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North East A brief look at Newcastle/Gateshead and three days walking the central section of Hadrian's Wall

PatrickLondon

100+ Posts
Preliminaries: Why Hadrian's Wall? And an overnight in Newcastle

I'm really a fairweather stroller rather than a dedicated hiker, but in June 2006, I decided to try a walking trip on Hadrian's Wall. If you don't know about the Wall, let me just explain that it's one of the basic things we're taught about (or used to be) in history in the UK: in the AD 120s the Roman Emperor Hadrian decided to consolidate his frontiers, withdrawing troops from the furthest advances into present-day Scotland, and building a wall right across the country, with regular observation turrets, controlled crossing points and military forts.

Although over the centuries after the Romans' departure much of the stone was reused (the path passes a barn with a Roman builders' marker in its wall), much of it remains and was partly rebuilt/consolidated in the 19th and 20th centuries. There has been continuing archaeological excavation of the forts and other sites, with all sorts of fascinating detail about daily life at the time. Most of what is visible is in this central section of the Hadrian's Wall Path, which is organised as a National Trail. Some of the finds are also in the British Museum in London, but here (principally at Vindolanda, which is actually part of an older defence system) you see them in situ.

The simplest option seemed to be a three-day short break offered by Contours, but there are plenty of operators offering similar services covering all or part of the line of the Wall, for short or longer periods. This short trip covered only about seven to eight linear miles a day, and as it turned out, covered all the bits I'd have been likely to want to see, along the central section of the Wall.

I'd decided to spend the night before in Newcastle so I could see the new developments in the area.
I d heard Newcastle city centre wasn't exactly awash with hotel rooms, and the cheapest I could find at short notice in the central area was the Travelodge : clean, comfortable, anonymous, coin-in-the-slot: usually that would be fine for me, but it's not for everyone's tastes, and I'm not sure it was worth the price.

The centre of Newcastle is a handsome collection of late Georgian streets in a golden sandstone: but the effect is not so much Bath as Edinburgh or the "Greek" style in Glasgow. The steep streets down to the Quayside area are even more reminiscent of Edinburgh; but there are efficient (and cheap, by London standards) electric buses connecting the Quayside to the rest of the city centre.

I emerged from an ordinary sort of tandoori meal just off the Quayside in time to see the Geordie passeggiata in full Saturday night swing. It seems that a Rough Guide of the time rated this a must-see (heaven knows why). Scally lads and lasses hunting in groups, the girls duly blinged, boob-tubed and belly-ringed: here a hen party in matching tiaras, there a woman apparently detached from one dressed in a Victorian corset and directoire knickers with rather a lot of feathers on, and huddled in a corner with her mobile trying to find her friends.

All this conviviality has its downside, though: back at the Travelodge the room next to mine seemed to have attracted a very loud and drunk party about 1 am, screeching, banging on the door and generally making a hullaballoo, to the point where I had to go downstairs to get the night security man to have a word with them.

The next morning, there was time for a gentle stroll over to the Baltic (art gallery), the Sage (stunning new concert halls) and the "winking" Millennium Bridge, then on by train to Hexham and the Hadrian's Wall bus. By now, the weather was very wet, and my heart was sinking, but it stopped as I got off - just as well, as there was about a mile to walk into the village, to the first B&B booked through Contours:

Mingary,Humshaugh, Hexham NE46 4AG: telephone: 01434 681406.
Newly converted stone barn in a very pretty village: very comfortable, very friendly welcome. They ferried us (myself, a couple from Canterbury and another from Canada) to a pub in the next village for an evening meal (and back again afterwards).

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Newcastle is famous for its bridges, the latest being the "winking" Millennium bridge; another new icon is the SAGE concert halls in the background.

First day's walking: Chesters Fort to Housesteads Fort

The wind seemed to be blowing the clouds away, and in the event this was a very sunny day (I forgot to bring sun block: the path is mostly in open country and on exposed hill crags, so you feel the full effect of whatever weather is going). As the walk got away from the road and started to rise through lush pastureland, this seemed to be everything I had been hoping for. The wind dropped to the point where it just made the buttercups and daisies dance, the sheep and cows grazed contently, the larks and swallows were on the wing: and so, with a whistling roar, were the RAF's low-level training jets. Just as well I hadn't got my flask of coffee open.

