The complete 85 mile hike along the Hadrian’s wall national trail from Segedunum at Wallsend to Maia at Bowness-on-Solway, was my first thru-hiked long distance walk. Because of this it will always have a special place in my heart. I did it in June to fundraise for the MS Society, and have never looked back.
The walk is enormously varied with fascinating urban stretches through Newcastle and Carlisle, a stunning but more strenuous central section through Northumberland National Park, soft rolling hills around Heddon on the wall and Lanercost and the solitary beauty and peacefulness of the Solway Firth. There are also some great English Heritage places to visit although I didn’t have time to visit them during this walk.
I walked for eight days during variable weather averaging about 11 miles a day and staying in the hostel at Greenhead, bunkhouses in Heddon on the wall and Boustead Hill, and B&Bs for the remaining days. As you can see from my daily distances, some days were far too short because I had not done any advance planning and I had no idea what would be a comfortable daily distance for me. With hindsight I would have aimed for about 14 miles per day.
- Wallsend to Heddon on the wall 15 miles / 24 km
- Heddon on the wall to Wall 16 miles / 25.5 km
- Wall to Grindon 8 miles / 13 km
- Grindon to Greenhead 12 miles / 19.5 km
- Greenhead to Lanercost 5 miles / 8 km
- Lanercost to Carlisle 13 miles / 21 km
- Carlisle to Boustead Hill 8 miles / 13 km
- Boustead Hill to Bowness on Solway 7.5 miles / 13 km
1/ Wallsend to Heddon on the Wall
After a brief stop at the Segedunum visitor centre to sign the visitor book and pick up a walk passport, I headed out past the old and silent Swan Hunter shipbuilding site which is still a focal point in Wallsend. The walk follows a tarmac track along the River Tyne intended for walkers and cyclists. This path takes you past areas of the riverside which you can only see from the river. Given that this World Heritage trail was on my doorstep, I felt ashamed that it had taken me so long to get around to doing it. The long section along the river allows you to see the city as it is now, with old and new developments snuggling side by side.
After passing under several bridges spanning the Tyne, the walk leaves the city behind to pass the enormous munitions factories at Elswick established by Lord Armstrong. After following the old Stephenson wagon way, the path turns inland and climbs through the woods towards Heddon on the Wall, where I spent a comfortable night in a bunkhouse.
2/ Heddon on the Wall to Wall
From here the walk heads through pleasant pastures and arable farmland which was covered in the bright yellow flowers of oilseed rape and fields of buttercups.
The path follows the field margins and hedgerows by the roadside for some miles until the undulations of the vallum become evident all around.
I felt excited as I saw signs announcing that I was in Hadrian’s Wall country, and I became aware that there were a lot of walkers from all over the world walking the famous trail alongside me.
3/ Wall to Grindon
After a few miles along lanes filled with cow parsley and some wooden kissing gates, I was suddenly on the wall itself.
Different sections are in various states of repair as many of the stones have been plundered over the centuries for local buildings and walls. In some places the wall is over a metre tall and wide, in other places all you can see are the foundations, while in others only the rubble inner is left with all the dressed stone gone. In spite of this it is still there, exactly where the Romans left it with the remains of regular milecastles along the way. There is even a temple with altar stones to the Roman god Mithras near the remains of a fort known as Brocolitia.
It is incredible how these archeological remains nestle along side a busy B road which is probably built on top of many of the original sites. Just after the wall parts company with the road I pulled off to Grindon for my B&B.
4/ Grindon to Greenhead
After a pleasant rest and some nice food, I headed back up to the wall at Sewing Shields crag. Luckily a shepherd on a quad bike was able to point me back to a little gate up to the crags which I had missed. It must be strange to carry out your daily work in fields with this incredible structure passing through. Unfortunately, as I began to walk along the ridge, a light rain began to fall which continued for the whole day along the most spectacular sections of the wall. As I had chosen to walk westwards it blew constantly into my face, so I carried on with my jacket and hood resolutely zipped up. In spite of the rain I really enjoyed that section of the walk, and I developed a healthy respect for the labourers who built the wall and the soldiers who must have marched along it on days such as these.
Because the rain fell steadily and I discovered that the proofing on my jacket had worn off, I finished the walk along the lower level routes which meant missing some of the splendid section along Walltown crags (which I luckily saw again in glorious weather on my Pennine Way walk).
I was very glad to arrive at the hostel, hang everything up in the drying room, and tuck in to a hot meal.
5/ Greenhead to Lanercost
This was a very short but pleasant 5 mile day along some well preserved stretches of the wall around Gilsland and Birdoswald. The drizzle hung around until I gradually descended into the gentler hills and woodland near Lanercost. The sun was finally struggling through when I sat down for a cup of tea at Haytongate hut which has a kettle, tea, coffee and an honesty box for walkers.
It was lovely to sit and read all the post it notes on the walls left by previous walkers recounting their journey and I started to realise that I was part of a larger community of walkers.
