I’ve always wanted to see Hadrian’s Wall, built on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian between 122 and 127 to protect the northern frontier steps of the Roman Empire. The wall was some 5 meters high and was punctuated at each mile by a protective tower called a “mile fort”. It is now located in England at the edge of Scotland.
I first heard about the Hadrian wall at school , thanks to my high Latin teacher. More recently I came across an article by Alastair Humphreys on micro- aventures that suggested hiking close to home as a way to get away. Since then, the idea of hiking the Hadrian wall while listening to the sound of the wind has never left me! Lets walk the Hadrian Wall!
Hiking the Hadrian wall
It’s September 2015, I just lost my father and I need a change of scenery. I want to take time to think about him but without bursting into tears every time and I’m looking for the perfect activity to do so. While leafing through my copy of the Rough Guide, I stumbled upon the page that presents Hadrian’s Wall and that’s when this walk appeared to me as the ideal destination: It’s my father who gave me the taste for walking in the forest or in the mountains. It was my father who gave me the taste of walking in the forest or in the mountains. He gave my brothers and I the pleasure of picking thistles and eating them while pricking our fingers! I like the idea of doing something he loved, without him, but thinking about him. I talk about it with a friend from London, Anaïs, who is very enthusiastic and who tells me with a convinced air that walking has therapeutic virtues! We decide to leave for 4 days and to hike for 3 days along Hadrian’s Wall. The time to walk about 50km, that is to say a little more than a third of Hadrian’s wall and to visit the remains of the Roman occupation.
DAY 1 : ready for adventure!
Here we are on a beautiful September morning, at 6am, at Euston Station, destination Carlisle. After 4 hours in the train watching the mountains and the sea go by, we arrive in Carlisle. We went to buy 1 kg of apples, pasta, soup and a lot of chocolate before taking a bus to take us to a point where we could join the trail. 20 minutes later, mission accomplished! Time to put on our hiking boots! The bus driver for Brampton drops us off, half laughing because two girls loaded like donkeys going to do Hadrian’s Wall in reverse is a sight he doesn’t see often. Yes, we decided to walk the wall from west to east to walk with the wind at our backs because Northumberland is not known for its mild weather!
From Brampton to Gilsand 13,5km
After 10 minutes repacking our apples and getting 5 liters of water in our bags we start walking. Our first challenge is to find the trail! According to our hiking guide, we have to go down a sunken road to Lanercost Abbey following a small country road. The excitement is at its peak, I am FINALLY going to see this 2000 year old wall! For the fan of Greco-Roman antiquity that I am, it is absolutely huge! The sun breaks through the clouds and suddenly the countryside becomes smiling and at the end of the path Lanercost priory appears between the trees. Anaïs and I can’t stop smiling. It is a monastery that we owe to Henry II but the building was completed in the 13th century. With the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII the monastery fell into disrepair until 1740, when it was decided to restore the nave and make it a parish church. After an hour spent learning more about the history of Hadrian’s Wall and a small tour in the ruins we regretfully leave because it is already 3pm and we have 10Km left…
Meeting the Hadrian wall
The path climbs steeply and at the top of the hill we finally meet THE sign: Hadrian Wall Path. Our new best friend for the next 3 days. The path climbs steeply and at the top of the hill we meet a man of about fifty years old covered with mud and looking haggard. He explains us that it rained for 5 days and that the wind was so strong that he could hardly walk! Anaïs and I are feeling a bit tense but after a quick check on the BBC weather app which announces a great sunshine and some showers for the week, we are reassured.
We walk through the fields surrounded by sheep. An apple and a square of chocolate later, we are on our way to Halthwistle. The landscapes are magnificent and suddenly: ruins. A low wall in perfect condition, it is Hadrian’s wall! To think that almost 2000 years ago it was the border!
End of the first section
We pass a Roman fort, along the river Irthing, a very bucolic place, which serves as a border between Cumbria and Northumberland, the 2 most northern counties of England. We cross an old railway line, cross fields with small woolly cows, black or caramel colored. It’s cold but we really enjoy our ride.
Arriving in Gilsand, we stop for a cup of tea at the House of Meg Tea rooms. And around 6pm we arrive in a small village where our hostel is waiting for us. After exploring the hostel which looks like an old church and eating our soup, we go to the pub where we meet a group of 3 young people who have set themselves a walking goal of 25km per day! Considering the difference in altitude it’s huge! They have to sleep at Once brewed tonight, but it’s already 8pm, the night has fallen and it seems impossible to walk in the dark in unknown territory knowing that the direction signs are really well hidden… After a few beers and after wishing them good luck we go to bed.
