Sunday, 10 May 2015

A Walk Along Hadrian's Wall - Preparations.

Hadrian's Wall - 80 Roman miles of history, weather, and sore legs and shoulders

Purists, Completists, and those who are genetically incapable of not following a waymarked walk to the letter: read no further. This is not an account of a journey along the Hadrian's Wall National Trail. This is an account of a walk along the line of the Roman Wall, by five friends, with wholly separate reasons for wanting to do the walk in the first place, and equally separate reasons for finishing it. It was not taken on as a challenge (although it proved challenging), and it was not taken on as a charity fund raiser. Ultimately it was taken on purely to see if we could do it. But it started out like this.

Foxgloves and rocks in the foreground, Sycamore Gap in the background
Sycamore Gap, once just a tree on the Wall, now a Landmark

Dermot is Fiona's brother, and one day mentioned to Fiona that he liked the idea, once he has retired from work, of walking the Pilgrims' way known as St. James' Way, or the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. Fiona had recently watched the Martin Sheen movie, "The Way", and thought that Dermot might like the film, and that it might give him some idea of what walking the route would entail. Dermot is not really an ourdoor person, and does not do a lot of walking. Watching a film will not give any genuine insight into the reality of following a long-distance footpath. To truly appreciate how physically demanding it is to walk for six hours a day, every day, come rain, come shine, for seven days (or even longer in the case of the Camino), it is necessary to go out and do it.

So the ghost of an idea was born. And that idea became a vague plan one Friday evening in the pub (surely the worst kind of a plan?), and that became a more definite plan; and the thinking behind that plan was: that to give Dermot a practical demonstration of what it takes to tackle a multi-day excursion, why didn't we walk along Hadrian's Wall? There are many advantages: it is relatively local; there is good transport available to and from both ends of the walk; comfortable accommodation is available all along the route (once upon a time some of us might have contemplated it as a backpacking trip, but as one gets older, the attractions of a comfortable bed and a hot shower become hard to argue against). And, at an average of twelve miles per day, it is achievable in a week. If we planned it for the following Spring, we had plenty of time to prepare, and time to get fit. The weather would (hopefully) be better, and if we arranged to start after the clocks went forward at the beginning of British Summer Time, the lengthening days would make things less pressured in terms of finishing each day's stage in daylight. Great plan! What could possibly go wrong?

A section of the Wall in the foreground, with crags and a lake beyond
The Wall in the foreground of Crag Lough, with Hotbank in the distance beyond.
Thus was formed the Great Hadrian's Wall Walk, Spring 2015. Clearly, I was going to be involved (husband to Fiona, and one of the instigators of the original vague idea); Fiona and Dermot were already on board, and when asked, Carol and Dave expressed an interest (the mad fools!) So some dates were suggested, calendars were consulted, and an initial target was set for April 2015. We could not be absolutely certain of the dates until accommodation had been confirmed, so I set about the preliminary investigation. 'The National Trail: Hadrian's Wall Path' website was extremely helpful. The 'Plan your Visit' map is the one-stop shop for everything you need to find out about accommodation and facilities along the path, and the distance calculator function built-in to the map is very handy for deciding where to look for your next overnight stay. Unfortunately, it appears that no-one has yet had the foresight to build pubs (serving real ales and offering comfortable overnight accommodation) at exactly twelve mile intervals, and situated within metres of the line of the Wall proper. Consequently, I was forced to look to see what is actually available, and plan accordingly.

The first decision that I made was to walk the path from East to West. No-one else had a particular preference, so I made the choice based on my wish to photograph our trip, and to take advantage of the lighting offered by the Westering sun towards the end of each day; walking Westward meant that (weather permitting) the light would be better in front of us as the day progressed. The best-laid plans of mice and men! As every outdoor person will tell you, you cannot control the weather, and one of the risks involved in walking Westwards is that you will have the prevailing wind (and associated weather) in your face. And this fact came home to bite us from time to time during our walk. However, 20-20 hindsight is easier to acquire than a functioning crystal ball; the decision was made, and eventually we just had to get on with it.

Anyway, the salient point about walking East to West is that the accommodation had to be arranged from Newcastle, heading towards Carlisle. So, using the Hadrian's Wall 'Plan your Visit' interactive map, I set about finding what accommodation was available at the appropriate daily distance of twelve miles. It quickly became apparent that there are not many properties situated either at convenient twelve mile intervals, or exactly on the line of the Wall, so it would become necessary to cast the net a little wider. We were also going to need to be prepared to walk away from the Wall at the end of each day to reach our shelter, and to walk back to the Wall the following morning. Having acknowledged that, back to the distance calculator. Beginning from Segedunum, 11.25 miles brought me to Newburn, and The Keelman's Lodge. (A quick check of their website revealed it to be the Brewery and Tap House for Big Lamp Brewery, the longest-established micro-brewery in the North East - what more could you ask for?)

