Hiking Hadrian’s Wall

What is Hadrian’s Wall?

Hadrian’s Wall is a 135 km long wall built by the Romans to separate the civilized Roman world to the south, which includes most of present day England, from the barbaric north, which is mostly present day Scotland. Today the wall is only visible on the central section, but there is a walking path running from coast to coast, just waiting for anyone with a sense of adventure, hiking boots and 8 days to spare. You can read more about the path here.

The journey

The summer of 2005 found me and my best friend Thomas in the north of England equipped for adventure. Thomas had done some hiking before in the north of Sweden and on Greenland, but for me this was the first time out for a long-distance walk. I say long-distance but in reality the Hadrian’s Wall path is a path of only 135 km (84 miles) from sea to sea across Northern England. But it was long enough, as we had given ourselves 7-8 days to complete it.

We had our equipment in order. Unfortunately we left it in the capable hands of British Airways to lose my pack completely somewhere between Copenhagen and Newcastle, so there we were at Newcastle Airport ready to set off, but we couldn’t as we didn’t have all our equipment.

Our plan had been to get transportation to Wallsend at the eastern end of Hadrian’s wall and start hiking immediately, but this plan was now in ruins. Instead we took the train to Newcastle – it was a Sunday, and went looking for accomodation. These were our days of university study. Me in law and Thomas in geology, so money was tight, and as this was also the time before smartphones, we asked for directions to the local hostel. But even this turned out to be a task worthy of our efforts, and if we had had our tent, it would probably have been easier to just set it up in the middle of the High Street. For the few people of Newcastle we met this Sunday was not of the type, who knew just about anything, and definitely not the way to the hostel, and neither did they know where we could ask for help. So we walked about for a bit and saw the city centre. Eventually we met a nice couple who gave us accurate directions to the hostel (we had to take the train back two stops), where we got a room to share with two others. We left our things and went straight to the local pub, where we ordered our first English beer of the journey and a meal.

Thomas and I were not strangers to English beer as we had both lived in Windsor working for Legoland back in 1999-2000, and our journey was planned to end there this time also. Back then beer was a daily or almost daily part of life, and this we hoped would also be the case now.

The next day we got a call from the airport, that my backpack had turned up, and we agreed they would deliver it at the train station. As soon as we had it, we went down to the riverside where the trail followed the river on a paved path, and we started west inland.

Ready to go

Day 1 – Newcastle to Heddon-on-the-wall (18 km / 11 miles)

The first day was a leisurely flat stroll along the north side of the Tyne river, much of it in Newcastle and it’s suburbs. About half the day’s journey was just getting out of the city. When we left the city behind us, we found ourselves in tranquil surroundings on a gravel path with river, woods and fields around us and it was quite lovely, and a good way to get into the rhytm of walking with a heavy pack.

Towards the end of the day, when our legs were getting tired, the trail left the river in a sharp turn to the north across a golf course and up a steep incline. At the top we came to the village of Heddon-on-the-wall and was met by the welcome view of a pub. We quickly dropped our bags outside and got hold of two pints, while we sat and enjoyed ourselves immensely.

A drink at Heddon-on-the-wall

Next we needed to find a place to camp for the night. The not-very-precise map we had got at the Newcastle Tourism Office named a camping site outside the village, but when we got there it only showed us an ordinary farm. This seemed odd as it was the beginning of July and high season for hiking, camping and whatnot. When we knocked on the door, the farmer came out and told us, that they actually were closed at the moment, but he showed us a place in a field, where we could pitch our tent and make dinner from the back of a trailer. It was primitive, and it was everything I had hoped for before setting out.

Day 2 – Heddon-on the wall to Port Gate (15 km / 9 miles)

After an early breakfast of porridge we packed our tent and was ready to go, when the farmer came and offered to give us a ride back to the trail, which we gratefully accepted.

This day the Hadrian’s wall trail started going slightly uphill as we followed the local road much of the way. Finally the trail left the road a bit to the side and sent us across fields filled with cows in order for us to visit old roman ruins along the road. At this point we hadn’t seen anything of the old roman wall, but signs of settlement started showing up at intervals.

Hadrian’s Wall

When we reached Port Gate we knew from our folder, that there should be a camping site nearby. I called it up as we couldn’t find any signs for it, and got directions in a really northern accent that I unfortunately failed spectacularly to understand. Based on the directions on the phone we headed down a side road from the roundabout and kept walking. After a couple of kilometers we kind of suspected, that this was indeed not the right way to go, but there was no houses or anything around where we could ask where we were, and we had no maps. This was in the age before smartphones and gps, so we saw no choice but to turn back towards the roundabout at the main road. We had just startet trudging back, when a stationcar came up to us and stopped. Inside were to elderly women, one of whom was the one I had talked to on the phone earlier. They had decided to go out looking for us, and by some amazing luck they actually found us. We piled in and they drove us a considerable distance in the oppsite direction to the camping site, which it turned out we had passed close by hours earlier.

We set up camp and got ready to make our meagre dinner, when one of the other campers came over and offered us the use of two of his chairs and a table. Humble as the meal was, it was heaven to sit on an actual chair and not on the ground, while the sun set in the west.

Day 3 – 0 (zero) miles/km

We woke up to a severely wet day. It was July 6, 2005, so we decided to stay for the day at the camping site. All morning it kept raining so we just lay in the tent with each our book, while listening to the noise of the rain.

In the afternoon the rain stopped, so we went for a stroll in the nearby area, but otherwise just got ourselves ready to move out the following day

Day 4 – Port Gate to Housesteads 20 km / 13 miles

We were ready to hike again, but first we had to settle our bill at the camping site. This was unfortunately the time, when we found out, that they didn’t take credit card but only cash. This kept surprising me a lot. I knew that the UK in many ways was ahead of Denmark when it came to digital payments, but a lot fewer businesses accepted card payments, and we didn’t have enough cash to pay for two nights. We thought we had set out with plenty of cash, as it was only a supplement to the credit card, but that was evidently not the case.

