Updated on October 1st, 2018
Experiences are the essence of living a life you love. Experiences test us, challenge us, grow us and nourish our soul. Experiences bring us together. Big or small, pleasant, exciting, amazing or not – the key is to live them fully and consciously. Because they are our life. They teach us about ourselves. Experiences also give us stories to share, and this is the story of my adventure walking Hadrian’s Wall, when I became the Queen of the Pink Sandals.
I receive Kay’s text message just as my train from London pulls into Newcastle main station. “Hi, I believe we’re sharing a taxi later. Just checking where you are. Is your train as hot as mine?”
It is. My train is super-hot. At the end of June, the UK is in the grip of an unprecedented heat wave, for which it seems utterly unprepared. Or perhaps it just so happens that on this particular Friday afternoon the air conditioning system on the train is out of service. It’s not helped that, due to overbooking, I’ve had to make the first hour and a half of my train journey from London standing up, wedged in with sweaty and unhappy-looking fellow travellers.
But I’m on an adventure, and I’m determined not to let my mood be spoiled by a few unfortunate travelling practicalities. After all, adventures are as much about overcoming what goes wrong than plain-sailing what goes right – isn’t that so?
“Very hot!” I text Kay back. “Just arriving Newcastle. Where r u?”
Meeting a stranger
We’re complete strangers, Kay and I, connected by guided walks organiser Large Outdoors, who are taking us onto Roman footsteps this weekend. We will be walking – at least in part – one of the most iconic, mind-blowingly impressive ancient constructions surviving from the Roman province Britannia: Hadrian’s Wall.
We’re the only ones in a group of thirteen walkers joining the walking weekend by public transport. And the only two who live in Southern England – though Kay is a proud Yorkshire lass and belongs up here much more than I do, Italian and Swiss that I am!
Happily, we like each other at first sight when we meet a short while later in Newcastle station to take the local train to Hexham together. Its two carriages seem a little measly for all the travellers waiting to board on the platform. We’ve got a taxi booked at Hexham later, so, half apprehensive, half laughing, we put English politeness to one side and use our elbows like everyone else, to ensure we’re not left on the platform.
Into the wilderness
It’s a pretty train ride through a picturesque landscape shaped by the River Tyne. Green meadows and woodlands are topped by an improbably blue sky sparsely dotted through with feathery white clouds. The sun is starting to set, bathing the scenery into a gorgeously golden evening light.
Northumberland, we will learn, is remote, wild and ruggedly beautiful. Quite empty of towns and people, too. Over the weekend, we’ll be repeatedly told not to tell anyone, as they like their peace and quiet up here. Yet here I am, spoiling the secret. Apologies. I just had to – the county is too gorgeous!
At Hexham, our taxi reservation has somehow gone amiss, and Kay, who happily has all the right numbers saved into her mobile phone, manages to organise us another one… that will pick us up in half an hour’s time. That’s a long wait for two women who’ve just arrived from Southern England after six hours of travel, in desperate need of a toilet, only to find the facilities at Hexham station closed! So we go on our next mini-adventure, lugging our suitcases through Hexham. (Kay clearly is a genius at packing for walking weekends: Her suitcase is half the size of mine!) We end up begging access to the toilets from a friendly receptionist at the local sports centre, and are back at the station just in time for our taxi.
The ride from Hexham, during which we gain extensive insight into the private life of our lovely, chatty taxi driver, takes us further into the wild landscape, on mysterious, narrow, tree-lined roads that lie lonely in the dappled evening light.
Then finally we reach our destination: a youth hostel, set in a 250-years old lead miner’s house overlooking a wide, green valley flooded by the evening sun. We meet our fellow walkers – twelve women and one man – over drinks and a simple, tasty dinner. Then we grab one of the bunk beds in the shared bedroom. Thankfully, my new and intrepid friend Kay takes the top bunk…
Now let the real adventure begin!
Hadrian’s Wall… It’s big!
Chris is our guide, advisor on all walking matters, supporter, cheerleader, cook and DJ. It’s a remarkable job description, which he fulfils with boundless patience, good humour and enthusiasm. He’s never walked Hadrian’s Walk either, he admits with a crooked smile, but as an experienced walker, map-reader and guide he assures us we’ll be absolutely fine.
