Thursday 5 October 2017: Wallsend to Newburn, 12 miles
The morning train from London, and a quick shuffle on the Newcastle metro, had me at Wallsend for lunchtime. I had planned to start walking more or less straight away, but the very distinctive visitor centre beside the site of Segedunum Roman Fort, and the knowledge that I would be walking into a stiff westerly all afternoon, was cause enough to spend a bit of time in the café before setting off.
The former wharves of the suburb of Walker prevent access to the River Tyne, which here takes a loop to the south, but the old rail line that served them gives an easy start to the trail. The riverbank is reached in a couple of miles, where the loop starts to turn west, and a grand vista it is. Rather surprisingly, the opposite bank is wooded, and perhaps even more surprisingly, it hosts some extant industry too.
The riverside park at Walker
This first riverside stretch is brief though, only around a mile to St Peter’s marina, before a stretch on some rather derelict roads to the bridge at St Lawrence.
It’s not far now to one of Britain’s most distinctive river-fronts, a rival to the Thames and the Mersey and perhaps an eye-opener to those who don’t think city walking holds any interest. On the opposite bank, in Gateshead, are the cultural centres of the Sage concert hall and the Baltic art gallery, connected to the main city by the pedestrian-only Millennium bridge, better known as the ‘blinking eye’.
St Peter’s Marina
The Millennium bridge, with the Baltic art gallery behind
This is one of only two bridges at river level; the two principal road bridges, and all three rail bridges, soar high above you. The other is the Swing Bridge, Victorian engineering at its finest, and still moved by hydraulic power today. But if the bridges lead the eye across the river, to easy hand on the right are numerous bars and coffee shops, temptation all the way. This excitement doesn’t last long – the river-front in Newcastle is quite compact. After the prosaic King Edward road bridge, there’s a long stretch by modern offices that really can’t excite the heart. Unless perhaps you read the interpretative signs, for once this was Newcastle’s ship-building core, of which no other clue remains.
Eventually the Path has to leave the Tyne, climbing up first to a dual carriageway and then to a wooded area to join, briefly, another old rail line. At Scotswood a row of terraces rises up a hillside, almost the first housing on the walk since Wallsend itself.
The terraces of Scotswood
From here, a path leads through Denton Dene, which would be a very pleasant urban park if someone hadn’t decided to drive Newcastle’s western by-pass straight through the middle of it. Another old rail line provides relief, through Lemington, where the local community centre has a sign on the path beckoning in walkers for refreshments – a nice touch, which becomes familiar later on. The line drops slowly down to the river at Newburn. This was almost journey’s end for me – just a half mile to go, to the start of the Tyne Riverside Country Park, and my accommodation, at a pub with brewery attached.
Friday 6 October 2017: Newburn to Chollerford, 20 miles
A day with a mission: get to the bus stop at the other end in time for the 1704 to Hexham, and the train onwards to Carlisle and my accommodation. So a day with an early(ish) start. I realise that 20 miles is more than most attempt on the HWP, but there is next-to-no difficulty the whole way; indeed, if one were unkind, one might characterise this as a long walk by the B6318.
Though you have to get there first. There’s a bit of riverside, dog walkers out in force, before a return to the railway previously met at Lemington. This former line, I now learnt, was the Wylam Waggonway, one of the cradles of the railway age, dating from 1763 and upgraded in 1815 to take some of the first steam locomotives, including the famous Puffing Billy.
The Wylam Waggonway
No sooner is the river returned to, then the Path moves away. Up on the hill is Heddon-on-the-Wall, where the Path meets the Wall for the first time. In between is not only the village but the grounds of Close House, and they don’t want walkers; they have lovingly constructed some of the biggest KEEP OUT signs in Britain. Between the estate and the village, there’s a very nice green lane, which helps make up for it, and Heddon’s petrol station gives chocolate replenishing opportunities.
