Day zero: arrival
I parked in Carlisle, Sainsbury’s car park through yourparkingspace.co.uk (approximately £20 for 10 days)
Opposite I waited at the bus stop for the three times a day 93 bus to Bowness. The 18.10 bus is the last one for the day, otherwise I’d have to pay £35 for a taxi.
I felt something warm land on my head and then on my cleavage. Looking down I saw liquid brown poo.
Is this lucky? I thought as I searched for my wet wipes.
In Bowness at The Kings Arms pub, the landlady gasped when I told her I hadn’t booked anywhere ‘except for tonight’.
‘Oh thank god,’ she said, ‘I was going to have to find you a bed and we are fully booked.’
I had dinner – cheesy garlic bread with salad. Most of the menus on the Hadrian’s Wall Path are the same:
- Fish and chips
- Veggie curry
- Lasagne and chips
But also local stuff such as Cumberland sausage and mash, steak and ale pie with chips. Portions are hearty.
I squatted the table of a couple who’d just finished the walk East to West, Wallsend to Bowness, trying to glean info. He had to give up a couple of days before the end- ‘blisters. The doctor told me I couldn’t carry on. I’m disappointed.’ He got them from the first two days- long days on tarmac.
‘You’d better get back to your hotel and book your accommodation’ they advised. I spent a couple of hours on the phone. I managed: Bed and Breakfast either end and camping in the middle.
Day one: Bowness on Solway to Boustead Hill. Morning.
Eating a fried egg bap (no runny whites please) to the tune of Eye of The Tiger in a neon-lit bar. The other customers aren’t walking. They are very northern: the accents of course and the women, who have exaggerated make-up.
This is the UK’s version of the Camino de Santiago. I’ve even got a passport which I get stamped at various points along the walk.
I’m going to take it very slowly. Partly because I broke my ankle in January this year and it still hurts. Mostly because I’m an overweight, middle-aged woman who has slummocked on my sofa for the last 18 months.
‘Is there any food at Boustead Hill?’ I ask the Geordie chef.
‘Not as far as I know’
‘How do I eat tonight?’
‘You can order takeaway from us and we’ll deliver.’
‘That feels a bit cheaty’ I remark.
‘Nothing wrong with a bit of cheating I say, lass’ he shrugged. It’s rather nice being called lass by big muscly Geordies. I feel like I’m in Outlander.
In general though, the locals think we are all mad. None of them seemed to have done the walk or only sections of it.
It was a long wet walk. The area is prone to high tides when it would be inaccessible. Bird sounds are abundant as are cows, goats and even, alpacas. Looking across the Solway sandy marshes, you can see Scotland. Gretna Green is nearby.
I only walked 7 miles, 16k steps and I’m knackered. I spent the rest of the day laying on my bunkbed looking at cows out of the window.
I called the restaurant in Bowness for food: ‘We are rammed’ said the waitress ‘you’ll wait hours for your food’. I found a cereal bar in my bag. There was a kettle for tea or coffee. I was too tired to walk to the nearest pub two miles away. I found it odd that the hosts didn’t offer me any food at all. It’s so alien to me, to be that inhospitable. I was the only one there. It was cold and damp so I crawled into my sleeping bag.
In the morning the farmer’s mum made me porridge, three quid, with golden syrup, just as my mum used to make it.
Day Two: Boustead Hill to Carlisle
I’ve been mostly walking on road which is a killer for the legs and the feet. I’ve had the revelation that roads are for cars. Tarmac hurts. The scenery is coastal with a view of the Solway inlet but flat and somewhat monotonous. In one village I could have taken a diversion to see the statue of Edward 1st. Apparently this isn’t Edward the Confessor. Would he then be Edward Zero? I’m a bit scared that I won’t be able to cope with any added mileage so I didn’t go.
I’ve started to see the famed ‘honesty boxes’ and honesty fridges’. The locals leave water, fruit drinks and snacks, sometimes on a wall, or in a specially-built hut or fridge. Some people aren’t that honest and don’t leave any money, so there are security cameras which is a shame.
