches on either side of the Wall.  The northern one is simply called the Ditch, while the one behind the Wall is called the Vallum.  The wall took perhaps six years to build, and it was done by the Roman legionaries.  Despite this amazing demonstration of Roman engineering, it’s arguable whether the Wall provided any ROI to the Empire.  Given that twenty years later they would build another wall, the Antonine Wall, within Caledonia proper (roughly between present-day Edinburgh and Glasgow), Hadrian’s Wall might be considered something of a white elephant.

Now here’s the big spoiler…  There is very little left of Hadrian’s Wall today.  (The term a mere shadow if its former self seems quite apt here.)  This is not due to any deficiency in Roman construction techniques–quite the reverse:  when you look at even the faintest remnants of the wall, it is still quite impressive to think that some Roman legionary pushed that stone right there into the dirt almost 1900 years ago.  What caused the deconstruction of the Wall was the stealing of the nicely dressed stones from the wall for building and road construction that began many centuries ago.  (Church builders were particularly notorious in this regard.)  In the 1830s a man named John Clayton began acquiring parcels of land along the Wall’s route to prevent further taking of stones.  He also began to reconstruct sections of the Wall by piling up stones and covering the top with turf for support.  These sections today are called, oddly enough, Clayton Wall.  The English Heritage organization has also reconstructed large portions of the Wall using mortar and continues to try to maintain it.  Sections restored in this way are called Consolidated Wall.  The remaining sections of the Wall’s path contain either mounds of rubble, or consist of later walls built atop the base of the original wall, or are simply not there.  A good number of turrets and milecastles remain in various stages of decay, while some have no visible remnants.  (Because the milecastles were placed at every Roman mile, and two turrets were placed between them, it is possible to estimate where the missing structures would have been.)

Here are some pictures of the various types of Wall:

Clayton Wall (Near Housesteads)

Clayton Wall (Near Housesteads)

Consolidated Wall Section

Consolidated Wall Section

Consolidated to Later atop Roman Base

Consolidated to Later atop Roman Base

The Hadrian’s Wall Path is a national walking trail that follows the Wall’s route from Newcastle to the Solway Firth for a total of 84 miles.  For a large portion of the hike, it runs right next to the wall, or sometimes astride or in the Ditch or the Vallum, which are still clearly visible for long stretches:

The Vallum (near Greenhead)

The Vallum (near Greenhead)

While I enjoy being out in the fresh air and exploring new places, I had no desire to even come close to walking the entire path, which needs about ten days.  There are a number of companies which will plot out a route for you, reserving inns and B&B’s along the way and transferring your luggage while you’re out walking.  I chose an outfit call Contours Walking Holidays because their web reviews were pretty solid, and they offered a plan called the Hadrian’s Wall Short Break of three days walking, which fit in with my ambitions as well as my limited vacation time.  This route includes stretches of the best preserved sections of the Wall, primarily because you’re either walking in rural farmland or in the Northumberland National Park.  My walk began in a tiny village called Lanercost, which is less than a mile south of the Wall, and ended in a town called Chollerford, right on the Path.  Contours provided a walking guide book (see References), a detailed map, and a custom printed itinerary of over 20 pages in addition to the accommodations.

I opted to walk west to east for two reasons.  First, the prevailing wind would be at my back, and as I tend not to do anything in the early morning, the afternoon sun would not be in my eyes.  As eminently logical as these reasons are, by far most of the people I encountered along the way were walking east to west, and that seems to be the conventional direction for full-path hikers.

Day 1 (7 Sep): Lanercost to Greenhead (7.5 mi./6.5 hr)

Starting out from the Abbey Bridge over the River Irthing:

The Start--Abbey Bridge, Lanercost

The Start--Abbey Bridge, Lanercost

On the way up to the Wall, you walk past the Lanercost Priory, a 12th century church, still partly in use.  It costs a few pounds to get in, but it’s an interesting ruin:

Lanercost Priory

Lanercost Priory

Baby Crypt

Baby Crypt

The actual trail is entered at a place called Haytongate, which has a nice little self-serve hut of snacks and drinks with an honesty box.  I took two bottles of spring water and, yes, I did put two 50p’s in the box.  The “kissing gate” below was my entry point onto the trail:

Enter the Hadrian's Wall Trail (Eastbound)

Enter the Hadrian's Wall Trail (Eastbound)

You can see the upside down white acorn that is the symbol for the trail, although what an acorn has to do with a Roman wall my readings thus far have failed to elucidate.  The yellow arrow in the green circle below the acorn is a general footpath indicator and usually appears on the gates or stiles you use to cross between fields.  There were only a couple of times that I had to stop and double-check my direction.  In general, the path is very easy to follow, and when in doubt, just keep going straight.  If a turn is required, either a yellow arrow will indicate it, or there will be a signpost, weather-worn but still readable, like this:

A Stile and Signpost

A Stile and Signpost

One great features of England is that although the trail takes you through almost entirely private lands, anyone has a right of way across the public footpaths.  As long as you keep the gates closed and don’t pester the livestock, there’s no problem walking across some farmer’s land.

