I wanted to mark my 70th birthday with some achievement. Nothing extreme, mind you, just something out of the ordinary, enough to push my normal limits. I needed proof that my personal spirit of adventure had not deserted me. A 5-month sojourn in the north of England and Scotland, indulging my passion for British history, was already in the works, and sometime during the planning, the idea of walking Hadrian's Way National Trail slipped into mind. Following Roman ruins would fit nicely into my historic theme, and a coast-to-coast walk between Wallsend and Bowness on Solway might be a fitting adventure.
Walk 84 miles (135 kilometers) – solo. Could I do it? I am a regular walker, maybe 3 to 5 miles tops on an afternoon and not too hilly either. The guidebooks and websites I consulted stated that Hadrian's Wall Path is not really a hike, more like an "exhausting walk" laid out in approximately 15-mile (24-km) daily segments. ...Fifteen miles a day – hmmmm, not sure about that... I read that the only real danger was in the unpredictable mists that might blow in and shroud the sheer drop-offs of the Whin Sill escarpment. That was alarming.
Don't be silly. You're too old. You'll get lost in mist and walk off a cliff. You'll get hurt and lie there by yourself and die. Even if you don't die, you know you don't like walking uphill.
Being of two minds, my more willing side thought about the New York man I met while traveling in Mexico who, at age 75, was about to hike solo in the Sierra Madre. I recalled reading of solo hikers in Patagonia, Alaska, and lots of places in Europe, even the famous Camino de Santiago. I thought, what is 84 miles compared to that 500-mile trek? My father climbed mountains in Switzerland back in the 1920s. My children, with family and friends, regularly go on strenuous hiking holidays. How could I be so timid? I knew that thousands of people walk the many trails of Britain each year. I knew I had only to put my mind to it and I could walk 84 miles. I studied my options.
>> Prearranged tours: obviously the safest and most hassle-free way. Numerous 3 to 11-day tours are available, walking part or all of Hadrian's Way, either with a group or self-guided. Services may include accommodation booking, meet and greet, baggage transport between stops, one to three meals a day, and information kits. Costs averaged around £100-150 per day for a complete, guided package, including single supplement charges. My budget: C$100 per day (£62) over the 5-month duration of my stay in the UK. A prearranged tour would strain the budget but could be doable for a short period if I managed to reduce expenses and recoup funds elsewhere.
>> Do-it-myself solo arrangements: certainly a lot more work handling reservations and finding my own way point to point, but I could control finances better by choosing accommodation within my budget.
I was already in England three weeks humming and hawing over these decisions before making my way to Newcastle Upon Tyne, the nearest city to the eastern start of Hadrian's Wall Path. There, I interspersed sightseeing with studying transportation and lodging options for walking the trail. One day, I stepped off the Metro at Wallsend and followed a sign to Segedunum, a museum situated right at the start of the path.
Archaeological excavations at Wallsend have uncovered outlines of Segedunum Roman Fort, and exhibits explain that this was home to some 600 soldiers stationed here to guard the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire. A viewing tower gives you a panoramic overview of the past 2,000 years. Below, you see the site's beginning as a Roman outpost and subsequent evolution to coal mining center. To the left you see the River Tyne flowing through what is left of 20th century shipbuilding enterprises, and the modern city of Newcastle sprawling away in all directions. Immersing myself in this history set my mind astir. I was ready to get going and be in touch with Roman Britain and the extraordinary people whose ingenuity and strength of character built Hadrian's Wall 2,000 years ago.
The Romans did all the hard work; all I had to do was walk their way. Yes! I would walk Hadrian's Wall Path.
...Well, maybe. At least I can start out and see how I get on, depending on the weather. After all, northern England weather is notoriously changeable.
The following morning rose clear and balmy. Dressed in layers for sun and/or rain, a waist-pack stuffed with snacks, water bottle, tissue, a Samsung Galaxy smart-phone, money enough for incidentals, and a credit card for backup, I left my B&B in Newcastle and rode the Metro back to Wallsend. From my multi-pocketed hiking pants, I withdrew my copy of Anthony Burton's book, Hadrian's Wall Path: the Official National Trail Guide and set off westward following the path alongside the River Tyne. I felt the exhilaration of having got the better of my weaknesses.
Within the first mile, having lost sight of the river in a wooded copse and having seen no walking signs for quite a while, only cycling signs, I convinced myself that I had already wandered off-trail somehow. If this is how it's going to go, said the whiner...but no, shortly the river came back into view, and I walked on for five miles, arriving at Newcastle Quayside just as darkening skies threatened rain. A good start for a novice, I thought, pleased with myself – pleased enough to have formulated a plan.
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The long and short of it is, I did walk the full 84 miles. Not according to the 6 or 7-day average but in 12 walking days during a 4-week June/July period. I went from 5-mile walks to 6, 9, 11, and finally 12 miles, not counting getting to and from bus stop, trail, and home base. I did it all on my own, planning, traveling, and walking.
>> Being solo, I could go or stop as I pleased, and I could whine and complain if and when the mood struck without being a pain-in-the-neck to anyone else.
>> Without companionable chatter to draw my attention, I could allow myself the pleasure of self-centered contemplation or imaginative dreaming inspired by the running commentary of my guidebook and the aura emanating from the land itself. Every inch of the terrain covered is permeated with drama.