I met a guy who was jogging/walking on his own. He told me his story. His wife had died Christmas Eve from Motor Neurone Disease. Ten months from diagnosis to death, leaving behind nine-year-old twin girls.
‘I’m doing this overnight’ he said ‘ to raise money for MND charity‘.
He was going to be walking 84 miles in 24 hours, much of it by torch-light. He carried nothing except one of those camel-backs where you suck up the water via a plastic pipe.
Walking long distance seems to be a common project for those who are grieving. I noticed this on the Camino de Santiago. It’s a cleansing, purifying routine, literally putting one foot in front of the other, and also a remembrance.
Towards the city the path followed the river and I would see people fishing. There was a field with a sign ‘Beware of the bull’ which I entered as I had no idea of where else to go. There was no bull. Later I was told that this is a trick by farmers to deter walkers.
In fact when you are walking along the road, it means that no farmers have allowed walkers along the edges of their fields. There are frequent disagreements about Public Rights of Way. You see many notices asking walkers not to worry the sheep or upset calving cows.
Using the Google app and reverse image search, I identified the heavily-laden blackthorn plants as sloe berries. I spent half an hour or so collecting them in a bag. I had the idea of making sloe gin by heading towards Sainsburys car park before I went to my bed and breakfast.
I bought gin, sugar, a wide-mouthed container and ‘borrowed’ a colander from the home-ware section. I washed the berries in the disabled bathroom. Next to my car I popped the sloes into the container and covered them with sugar. Then I poured in the gin, shaking it around a little to rid of the air bubbles. I’d planned to leave this in the car while I’m on the walk. Usually it takes six weeks to flavour the gin.
Then I realised that I’d left my car keys in the backpack which had been transported directly to my B&B. Wearily I walked past Carlisle castle (where I decided to join English Heritage), though the ugly outskirts to my lodgings. The whole town smelled like shit. ‘Oh the farmers must be spreading something on the fields’ said the landlady.
At the B&B I found my backpack, grabbed the car keys and walked back to the car park to leave the gin, sugar and sloe gin. I was so tired by this time, I would cheerfully have paid for a taxi but there were none to be seen.
The historic town centre is quite pretty, with some grand houses along the avenues. But post-Covid, numerous shops and restaurants are closed but with too many charity shops, which is never a good sign for a high street. Gangs of young men with weirdly medieval haircuts (think Henry V bowl cuts) hang about staring at me. I’m old enough to be your mother I thought. They must be bored. It’s places like this that Love Island contestants come from and no wonder. It all looked pretty depressing. If you are a working class girl from a place like this, who wouldn’t use their face and body to try to escape? A few extensions, fake tan, get your lips puffed up. It might work.
Again I had no dinner. Too tired to order takeaway and many restaurants were closed (such as the highly recommended Alexandros Greek restaurant) as it was a Sunday.
Day three: Carlisle to Sandysike.
Was it today it gets tough or tomorrow? I couldn’t remember. I hadn’t actually seen any wall yet but there was a raised grass-covered ridge where the wall lay underneath. I met a couple of girls and chatted to them at breakfast. I ate porridge and a full English (veggie). I don’t normally eat breakfast. Concerned about the lack of food on the trail, I ordered a packed lunch. I didn’t get out till about 10 am. The weather was sunny.
From Carlisle, you start by going over an iron bridge and walking through a park. I saw a couple leaning on a bench. They were clearly walkers and the lady looked in trouble. ‘Are you ok?’ I asked.
“Blisters’ she sighed. They were very experienced but she’d got the blisters from the tarmac. I had plenty of blister plasters and handed over a few. They were from Newcastle. ‘My feet suffer from the years of wearing stilettos in my younger days. I don’t have any nails on my little toes’, she informed me. ‘When I wear sandals I have to fake the nails and paint nail varnish on the skin of my little toes.’
I could see they walked faster than me so I encouraged them to walk at their own pace. I found a snack shack and had a rest and a tea.
The two girls I had breakfast with caught up. One was a nurse and had worked throughout the pandemic. The other was a teacher. Their experiences of the pandemic were so different from mine. Too much work rather than too little. It was nice to have someone to talk to, it diverted me from the pain. When they stopped for lunch I wasn’t hungry. But they gave me some Laughing Cow triangles and I made a prawn-cocktail flavoured crisp ‘sandwich’ from them. They were going further than me tonight so I waved them on.