The first glimpse of a piece of the wall was less than a half hour once on the path.  This is a location called Hare Hill, and while just a small remnant, this is purportedly the highest piece of the Wall along the entire path:

Hare Hill

Hare Hill

The original Wall was about 8′ thick and supposedly 15′ high or more.  This piece was taller than I but probably not more than a dozen feet at its highest point.  As the sign tells you at the entrance to the little plot fenced out of the local hillside, this was actually reconstructed in the 19th century, so we have no examples of the Wall at its true height.

The first structures on the Wall are the Banks East and Piper Sike Turrets:

Banks East Turret

Banks East Turret

Piper Sike Turret

Piper Sike Turret

Notice the chunk of wall broken off the wall of the Banks East Turret just lying on the ground.  The turrets were placed between milecastles, but there are none of those larger structures remaining in this stretch of the path.  In fact the first milecastle (#49) I hit was the one past the ruined fort at Birsdoswald, in a place call Harrow Scar, and there was darn little left of it:

Milecastle 49, Harrow Scar

Milecastle 49, Harrow Scar

A steep downhill and sharp left turn takes you across a footbridge over the River Irthing, the same river we crossed over the Abbey Bridge in Lanercost over four and a half hours ago!  The footbridge was dropped in by helicopter in 1999 to preserve the archeology nearby–the remains of the Roman bridge built at this point, Willowford, long ago washed away by the meandering of the river.  The photo below shows a run of Consolidated Wall running into the Roman ruins with the footbridge in the upper left, couple of hikers going the opposite way,  and lots of sheep.

Looking down on Willowford Bridge

Looking down on Willowford Bridge

Moving on, just outside the town of Gilsland, is one of the most impressive milecastle sites of the trip, #48 Poltross Burn.  Just about the entire plan can be discerned from the remains, even some of the interior rooms:

Poltross Burn Milecastle 48

Poltross Burn Milecastle 48

Nearing the end of the day’s journey, I can see what’s in store for tomorrow, as we start to climb onto what is called the Whin Sill, a ridge overlooking the Northumberland fields to the north that will provide the most dramatic sections of the Wall for the next day and a half.  Along with the drama, however, will be much more arduous walking compared to the rolling hills of today.

Tomorrow's Journey--Whin Sill

Tomorrow's Journey--Whin Sill

The village of Greenhead is a short detour off the Path.  My accommodations for the evening, the Greenhead Hotel, was a very quaint inn.  Basically a pub and restaurant with some rooms upstairs, it was nevertheless quite clean and comfortable.  Dinner was fish and chips with peas, washed down with some of the local ale.  What more can one ask for?  Well actually I would have preferred not to have taken off my hiking boots that evening to discover two bloody socks.  The right foot was definitely the worse of the two, and I slapped plasters on 3 separate toes, but tomorrow was gonna be interesting…

Day 2 (8 Sep): Greenhead to Housesteads Steel Rigg (9.5 6.5 mi./5.5 hr)

As I said, this day was to be the most strenuous of the three by virtue of the terrain.  Over the course of the day, I would hit the highest vertical point on the Path, Winshields Crag.  At 1132′ it’s not exactly Adirondack heights nor my Utah hikes from last year, and the actual vertical gain is much less, nevertheless it has a lot of ups and downs as you climb over the many hills and dales.  It would also be perhaps an additional 3 miles from yesterday, although given the extra walking to and from my inns, I’d not enshrine that number with much accuracy.  Over the course of the day I would become aware that somehow in England things just seemed–well, bigger.  The pound is bigger than the dollar ($1.67/£ at the time), the pints are bigger (20 oz vs. 16 oz.), and damn, if the miles didn’t seem longer too.  Either that or Contours was lying to me…

Back on the Path from Greenhead, you very quickly run into another 12th century ruin, Thirlwall Castle.  It’s nice enough as these things go, but not much to see.