Coming across a turret-shaped stone heap might bring to mind the thoughts and feelings of a Roman auxiliary soldier standing vigil. He and his cohorts might be thousands of miles from their homelands in far-flung regions of the Roman empire, but here they were, in this remote, cold, lonely tower, on watch for any approach of the ferocious, ungovernable tribes that inhabited the wild country to the north. Even the subdued Brigantes to the south sometimes rose in rebellion.
When the Roman armies abandoned Hadrian's Way in the 5th century, they no doubt left behind their genes intermixed with those of local Britons whose descendants carried on to fight and gradually coexist with future bold invaders. Celtic, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Scandinavian, and Norman forces, all had a part in countless age-old events that shaped the nature and character of the people who inhabited the border regions between England and Scotland.
Kings, with their vassal lords and associated ecclesiastics, struggled incessantly over national pride, feudal supremacy, and/or religious ideals, saturating this countryside with blood and bone for well into the 1700s. Neither baron nor peasant escaped "fire and sword" endorsement of a grab-and-run policy that evolved into a cross-border "reiver" (raider) culture of survival. Livestock rustling became habitual even in relatively peaceful times, leading to blood feuds between clannish families followed by decades of revenge killing and burning. Those days are gone but not forgotten, and they may easily be evoked with a little imagination as you traverse some wooded glen where a raiding party might once have lurked in ambush – but only, of course, if you are of a mind to entertain such thoughts.
In reality, all is serenity these days. The only souls a solitary walker is likely to meet besides cattle and sheep grazing peacefully in their pastures, are other walkers now and then, usually in pairs, or small groups, and even the occasional single. You share a greeting in passing, or stop to chat a bit, take one another's pictures, and maybe verify that you haven't strayed onto another trail. In fact, I was amazed that every time I needed reassurance someone appeared out of the blue to set me straight. Except once.
On day nine, mind gremlins started taking control when I misunderstood available bus options. Come late afternoon, I persuaded myself (wrongly) that I must take an off-path trail and walk three miles south to Corbridge to catch the last direct bus to my home base at Greenhead, the idyllic Northumberland village I had selected for completing the most difficult central portion of the trail. The guidebook gave instructions for this diversionary course, but somewhere en route I took a wrong turn and went slip-sliding down and then up a steep, mud-slimed gulch. Upon emerging into an enclosed field with no path in sight as far as the eye could see, I got a horrible feeling I had just escaped from some nasty malevolent haunt.
Creeped out and wanting to avoid retracing my steps through that scary place, I elected, instead, to trespass overland toward a distant farmhouse where I hoped I could get directions. I'd have thought twice about that move had I known that in getting there I would trip over a rabbit hole, draw blood climbing barb-wire fencing, and tumble off loose stonework into a patch of greenery that turned out to be stinging nettle.
Scraped, scratched, and stinging, I made it to the house. It, too, gave me a creepy feeling, but nevertheless, I tried and failed to raise any response. I did then feel very much alone in a hostile wilderness.
I had a new GPS-map-capable smart-phone but thus far hadn't been smart enough to make any use of it, and, in the event, anxiety blocked any thought of trying it. At least I had wits enough to realize that two cars parked by a shed must mean a road somewhere nearby, and then I saw a lane. I followed it and did soon reach a main road; I turned right by instinct, and shortly thereafter a sign appeared pointing to Corbridge.
Still, I hadn't yet any idea how to find the bus station. With only 25 minutes before bus departure, I found myself in a posh neighborhood knocking at the door of the first house that gave out a friendly feeling. Thankfully, I'd picked the home of a soft-hearted woman who didn't mind opening her door to a bedraggled, mud-spattered figure wearing a rather mangled yellow plastic rain slicker. This angel in disguise invited me into her home, listened to my sorry story and without further delay drove me to the bus stop. I had just time enough to slip into the Angel Inn pub and use the loo.
I'll always remember thankfully that lovely lady whose name I didn't even think to ask. Likewise will I remember the kindness of Alan Clark, my B&B host who, the next day, drove me to the spot where I had turned off, thus saving me a lengthy uphill backtrack. And I'm quite certain I've learned the hard way to recognize and avoid stinging nettle – the effects of meeting that stuff with bare legs kept me awake most of the night.
In retrospect, I see that my innate fears were realized. Regardless of planning, I did get rain-drenched a few times. I did get lost. And I did get injured, if only slightly – I suppose it might have been worse. In fact, help was always close by, and the only real danger was in my mind. As adventures go, I know that walking Hadrian's Wall solo was rather tame by many standards, but by my standards it was adventurous enough. I did walk every mile from coast to coast uphill and down, to and from the high point at 345 meters (1,132 feet), so I am pleased with myself for pushing a little beyond my usual comfort zone. Walking Hadrian's Wall Path was a very good start to my 71st year on earth. Will there be a next challenge? Can't say; as yet I'm of two minds about that.
Information: guidebooks, maps, and links to accommodation, tour, and baggage services are available at the UK National Trails website.
From Cathy Bennett: I totally enjoyed reading this article. I am a 60-year-old Canadian, recently retired, and hoping one day to visit the areas in Britain where my ancestors once lived. A walk along the wall has entered my mind, but I was unsure if I could to it. Your article has given me more motivation to explore this possibility. Having ancestors from both Northumberland and Cumbria, I think it would be the trip of a lifetime if I could "walk their paths," so many generations later. I think it would evoke many of the same feelings as Ms Redfern describes. Thanks so much for your heartfelt description of your journey.