Hadrian's Wall Adventure
Tuesday, August 16, 2016
Hadrian's Wall Adventure
I meant to write this down while it was fresher in my mind, but I didn't, so here goes... (caution - very long blog ahead...)
A few years ago my daughter and I did an epic trip across Europe. The one thing that was a 'fail' (Lathos!) was seeing Hadrian's Wall. We had to settle for the little museum at Walls End, which is pitched at elementary school children. So last summer, on a frustrated day at work, I texted her to suggest we hike Hadrian's Wall this summer. She responded with a surprised 'yes', and I went from there. I crafted a two week vacation - one week with my sister-in-law to indulge our Outlander fantasies with travels in northern Scotland around Inverness, a couple of days in Edinburgh with all three of us, and a visit to a former high school teacher for a day on the Scottish coast. Then my daughter and I would hike the 85 mile Hadrian's Wall trail across northern England.
There were several events that almost derailed the trip. My daughter got engaged and is planning an October wedding, so her resources were more limited. My SIL's husband's health was always a potential issue. But we went ahead and booked flights/hotels/day trips/the hike arrangements, etc. And, of course, a week before departure, her husband had to have the open-heart surgery that he'd been putting off for a year. After several days of struggling with it, we agreed she could not go, and I debated cancelling the first part of the trip - but my daughter offered to change her plans and fly early so that none of the arrangements need be cancelled.
It was odd during the first few days. Most of the activities appealed to both of us, but had clearly been planned with a different companion in mind, and we both felt very poignantly that my SIL should have been there. Our trip to Scotland went well - there were empty seats on the flight so we could sit together, and we found and caught the train from Edinburgh to Inverness without any problem. Our hotel there turned out to actually be connected to the railway station, so that was easy.
Day 1 - we rented bicycles and rode out to Culloden Moor and walked the battlefield. It was much smaller than I expected (I was expecting it to be the size of Gettysburg). Then we rode on to Clava Cairns and saw the prehistoric cairns and small standing stones. It was fascinating. The bike ride back was much hillier than I expected, and we pushed bikes a bit, and were quite tired when we got back to Inverness. We walked around a bit, and eventually went to a pub with live music that night. Crowded, but fun.
Day 2 - a bus trip to the Orkney Islands. In hindsight I would have changed this to a different trip - it was one my SIL had chosen, and while it was fascinating, it was very long and we might have enjoyed a shorter one more. But the World War I & II history of the islands was interesting - the Italian Church, and the Churchill causeways. And Skara Brae and the Stones of Brodgar were great in their own ways. Far predating the wall, yet you could walk among the stones and touch them. We saw more sheep than people. The scenery coming and going was gorgeous, but the 14-hour day was exhausting, even though 10+ hours were just sitting in the bus.
Day 3 - Loch Ness - boarded the bus for the Loch Ness/Urquhart Castle tour and met up with an American girl we'd met on the train to Inverness a few days before. The three of us had a good time on the trip - discovered the hot chocolate laced with Scotch went down very well on a windy and overcast day. Urquhart Castle was really fun to climb around and the Loch Ness visitor's center was really well done as well. After the trip we caught the train to Edinburgh. I was totally turned around coming out of the train station, but my daughter soon put me right and we found our hotel without any problem (looking back, that should have been a foreshadowing of how the trip would go - she took over the maps and directions from that point on.) It was poignant indeed to check into our triple room and have no SIL to be sharing it with us.
Day 4 - we played tourist on the Royal Mile... lots of museums and souvenir shops.
Day 5 - travelled by train out along the coast where my high school drama teacher and his wife picked us up and took us to their favorite beach, toured us around St. Andrews, and treated us to a lovely lunch at their house in Crail. It was a gorgeous day and really fun to touch base with him again and show off my daughter.
Day 6 - another full day in Edinburgh - we hiked up to Arthur's Seat - a harder hike than I had anticipated (and if I'd know it, a good indicator of what was to come!). Fantastic views. We separated for a little souvenir shopping and then stayed out looking for a pub with music. When the music finally started it was Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison, so we retreated off to bed.
Day 7 - travelled to Newcastle on the train, and after some wandering around found our hotel and a nice pub for dinner. The hotel was unexpectedly modern and upscale. The true mother/daughter part of the adventure was about to begin. We carefully packed our non-hiking stuff into the suitcases and got out the boots and trekking poles...