Something I think about on walks and whenever I’m camping is serial killers. I always wonder why more of them don’t choose these activities to find their victims. It would be so easy wouldn’t it? I first started to think this way when reading ‘Interview with the Vampire’ by Anne Rice while on a camping trip with my kid, though France. If I were a vampire I’d choose tents to get victims. You’d just slash your way through the tent.
Another problem on this walk was the lack of toilets. I learnt to linger a little bit after breakfast so that I could find a toilet for my morning poo. I don’t mind peeing under a bush but number twos are a bit much. I also detest dog walkers that put the poo in a plastic bag which they hang on the bushes. Who do they think is going to pick it up?
I had a choccy biscuit in the afternoon and felt the familiar gut-churning. Walking, fresh air, water and roughage-based snacks creates fertile conditions for being ‘regular’. This time I found a portakabin on a builders site and dived in there. I would have been in trouble otherwise.
One gate was blocked by a stubborn black sheep so I had to go around the long way. Each gate was different: you had to work out how to open it, via latch, or pulling at something or moving a lever sideways. Why couldn’t they all have the same system? I grumbled.
I was starting to get very tired. In general the first five hours were ok. It was the last three that were spent in ‘are we nearly there yet’ pain. The weather was very hot.
By five pm I arrived at Sandysike Bunkhouse Hostel, which cost £25. I regretted it as it was terribly stuffy and had flies. I’d have rather have camped. The campers out front had a beautiful view of the Pennines. They all had cooking gear, it seems the OEX camp stove is the stove du jour. I washed out my knickers and left them to dry in the sun. Again I had no dinner. I ate my lunch sandwich for dinner.
I talked to one guy walking and camping on his own. He had blisters and was considering getting Hadrians Haul to take his pack the next day. I said ‘I’m basically managing this by taking Neurofen.’ He showed me his pack of pain relief and said ‘These are three times stronger’ and ‘In the morning I get stoned. The combination of being stoned and the pills is bliss.’
Walking is pain. The first hour is always quite hard then you get a second wind. You have to push yourself through the physical pain, the difficulty breathing, the straps cutting into your shoulders. You have to watch out for hot spots in your feet and shoes. Even the hint of a burning patch can mean blisters. I put on a preventative blister plaster.
Day four: Sandysike to Gilsland.
I had porridge provided by the farmer’s wife and managed to get off at 8.30 am. I need to start earlier, I thought, to avoid the heat.
I keep losing things. I’ve lost my glasses.
I’m puffing and leaning on my sticks a lot. The uphills are tough and it’s embarrassing people asking me if I’m alright and skipping uphill ahead of me.
I go off-piste to the 11th/12th century Lanercost Priory. The gift shop is lovely with local crafts, ceramics, woollen goods, paintings and ironmongery. I want to buy stuff but I can’t. I can’t carry anything extra. I’m carrying three litres of water, my battery charger, some snacks, my phone, my guide book. It’s really hot and I’m desperate for shade.
Lanercost Priory is my first sight of the wall because it’s built with filched stones. I sit in a shady part and take pain-killers. Then I made a joint of my home-grown stuff and smoked half. It’ll all be painless from now on I thought.
Wrong. I thought I was going to faint. I laid down at the side of the road for an hour. The joint was a mistake. Further up the hill, I saw a trio of Newcastle lads resting.
‘Our packs are too heavy’ they groaned, sweating heavily.
‘I thought this’d be easy’ said one very fit looking lad.
‘We’ve called a mate to pick up our packs.’
‘It looks like you can get rid of the rain gear at least’ I suggested. I never saw them again. I think they gave up.
Just before Birdoswald, I sight the first part of the wall at Hare Hill. Broad, built to last, it measures almost three metres wide and two metres high.