DAY 2 : From Gilsand to Once brewed (13km)
After a picnic we arrive at Cowfields, an old mine. I learn that during the industrial revolution the historical value of Hadrian’s wall was lessened and that some parts of the wall were destroyed. Hadrian’s Wall was used as a quarry for the construction of churches and houses. What a pity! Apparently it was not until the 19th century that the beginning of heritage conservation put an end to thiis After a good breakfast we set of, around 9am.
The ground is very uneven and the weight of the sleeping bags and apples is felt. The terrain changes from heather to pine forests and finally to grassy terrain. We pass some pretty hamlets, a ruined castle that we think is Thirwall castle then Walltown’s crag (turret 45a).
We continue, the landscape becomes desert and the wall rises. From here we can see for miles, all the way to Scotland! The wind makes the heather dance, in the distance we see coniferous forests but on our side it is the moor. The countryside has orange and pink tones because of the heather. The landscape is beautiful and makes us think of William Wallace, the Scottish hero… After a few kilometers on the windy ridge we arrive at Winshields crag, the highest point of the walk at 345m above sea level! We see the moor and the heather as far as the eye can see, all the way to Scotland.
At this place we understand why the Romans had chosen to make the wall pass by there! The 360° view allows to see to kilometers in the round! We already imagine the soldiers of the legion… Below we see the farm where we are going to sleep tonight. We leave the way, go down the hill which brings us back to the departmental road. It’s the first piece of tarmac that we see in 2 days, the feeling is strange. After putting our bags in the courtyard, we go on foot to visit Vindolanda 2km away. Fascinating to see how the Romans lived on the border! We loved it, especially since the site itself is very pretty, with a beautiful garden and a river below. I highly recommend the site!
A charming hiking lodge
The family of farmers who welcomes us is happy to tell us about their daily life on the farm. They have sheep and it’s the end of the shearing, they show us the equipment and how they do it. The goal is to shear a sheep in 10 minutes! For your information, shearing does not hurt the sheep at all, it’s like a trip to the hairdresser, a little stressful but in a few minutes they get over it! It is now very difficult to live as an independent farm in England and many farmers have turned one of their barns into a gite to provide an additional source of income. Since Hadrian’s Wall opened the footpath 8 years ago, walkers and cyclists provide them with a good income between April and October. Their barn is nicely arranged, we are alone in the small 4 person dormitory which definitely feels very cozy.
An evening at the Twice Brewed Inn
Our host advises us to go and eat at the Twice brewed Inn in the hamlet. We enter a small soo british inn, a real paradise after our day of walking! We sit by the fireplace, where a glorious fire is humming, warming our tired feet. A beer later, we are refreshed enough to write our postcards. A meat pie and 2 beers later and we are in the middle of a conversation with 2 local kids running on the trail! They make us feel so out of shape… Apparently the most beautiful section awaits us tomorrow. We can’t wait to see it!
No need for our sleeping bags tonight, we are sleeping under a nice duvet, we are thrilled because the night is cool and the stars are shining from the little yard. We feel a bit like in the little house in the prairie…Laura Ingalls comes out of this body ?.
Once Brewed to Chollerford : 13,3km
“Tête à tête” with the Lonesome Tree
After a great breakfast and a restless night’s sleep due to little dormice doing the rumba in the attic, we’re off. On the way to the Lonesome Tree! We had seen it from far away the day before coming back from Vindolanda but this time, we intend to see it very closely! After having lost 1 hour with a “shortcut”, that is to say that I had the good idea to take us in a swamp; we finally find the path. The Lonesome tree is magnificent and sits majestically in the valley. Did you see the Robin Hood movie with Kevin Costner? You know the one where Robin Hood goes from the Dover coast to Northumberland in one day on horseback… Ah the magic of cinema! Back to our sheep and our hundred year old oak tree.
The beauty of Northumberland
The wall became really wide, so wide that the path is on the wall! The wall becomes grassy, at the edge of a cliff. We pass through pine forests, large grassy meadows, old pine forests with a small lake below. This section of the wall is absolutely beautiful!