We set off from The Sill National Landscape and Discovery Centre. Today’s walk will be around sixteen kilometres long, following Hadrian’s Wall at first, then turning back to our starting point in a wide circle.
When we first hit the Wall – forgive the pun – I feel a sense of awe, even though, in this place, it’s merely half a metre high. But these are the original rocks with which it was built, over two thousand years ago. And they’re still very visibly standing. The Wall is surprisingly wide – about three metres – and stretches far into the distance, following the ups and downs of the hilly landscape.
Witnessing this alone is mind-blowing.
Add to it that the Wall, at the height of its use, was four to six metres high throughout – that’s two to three people standing on top of each other – and was fronted by a deep ditch and backed by a military road, and the mind boggles.
It took fifteen thousand (!) Roman soldiers six years to build Hadrian’s Wall, essentially cutting off today’s Scotland and a bit of Northern England from the rest of the country. All without power tools and machinery, nor adequate protection against the inclement, harsh and freezing weather which is common up here. Unbelievable!
Today though, we are enjoying temperatures of 28 degrees Celsius and sunshine hot enough to fry an egg.
Fortunately, I’ve thought to take my trusty foldable sun hat with me: To my fellow walkers’ astonishment, it magically unfolds out of a handy, small pouch into the shape of an upside-down flower calyx. Kind of like a Campanula, but green.
It’s only later that I’ll find out that it became the object of the awe and envy of my fellow walkers, who were roasting in the heat as I was, but without sun hats. And it’s only later that I’ll realise how lucky we have been, when I learn that others have walked the Wall in previous summers, in blistering cold and horizontal rain!
We walk along the Wall for a good, long while. It varies in height from ‘just visible above the ground’ to ‘cannot touch its top even when I stretch all the way up’.
With every step I walk beside it, it gains in impressiveness to me: I marvel at how it follows the ups and downs of the steep, hilly landscape. The Romans would have been pretty single-minded to build one hundred kilometres of a six-metre wall on such gradients.
There’s a cold, merciless methodicalness to this undertaking, that shows off their military strength. It intimidates, too. As if, with this Wall, the Romans were saying: “Don’t mess with us, and don’t think we’re afraid of you, you uncultured Northern Barbarians, because we can march our mighty wall all over your silly hills!”
And so they did, complete with added milecastles, turrets and forts in regular intervals. A structure of perfectly squared stones on the outside, filled with cemented rubble on the inside, and patrolled by thousands of soldiers.
Lest some Northern Barbarians think of jumping this six-metre Wall from the three-metre ditch on their side! One can’t help thinking that this seems a bit excessive, though, can one? Particularly, as the Barbarian Tribes, apparently, weren’t as threatening with their incursions onto Roman territory in the first place.
Which is why historians still haven’t concluded whether the Wall served as a defensive fortification, a customs border, a boundary of the Roman Empire, or a demonstration of the military might and political power of the Roman Emperor.
Some, in fact, say that Hadrian’s Wall may well not have been the hostile war zone we’ve come to imagine, but rather a bustling frontier with thriving trade and towns peacefully populated by both Romans and locals.
Still, I wonder: Was there ever a moment like The Fall of the Berlin Wall up here, when the Roman Empire fell? Did the local people on both sides of the Wall celebrate, hug and party into the night, tearing down the Wall in places, and even taking mementoes?
Maybe not. Perhaps the Romans retreated gradually, and the Wall, rather unspectacularly, fell into disrepair and got looted over time. It’s all shrouded in mystery still – living history, constantly updated and adjusted as historians and archaeologists discover more…
On top of the world!
But the Wall is not all that makes this weekend so memorable: There’s the landscape, too. Hadrian’s Wall was meant to be seen from afar. In its day, it was probably plastered and painted white! And it’s built up high – more than three hundred metres at its highest point.
From up here, right next to the wall, the landscape is glorious. Vast, windswept and grassy under the endless blue sky. The views are dramatic to say the least.
I feel tiny in this huge, wild, natural space.
I feel hot, too – tired and sweaty from my exertions up and down the hills. I feel stirred by the warmth of the sun on my skin and the force of the wind in my hair. I feel enveloped by the sense of history of this place, awed and strangely affected by what would have happened here, thousands of years ago.