I drank a cup of tea in the cafe and looked at the stone plans for the fort, built astride the wall. From here the stretches of the wall are continuous, the path follows closely. There are ‘mile castles’, gatehouses built every Roman mile where soldiers would live, eat, sleep, as well as two precisely spaced (every 1/3rd of a mile) look-out ‘turrets’ between. Hadrian’s wall is unusual in that the soldiers lived on the wall, rather like in ‘Game of Thrones’. Roman walls in other countries, the soldiers were lodged a few miles back.
The wall was built starting from East to West in AD122 by the Roman Emperor Hadrian. It took around a decade to build and has lasted almost two thousand years. The stones are only finished on the outward-facing side in a mortared framework filled with Roman ‘rubble’. At times I’d press my face and hands to the wall, trying to physically immerse myself in history.
I thought about Harold Godwinson who was defeated by William the Conquerer a thousand years after the wall was built. How did soldiers manage to walk so far so quickly? They marched from the south coast to York on the 20th of September to fight the battle of Fulford, then five days later the battle of Stamford Bridge. Harold’s army then had to walk south, 200 miles, to fight the battle of Hastings on October 14th 1066. No wonder they lost. Even though this 84 mile walk took me ten days, I started to understand how a professional soldier might be able to achieve this physical feat.
The markings for the path seemed to peter out at Gilsland. My app said one way, the map said another, a sign said another. I stood there.
I met a blonde tall friendly woman who was doing it on her own as well, but she was carrying her pack. She was with her mother who was tracking her by car, a back-up team. ‘I’m going to my parents hotel to use the spa and have dinner. It’s my dad’s birthday. I’ll see you at the campsite!’
I thought about the fact that I hadn’t had a hot meal since Friday, four days.
A local man, a retired teacher and his granddaughter offered to show me the path. ‘The confusion is because the National Trust have closed the path, thinking it too dangerous and slippery in poor weather.’ You could tell he was a teacher as he explained the Roman settlement very well, but also had an entertaining bitch about the other villagers.
‘Look at that!’ he said pointing to ancient houses with broken roofs. ‘There was even a court case, English National Heritage wanted to buy the buildings and repair them. But the inhabitants won so the place is falling apart.’
‘What do they do when it rains?’ I asked. The roofs really were in terrible condition, with huge holes. ‘Couldn’t they get grants to fix them?’
‘Yes, but they just don’t want to. Anyway, good luck and if you get lost, just ask a farmer, they are all related round here’.
Around 6pm, I arrived at Chapel House Farm where I had booked my accommodation. The friendly farmer, Andy McDaid, stood there beaming. ‘Camp wherever you want’ he said.
‘Has my bag arrived?’ I asked.
‘Er, no I don’t think so.’
Reader, I then had a mini melt-down. I was so tired. All I wanted to do was lay down. But with no tent, no sleeping bag or mat, what the hell was I supposed to do? I cursed Hadrian’s Haul, left messages with them, put up a bitchy instagram post tagging them.
‘Don’t worry’ said Andy. ‘It’ll be alright.’
‘I’m REALLY angry and upset’ I said. I was near tears.
‘Let me feed my pigs and I’ll drive you to the nearest village to get food and lend you a tent’.
In the supermarket I bought dried mashed potato, an individual cheddar and a can of lager. I had no cooking gear but Andy said he’d bring me a thermos of hot water.
Hadrian’s Haul phoned. ‘Your bag is at another place, at Greenclose hostel’.
‘SO irresponsible’ I complained to Andy, who drove me there. We talked about politics ‘I left the Labour Party long ago’. We talked about where I was going next (Glasgow for Marion Millar’s case). He knew about it; ‘I sent her a tenner’ he said.
Back at the campsite for my first night camping, the sun setting, I flung up my tent and poured the thermos water into the mashed potato bag. I stirred in the cheese with the end of a pen. It was literally one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. I ate it while reclining, roman-style, on my elbow, in my sleeping bag. I was too dog-tired to drink the beer.
I get an email ping on my phone. Politely Hadrian’s Haul informed me that I had indeed requested that they deliver my bag to Greenclose hostel. They accompanied this with proof, a screen shot of my schedule.
Oh my god, I realised, I double booked, not realising that the two locations were near each other. I wrote an apology to Hadrian’s Haul and took down my post. I’m such a fucking idiot. I’m such an exhausted fucking idiot.
