Back in 2012, we were planning a special event for my sister, Dee, to celebrate a milestone birthday. Those who know her will appreciate that she is always looking to try new and unconventional things ! We decided she needed a challenge that would stretch her, would be memorable and good story telling for friends and family in years to come.
I was tempted to really challenge her by sending her somewhere on her own, however I also wanted to have my own stories to tell, so organised it for 5 people, which included her childhood friend, Bhavni, from Kenya and our dear bhai and bhabhi, Dinesh and Meena.
We decided to take a 7 day trek of the world-famous Hadrianâ€™s Wall which runs from coast to coast in the North of England. This had the advantages of an easily-accessible start point (only 4 hours by rail from London ) and it was rich in historical significance for the identity of England as we know it today. Remember, we werenâ€™t educated in England so our British historical knowledge is limited!
Now, as you may know, Dee is not renowned for her passion for walking or the great outdoors; sheâ€™s more a spa type of girl, so the challenge would certainly be different! We would also gain some orienteering skills, as we decided not to have a walking guide but follow the map provided by the tour company. The tour company provided us with a daily itinerary, a guide book and a map. Only one map, which meant we had to stick together, which was no mean feat as we each had our own pace and rhythm on the trek! Our bags were transferred daily to the next destinationâ€™s Bed and Breakfast establishment, which was a great relief, as we didnâ€™t have to carry any additional load when walking and also a warm bed and food, which was a great incentive to get us moving. We could also soothe our weary limbs and tend to many blisters!
Background to Hadrianâ€™s Wall
Hadrianâ€™s Wall was the master stroke of Emperor Hadrian Aelius, who strove to achieve two things all rulers dream of â€“ legacy for posterity and admiration from his Army and his subjects.
Hadrian came to power in AD117 and inherited a volatile situation at the northern edge of his empire. After failed attempts to conquer what is now Scotland, Rome had established a frontier road between the Tyne and the Solway Firth. Hadrianâ€™s innovation was to replace the Stanegate (the road between two important forts at Corbridge and Carlisle), with a physical frontier â€“ a defensible line of control that interrupted the erratic movement of the Pictish tribes which so troubled the Romans. The wall was to separate the Romans from these barbarians (primitive and uncivilised people).
This defensive line formed an almost straight east-west divide, crossing the narrowest neck or isthmus of the northerly Roman province, Brittania, for 80 miles (128 km) from the Tyne in the East to the Solway Firth in the West. Building the wall required some two million tonnes of stone to be cut, hauled and laid by hand. Main work was concentrated in a 10 year period from AD122 and was undertaken by 3 Roman Legions – XX Valeria, VI Victric and II Augusta.
The Wall had integrated forts approximately every 5 miles, garrisoned by cavalry or foot soldiers. There were also frontier post gates every mile. The Roman mile (â€˜milleâ€™, from which we derive the word â€˜mileâ€™) was equivalent to 1000 marching paces (double steps).It endured as an effective frontier for almost 300 years against the wild and lawless tribes of the North. The Wall became the finest surviving frontier work from any part of the classical Roman Empire and was recognised as such in 1987 when it was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The wall appeared to be the perfect â€˜grand schemeâ€™ to enhance Hadrianâ€™s standing at the helm of the Roman Empire. The only stone built frontier in the history of the empire, it also represented a seismic change in thinking â€“ as the usual timber structures of an expanding empire were replaced by a permanent frontier that suggested a policy of inward looking containment.
The frontier played an active part in Roman life for nearly 3 centuries. However, once Roman jurisdiction fell away the wall lost its meaning. It, nevertheless, remained largely intact for the next 1000 years.
Its only enemy was the damp northern climate and the occasional monastic â€˜borrowingâ€™ to build churches of the newly developing religion of Christianity. Later, when most buildings came to be made of stone, it was open season on the long defunct frontier and farmers and house builders took the stones in cart loads.
Any trace of the wall remaining today is largely due to the prompt action of one man, John Clayton of Chesters, whose estate was located some five miles north of Hexham, west of Chollerford where the wall crossed the North Tyne. Clayton inherited the estate in 1822, and realised the importance of the Roman site in the grounds and developed a passion for the frontier with which it was associated. Clayton acquired farm after farm along the line of the wall as far as the Cumberland border (Cumbria in the present day).
Wallsend to Heddon-on-the-Wall
Starting point was from Segedenum Fort â€“ the first day was mainly walking on the tarmac roads, which was more like a city tour! Passed Tyne Bridge, Lenington, Newburn, Tyne Riverside Country Park. Walked through lovely wheat farms and golf course, heading towards our destination for the night at Hadrianâ€™s Barn. According to the itinerary we were meant to walk 15miles, according to Deeâ€™s pedometer we walked 20miles which is 32km! Who is right?!
Heddon-on-the-Wall to Chollerford
After a lovely healthy breakfast of porridge and toast, which we made ourselves, we were all geared up. The small villages we passed were Eppies Hill, Harlow Hill, Moorhouses Road-End, Halton Shields, Portgate, St Oswaldâ€™s, Heavenfield and ended at Chollerford.
Today was the first sighting of the vallum – a double-banked ditch, created at varying distances further to the rear of the wall, as well as the first of the Hadrianâ€™s Wall in bits and pieces. Really beautiful sceneries â€“ I canâ€™t begin to describe. Met lots of other walkers as well. Our stay for the night at Walwick Farm House â€“ yet again a really beautiful farmhouse. Another day where the itinerary did not correlate to the distance we covered. Itinerary stated 15miles and again we appeared to walk 32km. Decided we should ignore the itinerary!.