And so off on the B6318. This isn’t just any B-road. It’s the longest in Britain, starting at Heddon and running all the way to Scotland. Its first half was built in 1746 by the famous military road-builder General Wade, to help troop transfers across the north of England. Hadrian’s Wall was a convenient alignment for it, and a convenient source of stone, so there’s little in the way of extant wall. But the Wall’s mighty ditch the Vallum is still there, as it will be no doubt for a couple of millennia or so still to come.
Beside the Vallum, just beyond Heddon
The road carries a fair amount of traffic, including a constant stream of quarry lorries whose drivers, insouciant with familiarity, slacken pace for no-one, certainly not walkers. That said, the Path is careful for the most part to be near the road, but not on it. Once or twice dangerous blind spots, such as around the farm of High Seat, force little deviations.
There’s a hamlet at Harlow Hill, and a drop down from there to a collection of reservoirs. I overtook another HWP walker here, an American from Kentucky – no countryside like this round her way, she said. The Robin Hood pub is not much further on, and is roughly at half way, but it’s always psychologically better to get beyond the mid-point before the main lunch break. There were more rises than falls in the land now, and at Down Hill one of those occasional little diversions away from the road showed some relics of quarrying, still a major industry in Northumberland.
Approaching Harlow Hill. Note the hedge between road and path
One of the main roads from Scotland, the A68, cuts across the path at Port Gate, and I remembered the pub here – the Errington Arms – as the pub our bunkhouse-owner had driven us to when I had walked the central section with wife and son ten years earlier. I’d had a good time then, and it was just right for my break this time too. As you continue, the vistas over Northumberland become more interesting, the wild land to the north especially.
Looking north in the vicinity of Keepwick Fell Lane, the Cheviots and Howardian Hills in view
At last, at Planetrees, there’s a fragment of authentic Roman wall that has survived. It has the added bonus of showing Roman austerity in practice – part of it is 8 feet across, and part ten feet; the speculation is that the narrowing was stipulated in order to save time and money in construction. After High Brunton, the road descends sharply to cross the Tyne, and it is presumably deemed too dangerous for walkers to be close by. There’s a deviation therefore by a quiet minor road south-west, to come out on another A road just north of the village of Wall. (Another reason for the diversion might be that Wall is full of B&B accommodation for HWP walkers.)
There’s a pavement north of Wall, thankfully, all the way to the bridge over the Tyne at Chollerford. The only nuisance for me was that, ten years before, we had taken the AD122 bus all the way from Newcastle into the fort at Chesters, so I had to walk that extra half-mile, on a B6318 pavement, all the way there, then back again, because the AD122’s season had finished, and I had to use the village bus stop in Chollerford for my onward transport. Time for a quick cuppa in Chesters’ café though.
The wall at Planetrees
The modern outbuildings at Chesters
On the Whin Sill
This is the famous bit, the section that has real wall beside it much of the way, hugging outcrops, rising high, dropping down to small lakes and passes; in short, the stages that contain what popular memory contrives of as Hadrian’s Wall.
The reason this is so is twofold: less of the Wall’s stone has been plundered in this remote area (although the Wall is far less substantial than once it was); and for much of the way the Wall makes use of the Whin Sill outcrop, a famous fault line across northern England (and which reoccurs to magnificent effect at High Cup in the northern Pennines.)
It was the first section that I walked, with my wife Barbara and then 15-year old son Adrian beside me. He was (still is) history-obsessed, and the chance to see some Roman history up close, and have a proper walk at the same time, was too good to miss. And for me, it was a nice little add-on to my walk across the Lammermuirs in southern Scotland the week before.
Monday 22 October 2007: Chesters to Green Carts, 2 miles
We arrived at Chesters fort in the late afternoon, having met up at Newcastle station and taken the AD122 bus onwards. Chesters (in Roman days Cilurnum) occupied a key strategic location on the wall, guarding the crossing of the broad North Tyne river, and the outlines of the large fort and its various buildings are well laid out and explained. The walk away from here is along the modern B6318, or in a field beside it; not the best introduction for my party, but I promised it would get better.
