Hadrian’s Wall is a great place to walk if you have the slightest interest in the history of these islands and any sort of imaginative faculty whatsoever. It’s not bad for a ‘my first fell walk’ either; the ups and downs are pretty gentle, routefinding is a doddle, but there’s a grand sense of space and, away from the main attractions, still a remarkable loneliness.
Three of us – I was joined by my wife Barbara and younger son Adrian, then 15 – walked the central section of the path in late October 2007. It is the ‘classic’ section in the full 84-mile national trail, with more than 20 miles where the wall is most continually extant; the magnificent Whin Sill outcrop provides a strong perspective, (as from Hotbank Crags, above) and the urban sprawl of Newcastle and Carlisle does not intrude. We were blessed with fine weather.
There is a very well-developed tourist infrastructure for those walking all or part of the Wall. Transport options include the wonderful AD122 bus (the route number dates from the year of the Emperor Hadrian’s command that the wall be built), which links all the principal sites several times a day. It closes down from late October to Easter – we used it in its last week of operation, from Newcastle to Chesters fort. There are some other local bus services, and the Newcastle to Carlisle rail service is never far away.
To help plan your visit try:
- the National Trail site, with a very clever interactive map that can inter-relate the main attractions to accomodation and transport links; and
- the Hadrian’s Wall Country site, more sober and plain but everything’s there.
22 October 2007: Chesters to Green Carts, 2 miles
We arrived at Chesters fort in the late afternoon. Chesters (then Cilurnum) occupied a key strategic location on the wall, where it crossed 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. We stayed overnight half a mile off route in the bunkhouse at Green Carts farm, where the very helpful Mrs Maughan happily drove us down to the local pub for dinner.
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. Eventually you start to rise on to the Whin Sill outcrop, which the Romans so cleverly used to maximise the defensive potential of the wall.
You’re in the Northumberland national park now, probably the emptiest of England’s national parks, and the bleak countryside heading north is rough country still. Goodness knows what it looked like to the Asturian soldiers once responsible here. Housesteads fort (Vercovicium) is, like Chesters, a major restoration site; we made our way down to the road for refreshments here. Soon after, the Pennine Way comes in from the north, and the two trails co-exist until just after Greenhead. We finished soon after the section high above Crag Lough, and diverted to Saughy Rigg farm: four stars, but we felt it was trading on its reputation somewhat.
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 1,230-feet 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 is far less extensive than we expected, but we had a major stop at the Roman Army Museum at Vindolanda just before 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. Beyond the romantic ruin of Thirlwall castle the walking becomes more pastoral, with a charming riverside section after Gilsland before the rather dull climb to the final major 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 B&B, Brookside Villa in Gilsland. Just about the best B&B we’ve ever stayed in – great food, properly served beer, and loads of nice extra touches in the rooms. Mrs Collins gave us a lift into Brampton the next morning too.