Later I heard the tall blonde girl coming back to her tent from her parents dinner.
Day five: Gilsland to Winshields farm at Once Brewed.
I woke the next morning at 6.30am. The inside of the tent was dripping with condensation. I quietly packed up, rolling up my sleeping bag, my camping pillow, my sleeping mat. Lastly I needed to ‘pop down’ my pop-up tent. Several attempts later, I dragged everything away from the girls’ tent. I didn’t want to wake her. Googling my tent, I found a Youtube tutorial on how to fold it back into the bag. I just couldn’t do it.
Andy the farmer was also awake. With a nimble flick of the wrist he twisted my tent into the small circular bag. ‘Go on wi’ you, get out’ he commanded.
I think he was being Northern not rude. ‘How long do you think it’ll take me?’ I asked.
‘It took me four hours. So I think it will take you ten’.
‘Go high and stay high’ he called as I left. ‘The views are better’.
I took a deep breath and set out for the day. It was thrilling being out so early, the sun a grey fuzz, low over the fields, the plants glittering with dew and back-lit sequined spiderwebs. I’ve been getting up so late during lockdown. I felt renewed.
As I’ve said the first five hours are always pretty good. I passed a castle in ruins. I feel healthy, energised, exultant and proud of myself for doing this. But as the sun rose I started to feel woozy. My head was hurting. After a long lunchtime rest, sitting in the shade in a carpark at a quarry, I got up. My phone died and wouldn’t charge up ‘liquid in the charging port’ it said. Condensation?
The quarry was filled with inviting cool water. I wanted to dive in. A policeman said something to me, I smiled but didn’t really hear.
Looking up I could see steep stone staircases going to the top of a crag. ‘Oh it’s today the tough day’ I registered. I tried to walk up but I had to rest every five steps. I couldn’t seem to carry on. I was blocking the path. A couple in their 70’s hopped past me. I felt like one of those guys who has lost both legs but still manages to climb Everest. Except I have two legs. No excuse.
Two other couples looked worried. I had an audience. ‘Pour water on your head!’ shouted someone. ‘Drink all your water’ a woman said ‘better out than in’. A couple, an Englishman and an American woman, offered to accompany me for a bit.
This couple were in their early 60s and retired. ‘How are you retired this early?’ I asked. ‘We are accountants’. Ah yes the lives of people who have had proper jobs and therefore workplace pensions, something I’ve never done. (So I will have a state pension of 9k a year to live on. Not even minimum wage.) They were walking from Land’s End to John O’ Groats starting in June, three months ago.
There are two choices, a flatter path via the bottom and the stone steps up and down the crags. This couple tried to take the flatter path for my sake but we zig-zagged, using more energy than we would have taking the high path.
‘I need to stop again’ I said. I laid down again next to the stone steps. What am I going to do? I wondered. Maybe I can’t do this. The couple went on their way. I couldn’t hold them back from their much longer hike.
Another couple stopped. From Derby. The man ‘Do you need water?’.
‘No’ I said. I had water but I was being parsimonious with it. Partly because I didn’t want to run out (there are few water spots) and partly because I hate going to the toilet. If I drink a lot I go every 5 minutes.
The woman got out a half-litre bottle and virtually poured it down my throat. ‘Drink the lot’ said the man, who insisted I ate some sugar. Within a few minutes I felt so much better. My head began to clear. I was seriously dehydrated. I hadn’t recognised it. Then, like some kind of personal trainer, he coaxed me up to the top. ‘Breathe in, hold your breath, breathe out’.
We arrived at the ‘trig’ the highest point. ‘You’ve done it!’ he said ‘you are halfway, you’ve done the hardest day, the highest hike’.
His wife walked behind me. They weren’t going to leave me alone. They stayed with me all the way to the next campsite at Once Brewed. So kind. Just so bloody kind. I felt so grateful. ‘I’d like to buy you both a pint’ I said as we passed the Twice Brewed pub ‘but I’m too tired’. At 5pm it was 24 degrees centigrade.