Tuesday 23 October 2007: Green Carts to Saughy Rigg, 11 miles
Although the B6318 is next door for the first few miles, on this quiet morning we barely noticed it, as a cloud inversion blanketing the South Tyne valley and our farm took the eye.
Green Carts Farm
The first important site of the day is Brocolitia, a fort with beside it the Mithraeum, or temple to Mithras. I would be back here in 2015, as my Cross-England Walk intersected with the HWP. A mile beyond, and we entered the Northumberland national park, probably the emptiest of England’s national parks. The bleak countryside heading north is rough country still; goodness knows what it looked like to the Asturian soldiers once responsible here. At Sewingshields Crags we started to rise on to the Whin Sill outcrop, which the Romans so cleverly used to maximise the defensive potential of the wall. Housesteads fort (Vercovicium) is, like Chesters, a major restoration site, with much to see; we made our way down to the road for refreshments at its information centre.
Perhaps the most famous view of the Wall is that from Hotbank Crags, a mile from Houstesteads. This is also the place where the Pennine Way comes in from the north, and the two trails co-exist until just after Greenhead. This was somewhere I’d been before, as Dave Travers and I walked this part on the Pennine Way in 1994, albeit in the reverse direction.
The Wall from Hotbank Crags
Just after Crag Lough, the HWP descends to Sycamore Gap, its eponymous tree later to win the English Tree of the Year award in 2016. I’m not sure we noticed it. Perhaps we were thinking of the day’s end, a mile’s road walk off-path from Steel Rigg to the B&B of Saughy Rigg farm.
Wednesday 24 October 2007: Saughy Rigg to Gilsland, 11 miles
Saughy Rigg kindly gave us a lift back to Steel Rigg, and we were soon on the top of Winshields Crags, the 1132ft high point of the path. There had been a hard frost overnight, and as it so often does, this gave way to glorious sunshine which continued virtually unabated all day; combined with distant views forward and back along the wall, this was memorable walking. Great Chesters Fort was far less extensive than we expected, but we had a major stop at the Roman Army Museum at Vindolanda. Not much further on is the romantic ruin of Thirlwall Castle, dating from the 12th century and therefore something of an upstart considering all that is around it.
Hard frost below Winshields Crags
The castle guards the Greenhead gap. The gap marks a major change in the wall, as the Whin Sill outcrop declines and the Tyne/Eden watershed is reached. The walking becomes more pastoral now, with a charming riverside section after Gilsland, but then a rather dull climb to the final major Roman fort of our tour, Birdoswald. Alas we had just missed opening hours, so after a short break we headed away from the path and across fields to our final B&B of the trip.
Eden, Carlisle and Solway
After my two days around Newcastle in 2017, I fast-forwarded from Chesters to Carlisle, and took a day trip to nearby Langwathby for the Mountain Bothies Association AGM.
And the next day, I was ready to return to Birdoswald fort; Carlisle is (for me) a day’s walk from here. That left me with just the simple stage by the Solway Firth to finish off the trail.
Well, it’s not the grandest part of the Path. But there’s very pleasant field walking with wonderful distant views, followed by a pretty little city and then the Firth. Reminded me a lot of Essex, did the Firth. And from me, that’s a compliment.
The map opposite shows the flood diversions that were in place in Carlisle at the time.
Sunday 8 October 2017. Birdoswald to Carlisle, 18 miles.
A small logistical problem to start the day: the seasonal AD122 bus had stopped running, and the regular (thrice-daily!) Haltwhistle – Gilsland – Birdoswald Fort bus does not run on Sundays. So my only choice was train to Haltwhistle and taxi onwards – not a cheap start, but much more convenient than relocating to a nearby B&B for the night.
