Challenge, history and dramatic landscapes abound on a 48-hour mission to walk the highlights of Hadrian’s Wall. Words: Jonathan Manning, Pictures: Visit Britain, Jonathan Manning, Nick Teesdale
“Hang on a moment, lads,” says the kindly driver of the wittily numbered AD122 bus as we arrive in Hexham. “I can drop you closer to your car. Looks like you’ve walked a long way.”
Depending how you measure these things, we’ve walked for a weekend, for 30 miles or through 900 years of history. The driver is right about one thing though, it does feel like a very long way, and staying on the bus to reach a stop that’s a couple of hundred yards closer to our car feels like a luxury.
We had parked there yesterday morning before catching a westward-bound train to Brampton, from where we backpacked our way eastwards along Hadrian’s Wall to Chollerford. It feels a bit like cheating to have caught the bus back to our car, but after two punishing days on our feet we clamber eagerly onto the cheery, yellow bus, numbered in tribute to the year in which Emperor Hadrian had ordered the construction of a wall to control the northern frontier of the mighty Roman empire.
The entire course of Hadrian’s Wall Path stretches 84 miles from Bowness-on-Solway
in Cumbria to Wallsend in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
As a masonry structure, however, visible remnants of Hadrian’s Wall are restricted to a line between Walton in Cumbria, and Chollerford. To the east and west of these bookends, the route continues to their respective coasts. While this may be disappointing for an archaeologist, from a backpacking perspective it’s fabulous.
In a single weekend it’s possible to hike alongside all of the principal highlights of the Wall, through the most dramatic landscape, with a perfectly placed mid-way camp below Winshield Crags, the highest point on the whole national trail. And so it is that my friend Nick and I find ourselves beetling cross-country on the train to Brampton, trying not to peer out of the window in order to maintain as much surprise as possible in the landscape we’re about to cross.
Full of anticipation, I’m tempted to extend our tickets to Carlisle and walk more of the course of the Wall – in the back of my mind there’s a nagging doubt that we’re about to experience the equivalent of Match of the Day highlights of Hadrian’s Wall, rather than appreciate the whole thing, but our time is tight, our packs are heavy, and after a four-hour drive to Hexham we just want to start walking.
Slinging our packs over our shoulders at Brampton Station, a steady three-mile climb
to the Wall gives us the chance to fine-tune the straps and waist belts on our rucksacks before we reach the trail.
On the way we pass beautiful Lanercost Priory, constructed with stones pilfered from the Wall, and as the walk progresses building after building and barn after barn seem to harbour guilty secrets that their walls were originally part of a structure created by the Roman Empire.
The first stones we come across lying as Hadrian intended are more than a mile down the national trail at Hare Hill, including one stone etched with the three-letter inscription SPP, the calling card of the centurion who
laid it. Sadly, it turns out that this is actually a 19th century reconstruction of the wall, using stones garnered from elsewhere.
To the untrained eye (i.e. ours), there’s little to suggest Roman influence in these early miles as we stride along a whisper-quiet road, through the whitewashed village of Banks and on towards Birdoswald. Even when I later investigate the route on Google Earth, there’s no obvious sign of the Wall and its accompanying earthworks, although it’s quite possible that a road now runs directly above the course of the original fortification.
This raises one of the great fascinations that Hadrian’s Wall holds for me – the moment when it stopped being a quarry of ready-cut stone for local construction projects and became a revered historic monument.
Although an exact answer is hard to establish, it was in 1830s that John Clayton, a Newcastle lawyer and town clerk, started buying the land on which the Wall stood in order to protect the monument. The best surviving stretches are a tribute to his foresight.
Truth be told though, neither Nick nor I are here as fans of Time Team. This weekend is a golden chance for two days backpacking through a rugged landscape, with the Wall a handrail to guide us through moor and rough uplands.
The only time we glimpse at a map is to calculate how far we have left to walk, rather than for navigation purposes. Freed from the complications of having to find our way, we can keep our eyes on the horizon and the Jekyll and Hyde landscapes split by Hadrian’s men.
To the north lies coarse ground, rough grazing on boggy soil with few features and a barren emptiness. When the clouds descend, as they do frequently, it all looks wild and forbidding; the ladder stiles over the Wall acting as gateways into a less welcoming world.
To the south the fields seem altogether more orderly; drystone walls separating hay crops from pastures where sheep and cattle graze. Sandwiched between these two landscapes, the rocky cliffs of Win Sill crest and tumble their way eastwards, a formidable natural barrier capped by the man-made wall. We meet the first substantial section of Wall at Birdoswald, where it’s lumbering presence and serious girth underline its unyielding nature.
But it’s not until we’re east of Greenhead that we encounter the Wall of popular imagination, and up close and personal its size, scale and ambition are utterly breathtaking. Now I’m a fan of the checks and balances of community influence in planning decisions, but even so it’s impossible not to admire the vision and determination of an occupying force to build a wall coast-to-coast that reached close to 20 feet high and 10 feet wide, further defended by a 20 feet deep ditch on the Scottish side.
