Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Hadrian's Wall from Wylam

My husband adores going on hikes but unluckily for him, he married the most unsporty, laziest person you can imagine. In 2004, I decided that as a "gift" to him, we would do a walk in England in 2005, but it would have to be one that I could cope with. I latched onto the idea of walking the entire length of Hadrian's Wall and, in serious preparation, we started walking 7 km three times a week, gradually building up to 12 km once or twice a week and then one 25 km walk about two weeks before we set off. 

One thing I was definitely not up to was hiking along with a weight on my back, so we had to have a base to which we could return each day, only carrying a lunch pack and spare socks and clothing items in the smallest rucksack possible. Due to this and other logistics, we accepted that we would not be able to walk the wall in "chronological" sequence.

We were also hampered by being on a very limited budget. We had R30,000 for our flights to the UK, a return flight to Germany to visit a friend for a week (and I always insist on paying our way in the form of meals and gifts), return flights up to Newcastle, bus fare down to Portsmouth to see family and then transport back to Heathrow. And then of course, accommodation and food, all for two people. (Staying with family in England was not an option). 

I started hunting for bargains. The only travel item I would not compromise on was the flight to London: it had to be direct. After 4 hours of flying, I start to feel a bit crazy because I cannot fall asleep on a flight (these days, the individual TV screens and choice of movies are a lifesaver for me). The airfare with Ryanair from Stansted to Friedrichshafen was only about 30 pounds for both of us but, with airport taxes, was just over a 100 pounds.  Stansted to Newcastle with Easyjet was an amazing 35 pounds return per person, cheaper than bus or train fare. These prices were possible if you booked way in advance. What a bargain!

While in Germany, I e-mailed and booked with a local taxi company (Acomb Taxis) to meet us at Newcastle airport and we arrived in the early evening at our first campsite at the back of a large house, about 3 km outside the village of Wylam. We had left Friedrichshafen in Germany early that morning. We walked  into Wylam but Roy baulked at paying to eat in a restaurant so we returned to camp. We had no food with us except some noodles and a sad cheese sandwich bought at Stansted airport. The campsite landlord was incredibly stingy (obviously related to Roy), having only lukewarm water,  which ran for about 60 seconds at a time, in his ablution block. However, it was just warm enough to soften the noodles to semi-crunchy style and to make some instant "hot" chocolate drinks we had kept from our first night at a B&B before flying to Germany. 

We had booked to stay at this campsite for four nights, whereafter we were moving on to amazing luxury at  Fallowfield Dene campsite, just outside the village of Acomb. I had discovered that they had one Static caravan (known as Mobile homes here)  amongst all the caravan and tent pitches. It was an amazing price at the time: 140 pounds for a week, only Sat to Sat, and could sleep 1 – 4 for the same price. It was totally kitted out, even with optional bedding. It seemed a shame that there were only two of us. As I crept into my sleeping bag in the tent, I focused on this wonderment to come.

The next morning we walked into Wylam and at the bus stop, asked someone which bus we should catch into Newcastle. All the passengers were people off to work in Newcastle but for us, it was fun and exciting as it only can be for people who are off on an adventure. 

On arriving in Newcastle, we had to find Segedenum Museum. Opposite the museum was a really cheap supermarket where we bought some absolute bargain supplies for our day. I remember paying under 2 pounds for a packet of about 10 cooked chicken drumsticks (which we still enjoyed for the next few days), along with some biscuits and fruit. With our 2 bottles of water, we were set for the day (little did I know just how hot it would become). The museum opened at 9:30 am. We each picked up a stamped Hadrian Wall passport  from the museum and then set off ceremoniusly on our adventure. 

We proceeded to walk, following signs and a guide-book that we had borrowed from someone in South Africa. At first we passed rather attractive city sights along the river Tyne, admiring the various bridges which span it and the Sage Music Centre, reading from our guide as we went along. 


After that, there followed a long section of rather boring bits on the edge of industrial and housing estates until eventually, from Newburn onwards, things started to look very pretty, especially after buying a cup of tea there. For that first section of the day, there had been no loos or drinking water along the way for most of the time. We had sneaked in, used the loo and got some water from a Chinese restaurant's cloakroom. The next loo we came across was in the Tyne National park, which is about 1 hour before the end of the walk!

