(Hadrian’s Wall Path. 18th March 2014 – 14 miles + 1 off route)
Breakfast at Saughy Rigg was as good as it gets: yoghurt with berries, toast, marmalade, the finest egg benedict in the land and swooningly-strong coffee. Decent coffee isn’t so very difficult to make and yet I despair at the number of B&B’s that get it so very wrong.
Dinner, three bottles of beer, bed, breakfast and a load of washing came to £72 – a bargain in anyone’s book. Packed and ready for the off, I politely declined Sean’s offer of a lift up to the path and bidding him a fond farewell, trudged the uphill mile back the way I had come.
The weather was unchanged – grey, cold and overcast with occasional flashes of sun. The forecast promised sheets of rain, but I could hardly complain. Other than a short annoyance of drizzle at Gilsland, it hadn’t rained once in seven days walking.
Almost immediately I faced more stiff climbs on steep, stepped paths. But with my newly acquired – if sadly temporary – Calves Of Steel, I was up them like an old, hoary goat.
I was too aware that this spectacular length of path, walking hand-in-hand with Hadrian (sort of), was drawing to a close. I walked slowly, stopping often, looking about me. I’m glad that I did: in the months and years afterwards, I have thought back on these few dramatic miles often.
I glanced back for a final view of the trees at Steel Rigg carpark, with high Whinshields Crags beyond
and headed into a herd of cows and bulls.
I’m not particularly scared of bulls but I am wary of them. Aren’t you? But these fellas barely noticed me striding bravely, manfully past (if nervously looking over my shoulder in case they decided it’d be fun to charge the walker).
I glanced back for a final view of the trees at Steel Rigg carpark, with high Whinshields Crags beyond (did I say that already?)
and descended to Milecastle 39, also known as Castle ‘Nick’ (it sits in a nick of the escarpment). A nickname?
Yet another climb and yet another drop and I arrived at one of the most iconic spots on the Wall – Sycamore Gap.
The tree featured in that stupendous (I’m kidding) 1991 film, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Kevin Costner plays an accent challenged Robin passing Sycamore Gap on his way from Dover to Nottingham. Accomplished robber of the rich; laudable giver to the poor; truly lousy navigator.
Sycamore Gap is a grand swig-of-water-and-photo-snap-stop but I did worry that no-one has thought to plant a replacement for when the sycamore dies … but then I worry too much.
Besides, I read that archaeologists are itching to scrabble amongst the roots when the tree finally topples.
The next stretch is pretty iconic too: the sinuous curves of ‘Clayton Wall’ leading to Rapishaw Gap. That so much of the Wall still stands is largely down to one man: John Clayton. His father, a local landowner, flattened the Roman fort at Chesters because – he thought – it spoilt the pretty parkland around his house. Thankfully, his son proved more enlightened. In 1834 he began buying up land along the Wall to prevent its casual destruction by short-sighted gentry … and locals helping themselves to free stone. Good man.
He also rebuilt those sections – with their distinctive turf top – that bear his name.
At Rapishaw Gap, and after 11 miles together, I bid farewell to the Pennine Way which shot off northwards towards Kirk Yetholm. I’ve walked three stretches of the venerable PW – where it has coincided with other paths – but have still to confront the 270-mile beast head on. One day I shall walk the Pennine Way. But not today.
After about four miles I saw people! I was approaching Housesteads Fort and a few visitors impinged on my solitude by walking along the fortification for a few hundred yards. I didn’t mind too much and even said hello.
With, of course, another preliminary drop and climb, I drew nearer.
But first, there’s another famous feature – Milecastle 37’s partially arched north gate. The Wall wasn’t a fixed line to be defended against attackers; troops didn’t man it waiting for the enemy to come within javelin range. Rather they marched out through gates in the forts or the milecastles to do what the Roman army did best: engage in battle on open ground at close quarters.
I know a bit of arch isn’t terribly exciting but despite centuries of demolition, pilfering and neglect, this is the most complete Roman frontier in the world – and I for one found a few paltry arch stones quite impressive. Easily pleased, I guess.
Unlike the forts of Vindolanda or Chesters, Housesteads sits right on the path – no detour required. There’s an excellent museum with a very slick film showing the fort’s history.
And afterwards, I wandered around what was once home to 800 soldiers. (Though managed by English Heritage, National Trust members – like me – get in for free. And the friendly staff kindly looked after my rucksack whilst I explored).
I spent a happy, thoughtful hour at Housesteads before heading to the shop for gifts and postcards. I figured my rucksack wasn’t nearly heavy enough.
But I couldn’t tarry. With another ten miles before bed, I hitched my pack and set off on the last great section of Wall.
And it’s a grand one, up to another high point – Sewingshields Crags – with views back across Broomlee Lough
and beyond to the Whin Sill I’d been climbing and descending, climbing and descending, climbing and descending, climbing and descending, climbing and descending (that’s enough – Ed) for two superb days.
My earlier smug satisfaction at the lack of rain on my walk was premature. As I left the high ground and crossed flatter country, the forecast proved partly right and I was caught in a sudden, fierce downpour. I thought it might be just a light shower – ha! -and didn’t pause to pull on waterproof leggings. I got that wrong: within moments my trousers were thoroughly soaked.
But as recompense, as I squelched on, a succession of pretty rainbows led me eastwards.
So that was jolly.
And if the melodramatic sections of Wall were now behind me, I still had bits of the north ditch accompanying me
to the regular song of yellowhammers.
The afternoon was long, sometimes muddy,
until, at long last, I stumbled out onto the road into Chollerford – where I’d failed to find a suitable B&B. As usual, I had a further mile’s walk to reach my stop for the night.
I crossed the River North Tyne and leaning on the parapet, paused for a moment. I had thoroughly enjoyed my three days along the Wall. And if I had cheated by not walking all 85 miles of the National Trail, I had certainly seen the grandest, most majestic section. Will I return to walk all of Hadrian’s Wall Path? I don’t think so. I’ve seen that marvellous, romantic Whin Sill section … and I’ll very happily see most of it again if/when I tackle the Pennine Way.
I reached my bed at ‘The Hadrian Hotel’ in the village of Wall, about 5pm. I have raved about the best B&B’s on my trip and barely mentioned the others. Well, The Hadrian falls into the latter category: others. It was OK. No less, no more: an OK room, OK bar food and almost OK breakfast.
As I sat in the bar, scribbling in my journal, it felt like an end to the Hadrian’s Wall Path but I wasn’t quite finished with it yet. Tomorrow I would follow the HWP for a few miles more, to the church at Heavenfield and the official start of the St Oswald’s Way. The last of my three long-distance footpaths would then continue along the Roman frontier for another few miles more, before leaving the Bulwark behind and striking off northwards on the last 100 miles of my walk from Ulverston to Berwick.