Monday, 11 May 2015

Hadrian's Wall. Day 1. Friday April 24th. 2015. We set off.

Newcastle to Newburn. 7.25 miles (11.6 km), 325 ft (100m) ascent

Crossing the High-Level Bridge on the approach to Newcastle Central station

In recognition of our friend Stefan's now-legendary comment whilst on the West Highland Way: Best day so far!

Dermot had driven up from Bramhall the evening before, and Carol and Dave arrived at our house in plenty of time to get up to Oxenholme for the 08.54 train to Carlisle. Carol had come up with a good idea to get all five of us to the station with our luggage, yet still not to have to leave a car parked up at Oxenholme for the whole week. I drove, and took everyone and their rucksacks up to the station, and dropped them at the station entrance at 8.30am. I then drove back home, left the car in its usual place outside the house, jumped on a tatty mountain bike (specially selected for its unattractive qualities so as to make it an unlikely target for theft) and rode up to Oxenholme. Once there, I locked the bike to one of the bike rails, which meant that the bike would be there when we returned, and would allow me to ride quickly down the hill to home to pick up the car.

The 'transport system' was a success, and went according to plan, so although cloudy and threatening to rain, the weather was kind and allowed me to stay dry on the ride up the hill. The train to Carlisle was on time, and the weather improved during the journey up from Oxenholme, so spirits were generally high as a consequence. While we waited for our connection to Newcastle, some of us partook of coffee on the "lawn" on Carlisle Station. I always enjoy the train journey across to Newcastle. It seems to pass slowly to begin with, as the train climbs to reach the summit of the Pennines, but once over the top, the rest of the trip seems to pass by in a flash, as the train careers downhill all the way to the Tyne. The scenery is good, and coupled with the sunny skies, it helped to make the journey pass quickly.

At some point, possibly around Hexham, our conversation turned to what we needed to do when we reached Newcastle. The actual, on-the-ground start of Hadrian's Wall is (as the name would suggest) at Wallsend. To reach Wallsend from Newcastle Central involves an approximately 15 minute trip on the Metro. So we had to leave Central Station, find the Metro Station, then catch the next available train to Wallsend. It seemed to me that this announcement, this disclosure, that we had to travel further on only to have to come back on ourselves, was met with some disappointment, not to say displeasure. So I pointed out that this was, strictly speaking, not absolutely necessary. I had made an assumption, at an early planning stage, that Carol, and probably Dermot, would feel a compulsion to follow the whole of the route, from start to finish. Speaking personally, I could think of little reason to slavishly follow the waymarked route. Newcastle, being a major urban centre of some antiquity, means that almost all traces of the original Wall have been erased from view, and the modern streets and buildings make it practically impossible to follow the actual line of the historic Roman Wall. Consequently, Hadrian's Way (as it is called within the city bounds) merely follows a convenient paved pedestrian trail, along the bank of the Tyne to begin with, out of the city. If my fellow Wallers Hadriani were not, in fact, rigidly committed to following the route from start to finish, then we could save ourselves approximately four miles of walking on this, our first day. Never has a decision been made so quickly - not by a committee, anyway! It turns out that nobody was particularly wedded to the idea of following the route in its entirety!

The amazing interior decor of the Centurion Bar
"Of course we don't have to follow every step of the route!"

"Not going all the way to Wallsend (and then having to come back again) will mean that we don't have to be in such a hurry to get out to Newburn."

"And starting from Newcastle Central means that we can have a pint in the Centurion before we set off walking."

Those of you who are familiar with Newcastle Station will be aware of the Centurion Bar. It began life in the 1890's as the station's First Class Lounge. It gradually fell into disuse before closing in the 1960's. After decades of neglect, it was taken over and restored to its former glory in the year 2000. All to our advantage, of course, because we were now enabled to have a relaxing beer before setting out on our Hadrian's Walk.

Lunch stop - before we have even taken a step!

