Hadrian’s Wall Path National Trail

A few weeks ago WordPress kindly notified me that “Your stats are booming!”, so I headed over to my blog to check out the international interest and acclaim, only to be met with some figures that implied a couple of people from Sweden may have accidentally ended up here while searching for something more interesting. Anyway, as I was here  I paused a while to re-read the most recent entries, the ones detailing my adventures in the USA on the Arizona Trail, Monument Valley and the Skydive 100.

It struck me that I almost didn’t recognise the person in those articles, I wanted to be “that Guy” again and return to the exciting, adventure-filled life that dominated the first part of 2016. Things haven’t been the same since returning from the USA, and without the structure and distractions of a normal job, life has taken some getting used to and I’ve needed to adapt and diversify by taking up different hobbies and activities. My dreams of spending all my time hiking, running and exploring seem to conflict with the fact I’m rapidly heading out of my 40’s and things take longer to recover from. But that’s all another story and not part of the adventure I’m telling here.

Hadrian’s Wall Path has long been on my to-do list, it’s a National Trail and a historic UK landmark along with the likes of Stonehenge. It bisects the UK across its width and there’s something appealing about crossing the country by foot. I knew very little about The Wall or the National Trail before starting, anything learnt in my school days was long since forgotten. I prefer not to do too much research on stuff like this before starting, other people’s experiences can influence and colour my judgement. So, the plan was to cover the 84 miles over 3 days, West to East… I booked a couple of B&B’s at what looked like reasonable overnight stops and a hotel in Newcastle at the end and headed up to Carlisle.

Day 0: Carlisle

It’s a 300-mile drive to Carlisle on the UK motorway network which, on a cold, wet and windy day is a pretty grim experience. I was looking forward to seeing the Lake District appear once past Lancaster but everything was blanketed in a misty, wet, grey cloud so there was little to see. Arriving at my hotel for the night I checked-in and walked into Carlisle to find the bus stop where I planned to catch the first bus to Bowness-on-Solway the following morning at 06:35.

The weather was grim, the bus stop was a 20-minute walk from the hotel and by the time I’d found it and got back I was soaked to the bone and freezing cold. The weather forecast for the next 3 days wasn’t much better, I seriously thought about writing the expedition off, going to the pub and drinking the night away. Really, what was the point of putting myself through 3 days of hell?

But I didn’t, I was sensible and got an early night – resolving that tomorrow is another day and just to take things one moment at a time, so I went to bed sober and listening to the wind and rain lash down on the window of my hotel room.

Day 1 Bowness to Gilsland (33-ish Miles)

The alarm went off at 05:00 and I looked out of the hotel window, well at least it wasn’t raining or blowing a hoolie, (as they say). But it still looked wet and pretty grim – though it was dark and the hotel wasn’t particularly in a nice, scenic location so I guess it would have looked unappealing in any scenario. I’d arranged to leave my car at the hotel for a few days, so packed-up, checked out and walked to the bus stop as it started to get light.

Just as I got to the bus stop the rain started again, lashing down very heavily. There was only one other person waiting – a young lad who, correctly assumed I was going hiking and commented that I must be “off me head”. I agreed, but as the bus had now arrived, and I’d made all this effort I might as well go and take a look at this wall. Still unconvinced, I knew I’d be back in Carlisle by lunchtime and if things got really nasty could bail out easily. However, on the hour-or-so journey to the start at Bowness-on-Solway, something magical happened, the clouds cleared, the sun came out and the wind dropped. By the time I got off the bus it was a nice, crisp spring morning in Bowness-on-Solway.

The start at Bowness-on-Solway

Finding the start of Hadrian’s Wall Path isn’t quite as easy as you might think and it took me a few minutes to find it, there’s a little sign pointing down between some houses which takes you to the official start – a shelter with a few noticeboards from National Trails and a couple of plaques proclaiming the start/end of the trail depending on your direction of travel. Obviously for me, it was the start so I had to take an obligatory selfie to prove I’d actually been there.

The first 13-14 miles into Carlisle is flat as a pancake and involves a fair amount of road, I knew this and wanted to get the boring stuff over as quickly as possible. My pack was pretty light, and coupled with the OMM front map pouch was nice and stable, and I was pleased to find I could comfortably jog with it. It wasn’t my intention to run any of the trail, but sometimes it’s nice to break into a jog, and the boring bits go by a lot faster when you’re running. As I got nearer to Carlisle it was obvious that The Wall wasn’t going to make an appearance any time soon, in fact I also began to question the word “Path” in “Hadrian’s Wall Path” – the official name of this trail. Where it wasn’t road, the route took me through muddy tracks and farmyards and over waterlogged fields and pasture – something which was to become a feature of the whole trail later.

