There is no form of transport so reliable as your own two feet. Planes, trains and automobiles will take you a greater distance, for sure, but they need their runways, their stations and their parking spaces. Your feet, on the other hand, will take you wherever you need to go, over valley, hill or glen. They are easily and cheaply fuelled – cereal bars will do the trick – and barring extreme misfortune, you will always have them available to you. Unlike other forms of transport, however, your feet are difficult to replace. It makes sense, therefore, to keep them in good working order, ready for that unlikely eventuality when they are the only transport you have got, and one good – and historically interesting way of doing so – is no better way to do so, I have found, than taking a hike along the Roman Empire’s border wall.
Hadrian’s wall stretched a full 80 miles across the province in Britannia, from Mais, the fort at Bowness on Solway in the West to Segundum, the fort at Wallsend in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the East. Construction began in 122BC, and when finished the wall stood 10ft wide and 13ft high and was replete with forts, gateways, observation towers and a defensive ditch running in front. There can be little doubt that this behemoth construction was an effective tool of imperial domination: No-one who set eyes upon the wall could be in any doubt who was boss. Walking the wall centuries later, I found that it remains an impressive reminder of civilisations past, and that it is a no less effective tool for exercise. The hike requires endurance and fostered, in my case, a good measure of humility. It needs observation and high vigilance in the navigation, and it is a great opportunity to learn the hiking essentials. Allow me to explain.
An impressive reminder of civilisations past.
Even now, though much of it has disappeared, a visitor cannot fail to be impressed by the might of Hadrian’s Wall. Its ruins are to be found along lengthy stretches of the route, standing stout, and still quite tall on flats, slopes and valleys. Walkers need to be reminded that the wall is sensitive and fragile, as it looks remarkably robust for its 2000 years. Walking along these remains, one cannot fail to be impressed by the sheer scale of the project that was undertaken and achieved all those years ago. The sight of ancient ruins is often a harbinger for comment on the way, as Kipling put it, that “Earth’s proud empires pass away, its works and glories crumbling into dust”, but for my money, the wall is still going strong, bringing visitors from near and far, and thus the glory of the Roman Empire, even in its far flung province of Britannia lives on.
A walk for Endurance and Humility
Planning the expedition was the easy part. The full route looks deceptively short on google maps, and it wasn’t long before I’d booked the accommodation, and had a full itinerary in place, with distances between 15 and 25 miles each day. Day one was easy. It was one of the shorter days, the ground was mostly flat, and the hike was done by 2pm. I set off on day two brimming with confidence. I had further to go, but it felt eminently doable. I looked forward to getting to the accommodation mid-afternoon again, for another stretch of well-earned lounging. It was not long though, before the tarmacked roads gave way to country tracks and the long flat road ahead disappeared into the hills. Each time I got to the brow of a hill, I found that there was another dip and another ascent ahead. Mid-afternoon came and went, and pleasant though the walk still was, it was turning into a test of endurance. It was gone 7pm when I finally staggered into my accommodation, and I was shocked to find, once I had taken my backpack off, that I was limping and seriously struggling to put one foot in front of the other. The day – particularly the last couple of hours – was a lesson in humility, and I had dinner that night with a far more realistic appreciation of my hiking powers. It was 24.92 miles. Not a footstep more could I have done.
Observation and high vigilance
Navigation, in principle, was a simple matter of heading due East. The route, after all, is following a wall, one built by the ancient Romans who liked to keep things straight. There seemed to be only a slim chance of getting lost and little need for the regular tools of navigation. A sense of direction would do, I thought, backed up every now and again by a the odd signpost here and there. Broadly, my assumptions proved true, especially along the stretches where the wall is still visible, but unfortunately, much of it has now disappeared into the annals of history, and it is therefore perfectly possible, when wondering through the endless farms and fields to veer off the route. The signposts are there but they can be surprisingly easy to miss, at times hard to interpret, and occasionally they seemed to disappear altogether, leaving me uncertain of the way ahead. Twice, despite careful navigation, I found that I had walked a complete circle, and I had to pause for much thought before I walked it again, and on one occasion – on my longest day indeed – I misread a sign and coming to a dead end and had to retrace my steps for what seemed like many miles and try again. Hiking, despite the name, is not a pedestrian activity – keen observation and high vigilance are essential. As was the detailed map that I had brought along just in case.
A few hiking tips (my personal notes for next time)
- Carry your stuff: There will be those who will point you to the services that will transport your luggage to your B&Bs, and free you of the burden. Do try not to yield to this temptation, for it is wholly contrary to the spirit of independence and self-reliance that hiking is meant to engender. If you can’t carry it, don’t take it.
- Keep your drinks and snacks out of reach: If I have them to hand, I find that they are finished in the first five miles, if not sooner. In the depths of you backpack, they are out of sight and out of mind. Keep them there, and there will be a will be a store of refreshment just when its needed most.
- Put your phone away: Your phone is everything, including an ultra-accurate navigation system, but hiking is old school. Put it away, and then, when it is getting dark and you still haven’t found your accommodation for the night, it’ll have some battery power left, just when you need it most.
- Be bold, but not too bold: Quite often, I found that the path ahead was blocked by a herd of cows or a flock of sheep and found myself wondering if they would respect the public right of way. On the whole, they let me make my merry way, but once or twice a cow or two declined to budge. , impervious to the rules. It doesn’t do, on such occasions, to cling too tightly to one’s rights.
The Hadrian’s Wall Path provided me with five full days of solid hiking, and I found there was a pleasing symmetry in the way it follows a river inland, heads into the hills, and then picks up another river back out towards the coast. It is an excursion that I would recommend to all. I will not deny that it was, at times, painful on the feet, but it hurt only when I stopped, and the thing is to keep moving. By the time I finished I felt able to carry on for another hundred miles.