The Winshields campsite was hosted by Malcolm. He took one look at my face, directed me to an armchair and handed me an orange juice. Then a cup of tea. I couldn’t even stand up to get the tea. I was speechless with fatigue. After an hour sitting down, amazingly I started to recoup my energy. Wow. And it was like that every day. You start out feeling so full of beans and end up feeling so drained. Rinse and repeat.
I didn’t go to the Twice Brewed Inn, fortunately. The tall blonde girl had arrived and set up camp next to me then walked back there and it was full. They wouldn’t even serve her a beer. I do think these pubs should have places reserved for walkers. It’s not fair.
The accommodation, pubs, restaurants are block-booked by tour companies months ahead. The places to eat are too far from the camp sites which don’t do food. There is little water and no toilets en route.
I’d carried the forgotten can of lager with me all day, I drank it warm. I took a shower. Heaven. You start to appreciate the simplest things as a luxury.
In the campsite there was a mass encampment of Duke of Edinburgh scheme kids. They were excited and made a lot of noise, calling to each other and flirting. I understood but they drove me mad. I shouted from the door of my tent ‘SHUT UP, some of us are trying to sleep’. It was 8pm.
No dinner again, except a tub of spring-onion-flavoured pot noodles. At least Winshields had a kettle.
Day Six: Once Brewed to Green Carts campsite before Chollerford.
I was getting quicker at packing up and this time I managed to pop down my tent by myself. It was 6 am.
Today, having resolutely decided the night before I would take the flat path rather than the hilly path, I thought ‘no I can do this’.
I climbed up and up. Then down and down. It was very steep in areas. The ups are hard on the lungs and legs but the downs take their toll on your knees. It’s hard to decide which is worst. I came to the Sycamore Gap where the singular Robin’s Hood tree stood. It’s nothing to do with Robin Hood, who was from Nottingham. The reference comes from the tree’s appearance in the Kevin Costner film about Robin Hood. It’s also been voted Tree of the Year.
Because I was so early, I was alone with the tree. I climbed over the wall to take a picture.
The day was fortunately not as hot as yesterday- in fact it was rather chilly and windy. Having not brought much clothing, I wore my woolly hat. The views of the Pennine Way, which crosses over the Hadrian’s Wall Path, going from south to north rather than west to east, rolled forth. As a child I didn’t holiday much in the UK. I know France better. But here I understood the beauty of the English countryside. In August you can see fields of purple heather; the view is lavender and green and blue blue sky.
For the third day running I was directly following the wall, striding alongside, following the acorn engraved into wooden stiles (rather than the shell as on the camino). I passed Housesteads’s roman fort, but it was off-route and I didn’t want to risk it. I’ll go another time. By car.
Greencarts campsite was a couple of miles before Chollerford and I regretted booking there. It would have been better to have continued as I arrived at an unearthly early 2pm. My bag hadn’t even arrived. I was permitted to sit down in the kitchen and make myself a cup of tea. I felt a bit depressed. It was cold and upstairs they were playing horrible music. The other campers had scary dogs. It felt different from the friendly sunny atmosphere at Winshields. It’s amazing how tiredness and the weather can affect your mood. Everything suddenly seemed quite negative. I felt lonely and my quest seemed suddenly pointless.
Eventually my bag arrived and I set up my tent. I’ll sleep off my depression. Nothing to eat again. Just some oat bars. Wasps hovered around my tent. One came in and landed on my bag. Not sure what happened to it.
I was unfair to the campsite though. Later I mentioned that I was cold and the lady lent me a hot water bottle. The scary dogs left. The terrible music stopped.
Day Seven: Greencarts campsite to Robin Hood Inn
I walked on the road to Chollerford, the nearest thing to a town I’d seen since Carlisle. I went to a tea room before the bridge and ordered a tea and a toasted teacake. This felt good.
The path would be mostly flat from now on, alongside the road, at the edge of farmer’s fields. After the wilderness of the crags I hated hearing the traffic. Yes you get hot dinners, hot water and clean sheets in civilisation but I preferred the rugged countryside.