Day 1 - up fairly early and bought sandwiches at a Gregg's, of which there seemed to be one on every corner. Prepared foods, snacks, coffee. Then we took the subway out to Walls End - where the signage was in both English and Latin! Headed to the museum - bought a couple small souvenirs, a wall passport for my daughter (you collect stamps along the route to prove you hiked it), collected the first stamps on our passports. The clerk kindly took a picture of us and unlocked the gate to the National Trail, and off we went. She quickly commandeered the guidebook, and we started out on a bike path, becoming familiar with the National Trail acorn markers and signposts. The path was unexciting (except for a debate about following the guide vs the trail markers) and we headed on into Newcastle and along their re-developed waterfront. There are 7 bridges in a short stretch, and it was very picturesque. However - very few public toilets! We passed on out of the city through several parks, and finally stopped at a park teashop. It would take a couple of days before I gave up on public toilets and started using the bushes. Life was easier once I made the adjustment! We ended the first day with a mile-long uphill trek that brought us to Heddon-on-the-Wall and our first actual sighting of a piece of wall. It was about 100 yards long, and not very high, and off to one side in a park. But it was Wall! A nice way to end our first day. The B&B owner David picked us up and sent us to an Italian restaurant that was actually attached to the B&B for dinner. He commented that his B&B was not as "swish" as the hotel, and we latched onto that adjective to compare things for the rest of the trip.
Day 2 - Heddon-on-the-Wall to Chollerford. Mostly flat pasture walking. Lots of sheep, cows and stiles over the walls. Stone stiles, ladders, wooden steps, and many kissing gates. The last few miles were hillier, and by the time we got to Chollerford I was tired out. 30 miles in days. So we skipped walking the extra mile or so to the Chesters fort (in hindsight - we should have pushed through. Everyone said it was the best on the wall... go figure). We were then whisked off to B&B on a farm a few miles away, along with a German couple in their late 20's. At dinner that night we met three British men who were walking the wall to celebrate one of them turning 40. They were outgoing and amusing and although exhausted, we ended up staying up late drinking and playing scrabble with them. We combined to beat them, but only by resorting to non-standard (ie naughty) words. We were up and out in the morning, The Brits kindly gave us some sports beans and protein drink to help us on our way.
Day 3 - Chollerford to Once Brewed - the wall got bigger and a lot more of it was visible. What had excited us the day before seemed like nothing when you could look ahead and see the wall cresting the hills for miles ahead. The ditch to the north and the vallum to the south were clearly visible in many places, and the wall itself was 5-6 feet high. Very, very impressive. Near the end of the 12-mile day the wall followed the crags, and some of the climbing got quite steep. I was hobbling, but Casey was in pretty good shape as we hiked our way down to our B&B. We headed out for an early dinner at the Twice-Brewed Inn, planning an early night, but also hoping to see our British friends who we knew were planning to dine there. They showed up as we were finished eating, and we drank with them while they waited for their table - then drank with them as they ate, and then drank with them afterwards until we were shutting the pub down. My daughter was inviting them to her wedding in October... so you can see how the evening was going. We walked carefully back to the B&B to find they'd locked us out! After a fit of giggles, we rang the bell and fortunately they were still awake to let us in. Drank lots of water and went to bed. But alas, we both had wicked hangovers in the morning and slept very little. She was able to eat but had a wicked headache, and I was unable to eat at all. And it was shaping up to be a very hot day (heat wave! 85 degrees!) - and we were going over the highest crag first thing in the morning.
Day 4 - Once Brewed to Gilsland. We mixed up the protein drink the Brits had given us, and although my daughter could not stomach it, I was able to sip at it and after an hour or so felt really revived and even energetic. They should market that stuff as a hangover cure. She was struggling with a headache, and although the afternoon went better, she was still not looking for a drink at dinner time. Fortunately, the trail got easier after the first 5 miles or so, but it was hot and hilly. And gorgeous - the view from some of the high crags went for miles and you could see high hills in the south and expansive vistas in the north. And sheep everywhere. And friendly horses putting their heads over the wall. We saw the German couple several times, and at lunchtime someone asked us if we were the mother-daughter couple that a group of Brits were talking about at the next pub. So we were not far behind our friends, but we were taking an extra day to do the hike and would soon be far behind them. My feet and hips were giving me issues, and I was complaining a bit, but my daughter would remind me that this was all my idea, so complaining was not allowed. Finally we came down from the crags and made it into Gilsland and our B&B there.
