(Hadrian’s Wall Path. 16th March 2014 – 18½ + 1½ miles off route)
The Howard Lodge (a central B&B I’d stayed in before) served up a fine breakfast of poached eggs and fruit salad (separate plates) and a remarkably horrid jam in a plastic tub. But, unfortunate jam aside, it’s a good stop for the night: friendly, comfortable, central and affordable.
I was away by 8.30 and almost immediately noticed that all the shops were shut (I’m a very observant person). Walking day after day it is easy to lose track of days and I’d overlooked that my first on the Hadrian’s Wall Path was a Sunday. My plan to buy lunch at a decent sandwich bar crumbled to dust and, sniffling, I hurried out of Carlisle, hoping that I’d find vittles on the path (and wishing I’d ordered a bigger breakfast).
After half a mile or so of city walking and passing through a couple of underpasses (with bright murals and nice pants)
I emerged blinking into bright sun and set out following new signs on a new path. This was the start of the second long-distance footpath on my journey from Ulverston to Berwick-upon-Tweed.
It was a fine day and covering fresh ground was a novel excitement: the remaining 150 miles of my walk would all be new to me. I strolled along the banks of the River Eden in good spirits,
crossed a handsome suspension bridge (built in 1922 you’ll want to know) and entered Rickerby Park.
The park was busy with Sunday morning runners and cyclists and dog-walkers and it was only as I left to join a cycle-way that people dropped away and I was mostly alone once more.
A quiet lane led eastward and I assessed how my body felt after five days walking and seventy-odd miles of the Cumbria Way under my belt. Any initial aches and strains from starting a long walk had mostly faded. Though my back was still painful, I was generally in fine fettle and my feet were in great shape – no blisters. And remarkably I wouldn’t get one blister on this 220-mile walk. Praise be to Meindl boots. Praise them, praise them high. Praise be to …. bored with praising now.
Soon, I crossed the M6 which felt momentous – though it isn’t particularly.
My rucksack was comfortable to carry. Over the years I’ve become better at paring down the weight. Shame then, that as I left my house in Seaford, I impulsively thrust a lightweight (-ish) camera tripod into it. I would use it precisely twice: neither to good effect.
I briefly rejoined the River Eden at Crosby-On-Eden before leaving it for good to meet the line of the Wall.
This length of the HWP was pleasant, easy walking but after the grandeur of the Lakeland fells, it felt a little unexceptional.
A long-abandoned farm machine set me wondering. I imagined a farm hand, stretching after a long day’s work, wiping a hanky over a sweaty forehead, gulping some water, scratching his bottom, walking away – perhaps not realising that he would never use this machine again. And it has sat there ever since. I had no-one to talk to, remember.
On the approach to Bleatarn Farm, I saw my first obvious evidence of the Wall – this broad causeway marks its line. I caught up with the two people ahead: New Zealanders who had travelled across the world, chiefly to walk the path. I did some rare chatting and they told me about their first day walking from Bowness-on-Solway to Carlisle. It didn’t sound like I had missed so very much and I had no regrets at starting the HWP at Carlisle.
At Bleatarn, the sun slipped behind cloud and the rest of the day was cold and overcast. My stomach was rumbling and I increasingly thought of grub.
Miles of path disappeared beneath my feet as I ruminated on my lack of food.
Still thinking about food and despondently flicking through my guidebook, I was delightedly reminded that a pub lay up ahead. Great news. And I should reach it at about lunchtime. Greater still.
With my spirits restored, I looked up from staring glumly at the path beneath my feet. Over my right shoulder, I could see the Pennines away off to the south. I think that central height is Cross Fell – the highest point on the Pennine Way. Further on, the Pennine Way would rush up from the south, coincide with the HWP for several miles, and then dart away northwards. I was looking forward to that breathless encounter.
helpful flagged steps … but precious little Emperor’s Wall.
My guide-book, a 2012 edition of the Cicerone Guide by Mark Richards, told me that the pub I was aiming for was in the small village of Walton.
But when I arrived in the village – a little wide-eyed with hunger – I couldn’t find it. I walked about in ever-increasing circles but still no pub. Then, a passing dog-walker told me that The Centurion Inn had closed five years before.
So much for my recently updated guidebook, which I didn’t like anyway. Sad, hungry, tearful, I staggered on.
I saw my first ‘bit’ of wall in the afternoon … but it wasn’t much to write home about. So I didn’t.
At 3.30, as I approached the Roman fort at Birdoswald,
I saw my first proper section of wall with turret
but to be honest my mind was wholly focused on food. I’d walked 18 miles and eaten nothing but an apple since 8am. This was no time for turrets.
Thankfully the excellent café was open. I barrelled in, sending dawdling customers sprawling to left and right, grabbed a breeze-block sized slab of carrot cake and a mug of tea. I found a quiet corner to feed in and growled if anyone came too close.
I didn’t think that I had enough time to explore this marvellous fort and museum. In retrospect, I could easily have spared an hour or even two but, I suppose, it’s good to have a reason to visit again and explore the site properly.
I left Birdoswald behind, licking buttercream from my fingers, and had my first glimpse of the Whin Sill: the distinctive ridge of rocks and crags along which the central section of the Wall strides. My eyes were fixed so firmly on that, I missed seeing the phallus carved on this stretch of wall. How annoying is that? You walk forty miles of Hadrian’s Wall over three days and miss the carved phallus. Actually no, there are two. You walk forty miles of Hadrian’s Wall and miss both carved phalluses. You wait all those miles for a carved phallus, then two come along together and you miss them both.
I so wanted to show you a photo of what was supposedly carved to ward off evil spirits. Supposedly. Sounds more like the endeavours of a cold, bored, teenage soldier to me. (If you really want to see the carvings, and I know you do, I’ve saved you the trouble of a Google search – here).
I crossed the River Irthing and finally arrived in Gilsland – my stop for the night. But my B&B, Bush Nook, was a further long mile out of the village along quite a busy road.
When I arrived at 4.30, the place was deserted. I waited anxiously for half an hour, kicking my heels and fretting, before Stephen, the owner’s very apologetic son, arrived and showed me to my room. And as he offered to drive me to ‘The Samson Inn’ in Gilsland for supper and pick me up again afterwards, I quickly forgave him his memory lapse.
After a gut-busting sloppy burger, chips and a pint or three, I was fast asleep and snoring contentedly by 10. Today had been the longest day of my coast to coast trek. And if I was disappointed by the lack of Hadrian’s famous Wall, the following two days would make up for that.