I thought of Reese Witherspoon in Wild. I’ve also read the book which is by Cheryl ‘Strayed’. She rather irritated me. All that American spirituality, casual sex and poverty was off-putting. It’s all a bit Eat, Pray, Love. American women are so… fake. Cheryl Strayed was starving with poor equipment (bad boots and no fuel) and waiting for her friend to send her $20 at the next stop. Can’t imagine depending on the mail like that. (I guess we all used to. I remember collecting my mail from Poste Restante in India, Nepal and Tibet. How I clutched those precious letters from family and friends.) Unlike Reese there would be no one-night-stands for me. I’m probably very smelly anyway.
I’m doing this with my iPhone, using instagram stories to document the way. Aesthetically my standards had dropped: I stopped editing the images in Lightroom. Too bloody knackered. I treasure the few encouraging Whatsapps from my daughter, her boyfriend and the messages and reactions on instagram from friends and followers.
Everyone has recommended the Errington Coffee House in Corbridge. I stop for tea and salmon paté. Quite expensive. I feel different from the other diners: they look clean and groomed with brushed hair. Some look at me suspiciously. Others smile kindly. I think I must look a bit crazed. But at least I’m eating more regularly.
The last few hours are monotonous. I get lost at one section on a field where the path seems to end. I get very cross and bad-tempered. The ladders over the walls are doing my head in. You have to climb up about four foot then down the other side. I fall a couple of times. In my head I’m swearing: ‘Fuck off English National Heritage’ or is it ‘National Trails’? I don’t know.
I meet a bouncy group of male walkers wearing matching orange T-shirts. They are loving it. They are on their second day from Newcastle. ‘Where’s the Robin Hood Inn?’ I growl.
‘A couple of hours away’ they reply cheerfully.
An hour or so later, I see it in the twilight. I walk in. I have booked the camp site which is a field behind but one can ‘only use the toilets when the pub is open’. It costs £5.
‘Kerstin!’ the tall blonde girl is sitting near the door with a plate of food and a beer. Gratefully I sit down and order the same. It’s Greek night and I get the vegetarian Greek plate, Greek beer and a Sticky Toffee pudding with custard. I pre-order a vegetarian full English for the next morning. The only time available is 8.15 am. The tall blonde says ‘that’s too early for me’.
I am hobbling. I’ve realised I’ve forgotten to get my passport stamp at a couple of stops.
‘We are like best friends now’ she says. ‘We keep seeing each other.’ I like her. She is warm, open-faced with a great energy. She’s in her 30s and single. She’s made a decision on the walk: to have a baby as a single mother with a gay couple. I congratulate her.
Later, discussing my plans after the walk, I mention I’m going to support Marion Millar at her court case in Glasgow.
‘STOP!’ she shouts. ‘Stop or we cannot be friends’.
I cannot even finish my sentence.
I go out and put up my tent in the field. Her tent is the only other one. Dark skies twinkle above. The air is so clean. But from the direction of Newcastle I can see a huge halo, like a space-ship landing, in the sky. Light pollution.
Day eight: Robins Hood Inn to Heddon-on-the-Wall.
The full English breakfast. I’ll be honest, I don’t really like it. I don’t like baked beans. I don’t really like fake bacon or vegan sausages (so full of sage). I only like the fried tomatoes and mushrooms. They don’t have Marmite. I’ve had to resort to marmalade on this trip when I’ve had access to toast. I make myself eat as much as I can. I get my passport stamp located in a little wooden box by the front door. I set off.
As it is the end of August, there are fields are full shining yellow wheat. I pick off a sheaf. The seeds inside taste sweet and carby. Wildflowers, red poppies and something purple pepper the roadside like confetti. I walk through woods and green tunnels. The ditch or vallum, which was north of the wall, which lies under the B6318 is clearly visible. This was another obstacle to deter the wildlings north of the wall.
By 2pm I arrive at Heddon-on-the-Wall. It’s been difficult to find accommodation in this village and I’m obliged to stay in another village, Wylam. They’ve arranged to pick me up at the Three Tuns pub.
I walk in and order half a pint and the soup of the day, vegetable. I crave vegetables. The terrace is sunny but I prefer the shade inside. Another walker, a youngish man, sits at another table. He’s walked from Wallsend in one day, something that will take me another two days. He’s an ex-soldier.
