A 5.5-day walk along England’s 13th National Trail.
Hadrian’s Wall is the largest ancient Roman artefact in the world. Running for 80 Roman miles (75 modern miles) from Wallsend in Newcastle upon Tyne on the east coast of England to Bowness-on-Solway on the west coast it marked the northern edge of the Roman empire. Construction of the wall began in 122 AD under the orders of the Roman Emporer Hadrian as a defensive fortification against the wild barbarians of the north, and work finished in just six years.
The wall measured approximately three metres wide by 3.5 to 6 metres high, depending on the geography of the area. A large ditch was sited just north of the wall, and the Roman military road was built to the south. Although most of the stone in the original wall has been removed over the years, a significant portion of it remains.
In 2003 the Hadrian’s Wall Path was opened, the 13th National Trail in England, following (mostly) the original course of the wall. My friend wanted to walk this path over the Easter holidays, and so she invited me along for the adventure.
DAY 1 – SOUTH SHIELDS TO HEDDON-ON-THE-WALL
We began our walk early on Monday morning, catching the first ferry over the River Tyne to South Shields to visit the Arbeia Roman Fort. Although this fort isn’t part of the official trail, it only seemed appropriate that we begin our walk here. Founded in 120 AD this was the maritime supply fort for the building of Hadrian’s Wall and my Cicerone Walking Hadrian’s Wall Path route map booklet suggests adding this walk to the end (or start) of the walk.
The museums and forts along Hadrian’s Wall don’t open until 10 am, we discovered that morning, but that was fine as it allowed us plenty of time to follow the waterfront (following the #72 cycle route) to get to Segedunum Roman Fort and Museum in Wallsend where the trail officially begins. We went for a browse of the museum and filled our bellies with the first of six full English breakfasts we ate that week. (As an aside, I think it’ll be a while before I can stomach another grilled sausage, fried egg and tomato!)
From here the official trail diverts from the course of Hadrian’s Wall, following an urban trail along the River Tyne through the city of Newcastle for… oh, forever.
It would appear that they like burning things in Newcastle. When we first arrived in the city our metro train was delayed due to the fire alarm going off, and after that, we spotted burnt rubbish bins, bonfire ruins, burnt out motorcycles and, worryingly, an obvious letterbox fire in someone’s home.
The trail eventually turns north and uphill towards the course of the wall, although there is no sign of the actual wall. We spent our first night at a farmhouse B&B just past the village of Heddon-on-the-Wall. It was also at this point we decided that carrying our own rucksacks was a bit too much like hard work, so we employed the services of the wonderful Hadrian’s Haul. From only £6 per bag, they’ll pick up and drop off your rucksacks anywhere along the wall.
Fitbit Stats: 66,776 steps; 152 floors; 28.49 miles
DAY 2 – HEDDON-ON-THE-WALL TO HEXHAM
The next day was the dullest and most uneventful day of the week. We walked in a ditch, and not a historic Roman ditch either, just a modern ditch. The Hadrian’s Wall Path runs along the north side of the B6318 beside rapeseed fields and we were walking straight into the cold, bitter, biting April wind. We noted, with hindsight, that it might have been advantageous to walk this trail from west to east, but we pulled our woolly hats over our ears and persevered. I may have wondered, on more than one occasion, why I don’t have friends who invite me to lounge on warm Meditteranean beaches.
Let’s walk Hadrian’s Wall, she said. It’ll be fun, she said.
It’s at this point too I should probably mention my friend’s shredded feet. 28 miles of walking on pavement the day before had taken their toll on my walking companion’s feet and she was really suffering.
We learned, later on down the road, that many hikers take a spare pair of old trainers with them for the Newcastle section of the walk, disposing of them when they reach the countryside. That will explain all the random pairs of shoes we spotted en route! A note to anyone planning to walk the wall – pack some Compeed and at the first sign of any irritation slap one of those blister plasters on. Magic.
Just before Milecastle 21, we took a detour south to Corbridge and Hexham, as described in Henry Stedman’s Trailblazer book Hadrian’s Wall Path. Hexham was a lovely little village, and being a holy week and all we paid a visit to Hexham Abbey. This was the first Abbey I’d ever set foot in and the architecture was breathtaking! People have been worshipping at this church for over 1,340 years. That evening we attended the night prayer (compline) and the Latin piece the choir sung in the tradition of the monks was one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard live.
Our second night was spent in a quaint little inn with a blissfully hot shower.
Fitbit Stats: 42,943 steps; 198 floors; 18.52 miles
DAY 3- HEXHAM TO STEEL RIGG
Things start to get interesting on day three. I left my walking companion in Hexham to get her wounded feet attended to in A&E (apparently they see a lot of walkers there!) and I headed north to rejoin the wall at Heaven Fields. After 50 miles of walking, I finally saw my first proper section of Hadrian’s Wall: a 15-metre stretch at Planetrees. It was a rather exciting moment, and after a morning of gentle English drizzle, the sun began to shine. All of the happy.