There were also several diversions due to flooding, erosion and landslips. These were a little annoying but very well signposted and fairly easy to follow – as they increased I began to rename the trail “Hadrian’s Diversion” due to the lack of wall or path in what Í was experiencing. A long diversion through Carlisle allowed me to pause at a large Sainsbury’s to pick up some food for the second half of this day which I hoped was going to be a little more interesting.

Finally, some Wall!

Once through Carlisle and after a couple more long road diversions at around 26 miles from the start things started to get a bit more interesting. Finally, a bit of The Wall appeared from nowhere, a few yards of it – all alone in a field surrounded by a fence, it seemed a bit sad sitting there on its own but hey, it was a bit of The Wall. Carrying on, with a few miles to go and after a bit of a welcome elevation gain I arrived at a place called “Banks” and suddenly there it was, loads of Wall! Not only was there some Wall, but there were remains of forts, turrets and other Roman buildings. Yes, this was more like it, I had everything to myself and plenty of time to wander around and read all the noticeboards before moving-on. I also passed what looked like a visitors centre, but it was all locked-up and closed.

Where the trail wasn’t on road it was still waterlogged and very muddy underfoot and I was pretty caked in mud to knee-height, so just before my B&B for the night I washed off in the river and headed up into Gilsland to find The Samson Inn where I was staying for the night.

Gilsland was an ideal overnight stop and The Samson Inn was great with friendly locals and staff, I was the only person staying there, they fed and watered me more than adequately and I retired to bed at around 9pm.

Day 2 Gilsand to Chollerford (20-ish Miles)

Day 2 – start in Gilsland

The Samson Inn supplied a decent full breakfast, I made-up some Nutella / peanut butter sandwiches from the buffet and took some fruit as wasn’t sure where I would be able to get food today. Just as well, as I wasn’t going to see anywhere to get food until the end of the day in around 8 hours time.

It was a fabulous morning, bright and crisp as I set off – the next 12-13 miles were epic, this was what I’d imagined Hadrian’s Wall to be. Rolling hills, forts, milecastles, turrets and settlements. There were quarries where stone was mined for The Wall, the iconic “Sycamore Gap” which apparently featured in Robin Hood, Prince Of Thieves and was also voted “Tree of the Year” in 2016.

Sycamore Gap

It’s a tough-old section though, similar to coastal path terrain, constantly undulating and fairly difficult underfoot – especially in shoes with little-to-no grip which I’d foolishly opted for. The ground was pretty waterlogged again and generally grassy making everything very slippy and I ended up on my back several times. On one of these occasions my phone must have dropped out of my pack which I discovered to my horror while looking for it to take a photo, backtracking a mile-or-so I found it lying on the grass… phew

Incredibly, over the 3 days I saw only a handful of people on the entire trail – it wasn’t until this section that I saw anyone obviously out walking the trail or here to see Hadrian’s Wall. I know it’s off-season and not half-term but I’d have expected to see a few more tourists – I wasn’t complaining though, I had The Wall all to myself, which suited me just fine.

Lots of lovely Wall

After 13-14 miles and once past Housteads the interesting stuff was done and the trail dropped to follow the Military Road for 7-or-8 miles to Chollerford, my end point for Day 2. By now I’d run out of food and it was a 2-3 hour slog through very waterlogged and muddy fields which was really hard work. I contemplated walking along the road instead of the constant mudbath but decided that if I was going to walk Hadrian’s Wall Path, I might as well do it properly – mud, or no mud. I was starting to get very “hangry” with the state of the route though and so it was with some relief that I staggered into Chollerford at 4pm and went straight to the garage to buy lots of chocolate, then to the pub to wait for a bus to my B&B in Wark 6 miles away, it was a 90-minute wait – but the pub was warm and served beer, so everything was fine again pretty shortly.

Battlesteads B&B in Wark was my destination for Day 2, a fantastic country pub and very posh – too posh maybe for a smelly, mud-soaked hiker and I somehow managed to get it for £40. By the time I’d sorted everything out and scoffed the complimentary fruit basket there was time for a quick pint and then off to bed again.