The tall blonde girl walks in. She tells me there is a chunk of Hadrian’s Wall nearby, the last section of ‘broad wall’. Then I am picked up in an orange car and taken to the bed and breakfast. I just lay on the bed for a while, clean cotton sheets. But I feel stuffy and closed in. I love sleeping outdoors. I open the windows. As it’s a bank holiday the pub opposite has an all-day ska music ‘festival. I just hope they don’t play My Girl.
I pick out my dirty clothes from my rucksack and a wasp flies out. I wonder if it’s the same wasp from two days ago. The obliging owner washes my clothes for free. I only have one vaguely clean outfit, I will have to sleep nude.
I make myself go to dinner next door: a pizza place called The Wood Oven. I order a glass of wine and a ‘puttanesca’ pizza. It’s so good with chilli, anchovy, tomato, cheese, capers and lemon zest on properly-fermented sourdough base and cooked till bubbling in an Italian-domed hard wood oven. It’s one of the best pizzas I’ve ever eaten. Go there.
Day nine: Heddon-on-the-Wall to Newcastle upon Tyne
Up early, I sneak out naked to the hallway and pick up my freshly-laundered clothes. They are still warm from the dryer and smell so good. I walk through the woods to the river, passing George Stephenson’s cottage, the father of railways. From now on I will be walking next to the Tyne river all the way to Wallsend.
Nearing Newcastle I find bright orange sea buckthorn berries which usually grow in Scandinavia but also occasionally in the North of England and Scotland. I use the google app and do a reverse image search to double-check. They are super acidic and full of vitamin C. A man stops and ask me what I’m picking. I explain. ‘I’ve seen them about but never knew they were edible’ he says.
Further on in the woods and parks I find multiple trees with wild plums: red, green and yellow. I pick these too. As I near Newcastle there is a promenade next to the river. It’s Sunday and many Geordies are enjoying the walk. The wooden sign posts change to blue cast iron millennium mile posts.
Once I get into Newcastle there is a farmer’s market under the seven bridges. The food scene is similar to London’s street food scene.
I was wondering whether to continue to Wallsend, another five miles but I decide to go to my hotel in the centre. Newcastle is buzzing. The people watching is excellent. Northern girls aren’t dressed down like London girls. They wear short skirts, tall heels and low tops. Their hair is long with extensions as are their eyelashes and their eyebrows thick. It’s a bank holiday and they are out on the town. They walk arm in arm. Although most are young, there are several older women equally dressed up. The pubs are full, bouncers on the doorsteps.
I sit in a Thai restaurant looking out of the great plate-glass window. There is excitement in the streets. I see girls staggering down the lanes, and young men standing in groups, looking at them. I’m in bed by 8pm but I can’t sleep as my knees and legs hurt so much.
Day ten: Newcastle to Wallsend.
I wake at 6pm and set off, leaving my backpack at reception. It’s a backpack that can also be wheeled along, so it can look a bit suitcasey for posher hotels. I nick a croissant from the breakfast bar.
The walk by the River Tyne is rather industrial. There are metal signs saying ‘Keep off the shore for health and safety reasons’. But you can smell the sea and hear the seagulls. By 10.30 am I arrive at Segedunum Roman fort and museum in Wallsend, the end of the walk. I buy a sew-on patch saying ‘I’ve walked 84 miles, the Hadrian’s wall’ in the gift shop, have a cup of tea and get the metro back to the centre to pick up my bag.
At the metro station the signs are in Latin: ‘Noli fumare’, no smoking, and ‘Suggestus II’, platform two.
I take the train back to Carlisle. Ten days there, less than one hour back. Times arrow. At Sainsburys car park I get into my car and drive to Glasgow. Such luxury.
Postscript: The mysterious wasp re-emerged again a week later in Scotland. It was in my backpack, lodged in a pair of tights. As I put them on, it stung me twice. Within minutes I went deaf, my inner ears swollen, and started itching from head to foot. It was kind of scary. But I could breathe. This lasted 48 hours.