Eventually the path rose through woodland to high crags with spectacular views, descending into Housesteads fort and museum. I'd reached it in good time, and had some time to kill before being picked up to be taken to the next B&B:

Gibbs Hill Farm, Bardon Mill, Hexham NE47 7AP telephone: 01434 344030.
A complex of farm B&B and bunkhouse accommodation a long way from the main road and path you would need a car to get here. But the housemartins swooped about the eaves, I could see pheasants strolling through the fields, and there was nothing to be heard but the occasional bleat (a very insistent lamb at the kitchen door the next morning) and the RAF, of course. Another very comfortable stay (the taxi driver, laid on by Contours, said, "So you'll have Mrs Gibson to make a fuss of you," and she was indeed very hospitable).

Dinner again involved being driven, with two merry widows from Yorkshire who were also staying at Gibbs Hill, to a B&B a couple of miles away which employs a chef and takes in people from a range of B&Bs around: Saughy Rigg Farm, Twice Brewed, Haltwhistle NE49 9PT, telephone: 01434 344120. The meal was pretty up market: a warm salad starter, carrot and ginger soup (delicious), pork with apricots and sticky toffee pudding.

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There are points where you can see the wall snaking away along the tops of all the crags in view

Second day's walking Housesteads to Greenhead

Once more the weather looked doubtful, but as Mrs Gibson drove me back to Housesteads, the sun started to come out and the sky to break up into "Simpsons clouds". Now the path was entirely along high crags with some steep ups and downs. I caught up with the Canadian couple I'd met the first night, and as we walked along together another RAF jet suddenly swept up over the crag in front of us and flew towards us, barely 20 feet above our heads and 50 yards to one side of the Wall: I couldn't get to my camera in time for that oh so symbolic photo.

I'd planned to come off the crags if the weather turned wet, and not long after the Canadians decided they wanted to catch the bus to Vindolanda fort and museum, I remembered I was running out of cash, and a very dark and chilly cloud came along. So I came off the path to catch the bus into Haltwhistle, which has the nearest cash machine. This, as it happens, is right beside the bus stop, and the next bus back came along in ten minutes or so. So I rejoined the walk only about a mile, and an hour and a half, further on from where I'd left it.

The wind was getting up but the rain still wasn't making an appearance, so I ploughed on under leaden skies, but still with spectacular views. I was starting to feel that, however spectacular the scenery, I could wish there weren't quite so much of it. The guidebook's chirpiness ("All the more splendid is the continuing switchback course of the Wall") was getting a bit wearing. But it was hard not to feel a certain eerie continuity with the soldiers who must have tramped up and down along here, stood in the same turrets looking down on the cattle coming in for cover, wondering when they would get into the warm. Not a moment too soon, the path led down to level ground and the last half mile or so into the next night's stop at Greenhead: because here at last was some rain. Not a problem (if you have decent waterproofs) at ground level in grassy meadows and field paths: but I wouldn't want to be on the steep crag paths with alternate mud and stone steps.

This night's stop was at the Greenhead Hotel, Greenhead, Cumbria CA6 7HB, telephone: 016977 47411. A village pub with rooms and restaurant, under new management and newly redecorated. Again, very comfortable, and an excellent evening meal (venison meatballs in a port and mushroom sauce, white chocolate and meringue roulade with raspberries and redcurrants).

The lady who served breakfast asked if I'd slept all right, because she'd been kept awake by the people singing and playing guitars and the piano in the bar. I hadn't heard a thing and slept right through it.

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You see how the Romans utilised the natural barriers of the landscape

Greenhead to Banks, and home via the Carlisle-Settle railway

Rain AND sun together this morning. But this day's walking was almost entirely in gentle farmland, and the rain disappeared within about half an hour.

Throughout the walk the sheep had either ignored me or moved away as I passed; but on this morning, one older lamb came up and started nuzzling me, presumably a hand-reared orphan who thought all humans were an easy touch. But I had nothing to give, and anyway tough love demands he should learn to take advantage of all that lovely grass. At least I had enough manners not to mention mint sauce, and passed on.

I was nearly at my destination by lunchtime, so when I saw the bus coming I flagged it down and went back to see the Vindolanda and Roman Army Museums that I had by-passed, thinking there wouldn't be time unless I kept them for a rainy day.

So I was able to see just about everything there was to see along this route, and all within a reasonable time. I would say, though, that one of the points about Roman forts is that they were all designed to the same pattern, so that newly-posted soldiers would know their way around at once. Chesters has the best excavated bath house, Housesteads the most complete latrines; Vindolanda and the Roman Army Museum at Carvoran are run by the same trust and cover similar ground (Carvoran is particularly oriented towards children, but also has a good short overview film about the Wall and what it would have looked like when complete); Birdoswald is perhaps the least distinctive, Vindolanda the largest and most important, particularly on the rare writing tablets that are still being discovered and enable you almost to hear the Romans talking. It must have been rather like the life on the North West Frontier in the British Raj in India, or perhaps in the military forts in the American West in the mid-nineteenth century.