Day 3 Chollerford to Wallsend (31-ish Miles)

The bus back to Chollerford left at 07:40 so unfortunately I didn’t have time for breakfast today, though I wasn’t really bothered as I don’t like hiking, (or running) on a full stomach and I knew there was going to be food options now as I headed into Newcastle. My feet were quite sore and swollen after 2 days of waterlogged and muddy trails but soon settled down after a few minutes and couple of ibuprofen.

The Vallum – it’s a ditch

The bus was full of school kids heading to Hehxam, but I got off back at Chollerford at the same stop I’d used the previous day. I’d miscalculated the distance today, originally thinking it was going to be around 25 miles, but it looked more like 32-33 now and the fingerpost after a mile-or-two suggested Heddon-on-the-Wall was 15 miles away which I thought was about the halfway point, and my first opportunity to refuel and buy supplies.

Fortunately, it was cold and had been freezing overnight so the ground underfoot was fairly firm and not as waterlogged as the previous 2 days. I stuck an audiobook on my iPod and started walking, once again the trail was following the road and, although there was a few gentle undulations it wasn’t very exciting. I’d long since lost all sign of The Wall and was now following the Vallum which is basically a big ditch that follows Hadrian’s Wall and predates it. But – a ditch is a ditch, historic or not and not very interesting after a few hours!

I met a couple of walkers coming the other way early on, both having started the previous day from Wallsend, I stopped for a quick chat with them, still amazed that these were the only other hikers I had encountered. Around mid-morning I came across some National Trail workers who’d seen me the previous day and were very impressed that I’d nearly completed the trail in 2.5 days, one even took a photo and put it up on the National Trails Twitter feed, nice one fellas!

By lunchtime I was getting hungry again and got to the halfway point at Heddon-on-the-Wall, finding a nice big, yellow Shell petrol station. There was around 15-16 miles to do so I grabbed enough calories to get me to the end and set-off on the final section – aiming to get to the end for around 17:00.

Howay man! We gannin’ doon tae Newcastle like.

The final few hours were pretty dull to be honest, it was tarmac/footpath all the way to Wallsend. Going through Newcastle along the Tyne was interesting with some of the iconic landmarks, but I knew I’d be back later that day and have time to enjoy them more then. Once through Newcastle the final 5 or 6 miles took me along the Tyne, through industrial estates until finally finishing bang-on 17:00 at the Segedunum museum in Wallsend, only to find it all closed and locked-up… I couldn’t even get in for a photo – what an anti-climax!

The Metro station at Wallsend was close though, so I wandered over to it and caught the train into Newcastle and found my hotel for the night, but not before stopping at McDonalds for a huge Big Mac meal which was about all I wanted to eat by then.

The following day I caught the train back to Carlisle from Newcastle to pick up my car. It’s a nice journey and quite interesting as it goes past a lot of the stuff I’d walked though over the previous 3 days. It was a long journey home, taking a full day of trains and driving – probably not the best way to recover from 3 days of hiking.

Thoughts on Hadrian’s Wall Path

I have to admit I was disappointed by the Hadrian’s Wall Path experience – in the sense of the National Trail aspect of it. Maybe some of that is my own fault for not researching the route or history beforehand, I’d expected a lot more “Wall” and a lot more “Path” – well, you would wouldn’t you, given the name “Hadrian’s Wall Path“? Having said that, and done some reading – I understand that this is by design, and the National Trails have deliberately left the route grassy to avoid the damage required to cut a path into the landscape. They also advise against walking the route between October – April due to it being waterlogged and the effects of erosion from hikers. Ooops! It is excellently marked though, one of the best marked routes I’ve ever done and almost impossible to get lost on – even the diversions were superbly and regularly marked with signs and the National Trail acorn stickers.

Where Hadrian’s Wall Path is good, it’s amazing… The 20-ish mile section from Banks to Housteads is superb and has everything in it. Unfortunately, the other 64 miles I found a bit dull, and 64 miles is a long way to be bored and uninspired. Add-in a very generous helping of mud and it becomes a bit of a slog.

But – I’m glad I did it… It served a purpose and got me back out into the world for a little adventure and enabled me to write this blog. It allowed me to work on refining my kit and make sure I’m happy with my pack and gear, it’s also given me that final kick needed to push me over the edge and finalise plans to head out to Spain to do the Camino de Santiago. Hopefully there’ll be plenty more to come soon!

Hasta la próxima amigos

 

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