6/ Lanercost to Carlisle
The following day the walk takes you along parts of the River Irthing, over the M6 and into Carlisle along a similar tarmac walk to the one which heads out of Newcastle. Some walkers prefer to omit this section of the walk, which follows the River Eden through the city, but it turned out to be a fairly pleasant walk along the river.
It also gave me the opportunity to hit the shops for the second time to buy a spare camera battery. It is such a photogenic route that my first battery was completely flat and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity of recording the last part of the trail.
7/ Carlisle to Boustead Hill
After walking across more low hills and valleys, I gradually became aware of the sounds of sea birds.
As the trees started thinning to my right, I caught my first glimpse of the sea and the lovely Solway Firth. I have heard people say that the only bit of the Hadrian’s Wall trail worth doing is the central section but I would have to disagree.
I had never seen this peaceful and solitary part of Cumbria before and I wouldn’t have missed it to be honest. The walk here is characterised by huge skies, large grass flats and tidal salt marshes. It was lovely to listen to the sound of the sea birds from Boustead Hill with a great view across the estuary.
8/ Boustead Hill to Bowness on Solway
I really savoured this last day of the walk as there was a part of me that didn’t want it to end. I more or less ambled the final 7 miles of my journey. High ground in this last stretch of the trail consists of a long metre high mound by the side of the road which you follow along the coast into Bowness on Solway.
Probably because it was my first proper long distance hike, I felt quite emotional when I finally reached the little shelter which has been created for the finishers. I suppose when I started I had doubts about whether I would make the finish, but I gradually found my stride and the walking became easier. Unfortunately my moment of glory, sitting on the bench in the shelter gazing out to sea, was short lived as another finisher soon arrived and I had to move on.
As my first thru-hiked distance walk it was a unique, thrilling and unforgettable experience which has taught me that life really does begin at the edge of your comfort zone. My advice is not to let the fact that you haven’t done something before stop you from giving it a try. The first couple of days were the hardest and after that it got easier as I warmed up. People in the “walker friendly” places on the route are very supportive and helpful which can make all the difference if you are tired and wet. Most were happy to give advice, cups of tea and even lend me maps and books to ensure I reached my destination.
The walk will always have a special place in my heart because it was such a baptism of fire. It seemed so simple;
- Pack a few things.
- Do it in summer because the weather will be fine.
- Don’t book ahead just go with the flow.
- Raise some cash for my favourite charity.
Well here are a few reflections about my own inexperience:
i/ Pack a few things.
Having done day walks for 12 years what could I possibly need? I quickly learned that being unprepared can be a costly business. Two days in I got blisters and realised I didn’t have any blister bandages or anything to change into so that I could remove my boots at the end of the day. Thus rest day number one was spent in Hexham buying bandages and flip flops for the evenings.
ii/ It’s June so the weather will be fine.
Unfortunately I had a day when the rain continued from morning til night and I found that everything in my rucksack was wet. This brought about rest day number two to dry everything out. I now realise why it is best to avoid cotton clothing and go with the quick drying synthetic stuff. To put it in perspective there were one and a half bad days but it is those days that you should be prepared for.
iii/ Don’t book anything just go with the flow
This was before the days when I had even considered wild camping, and it was a very unwise strategy in the busy summer season. I spent much time during my “rest periods” on the phone trying to secure places to stay.
I mention these points simply to show that time spent in preparation is seldom wasted, as long as it doesn’t overwhelm everything else. The walk would have been much more relaxing if I had booked my accommodation in advance, and my “rest day” could easily have been avoided if I had taken blister bandages and a rucksack cover or liner.
In spite of all this, the Hadrian’s wall trail is an extraordinary journey which gives you a unique insight into a fascinating era in history as well as respect for the people who engineered and built the wall. It deserves it’s status as a world heritage site, but this also means that it can be a busy place during the summer months. Meeting people who have come from all over the world to walk along it reminded me never to take it for granted because it is nearby.
I will probably never be as disorganised about long distance hiking again but I hope I will always find walking as exciting as I did during this walk. If you only ever do one British long distance hike, Hadrian’s Wall is worth considering.
The LDWA gives the following statistics for Hadrian’s wall:
- Length: 137.3 km / 85.3 miles
- Ascent: 1,744m / 5,722ft
- Maximum height: 326 m / 1,070 ft
Observations about the trail.
Although the walk is very flat at either end, it has some real roller coaster sections in the middle which are quite strenuous. On the whole it is well surfaced and waymarked making it very difficult to get lost. If you are not carrying all your food, it is wise to take packed lunches. There are not many places to buy food along the route except for the English Heritage sites which were quite expensive when I did the walk. The first 12 miles out of Newcastle and the section through Carlisle are on tarmac which is quite hard on the feet. I got a trail passport stamped at various points along the route and a certificate, together with a great meal, at the King’s Head in Bowness on Solway.
If I did the walk again, I would possibly go in the other direction to keep the prevailing westerly winds at my back. For information I used a Hadrian’s Wall Path Essential Companion (now probably replaced by online resources), Anthony Burton’s trail guide and the Harvey strip map, and, as a result of the accommodation problems on this walk, I finally bought a tent.
In memory of Eileen.