From here the trail carried on towards Chollerford and the site of Chesters Bridge across the River North Tyne (pictured below). This site is accessible by a footpath on the south side of the bridge to Chollerfield and it’s well worth a visit. Just across the water, you can see the remains of Chesters Roman Fort.
I met up with my walking companion at a tea room in the village and after a quick bite to eat we were off again together, her feet well bandaged. The pace was slow but steady and the scenery quickly became rather stunning (and uphill!).
The next rather impressive stretch of preserved wall was at the Black Carts Turret at Milecastle 29 (pictured below, left). You can clearly see the Roman ditch to the right and the turret sits within this 460 metre stretch of wall.
From there it was a short walk to the Broccolita Roman Fort and the Temple of Mithras (above, right), built in 200 AD by soldiers stationed at the fort. Repair works were underway when we arrived there as the temple was filling with water.
The next section of the walk was the most enjoyable for me. We climbed up, down and up along the Sewingshield, Housestead, Hotbank, Highshield and Peel Crags, stopping for a browse (and a much needed hot coffee!) at the Housesteads Roman Fort.
Filming had just finished when we arrived at Housesteads, and the sight of a bottle of wine and an earthenware vessel piqued my curiosity. I had to ask what was in the vessel. “Stinky fish sauce” was the reply from the cameraman. More information was not forthcoming, so I researched this sauce when I got home. It was likely ‘garum’ a fermented fish sauce the Roman’s used like we do ketchup. The closest thing available to it now is colatura di Alici, a sauce made from fermented anchovies from the village of Cetara, Campania.
After a brief break at the fort we carried on our way, maintaining a slow but steady pace due to my friend’s feet. I managed to grab a few geocaches along this route, bouncing up the crags ‘like a rabbit’, she described as she plodded forward with stubborn determination.
The next exciting thing we encountered, and something I’d been looking forward to for weeks, was the famous Sycamore Gap. That tree where Robin Hood Prince of Thieves meets Will Scarlet and battles off the king’s men while his travelling companion prays on the other side of the wall. You know the scene.
That night we slept in a bunkhouse in Steel Rigg after enjoying a rather fantastic meal (and well-earned pint or two) at Twice Brewed. They’ve got a map on the wall at that inn for walkers to stick pins where they came from. If you’re there, look out for my Canadian flag stuck into Shetland.
Fitbit Stats: 60,314 steps; 395 floors; 25.66 miles
DAY 4 – STEEL RIG TO WALTON
The next morning we visited the Vindolanda Roman Fort, site of the famous Vindolanda writing tablets. There was an excavation going on which was fascinating to watch, and we had a quick browse around the museum. The one item that struck me was the skeleton of a small child that had been found in the corner of a soldier’s barracks. How did the child end up there, and where did the Romans bury their dead? Questions to Google later.
We trekked back up to the wall and carried on moving forward. Day 4 was just as scenic as Day 3, but the weather wasn’t as beautiful so my iPhone photos didn’t turn out as well. I did a lot of geocaching that day and found, to my excitement, a Roman historic geocoin which I’ve brought back to Shetland.
We stopped for a quick visit and bite to eat at the Roman Army Museum (you get free entry when you pay to get into Vindolanda) and carried on our way. After stopping for a geocache at Thirlwall Castle I lost my walking companion. You see, she’s not a geocacher and so she’d just keep walking and I would catch up after I’d found and logged my finds.
This time I couldn’t catch up.
I’d lost her!
The next two miles were spent in a slight panic that something had happened to her. So yes, I’m not sure what happened between Thirlwall and the Birdoswald Roman Fort when I finally found her, I just walked and saw nothing. It turned out that she’d gone zig instead of zag at a diversion in Gilsland and she could see me up on the hill on the path and was trying desperately to catch up with me at the next fort.
By this time, with very few rest breaks, feet that felt like they’d been pounded by a sledgehammer and incredibly aching calves I was just desperate to get to our arranged campsite where a hot dinner would be waiting for us. In all honesty, I nearly cried at this point, I just wanted to sit down and rest, but we had to keep going in order to reach our destination before dark. It took every ounce of energy I could muster just to put one foot in front of the other.
Half a mile before the campsite we found ourselves in a little village – Walton. My friend said, “I’m going to nip down this road and see if I can’t find a little shop to get some wine.” “Ok,” I replied, “I’m just going to sit right here until you come back” <pointing at the convenient bench on the corner>.
Ten minutes later she returns – in a car! The shop was closed and a lovely father and daughter were going to drive us three miles away to the nearest shop.
My face dropped.
