Earlier this month I walked along Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland. Ok, I didn’t walk the whole thing, but I walked further along it than I’ve ever done before. And here’s why.
At this point I could go all Edmund Hillary on you and say ‘Because it’s there’, and sign off, and to be fair that was part of it. Time’s winged chariot looming ever larger in the rear-view mirror of middle age may have also played a part too, but there were a couple of other reasons too.
I’ve been to the wall many times before, but pretty much always walked the same section: Steel Rigg to Housesteads Fort, returning either by the Roman service road/path that runs parallel to this section on the south side or a more twiddly circuit through the fields to the northern side.
This arguably is the Wall’s best stretch as it switchbacks over the natural cliffs formed by the Whin Sill, the ancient volcanic fault line running across Northumberland exploited first by the Romans as a natural barrier and then by the Normans where its final promontories before it plunges into the North Sea made perfect sites for Bamburgh, Dunstanburgh and Lindisfarne Castles.
This time though was different. My mate Jonny had set himself a challenge. Having served 20 years as a police officer, he wanted to do something to mark this (he’d collected his service medal recently) and also help a cause close to him: 20 miles along Hadrian’s Wall in aid of Care of Police Survivors (COPS) UK. Putting a couple of routes into Google, Steel Rigg to the Vallum Farm Tea Room and Restaurant fitted the bill. Plus we might get a cuppa and a slice of cake at the end of it.
As well as keeping Jonny company, I’ve always been curious about what else there was to see along this central stretch of the Wall, the tracks I’d skipped just to get to the hits.
So we worked out a date, set up our JustGiving pages and here’s what happened.
Keep to the path?
Our ‘support vehicle’ (crewed by Jonny’s wife and his two bleary-eyed sons) dropped us off at the car park at Steel Rigg just after 7am. We reckoned that would be plenty of time to reach our destination (and cake) and shouldering our packs, we set off.
Only to find our way blocked by a herd of cattle, including a very large bull.
One thing all the agencies with an interest in preserving Hadrian’s Wall will tell you is that you should never walk along the wall itself. But with our way blocked by some fairly twitchy and hefty-looking livestock, there was nothing for it but to climb up and walk on it. All I can say is we’re very sorry: preserving life and limb took priority over archaeology.
Cattle safely behind us, we headed up onto Steel Rigg, the brief scrambly climb to the top providing the first workout of the day.
From Steel Rigg the sense of the wall as a barrier becomes clear as it rollercoasters east along the cliffs for as far as you can see.
Looking east along the Wall towards Crag Lough
Now I know the building of walls is a touchy subject these days, but whatever your political persuasion, it’s hard not to be impressed by its scale and the sheer ingenuity and force of will that created it. What remains today is also only a fraction of how it looked when it was completed, with most of its stones ‘liberated’ by locals along its length to build walls and homes once the Empire fell.
We walked on, the path dipping and rolling steeply along the edge of the cliffs occasionally punctuated by milecastles. Unfortunately these ruins were no guide to our progress, Roman miles being slightly shorter than modern ones.
After a few more ups and downs, we reached ‘Sycamore Gap‘. Often referred to as the ‘Robin Hood Tree’ after Kevin Costner’s Prince of Thieves meets Morgan Freeman on his way to Sherwood Forest. Hollywood’s wonky sense of geography is as dubious as the myth of Robin Hood but it’s been good for Northumberland’s tourism.
‘Sycamore Gap’ – Hadrian’s Wall.
The tree has become an icon of the North-East, up there with The Angel of the North and it’s easy to see why. Framed by the steep slopes of the Whin Sill, it sits almost dead centre in the dip between them. And like most icons of the North-East (the Tyne Bridge, Alan Shearer…) – it’s not that old! It was probably planted near the end of the 19th Century.
That tree (and Jonny)
We paused for a few photos (it’d be rude not to) then continued on our way.
