“There it is!”
Chris points to what looks to me like the remains of a foundation. I had imagined something much larger, wide enough for four horses to ride abreast, like the Great Wall of China.
“Are you sure?”
I’ll admit we were a little underwhelmed, but what the wall lacked in width, we discovered, it more than made up for in length.
Begun in AD122 by… wait for it… the Roman Emperor Hadrian, it runs—or at least ran—from the banks of the River Tyne near the North Sea in the east to the Solway Firth on the Irish Sea in the west. We were attempting to walk the path from sea to sea, a distance of roughly 120 kms. In five days. This meant that at least two of the days, we had to walk 30 kms, even though I have never managed to walk more than about 25 kilometres without collapsing.
Though it was cold and raining lightly, the first day was easy. We walked along the River Tyne for a while then climbed up out of the river valley through the suburbs of Newcastle to Heddon on the Wall, where we discovered our first wall fragment. It was a short walk from there to our bed and breakfast in a farm house surrounded by grazing sheep, where we slept under the watchful gaze of the portrait of some 18th-century lady.
The next day’s walk was a little longer, through relatively flat countryside, but we started seeing more and more of the wall. The path wound through wooded areas and through rolling pastures of soft green grass. By dinner time we had reached the village of Wall, not to be confused with Heddon on the Wall, or East Wallhouses, or Wallsend, or… are you starting to see a theme here?
The third day was to be our first 30km day, and it started out well, but soon the terrain became much more challenging, the scenery more breathtaking. There were long, continuous stretches of wall now, some along the tops of cliffs. We shook our heads at the effort it must have taken to build it. We thought mortaring a small stackwood shed was a lot of work. Of course we didn’t have an army of legionaries at our disposal.
There were the remains of forts to explore, and milecastles which guarded gateways through the wall, even the remains of a Roman temple dedicated to the sun god, who had actually treated us pretty well so far. For a brief time, we were permitted to walk on top of the wall, which barely had room for a person at this point, never mind a horse. Or four.
Around four o’clock we reached the summit of a very steep hill—but not as steep as the next one.
“I’m done,” I told Chris. I called the innkeeper at our bed and breakfast and he kindly came and collected me. Bush Nook Guest House just outside of Gilsland was my favourite stop. The room was cosy, the breakfast amazing, and the innkeeper, Malcolm, was just so kind. He even drove us to the pub across the village for dinner that night, knowing that I was too weary to walk another step.
Day four and another 30kms to cover, most of it through farmland and open country. Soon the wall disappeared, much of it “repurposed” for one thing or another, and the only traces left were earthworks and the wall ditch, dug to discourage incursions from the northern wilds. Though the walking was easy enough, I only made it until mid-afternoon, when I called a taxi to take me into Carlisle. Chris soldiered on and reached the bed and breakfast just before dark.
The last leg of our journey was a short 25kms, through the outskirts of Carlisle along a river then through some pretty wet cow pastures. We were tired and muddy by the time we reached the village of Burgh by Sands and I convinced Chris to walk through the church yard in hopes of finding a bench.
We found much more than that. A woman appeared at the door of the church and invited us in. It was impossible to say no. We both eyed the upholstered bench just inside the door but decided it would be churlish to sit down without taking at least a cursory look around.
I’m very glad we did. The woman explained that stone from Hadrian’s Wall had been used to build the fortified church and showed us one of the reclaimed stones with Roman carvings on it in one of the defence towers.
“And this is an old gravestone,” she said, pointing to the lintel over the doorway to the steps that led to the bell tower.
“When raiders were spotted, the women and children and farm animals would crowd into the church and the men would climb the tower and defend them.”
She showed us a narrow hole in the thick wall with a clear sight—and arrow—line to the front door of the church.
Another woman appeared from nowhere with a tray and offered us two cups of hot tea and a plate of biscuits.
“Do you mind if we sit,” I asked?
“Of course not.”
We plumped gratefully down on the upholstered bench, our tired feet sprawled out in front of us, and enjoyed the best cup of tea I’ve ever had in my life. And a chocolate biscuit. Or maybe two.
We set off grudgingly with 10kms to go. The longest 10 kms I’ve ever walked. In fact, we had no choice but to stop in at a pub and fortify ourselves with a pint of beer. Around five o’clock we got our first glimpse of the Solway Firth. Not long after we saw our friends Mick and Jenny, who had come to pick us up, walking towards us.
We were foot weary but feeling very proud of ourselves for walking all (well in my case, most) of the way across England.
Map compliments of Matt Underwood at bookmytrail