Last Wednesday I was walking around the local cemetery, like you do, when I bumped into my friend H, who was cycling about. We stopped minding our own business and had a quick chat about where our lives were currently at. He was trying to get a very young baby off to sleep by taking her for a bike ride. I was trying to shift an injury in my left calf from the previous night’s run, in preparation for walking Hadrian’s wall later in the week.
‘How long is that going to take?’ asked H.
‘Five days’, I replied
‘Wow’, he said. ‘That’s the stuff of bucket lists’.
Which took me by surprise. Firstly, I’ve never really been one for a bucket list. You’ll be unlikely to get to the end of such a list, and it all seems a bit like a tick list of how you’ve managed your life. And secondly, I’d not thought of it as that much of a deal. Me & Mrs E were going to do some walking, and it was going to be from one side if the country to the other, but that was it. And I knew a couple of people who’d done the 84 miles in a couple of days, and one who’d knocked it out in under 24 hours, so 5 days was unlikely to test us. But the bucket list comment kept coming back to me over the next few days…
The next day we biked down to the railway station, hopped on a train to London, tubed across to Euston, got on a train to Carlisle, hung about there for a couple of hours before getting a bus out to Bowness-on-Solway, and made our way to the only accommodation I’d been able to book, which was a small shed in the garden of a rectory.
We’d exhausted the entertainment possibilities of the inside of the shed within a couple of minutes, so repaired to the pub, which already contained two sets of walkers, one of which was just starting, and the other who’d just finished. It was fairly easy to tell which was which – the ones who’d finished were the ones with four pints, two g&t’s, and a bottle of red to their name. We fell into an easy conversation with them as they moved onto large whiskies, and I made a mental note that they’d set the benchmark for how to celebrate finishing.
So, off early the next day, and ironically back to Carlisle, in rather more time that the bus driver had managed the trip the day before. The bits that we didn’t share with cows were shared with some lively traffic for the first part, along the Solway, which separates England from Scotland. Years ago, there was a bridge across the water, which Scots would walk across on a Sunday if they needed a drink, and occasionally fall off as they made their way back. We rattled along, fuelled by banana and jam sandwiches, and made our way into Carlisle, which, in the late sunshine, felt as if it was trying hard to come out of a depression. Friday night in Carlisle doesn’t seem to be a particularly lively time, we had a quiet pint in a pub and wandered down to the ‘number one curry restaurant in Carlisle’, for further refuelling. I made the mistake of asking the waitress if she’d recommend anything on the menu, and she said she couldn’t, as she didn’t eat spicy food. Mrs E gently suggested that she might be in wrong profession, and was told that ‘it’s just a job, innit’ before walking off, thereby assuring us that the hospitality industry in Carlisle is in another safe pair of hands.
Setting off the next morning, safe in the knowledge that we only had 18 miles to cover, we started to hit some proper rolling countryside, all grass trails and sleepy villages, occasionally interrupted by wild eyed farmers whizzing about on quad bikes. Every now and again we’d come across a small fridge by the side of the road, advertising snacks and drinks for walkers, and asking for payment in an honesty box. I looked more closely at one of these boxes to read the small print, which basically said that anyone close to the box was monitored by cctv, and that that non-payment would result in unholy retribution. That kind of defeats the point of an honesty box, but maybe they’ve had a spate of tracker bar thefts in the area, who knows?
We’d started to see a bit of the wall by now, and oohed and aahed appropriately, trying to get some appreciation of how 15,000 soldiers built a 5 metre high wall and a massive ditch over 84 miles, in about 5 years. By any measure, it’s remarkable, and you don’t necessarily have to be right next to it to appreciate the sheer magnitude of the thing, but once you’ve been up and down a few of the hills, and seen the size of some of the stones, it certainly helps.
The 18 mile estimate proved to be woefully short, once we’d taken a couple of wrong turnings and remembered that tonight’s hotel was a little way off from the path, and we finished on about 24 miles. We limped into the reception of the hotel to find ourselves, confusingly, in the middle of a Scottish country dance convention. With our fleeces, sensible shorts and sturdy boots, there was a danger that we would be fully integrated, but thankfully we managed to find somewhere else in the hotel to eat away from the reeling crowd. Unfortunately the place we managed to find was a dark look into our future, an institutional room with the lighting and food that will be a feature of the retirement home that our children send us to a few years from now. We ordered quickly and safely, having been told that the kitchen was closing at 8:20 sharp, possibly as there were some neeps that weren’t going to stew themselves next door, and our food arrived in about the same time as it takes to defrost and reheat a vegetable lasagne. The experience of actually eating the food confirmed our future carehome worries – it all sort of blended into itself ina bit of a lukewarm brown mess, and all around us in the big room with the bright lighting and the gentle 80s music were people looking as if they were dragging their way through their final meal.
We stopped to look in on the country dancing on the way up to our room, the party was in full swing, and there was a serious amount of jogging and reeling to be seen. Mrs E was delighted to witness one guy, dripping with sweat, race up the stairs to his room, to return minutes later, and ask her if she’d ‘nae fancy a wee reel’ with him. She said no (or nae), and managed to mention that her feet had just covered 24 miles and weren’t in any fit state to be chasing around the floor. Off we went for another early night, and were serenaded fairly robustly for the next few hours by the kind of noise that was going to keep men in kilts constantly on their feet. I could only make out two accordion players (which, frankly, is two too many), but they seemed to be able to punch above their weight on the volume front. On our way to breakfast early next morning and the riddle was solved – we walked past the stage in the ballroom and saw a PA system that Megadeath would have dismissed as far too loud for their needs.
