Newcastle to Bowness-on-Solway. England.
In the north of England there is a great wall made of solid stone 5 meters high, 3 meters wide and 75 miles long with watch towers every mile stretching across the rugged English landscape. It’s purpose? To prevent the Wild-men from coming south and ruining everything. Only it’s not the year 128, it’s 2019 and although Hadrian’s wall is the largest remaining Roman structure anywhere (which I find hard to believe) it still begins with a shopping trolly, passes through endless fields of angry sheep, ends with a wooden shed, has largely been dismantled to build sheep pens and as a result has failed to stop the likes of Salmond and Sturgeon marching south. But don’t let that deter you for there is still plenty to offer. For me personally, that would be the challenge of walking the length of the Hadrian’s Wall path, all 85 miles in four days. Having for once in my life trained for a physical undertaking my brother in law and I departed Newcastle in high spirits but then the North always has a way of crushing my soul.
Newcastle is in fact a lovely city as far as cities go but for me it came as no surprise to turn up at the start of the walk to be greeted by a little museum with a piece of wall outside marking the start and flanked by an abandoned wheelchair and shopping trolly. The path got no better as we battled through broken glass, burnt out bicycles (not sure how they catch fire!) and dog poo that had been picked up, put in a bag and thrown to one side with all the other litter. Walking through industrial Newcastle we quickly began to follow the river which had signs warning us that the banks were contaminated with chemicals from ye ode local tar factory. We then passed an information board proudly commemorating the same toxic tar factory. Passing through the centre of Newcastle was a vast improvement with clean tidy streets and impressive landmarks new and old. Ten miles into the walk as we began to leave the city behind and head into open country I began to feel a warm sensation on the bottom of my left foot and shortly after the same on my right foot. Another ten miles on after passing a 100 meter section of Roman wall (the only bit of the day) I was about to break down and burst into tears as I staggered over a stone path desperately trying to get to the end of the day. The boots I was wearing had easily climbed the equivalent height of Mt Everest during their short lifetime with not a blister to note but then a 21 mile walk on largely flat and mostly pavement had completely destroyed the soles of my feet. I only had two blisters but they covered the whole weight bearing area of my sole on each foot and they were oozing fluid which left a slug like trail around the apartment that evening.
The following morning I strapped on a different pair of boots and limped into action. The pain had subdued overnight and I managed to get into the rhythm of things for a large part of the day. The walk itself turned out to be quite spectacular with large stretches of Hadrian’s wall flowing over the countryside, through fields of sheep, large open moorland and finally along the top of quite a spectacular ridge line. It would appear that the hillier the terrain got the more wall remained, most likely as my brother in law pointed out, because it required a lot more effort to steal it. Today saw another 22 miles to complete and as we reached the final hour the rain clouds opened up and showed no mercy. The ruins of a fantastic old Roman garrison could not hold my attention as my feet began to throb and I cursed the rain while searching the horizon for our accommodation which took an age to appear. I’ve been told by a nurse (a story for another day!) that I have a high pain threshold and I like to think there is some truth behind that although I was truly being tested to the limit now. Falling into the pub and grabbing a beer I was horrified to learn that actually we weren’t staying at the pub but at a little B&B a few hundred meters up the road. A few hundred meters was too far, especially considering we had to walk there to check in and get dry, walk back to the pub for a feed and then back to the B&B to sleep.
The following morning started well all things considering. I could walk in considerably less pain, our host had kindly dried out my shoes and we were greeted by an adorable wee dog called Branston who had patiently waited outside our room to escort us to breakfast. To top it off the weather had cleared and we only had to smash out 17 miles which would begin hilly but level out towards the end. The morning went by remarkably well whilst we were moving. If I stopped, getting going again was an issue. On what was becoming very rare occasion we happened upon a tea room around 11.30am and took it on ourselves to have feed, a cup of tea and a can of coke. In what I would consider relatively normal Northern hospitality, I wasn’t allowed time to clear space on our small table to fit my plate and so my lunch was essentially placed in my lap as the waitress hurried off to give the local regulars a first class service instead. Probably explains the lack of such establishments along the route. As the final miles came into view the now usual excruciating pain returned and I limped into our final village for the night ready for a cold beer but alas there was no pub but ironically there was a tea room. Warmed up on tea after another damp afternoon we arrived at a B&B on a dairy farm which I can’t tell you anything about because our host didn’t appear to like having guests. A delightful taxi driver restored my faith in mankind as he took us to the local tavern and then returned us so I could lie in bed and seriously consider quitting the final day. Carlisle was a mere ten miles away and I had an open return train ticket home, a quick taxi ride in the morning and it would be all over. After all this was supposed to be for fun, as much as the challenge.
I was broken when I awoke the next morning yet I felt like I could get through the final 24 miles, I’m too stubborn not to at least try. A big storm was meant to sweep across the country overnight and it looked like the last day would be a washout but luckily it started off rather beautiful. Limping out of the B&B our host waved us off at the happiest she had been since our arrival and I slowly eased into a pace I could tolerate. This amused me. I walk at a fast pace, head down and go but this was the first time I had ever walked slowly. The human body and mind is incredible and in this instant it had decided I was going to walk at one pace and one pace only. I would feel no desire to try and bash out a few quick miles and I would feel no need to go any slower which in any case was almost impossible. Walking through long flat fields full of little fury sheep and their lambs we couldn’t have asked for better terrain on the final day and we swung into Carlisle around midday as hoped. We hadn’t seen Hadrian’s wall all morning and that would remain the case and nor would we see anywhere to eat. The path skirts along the edge of Carlisle following the river and before we knew it we had walked straight out the other end and on our way to our final destination. Hitting halfway gave me a little emotional boost but that was supported by the prospect of food. Village after village passed before we finally came across a pub. Predictably they only served food between 12 and 2pm. It was 2.50pm when we arrived, ordered cokes, crisps and a chocolate bar and took a twenty minute break. Just as we sat down the pubs chef or waitress walked out with a plate of sandwiches and chips, sat down right in front of us and proceeded to chomp away. Any emotional boost remaining was almost turned to anger. This pub was the only place to eat along the entire 24 miles of path. I had been expecting the route to be littered with pubs and cafes but there are barely any for the entire route once Newcastle has passed by. I thought we were being lazy by not veering off the path to explore but our final host confirmed that we experienced was in fact the case.
Six miles remained upon leaving the pub. The heavens opened with our luck running out and we slowly but surely made our way through the wind, cold, rain and what felt like the longest, flattest, straightest bit of road in the UK. I won’t lie, the final two miles was absolute hell and when we had arrived at the final village I was distraught to discover we were still a mile away from the actual final village. I can tell you now there have been no sober moments in my life up until this point where I have wanted to wee, poo, throw up and ooze goo from the soles of my feet all at the same time. This is not an exaggeration. On entering the sleepy village of Bowness-on-Solway we had a quick photo at the finish which wasn’t a wall but a garden shed and hastily made our way to the B&B where we were greeted by the most wonderful woman who took our wet waterproofs, sat us in front of a lit log burner and fed us the most amazing caramel flapjacks I have eaten, washed down with wonderfully hot tea. Walking 84 miles in four days across Northern England is doable and rather stunning in places. Having the right shoes helps yes, but then I thought I had them to begin with. If I’ve learnt anything from the experience, that would be to book a beach holiday next time which it just so happens I have!