Look back at Newcastle from  halfway up Heddon Hill 
We ended the walk up a very steep hill to Heddon and it was here that we saw some remnants of the Wall for the first time. Before catching a bus down the hill to nearby Wylam and walking back to camp, we bought a gas cannister for our little cooker so that thereafter, we could take hot water in a flask for our tea everyday. 
The next day we walked back into Wylam and caught a bus back up to Heddon. We walked back to the bit of Wall we had seen the previous day (National Heritage has fenced it off but there is a gate to allow access to the wall and an information board). 

We set off for the next stretch. Much of it ran parallel to the Military Road because so much of the road was built over the Wall foundations. In some places, detours had been marked to avoid crossing the fields belonging to non-sympathetic farmers.  At the Robin Hood Inn there was a little box to the right of the pub entrance which contained the stamp for our Hadrian Wall passport and we helped ourselves to it, proudly marking our second notch.
Somewhere along the way, we sat down next to a grassy lane to eat some bananas and a local came walking by and struck up a conversation. I recall that some of the discussion covered the idea that there were underground passages stretching all the way from Newcastle to these parts, built and used by priests during times of religious persecution. The idea that unbeknown to a current houseowner, a passage might wind under his house or even end in some part of the house cellar, was intriguing, to say the least!
Note the Vallum and ditch running alongside the Hadrian Wall route.
Existing walls around fields,like this one, and local farmhouses are no doubt built with rock from the original Hadrian's Wall

We walked along  the route until eventually we reached the church and graveyard at Heavensfield. I just loved this spot and fanciful thoughts of my English Wyndham ancestors in battle on the fields below, against my Scottish Cron ancestors, filtered into my mind. 

We visited inside the church and I found a pedal-pumped organ on which I tramped out Amazing Grace as strenuously as I could in the empty old church. 

This was not the usual sectional stop or turn-off from the route but, directly across the main road from this church, is a farm road running through  fields of cows and up, over a hill. We walked along it for a few kilometres on the other side of the hill, carefully reading a detailed map I had found on the Internet and printed in SA. We reached an entrance to a path through a little wood which  lead us to the back of the Fallowfield Dene campsite. We greeted the manager and told him we would see him again in two days time. We walked down into Acomb, asked the way to Hexham and were luckily offered a lift to Hexham station to catch a train back to Wylam and our luke-warm showers.

The following day we did an out-of-sequence section of the walk and with hindsight, catching a train from Wylam to Brampton without booking a taxi on the other end to drive us up to Lanercost Priory  was a really big mistake. Brampton Station is far from the town of Brampton and that too is in the wrong direction. It was a beautiful walk but we became very anxious as time ticked away and we were still miles from the Priory. I had no idea that we would have to plough through hill and vale for about two hours, walking past Naworth Castle and much more before we reached Lanercost Priory  and could walk up Hare Hill to the start of that section which would end in Carlisle. (Five years on, I would have done reconnaissance work on Google Earth and seen exactly how far the station is from the Wall).

Naworth Castle
Desperate to reach Lanercost Priory

The first half of this section from Hare Hill was charming. 

Evidence of ancient Roman earthworks

The last part of this stage became flatter, less scenic and more suburban as we neared Carlisle. We pushed on to the Restaurant at the Sand Sports Centre in Carlisle for the next stamp in our passports  but, in the end, forgoing that in order to catch a train that stopped at Wylam, we ended up running the last few kilometres through the park, into the town and frantically searching for the Central Railway Station. We made the train by the skin of our teeth and I recall the sweat just pouring off me for about the first fifteen minutes of the journey. 

With hindsight and subsequent knowledge of the Hadrian's Wall bus route, after our tiring late start to this section, we should have stopped at the Stag Inn Pub, drunk ciders before catching the next bus back to Hexham and then taken the train back to Wylam, returning with the bus on another day to pick up the walk from the pub. Even better still, that day we should have rather caught that early train to Carlisle and done the last section of the walk to the Bowness-on-Solway, because the Hadrian Wall bus timetable made it impossible for us to do that section in a single day, as we discovered painfully in the following week.

At Wylam I telephoned the taxi company and booked a taxi for the next morning to take us from our campsite to the comparative luxury awaiting us at Fallowfield Dene. Sadly, we never had time to visit the Stephenson Museum in Wylam. So far, we had only seen a few metres of the Wall and we knew that the last section after Carlisle did not have any visible stretches of the Wall. The most exciting sections lay ahead in the next few days.



  1. What a lovely trip. Time to do it all over again?!

  2. 15 kg heavier now and so unfit. It would take a miracle!