When Kay and I reach a high point of the Wall, a little
behind the top walkers but ahead of the main group, we let ourselves be carried away. We count to three and scream as loud as we can, into the strength of the wind, and down into the green, green country:
“We’re on top of the woooooooooorld!”
It’s wonderfully freeing. We’re laughing so much! I’m feeling as I never feel in London: Raw, somehow. And utterly, utterly alive.
Tests, and the Queen of the Pink Sandals
Later, we turn away from the Wall and descend towards Crag Lough, a small lake that lies cool and blue in the afternoon sun.
Here, our challenge is to make it through the reeds surrounding the lake.
The terrain would have been marshy in the more typical rainy climate. But in the recent prolonged heat wave, it has dried out to a spongy, uneven ground full of holes hidden by thick undergrowth. It’s difficult to negotiate, and, not for the first time today, I’m glad for my walking poles, as some of our fellow walkers stumble and fall. (Fortunately, the ground is soft, and no one is hurt.)
It tests us, this terrain, in many different ways. It wants to know how we’ll move in it and through it. How we’ll respond to its challenges. How we’ll get through it when we’re tired, and achy, and nervous or frightened.
In my own small way, I begin to understand why fitter, younger and more daring people than me seek out such tests on tougher, higher mountains: It pushes you, and noticing how you respond teaches you about yourself, makes you get over yourself. You feel alive, and deeply satisfied when you’ve made it through. And I guess, on the tougher mountains, the adrenaline rush is not to be sneered at! 🙂
Here, some of us buckle down and just march… (forgive another pun) through the dried-out marsh. Some slow their pace, picking their way carefully. I voice my surprise at the gumminess and the holes of the ground underfoot, laughing at my own clumsiness in negotiating them. But I look at the lake, I focus on getting there and I keep going. A fellow walker cries out in fear. Chris seems to be everywhere, supporting us, and we help each other as best we can. Those who fall, laughing or swearing, get back on their feet and carry on. We all have to carry on – no car can get here to pick us up!
Finally, we get near the Lough and we discover there were pathways in the reef made of wooden planks. Doh!
Better late than never, yet Kay and I cannot help but laugh: If we’d known about them, if we’d found them sooner… We could have saved ourselves much reef grief! (I seem to be on a roll today with puns… 🙂 )
We’re rewarded for our efforts by the sheer beauty of the Lough, and by a wondrous discovery: The heap of teeming, bouncing black dots Kay has spotted on its bank are actually hundreds of tiny frogs! Nature never ceases to astonish…
As we begin our way back up towards the Wall, I’m starting to feel the kilometres I’ve walked in my legs, and my toenails are killing me in my otherwise comfortable walking boots.
When we ask Chris how much longer the walk is, he says: “Three more kilometres.”
“Can I walk them in my walking sandals?” I want to know.
“Go for it!” he replies.
This means the group has to wait for me. I pull my pink sandals out of my backpack, under everyone’s curious gaze, feeling like a total city girl. Fortunately, they’re of a proper brand, and have Chris’ seal of approval.
The relief in my toes as I put them on is heavenly, anyway!
“Come on, Queen of the Pink Sandals!” Chris calls, good-naturedly, and on we go.
I’ll take that title any day!
Kilometres can stretch, and I am the landscape
I’ll remember those last three kilometres, back up high along the Wall, as the most spectacular ones. Tough, too, for we’re making our way up steep climbs and down precipitous descents in quick succession, negotiating well-worn Roman paving slabs.
The views are even more breath-taking than those we’ve enjoyed earlier: We’re walking along sheer drops and precipices overlooking wide valleys and flatlands.
It’s early evening, and the sun’s glare has softened into an ochre glow. We’re all tired, but whenever we ask Chris How much longer? his reply is invariably About three more kilometres. Didn’t he say that half an hour ago, and an hour ago, though? Up here, kilometres seem to be a stretchy concept!
I walk alone for a while, too tired to chat with my fellow walkers. I just want to arrive now, so I concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other, taking one step at the time. I deeply breathe in the pure, clean air to the rhythm of my footsteps. I let myself become one with this glorious landscape, let myself be the sky, be the evening sun, be the air and be the walk.
And I wonder what it would be like to walk the full length of Hadrian’s Wall on my own…
What Robin Hood has to do with Hadrian’s Wall
We reach Sycamore Gap and take a break.
(In fact, we hug the Sycamore tree which grows here in a dramatic dip within Hadrian’s Wall rising up each side.)
