It’s a strange thing, to begin a linear walk along a World Heritage Site in a fairly nondescript suburb of an industrial city, but there’s a visual clue as you step off the metro at Wallsend station. “Suggestus II”, says the sign on “Platform 2”. “Noli Fumare / No Smoking”. For this is the only railway station in England, and for all I know any where in the world, to have bilingual English – Latin signage.
It’s a nice cue to put the walker in the mood. It has to be said, though, that other than at the very start, traces of the Roman are few and far between as you make your way along an old rail line and then the banks of the Tyne, into and through the city centre of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Beyond, the walk gets more rural, albeit without visual sight of Wall artefacts until the village of Heddon-on-the-Wall is reached. From then on, you can hardly miss its great earthwork the Vallum – or, alas, the fast-moving traffic on the B6318 next door.
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.
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’.
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.
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 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.
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.
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, a major industry in Northumberland.
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.
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.
I stayed at the Keelman’s Lodge in Newburn. It was a comfortable and welcoming place, with good food and beer.
Forward to Central: On the Whin Sill
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