Chollerford to Once Brewed
Today was the day that we saw the majority of Hadrianâ€™s Wall. Awesome, awesome sceneries. Passed the MithraicTemple â€“ there were several temples to the god Mithras along the Wall, the focus of a religious cult whose practices can be loosely paralleled with present-day masonic ritual. Derived from ancient Persia, the cult was preferred by officers, notably legionaries, though evidently auxiliaries drew inspiration from it too. It was exclusively masculine in observance, associated with mysterious acts linked to the sacrificial slaying of bulls in a cave, and focused on the eternal battle between light and dark (good and evil). In its heyday it rivalled Christianity in popularity. Ironically, the present farm-name â€˜Rudchesterâ€™ inverts the Roman chauvinism, for it translates as â€˜the former Roman fort now belonging to Ruddaâ€™, a Scandinavian feminine name. Also saw the Cilurnum Roman Fort and Chollerford Bridge over the River North Tyne.
Todayâ€™s trek was one of the difficult ones â€“ having climbed over boulders and clambering down very steep hills â€“ which of course meant we had steep hills to climb as well. Had to remember if we go down, we have to go up!!! Today on our last hour of trekking, the heavens opened with thunderstorm and hailstones and we were drenched to the skin but not cold!! However, it was an experience and a half. Overnight stay was at Gibbs Hill Farm. Trek covered 13.5miles/22km, book states 12miles
Once Brewed to Gilsand
As today was going to be a much shorter trek â€“ we started at 10.30am. It was quite a chilly day and we had to dress up warmly with our woollies. The first part of the trek was very similar to Day 3 â€“ steep hills and boulders and lots of walking through farmlands with very uneven grounds. Not to mention the fresh cow dung, sheep and goat droppings!! We also passed the highest peak of the wall today. Beautiful scenery. This is the second day that we caught most of the Hadrianâ€™s Wall.
Finished early today at 4pm – yet again had another fantastic overnight stay at Bush Nook farm. To our amazement, this place had an outdoor Jacuzzi which was bliss to use after our few days trek. The people up north are amazing and so very helpful, caring and extremely trustworthy. Most of the places had an honesty bar â€“ pay for what you think your drinks amount to!! So far, the best accommodation â€“ very hospitable people, run by father, daughter and wife. Watched beautiful sunrise and sunset. Walked 8miles/16.9km first time when the itinerary matched with the distance covered, we must be getting good!
Gillsand to Walton
We passed the famous Irthing Bridge/river before which we had to climb an extremely steep hill (the last of the massive hills). Passed Birdoswald, Banks, Walton. On the way was the famous Lanercost Priory. After this, the trek once again was mainly on tarmac roads and it seemed like never ending roads. First B&B which did not stand up to the claims made by tour guide book. Walked 8miles/13km
Walton to Carlisle
To add more adventure to our trek, our friend from Kenya managed to get countless blisters on her feet and we had to call upon a chiropodist who did a great job of plastering her foot. Todayâ€™s trek was not scenicâ€“ lots of farmlands and greenfields followed by a short trek on tarmac road. There was yet another honesty shop here â€“ eat and drink what you desire and leave the money in the box. Passed Eden River and reached our guesthouse very early â€“ 3.30pm as there was minimal hills and there was no sign of the wall at all today. Not sure if it actually has disappeared on this stretch or our orienteering skills were not as good as we thought! Courtfield Guesthouse was another beautiful place where we enjoyed an overnight stay. Walked 11miles/18km
Carlisle to Bowness-on-Solway
Our last day â€“ it had been an amazing experience but we were all very eager to finish. The day was very overcast and the tired trekkers were feeling tired! Our walk started at Eden River where we had left off the previous day. First part was just following the river and then onto tarmac and fields. Today, we came across a landslide and had to take a detour of 2 miles! Passed Grinsdale, Beaumont, Dykesfield, Statue of Edward, â€œThe Hammerâ€, Drumburgh, Port Carlisle and finally Bowness-on-Solway.
We had relentless drizzle so raingear became the attire of the day!! Without any scenic views felt like a very long hike. Walked 14.5 miles/23km
To round it up â€“ I have to say hats-off to my sister, Dee for having completed this trek, as this is something that is definitely not her cup of tea and to our friend from Kenya, Bhavni who did this without any kind of training, had blisters from day 1 but always had a smile on her face. The blisters were so bad that on the last day which was rainy and cold, she trekked in her flip-flops. She couldnâ€™t even feel her toes. So yes, well done Dee and Bhavni â€“ you both definitely did a fantastic job and I know you are both extremely pleased with your achievement. Bhavni, thank you for the yummy â€œkatlupakâ€ and â€œbadampakâ€ all the way from Kenya â€“ which as you know, really kept us going!!
And of course, I cannot forget my dear brother, Dinesh, for being our guide and making sure that we did not go off track â€“ although at one point we did walk a few extra miles after missing a turning. Last but not least, my supersonic bhabhi, Meena â€“ thanks for all your encouragement throughout the trek and making sure we all behaved!!
We will always share the memories of this time spent together amid such beautiful scenery. Precious time in which to enjoy each otherâ€™s company, and renew our mutual love and friendship. To take time out of our busy lives and remember what is truly important. I would recommend the journey to you all.
Kailash Visram Kerai
Vice President -SKLPC(UK)
Naranpar Gaam (Extracts from A Cicerone Guide â€“ Mark Richards)