This spot featured prominently in the 1991 film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, starring Kevin Costner. Clearly, we’re walking on footsteps famous beyond Roman times…
The Wall climbs the adjacent Steel Rigg, but we choose to walk around it, daunted by yet another steep climb. Eventually, we’ll reach our cars back at the Discovery Centre.
It’s past eight pm when we finally get back to our YHA. Incredibly, after all this walking, Chris proceeds to cook us a fantastic dinner of peri peri chicken and oven fries, with apple crumble and custard for dessert, whilst we’re taking turns in the communal shower (and I’m doing yoga stretches in the garden, looking out on the glorious valley below, lest I’ll be immobilised with atrocious muscle aches tomorrow!)
Later that evening, over a night cap enjoyed to songs from Chris’ Eighties playlist, Chris retraces the route we’ve walked today on an online app, re-calculating the distance. It seems that we’ve walked twenty-three kilometres instead of the anticipated sixteen.
Why am I not surprised? 🙂
Enchanted woodlands and tea-coloured rivers
Our second walking day is shorter, as we’ll be travelling home after lunch.
Having packed our bags, we leave the hostel and drive over astonishing planes of high moorland to the Birdoswald Roman Fort. Again we set out immediately along the Wall, in flat grass land this time. The Wall looks straight, compact and orderly here. A wire fence prevents us from accessing it – presumably protecting the Wall from wear and tear: It is a National Historic Monument after all!
Miraculously, my muscle aches are bearable – the power of yoga! Other walkers, however, are suffering… Still, after yesterday’s hilly twenty-plus kilometres, I’m grateful for the easy terrain and the prospect of a mere three-hour stroll. If I walked the entire Wall, I’d have to go yesterday’s distance every day for a week… I’d have to train for that!
We cross several pastures where herds of sheep and cows are peacefully ruminating and dozing in the shade, before reaching a rather enchanted-looking woodland. The light turns a dappled green, and specks of white and yellow light dance on trees and ferns all around us. It’s wonderfully cool here!
But Chris wouldn’t be Chris if he wasn’t taking us on an adventure again: Soon, we’re climbing down narrow woodland paths, past steep rock faces and eerie-looking mushrooms popped out of fallen trees, until we reach the River Irthing. It’s of an extraordinary brown, the colour of strong tea, as its water gets filtered through peat.
We stumble along the river bank, on rocks so huge they could have been thrown down by a giant. Then it’s back up the hill, and we’re having to pull ourselves up using the branches of shrubs where the earthen path jumps up higher than our legs can go in a single step.
We might be slightly lost – are the fairies playing tricks on us? – but Chris doesn’t let on, and he’s an expert in finding our way, anyway. When we finally step out onto sun-drenched, open fields again, after the secluded narrowness of the woodland paths and the shelter of the shady green canopy, I have another I’m on top of the woooooorrrld! moment, quieter this time, as the others are around: I stretch up my arms into the sunny blue sky and breathe in air and space.
The rest of our adventure is quickly told:
There’s a lovely lunch at the Roman fort’s café. A quick mooch around the shop. Then Kay and I wander back to the parking space, ahead of the others, to strip off our sweaty walking gear, wipe the salt off our skin with Kay’s handy baby wipes (she’s a seasoned walker and know which essentials to pack!) and pull on fresh travelling clothes from our suitcases. We think there’s no one there to see but the parked cars – but then you never know… It’s all part of our adventure, isn’t it!
Happily, we get a ride to Newcastle with our only male fellow walker, and then it’s time to say good-bye: Our chivalrous driver’s practically home, and Kay and I have trains to catch that will take us down South again.
We will stay in touch. For Kay lives in Nottingham, and we reckon we’ve got another walking adventure in Robin Hood’s footsteps coming – hiking… in Nottingham Forest.
But that’s for another week end!
You’ll find lots of interesting information on short and long distance walking and cycling paths, and on exploring the Wall by bus, on hadrianswallcountry.co.uk
Oh, and watch the Boy on Tree scene from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, filmed at the distinctive Sycamore Gap in Hadrian’s Wall, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o0RnajX2rW8 . 😊
And to get inspiration for other kinds of weekend travel adventures to the UK and 17 other countries, check out www.travelonatimebudget.co.uk !