Day 5 - we awoke to fierce wind and rain that pelted down as we ate breakfast and looked warily out the window. A group from New Zealand was re-thinking their plans for the day. We suited up and marched out into the day, finding the detour markers and made it about a half mile before realizing I'd forgotten my trekking poles. We reluctantly retraced our steps. My feet were bad, so extra steps were not making me happy, and my daughter hates being in the rain, so we were not happy campers although we tried to put a good face on it. The fact that it was her birthday made the rain seem worse to her (she's like a cat in the rain...) The weather got a little better by the time we restarted, but it was a slow beginning. At least the thunder and lightening stopped for a while and we made it to Birdoswald fort and retreated into the museum and cafe for a dry break. We soldiered on, finding that our rain gear felt wet inside due to the sweating, and after a couple of hours the rain moved south and the rest of the day was much better. We hiked with a couple from NYC, and with a Danish guy for a while, and then had a big debate about whether to follow the directions from the Adventure company and veer off the path to get to our B&B, or stay on the path (and not miss the wall) and walk a busy road instead. What we did not realize was that there were to be no more wall sections from now to the end of the trip - or at least only very minor wall indications. So we stayed on the path and dared the busy road and worked our way down to Brampton and the Howard Arms. Our Brit friends had eaten there the night before, and were remembered by the wait staff. Early night and in the morning we took a taxi back up to NewTown to continue on the path.
Day 6 - Brampton to Carlisle - we took a taxi in the morning to get back to the path. The path got easier and easier as we approached Carlisle, but there were really no wall sightings. There were little bits of the vallum and the ditch, but that was about it. Not sure where we messed up on the mileage, but the day was short and we got into Carlisle in early afternoon. We stopped to get our wall passports stamped at the Sands Sports center - it had a cafe so we stopped for a snack (it also had a full bar! That might be popular at a gym in the US!) Found our B&B - which turned out to be very elegant - we felt really grubby staying there. Because we had time, we went to the museum before finding a place for dinner. The museum was near the castle and had some excellent exhibits. Ran into the German couple one last time.
Day 7 - Carlisle to Bowness-on-Solway - we knew this would be a long day, as we had to finish the walk, then get back to Carlisle to take a train to Edinburgh, so we started early. The B&B offered us breakfast at 6:15 AM, and we were on our way by 7:00. It was fresh and cool and we wondered why we had done later starts on the other days! There was a long detour through Carlisle, and then we were out in the country - tidal lowlands, and some long stretches where we were advised that it could be impassable during high tide. We started taking pictures of the mileposts as we counted down the miles. We met a few people just starting out to walk it the other way... I felt old and experienced (and tired and started to get emotional - very similar to the last miles of a marathon).It was easier walking, but a full 15 miles. We debated trying to get there in time for the 1:37 bus, but decided we'd just plan to take a taxi back to Carlisle so we could enjoy a celebratory drink. After a stop where a man customized his signpost for our picture, we trekked the last mile and got to the hut covering a Roman mosaic that marks the true end of the path. After jubilant picture taking, we walked up to the Kings Arms - the bus pulled up as we arrived, but we headed on in to get a pint. We sat and savored for about an hour before our taxi came to take us back to Carlisle, pick up our luggage and head for the train station. During the train ride exhaustion set in, but since we arrived at dinner time we headed up to New Town and found a pub for a last dinner in Scotland... fish & chips for me. Then off to the airport hotel and re-sorted all our gear to fit the boots in the suitcase and prepare for the long flight home.
Coming home - the flight was long, and we drowsed, but all went smoothly. Took a really long time to get the baggage and get to the car (over an hour and a half!) and then the traffic was truly horrible all the way to the border. Although we arrived in Toronto at 10:30 AM, we didn't get home until almost 4 (we did stop for lunch... my daughter was craving Chipotle, and it was nice to have the comforting foods we are used to.).
It was a great trip - and this account, although long, doesn't cover all the memories by any means... there was the dog at the Howard Arms, small dogs along the way, other encounters with strangers that were interesting, and all the lovely B&B hosts. The poignancy of missing my SIL, the souvenir shopping (and arguing over souvenir shopping)... Was it the bonding trip I'd envisioned? Parts of it were - there were some evenings where we split a bottle of wine and talked until late in the evening, others when we played cards. It was good time spent together, although not some mystical connecting time.
But I am very, very glad we did it - it was epic in it's own way, and a trip I will long remember and cherish.