Thirlwall Castle

Thirlwall Castle

Back home, I tend to be impressed by artifacts and buildings from the time of the Revolution.  Close to where I live is an old inn where supposedly Martin Van Buren once slept, and we pretend it actually looks something like what he would have seen in 18-whatever.  Here in Merry Old England things are just so much older.  (And bigger!)  But even something from the 1100′s doesn’t really cut it when you’re about to ramble through things from the like, freakin’ 2nd century, dude!  Freakin’ Romans and shit!

Just off of the castle you begin a gradual but serious climb through a pasture that contains a long chunk of the Vallum.  (Picture posted earlier above.)  As with the innumerable pastures to come, part of the game you play with yourself to pass the while time plodding over this ground is avoiding the countless cow pies and mounds of sheep shit that confront you on almost every step.  After three days of this, I found myself making a mental catalog of the various stages of cow flop dessication one encounters. ( I won’t dare to horrify you with my observations on the flies.)  Say what you will about the state of the modern world, but civilization must have made some progress where we no longer walk these pastures and say, “Hey, this one looks pretty dry, I think I’ll take it home and burn it to cook my dinner tonight!”

Next, Walltown Crags is the point where you really begin your climb up the Whin Sill.  There’s a country park with minimal facilities, and after a short climb, you re-encounter the Wall, a turret, and the Walltown Quarry:

Here's the Wall Again, Bumping into Another Wall

Here's the Wall Again, Bumping into Another Wall

Walltown Quarry

Walltown Quarry

After descending and ascending through the Walltown Gap, you look back on the terrain you’ve conquered:

Look Westward over Walltown Gap

Look Westward over Walltown Gap

In the middle left of the picture you can see a line of four hikers.  The view to the north is impressive, if a bit sparse:

Looking North

Looking North

And look ahead to the east are more ups and downs of the Whin Sill to come:

More Fun to Come

More Fun to Come

Cawfields Quarry is the next point of interest, with a parking area and picnic site, and not much else.  The quarry is a striking site:

Cawfields Quarry

Cawfields Quarry

But the real treasure here is Milecastle 42, which is a very short walk up from the car park.  Its integration into intact Consolidated Wall on both sides, as well as the gateways on both side being clearly visible make this one of the iconic photos for any Hadrian’s Wall journal:

Milecastle 42

Milecastle 42

Just after the Caw Gap, I ran into a couple who kindly offered to take my picture, to prove that I was actually here:

It's Really Me (at Caw Gap)

It's Really Me (at Caw Gap)

Another hour of walking got me to the aforementioned Winshields Crags, the highest point on the trail.  This is one of the photos from that promontory, with a rather utilitarian survey marker in the foreground:

Winshields Crags

Winshields Crags

By this point it was about 2:45 in the afternoon.  A stop around lunch time to unzip my pants into shorts mode, necessitating boot removal, had revealed two more bloody socks.  This had been a little bit of a surprise, for while I’d had some toe pain overnight, the walk until then had been mostly pain-free.  However by 2:45, the piggies had had enough and decided to relay their indignation northward.   Consulting my map, it was fairly clear to me that English miles had to be bigger than US miles because I still had three more to go, and thus had just barely been doing over one mile per hour.  Now admittedly, this is not a walk you power through–you take a lot of pictures, admire the views, engage in bovine fecal research–but at this point I was potentially looking at hitting the day’s end at almost 6:00PM.

I should explain a minor variation in my arrangements for the evening…  For some reason, where I was to exit the trail this evening at Housesteads, there was no inn into which Contours could book me within walking distance.  Thus they had arranged for me to be picked up by the place I was to stay, an establishment called the Vallum Lodge in a village called Twice Brewed.  I’d called that morning to confirm the pickup with them, giving the overoptimistic arrival time of about 4:30.  I was about 15 minutes away from a place called Steel Rigg, which was exactly three (English) miles away from Housesteads.  The view ahead provided no encouragement that I could burn through that terrain with any kind of fast pace:

The Road to Housesteads

The Road to Housesteads

So as I walked toward Steel Rigg, I carefully examined the map and noticed that at this point I was more or less directly north of the Vallum Lodge.  In other words, if I exited at the car park at Steel Rigg, walked downhill to route B6318, and hung a right, I was practically at my ultimate destination for the evening.