The café at Birdoswald Fort had just opened, which was a nice beginning. I remembered that, ten years previously, the three of us had spent some time with the fort’s remains before backtracking to our B&B at Gilsland, so I didn’t linger over the antiquities this time, but – unlike at Chesters, the other end of that walk – it’s not difficult to have an overview of the remains from the field next door. The Wall is then with you for a little while longer, and with it the outlines of turrets every mile or so. One of the last was the east turret just outside the hamlet of Banks.
Banks east turret
For the most part, today’s walk was a very pleasant pastoral amble, the land slowly declining, the Vallum often adjacent. Before Banks, the Path runs high above the River Irthing (an Eden tributary), which means there are good distant views to the North Pennines. Soon after, there’s a short section where the Path descends the broad ridge of Craggle Hill – for the bulk of walkers coming the other way, this is the first sustained ascent, and I wager the subject of much muttering. On a pleasant autumn day, descending was a joy.
Descending Craggle Hill
Just beyond Dovecote Bridge is the village of Walton. Unfortunately it had lost its pub quite recently, but the enterprising Reading Room Café was only just off route, just beyond the yew-shaded churchyard. It was a bit early for a stop but I couldn’t resist: I wasn’t the only HWP walker using it. There is a bench at the village road-junction, and more in the churchyard of course, but it does the local economy good to use a local community facility. Beyond the village of Newtown, I couldn’t help take my eyes off the northern Pennines to the south, Cross Fell dominating. I wonder how many HWP walkers have their attention drawn to this marvellous, forbidding hill?
Looking south to Cross Fell
Green lane leading to Bleatarn Farm
There’s a sparer feel to the countryside now, and the first intrusions of the urban as the small Carlisle Airport is skirted to its north. As something of a compensation, across the plain, the hills in view are not the northern Pennines but the northern Lake District. As I’d been up that way a couple of months before, I enjoyed trying to work out which range was which.
Informal café at High Crosby farm
Ever since Banks there had been a friendly, informal feel to the Path, as farms and cottages left kettles, cakes and coffee available in outbuildings on an honesty box basis. I’ve found this elsewhere, but infrequently – Nethergill Farm in the Yorkshire Dales, on my cross-England walk, was one very welcome example. It’s a great system that could be replicated – assuming greedy walkers, or others, don’t abuse it. One of the last examples was at High Crosby Farm.
Five miles out of Carlisle, the HWP makes a strategic decision to abandon any pretence of following the course of the Wall, and swings south on a track. Its target is the River Eden at the village of Low Crosby – which is at least entered by the Roman road of Stanegate. Alas the Eden, which channels water from both Pennines and Lakes, had been overwhelmed in December 2015, wrecking riverside paths above Carlisle and sweeping debris through the city in a trail of devastation that, nearly two years later, had still not been fully repaired. So many riverside stretches of the HWP were out of bounds, and I had to follow the authorised diversions. The first of these took me away from the Eden at Low Crosby and back up to the main A689. It did at least have a good grass verge for the half-mile I followed it.
Between Linstock and Rickerby there’s a bit more road walking, though on a quiet lane that is the regular HWP. Just beyond the latter, there’s another diversion, and the Path keeps to the north bank of the Eden rather than the south as the Memorial Bridge in Rickerby Park was still not repaired after the floods. The parkland here is very obviously flood meadow, and wonders what further horrors could have befallen Carlisle if some prat of a developer had got there hands on it for house-building. But for me, that was nearly the end of the day, with my bunkhouse not far from the sandstone lump of Carlisle Castle.
The Memorial Bridge in Rickerby Park, under repair
Looking back along the flood meadows of the Eden
Sunday 8 October 2017. Carlisle to Bowness-on-Solway, 14 miles.
Throughout its length, this stage is never far from – and usually in sight of – the River Eden and later, the broad isthmus of the Solway Firth, and practically at sea-level. That’s not to say there isn’t variety, even if only rarely are Roman artefacts evident on the ground.