After the Gap, the path continues to follow the Whin Sill, with some pretty impressive drops down sheer cliffs in places. The wall also continues, almost indifferent to its surroundings. At this point I should really have another photo for you but time was ticking on, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.
By mid-morning, we reached Housesteads Fort. Despite only standing a few feet high in places now, it’s still an impressive sight, especially the northern ramparts which are several feet thick. You still get a sense of it being on the edge of something and imagine what it would have been like to be posted there. Yet even here, the wall is returning to nature.
Ramparts, Housesteads Fort
After Housesteads, the switchback along the spine of the Whin Sill continued. The route climbed above the treeline and became much bleaker. The wind had also picked up and we were grateful to have it on our backs. We saw few fellow walkers travelling in the same west-east direction as us, which seemed odd given the lack of shelter from the prevailing westerly winds. It didn’t seem to bother those who passed us though, unless they were all just grinning and bearing it.
Our next stop was Brocolitia, the remains of a temple built for the sun god Mithras.
Brocolitia Mithraic Temple, Hadrian’s Wall
Propping our rucksacks against its walls, we paused for a drink and some very chunky flapjack.
Refreshed, we set off through the car park to return to the path. The grey clouds that had been gaining on us for a while had overtaken us. Rain started to spit. The bloke at the coffee van looked up, took one look at us and grinned.
‘Whose idea was this, then?’ he asked.
In response we both pointed at each other.
Rainbow on the Wall.
Into the Vallum
After Brocolitia the ground stays high, but the drama of the Whin Sill peters out. Without high cliffs to defend them, the Romans dug a massive defensive ditch or ‘vallum.’ Twenty feet wide and 10 feet deep, it runs the length of the Wall and in some ways it’s a more remarkable feat than the wall itself. Where none of the wall remains, the vallum still runs, straight as a die across the countryside.
The Vallum, Hadrian’s Wall.
Jonny leads the way towards Limestone Corner.
That’s the B6318 beyond Jonny in the photo, it’s known locally as the Military Road. For years because of its aversion to sharp corners and unnatural straightness I’d assumed it was built by the Romans too, but it was actually made in the 18th Century during the Jacobite uprising to move Hanoverian troops from Newcastle across to Cumbria and Dumfrieshire. These days it’s a more scenic alternative to the A69 and at times almost as quick.
Watching the cars rush past as we walked on, I realised how little attention I’d paid to the landscape I’d previously only driven through. The sweep of the scenery, the changing light; it was great to be outdoors. Being outside is such a good way of clearing your head.
Meanwhile, the wall itself had disappeared, its stones taken by General Wade centuries ago to pave his road, but the vallum still cut on in front of us.
Soon the route started to descend out of the high country and the wall reappeared for a brief section at Black Carts Turret. This was the last we saw of it.
Hitting a Wall
After a brief stop for lunch we continued down the valley and from there things got harder. It became clear that our dreams of a cuppa and slice of cake at journey’s end were slipping away; it was now just after one o’clock, we were barely halfway and the tea-room would close at 4.
The walk became a slog as we climbed back up out of the Tyne valley to regain all of the height we’d lost. I’m afraid there are no more photos. Jonny had started to limp and an old ache in my hip had returned to nag me. Laddered stiles became ordeals in themselves as we had to break pace to stretch and reach over them. After consuming the last of the jellybabies, and another run-in with some more grumpy bullocks, we eventually switched to the Military Road, reaching the Vallum Tea Rooms a little after 7pm. Luckily the support car was waiting, as was a can of Guinness each!
Knackered but we made it.
Distance walked: 24 miles, 52,200 steps, 270 floors.
So, what’s next? There has been talk of Yorkshire 3 Peaks but that might have been the exhilaration of finishing (or the Guinness) talking. All I would say is that the Hadrian’s Wall Path is a lot more demanding than you might think.
Maybe we’ll return to do the other two-thirds of it. We’ll see.
All photos taken by me with my iPhone.
(The best camera is the one you have with you.)
You can still donate to my JustGiving Page here.