Historians calculate that it took 25 million stones, each measuring 20” x 10” x 6”, and just six years to build. In contrast, it took the better part of a decade to secure planning approval for the Hadrian’s Wall Path, given the Wall’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As a feat of engineering it’s a magnificent structure, especially in a landscape that’s exposed, frequently wet and windy, and where the contours make progress tough going in hiking boots, let alone sandals. Beads of sweat sting my eyes on the sharp uphills, and my legs start to resent slopes as steep as staircases. It feels like slow-paced interval training, with no chance to find a rhythm or rest properly.
I’ve packed as lightly as possible but still find myself wondering what I can jettison to lighten my load. Only the views offer a reprieve; the stunning snake of a wall slithers through this uncompromising countryside, punctuated by the foundations of milecastle turrets and the occasional fort. Squalls and sunshine demand frequent stops to pull waterproofs on or off until the sheer heat generated by the restless climbs leaves both of us in baselayers.
Under the jackets we’re getting soaked from the inside, so we might as well enjoy the cooling effect of the rain. Ahead, the edges of the Whin Sill ridge roll away like waves, each seemingly higher than the last. So it’s with some relief that our campsite calls us from the trail just before the highest point of the entire Wall. As we amble downhill to Winshields, my feet catch on tall tussocks and the occasional stone, a sure sign of fatigue.
With black clouds brewing we erect our tents in double-quick time and stow kit under their shelter. Dinner for me is a pouch of dehydrated chicken and rice, but it fails to rehydrate properly, leaving me to crunch through the calories. Nick, meanwhile, improvises a powdery pasta dish embellished with whatever he could raid from the fridge this morning – cold cocktail sausages and a cheese string.
A small bottle of Tabasco comes to the rescue! When Christopher McCandless left civilisation behind and trekked into the heart of Alaska, he did so with genuine pioneering spirit, although he survived fewer than 100 days. His journey is captured in the book and film Into the Wild.
Nick and I prefer the prospect of “Into the Dry”, leaving behind the dampness and midges of our campsite for the comfort of the Twice Brewed pub just down the road. When in Rome…
Camp broken and coffee brewed, it’s walk-weary legs that plod back up the steeply-stacked contour lines to reach Hadrian’s Wall and a trig point 345m above sea level. The low cloud obscures a distant view, leaving the fortification to reach away infinitely into the gloom. When I spook two grouse into flight from under my feet, it’s hard to know who is more startled, the birds or me.
This is a section of Wall to savour, and after a tough 16 miles yesterday Nick and I are in no mood to rush. As we reach each hilltop we stop to take in the view – dark and brooding moorland to the north, friendlier farmland to the south and just in the lee of the Wall three shimmering, pewter-coloured lakes, Crag Lough, Broomlee Lough and Greenlee Lough.
In places, Hadrian’s Wall is protected by cliff and deep, natural moat, a truly impregnable barrier. There are holes, however, not least of which is Sycamore Gap, so-called because there’s, err, a giant, solitary oak tree growing in its midst.
A sycamore sapling has at least been planted, although this eye-catching dip between two steep slopes is still better known as the Robin Hood Gap, in reference to its role in the Kevin Costner film. In true Hollywood disregard for history and geography, the Nottingham outlaw, who picked up a Californian accent in the Crusades, was filmed walking along the Wall two minutes after arriving back at Dover.
One part of the story does at least ring true – there’s a brief section of wall just to the west of the magnificently preserved and restored Housesteads Fort where walking on the wall is allowed. It’s broad, flat and grass covered, and there’s no escaping the sense of walking with history below my feet. “Had enough of the climbs yet?” asks Nick as we traipse up another slope to Sewingshields Crag for one more spectacular view. The walk has proved harder than I anticipated, for which I blame the weight of my pack, but it’s stirring to see so many fellow walkers heading the other way.
Most are from overseas, Dutch, Germans, Japanese and Americans, all smitten by the Wall and the landscape. They’re counting up the milecastles, while we’re counting them down. There’s a a sense of the final credits rolling across the screen as the path approaches the Military Road (B6318) – General Wade’s east-west military supply line built on foundations plundered from the Wall.
There are also feelings of diminishing returns as the landscape flattens, and traces of the Wall give way to ditch and stony outcrop. So as we clamber aboard the AD122 in Chollerford for the trip back to Hexham it feels like job done, mission accomplished.
Two full days of tough physical exercise in a dramatic landscape; a perfect weekend adventure.
Plan your trip
- There’s free parking at Wentworth Leisure Centre in Hexham.
- Northern Rail trains run from Hexham to Brampton about £4 one-way, northernrail.org
- Winshields Camp and Bunk Barn Site charges £9 per person to camp, winshields.co.uk
- The Twice Brewed Inn serves good ale, twicebrewedinn.co.uk
- Hadrian’s Wall Path by Henry Stedman, £11.99, trailblazer-guides.com, is a very useful guide book.
- Ordnance Survey Explorer OL43 Hadrian’s Wall covers the course of the walk.