The Carlisle floods had closed the Eden-side walk heading out of the city, so I had to follow the diversion that temporarily replaced it, 1km along the road (passing Carr’s biscuit factory, so not without interest). It then took a path called Engine Lonning that headed back towards the river, through an area that was once a major rail yard – I could make out the relic of a locomotive turntable – up to the 1960s. Surprising how quickly nature can return!
The Engine Lonning path
The river, and HWP proper, are briefly regained before a meander is cut off through the village of Grinsdale. Parts of the path here were very wet, and indeed another riverside stretch beyond Kirkandrews-on-Eden was the subject of a long-term diversion, perhaps because it is impassable long-term. The next village, Beaumont, has the interest of the only church to be built on the line of the Wall – indeed it is on the summit of a Norman motte-and-bailey fort, two antiquities usurped for the price of one.
The HWP now takes a steady path west across a peninsula, on the course of the Wall, leaving the river to meander a mile or more to the north, to the village of Burgh by Sands; it’s a little larger than most settlements in the region, and its Roman fort was, in the third century, home to African troops, perhaps the first recorded black community in Britain. I had a break in its church, in which the body of Edward I was laid to rest, dead of illness on his way to fight the Scots; the king, known then and now as “Hammer of the Scots”, is commemorated by a statue outside the village pub, though I doubt if many travel from across the border to honour him.
King Edward I statue at Burgh by Sands
A mile outside the village starts the dead-straight road stretch – a good two miles – across the edge of Burgh Marsh. This is a place of wide horizons rendered greyly impressive on this overcast day. Saltmarshes such as this have an atmosphere all of their own, and this one had me mentally back nearer home, on the great Essex marshes of Tollesbury or Dengie (though these can’t compete with the allure of another country, Scotland, dimly in view on the other side). The road floods at high tide, and I had given no thought to checking a tide table; you’d be unlucky to be caught by the tide, but there’s a bank on the landward side if retreat had been needed. This stretch ends at Drumburgh, where I took another break in one of the informal cafés that are a feature of the western HWP. Here I met a fellow west-bound walker, and rather expected to share the last few miles with him, but he said little and shuffled off before me.
There’s next an inland loop, by means of some fairly anodyne paths, where I met my last east-bound walkers, negotiating timidly a patch of mud by a gate. I hope they weren’t put off when I told them it would be getting much worse. Naughty me. From the next settlement Glasson the HWP follows the course of the Vallum for a while, before coming back close to the Eden through a nice stretch of shrub. Only two more settlements now, the first Port Carlisle; you’re on the Solway now, not the Eden, for the firth is formed by the confluence of Eden and Esk in the mudflats to its north. Port Carlisle was once linked to Carlisle proper by first canal and then railway; the prosperity of both was short-lived, but some interesting industrial relics remain.
The road across Burgh Marsh
Leaving Port Carlisle, there’s a signpost of the Land’s End type – 83 miles to Wallsend, 5442 to Denver, how many to your home town? It was operated from a shed by a garrulous old chap full of tales of old times and the sea. Garrulous, and with an eye for business too – a fiver to put your home town on the notice board, and a photograph. Well why not. Enterprise in retirement has to be applauded. I’d met up with the shuffling guy from Drumburgh here too but again we set off apart and I did not see him again.
It’s only one last mile now, to the trail end at Bowness-on-Solway, in rather unromantic drizzle. There’s a little shelter at what was to Romans and modern trail-walkers alike journey’s end, on a little undercliff just below the village street. Not really a place to linger though. I didn’t fancy the pub – open, but a bit early in the day for me – and went up to the advertised café, but it was shut today. However near the church there’s a hall that keeps its doors unlocked so you can use its loos, and it was the right place to shelter, change footwear and adjust mindset, for the half hour or so before my bus.
Lord of the Signpost
Journey’s end, Bowness on Solway