Final B&B: Quarryside, Banks, Brampton, Cumbria CA6 2JH, telephone: 016977 2538. Again, very comfortable, slightly more "old school" (no teamaking facilities in the bedrooms, but a pot of tea and homem de shortbreads on arrival). Their own eggs for breakfast, and still an ensuite bathroom. For an evening meal, they took me (the other two people staying didn't feel like going out: understandably, since they'd walked 15 miles) to the Belted Will pub in Hallbankgate: steak pie (again a huge portion I couldn't quite finish) and ice cream, £8.95. The pub arranged a lift back again.

The AD 122 took me to Carlisle station for the journey home. I remembered the fuss there'd been, years ago, over plans to close the Carlisle to Settle railway line across the Pennines, so this was a perfect opportunity to try it out. This was also the day the rain really set in across the hills, so sitting in a warm train was a good way to see them. The line does pass through some dramatic scenery, and it was well worth the extra time of taking this route (pity the train windows weren't cleaner).

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Hard to believe I walked along those tops..

Booked tour, do-it-yourself, point to point or fixed base?

I went for a package with everything being organised for me, including baggage transfer, because that seemed simplest. I also checked that there was good public transport in case I needed to come off the walk at any point: the AD122 Hadrian's Wall bus runs along the main road very close to the Wall for precisely this purpose.

The Contours service was fine: it included £20 worth of guide book and maps covering all of the Wall, the B&Bs were excellent, the baggage transfer worked perfectly. It would be possible to organise it all oneself, though you might not get the same sort of price, and there's obviously a tradeoff between flexibility and stress.

Contours supplied:

- A two-way guide to the Hadrian's Wall Path, by Mark Richards, published by Cicerone (ISBN 1852843926). This provides sketch maps in two to three mile segments, showing bus stops and refreshments as well as the sights and the line of the path, together with very detailed walking directions and commentary on what's to be seen. Convenient pocket size, and much the more useful for me: only once was I slightly confused by the wording.

- Harvey's waterproof map (in plastic case), ISBN 1851374051. If you have the wall beside you and a good sense of direction, you don't really need a map on this rather larger scale: what you need is the detail provided in a guide like the Cicerone (which gate or stile to aim for that sort of thing).

There are also plenty of leaflets available free from the Tourist Information Centres and many B&Bs, for example, a walking and accommodation guide, general guidance on walking and on public transport. You can also buy packs of suggesting walking route guides from them - visit the website listed in Resources.

It would also be possible to do this sort of holiday from a fixed base, using the dedicated AD122 Hadrian's Wall bus to get to walking routes and other attractions. Haltwhistle is a sizeable and attractive town, well placed for trains to Newcastle and Carlisle, and for the bus to this central section of the Wall. Gilsland and Greenhead would also be good bases along the bus route at one end of this section, as would Chollerford and Humshaugh (though they are rather smaller villages) at the other. However, the first bus runs relatively late (around 10-10.30 am along this section), and you'd have to plan your walks carefully to make sure you meet the bus going back.

Planning is key: although you can walk as little or as much as you wish, this is not like country walking further south. Services are a bit more remote, the wind and weather on the high crags rather fiercer and the potential for accidents all the greater if you aren't careful. You need good boots, preparation for all weathers (layers, waterproofs AND sun block), some food and water, and emergency first aid supplies. I noticed a lot of people with walking poles; I didn't see the need myself, but if you were to twist an ankle (check my photos to see how steep the scrambles up and down can be), the support might be welcome.

Resources

Hadrian's Wall website
Maps and guides: Cicerone
Maps and guides: Harvey
My photos from this trip
Newcastle/Gateshead tourist information
SAGE, Gateshead
The Baltic art gallery
The most scenic railway in England?

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A last look back at the crags
 

Ian Sutton

1000+ Posts
It sounds like you hit Newcastle on a quiet night. :D

The remarkable thing is, go there in January and they'll be wearing pretty much the same very light / skimpy / not warming clothing. Alcohol seems to grant them immunity from cold, pain and the perils of the post midnight dining scene.

It must have felt like worlds apart to be out in the country (barring the efforts of the RAF)
 

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