From Keelman's, 9.65 miles brings you to The Robin Hood Inn at East Wallhouses - it had letting rooms, real ale, but no food on a Sunday evening! Memo to self - check with others about scheduling the walk so that we arrive at The Robin Hood on any day but Sunday. Stage 3 would see us complete 10 miles, bringing us to Humshaugh (pronounced 'Humshoff') with the Crown Inn for food, and a selection of B&Bs. Stage 4, 12.25 miles along the Whin Sill, logically the most interesting section of the walk, heading to The Twice Brewed Inn for the overnight stop. So far, so good. But Stage 5 threw a spanner into the works.

It looked like being another exciting day along the Whin Sill, over the highest point of the Wall (Whinshield Crags, 345m), and past Walltown Crags. But there was no immediately obvious stopping place. Greenhead was only 7 miles from Twice Brewed, and that meant the day would simply be too short. Gilsland, just over a mile farther on, would still be too soon to stop. And at the 12 mile mark, there is no obvious accommodation. This section of the Wall passes through something of a no-man's land with no substantial settlements, just isolated single buildings or small hamlets. Fortunately, the data layers function of the trail map came to the rescue. Turning on the 'Accommodation - B&Bs/Hotels/Pubs' button reveals all the accommodation that is available, and this feature showed a B&B called Quarryside in the hamlet of Banks. This turned out to be at 13.75 miles from Twice Brewed, a little farther than the ideal distance, but still perfectly achievable. However, no pub, so not immediately obvious where we might get an evening meal. Further research required.

Day 6 looked obvious - into Carlisle, and we should be able to get rooms in Travelodge. There should also be plenty of choice in town for food and drinks. The map distance calculator showed 16.5 miles, but I could also see a number of places where we could shorten the walk, and because we would be on our way into Carlisle it would even be possible to catch a bus if necessary. Day 7, last day, would be to the coast, distance 14.5 miles. The major logistical challenge for day 7 would be to get back to Carlisle. I needed to check bus timetables, and ask the group if we wanted to stay a second night in Carlisle, or catch the train back to Oxenholme as soon as we arrived back in Carlisle.

The plan was now taking shape. To solve the Robin Hood Inn Sunday food problem, I consulted my fellow Wallers Hadriani to consider making our start day any day other than Saturday. Were we to start on Saturday, we would find ourselves at the Robin Hood Inn at the end of day 2, Sunday, and would thus face the problem of finding an evening meal. Options were narrowed down: to set out from Newcastle on Sunday, placing us at the Robin Hood on Monday; or set out on Friday, making day 2 arrival at The Robin Hood on Saturday. Dermot preferred the latter; there were no objections from the rest of us, so we determined to start the walk on Friday April 24th. Enquiry e-mails were sent to accommodation addresses, replies were received and bookings made and confirmed. We plumped for Mingary Barn B&B in Humshaugh, and my enquiry to the Quarryside B&B in Banks regarding the evening meal situation elicited the following reply: "We take you to the local pub for an evening meal and the landlord brings you back." Luxury! Finally, by August 2014, we had a confirmed itinerary. Train times and bus times had been checked, all the accommodations were booked, and the deposits were paid. Now all we had to do was get fit!

The getting of fitness went as well as could be expected (and there might be a separate post in here about our training walks). However, in February, with only nine or ten weeks to go, we received some news that could have caused the collapse of the whole enterprise. One morning the phone rang (or more accurately in this electronic age, the phone warbled). Making the call was the owner of the Robin Hood Inn, and they were not bearers of good tidings. Following the departure of the pub's most recent tenant, the pub had been closed to allow it to be refurbished. Good for future visitors to the pub no doubt, but not good for us as prospective overnight guests. Our booking for April had been cancelled, so we would need to make speedy new arrangements for our accommodation on day 2. Ironic, really, that we had spent so much time agonising over the day of our departure so as not to arrive at the Robin Hood on a Sunday, and now the place was not even available to us. Time for a rapid rethink. Straight away I contacted the B&B establishments that are in the vicinity of the Robin Hood, and it became immediately obvious that they were either already booked-up, or unsuitable (too small to take all five of us). I was forced, therefore, to widen my field of enquiry, and I started to examine the nearby small town of Corbridge. To get there from the Robin Hood would entail a walk of an additional five miles, down the B6321, which turned South from the Military Road, about a mile West of the pub. I checked the Corbridge village website, read about the accommodation listed there, and sent some e-mail enquiries. I received a positive response from a B&B called Fellcroft, sent the deposit, and we were sorted. It had been an unfortunate hitch in our arrangements, one that could have derailed all our plans, but thankfully it was one that we were fortunate to have overcome. Back on track, we continued our preparations. But how time flies, and how quickly the departure date would be upon us!

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