After the beer, the serious business of the walk had to begin. Out of the station, turn right, and down to the river by a series of tunnels and stairways. Arrival on the riverside path signalled the stop for lunch, where a bench situated between the High-Level Bridge and the Queen Elizabeth Bridge allowed for a sit down (it's very tough, this walking business!) But, after that, we had no excuses left, so we had to start walking. It wasn't very demanding, and although there was some interest along the way, the scenery was not very inspiring. In addition, poor prior preparation (which did not prevent poor performance) meant that we totally failed to spot any of the few still-extant Roman remains along the way (such as at Denham Dene). I thus feel a certain necessity to return and track down the things we missed - but that's for another day.

One aspect of the walk out of the city that I did not like is the fact that the path that constitutes Hadrian's Way is a shared Pedestrian Path and Cycle Way for much of its length. While I cannot, in principle, criticise the concept, I am not a fan of such shared paths. From the point of view of a cyclist, pedestrians are slow-moving, and particularly when approached from behind, are unpredictable and obstructive. From the point of view of a pedestrian, cyclists travel too fast, are rude and arrogant, and do not pay sufficient regard to the safety of pedestrians. I was involved in a contretemps with what I would call a fairly representative example of a "cyclist on a shared path", after about 3 km, as the path rises away from the river bank and parallels the A695 for a way. The cyclist approached from behind, I did not hear him coming, and inadvertently stepped in his way. He responded with frustration, and I suggested that he should have made his presence known to me by calling out - a simple courtesy in my opinion. His rather angry response was to inform me that he had sounded his bell, and that should have alerted me to his presence. I don't like the use of bells - they are rather peremptory, and they add to the impression that cyclists are rude and arrogant - so I suggested in no uncertain terms that it would be more polite, and frankly more personal, to announce himself with a simple "Excuse Me". "Speak to me!" I said, although not in so many words.

Memorial to the Montagu View Pit Disaster
The Way continued through very varied landscapes, some of them quite thought-provoking to a landscape historian, though none of it was very inspiring. I would, though, be willing to return, armed with a concise guide to the industrial history of the area. After passing through Denton Dene park, and then an area of residential housing, we travelled for quite a long distance on what could have been a disused railway, or possibly a filled-in canal. Given the obviously historic nature of Hadrian's Wall, it should have come as no surprise that there would be so much of historical interest to be seen along the trail. But throughout the duration of the walk, it was to be a regularly recurring theme (as the consequence of "poor prior preparation") that I would time and again wonder at the significance or purpose of many features of the landscape. Definitely much food for thought, and many reasons to make return trips to find out more.

The old railway? What was its purpose?
When we arrived at the Newburn Bridge, it was clear that having shortened the day had allowed us to make good time (we were also helped by the fact that there was not much in the way of ascent in today's stage). Just beyond the bridge we were tempted by "The Boat House" pub, on the day fortunately not under the 2 metres of water experienced in the Great Flood of 1771. Fiona made a check of the beer on offer, and we were disappointed to hear that there was only Wells' 'Bombardier' to be had. Given that we were only a short distance away from our accommodation for the evening (and that, a Brewery and Tap House to boot!) we made the decision to continue straight to the Keelman's Lodge.

Arrival at the Keelman's Lodge
Although by now cloudier than it had been earlier, the weather was still dry, and warm enough to permit sitting outside (bear in mind that we are not natives of the North East, therefore not as inured to the extremes of the climate as the indigenous populace). So we had a couple of Big Lamp beers, sitting out in the beer garden ('Sunny Daze' and 'Prince Bishops' Ale' come to mind) until a few drops of rain sent us indoors.

Our room at the Keelman's Lodge

Then we booked ourselves in, and went to our rooms. After cups of tea and showers, we met back in the bar for dinner.

At our dinner table - the first Team Shot

The food was OK, but honesty compels me to reveal that Fiona was not impressed with her 'new potatoes'. The beers, however, were excellent, and much against expectation, the 'Keelman Brown' turned out to be an interesting and complex beer with a lot of flavour - not the sweet and bland 'Newkie Broon' substitute it could so easily have been. Definitely ten out of ten for the beers. Principal gripe would be that the bar shut at 11.00pm. That was probably actually a good thing, in that staying up late and drinking is not the best preparation for a fifteen mile walk the next day.

And so to bed - still comprehensively the best day so far!

You can see all the photos from today's stage on my Picasa Gallery.

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