Saturday, 19 November 2016

Walking Hadrian's Wall - The English Camino

"We're Gonna Build A Wall"
Hadrian came to this decision and began building way back around 122AD. He may, like Donald Trump, have been focussed on keeping invaders out - the Scotts in this case - but the truth is historians are not entirely sure why he built it. It was a long time ago. The wall is no longer complete. Although the Romans were pragmatists, probably more focussed on getting things done than keeping records of it, it must be said that their habit of keeping records was for those times considered quite meticulous. Cataloguing life in ancient Britain is certainly one of the worthwhile things "the Romans did for us 😏" Despite living in England, when my wife and I decided to take on the 80 mile (118km) walk, I was quite unaware that so much of the wall actually remains.

A section of Hadrian's Wall near Birdoswald

Travelling Through History
This remarkable Roman wall runs coast to coast from Wallsend (surprise), by the old Swan Hunter Shipyard just northeast of Newcastle, to Bowness on Solway about 15 miles west of Carlisle. The start and finish points couldn't be more different. The decayed industrial shipyards and urban deprivation of Wallsend contrasts markedly with the timeless tranquil beauty of the village of Bowness, perched at the mouth of the Solway Firth, where locals and visitors can gaze across at Scotland. Along the way one encounters Roman forts, carefully uncovered by archaeologists, and sections of the wall that were not plundered for building materials or simply destroyed under various developer's schemes. The sections that remain are mostly around the middle of the journey, between Housteads and Birdoswald, but the countryside (mostly very hilly), even on the sections with no wall, is spectacular enough to keep the walker interested. After leaving Newcastle, until one arrives in the city of Carlisle the walker can feel rather like they have stepped back in time. I had little idea of quite how primitive it was going to be in fact and we often found ourselves without mobile phone signal, without places to buy food and without ATM machines to get cash. Thank goodness for a few good country pubs along the way, which became our lifeline.

The walk along the Tyne Towpath through Newcastle is picturesque in parts

World Heritage Site
The wall or what remains of it may be 84 miles long but it was not considered too big to make it a single UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its prime historical significance is that this wall is considered to mark the furthest reach of the Roman Empire. Much has been unearthed since the site achieved world heritage status. The extent of Roman ruins along the way - forts and entire villages that once supported those Roman encampments - is really quite remarkable. The exhibition of the wall and the Roman artefacts that archaeologists have uncovered, hosed in the Great North Museum, Hancock in Newcastle easily bears a half day visit - preferably before the walk.

The fort at Chesters, overlooking the Eden River is large & rather magnificent 
- this photo doesn't do it justice

Planning The Walk
This is a walk that needs some planning. Other than Newcastle and Carlisle at each end it is fairly undeveloped, with a couple of small towns but mostly tiny villages along the way and wild, slightly untamed countryside in between. Sheep are more plentiful than people. Unlike a Camino de Santiago pilgrimage walk in Spain (see my two Camino blogs - pilgrimage of the spirit and walking through Spain) less is organised for the walker. Like the Caminos however, there is now a Passport available, which one can get stamped at key points along the way, but there are no state hostels. There are a couple of private bunk houses but mostly it's a matter of camping or staying in B&Bs / hotels. Even the B&Bs tend to be luxury country house affairs, which at around £70-£80 a night can make it an expensive pilgrimage. There is cheaper pub accommodation but these get booked up quickly. Even doing the walk in early November, we found things booked-up 2 months before. Our luxury B&B's were, however, very welcome after hilly 15 mile days walking on sodden ground. I ate more English cooked breakfasts than was good for me. Summer will be easier walking but you will find it more crowded. Also remember that the buses that are scheduled along the route for injured walkers or those who wish to take it easier, these stop running after the last weekend of October and taxis are expensive, since they need to travel out into the wilds from the nearest towns. Bear in mind also, that if you want to spend time visiting Roman forts etc (and I recommend at least one) then you may need to allow for walking only half the day or even taking a day off. On the spur of the moment we decided to take a day off to see the Chesters Roman Fort just outside Chollerford. Unfortunately, not knowing the bus had stopped running 2 days before, we found ourselves hitch-hiking then taking a train and walking miles out of Haltwhistle to find our self-catering cottage for the night, which eventually proved to be only 12 miles from Chesters. Galling when my phone app told me we had walked exactly 12 miles that day. Next time I would plan better in advance!

 1 day out of Newcastle. 
The views along the way can be spectacular at any time of year

Bowness-on-Solway. The hut at the end of the trail, looking out over the firth to Scotland.

In Retrospect
For those who have experienced one, this walk is no "Camino Ingles". The camaraderie of meeting other walkers in Spanish state hostels and cafes along the way does not exist on this walk - not yet. I hope it will come. Don't forget, the Spanish have had 2,000 years to get it right. The English National Walking Trails, National Trust etc have done a lot since this became an official walk and the numbers making the walk increase significantly every year so facilities will improve. Let's hope increased numbers does not harm the experience. I would certainly like to do it again. For those who prefer it, there is also an adjacent cycle trail.

Google will bring up many information resources on Hadrian's Wall. The Northumberland Tourist Office are also very helpful and have a 'where to stay' section on their website -
Hadrian's Wall & Around -
Hadrian's Wall Path (National Trails) -

In 2008/9 Mark Swain cycled from Ireland to Tokyo, a journey of 10,000 miles, with his 18 year old son Sam. If you would like to read their bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons', you can find this, along with his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores. A new book entitled 'People I've Met On The Road' will be published soon.



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