On one hand, I was going to leave out some great scenery, especially Highshields Crags overlooking a lough.  On the other hand (or foot), I had three bloody toes and a bloody nose (don’t ask) that were beginning to diminish the day’s enjoyment considerably.  I got to Steel Rigg at 3:00.  I took a look at the next uphill climb,

The Road Not Taken

The Road Not Taken

and I decided to declare MISSION ACCOMPLISHED for the day!  I called the Vallum Lodge to cancel the pickup, walked the quarter mile to the B6318, and stopped off at the Twice Brewed Inn for an imperial pint of the local:

Plan B

Plan B

The lodge was a few tenths of a mile further west on the B6318–another quiet, comfy spot.  I had to walk back to the Twice Brewed Inn for dinner–limping a bit–for a surprisingly tasty steak pie dinner, with some of the local, presumably twice-brewed, brew.

Day 3 (9 Sep): Housesteads to Chollerford (9.5 mi./6 hr)

So this would be the last day.  The distance would be the same as the aborted day before, but I would come off the Whin Sill about a third of the way through, and thus the hilly terrain would end.  My toes could fall off for all I cared now.  I taped those little beasts up and told them they would just have to man up and tough it out.

The Vallum Lodge guy dropped me off a the Housesteads fort (called Vericovicium) around 9:45.  This is a pretty big fort, albeit pretty smashed up.  I did not pay whatever the overpriced admissions fee was, for one reason because they did not open until 10:00.  I had to content myself with some external pictures, such as this one:

Housesteads Fort

Housesteads Fort

The woman on the path in the right of the photo was engaged in what I presume is a chore that needs to be done at the fort every morning, and perhaps during the day as well.  Notice that she is holding a shovel.  Her mission is to scoop up the numerous piles of sheep poo that litter the path, presumably so the paying customers do not soil their footwear, and launch them onto the grass.  I need not tell you what the grass looks like.  I have to say she was not doing this task with any alacrity.  I suspect she hates her job.

Walking uphill (on the grass of course) to the Hadrian’s Wall Path, I decided to backtrack a little and try to get to Milecastle 37.  This is another iconic Wall site because it’s the only milecastle with part of its arch remaining.  Of all the spots I missed because of the day before’s early exit, this was my biggest regret.  It was hard to tell from the map and book how much walking was involved.  It turned out to be minimal.  This detour also took me onto the only part of the Path where people are permitted to walk atop the Wall.  It is a section of Clayton Wall that is semi-buried into the hill, so I suppose it is less vulnerable.  There is a side path you can take to avoid walking on the Wall, and some writers such as Mark Richards, the author of my little HWP book, encourage people to avoid encroaching on the Wall even if allowed.  On the way up to Milecastle 37 I took the side path–mostly because there was a slow-moving couple in front of me on the Wall–but I took the Wall walk on the way back.  You don’t really see that much by walking on the Wall, so I’d say it’s not worth the bother, or pissing off people like Mr. Richards.

The Only Place You Can Walk on the Wall

The Only Place You Can Walk on the Wall

Milecastle 37

Milecastle 37

Back walking east again, we go past the Housesteads fort, then down into something called the Knag Burn Gateway.  This was a kind of add-on to the Wall to accommodate traders wishing to move goods or livestock across the frontier.  Generally this could only be done at a milecastle or a fort.  This special gateway is an exception that allowed passage over a gap in the ridge.

Knag Burn Gateway

Knag Burn Gateway

The climbing up and down continues, with moderately daunting terrain ahead:

And Yet More

And Yet More

But with the climb, the payoff in scenery continues, like Broomlee Lough from King’s Hill:

Broomlee Loch from King's Hill

Broomlee Loch from King's Hill

It becomes apparent that the Whin Sill is winding down.  The ups and downs start to get less dramatic, and the Wall starts to become more chopped up:

A Chunk of Wall

A Chunk of Wall

Even the sheep are moving into the ruins:

Grindon Turret with Ovine Occupants

Grindon Turret with Ovine Occupants

You come down off the Sill around a place called Sewingshields Farm, and the land flattens out into seemingly endless pastures with little islands of trees.  The walking at this point is pretty easy, although on this day, the sun was making for quite a warm late-summer English day.  The scenery is bucolic, albeit a little boring, but that’s just fine by me.

The Long Path Ahead

The Long Path Ahead

An Island of Trees

An Island of Trees

There’s not much in terms of antiquity to see in this stretch until you hit the site of the Brocolitia Fort.  Truth be told, there’s not much of the fort left besides some mounds of dirt, kind of like the supposed Revolutionary War redoubts you run into here on hiking trails in the Hudson Valley:  Yea, I suppose I can make out something that might look like a defensive wall.  While the fort is invisible, the Roman temple (Mithraeum) is hanging in there:

Roman Temple

Roman Temple

This is quite impressive until you read on the sign close by that the three small altars in the background are actually replicas, the originals being in a museum in Newcastle.  I suppose it’s a good idea to keep them out of the elements, but still, that’s kinda beat.

