NEWCASTLE, U.K. — Anxious to get back outside and limber up those muscles grown weak during too-long home confinement? The Hadrian’s Wall footpath in northern England is the perfect solution for re-entering the world in 2022. Anyone in good physical shape, regardless of age, can hike this trail with a pair of good hiking shoes and a few weeks of conditioning. I did — at 76. Families with kids 12 and above do it. So why not you? Oh, and there’s lots of fresh air en route.
Many B&Bs are within a kilometre of the path. Luggage transport services will move your gear; there's no need to carry a heavy backpack. Taxis are easy to call to the paved road and are always less than two kilometres away if you need relief. With a walking stick in my right hand and my 8-10-kg camera bag on my back, I set out one July morning from Carlisle.
I chose to go west-to-east, happy to have the prevailing wind at my back. Hadrian’s Wall Path by Gordon Simm provided all the guidance I needed.
Above: As the footpath follows remnants of the wall through fields, ladder stiles make it easy for hikers to cross fences.
I had flown into Manchester. An airport terminal offers direct train service to Carlisle. I arrived by early afternoon, had a tasty Bangladeshi meal at the Bari restaurant, and headed back to my boutique hotel to start the process of adjusting to my five-hour time zone change.
Why was Hadrian's Wall built? In 43CE Rome began its conquest of Britain, eventually reaching southern Scotland. In 122CE the Emperor Hadrian came to Britain to inspect his domain. Hadrian was a consolidator, not an expansionist. He ordered that a wall be built from coast-to-coast to define the northern limit of control. Several Roman forts already existed along this route, and the wall passed near them. Rising to a height of 4.5m, the wall was a formidable obstacle to the troublesome “barbarians” farther north. Today we call them Scots. Much of it still remains after the departure of the Romans in the 5th century - 411CE. Today a well-marked trail traverses the land once demarcated by the wall.
My first day's march from Carlisle to Lanercost Priory was an easy 19km. There are no visible remains of the wall the first few kilometres as you follow the course of the River Eden. The path passes through parkland, along minor roads, then into fields past small farms raising sheep, cattle, wheat and corn, encountering some small grades near the end of this stretch. This is a good day to limber up.
Above: Along the way the path passes the ruins of several Roman forts, such as the baths at Vindolanda or the latrines at Housesteads, right.
Wildflowers colour the fields in July, the best month to walk. Temperatures are moderate (usually around 16C), and the trail is not as crowded as it is in August, when schools are out of session and lodging accommodations can be more difficult to book. Early September is equally good.
At Lanercost I met John Lee, warden of St. Mary Magdalene church, built in the 1200s. Lee is an inexhaustible source of history and lore about his church, his family and the local area. I was sorry to leave him, but I wanted to be at the nearby Lanercost Country B&B in time for dinner.
After rising steeply out of the Lanercost Valley the next morning I reached the first sizeable remnant of the wall, at Hare Hill. Through the rest of the day I followed sections, crossing farmers' fields and dodging the occasional cow-pie. Sheep scurried away as I passed. After Birdoswald, the first of the large Roman forts east of Carlisle (a good lunch stop), I crossed the River Irthing and reached Gilsland, my destination for the day, at the Brookside Villa B&B.
Above: John Lee, above, is the warden at St. Mary Magdalene church, right, in the tiny hamlet of Lanercost. The handsome church dates back to the 1200s
The next two days were the most strenuous, as you travel along the edge of the escarpments known as the Walltown and Windshield Crags. Here you reach the trail’s highest point, slightly over 340m above sea level. Views extend kilometres to the north; no enemy could have escaped early detection from these heights. Messengers could quickly summon soldiers, cavalry and archers from forts at Carvoran, Vindolanda or Housesteads, to confront any raiding party foolish enough to risk the encounter.
In a stroke of smart marketing, after you overnight in Gilsland, Denise of the Brookside Villa B&B, will pick you up at the end of your next day's hike, bring you back to the B&B for a home-cooked dinner, and deliver you the following morning back to where you left off on the trail. She gets two nights lodging from her guests and you get a day's respite from unpacking and re-packing your luggage. I had her pick me up at Vindolanda fort at the end of my day.
Excavations at Vindolanda are still very active, revealing much about the daily life inside the fort. I felt a special connection to the display of Roman shoes at Vindolanda - men’s, women's and children’s — but was glad I had my own hiking boots.
Above: A special marker at Winshield Crags marks the highest point on the footpath.
The following day I arrived at Housesteads in time for one of the free guided tours of the site. In addition to extensive barracks and granaries we admired the largest and best-preserved Roman latrines in Britain. Children seem especially to be fascinated by these.
Continuing eastward I virtually coasted into Newcastle, taking time along the way for a side trip to the Roman town at Corbridge for the night. (The Black Bull pub is the place for dinner and ale.)
Corbridge was the site of a Roman bridge over the River Tyne on the main Roman Road to the north during the 30-year period in the second century when the Romans, after Hadrian's death, ventured farther north. Bridge abutments for the Corbridge Bridge are still visible today.
Above: The Hadrian's Wall footpath passes some idyllic English countryside dotted with sheep with Peel Crags and Crag Lough off in the distance.
After Heddon-on-the-Wall, ten miles west of central Newcastle, you soon find yourself walking in an increasingly residential and urban environment, most of it along the bank of the River Tyne. Nothing of the Wall remains in the city itself until reaching the fort of Segedunum at Wallsend, 10km beyond the city centre, where a section of wall has been reconstructed.
Newcastle has much to offer, voted "best U.K. city" by readers of The Guardian and Observer newspapers in 2014, and dubbed "the hippest place in the U.K.” by The Daily Mail. It also offers several trains a day back to Manchester for non-stop flights back to the North America. As I watched the scenery glide by I reflected on the task I had completed. Any hiker in good health can do this walk. The luggage transport service is the key. I used "Hadrian's Haul" but there are others. Now that I'm home again I have 1,800 photos (proof!) to reinforce the memories, while I search for my next destination. I have a number in mind for my 80s.