This part of the hike is all about going up and down, so you get a great view. As our stage makes only about fifteen kilometers and that we do not have museums of foreseen we decide to stop for picnic in the sun and to read a little while listening to the noise of the herd of cows below which take advantage of the small lake. “What are men facing rocks and mountains? “to quote Jane Austen.
The ” Southern Gate”
We pass the last mile fort called castle 37, which is very impressive with its almost intact arch that borders the ruins of the Southern Gate. The descent to the sea begins, the wall starts to crumble and the plain replaces the hills and forests. We leave in the direction of Chollerford, the light is magnificent and the grass looks like the sea. All of a sudden the vegetation changes and the grass which until then looked like savannah is as green as the grass in Ireland!
We find a main road that we follow for about 5 km. We are lucky, it’s Sunday and despite the extraordinary weather there are not too many people.
The path towards the sea
We leave the Hadrian wall path for today and head towards Greencarts farm. An army of kittens welcomes us and our fatigue evaporates to cuddle them. We are welcomed by a charming woman in her fifties. She manages the guesthouse and her husband takes care of the farm. After chatting a little, she takes us to visit our dormitory located in the attic of the farm. Everything is in wood, from the floor to the windows! We feel good there! Like in a cottage. Two exhausted walkers arrive and after a good nap we decide to spend our last evening in the village of Chollerford all together. A beautiful village worthy of the Cotswolds (an other gorgeous region )! We are welcomed at the gastro pub by a concert of Irish music! The pub is packed! It is however Sunday evening but the families are gathered! We feel so well with Anaïs in this pub! The armchairs are comfortable, the beer is flowing, beautiful spaniels are dozing by the fire… A very nice last evening at the borders of the ancient Roman empire! A roast and a concert later we happily discuss in the pub with the other walkers of our gite before walking back, zigzagging a bit, laughing and admiring the Moon which seems to us much more beautiful than in London….
The end of our hike along the wall
The next morning I am awakened by the birds who are having a great time. I put a sweater on top of my pyjamas to go and watch the sunrise on the countryside around the farm. It’s cold this morning, our scarves will finally be useful! The sky is pink and the mist gives a fairy tale atmosphere to the countryside. We leave at 7:30 am for Hexham through the wheat fields. It’s funny because in France the harvest was already weeks ago! We have a little more than 12km to walk, if we don’t get lost we should arrive at 9:45 am in the village. We pass by the last ruins of the wall. It’s crazy to think that 2000 years ago the wall was 5 m high. A few hours of walking later we arrived in Hexham where we caught our bus to Newcastle. From there we took a bus back to London, our heads filled with the sound of the wind in the tall grass, and the omnipresence of the wall despite its small size.
VERDICT: Hiking the Hadrian wall was a great micro-adventure and a very nice hike! To see my pictures it’s HERE!
Planing your hike to the Hadrian wall
When to go? Between April and October. The trail is closed during the winter to prevent landslides.
How to get there? If you come from France or southern England , I advise you to come by Eurostar and then take the train. The journey through the English countryside is superb. If you come from far away there are 4 possible airports: Carlisle, Newcastle, Glasgow or Edinburgh. Then take the bus to reach the wall. And to get around: There is a bus, the A122 of its small name, which follows the wall (from the nearest road) which allows you to join each section of the wall.
What gear to take: Bring waterproof things! windbreaker, overpants and backpack protector. We were very lucky because there was only one rain shower in 4 days but it was exceptional!
Do we need to bring food? YES. There are no stores on the wall, only a few pubs. So bring your snacks and sandwiches!
Practical tips to make the most of your hike along the Hadrian wall
Where to sleep? You have 4 options: camping, sleeping in a hostel, taking a gite or sleeping in a hotel. Camping means carrying the tent, the stove and all the equipment. Sleeping in a hostel can be a bit of a hassle: some hikers arrive late and others leave very early! Sleeping in a gite is probably the best but they are very crowded and sleeping in a nice hotel means a very different budget. In short, make sure to book a little in advance to have the choice, or go off-season.
How far should I walk each day? It all depends on you! We did small steps of 14km each day to have time to enjoy the scenery, visit the ruins and museums and read. If you just want to walk, it’s possible to do the whole 122km hike in 5 days. This means big steps of 24km each day. You won’t have time to stop or visit anything. If you want to visit everything roman along the road, I would advise on 7 days. There are lots of exciting ruins and gastro pubs waiting for you to along the way!