One of Britain’s most famous landmarks makes for an epic walk back in time – and it's a journey that Fiona Reynolds took this summer.
Although no one’s completely clear why Emperor Hadrian decided to build a wall across northern England, he’s said to have visited this bleak extremity of his empire in AD122, leaving instructions to that effect. Perhaps it was to deter barbarians, perhaps simply to exert his authority – in any case, this dramatic barrier serves as a reminder that quality workmanship lasts.
My mother grew up in Haydon Bridge, a few miles south of the wall, and my father moved there as a teenager. He was involved, thrillingly, in the excavation of the Mithraic temple at Carrawburgh in 1950 – a feat he reminded us girls of rather frequently – so it’s familiar stamping ground. However, I’d never walked the whole thing and so, in July, I persuaded my husband and brother-in-law, plus our dog Lucy, to join me.
We set off, in terrific heat, walking west-east, beginning at Bowness-on-Solway. Nothing of the wall survives here, but a shallow indentation indicates the vallum (a wide ditch to the wall’s south) that tracks its entire length. We loved this bit, swinging along accompanied by gulls and waders, looking across the Solway to Scotland.
Too soon, we left the sea to pick up the lazy River Eden, which we followed to Carlisle, our first night’s stop, with its beautiful sandstone cathedral.
We stuck close to the Eden as we began our second day, before cutting inland at Crosby-on-Eden to pick up the gentle mound that’s the line of the wall, accompanied by the vallum, striking a positive path across lovely countryside. In blistering heat, we were grateful for the ‘snack shacks’, a sort of honesty-box system in which you can make a cup of tea or buy water and snacks.
Now, excitingly, we could see visible remnants of the wall for the first time: tooled-stone blocks embedded in tree roots and the occasional bundle of stones. Our second night was near Lanercost, where its spectacular Augustinian priory was built in the 12th century from pillaged Roman stone.
The third day was the hottest and hardest: we walked from Lanercost to Twice Brewed, mostly uphill with no snack shacks or even water to slake our thirst. Poor Lucy nearly went on strike, but this was a fantastic day to follow the sinuous wall up hill and down dale, hugging the dramatic Whin Sill.
Birdoswald Fort is a highlight, as is the Roman bridge at Willowford, but Walltown, Cawfield and Winshield Crags show the wall at its best, an extraordinary feat of engineering, beautiful in its elegance, delicately locked to its place.
A family reunion at Twice Brewed perked us up for our fourth day, when the weather broke without remorse. We’d waited all week for the iconic view of Sycamore Gap, but I could barely photograph it through the pelting rain.
Thankfully, it soon stopped and a dramatic day followed, with tumbling black clouds throwing squally showers, interspersed with intense sunbeams.
As we came off the crags, the sun came out and we began the long route march into Newcastle, stopping, of course, to pay homage to the Mithraic temple at Carrawburgh.
Our fifth day began at Wall and now we were in easier country, walking alongside the wall and vallum, passing milecastles and turrets with the nonchalance of the familiar. The last night was at Heddon-on-the-Wall, where there’s a substantial remnant of wall, before we followed the Tyne into and through Newcastle to Wallsend and journey’s end.
Walking 15 miles a day in an English summer, with comfortable accommodation and our bags carried, was no hardship, but we felt for those Roman soldiers, far from home in the wilds of a cold and hostile foreign land. We enjoyed tracing their steps across what is, today, one of our finest stretches of country-side, drenched in history and stories.
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