We were deposited in Brampton where the first person I laid eyes on looked like a mediaeval peasant afflicted with leprosy, rummaging around in a bin. Where am I?!
“Did you really just take us here for wine?” I asked, between clenched teeth.
“And crisps!” she replied, smiling.
I might have headdesked. Literally. After being so tired and the emotional turmoil of having lost her earlier on in the day, I was barely holding it together as it was. A half-pint of dark ale in the pub she’d left me in while she went looking for an off-license helped. We got a taxi back to our campsite, where we were met by the farmer owner.
“Are you wanting the campsite?” he asked as the drops of rain began to fall, “or the bunkhouse?”
“BUNKHOUSE!” I exclaimed!
Moments later our hiking boots were off and we were in the most fantastic bunkhouse ever with cosy bunkbeds, a large bathroom, kitchen area and a small bothy with an open woodstove and settee. Much better than sleeping in a tent in the rain, and the fire was already going.
At this point the husband and wife team who owned the bunkhouse arrived with our dinner. He was asking if we had any dietary requirements (no) and he was all ‘thank goodness as this is a cattle farm, we can’t be doing with vegans’. Then, his wife comes up behind him and says, quite a matter of factly: “Someone’s just died! There are bits and pieces all over the kitchen!” and he goes, “Here’s your dinner!” and hands us two plates of steaming hot shepherd’s pie with veg and disappears for the night.
My friend and I glanced at each other – was this shepherd’s pie made from the someone who has just died? Are their cattle considered someones? Was it made from human?! No matter, they’d brought tomato sauce and we were starving! Best. Shepherds. Pie. Ever. Plus, wine in a tankard. Much giggling ensued.
We shared the bunkhouse with a couple called Ian and Sharon. They are on a 566-mile walk from their home in Derby to the remote Scottish isle of Scarista, and they are raising money for three different charities: Muscular Dystrophy, Air Ambulance, and a new charity – Tom and Mia’s Legacy. This last charity was set up after the daughter of a friend, Mia, was murdered while backpacking in Australia in 2016. Tom, another guest at the hostel, had been killed trying to help her. When I told my husband about their fundraising (he spent time backpacking in Australia years ago) he donated just the right amount for them to reach their £1500 target.
Ian and Sharon were such wonderful bunkhouse mates and we spent the evening sipping wine (I was really glad for the wine by now) and recounting travel tales. You can follow their current walking travels on their blog Spondon to Scarista and you can donate on their Just Giving page too, if you fancy.
Fitbit Stats: 60,026 steps; 285 floors; 25.53 miles
DAY 5 – WALTON TO BURGH-BY-SANDS
We set off bright and early the following morning (after yet another full English breakfast – this time with black pudding to jazz things up a bit!). It was fairly flat and uneventful day just trudging along towards the city of Carlisle and onwards, one foot in front of the other.
The famous Stall-on-the-Wall honesty box was a welcome sight for sore eyes, given that there were no shops to replenish our water and snack bar stores at.
The only thing to perhaps note here is that a section of the Hadrian’s Wall Path has a diversion in place in Carlisle, due to the flooding a few years back. We weren’t looking for any signposts except for the National Trail acorn to follow, so we missed the diversion notice in the park just before the bridge crossing the River Eden.
That night we stayed in another bunkhouse, and the giant foam mattress I slept on was like a rejuvenating health pod for my sore, aching legs.
Fitbit Stats: 50,035 steps; 68 floors; 21.2 miles
DAY 6 – BURGH-BY-SANDS TO BOWNESS-ON-SOLWAY
Our final hiking day dawned bright and clear. We followed the muddy banks of the Channel of River Eden for the final 7 miles of the walk, stopping to have our photograph taken in Port Carlisle. There’s a lovely man there who, for a small donation, will change the lettering and distance of the bottom two signs to where you have come from. We thought this was a really nice touch at the end of our walk!
We finally made it to the end of the official walk, marked, rather quietly, with a small shed and garden down an alleyway. We celebrated with an afternoon tea with Prosecco at Wallsend House, and then called a taxi to fetch us back to Carlisle (£30 set price with your Roman Chariot Sally 07808778599) and the train back to Scotland.
Fitbit Stats: 25,016 steps; 93 floors; 10.6 miles
All in all walking Hadrian’s Wall was an experience to remember and I’m glad I did it, even though it was really hard going at times. I think if I was to do it again I’d start in Chollerford, finishing at the Birdoswald Fort, and spend four or five days taking in the scenery and visiting the museums for longer. We had to cover so much distance over a short period of time and combined with my friend’s terrible blisters meant that our trip felt quite rushed.
Still, I’m glad we did it. The scenery was breathtaking at times and it was certainly a physical challenge, to say the least! We all need an adventure like this every now and again, don’t we?
Total FitBit Stats: 305,110 steps; 1191 floors; 127 miles.