A couple of weeks ago, I trod the Hadrian’s Wall Path in northern England from the east coast to the west coast. All 135km (84 miles) of it, walked in six days, passing through two cities, Newcastle and Carlisle, and following sections of ancient wall that had been built some 2,000 years ago to keep the marauding northerners out. It’s a walk I’ve wanted to do since I first arrived in the UK 15 years ago so to finally get round to doing it was pretty incredible.
Here are 10 things I learnt:
- The first and last day of the walk are not the most inspiring – there is a lot of flat, monotonous pavement pounding and virtually no wall. In Newcastle you also get the added bonus of graffiti, dog poo and dumped rubbish. If you like that sort of thing then this part of the walk is for you but I have learnt I am not a huge fan. That said, Emperor Hadrian would be well impressed with the quality of infrastructure along these sections.
2. The old wall is really quite something to behold – I mean really you could just argue that it’s a stone wall. But it’s 2,000 years old and in really good nick! This really is five-star quality construction that stands the test of time.
3. The best part of the walk is the middle two days – From the turn off after Chollerford, the word to use is spectacular. This is where history buffs will drool. Great long stretches of intact and well-preserved wall, as well as the ruins from forts, mile castles and towers. Then there was the scenery – barren, flat wilderness to the north with that big, remote feeling, and to the south, gently rolling hills and a road in the far-off distance.
For the most part the wall trundled up and down along the ridgeline so the legs and lungs got a good work out. There was one part where there was a dramatic sheer cliff and a long drop below. It’s easy to see why Hadrian built the wall here.
And for film buffs, this part of the trail passes the famous Sycamore tree that features in the film Robin Hood Prince of Thieves. It’s really quite cool.
4. The walk has something for everyone – it’s an incredibly varied trail from road walking to rolling countryside. There’s the River Tyne, that you follow through Newcastle, which becomes increasingly delightful as you leave the industry behind, and then the River Eden through Carlisle and followed all the way to Bowness-on-Solway. There are woodlands, fields of new-born lambs and wildflowers (springtime obviously), a pine plantation, rolling hills, vast plains, ups and downs, that tree from Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, farms dotted in valleys, quiet villages, big cities, salt marsh, cow pats and agricultural pong. Oh yeah, and a really really old wall. And did I mention that tree from Robin Hood Prince of Thieves?
5. Having walked the length of New Zealand does not mean walking Hadrian’s Wall will be easy – New Zealand was challenging while Hadrian’s Wall is described as one of Britain’s easiest national trails. That does not mean it will be easy. And easy it was not. The flat bits are nice because they are flat but a mixture of Covid slovenliness and lack of fitness, a 13kg backpack, a very strong headwind and shoes that were intent on destroying my feet meant Hadrian’s Wall was not the walk in the park I expected it would be. Hard is relative – what’s hard for one person may not be hard for another – but while Hadrian’s Wall was no Raetea Forest it was a challenge all the same.
6. Sore feet can kill a walk – I don’t know what was up with my shoes but they decided to make my feet and the walk a misery. The pain can only be described as excruciating – and it wasn’t even blisters. I was popping painkillers and I couldn’t even stop and stand still because I was in so much agony. Needless to say there were tears and I was well and truly pissed off. I spent so much time trying to walk through the pain that I didn’t enjoy the walk as much as I should have and I feel gutted for that. Lesson learnt – I won’t be wearing these shoes on any future long-distance walks.
7. A leaking tent can be a real dampener – It’s usually a good idea to take a tent that doesn’t leak but sometimes you don’t know that it leaks until it rains. We learnt the hard way. It only rained for a few hours but it was pretty hard – and the drips were right on my forehead. I ended up sleeping underneath my raincoat. The next morning the underside of my sleeping mat was pretty sodden, as was part of my sleeping bag. Lesson learnt – we won’t be using this tent again unless no rain is 100% guaranteed.
8. Entrepreneurial opportunities abound – Hadrian’s Wall Path is a relatively new trail, only officially opening in 2003. It’s generally well set up for B&B slackpacking but it’s more challenging for campers, and while there are several quaint little villages to walk through, pubs, eating establishments and shops are harder to come by than I expected. We were lucky to have dinner one night, only just getting to a tea shop before they closed and then learning they were the only place in the village that sold food – the options for dinner were either two-minute noodles, canned soup or chocolate bars. We went with soup.
As we headed through the county of Cumbria, there were a couple of pop-up snack shops purely for the benefit of walkers. No attendant, just a wide array of snack foods, a kettle and an honesty box. Absolute genius. There was also at least one campsite set up for walkers. The one we stayed at was basic, just a compost toilet and no shower but that’s all you need. This ingenuity reminded me of the Te Araroa Trail and the host of trail angels that provided these sorts of services for walkers. Not only is it a lovely thing to do but also a great little money earner. The scope to provide more of these along Hadrian’s Wall Path and to cater for walkers, particularly campers, is huge.
9. Cheese lasts about five days tops – The downside of walking life is the bland and dry diet due to the logistics of carrying everything. My go-to for lunch is cheddar cheese in wraps. It’s not particularly exciting and becomes unpalatable after about day two but it does the job. We went with pre-grated cheese in the zip-lock bag so we didn’t have to fuss with cutting chunks of cheese off a block. I can attest that cheese in this form lasts five days tops. On the fifth day it looks dodgy and unappealing and has a very interesting tang.
10. Don’t listen to landlord about bus times – We got into Bowness-on-Solway, the finish, in plenty of time before needing to catch the bus back to Carlisle and, of course, once a long-distance walk is finished it’s mandatory to celebrate with an alcoholic drink, of which we did – in the bistro because the pub was closed. I had checked the bus timetable at the bus stop on arrival. The last bus, it said, was 5:15pm. But you never know with these small villages whether this information is accurate so I thought I’d check with the landlord. He said the bus left at 5:30pm. Hmmm, that’s interesting. We decided we would leave early to see if a bus did indeed arrive at quarter past five and low and behold it did. It never returned to the village at 5:30pm. Was the landlord trying to scam us, knowing that if we missed the last bus and got stranded there we would have to stay at his (probably very pricey) accommodation? Who knows but it’s a good lesson to keep in mind.
Recommended food stops – because eating what you like on a long-distance walk is one of the perks:
Liosi’s Sicilian café bar – west of Newcastle city http://liosiscafe.com/
The Ship Inn – Wylam https://www.theshipinnwylam.co.uk/
Dingle Dell – Heddon-on-the-Wall https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Restaurant_Review-g1653233-d4363221-Reviews-Dingle_Dell-Heddon_on_the_Wall_Northumberland_England.html
The Riverside Kitchen – Chollerford https://www.theriversidekitchen.co.uk/