To our luck the owner only charged us for one night, and if that wasn’t enough, she even offered to drive us back to where we had left the Hadrian’s wall trail at Port Gate. In the end she took us a few miles further on, because, as she said the trails wasn’t very exciting for that bit.

But what we got would turn out to be the most exciting part of the trail by far. We were in Roman country now for sure. One of the main reasons the wall and other ruins are still visible in this area is, that we are higher up and there are less people living here, so no one has ever come to pull it all down, which was our luck now.

The first thing that struck us was the feeling, that we were walking through a military training area, as we suddenly had several military planes flying above our heads, and a one point we were overtaken by an Apache Longbow flying low and close by on our right, to be shortly followed by the same sight just to our left. But we walked on as usual.

About an hour after setting off we came to Chesters Roman Fort on the bank of a river. I had visited it in 2001 on holiday when driving to Scotland, and we passed it without entering. It is actually a quite nice little museum and ruin. We continued on the Hadrian’s wall trail close to B6318 the local road running just south of the wall on the higher stretches, and we passed several mile castles the romans had built for every roman mile (app 1.500 meters / 0,92 miles) along with a few shrines to roman gods.

Ruins along the path

We had finally reached a line of uninterrupted wall on our north side, and just on the other side of the wall was a drop, and the most spectacular view to the north. No wonder the Romans built the wall here. No one could approach them without it being known several hours in advance.

We reached the highest point on our walk around midday, when we sat down for a pause and a light lunch. We turned our phones on, as we had them shut down most of the time to conserve battery, but no sooner had Thomas and I acquired a signal before the messages popped in. It turned out that the same morning of 7th July four bombs had gone off in London killing a lot of people. My parents knew we were supposed to be up north but had still reached out just to make sure, as our plans afterwards was to head down south to Windsor and London. For Thomas it was a bit more severe as his dad and little brother at that moment actually was in London on holiday. We got word that they were okay for now, but the feeling that this might not yet be over, and that they could still be in danger was hanging over our heads as we trudged on.

We reached Housesteads Fort at the end of the afternoon. The shop had already closed and the carpark was empty. We were out of money and food and there would be nowhere close by to set up camp. We therefore decided to walk down to the main road where we waited half an eternity for a bus – this seems to be the common thing to do in England for some reason – that could take us to the nearest town of Haltwhistle.

Well, the bus eventually came and we got on and off again at Haltwhistle. Now Haltwhistle turned out to be rather a nice place. A small village with the rather adoring claim to fame, that it appears to be placed at the exact geographic centre of the British isle. Now I read that this claim is contended by other local communities, but still it is an interesting fact true or not. This also means, that the Romans, despite their power, only ever managed to conquer half of the British isle.

Well, we got off the bus and found an ATM and both withdrew enough cash to last us for another few days. And this was when Thomas realized that he had left his walking boots on the bus! Later on the same holiday he would lose his mobile phone on another bus in Windsor! In these years I hardly ever could call Thomas at the same number twice because he kept losing his phone. I’ll tell you in another article about the time he lost the keys to his apartment, which meant we ended up sleeping on the roof of a university.

So this loss of boots kind of changed our plans completely on top of the news from London. We had dinner at a local pub while we figured out what to do. Thomas called the bus company, who told him, that if the boots were found, then they would be handed in to lost and found in Carlisle, which was where the bus terminated.

It would still be another two days walk to Carlisle and in this terrain it would be folly to walk in regular shoes, so we had to think of something. We discovered that Haltwhistle was on the train line to Carlisle, so we went and bought two tickets to take us to Carlisle the same evening.

In Carlisle we immediately went searching for a room for the night. But not with much luck. Despite what had happened earlier the same day in London, Carlisle was a party town where everybody was out, and the hotels were full. Finally we managed to get the last available room at a hotel, where we got two beds next to the boiler room. We didn’t really care at this point.

The end of the hike

And this was where our hike along Hadrian’s wall ended. The next morning we picked up Thomas’ boots, which luckily had been handed in. En route we passed Carlisle Castle and had a look at the city, but our minds was mostly on what to do next. From Carlisle it was still a two day hike to the end of the trail at the Solway Firth to the west, but when we had finished, we would still have to come back to Carlisle.

We felt we had spent enough days hiking, and wanted to move to the next phase of our holiday, which was to be a week in Windsor, where we had worked together 6 years earlier. We went back to the train station and bought tickets south, and that was the end of our hike along Hadrian’s Wall.

In the end we only hiked about 1/3 of the entire lenght, but we had a great time doing it, despite the obstacles. We still talk about doing it again sometime, but we have agreed that next time we will have our packs brought from inn to inn along the route and make it an extended pub crawl, as three middle-aged men we met on our second day did.

My best tips for Hadrian’s wall hiking

  1. Bring good and detailed maps. The once we had were crap.
  2. Bring a GPS. Despite the proximity to civilization you may still get lost.
  3. Bring food. We didn’t pass a singly grocery store along our route, but there are kiosks and pubs at intervals.
  4. Bring cash. In 2005 card payments was not universally accepted along the route. This – I hope – has changed since.
  5. Use shoes for the paved paths and hiking boots for the rest. It is mixed and rough terrain, but the hike overall should be doable for most people.

Books to read

If you’re interested in the history of Hadrian’s Wall, this book is the best.
The official guide to the Hadrian’s Wall Path
A map guide to Hadrian’s Wall Path