After my two days around Newcastle in 2017, I fast-forwarded from Chesters to Carlisle, took a day trip to nearby Langwathby for the Mountain Bothies Association AGM, and was ready to return to Birdoswald fort on the next day; 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 walk.
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 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.
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.
Just beyond Dovecote Bridge is the village of Walton. Unfortunately it had lost its pub quite recently, but the enterprising Reading Room Café is 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?
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.
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.
For me, that was nearly the end of the day, with my bunkhouse not far from the sandstone lump of Carlisle Castle.
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 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 is 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.
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.
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.
I stayed both nights at the Carlisle City Hostel. I’ve been there before, for an overnight on my way south before the High Pennines stage of my cross-England walk, and I had no compunction about coming back; all the facilities you need, helpful host, and round the corner from the city centre.
Back to Central: On the Whin Sill
Map shows path as walked, including temporary diversions in the Carlisle area due to flooding.
Zoom in for detail up to 1:50,000