Breakfast had been prepared by the care home cook from the night before, and he/she had managed to cook a variety of food and blend into a single taste. On a positive note, it’s probably quite a skill to be able to cook mushrooms, eggs, tomatoes and beans separately to the extent that they all taste like mashed potato, and there’s probably a market for it, possibly at that stage in life just before it’s liquidised and fed through a straw.
Well, we ate it all up, in the knowledge that we needed fuel before the long and challenging third day. We knew this was going to be tough, as we already had it down as 21 miles, and given the previous day, was likely to be more in reality (it ended up being 28, which Mrs E has mentioned several times since). We had fantastic sunshine and saw the most spectacular parts of both the wall and the surrounding countryside.
It was Sunday, so there were loads of people out walking bits of the wall, contrasting with the pair of us as they sprang along in trainers and shorts, carrying tiny rucksacks which contained proper sandwiches, flasks of coffee and car keys. We had more of a knowing slog about us, and it would be fair to say that the wonder of the wall was palling by the time we hit mile 20.
In the event we walked for 11 hours, and had to phone ahead so as not to lose our hotel room.
‘Don’t worry’, said the kind lady who answered the phone, ‘I’ll hold your room and I’m here till 10 so I’ll probably see you’.
Which was probably meant to make us feel better.
But, into Chollerford we finally trudged, straight into the bar where we drank cider and bitter and ate about half of our body weight in fried food. It’s funny, said Mrs E, after wolfing down a plate of chips. ‘I feel rubbish at night but my injuries seem to heal after sleeping’.
And so it proved as we scampered down for more fried food in the morning. The leg from Chollerford to Heddon-on-the-Wall was going to be less taxing than the day before, but there was one really long climb at the start which we fairly whizzed up, not minding the rain at all, and even showing a bit of renewed interest in the next mile castle or fort ruins. We’d passed into Northumberland by now, and once the weather cleared we could see the country falling away in front of us, still with the line of the wall visible through the trenches stretching off ahead. We had another diversion into Wylam, where we were staying the night, which didn’t please Mrs E particularly, as it added yet more miles onto what were already some fairly manky feet, but that did give us a chance to go past the cottage where George Stephenson had been born. Like Hadrian’s wall, there’s nothing to stop you reaching out and touching this bit of history (although you’d probably annoy the current residents) – we take all of this astonishing stuff in this country for granted and it’s even more fantastic that we don’t feel the need to rope it off.
To the pub then, for beer, ginger cider (‘Not sure about this’, said Mrs E, ‘it tastes like squash’, before necking a pint in record time and demanding another in the style of Father Jack), and Thai food, which was fantastic. All followed by a night’s sleep caroused by the local youth of Wylam who may well also have been knocking back the ginger squash.
And finally on to the last leg, which at last matched the guide book in mileage, and took us across yet more gently descending fields, a little away from the wall and onto the Tyne into Newcastle. It’s hard to properly follow the wall at this stage, as it effectively got hijacked by the soldier/politician General Wade in the 1700s, to create the military road for his troops to march across to quell a Jacobite uprising. It’s now the slightly less romantically sounding B6318. Paving over the wall was an astonishing act of outright vandalism, and if General Wade was alive today, he’d probably fit right in to the current cabinet.
Coming into Newcastle along the North of the Tyne was both exciting and depressing in equal measure. I know Newcastle reasonably well, I worked there on and off for a few years and have mixed feelings about whether it was ever my kind of town. When I was there, I punctuated the work with long runs in the evening, and similarly, some of these were fabulous, and some of them quite demoralising. Which is pretty much how the last bit of the walk goes. Walking around the bend of the Tyne to see the bridges at Quayside is fabulous, and the buildings just fit their surroundings; if that had been the end of the walk then it would have been great. But the wall went a little bit further onto Wallsend (of course), so we still had another 5ish miles to go. Along the path, the litter began to pile up, not just odd cans of coke and papers, but assorted underwear and, for some reason, a number of disposable gloves; normally Mrs E and me will make up back-stories about the the unusual things we see on a walk, but thankfully by now we were too tired to do so.
We walked straight past the sign that flagged the end of the wall, retraced our steps, and a kindly coast to coast cycle rider took our pictures. We popped around the corner into the visitors centre, where we were met with smiling faces and sympathy for Mrs E’s feet (and feat, come to think of it). She has been testing the security and decency settings of social media ever since :
We asked to go into the museum, and a very astute woman behind the counter suggested that we might have seen enough Roman ruins for now, and that we might be better off just going upstairs for a coffee, which we did.
Upstairs, I chatted to the woman making the coffee, who told me that her boss had just completed the walk in three days carrying a 25 kg backpack. I’m sure she didn’t mean to piss on our chips, so to speak, but it felt a bit deflating. And it shouldn’t have; we’d walked over a hundred miles in five days, carrying all our own gear, met some fabulous people and some ridiculously steep terrain, and seen some of the most glorious countryside ever, and the stuff you’d never see from a car. And in Mrs E’s case, done all that in a pair of boots that even now were making her feet bleed, and were destined for a more appropriate place.
Perhaps the walk should have been on a bucket list after all.