Ersatz Altars

Ersatz Altars

The peaceful, level walking continues, with our old friend the B6318 keeping us not-all-that-intrusive company along the way, with the Vallum or the Ditch (I’m not sure which) visible in some sections:

The Vallum is Still There

The Vallum is Still There

Black Carts Turret is the last serious piece of the Wall for the day, sitting in (what else?) a pasture inhabited by cows and sheep and their leavings.  After walking by several hundred of these creatures in the past three days it occured to me that cows for all their sloth and inscrutability maintain some kind of phlegmatic dignity.  Sheep, on the other hand, have an annoying tendency to bleat like a tortured baby as you pass by, or simply give you a vapid stare, and the thought comes to you that despite all of the ignorance that homo sapiens continues to demonstrate in 2014, sheep are as stupid now as they were when the Romans were here.

Black Carts Turret

Black Carts Turret

At the end of the last pasture, you hang a right and reach the outskirts of Chollerford, and the first real signs of urbanity since we started on the Path three days ago:

Civilization!

Civilization!

It’s one of those long English miles into the center of the town, and my accommodation for the night, the George Hotel, a very old, but quite inviting establishment.   The time was about 3:30PM.  The hotel is in the background of the traffic circle:

End of the Trail in Chollerford

End of the Trail in Chollerford

Here’s the nice beer garden aside the River North Tyne (note the outdoor chess set on the right):

The Beer Garden

The Beer Garden

After a shower and attention to my abused toes, I went to enjoy a little post-hike treat with a pint of another local ale and a bag of (as they say here) crisps:

End of the Walk

End of the Walk

Coda

The plan was to take the train next morning from Hexham, a short taxi ride from Chollerford, back to Newcastle.  Then up to Edinburgh for two nights and a day bus tour of the Highlands, then back to Newcastle to reverse the plane flights.  Some random notes on the next couple of days…

The train station in Hexham was quite, impressive–at least one of the patforms:

Hexham Stn

Hexham Stn

Due to a medical emergency on an earlier arrival, things got a bit confusing as to which platform my train to Newcastle would actually depart from, so I wound up dragging my heavy bag (that big red thing in the center of the photo) across that overpass in the background of the photo four times, as misdirection from the equally confused railway staff had me racing back and forth to be sure I got on the right train.

Edinburgh is a big, crowded, hilly city that at the moment was, with the rest of Scotland, trying to determine the following week whether or not to remain in the UK.  Signs, placards, and buttons were all about saying either YES (leave) or NO-thanks (stay).

Edinburgh

Edinburgh

I managed to get in around 4:00PM for a quick tour of the castle, the must-see attraction of the place:

Who Would Want to Attack This?

Edinburgh Castle

The next day was given over to a bus tour of (at least a hint of) the Scottish Highlands, including the Forth Bridge (hidden by fog), the William Wallace Monument, Stirling Castle (obscured by fog), and a couple of lochs, plus the highlight of the tour, some hairy coos (cows), which the tour guide confided in me (after I had declined his offer of a piece of bread with which to feed the beasts) seemed to excite his patrons more than anything else on the trip, much to his chagrin:

Hairy Coos

Hairy Coos

The most entertaining part of this stop was not the coos, but rather the humans.  Despite a perfectly clear warning before leaving the bus that these were docile animals, but nevertheless weighty and powerful, we should not get too close, try to pet them (particularly the horns), and be wary of their movements, of course the people got right in their faces, petting them, pulling their horns, and generally trying to tempt fate.  No one was gored or otherwise injured, however, otherwise this might have been a more interesting blog post.

Loch Katrine was a nice, quite spot:

Loch Katrine

Loch Katrine

As an extra added bonus, we stopped at the castle featured in Month Python and the Holy Grail, Doune Castle, which as doune means “castle” in Gaelic, is essentially Castle Castle:

Monty Python Castle

Monty Python Castle

So the next day was:

  • Train Edinburgh to Newcastle
  • Metro to the airport
  • Newcastle to London Heathrow
  • London to Newark

Fortunately all worked out on time in the return direction, so that was good.  My last shot was taken from my phone of the sunset at Heathrow just before departure:

Heathrow Sunset

Heathrow Sunset

Reflecting back on the trip, it was a great adventure, impressive scenery and history, great chunks of solitude, almost universally nice people, and I spent seven days in England and Scotland, most days walking in shorts and a T-shirt, without a single drop of rain hitting my head! :-)

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